6 Games that Scratch the Shenmue Itch

There really isn't anything quite like Shenmue. As most Dreamcast fans know by now, the gameplay of Yu Suzuki's magnum opus, which juxtaposed snail's pace sleuthing around Japanese suburbia with frantic Virtua Fighter ass kicking, was polarising back when it surfaced in 1999. I am one of those many crazy people who absolutely loved everything Shenmue had to offer, especially the game's focus on the minutiae of everyday life. While some might prefer to escape to lands of medieval fantasy or vast universes of the future, I was completely entranced by the real world in which Shenmue was set, and the ordinary people that inhabited it. It felt like I'd finally found the game I'd always wanted to play.

In the 18 year absence of the series' third entry, I still needed something to scratch the Shenmue itch, and with many now wondering when a fourth instalment is going to happen, I find myself searching once again (seriously though, #LetsGetShenmue4). That's why I thought I'd present to you, dear reader, a selection of games that I believe capture the essence of Shenmue, some in more ways than others. Of course, I'm not implying that any of these games trump Shenmue in stature or quality. I'm simply suggesting that you may find some of the same enjoyment in them that you found that first time you assumed the role of Ryo Hazuki, as he set off on his quest to irritate his fellow townspeople with excessive deadpan and waste all his money on plastic Sega-shaped tat (a man after my own heart, really).

The Yakuza Series
For those of you who aren't aware of the Yakuza series (if you even exist at this point), it is a modern Sega franchise that often draws comparisons to Shenmue for obvious reasons. While Yakuza didn't necessarily copy Shenmue's homework, we'd be lying to ourselves if we didn't admit that the later games in the series definitely take some inspiration from Shenmue, at least when we compare the two at face value. A man walks angrily around a Japanese neighbourhood, beats up a load of thugs, chugs a drink, then heads to the arcade to play Space Harrier… I could be accurately describing Shenmue or Yakuza with that sentence, and the internet’s gaming population at large have picked up on these somewhat shallow similarities also. There’s not a single day that goes by without someone shouting "why don't you just play Yakuza?!" at some poor unsuspecting Shenmue fan on social media.
Image credit: New Game Network
When you start to play any of the Yakuza games, however, you soon learn that the series very much has its own identity and its gameplay differs in many ways to the adventures of Ryo Hazuki. Sure, later Yakuza games started to incorporate a lot of the same time-waster stuff that is a beloved staple of the Shenmue series, like arcades and gambling, but Yakuza is overall much faster paced, and its beat-em-up style of brawling is even more dynamic and ridiculous than Shenmue's. Think Dynamite Cop on steroids. Let's just say you're not really taking time to appreciate the scenery in Yakuza, unless that scenery is a bicycle you can pick up to smash a dude's head with. Which style of game you prefer is all down to individual taste, of course.
Image credit: New Game Network
What the two series do have in common though is a commitment to escapism. Just like Shenmue, the Yakuza games contain excellent stories, all featuring likeable characters and gameplay loops that will keep you immersed for hours on end as you bond with characters through missions and become fully encapsulated in Japanese nightlife. For those still longing for that fourth Shenmue, Yakuza is a pretty fitting game to fill the void, and with a whopping number of instalments to play that span multiple console generations, you've got plenty to work with. Go forth and be the best organised crime bloke you can be.

The Persona Series
In the past, Shenmue has been branded a "life simulator" by fans and critics alike. Well, if there was ever a series that took that concept and ran with it, it's the Persona games. Created as a spin-off of Atlus' dark-as-heck Shin Megami Tensei RPG series, Persona has grown from a quiet cult hit to a monolith franchise in the last decade. Combining turn-based RPG gameplay and creature fusing with (from the third game onwards) time management and relationship building, Persona will steal your heart and not give it back. Play it for a few hours and you'll soon find yourself thinking in the same mindset as the Japanese high school student turned defender of humanity you play as, asking yourself such questions as: "should I slay demons tonight or go sing some karaoke?"
Image credit: New Game Network
While turn-based RPG battling and creature training has more in common with Pokémon than Shenmue, Persona's commitment to exploring the finer details of real life and asking you, the player, to make decisions on how to spend the main character's precious free time definitely shares some similarities with what Yu Suzuki was going for back in '99. While Persona is a lot less interactive than Shenmue (it's a JRPG, so be prepared for text galore), it goes a bit further in some ways. In Persona, you form more than just one-sided Ryo Hazuki relationships, and most activities you do in your free time have purpose (such as karaoke), boosting stats of some kind, rather than being there to simply kill time.
Image credit: New Game Network
As far as recommending a game in this series to start you off, I'd say start with Persona 5 Royal or the upcoming Persona 3 Reload (both of which can be found on modern gen systems and PC), simply for their sheer size, depth of mechanics, and level of graphical detail. The best storyline, however, is definitely that of Persona 4 Golden, which was previously stuck on the PS Vita, but eventually got ported to PC and Nintendo Switch, along with eighth/ninth generation PlayStation and Xbox systems. Small town countryside vibes, combined with the best plot and characters of the whole series, definitely makes Persona 4 Golden a candidate for everyone's first Persona game. Reach out to the truth!

