In December 1999, things were quite different in the gaming market. The Sony Playstation was the dominant platform, the Playstation 2 had not been released and the latest GTA installment was GTA 2. "Open World" and "Sandbox" were words rarely used to describe videogames. That same month, Shenmue was released in Japan for the Sega Dreamcast. The game offered an unparalleled level of realism and freedom of exploration for the player. Shenmue tells the tale of Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man whose father is killed at the very beginning of the game. Players guide Ryo in his search for clues through Yokosuka, in Japan. One of the most intriguing aspects of Shenmue is that NPCs follow a strict schedule, and finding out where someone is at a specific time is essential for the story to progress. Ryo can interact with a multitude of objects, talk to townsfolk and learn new fighting moves in order to help him find out where the killer of his father, Lan Di, has gone to. The game ends in a cliffhanger, leading to the release of Shenmue II. The follow-up was released in 2001, and this time Ryo explores locations in Hong Kong and mainland China. The gameplay style is largely unchanged, though the setting is much bigger and much more diverse this time. Both games were not as commercially successful as Sega expected, and production of the third (and presumably final) game in the series was never started. Both Shenmue releases are unique titles and very few games could actually come close to replicating the feel of the series. Next, I present ten games that would probably cater to Shenmue fans.

Wan Chai Connection was a launch title for the Sega Saturn in Japan and the game was never released anywhere else in the world. This means that gamers willing to experience Wan Chai Connection must be fluent in Japanese, or else the experience will be severely compromised. The game is text-heavy and exploration takes part mostly through choosing options in menus. Players choose a location first, then choose who to talk to and finally what subject to ask about. Occasionally, players can explore small locations through a first person view, looking for objects and clues in a way very similar to Hotel Dusk (Nintendo DS) and even Shenmue itself. Wan Chai Connection is an adventure game. Players assume the role of Michael Lee, who investigates a murder in Wan Chai. During the investigation, he becomes closely attached to Li Yan, in a way somewhat similar to the relationship between Ryo and Nozomi in Shenmue. Also, the game is set in Wan Chai, as the title implies, which is one of the locations visited in Shenmue II. Since this a launch title for the Sega Saturn, released five years before Shenmue, the visuals and mechanics of the game seem dated and archaic by today’s standards, but Wan Chai Connection is still an interesting piece of gaming history that will probably bring a memory or two for avid Shenmue fans.

Also on: Xbox 360, PC.

Though completely different in gameplay style and setting, some people consider Shenmue and GTA III similar games. Both games offer freedom of movement and exploration, but the comparisons end here. Sleeping Dogs is more similar to GTA III than Shenmue, so why is it listed here? In Sleeping Dogs, players explore the streets of Hong Kong, the very first location visited in Shenmue II. Sleeping Dogs offers to fans of Shenmue II a new view, in high definition and exquisite attention to detail, of a familiar location. Recently, a fan-made video on YouTube compared Sleeping Dogs to a hypothetical Shenmue III. Sleeping Dogs is more violent, darker and grittier than any of the Shenmue titles, but the idea works, somehow. Be warned, however, that the game is not an adventure game in the purest sense. Players can explore the environment freely, talk to non-player characters and engage into different missions, but the gameplay is more focused on making good use of brute force rather than laborious exploration, extensive talking or complex brainwork. Still, there is definitely something here for Shenmue fans. The streets are crowded and richly detailed, presentation is superb and the general ambiance is extremely convincing. This is a game to be immersed in, and it proves that there is a huge potential for an eventual Shenmue III.

Heavy Rain takes one of the hallmarks of the Shenmue franchise, Quick Time Events (QTE), and makes a full game out of it. Okay, Dragon's Lair did the same thing decades ago, but not the way Heavy Rain does. Heavy Rain adds morality choices to a thick, nerve-wrecking plot, getting players involved in several different actions, from mundane things to life-changing situations. And it works brilliantly. Quantic Dreams, the developers of Heavy Rain, are no strange when it comes to creating immersive story-driven games. Their previous work, Indigo Prophecy (PC, Playstation 2 and XBox) is a cinematic adventure game that managed to attract quite a lot of attention thanks to the masterful way the story unfolds. The same is true in Heavy Rain: the attention to detail adds to the richness of the plot, drawing players closer and closer to the characters, in a way somewhat similar to how most Shenmue players closely relate to Ryo over time in Shenmue. Heavy Rain is often praised for bridging the gap between games and movies, something Shenmue tried to accomplish before, though in a decidedly different way: in 2001, scenes from the original Shenmue were put together for a theatrical movie release in Japan, achieving moderate success in the country.

