Shenmusings of Ryobots, Niaowu, and Shenmue III's Uncertain Legacy

Ryo Hazuki is an android, right? I’ve suspected it for a while but after finishing Shenmue III recently, I'm going all in on the Ryobot theory. It explains too much not to be canon.

Ryo has always been a bizarrely stilted and stoic character, of course. That much isn’t news. Yet after accompanying him for every waking minute across three games – games which depict the painstaking minutiae of everything from longshore crate logistics to the mid-‘80s weather record of the Kanagawa Prefecture – Ryo still has not pooped.

In fairness, few protagonists in fiction are forthcoming about their physiological functions. But, unlike Ryo, they at least behave in ways that can be reasonably interpreted as human-like. Meanwhile, Ryo acts less like a person and more like an emotionally unavailable animatronic, programmed in the languages of kung fu and non sequiturs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock him. The technology behind Ryobot was very impressive for 1987.

Oh, and did I mention the shared consciousness between Ryo and his friend, Shenhua? She is also an android, probably, in addition to being the unwitting mascot of a junk food brand for some reason.

OK. The point of this write up is not to espouse the incontrovertible theory that Ryo is a semi-sentient robot, even if it is also that. Back when it came out in November 2019, I had put about a dozen or so hours into Shenmue III before dropping off of it. After leaving him in stasis at Hotel Niaowu for a full calendar year, I recently (and finally!) caught up on Ryo’s journey to date. I also realized we hadn’t yet discussed the game in-depth on the Junkyard since its release. With all that, I’m really here to work out my thoughts on Shenmue III in hopes of making some sense of its place in the series’ legacy. But first let’s take a step back, and into the shoes it hoped to fill…

As for many fans, the first two Shenmue games were formative for my interest in gaming. For a medium where kinetic action and instant gratification shaped the bedrock of most gaming experiences, it was oddly refreshing – if jarring – to play something with such love for mundanity and contempt for players’ impatience. Ironically, it was my own impatience that led me to buy the Japanese version of the original Shenmue, several months before its western release. I couldn't say why; I didn't even speak Japanese. Hell, I was barely pulling a passing grade in English class.

Yet, even then, my 14-year-old mind was blown by Shenmue’s unabashed indulgence in the ordinary. I was taken aback by its audacity to let me knock on neighbors’ doors, chug orange Fanta*, and stalk an entire community of busy folks for no other reason than because I could. When the events of Shenmue II set Ryo loose to explore Hong Kong, seeing it all scale to a bustling, urban setting was revelatory all on its own. Shenmue I and II’s detailed and lively locales immersed me in their astonishing sense of place and community. They felt like genuinely bustling locations that could believably exist without me. They also challenged any assumptions that video games always had to be, well, game-like. Through its novel approach to worldbuilding and interactivity, Shenmue invited me to inhabit its worlds – not only as a player – but as a resident and visitor.

* Vending machines in the Japanese version of Shenmue were stocked with licensed Coca-Cola products rather than our beloved “Jet Cola” and “Frunda” off-brands (also, was Bell Wood a person, or...?)

Yu Suzuki and AM2’s magnum opuses offered a remarkably ambitious and unorthodox vision for what video games could be and how players could engage with their spaces. In bankrolling their vision, Sega rebuked all conventional wisdom that big budget games ought to be marketable and fiscally viable. Shenmue I and II were neither – or at least not either enough – and Sega paid a steep price. Beyond failing to recoup its massive development and marketing costs; beyond its eventual retreat from the hardware market; Sega presented a perennial Exhibit A for the downsides of risks to an increasingly risk-adverse games industry.

After that, it seemed unfathomable that we would ever return to Shenmue’s amazingly ambitious, immersive, and bustling world. Nearly two decades later, we still haven’t.

To be as fair as I can to Shenmue III, it is a miracle the game exists at all. I imagine it took many years for Yu Suzuki and the folks at Ys Net to feel confident that the basic state of development tools, market landscape, funding and distribution modes, and fan demand could allow them to take on anything resembling a Shenmue project as an indie studio. Unfortunately, those challenges remain salient – and have even intensified since III's release – tempering expectations that a Shenmue IV can be easily hashtagged into existence.

As a heads up, I’m about to touch on some light spoilers for Shenmue III but I’ll keep their context within the larger narrative as vague as possible. I’ll mainly focus on general critiques and whimsical conjecture but may slip in a plot detail or two along the way.

The story of Shenmue III, abridged.

