Shenmue, Sega’s most ambitious game and Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus. A game with a strong cult following in the years following its released and one of the killer apps on Sega’s swan song, the Dreamcast. The game meant to save Sega from impending doom eventually factored in Sega’s departure of the console wars with its $47 million budget. Furthermore, Shenmue is one of those games that people either love or hate, as a result of how detailed the game’s world is and mesmerized the player with the world. Often regarded as the pioneer of modern games inspiring the likes of Resident Evil 4, Grand Theft Auto, and Sleeping Dogs. Shenmue is accredited for the push in making open world games with its luscious world, NPCs that interact with you, and night and day systems.
Development of Shenmue
Development of Shenmue started back in 1993. As Yu Suzuki traveled to China in order to research for Virtua Fighter 2 As a result of his fascination with Chinese culture, it inspired to keep those items that interested him aside. After the release of Virtua Fighter 2, Suzuki decided to embark on his biggest project.
Even more, he states that the purpose of an arcade title is to grab the player’s attention for 3 minutes, but Suzuki wanted to see if he can develop a console game that would grab the player’s attention for a longer length of time. With this in mind, frustrated with the flaws he noticed with the JRPG genre and combined with his research in China he began playing 80s adventure games and early 90s JRPGs to steer him in the right direction.
As a result, set with what he wanted to do with his next title, a JRPG. So much that, he decided that the platform that would suit his needs would be the Sega Saturn where it did great in Japan but disappointing in the US and Europe. Above all, he needed to test out what the capabilities of the Saturn in full 3D something that several developers struggled to accomplish on the Saturn. In the end, he named this prototype, The Old Man and the Peach Tree.
Set in 1950s China, Taro asks an old man if he knows a Master Ryu. The Old man tells him if Taro can give him a peach, he will tell him where Master Ryu’s location is. In the end, after the trials that Taro goes through he realizes that the old man might possibly be Master Ryu himself.
Eventually, Suzuki confident with all the research in The Old Man and the Peach Tree decided to fully embark with his vision. For this reason, a proposal for a full 3D RPG based on the Virtua Fighter series using the game’s engine with the objective of having fully-voiced cut scenes, the ability to fight multiple opponents, and have a cinematic approach would eventually be titled, Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira Story.
With this intention, Suzuki began working on the plot and approach different ways to develop his masterpieces, he created a 4-step process. For a start, Suzuki divided the general theme of each plot in 4 different acts. Next, he wrote a 4-orchestral suite in order to suit the game’s overall mood and brought in composers to critique his work. Afterwards, instead of bringing in game developers which he believes would make the game too literal, he instead brought in screenwrights, film directors, playwrights, and others for something he titled, Bordered Development. Eventually, the game’s general direction arranged by both the developers and additional resources Suzuki brought in and concluded to illustrate the 4 general plots in 11 chapters and illustrate each of them.
Incidentally, the footage released of the Saturn Virtua Fighter RPG is amazing! The prototype displays what could have been the true capabilities of the Saturn in full 3D in real time. Yes, the Saturn whose full 3D capabilities developers underutilized. Indeed, the game is great and worthy to be the Saturn’s killer app which would have spanned across 8 discs for the first chapter.
Unfortunately, due to the low sales of the Saturn outside of Japan, the other branches of Sega discontinued support for the system in the late 90s and this caused Suzuki to switch his game towards Sega’s next console, the Dreamcast. On another note, seeing that the next console met the requirements of Suzuki’s next game, he demanded that Yamaha, the makers of the sound chip for Sega’s new console upgraded from 32 to 64 channels and he contributed to the development of the Dreamcast and its arcade counterpart the Naomi. In the end, this brought along Guppy.
Overall, Guppy’s goal to offer 45 hours of gameplay is a combination of cut scenes both cinematic and real-time, exploration, and combat. Realizing that this might have been too ambitious for the player at the time, Suzuki forced to cut back on his goal and decided that each of the 11 chapters of the game split into individual games. Therefore, in order to make this game the killer app for the Sega Dreamcast, deciding to switch the premise of Virtua Fighter RPG into a new IP, Project Berkley aka Shenmue ~Chapter 1: Yokosuka~.
With this in mind, in order to show off the capabilities of Sega’s new console at its unveiling, Suzuki sent 5 of his team members to make a tech demo for the event. As a result, the stunning audiences amazed to see the tech demo produced by AM2, The Tower of Babel, which used 1 million polygons running at 60 fps.
Afterwards, The Dreamcast launched in Japan in 1998 with Virtua Fighter 3tb being one of the launch titles. Not to sway off topic, but this wasn’t a true port as AM2 did not work on this, but left audiences with a surprise, a bonus disc that included a preview of Project Berkley.
During this time, AM2 working on getting the final touches into the game. Additionally, there were several delays to the game due to several critical flaws in the game, including several NPCs stuck inside a building at one time in the game since several of them are programmed to follow a real schedule like people would in real life. Additionally, the animals suddenly become bipedal and that should be a sign that maybe a there needs to be more debugging. In the end, after the long wait, Shenmue stepped into the ring to show off the Dreamcast’s capabilities.
