North American Dreamcast cover art
|Mode(s)||Single-player with online features|
Shenmue (シェンムー 一章 横須賀 Shenmū Isshō: Yokosuka?, lit. "Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka") is an open world action-adventure video game developed by Sega AM2, produced and directed by Yu Suzuki and published by Sega for the Dreamcast in 1999. It is the first game in the Shenmue series, which Suzuki plans to cover at least four games.
Shenmue consists of open-world 3D environments interspersed with brawler battles and quick time events. It includes elements of role-playing and life simulation games, such as a day-and-night system, variable weather effects, non-player characters with their own daily schedules, and interactive elements such as vending machines, arcades, and minigames. The story follows the teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki as he sets out in revenge for the murder of his father in 1980s Yokosuka, Japan.
After developing several successful Sega arcade games, including Hang-On, Out Run and Virtua Fighter, Suzuki wanted to create a longer game experience. His team began work on an RPG for the Sega Saturn set in the Virtua Fighter world. In 1997, development moved to the Dreamcast, the game was named Shenmue and the Virtua Fighter connection was dropped. It became the most expensive video game ever developed at the time, with an estimated production and marketing cost of $47 to $70 million USD, though some of the development also covered Shenmue II (2001).
Shenmue received mostly positive reviews and attracted a cult following, appearing in several "greatest video games of all time" lists. Despite sales of 1.2 million copies, it did not recoup its development cost and is considered a commercial failure. After the release of Shenmue II, Sega cancelled development of further games in the series. In June 2015, Suzuki announced a crowdfunding campaign to develop Shenmue III for PlayStation 4 and PC.
In 1986 Yokosuka, Japan, teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki returns to his family dojo to witness a confrontation between his father Iwao and a Chinese man, Lan Di. Ryo intervenes, but is easily incapacitated. Lan Di demands Iwao give him the dragon mirror, a mysterious stone artifact. When he threatens to kill Ryo, Iwao tells him the mirror is buried under the cherry blossom tree outside. As Lan Di's men dig up the mirror, Lan Di mentions Zhao Sunming, whom Iwao allegedly killed in Mengcun, China. Lan Di delivers a finishing blow and Iwao dies in Ryo's embrace.
Ryo swears revenge on Lan Di. He begins his investigation by interviewing people about what they witnessed. Just as he is about to run out of leads, a letter addressed to Ryo's father arrives from a man named Zhu Yuanda suggesting he seek the aid of a Master Chen, who works at Yokosuka harbor. Through Chen and his son Chen Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local harbor gang, the Mad Angels, is connected to Lan Di's criminal organization, the Chi You Men. He also learns that the dragon mirror taken by Lan Di is one of two mirrors. He locates the second, the phoenix mirror, in a basement hidden beneath his father's dojo.
To investigate the Mad Angels, Ryo takes a job at the harbor as a forklift driver. After he causes trouble, the Mad Angels kidnap his schoolfriend Nozomi. Ryo rescues her, but makes a deal with the Mad Angel leader, Terry Ryan, to beat up Guizhang in exchange for a meeting with Lan Di. Ryo realizes the deal is a trap and teams up with Guizhang to defeat the gang. Terry reveals that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong.
With the aid of the Chen family, Ryo arranges to take a boat to Hong Kong with Guizhang. On the day of departure, Ryo is attacked by Chai, a low-ranking Chi You Men member who plots to steal the phoenix mirror to gain favor with Lan Di. Ryo defeats Chai, but Guizhang is injured in the fight and urges Ryo to go without him, saying he will meet him in China later. Master Chen advises Ryo to seek the help of a martial artist in Wan Chai named Tao Lishao. Ryo boards the boat and sets off to Hong Kong.
The player controls teenage martial arts pupil Ryo Hazuki as he investigates his father's murder. Most of Shenmue is spent exploring the game's open world, searching for clues, examining objects and talking to non-player characters for information. The game features a 3D fighting system similar to Sega's Virtua Fighter series; Ryo can fight multiple opponents at once, and can practice moves to increase their power. In quick time events, the player must press the right combination of buttons at the right moment to succeed.
Shenmue features a persistent clock: shops open and close, buses run to timetables, and the game's characters have their own routines. Ryo receives a daily allowance which can be spent on objects including food, raffle tickets, audio cassettes and capsule toys. The game features several minigames; in the local arcade, Ryo can throw darts or play complete versions of Sega games Hang-On and Space Harrier. Later in the game, Ryo gets a part-time job at the docks and must ferry crates between warehouses and compete in races using a forklift truck.