Also on: iOS platforms.

The Last Express shares with the first Shenmue title the distinctiveness of being one of the most expensive games ever produced at the time of its release. Released originally in 1997, The Last Express was recently re-released for iOS platforms, like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Part a Point-and-Click adventure, part Interactive Movie, the game uses a rarely-employed process called rotoscoping for animation, which transforms live-action video in animated frames. The result is a unique visual style that fits the atmosphere of the game and adds to the charm of the title. The shining aspect of the game is that it tries to simulate real time, much like Shenmue, but a couple of years before its release. Each character has their own individual agendas, and it is up to the players to decide if (and how) they should interrupt their routine in order to achieve a specific goal and progress the story. Even though the game was innovative for its time and featured a charming, captivating art direction, The Last Express did not sell very well and is largely considered to be a cult classic.

Mizzurna Falls is an open world detective game that squeezes the most out of the hardware of the good old Playstation. The game was developed by Human Entertainment and released only in Japan in 1998, one year before Shenmue. Mizzurna Falls is an ambitious game: each character has a daily routine, and players must solve the mystery surrounding the plot before a specific time, before the calendar expires. The game has players exploring the small town of Mizzurna Falls, in Colorado, controlling Matthew as he looks for the whereabouts of Emma Rowland, who is missing, and tries to find out who (or what) severely injured neighbor Kathy Flannery. Mizzurna Falls was only released in Japan, so it is recommended that one be fluent in Japanese in order to enjoy the most out of the game. However, unlike Wan Chai Connection, it is not almost completely unplayable for those who do not have a good grasp of the language, thanks to its freedom of movement and exploration. Though technically flawed and lacking the visual refinements that have become standard nowadays, Mizzurna Falls is a testament to the power of the Playstation, running a game that plays very similar to Shenmue in an older, much less advanced hardware.

Also on: Playstation 3.

Deadly Premonition is a diamond in the rough. The game was released in 2010 for the Xbox 360 in North America, Europe and Japan, and for the Playstation 3 only in Japan, so far, under the title Red Seeds Profile. Equal parts Shenmue and Resident Evil, Deadly Premonition captures the attention of the player through a fantastic script, clever dialogues and some of the most bizarre and unique characters to ever be present in a game. So says Mr. Stewart, as one of the funniest characters in the game often says. The world of Deadly Premonition is refreshingly insane, and the intended comedy blends well with the unintended comedic segments in a brilliant way. Players assume the role of Francis York Morgan and can explore the town of Greenvale in a variety of ways. Between main story events, players are free to drive around and use their time as they wish. Like in Shenmue, it is important to talk to local townsfolk in order to advance the story, and uncover the clues surrounding the murder of a young girl found dead in the woods. The graphics are outdated and many reviewers complained about the controls, but the huge potential and funny characters helped polarizing the critics, making Deadly Premonition win the Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition award for the Most Critically Polarizing Survival Horror Game. A Director’s Cut version of the game will be released in 2013 for the Playstation 3 in North America and Europe.

Also on: Sega Dreamcast.

Omikron is a 3D adventure game developed by Quantic Dreams, the same studio responsible for Heavy Rain. Some people would say that Omikron is a darker, grittier and futuristic version of Shenmue; though the art style in both titles is completely different, from a gameplay standpoint Shenmue and Omikron are easily comparable. Both Shenmue and Omikron focus on exploration through a third-person view, interaction to NPCs and visiting different locales. Unlike most point and click adventures, both Shenmue and Omikron do not favor inventory-based puzzles, or even environmental puzzles. The games require pure detective work. Ryo can learn different fighting moves in Shenmue, and sporadically his brawling skills are put to good use. The same is true in Omikron. Initially released for PCs, Omikron was ported to the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. The port is considered to be inferior to the original game thanks to a number of limitations the game imposes to the player, unlike the PC version. Omikron was also scheduled for release on the Sony Playstation, but the project was cancelled because the Playstation could not handle a port of the game. I guess no one talked to Human Entertainment, developers of Mizzurna Falls, before cancelling the project.