The Main Review
Shenmue was released in Japan on December 29, 1999, the US in November of 2000 and a month later in Europe. Shenmue is an open-world game where players take control of Ryo Hazuki in his quest to enact his revenge on Lan Di for the death of his father. The game takes place in 1986 Yokosuka, Japan, where players explore the city throughout the day and night looking for clues on Lan Di. During his quest Ryo, can partake in numerous activities including exploring Yokosuka, playing games in the arcade, perfect his martial arts, beat some thugs, engage in quick time events, and spend his money on gambling and cute figurines.
In terms of content, Suzuki emphasized that Shenmue is not an RPG but FREE. Yes, FREE which stands for full reactive eyes entertainment. But the game seems similar to a noir PC point and click adventure game that transited into 3D that featuring elements of beat em up, quick time events, and racing into the mix. The game is highly revolutionary for the time for its highly-detailed world and how it lets players engage so well in this world which gave non-Japanese players an insight of how life in Japan during the mid-80s. Still to this day, the game blows my mind away at how much detail was placed onto 3 GD-Roms!
As mentioned before, Ryo’s main goal is to search for his father’s killer, Lan Di. But there are several subplots that occur throughout the game. First of all, he needs to find any info about the car Lan Di drove, if anyone received any information regarding the vehicle, searching for anyone in the area that is fluent in Chinese, earning some money to go to Hong Kong, stopping some thugs that are terrorizing the harbors, and what is behind those Dragon mirrors.
In terms of gameplay, its simple the overall premise is to look for clues by doing certain tasks, talking to certain people, and looking around the city all this being written inside Ryo’s journal as a reference guide throughout the game. The fighting engine in this game is top notch and feels similar to those who have played Virtua Fighter. The forklift racing and motorcycle segments are straight out of Virtua Racing and Hang-On. Finally, the quick time events credited towards a non-AM2 game, Dynamite Deka/Die Hard Arcade.
There are several great segments in the game that often show off the best of what Suzuki intended during the game’s lengthy development, including how much emphasis placed into the player by letting them explore even the smallest of details. The driving forklifts whether it be for racing or for working were also among some of the memorable parts of the game. Wasting time playing Space Harrier, Hang on, Darts, and QTE boxing. Even how Ryo can interact with the NPCs even though they can be quite rude, but Suzuki states he wanted to have the players experience each NPC differently, “What I did not want players to experience while having a conversation with an NPC is repetition. Getting the same answer to your question over and over is boring. And that is what happens in some games. In Shenmue, the conversation system is adjusted accordingly,” he concludes. Finally, the best portion of the game is the fighting segments, including the 70-man battle near the finale of the game.
In contrast, there are multiple parts of the game that might turn off several players including myself who at one point was not convinced to finish the game. In spite of all the praise Shenmue deserves, it features several flaws that outright making this unplayable for some. Particularly in the beginning portion of the game features mundane task that Ryo needs to accomplish that might turn off players so it’s recommended to find a guide to finish the beginning part of the game quickly. Asking people if they know Chinese or if they’ve seen sailors? These would of worked in 2D point and click adventure games, but not in this type of game. Not only that, but the world might be too realistic for others, though this is a subjective complaint since a fraction of people might enjoy this sense of realism.
Graphically, the game looks amazing, especially in VGA mode where it shines as one of the Dreamcast’s finest gems. The models in the game still look great and I cannot complain at this point. The buildings, environments, and people might look sharp around the edges, but it’s no concern of mine.
Then, the controls are great overall though, at the moment it seems awkward when trying to turn around as it seems slow. They are amazing when it comes to the fighting scenes where they’ll feel akin to the Virtua Fighter series. The controls in the driving portion of the game are also a great feeling akin to Hang-On and Virtua Racing especially with the analog stick.
Finally, the music is atmospheric but it suits the game very well! Being composed by a plethora of composers, including Sega legends Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and Yuzo Koshiro. When composing the music, Mitsuyoshi mentioned this, “What I tried to achieve for Shenmue was not Takenobu Mitsuyoshi’s music. Rather, I tried to find the melody that lies in the sound effects themselves, something that used sound effects for melody and rhythm… With Shenmue, I’m creating the total opposite. It’s music that you do not notice, but if it wasn’t there, the scene would feel barren. It’s very nuanced, detailed work, and very challenging in many ways. But in part of the large scale of this project, it did afford me several of opportunities to experiment. As a composer, I feel like I leveled up in a way.” Indeed, it does feel that way transiting from Arcade music to console gaming since the overall soundtrack to Shenmue is fantastic. Koshiro on the other hand felt very honored to be among the presence of Suzuki and Mitsyoshi as he noted, “I had met Koshiro once before when we shared the stage at a Roland event. After that Suzuki asked me, “Do you want to try working with Koshiro?” And of course, I did! I’ve long admired Koshiro and thought he was cool. I’ve followed his work closely for the last 10 years.” Even the symphonic arrangements of the tracks are beautiful. They truly convey the atomsphere the game is attempting to display to the player.