Bully
Some say if it wasn't for Shenmue, we would never have seen the likes of Grand Theft Auto III and all that followed in its wake. While Rockstar's ever popular series of 3D open world carjacking simulators constantly get brought up as one of the gaming mainstream's mainstays that should bow at the feet of Yu Suzuki, I would argue that Rockstar's 2006 game Bully (initially known as Canis Canem Edit in the UK due to political meddling) actually shares a lot more in common with Shenmue than some might think.

Yet another open world from Rockstar, Bully puts you in the shoes of 15-year-old delinquent (and Wayne Rooney lookalike) Jimmy Hopkins, who, after a slew of expulsions from schools, has been sent to Bullsworth Academy, a boarding school which all the worst kids ever birthed seem to also attend. Despite the game's title, Bully is no "bullying simulator", something many politicians at the time tried to brand it as. Sure, you can be an absolute little bastard to everyone around you - you can get into fights, give unsuspecting nerds wedgies, dunk jock's heads into toilet bowls (complete with an appropriate quick-time event for maximum dunking) as well as many other things - but the game actually focuses on Jimmy's juvenile vigilantism as he fights and pranks his way through the school's various nasty cliques, taking each of them down a peg or two, with his ultimate goal being to rid Bullsworth Academy of bullies once and for all.
Image credit: AdisPlays
But what has any of this got to do with Shenmue? Well, let's talk about it. For a Rockstar game, Bully features a level of detail that not even the Grand Theft Auto series would see until its arrival on seventh generation consoles. Due to Bully having a smaller open world than GTA (the map consisting of the academy itself and the town surrounding it), the developers were able to put a larger emphasis on general detail. Every student that attends Bullsworth Academy has a name and a specific character model, and they can all be found walking around the academy's grounds or even traversing its surrounding town. While some of these NPCs are more important in the game's plot than others, every character you encounter within the story can be found and interacted with in the game's open world. They even interact with one another, whether that be in the form of conversations or playing pranks on each other. Just like Shenmue, all of these NPCs follow routines. They go to class when the bell rings, they go back to the dorm when curfew dawns, but also... sometimes they don't. Sometimes they cut class, sometimes they violate curfew, and when they get chased by prefects for breaking the rules, some surrender peacefully, while others might push their luck and try to make an escape. As you guide Jimmy through Bullsworth Academy, it definitely feels like the school is alive around him.
Image credit: Bully Wiki
Added to this living atmosphere is a strong emphasis on changing seasons throughout Jimmy's school year. While Bully doesn't feature an in-game calendar system like Shenmue, the seasons do change with progression in the game's story. With these changes come some subtle new elements to the gameplay and fun seasonal missions. The Halloween night mission decks the whole of Bullsworth Academy out with spooky decorations, and Jimmy and his fellow classmates wear appropriate costumes. Dotted around the academy are tombstones and pumpkins that, if all destroyed, will unlock some neat costumes for Jimmy. In winter, you can slip on ice, start snowball fights, or help out a drunk homeless Santa. And, in a lesser seen bit of excellent detail, when you get given detention, instead of mowing the school field as punishment, you instead have to shovel snow. There's even an embarrassing reindeer jumper Jimmy receives from his parents on Christmas day, that when donned, causes his fellow classmates to laugh at him. I'm sure you get the message at this point - I absolutely adore the detail in this game, and these sprinklings of seasonal flair definitely evoke similarities with the many examples that were lovingly programmed into Shenmue.

Without stolen cars and jet packs to ride, Bully offers a mundane spin on creating your own fun in its open world, just as Shenmue did. Win some prizes from fairground stalls, flirt with NPCs, get paid from doing odd jobs, take photographs of every student to populate the yearbook, go go-kart racing... you can even try to pass your classes. And of course, you can always waste some time causing some mischief by playing pranks and getting into all kinds of trouble. With beat-em-up combat, healing provided from vending machine cola, and a variety of arcade machines to play, it doesn't half make you wonder if the developers had played Shenmue at some point... perhaps so influenced by it that they even went as far as to start work on a sequel that has been stuck in development hell for as long as I can remember!
Image credit: Bully Wiki
The original version of Bully can be played on the PlayStation 2, and was later made available digitally on both the PlayStation 3 and 4 (although I've heard these digital versions have game-breaking bugs, so avoid!). The game was also eventually expanded and released for Xbox 360, Wii and PC as Bully: Scholarship Edition, the 360 version of which is backwards compatible on seventh and eighth generation Xbox consoles. Perhaps the most impressive port of this game comes in the iOS and Android mobile versions, called Bully: Anniversary Edition. Either way, there's a lot of choice if you want to give this title a go.