Also on: PC, Xbox, PSP.

Before Shenmue was released, very few adventure games allowed players to take direct control over a character in a third-person view. Surely there were numerous Point-and-Click games that showed an avatar on screen, but players could only click around the environments and had no true direct control of the avatar. Resident Evil managed to do that before, but none of the games in the series were true adventure games. Some FMV games, like D (Sega Saturn, Playstation, 3DO) and Lunacy (Sega Saturn) tried to immerse the player through a first-person view instead, but the limitations were pretty obvious and the sense of exploration was severely diminished. Only a handful of titles, such as the aforementioned Mizzurna Falls, Omikron, King's Quest (Sega Master System) and Fantastep (Sega Saturn, Playstation) allowed the player to have full control over the avatar. After Shenmue, this kind of gameplay design became more frequent. Shadow of Destiny is one of such titles. Released in 2001 originally for the Playstation 2, Shadow of Destiny puts the player in the shoes of Eike Kusch, in the fictional city of Lebensbaum, travelling through time to avoid Eike's own death. Through ingenious manipulation of objects, players must ultimately avoid the recreations of the event that led to Eike's murder and unmask his murderer. Though less ambitious in concept and offering less places to explore than Shenmue, Shadow of Destiny is often regarded as one of the best games the genre has to offer and should be of interest to many Shenmue fans.

Also on: Xbox, Xbox 360.

The Longest Journey, released in 1999 in Europe and one year later in North America, had an excellent script and memorable characters. Dreamfall, its follow-up released in 2006, had big shoes to fill. And what an amazing job Funcom has done here. Dreamfall looks excellent and plays, as the title suggests, like a dream. The art direction is outstanding; backdrops look fantastic and help creating a sense of uniqueness that ties players to the world more and more. As the story progresses, players create strong bonds to the multiple protagonists of the game, engaging in a unique, varied and complex experience. Exploring the environments is a bliss thanks to masterful use of color and clever design. The visuals are gorgeous, sporting beautiful landscapes and imaginative locales, though the characters are not as detailed and up close may even look awkward sometimes, in contrast to the environments. The gameplay offers many possibilities for exploration, and since Dreamfall is an adventure game (with a few interspersed fighting segments), Shenmue fans will feel at home. Ragnar Tornquist, creator of Dreamfall and The Longest Journey went as far as to say that Shenmue served as an inspiration for Dreamfall. And it shows. It really shows.

Other games of the series also released for: PSP, Playstation 3.

Ah, the Yakuza series. Every release in the series tastes bittersweet to Shenmue fans. Yakuza is considered to be the "spiritual successor" of Shenmue. Both series were created by Sega and a large number of staff members who worked on Shenmue and Shenmue II also worked on many of the entries in the Yakuza series, known in Japan as Ryu ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon). Yakuza has achieved a lot more popularity in Japan than Shenmue, though it still remains largely ignored in North America and Europe. Though Shenmue has a more subtle use of violence (if one can call it this way), Yakuza is much more direct in this aspect. Truth be told, Ryo makes use of brute force a number of times during Shenmue and Shenmue II, but every entry in the Yakuza series has the protagonist Kazuma Kiryu taking part in several brawls, often to bloody results. Still, if one does not feel disturbed by the sheer amount of violence present in the games, there is a lot to love in the series. Like in Shenmue, in Yakuza players can collect items and visit arcade centers, talk to townsfolk, engage in side missions and explore a huge number of locations throughout Japan. The latest installment, Ryu ga Gotoku 5, has just been released in Japan, and as of the time of this writing the title has not yet received a release date in North America.

Shenmue and Shenmue II are unique titles, and players should not approach this list expecting games that will mimic or replicate the Shenmue experience. The games listed here, in some way, merely retain part of the feel of what makes both Shenmue titles such amazing games to play and even to watch. Some share similarities in the setting, some in gameplay, and some in spirit, but all the titles mentioned here are sure to bring back good memories for those who played Shenmue.

List by Simon (01/08/2013)

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