Shenmue Changed My Life #DCember

In the consumer-driven 21st century there’s a particular phrase which has lost all meaning, “changed my life”. Every new product from shampoo to mattress toppers seems to come with this claim slapped on the packaging or bleated by an insincere voiceover actor: An assertion that someone, somewhere has experienced an unqualified reshaping of their everyday world as a result of coming into contact with this product. So, here we go again:

Shenmue changed my life… 

Here’s how.

The sole reason for my purchase of a Dreamcast sometime around the year 2001 was as a result of seeing that chunky 4-disc boxset sitting on the shelf in my local games store. The sheer heft of the packaging with it’s sumptuous exotic artwork filled me with a hunger to play the game. Back in those days I was still fiddling about with my gameboy colour at my parent’s house. The Dreamcast seemed a strange, boxy device with a pallid complexion. Nevertheless, the desire to play Shenmue overruled my misgivings and I bought both the console and the game without hesitation. I’d read the magazine reviews at the time which weren’t all good, although they universally praised the game’s graphical prowess. I played it and loved it. I’d always been a patient child so the endless crate stacking and questioning the townsfolk for sightings of a ‘big black car’ didn’t bore me. I became engrossed in the detail of the town, the people and the minutia of everyday life. Following characters around would consume me for days on end as I sneakily tailed them from their front doors to their places of work and back again. I waited stoically for the cloudy wintery days so I could see the town swathed in snow flurries. 

Shenmue’s ending sees the game’s protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, travel from his provincial township to the metropolis of Hong Kong in search of answers. As someone who was still living at home in his little Essex town, this kind of expedition seemed a distant dream. By the time Shenmue 2 was released in late 2002 I was itching for a taste of adventure in my life too. After having played through the sequel, where Ryo continues his journey into mainland China, I knew I had to see this far Eastern country for myself. So in 2004 I did just that, packed a few clothes into a backpack and bought two plane tickets. One arriving into Beijing in September and one to fly home from Shanghai again in December. Beyond that I was winging it with no itinerary, no mobile phone and no backup plan. In my head I was starring in my own real-life RPG, alone and with only one life.


My three months visiting China sped by in a whirlwind of hostels, street food, friendly faces and incredible scenery. Memories of the different play zones from Shenmue 2 were triggered everywhere I went from the upmarket Golden Quarter to the market district and ship docks (although I didn’t pursue any sailors). In the Chinese countryside I saw design and architecture in temples which I recognised from Shenmue and even people dressed in similar clothes to the game’s characters.

When I returned to my parent’s home at Christmas I had a new-found confidence for exploration and the unfamiliar. I resolved to fly the nest in the New Year and didn’t disappoint them. In the following years I explored Australia, South and Central America, Europe and India,  always with a conviction that I’d have an amazing time on every expedition. 

London has been my home for some years now. Although I consider myself ‘settled’ (with a cat and a dog to prove it) I’d have no problem uprooting myself for another jaunt around the world. These trips around the globe have also given me a boldness and self-confidence which help me in everyday life. All thanks to a solo adventure inspired by Shenmue. The spirit of Ryo’s fearless escapades is deep within me and it’s him I have to thank for freeing my spirit and showing me that flying solo is sometimes the only way.

Reuben Cornell is a composer and music journalist. He writes for Computer Music, Mac User and Film Score Monthly. None of this has anything to do with games - he just plays them to relax and to wallow in retro nostalgia. You can find him on Twitter and his website.