With the recent releases of Shenmue HD (in Japan), Red Dead Redemption 2 and everything in between, we thought it would be a nice opportunity to re-evaluate why Shenmue, which is really a 19-year-old game, still stands the test of time as not only the original open world game, but as still one of the best in history.
Yes, it may seem ridiculous to compare a Wild West Game to a tale of the East in the 1980s, but this goes beyond comparing Shenmue to Red Dead Redemption 2. Since the era of PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U, open world games have been a progressing genre, and many fans thank Shenmue for it. Of course, there’s also Grand Theft Auto V, Metal Gear Solid V, Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy XV, and Yakuza (or Ryu ga Gotoku in Japan), which all offer an open world experience. So, with all these newer (and bigger) games, what makes Shenmue’s special?
One simple argument is style vs. substance. Compared to the worlds offered in other modern open world games, the world of Shenmue is relatively much smaller to compliment the accurately smaller environments of Japan and Hong Kong. What it lacks in small quantity, it makes up for with a large quality. For example, when you explore Ryo’s home, you can open each drawer and find an audio cassette player (remember those?), photos of his friends and family, batteries, a flashlight, audio cassettes, and a Sega Saturn! Or when you enter a room in Ryo’s house, it has a Butsudan, or a Buddhist Altar for Ryo to pray to the spirit of his father, which happens to be common in numerous Japanese households. Other open world games have yet to feature such interactive detail.
When it comes to Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2, they take creative freedom very literally and that’s by no means a bad thing. If you want to shoot or randomly punch people, that’s cool. Everybody and their mother knows the insane car chases you can do, and enjoy them. Without a doubt, the novelty of being a new age and/or old age outlaw is a lot of fun, and we understand that’s the point of those games. The issue is that some open world games with such crazy features treat the world more like a playground as opposed to a living world. Yes, we understand the novelty of breaking the law in a fantasy world. Basically, what we’re talking about is that the concept of open world should not be just limited to going out and causing anarchy, but also experiencing a world you believe you could possibly exist in.
With Shenmue, players are offered more realistic interactions. Considering its time period takes place before cell phones, if Ryo can’t find a certain location, he can ask a random NPC. They can verbally explain how to get there from their present location, or that NPC will take Ryo there themselves (more of a feature in Shenmue II). Or in some instances, some characters say they’re in a hurry, some female characters admit to being shy around men, or some just tell Ryo to buzz off. The fact that you can have such natural conversations (all voiced!) with all NPCs in regards to a certain mission objective adds that element of realism. Unfortunately, it’s cousin Yakuza does not have such features.
While they do share many similarities (beyond being Sega releases) of giving players an opportunity to explore actual parts of Japan (with actual product placements), Yakuza doesn’t offer that free form of interaction with NPCs and the environment like in Shenmue. If you want to find a good place to get wasted, you can’t exactly ask any NPC walking down the street. They just simply exist for the sake of existing and nothing more. In addition to Yakuza, with today’s open world games, you just look at your map, see where it’s marked, and go straight there. A good number are too linear. Without learning about the world organically, you don’t really have any true immersion to that world.
With Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV, their worlds are vast and open, but lack any substantial life. You can go miles within those games and not have any interaction with anyone or anything for a certain period of time. It’s just an open field of nothingness to give players a feel of the size, which is why such games are style over substance. In Metal Gear Solid 4, players could influence the outcome of certain battles in the first 2 chapters while in MGSV, which takes place during the Soviet/Afghan war, you don’t witness any active engagements between the Soviets and the Mujahideen for you to influence the outcome of.
Shenmue may not take you to Afghanistan, but what truly makes it special as an open world game is just not how immersive it is, just how it educates the player of that environment. When you see the Yokosuka in Shenmue, you’re seeing the real life Yokosuka. Yokosuka is a city where you’re going to find sailors, military surplus shops, gaijin bars and burger joints. When Ryo goes to Guilin, Shenhua, his new companion, tells him about how the water changes colors in the nature, which happens to be true.
In the end of the day, when you play something like Red Dead Redemption 2, when you turn off the power button, you’re not going to ride off to the sunset or feel that way. But when you play Shenmue, you feel a sense of inspiration to see those places in real life, which many fans have, and it ultimately contributes to why it still holds up as the best open world game. However, we can admit one thing, and that’s the English voice acting of modern open world games have Shenmue beat.