In hindsight, the mere presence of the #LetsGetShenmue4 Twitter trend was itself a spoiler for the events of Shenmue III. Ultimately, little of consequence happens in the game’s narrative and, after finally completing it, I can see why fans are eager to get on with the next chapter. Granted, Shenmue’s authored storytelling was never great. My expectations were even lower for the third game but I had at least hoped something interesting or unexpected would unfold. As it is, we can only imagine. For instance, had it been revealed that Ryo is actually an android who, in his elusive pursuit of humanity, faces a crisis of conscience over perpetuating a futile and insatiable cycle of revenge, all while building up to a thrilling, mountain-razing showdown of phoenix and dragon mechs…well, that'd be fucking cool. That’s what it would be. Uh, now what was I...?

Shenmue III's narrative offers few surprises. It has the weakest plot and character arcs in the series – by a Guilin country mile. The handful of notable events that do unfold are buried beneath a mountain of filler. At least 90 percent of the structured narrative is spent asking strangers to articulate slight variations of the same clues Ryo has already heard but is too obtuse to piece together (I never said he was a smart robot). Oh well. Welcome to a Shenmue game, I guess.

Ren kinda sucks, actually.

The series' narrative has always been a meandering, tropey mess but Shenmue III takes things to a new level. I'm equal parts amused and off-put by how frequently it regurgitates the hopeless boss fight trope in particular. There are at least a half dozen points where Ryo is scripted to lose boss battles, even if he clearly won them (gameplay-wise). Conceptually, I'm sympathetic to the use of these setbacks to A) help propel Ryo's “do mistakes, do more kung fu, be better human” character arc, and to B) underscore the fact that progress is rarely a straight line. In practice, these moments feel forced and artificially undermine any sense of growth from besting far more imposing opponents in the previous games. It does few favors for his dignity but the idea that my max level Ryo is destined to repeatedly get his ass kicked by a muscle-headed mullet dude until he learns enough animal impressions trivia to pass a QTE is, at the very least, hilarious.

All said, only like five things really happen in Shenmue III and they could easily be summed up in a 30-second recap. If Shenmue IV ever does come out and newcomers wish to catch up on the series’ events, the third game's plot will be widely recommended as the most skippable.

Definitely not to be skipped: Niaowu’s quirky-as-hell shopkeepers.

Fortunately, narrative isn’t everything and Shenmue III does move the series forward in some interesting ways. Shenmue I and II's various gameplay mechanics and systems were numerous but relatively disparate. Sure, they gave players plenty of areas to explore, capsule toys to collect, prizes to win, and darts/arcade games to play but there was no overarching structure or goal tying them together. These activities were contained distractions, serving little purpose beyond whatever amusement we could glean in the moment. Once the novelty of their verbs wore off, we had find our own fun in continuing to engage with them. This degree of aimlessness became a central (and very valid) critique of the series for many players and remains one of Shenmue I and II's most divisive aspects. Understandably so.

By contrast, Shenmue III offers greater extrinsic motivation in its appeal to players. It continues the series’ penchant for menial tasks, of course, but it makes them decidedly more game-like. Shenmue III’s new activities (fishing, herb picking, wood chopping, etc.) join the stable of gambling, item collecting, and move training from the previous titles. However, the third game connects all these disparate activities and feeds them into its broader progression systems. Gambling tokens amassed from Lucky Hit can be exchanged for numerous items, which can also be sold at pawn shops for cash. Elsewhere, Ryo can amass an array of store-bought goods, minigame prizes, capsule toy sets, and other collectables. Specific combinations of these items can be traded in for move scrolls which give Ryo new attacks to learn. Then, by sparring at a dojo, Ryo levels up those new techniques to improve his damage output in battle. It’s a cleverly interwoven system that makes all of Shenmue III's activities feel more purposeful and rewarding as a whole.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that the actual "real time" combat mechanics are garbage. Whereas the original games’ watered down, Virtua Fighter-lite mechanics at least balanced timing, precision, and forgiveness, Shenmue III’s combat sequences take players' inputs entirely at their own leisure. They render haphazard button mashing roughly as viable as more intentional fighting strategies. Worse, you'll constantly need to monitor Ryo's stamina levels and be ready to scarf down garlic cloves before battles to replenish HP, which slowly drains away at all times. Maybe the less said about III's food/stamina system, the better – lest we tumble down the digestive rabbit hole of Ryobot's biodiesel fuel processing. Dammit. I've already said too much.

Despite its flaws, Shenmue III’s systemic connection is a novel approach to progression that encourages players to engage in a wide variety of activities in service of a shared purpose. I consider this to be its greatest contribution to the series' legacy and it is a concept I hope Ys Net continues to explore in future games, Shenmue or otherwise. I also believe many prominent open-world franchises would benefit from adopting similar approaches going forward. There really is a ton of potential in it.

Finally, there is the world – the aspect of Shenmue III which I remain most conflicted about.