Mizzurna Falls
Gone but not forgotten, Japan's Human Entertainment pushed the boundaries of video games in the 90s, creating such cult hits as Clock Tower, Moonlight Syndrome, the Fire Pro Wrestling series, and... Super Soccer. If there was ever a developer that I wish could've created games for the Dreamcast, Human is that company. They sadly went defunct in the year 2000, but many of their past employees did move on to other companies, such as Spike, who developed Fire Pro Wrestling D for the Dreamcast. Anyway, the reason I've brought them up is because they released a very interesting game for the PlayStation in 1998 called Mizzurna Falls. I can only scratch my head as I wonder why this game was never released worldwide, as its existence really is a testament to Human's technical prowess - for a fifth generation title, it really does look excellent.

Taking place in a very Twin Peaks-esque Colorado town, you are tasked with solving a mystery over the space of seven days. You explore the snowy town, along with the vast wilderness nearby, via foot, car, and even boat. Everything feels peaceful, your surroundings are thought-provoking, and talking to others is the key to solving the mystery at hand.
Image credit: HitokiriK
The game features a full weather cycle, fighting mechanics, quick-time events, and the residents of the town all have individual daily routines. While Shenmue was well into development by the time of Mizzurna Falls' release, it's still interesting to see a fairly obscure game from 1998 attempting much of what Shenmue would become renowned for a year later. I'm honestly surprised Sony didn't stick this one out in the West just to say "look, we can do Shenmue too!". Luckily, this game has had both English and Spanish fan translation patches come out for it in the last so many years, so it can now be experienced by a much wider audience.

Lake
Were you one of the people who liked the forklift sections of Shenmue? Like, you actually found enjoyment in doing a real-life job in a video game? Well, let me introduce you to Lake.

Developed by Gamious and released in September 2021, Lake takes place in the year 1986 and has you assume the role of forty-something Meredith Weiss, as you drive around the picturesque town of Providence Oaks, delivering mail to its many charismatic residents. To describe Lake as "quiet" would be an understatement. The majority of your time spent playing it will involve driving to various destinations to deliver letters and parcels to the residents of the town, all while taking in the beautiful woodland scenery of rural Oregon. While this is all very relaxing, what really keeps you going to your next destination is Meredith's interactions with the people she meets and the relationships she attempts to rekindle with those she hasn't seen for many years.
Image credit: Gamious
With great writing and voice acting, along with branching paths, romantic options, and multiple endings depending on how you guide Meredith through the game, Lake definitely takes a page out of Shenmue's book with regards to showcasing beauty in the mundane.

Lake is available for PC, along with eighth/ninth generation PlayStation and Xbox systems.

The Good Life
The best summary of this game that I've ever read is from Rock Paper Shotgun's Steve Hogarty, who described it as "tonally stupid, structurally broken, surprisingly deep and occasionally self-aware". He couldn't be more spot on. From the mind of cult oddball Hidetaka Suehiro (more commonly known as SWERY), The Good Life clearly had a Shenmue-like ambition to capture the subtleties of everyday life, except it took a left turn at "drinking carbonated beverages and going to work", and arrived at "alcoholism, alien chickens, and humans transforming into dogs to piss on fire hydrants", with any semblance of subtlety chucked out the car window somewhere along the way. It’s perhaps a game Yu Suzuki might have made if he was feeling particularly quirky one day, and if he'd taken drugs - a fuck load.

Effectively a life simulation RPG, The Good Life has you play as Naomi Hayward; a cynical, opinionated reporter from New York who has been sent to the small fictional countryside village of Rainy Woods to investigate why they are the "happiest town in the world", in an attempt to pay off a debt of £30,000,000 she owes to the newspaper she works at. From the outset, I was totally in love with the setting of The Good Life. As I've grown older, I've really come to appreciate the natural beauty of the British countryside - I even considered joining the National Trust at one point (wanted the free binoculars) - and so to be able to run around a setting like that in some kind of open world adventure game was a dream come true. One of many reasons I originally fell in love with Shenmue was because it gave me a virtual taste of Japanese life. The Good Life is effectively that, but for the more scenic side of dear old Blighty, and considering it's a Japanese-developed game, the British culture represented is actually surprisingly accurate, while also being over-exaggerated just enough to the point that it is endearing.
Image credit: Playism
The majority of The Good Life's story progression involves talking to different townspeople, and sometimes retrieving or crafting items they request, with occasional mini-games and exploration thrown in too. It's a pretty simple gameplay loop, but it was the wacky storyline, the excellent dialogue, and the well-acted, larger-than-life characters that kept me going from mission to mission, along with the relaxing countryside exploration. There is also that Shenmue brand of life happening around you. The residents of Rainy Woods all have routines; they go to work, go to the café to eat, and in the evening, some get shitfaced at the pub before staggering home drunk afterwards. During a full moon, they even turn into cats and dogs (...it'd take too long to explain). There is also a weather system which affects the schedules of the townspeople, but also helps to create a lovely ambience. Downpour at night, atmospheric delight...

