Gaming as a medium has developed rapidly in a comparatively short amount of time. Technology has advanced so much in the last three decades that the earliest games bear no resemblance today's big-budget behemoths. But more subtle advancements have happened alongside the obvious leap in graphical quality over the years. Yesterday's innovations have become today's base-level expectations.
Japanese adventure title Shenmue released for the Dreamcast in 2000 here in North America, and at the time, it was the pinnacle of open-world design. Protagonist Ryo Hazuki's quest to find his father's killer was cinematic to a never-before-seen degree, taking place in a realistic recreation of Japan with astonishing attention to detail. Its labyrinthine city streets held untold secrets, from optional conversations with NPCs to vending machines that held a wide selection of authentic drinks (in Japan, at least). Even capsule machines were faithfully recreated, allowing Ryo to collect adorable trinkets just like a young person his age might have at the turn of the century. Shenmue was also responsible for pioneering the quick time event, which would later become a video game staple, abused though it may be in today's market.
Shenmue was so gripping precisely because it brought new ideas to the table. It was the first time many of us explored an environment of such large scale in a video game, and its realism brought us closer to a place that is near and dear to the hearts of Japanese gaming fans everywhere. Its sequel treaded familiar ground, and while it made iterative improvements, it didn't dramatically alter the Shenmue formula.
It's been sixteen years since the first Shenmue released. Sixteen! Several gaming generations have come and gone in that timeframe, and our ideas of what makes a game good have changed over the years. Shenmue helped define the open-world genre, but is no longer the definition of it. With Shenmue III set to release in 2017, finally turning the page on one of the most protracted stories ever, I can't help but worry a bit about its place in today's market.
Shenmue III cannot hope to achieve mainstream success if it does not bring something new to the table. Simply walking around an open environment is no longer novel; we have scores of games that offer huge and fascinating worlds to explore on top of intricate gameplay systems. Polish is important, too. With bigger worlds typically comes buggier games, so Shenmue III needs to retain its detail-oriented nature while still innovating on some front. Maybe it could feature multiple protagonists with different perspectives, or introduce an augmented reality aspect by sending "pages" to players on their smartphones (keeping with its 80s setting, naturally). At the same time, thoughtless attempts to innovate can actually bring down an experience, so it's important that director Yu Suzuki and his team take great care to maintain a high standard of quality with whatever they implement in Shenmue III.
Other game series have shown that a refusal to evolve results in stagnation. Resident Evil 4 was so successful precisely because it revamped the series' formula and carefully balanced camp with genuine horror. Then Resident Evil 5 and 6 tried to leverage that same formula with less and less success, leading Capcom to totally shake up their approach to Resident Evil 7. That resulted in more enthusiasm for the series than they've seen in years. Think about Call of Duty; it has become increasingly predictable over the years, and has seen a decline in total revenue and sales over the last four years. It suffers from its publisher's unwillingness to throw everything out the window and start fresh.
The bottom line is this: big-budget games need to evolve to stay relevant. Doing something new is a risky proposition from a financial standpoint, and I understand why developers are reluctant to invest in new ideas when their old ones are selling well. But it'd be nice if they could channel some of the money they make on their big hits into more creative ventures, allowing both to exist in the gaming space side-by-side. Shenmue III occupies a liminal space somewhere between big-budget and indie; it raised over $6 million via crowdfunding (along with traditional publisher funding), yet it's being developed by a smaller studio. I can only hope that Yu Suzuki learns from the failures of his peers and maintains an innovative spirit to complement his legendary vision.
Image credit: GearFuse