Exploring the Strange World of ‘Shenmue’ Fandom

The <i>Shenmue</i> community is one of the greatest in gaming, supporting its favorite series by trading comedy memes and writing rock opera records.

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May 11 2016, 6:09pm

Donald Trump meets 'Shenmue' villain Lan Di, image via the Shenmue 500K Facebook group / Twitter user Rick Tyler

There's something about the SEGA Dreamcast that seems like it was always destined to be a beautiful failure. Ahead of its time in online play, yet lumbered with a sluggish, unusable modem. Littered with wonderfully innovate titles like Jet Set Radio and Space Channel 5, yet without EA Sports support (so no FIFA games). And no other release summed up everything both great and terrible about the console better than 1999's Shenmue, the revolutionary open-world revenge saga that became both a cult favorite and one of gaming's biggest commercial flops.

A few weeks ago, an old friend of mine (with whom I spent many hours playing Power Stone when we should have been studying), added me to the Facebook group for the fan site Shenmue 500K. Now, the fact that there's a group of dedicated fans of an old video game on the internet is hardly shocking, but the tone of the Shenmue fans on 500K is so weird. It's fair to say that gamers have a bit of a historical image problem. Rightly or wrongly, they're painted as angry adolescents, likely to get verbally violent over a bad review score. But Shenmue fans seem to be a world away from that.

The people in this group just seem so naïve and adorable in adoration of their favorite SEGA game, and its sequel of 2001. They make really lame Shenmue memes of The Simpsons or Donald Trump, like something your aunt would share, only if she really loved Shenmue. Like, here's the Shenmue bad guy Lan Di photoshopped next to Trump, because Trump is kind of horrible, geddit?

Elsewhere, there's a guy who's been so inspired by Shenmue's "iconic" forklift bits that he now likes to collect screenshots of other forklifts in other video games. Or how about a custom Shenmue marriage certificate? You can't just buy that kind of classiness in any high-street store.

Because who doesn't want their own 'Shenmue'-branded marriage certificate? Again, photo via Shenmue 500K

I'm sure the successful Shenmue III Kickstarter, which raised over $6 million toward the development of a third game, has increased activity in 500K, but mostly it's a group of excited people going: "You know what's amazing? Shenmue is amazing!" And then everyone agrees, occasionally in meme form. I sound like I'm mocking, but I'm really not. There's such sincerity, such genuine, not ironic love. It's great.

And how far does that love go? Very far for young British musician Andy Hughes, who posted that he's writing an entire goddamn rock opera based on the plot of the first game, entitled The Samurai Boy Saga: 1986. He tells me over email that his obsession began when he got the game for Christmas, when he was just nine years old.

"I fell in love with it instantly. At the time, I'd never discovered a game like it. I was in total awe with the in-depth virtual reality; it was like a second life in Japan to me. Since the first day I played it, I've been obsessed ever since then."

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Inspired by the Who and 1970s prog rock, it's Hughes's first stab at a rock opera. "When I was around fourteen, I had an idea for a 'Shenmue: The Musical,' but considering my musical ability at the time, and the theme itself just seemed tedious and cheesy, I quickly canned the project. But one night earlier this year, I had a brainstorm telling myself that I need to create a concept album.

"Initially I was going to conceive my own fictional story, but being a huge fan of Shenmue and all the excitement of Shenmue III becoming a reality, I gathered it would be a great idea to take the subject matter from the first game and write songs based on the essential and important cutscenes in the game."

The cover of Andy Hughes's 'Shenmue' album

The tracks Hughes has recorded so far sound like typically searing 70s rock, and strangely, a bit like Generation Terrorists–era Manic Street Preachers (only if James Dean Bradfield had been singing about revenge and small town life in 1980s Japan). The song "The Day the Snow Turned to Rain" opens with the lyrics: "In 1986 in Yokosuka, Japan / There once stood a man / He was a master of Jujitsu / Though he always knew / They'd be on their way someday." Later, "The Amulet of Acquiesce" is a love song about protagonist Ryo and love interest Nozomi, which Hughes says is "in the style of Meat Loaf, meets Journey."

Production of 'Shenmue III' was officially confirmed at E3 2015, during Sony's presentation. The game is expected to come out in December 2017, for PC and PlayStation 4.

Thinking about it, if any game was likely to inspire a prog-rock concept album, it would be Shenmue. It was a revolutionary, important game. Yet it was also strangely terrible in its own way. How I always describe it to non-Dreamcast acolytes is that it was a genre-changing sandbox game that preceded Grand Theft Auto III, and that it was the first ever 3D open world where you could go everywhere and talk to everyone. But whereas the GTA games let you live out your dreams of being Tony Montana, Shenmue had you play as a meek teenager in Japan in 1986. Oh, and you have to get a part-time job, and you have to be home before dark.

I can hear you say, "That doesn't sound very fun." And you're right, and that's why it flopped, with sales falling well short of the number necessary to cover its legendary costs (it was the most expensive game ever made, at the time of its release). But it was ahead of its time, not just in its gameplay, but also in its attempt to have video games tackle to the low-key moments of real life, that modern day indie games would later explore (its small-town setting is not dissimilar to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, for instance). But indie games are generally small passion projects with shortened runtimes; they're not epic, triple-A flagship titles like Shenmue. It became gaming's very own Heaven's Gate or Waterworld, a nonsensical folly that makes you question how it ever got made.

A trailer for the original 'Shenmue,' from 2000.

It was complete self-indulgence from director Yu Sukuzi, the Sega pioneer behind arcade classics like Hang-On, Space Harrier, and Virtua Fighter—if Out Run was his "My Generation," Shenmue III is setting itself up to be his version of Pete Townsend's unfinished sci-fi epic Lifehouse. Shenmue is very like prog-rock in the way that it's so very uncool, yet completely sincere and earnest. You really have to give yourself over to it to get something, anything out of it. But when you do, you can grow to really love it.

"Shenmue also got me interested in Japanese culture and martial art films," Hughes says. "And a couple of years ago, I wrote a song called 'Flight To Tokyo,' which was based on a dream I had about having a romantic holiday over there." And if a game does that to you, you can easily forgive a few wonky Quick Time Event sections.

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