If there is one thing Shenmue seems to lack when compared to more contemporary open-world games, it’s side quests. Sure you might feed a stray kitten or buy a drink for a restaurant worker on the way to Dobuita, but Ryo is on a very single-minded quest for revenge. He hasn’t got time to flirt with women or help solve other people’s problems — he just wants to find Lan Di.
Yet once you get to Hong Kong’s more daunting sprawl of side streets and labyrinthine multi-storey buildings, it turns out that there might actually be more to life. It's easy to miss though, because they’re not signposted at all. So to my great surprise, over a decade after the game's original release, I first discovered Shenmue II’s greatest secret: duck racing.
The sequel is chock-full of gambling mini-games, from the Lucky Hit stands set up on every other street corner to the dice and card games in dodgy gambling dens and warehouses. But none of them hold a candle to putting your Hong Kong dollars down then watching a row of ducks dressed in colourful bow ties race around the streets of Wan Chai.
This distraction / sidequest / hobby really deserves top billing (thangew) but is easily missed, being dependent on a number of specific steps and interactions with NPCs as well as only being available at a certain point of the game. If you’ve recently picked up a copy of Shenmue I & II HD, you must visit this quacky promised land, and here's a super-quick guide on how to do so.
1. Mess up a QTE
Fresh off the boat in Hong Kong, Ryo has his bag stolen by street urchin Wong. When you’re chasing him, you actually need to get a prompt wrong so that you cause a mess at a nearby restaurant. Later you can return and apologise to the owner’s daughter, and if you pay for damages, she’ll give you a bronze medal. A peculiar reward, but it has its purpose.
2. Befriend members of the opposite sex
Seemingly Ryo’s weakness, if his awkward interactions with female characters in Shenmue I are anything to go by. There’s three parts to this:
First is finding your home away from home, by which I mean the Tomato convenience store in the Golden Quarter — and it still plays that jingle. You’ll meet Izumi who works there as a cashier, and she seems eager to befriend a fellow Japanese person (she seems to quite fancy Ryo, which doesn't suggest great taste in men.)
Secondly, you’ll need to become friends with Fangmei, the 14-year old assistant you meet once you’re under the tutelage of Xiuying. She wakes Ryo up in the morning and cleans the temple in the day but if you go out of your way to speak to her and make some meaningful exchanges, she’ll eventually start addressing him as ‘Ryo-san’ instead of ‘Hazuki-san’, which is when you know she sees you as a friend. Fangmei actually has her own elaborate side-quest too, but it’s a bit creepy so I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist.
Anyway, once Fangmei sees you as a friend, you can finally meet one of her other friends, a foreign kung fu student called Eileen. You’ll find her practising her martial arts by the fountain of Pigeon Park, a feathery allusion towards what's to come.
3. Triumph in the arcade fight club
Now head to the Golden Quarter and find the Pine Game Arcade. Instead of just the Out Run cabinet and slot machines, your bronze medal now gives you access up an extra flight of stairs where it turns out there’s a secret fight club.
Look, it might feel like I’m waddling on when you came here for the hot duck action, but all in good time. Here's a real highlight anyway — just look at the guy who arranges the fights.
There’s a weird irony to this whole quest given that Ryo, sexist that he is, previously tells Xiuying “I’m not fighting a woman”, yet here limbers up and proceeds to do exactly that. Your first opponent is Eileen, who’s pretty formidable, but no real trouble if you’ve gotten through other fights so far.
The real surprise is your second opponent, none other than thirsty Tomato cashier Izumi who’s been blessed with the moveset of Sarah Bryant. It’s basically Virtua Fighter: The High School Years. Even better, this whole fight plays out with the Tomato jingle in the background.
Just this aspect would be Shenmue II at its most leftfield, but Izumi is also as tough as nails, mostly down to her being able to catch you by surprise with a super ‘Viva’ knee to the groin that can wipe half of your health. Worse, it can only be countered with the most outrageous QTE button combo. If there’s anything that’s an impossible feat for your right thumb to pull off with a modern controller, it’s pressing two buttons horizontally or vertically directly opposite each other at the same time, let alone in quick succession — but that’s exactly what you’re meant to do.
— Alan Wen ? EGX (@DaMisanthrope) August 22, 2018
Anyway, if you persist, and get very lucky with those QTEs, your triumph results in the award of a silver medal. In return, the next time you visit Izumi at the Tomato store, she’ll invite you to her “special place.” This is not a euphemism.
I Canard Believe It
Here we are at last, the duck races. Can you believe that Yu Suzuki kept this wonder away from the eyes of the oblivious masses?
Overseen by that same conspicuously dressed fella, each of these dapper ducks have their own ranked stats: speed, stamina, and the mysterious ‘guts’. You can also just take a look at the odds given for each webby entrant when you put your money down. As far as gambling mini-games go, this one lets you put down the highest possible stake of HK$1,000, the returns from which can net you the Shenmue II equivalent of a small fortune.
Of course, you’re mostly left to the mercy of RNG. The save-scummers among us will probably want to quit and reload just beforehand until a win happens. Mechanically it’s not all that different to the other gambling mini-games, as you don’t have any control over the ducks in the race.
Yet there’s nothing quite like it — the unpredictability, the absurdity, and the delightfully flutey music accompanying proceedings. High-paced drama is added with flashy camera angles replayed at the finish line. Even when your prized duck is trailing, a sudden surprise comeback can spring from nowhere.
I’ve never been down to the racetrack IRL but I think I’ve gotten a taste of it when watching my duck power-waddle around the Wan Chai streets, flapping to take flight over some steps and quacking merrily to the finish. I clutch my imaginary betting slip hoping for the best and, when RNGesus is on your side...
— Alan Wen ? EGX (@DaMisanthrope) August 22, 2018
That’s the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes the competing ducks include mallards or ducklings instead of the default white ones — or a flipping penguin on a rainy day! It’s even possible for Ryo to get his own duck to enter, which you can control, with the ultimate prize being a gold medal.
Even the way to do this is another cracker because it involves replaying the leaf-catching mini-game that Xiuying makes you do in the story, except trying to catch a duck’s feather instead. The fact that a serious zen-like lesson in teaching Ryo discipline in kung fu gets re-contextualised into something so bonkers is another masterstroke. Devastatingly, I missed this part of the quest as it’s limited to a certain point in the main story, the only consolation being that all the duck racing shenanigans are in Shenmue II’s first chapter in Wan Chai, so it’s not too arduous to try again.
The Shenmue games offer a unique experience, but at times can be so fixated on the idea of realism that what should be fun is tedious. With these racing ducks, Shenmue II subverts that side of itself and shows Suzuki still has that surreal sense of humour. It’s exactly the kind of quest line that would become a huge inspiration for Shenmue's heir, the Yakuza series.
With Shenmue III due for release next year, I can only hope that developers Ys Net remember this oft-forgotten aspect to the games, and include side quests of such calibre. Forget forklifts, and bring back the mighty ducks!