Edge described Shenmue as "a game of middle management, often composed of the unglamorous daily grinds – being home for bedtime, wisely spending money earned from a day job, or training combat moves through lonely practice – that other games bypass." According to GamesRadar, Shenmue's appeal lies in "soaking up all this detail and really feeling like you're in this world ... walking leisurely back to your home as the night draws in, watching the shadows move under Ryo's feet."
Shenmue director Yu Suzuki joined Sega in 1983 and went on to create several successful arcade games including Hang-On, Out Run and Virtua Fighter. In comparison to arcade games, where the ideal experience was only a few minutes long, Suzuki wanted to make a longer experience, and researched role-playing games. To test camera, combat and conversation systems, Suzuki and Sega AM2 built a prototype Sega Saturn game called The Old Man and the Peach Tree about a young man, Taro, seeking a martial arts grandmaster in 1950s Luoyang, China. Taro brings an old man a peach in exchange for information about the grandmaster's location; at the end of the game, the old man skilfully skips stones across water to hunt fish, suggesting that he is the grandmaster.
In 1996, AM2 began developing a 3D RPG with the working title Guppy. This became an RPG based on the Virtua Fighter series, titled Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira's Story, with the Virtua Fighter character Akira as the hero. AM2 planned to take a cinematic approach, including voice acting and elaborate combat sequences. After traveling to China to research locations, Suzuki constructed four acts with the themes "sadness", "fight", [sic] "departure" and "starting afresh". In this version of the story, Akira would overcome his grief following his father's death, travel to China, defeat an antagonist, and begin a journey with a new friend. Suzuki brought in a screenwriter, a playwright, and film directors to write the story's eleven chapters.
In 1997, development moved to Sega's upcoming console, the Dreamcast. In 1998, to better market the game as a Dreamcast "killer app", the Virtua Fighter connection was dropped and the game took the working title Project Berkley. By the time of the Dreamcast's release in Japan in November 1998, the game had been named Shenmue.
AM2 focused on developing the game's world, creating a large open environment with mini-games and subquests. They worked with interior decorators to design rooms and furniture. Algorithmically-generated weather and day-and-night cycles were implemented using real meteorological records of 1986 Yokosuka. The use of the Coca-Cola and Timex brands created complexity as the team had to modify their use according to the companies' requests. The behavior of the game's many non-player characters caused problems; on one occasion, they became trapped in the convenience store where they had gone to buy breakfast as part of their scripted routines. Suzuki's solution was to make the store's door wider. To fit the large number of materials onto a manageable number of discs, AM2 developed a new type of data compression. In 1999, the team focused on fixing bugs, finding hundreds each day. At the time, there were no bug tracking systems, so the team tracked bugs with Excel spreadsheets; at one point, they had tracked over 10,000 unresolved bugs.
Suzuki said the project's biggest challenge was management: "By the end, we had 300 people [working] and no experience on such a large project." The game became the most expensive video game ever developed at the time, reported to have cost Sega $70 million. In 2011, Suzuki said the figure was closer to $47 million including marketing. Development also covered some of Shenmue II (2001) and possibly groundwork for future Shenmue games.
Promotion and release
Rumors of a Virtua Fighter RPG began in late 1996. In mid-1998, Sega of America vice president Bernie Stolar told Next Generation: "I can't tell you what Suzuki-san is working on. Let's just say that I've seen the project and it's going to rock the gaming world." In October 1998, at the New Challenge Conference in Japan, Suzuki announced that AM2 was developing a game with the working title Project Berkley. In November 1998, Sega announced that the game was of a new genre it termed "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment" or "FREE".
On November 27, 1998, Sega released the Dreamcast in Japan. One of its launch games, Virtua Fighter 3tb, included a preview disc Shenmue featuring FMV scenes and an interview with Suzuki. The disc contained no game footage. On December 20, 1998, Sega unveiled Shenmue at a conference at the Yokohama International Assembly Hall and demonstrated the game's clock, weather and quick time event systems; fans could watch the conference online.