The Good Life is definitely not perfect. In fact, it'd probably be best described as "janky", but much of its flaws come as a consequence of its humongous ambition - it really wants to be a little bit of everything in its attempt to present all facets of this supposedly "Good Life", and some of the resulting systems run astonishingly deep, regardless of whether or not they always amount to enriching gameplay. You need to keep Naomi well fed and clean, or she can end up hungry or smelling bad (respectively). Without tender loving care, she can also lose stamina, catch colds or get a headache. If you're feeling particularly sadistic, you can even make her drink so much beer that she becomes an alcoholic.
Image credit: Playism
The opportunities for goofing off are in abundance, too. You can earn money for taking photographs of ever-changing topics of interest. You can learn new recipes to cook. You can dabble in a spot of gardening and grow your own vegetables. You can challenge the town's drunkard priest to a drink-off. You can train a sheep - yes, a sheep - to be ridden as a means of transport; this includes levelling up its stats and even entering it into time trials. Some might say that The Good Life gives players too much to do, but people have also accused Shenmue of "not respecting the player's time", and well, they're wrong. When I dive into a game's world, I want to be enveloped by it, and so in that regard, I have a lot of respect for what The Good Life sets out to do.

The Good Life is available for PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.

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I sincerely hope you enjoy these recommendations, and if you have any games that you think "scratch the Shenmue itch", please comment them below, or let us know via one of our social media channels. In the future, I hope to bring back this style of article for other Dreamcast classics, but in the meantime, check out episode 116 of our podcast, the DreamPod, where we talked about non-Dreamcast games that embody the Dreamcast spirit.

7 comments:

ShreddieMercury said...

Wonderful article, thank you!

I'm excited to try Bully and Lake. Interesting picks that I can see bear some resemblance to the things that I love so much about Shenmue. In truth I've never found anything that can quite get close to the feeling of playing that game for the first time. Its core design has an almost blatant disregard for accepted video game norms that I think makes it impossible to replicate, especially given the hyper-commercialization of the industry in the time since the Dreamcast. It's built on the idea that your immersion in that world is its own intrinsic reward, and I've never seen that since.

I'm not sure where to put this, but I wanted to share a quick appreciation for what you all do at the Dreamcast Junkyard. I've visited the blog here and there in the past, but I've been listening to the podcast over the holidays and your passion for this system has really reignited my own. The DCJ is a unique and incisive voice in this community, and I'm so thankful that there are others that are so enthusiastic and articulate about what makes this system and this era so special.

Thanks again, and happy new year!

Lewis Cox said...

Thanks for your really nice comment ShreddieMercury (great username btw), I made sure to pass it on to the other guys who do the Junkyard with me - I'm just thankful we can still spread the gospel of Dreamcast all these years later!

I will agree that while some games capture the essence of Shenmue, they'll never quite match it for me either, although Persona (Persona 3 in particular) and Bully definitely come very close.

Glad to hear your passion for the system has been reignited, we've got loads of stuff coming in 2024 so there'll be plenty to keep that flame burning. :)

Tom Charnock said...

Superb feature as ever, Lewis! I've never heard of some of these games to be honest, but I know you've been working on this one for a while, great stuff. One day I'll get round to finishing Shenmue II...I have that infernal save on a VMU somewhere...!

Tom Charnock said...

Oh and yeah - ShreddieMercury is a brilliant username :D

DCGX said...

Shenmue is definitely what got me into the Yakuza series, and I love both for it.

MrKnowNothing said...

Maybe I should give Lake another try, the demo didn't really drag me in when I played it, but maybe I need to get the full game to get the full experience. Played the other games and they're excellent choices!

For my pick, whilst a bit more action focused, I found Deadly Premonition to scratch the itch. NPC's go about their day and a 24 hour day cycle makes you plan side missions/who to talk to along with making sure you have enough fuel to reach them. It even had the same moment of slowly unravelling a mystery the more you do the story and talk to characters. Just makes me wish there were more games which followed this mould

Le Rowe said...

Good feature and a stellar choice of games. You can tell many of the Shenmue staff went over to Yakuza. The game's sense of place and attention to detail is stellar and often under rated next to it's more bombastic features.