The game does not stop there as there were a plethora of content released prior and attached to the game. Prior to the release of Shenmue, Sega released What’s Shenmue? This serves as an additional demo of the game. The plot begins with Ryo looking for Mr. Yukawa, Senior Managing Director of Sega at the time where he saves him from thugs who wanted a disk from him. Only in the end, to realize that Mr. Yukawa, dreaming the whole time needed to ship all these Dreamcast units for the sake of Shenmue. Additionally, the game came with a Passport disc, which includes an assortment of goodies, including a sound test to listen to your favorite tracks, an insight look at all the people that you’ll interact with in the game named after random employees at Sega. Eigo Kasahara, Planner for Shenmue added this, “With the Shenmue Passport players can learn about the details and connections that we couldn’t show in the game. There’s a great deal of hidden relationships, for example.” Going to show how far the development team wanted to go with the game and how the players interacted with the each of the NPCs.
Shenmue’s Connection with Suzuki’s previous work
As mentioned in the previous article, Shenmue is a melting pot of numerous Suzuki’s titles. This comes into play when considered countless gameplay mechanics seen throughout the game. First, the Virtua Fighter series playing a significant role in terms of the characters and fighting mechanics since this began as a Virtua Fighter spin-off. Following suit, Virtua Racing plays a role in contributing to the racing portion of the game specifically the forklift races. Then, Hang-On plays a role when Ryo uses the motorcycle to rescue Nozomi near the end of the game and appearing as one of the games you can play in the arcade. This next one will be a bit peculiar to understand at first, but trust me it works, Swords of Vermillion plays a role in possibly influencing the multigenre aspect of the game as both games try to deviate themselves from the typical RPG norms. Finally, Die Hard Arcade, the only non AM2 game, plays a major role in QTE as during certain portions of that game, there were QTE that the player did.
The Legacy of Shenmue
Lastly, Shenmue contributed to multiple norms still seen in today’s gaming. In theory, it’s the game that brought together aspect of the retro gaming and began filling in the molds of modern gaming that were slowly being set at the time. Notably, the magic weather system unlocked after beating the game which used actual weather data from Yokosuka during 1986.
Let alone, its responsible for making QTE more acceptable in gaming as we’ve seen in titles like Resident Evil 4, Asura’s wrath, and Heavy Rain owe they’re thanks to Shenmue.
Moreover, the game is responsible for making an open world/Sandbox games become the norm when games like GTA 3, Just Cause, and Batman Arkham series feature an open world for the players to explore every crook and cranny. To say nothing about having fully dialogue NPCs would not give Shenmue credit it deserves.
On the other hand, it has additionally earns the honor of making sure developers know what sells and what does not as the game is infamous for being the utmost expensive game of its time utilizing over $47 million budget, which might have put the final nail on Sega’s coffin back in the early 2000s despite it selling 1.2 million copies.
Altogether, Shenmue is an experience that requires several hours of patience. For those willing to stay until the end, their patience rewarded in realizing the effort put by Yu Suzuki and Sega AM2. The game is an absolute masterpiece and a marvel of its time. As a result of the tremendous effort put forth by a multitude of people throughout its development, inspiring a new generation of gamers and developers to follow in Shenmue’s footsteps and do something as ambitious that will pull a player away for a bit to seek a story filled with adventure, emotions, and excitement that several people look for.
Shortly after, Shenmue II released on the Dreamcast in 2001 only in Japan and Europe, which fixes several flaws of this game. The game also uses the player’s save file from Shenmue I that benefits the player throughout the title. Sadly, U.S Shenmue fans there was no US version thanks in part of the unexpected discontinuation of the Dreamcast in 2001. Hence, several people importing copies from Europe. But, not until 2002 when released on the Original Xbox that US Shenmue fans felt a bit rejoiceful.
On another note, after a long delay, on July 2015 Shenmue returns with the third game being developed thanks to the vocal fanbase that kept pushing for the return of Ryo and finish the story.
The game itself is still affordable but in the aftermath of the announcement of Shenmue III, the prices of the first game rose but stabilized after the hype calmed down a bit. Currently, it goes for around 25-40 dollars online as of the time of this review. In essence, it’s worth purchasing if you’re the type of person interest in Kung fu movies, history, retro gaming, and Sega’s attention to ambition. In the end, Shenmue is a game that will leave a lasting impression for those with strong patience. Hypothetically speaking, it’s an inspiration for those willing to go above and beyond the norms and willing to go forth with their dreams.
Sources (Shoutout to the Shenmue Dojo for it’s dedicated contribution to the history of this game being archived online)
Yu Suzuki’s GDC 2014 Postmortem