At face value, Shenmue III’s is aesthetically superb. Its settings replicate large swaths of iconography from the first two games, while adding beautiful flourishes of its own. There is an impressive amount of detail strewn through its two locales, the sleepy village of Bailu and the river port city of Niaowu. Bailu is sprawling with rice fields, sunflowers, and other natural features nestled in its vistas. The sunrises/sunsets drench its mountain valley in a warm, reddish-gold hue. Meanwhile, Niaowu is densely packed with shops and vendor stalls, elaborate temples, and colorful pop art. The city is illuminated at night, though Ryo’s early bedtime limits the time we have to enjoy it. Superficially, Niaowu and Bailu check plenty of well-meaning boxes; they are often striking and rich with detail. But in all the hours I spent in those spaces, the feeling kept gnawing at me that something crucial was missing.

One of Shenmue II's obscure training sequences: Make it to the dojo without getting punched in the junk.

Earlier, I gushed about how Shenmue's Dobuita and Shenmue II's Hong Kong drew me fully into their spaces. Although their visual fidelity is rudimentary by modern standards, they evoke a palpable sense of community and culture. They feel authentic, charming, and bustling; even gritty. They feel like places where things happen. People live there; they work there; they hustle tourists; they sing karaoke; they race ducks; they probably file taxes – and they might feasibly carry on whether I'm there or not. And when I am there, it's not just as a player in a video game setting, but as an inhabitant of their vibrant communities.

Niaowu and Bailu Village are different.

Ryo takes in the bustling nightlife of Niaowu.

Beautiful as they are, Bailu and Niaowu are always gleaming but culturally deprived. Nearly every object, landmark, sculpture, and painting looks ornate, but mass produced. If a thing exists in the world, it exists everywhere: either shrunken into a gacha toy or plastered onto a poster or gambling table. Every home, building, and temple is as precisely as picturesque as the last. Niaowu’s shopkeepers ostensibly fuel its economic engine but it's unclear who buys their wares or how they spend their free time. Hell, I've yet to even see them leave their shops. Decadent cuisine fills every table of every eatery, but no one seems to have ordered it. Everything in Shenmue III exists in excess but for whom is the game’s greatest mystery.

If the environments of Shenmue III’s evoke any place at all, it's of kitschy tourist traps in the off season. With androids. The city of Niaowu is most reminiscent of theme park attractions like "It's a Small World..." with a dash of "Westworld" – albeit with less diversity, dumber AI, and more of this…

And, uh, this...

In the looming shadow of its predecessors, the third game reprises much of the iconography, charm, and stubbornness of the games before it. Shenmue III's homage fixates on the more superficial qualities of its lineage but lacks the magic that defined its impact. Nevertheless, I'm sympathetic to the constraints of the game's scope and applaud the ways it seeks to build a legacy of its own. It imbues its collection of new and familiar mechanics with greater purpose and it is a stronger game for it. Overall, I enjoyed much of my time with Shenmue III, even if all I could ever do was play it.


Thanks for reading. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Shenmue III and what you enjoyed most about it, or if you lost interest altogether. Sound off in the comments below or on the Junkyard's newfangled Discord server. You can also find me on Twitter (@VirtuaSchlub) and on the Saturn Junkyard's TitanCast.

And finally, I'll leave you with some random pics and clips that I wanted to include but couldn't fit into this write up.

Got 'eem! And thus concludes the epic Shenmue saga.


Tom Charnock said...

Beautifully written and hilarious in equal measure - great stuff Brian! What I wouldn't give to discover that Ryo is indeed an android and his 'father' was actually his creator. Seriously though, I need to go back to Shenmue III and give it a proper play through. The backlog struggle is real...

fatherkrishna said...

Superbly written and extremely perceptive article! Like you Brian, I also set forth with gusto and then fell off. Thats more to do with my minute attention span than any flaw in the game, however. My ONLY criticism would be to say, I miss the video games! Surely, if old Sega games were off limits for the in game arcades, then Yu Suzuki could have knocked up a couple of clones or even parodies of his 16 bit days. Even a Master System quality driving game or a Space Harrier send up would have completed my expectations. I'd give it a 9/10 if I was scoring, but I was practically ecstatic when Ryu appeared in his fork lift in Sonic All Star Racing...

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Thanks Tom and Simon -- Greatly appreciate the support!

But Simon, are you saying you didn't enjoy the clunky Chobu-chan Fighter or rotary Highway Star?

And fair enough. Ryo's trips to the arcades in Niaowu and Bailu Village kind of remind me of that one scene in Vegas Vacation:

Lewis Cox said...

Excellent article, as always, Brian. I’m about half way through and intend to finish it at some point, then hope to grab you for a round table discussion on a DreamPod! I actually really like Shenmue 3, not only does it look beautiful, but I felt it remained very faithful to the original game. Now, I just need to see if reaching the cliffhanger ending ruins my view of the game somewhat...