Shenmue 2 is 20 years old today, meaning it’s only five years younger than I am. I could go for a beer with Shenmue 2 if it had arms, legs, a mouth, and sentience. In fact, I would go for a beer with Shenmue 2 if it were not an inanimate object. I reckon we’d have quite a lot to discuss.
For the record, I am not particularly interested in Shenmue. I didn’t like Shenmue 3 despite consciously trying to brute force my way into enjoying it and all I really remember about the second game is arm-wrestling some lad in a warehouse along a wharf. There were boats, too, I think. Arm-wrestling and boats. I was five years old. I assume a lot of the game’s nuance is missed on someone who probably thinks nine plus ten is 21.
This is what makes Shenmue 2 such an oddly special game for me. I will never play it again. I am thoroughly and unflinchingly uninterested in it. I understand why people love this series, but I’m also not afraid to say that it’s not for me. It’s a whole lot of waiting and walking and more waiting. That might sound disingenuous – and, in fairness, I don’t think it would take a particularly clever person to distill just about any large, triple-A, open-world game into that exact same triad of repetitive, mostly mundane actions. What I’m talking about here is different, though – I am talking about how a game I do not care for somehow managed to subtly and enduringly shape what has gradually become one of the most major parts of my life.
I write about video games for a living. Obviously. It’s what I am doing right now, sitting at my PC with lukewarm coffee and a slowly growing hunger that’s going to start seriously annoying me in around an hour. How does one end up writing about video games for a living? Well, first and foremost, by playing lots and lots of video games. Did I play lots and lots of video games as a child? In some ways, yes. I played Pokemon and Zelda non-stop and would slyly sneak goes of much-too-shootybangy-for-a-five-year-old Halo in the back room whenever my mam and dad weren’t looking. That was pretty much it: Nintendo and space bullets.
My admission of playing Halo serves as subtle confirmation of the fact I had an Xbox. I would pay good money to learn which games I actually owned for it – I think I had more than five but less than ten, and on top of Halo: Combat Evolved and Shenmue 2 we had Crimson Skies and Amped, which, in hindsight, were two certified bangers. I tried to be indiscriminate in what I played, and so I attempted to get through Shenmue 2 multiple times but never got more than an hour in before throwing a tantrum typical of an idiot five-year-old. Shenmue 2 was much smarter than I was and I hated it for that. This hatred – this seething, burning, enduring rage – is what ultimately led to me playing more games. Shenmue 2 irritated me so much and so intensely that I was forced to experiment with different titles. Without it, I’d have probably played Pokemon until I was 12 and proceeded to flit between several of 50 identical shooters for the rest of my life. Shenmue 2 is – annoyingly – probably the game that made me play games. What a total bastard.
There’s a certain magic to games like Shenmue – the same magic that colours titles like Yakuza as essential experiences for anyone with an interest in approaching video games with any decent degree of sincerity. It’s interested in places rather than spaces and doesn’t concern itself with condescending hand-holding or unnecessary exposition. It is, in its most primal form, a game that doesn’t really give a shit whether you like it or not. Want to be mates? Sure. Reckon I’m a prick? Okay, mate. Bye.
I recognise I’m not really talking all that much about what happens in Shenmue 2, but again: I’m not interested. I could read a synopsis now if I really wanted to, but I’d rather just focus on the actual point of this piece: that games you don’t like are often just as valuable as ones you do. In terms of broadening your horizons, it is arguably essential to play stuff you’re not all that fussed about. Sure, you might end up accidentally liking something you thought you’d hate – hooray! That only happens seldomly. If you think you are going to dislike something, it’s probably because you know yourself well enough to hazard a decent guess as per your own individual taste. The paradoxically important thing here is that learning what you don’t really care for is just as important to refining your palate as – if not more so than – always playing the same five games you like.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that either – playing games is a hobby and people should be able to enjoy their free time in whatever way they see fit. Got 3,000 hours in Warframe? Brilliant. It’s extremely cool to me that you’ve found something you love that much. If you want to gain perspective, however, and improve your ability to critique and meaningfully engage with games, you’re probably going to have to soldier through some stinkers.
I don’t think Shenmue 2 is a stinker, by the way. Five-year-old Cian thought Shenmue 2 was a stinker – 25-year-old Cian is sufficiently grown up to laugh at his moron childhood self while recognising that, actually, he is still just as moronic. The worthwhile thing about Shenmue 2 – the idea I’m trying to get at here – is that I’ve still, to this day, yet to play anything else like it. Yakuza is made of similar stuff, in some ways. I’m not sure anything else is all that comparable to it. I think that in and of itself is probably one of the most impressive accolades you can ever assign to a game – that it is distinctly original and enduringly uncompromising in that originality. I don’t really give a shit about Ryo Hazuki, but on the 20th anniversary of his second outing, I reckon it’s worth thanking him for teaching me what I didn’t like in order to discover what I do. It should speak volumes that a game I remember for little more than arm-wrestling and a few boats has made this much of a lasting impression on me.
Of all the hundreds of games I’ve played over the years, Shenmue 2 had a completely unique impact on me. I may not like it all that much, but I’m not sure I can give many games higher praise.
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