Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #15: Shenmue II

In Dreamcast, Xbox on October 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

Title: Shenmue 2

Format: Dreamcast, Xbox

Released: 23rd November, 2001


Summer, 2002. I was 16, done with my GCSEs and the summer holidays stretched out in front of me in endless golden swathes. But there was a problem: I was spending them working in a bank, and it was fucking shit. Looking back now, I can’t believe I had the gall to complain: I was young, middle-class (still am) and employed (not so much). I was incredibly lucky. But in 2002 I was an ungrateful, solipsistic little shit, and working sucked fucking tits.

That’s all the swears out of the way. Honest. 2 fucks and 2 shits. Balance. I’ll stop now.

It was a warm summer and every evening, after a day of typing in figures and drinking terrible coffee, I’d put Radiohead on my Minidisc player (2002, darling) make the short walk to Liverpool Street station to get a train back to Chingford. As commutes go, it was often a surprisingly beautiful one – with the sun going down on the open fields by the canal, I could almost forget the pitiful teenage gripes of my life and the sterile, office air.


To my arrogant eyes, people on the train always looked so sad. Slightly overweight businessmen on the slow descent to becoming professionally fat. Stressed looking, power-suited women tapping their nicotine-stained fingers on grey armrests. I couldn’t countenance the idea that their jobs were any more inspiring than mine – and theirs were for life; mine was a temporary, stop-gap summer job. It made me very depressed, judgemental little helmet that I was.

But then the train would pull in, I’d step off the platform and take the short walk home. Chingford, for those that don’t know it, lies right on the border of Epping forest. Chingford plains stretch out to Connaught Waters which lead right into a great big forest, with enormous, high-reaching trees, where legend has it once-famous Essex gangsters buried the bodies of their enemies.


It was something to come home to. I’d often go running of an evening, as a way to let off steam, and to be outside and to feel some imagined notion of freedom. The air was golden and warm, buzzing with flies. It was both oddly liberating and claustrophobic; everything seemed stifling and small, and the heat pressed like an iron.

And I started playing Shenmue II.

Ryo Hazuki steps off the boat in Hong Kong and you are unleashed. I was desperate to go travelling, and here was a grey plastic passport with a knotted cable.

Shenmue II is about exploration: meeting people, discovering clues, tracking down your father’s killer. But its treatment of reality…Ryo is a normal guy, who has to get by like everyone else. You have to pay rent. You have to eat. You have to, therefore, earn money. The parallels were not lost on me. I worked by day to earn money, and I played by night. To earn money.

I found this bizarrely appealing; it felt more than wanton escapism – the practicalities made it more engaging. When you’re having to work for every hour of freedom, it feels more deserved (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution). I worked for the chance to play Shenmue II. And in Shenmue II you worked for the chance to explore the world. It may seem like Cat String Theory mixed up in Russian Doll logic, but it was as intoxicating as it was immersive.


I was working by day, and travelling to Hong Kong every night. The Dreamcast was set up in my brother’s room, who was on holiday at the time, meaning I could enter into this gaming-specific chamber every time I wanted to play. And I did. I relished it.

But there’s a particular section – disc 4 of 4 – which stands out.

The final quarter of the game has you in rural China – Guilin. It’s here the game takes something of a U-turn. From city-based survival, interspersed with combat and chase sequences, you spend a the last quarter of the game walking through a forest, by a river, chatting to a girl.


This goes deliciously against gaming logic, wherethe general consensus is that challenge must increase as player improves. I’ve never been a big proponent of this. For a start: I’m fucking (it balances) brilliant at games; having played since I could hold a controller. Secondly: it’s about story. Anything that mixes things up and introduces new elements – the later in the game, the better, frankly – will always excite me.

And Shenmue II‘s final chapter is one of the most surprising. After totally wrong-footing you, you spend god knows how many hours walking along a river bank, talking to a stranger you’ve just met…and it’s utterly captivating. After so much action and adversity and exhaustion, it’s a breath of fresh air. A run through that forest. And it’s this, above all else, that calls out to me when I think of Shenmue II.


I see that title, and I think of being 16; of all the beautiful, stupid little things that that entails; of starting work; of just beginning to understand what it means to dip your toe into the pool of responsibility. Of being scared. Scared to see what real life might be like – so tawdry, but also able to shine. Scared of working a dull job for a living, scared of commuting on packed trains, desperately running through forests, dreaming of travel, wanting to get up and go, explore, and all the stupid rest of it.

I find it strange that everything is most efficiently summed up in a big chunky blue box containing four discs of data on an obsolete console created over a decade ago. Shenmue II defined a very particular part of my life, and more than that, helped me get through it. I’m sure my brain absorbed some lessons from it along the way, but I was too busy being enraptured by its world to notice. Now I’m repaying the debt by shamelessly looting it for content. You are welcome, Shenmue II.


Most of you reading this will probably never play the game. Doesn’t really matter. It was one of those ludicrously over-ambitious titles that cost too much on a console that too few people owned. It’s one of the many reasons the mighty Sega crashed and burned, but it’s the noble failures that we love. Shenmue II is one of the greatest achievements in videogame history. But it’s just a game.

And every time I think of it, I’m transported.

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