Shenmue is the most atmospheric video game ever made
There are plenty of reasons why Shenmue is one of my favorite games of all time. The emotionally charged story. The deep world simulation, which is still impressive over 20 years later. Forklift racing. Play classic Sega games in the arcade. Collection of capsule toys. Tom the Hot Dog Man’s Weird Dance. How hilarious and goofy Ryo is around Nozomi. If you haven’t played it, none of this will mean anything to you, but if you did and love it, you’re probably already thinking about your next replay. It’s a game that me and other fans keep coming back to year after year because Yokosuka – a setting I enjoyed so much I visited in real life – is such a nice place to hang out. . When you load Shenmue, you’re not just playing a game; you enter a world—and What a world.
The atmosphere of Shenmue is unbeatable. It’s one of the best video game tweaks ever, but in a polished and understated way. Sega developer AM2, led by veteran game designer Yu Suzuki, went to great lengths to capture the very specific look and feel of 1980s Japan. They also did so at great expense, the project once costing a record $70 million. It’s the real The 1980s, not the stylized and idealized 80s of Stranger Things with its neon lights, synths and leggings. The game’s muted realism is one of its greatest strengths, drawing you into the setting in a grounded, not flashy way. It is presented as a real and functional place, and it looks like it. When I walk the virtual streets of Dobuita, Yamanose, and Sakuragaoka, the feeling of being there is palpable, even all these years later.
There’s a lot of action, drama, and excitement in Shenmue, but it’s infrequent. You spend the majority of the game walking, talking, exploring, and soaking up the atmosphere. You can play it for hours without throwing a single punch. Some people (unfortunately) find this boring, but for me, that’s where the real magic of the game lies. The moments of Shenmue that stick with me are the quiet, mundane moments. Coming home at dusk through the sleepy suburb of Yamanose, lights glowing warmly in people’s windows, dogs barking in the distance. Or walk along Dobuita Street in December, the snowflakes gently falling from the sky, watching local market owners ply their trade. It never ceases to amaze me how Shenmue can make anything magical.
Weather, light, music and sound combine to transport you completely into its world. It’s doubly impressive that an old Dreamcast game can still evoke those feelings, but it transcends the technology that was used to build it. The textures may be low resolution and the maps seem tiny by modern standards, but this place will never cease to feel real to me. The art direction is timeless, and the simulation elements give the world a sense of life, vibrancy, and believability that even modern games struggle to match. Every NPC you see in Shenmue, no matter how insignificant, has a story, a place to be, and a life to live. As you play, you learn people’s routines. If it’s noon, you know that Ryuji from the thrift store will be at Funny Bear Burger for lunch.
It doesn’t seem like much on its own, and the systems governing this stuff are pretty straightforward. But when dozens of individual NPCs have these daily routines, Yokosuka feels like a real community. A place where people live and exist, instead of, as is the case in most games, wandering around aimlessly to create the illusion of a bustling city. This is another important part of Shenmue’s unmistakable vibe. It’s not just the atmosphere that makes exploring fascinating, but the growing sense of familiarity that develops as you spend time there. It has the intimate, tight-knit feel of a small town, reflecting the relationship Ryo would have with the place. People know your name and have met you before. Play Shenmue long enough and you’ll feel right at home.
Shenmue is one of those games that I often play just to experience the setting. The same way I regularly dive into Red Dead Redemption 2 to wander aimlessly through Rockstar’s beautiful Wild West, I’ll be playing Shenmue to spend time doing nothing special in Yokosuka. Both of these games are light years apart in terms of detail, fidelity, and technology. Red Dead’s announced $300-500 million budget makes Shenmue’s $70 million pale in comparison. But it’s a testament to the passion and artistry of Yu Suzuki and the work of his team that I consider the two games to be equal in terms of world-building and atmosphere. Shenmue is a work of art, and I’m eternally grateful to this superb 2018 remaster for allowing me to return to Yokosuka without having to dig up my dying Dreamcast.
Next: It’s been 21 years and the world of Shenmue still feels more real than most games