Shenmue III was a reality, once. In the mid 00s, to about ten people in a tiny office over the road from Sega's european HQ on the often drizzly, always dull Great West Road in Brentford, Shenmue III was actually happening. The people who had been clued into this development weren't designers, programmers, artists. Yu Suzuki wasn't there.
They were quality assurance testers, each of which still believed that the finale they craved would eventually become be a reality. And as they were lead into a small room in Sega's testing building, specifically selected for their love of the franchise, it appeared that all their dreams were going to come true. By this point, most people had probably given up on the quixotic next instalment. These ten were not like most. And now they were being rewarded.
A Powerpoint presentation started. They were told that the project was utterly top secret. A slide clicked. Shenmue III. The room exploded. No-one could quite believe it, but there it was, literally in black and white. The room was small, barely fitting everyone in, but the excitement and enthusiasm coming from it could have powered all of Sega for years to come.
Shenmue III. Bloody hell.
Then, after a few minutes, there was disconcerting laughter from some of the bigger boys. The mood dropped to a cautious silence. After milking it for all it was worth, the team leads who had brought the other testers in revealed that it was all for show. It didn't exist, stupid. You've been had. Ha ha ha. Now get back to work.
It's a great story. Did it really happen? I'm reliably told it did, but I wasn't there and so can't confirm it. Knowing QA guys and their love of taking the piss out of new hires, though, it probably did. And, really, is it so different from what what Sega itself actually does on a regular basis? Slipping Ryo into its racing titles here and there, releasing an online MMO bearing the hallowed name, selling Hazuki tiger jackets for your Xbox avatars.
Every time Sega pulls one of these stunts, there's a part of your brain that goes 'maybe this is it.'
It's a lie. And besides, you'd never want Shenmue III anyway.
Why? Because it's been 12 years since Shenmue II, and as any Star Wars fan will tell you, that's a long time for hopes and dreams to flourish, for unreasonable expectations to form and ferment. It was worse for them ('them' also being me and probably you), of course, when they finally got what they wanted. Ever since that fateful issue of some Star Wars tie-in comic or other that briefly mentioned Darth Vader and Obi-Wan fighting over a pit of fire, imaginations ran wild. Nothing could live up to what was actually delivered roughly 16 years later, and soon cinemas everywhere overran with tears or, worse, denial.
The difference, of course, bar the obvious (one being a trilogy of films), is that Star Wars had a definitive ending. It was all tied up. Lucas had said that he'd planned a prequel trilogy, but still. At least he'd finished one.
This is largely academic, however. Thanks to George's posturing, there was a feeling that the story was still unfinished if not unresolved, and that clamour for finality started to overrule all basic logic. It would be a similar deal here. What's your Shenmue III? The one you've imagined all these years? Does it involve Lan Di getting his ass handed to him, finally? What about Master Chen, and Gui Zhang? What's the deal with Shenhua, the Chi You Men, the mirrors? Is there a deeper connection between Lan Di and Ryo? How does it end?
Probably in disaster, if it ever sees a release. For me, too much time has passed, and – without wanting to sound too much like a wanker – Shenmue now exists in a completely different part of my life. I was 16 when the first instalment came out, 17 when part II made its bow.
Inevitably, a lot has changed since then. But Ryo's adventure remains as it was, gilded with nostalgia, untouchable, even when I fire up the Xbox version and sigh at the controls. The series is nestled in with a hundred other details of my life at that time, building a myth that can't ever be bettered or beaten. I remember my dad giving me money to buy my then-girlfriend Christmas presents, and me slightly downgrading what she'd get so I could also buy Shenmue, which I'd long been reading and daydreaming about. It was a massive moment: the biggest title on what I considered (then) to be the best console, and it was finally in my grasp.
(One thing that hasn't changed are embargoes: a prominent Dreamcast mag mentioned on its next month page that it had played the game, but couldn't talk about it yet due to such paperwork. They frustrated me then, and do so now.)
When it came to the sequel, by sheer coincidence I'd only eventually finished the original the day before the second instalment hit shelves. Imagine my delight when I walked into the shop and there it was. It was a feeling matched only by what the experience itself offered. The second game's depiction of Hong Kong – Kowloon especially – is up there with anything Rockstar has achieved, and no doubt influenced GTA III enormously. Christmas in the original is one of the few things that makes me feel like a kid again. There are thousands of brilliant moments across both.
But things were different then. Shenmue is intertwined with memories of a different decade and, in a lot of ways, a different life. I played it on a console made by Sega, for crying out loud. The reason some people want Shenmue III is not just because of its status as a game, but because they think it's a time machine.
For every moment you love about Shenmue that it created, I bet your own circumstance informed it just as much. What are those circumstances now? Shenmue III wouldn't be a time machine, it would be a mirror, and you might not like what you see.
And yet, for those ten testers and others like them, it doesn't matter. They're all Ryo now, searching for that last mirror, no matter the cost. Could the finished product ever even hope to match up to the hype, the hope, the sheer imagination people have mentally poured into it? I love the series, and part of me would love to see it come back for the swansong it deserved. But I'd hate to see it ruined, compromised by creative constriction or even possibly artistic bankruptcy. Or, more likely, ruinous expectation.