At the Tokyo Game Show in March 1999, Sega announced that it would release Shenmue in multiple parts and allowed the public to play play the game for the first time. At a Japanese consumer show on May 3, 1999, Sega demonstrated Shenmue's facial animation and announced that non-player characters would have their own daily routines. Later that month, Sega showed Shenmue in America for the first time at the 1999 Game Developer's Conference. It was playable the following week at the E3 trade fair in Los Angeles.
At a Japanese consumer conference on June 1, 1999, Sega announced a promotional campaign for Shenmue to coincide with a Dreamcast price drop. A limited-edition video, What's Shenmue, was distributed with Dreamcast consoles and games, and a playable demo from August 1. On June 22, 1999, Sega announced a "Shenmue Subway Tour", showing playable demos at Japanese train stations that August.
Many reviews praised the game's graphics, realism, soundtrack and ambition. IGN called Shenmue "a gaming experience that no one, casual to hardcore gamer, can miss". Eurogamer called it "one of the most compelling and unusual gaming experiences ever created." GameSpot wrote that though Shenmue is "far from perfect" it is "revolutionary" and "worth experiencing - provided you have the time to invest." Edge wrote that the game's clock was the most innovative feature and "where Shenmue both excels and grates", and concluded: "Shenmue is much more than an interactive movie, but certainly does not deliver the freedom expected. It’s involving, and ultimately rewarding, but only represents a step towards what may be possible in the future, rather than the milestone Edge hoped for."
Several reviews criticized the game's "invisible walls", which limited the player's freedom, the inability to progress without waiting for events scheduled to occur at specific times, excess cutscenes and lack of challenge. GameSpot wrote that by "the time you're driving forklifts and participating in the game's QTE-filled conclusion, hours upon hours of boredom will have taken their toll." Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote that the story "lags" on the third disc. Game Informer criticized the game's lack of action, writing: "Determining your character's next move requires little more than talking to someone, who will then tell you who to see or where to go ... all that's left is a guy walking around an amazingly detailed environment. If I wanted to experience that, I could see it in another game with proven endless entertainment value. It's called life."
Shenmue received the Excellence Prize for Interactive Art at the 2000 Japan Media Arts Festival. It was the runner-up in the Interactive Art division, behind the Grand Prize winner Dragon Quest VII.
According to Peter Moore, then-president of Sega of America, Shenmue sold "extremely well" but could not make a profit due to the Dreamcast's limited installed base. According to GamesRadar, "Shenmue’s ambition totally outshone its host platform's ability to support it. Put simply, the Dreamcast didn’t sell ... every DC owner would have had to have bought [Shenmue] twice in order for Sega to turn a profit. So ironically it probably did as much to kill the Dreamcast as it did to cement its reputation." Dreamcast engineer Hideki Sato defended Shenmue as an "investment [which] will someday be recouped" because "the development advances we learned ... can be applied to other games".
Shenmue attracted a cult following in the years following its release, and is credited for pioneering several game technologies. In its list of "Top 5 Underappreciated Innovators", 1UP credited Shenmue as the original "open-world city game" before the idea was popularized by games like Grand Theft Auto III. In 2009, IGN named Shenmue the "Most Memorable Graphical Jump" of its generation in their list of the "Greatest Graphics of All Time". In 2010, 1UP.com ranked Shenmue #2 in its list of "15 Games Ahead of Their Time", citing its "ambition and scope" and "forward-thinking" elements such as weather effects, day-and-night-cycles and large environments.
The game's large interactive environments, wealth of options, level of detail and the scope of its urban sandbox exploration has been compared to later sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto III and sequels, Sega's Yakuza series, Fallout 3, and Deadly Premonition. Shenmue is credited for popularizing and naming the quick time event in modern games, which has since appeared in games including Resident Evil 4, God of War, Tomb Raider: Legend and Heavenly Sword. In 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, David McCarthy wrote of Shenmue's "paradigmatic impact on the entire videogame industry"; according to McCarthy, while Shenmue appears "crude and blocky" compared to modern games, it "recreated the real world with ... attention to detail that has never been rivaled."
In 2011, Empire wrote that "the digital environment created by Shenmue was revolutionary at the time ... Even by today's standards, its rich and affectionate vision of urban Japan is inspiring." In March 2014, Edge wrote that the game had divided players: "Some were entranced by the game’s abounding atmosphere and visual detail. Others left frozen by clumpy interaction with an unthreatening, almost rustic world ... where they’d wander the districts of Yokosuka while asking unusual questions to pensioners and hairdressers." In 2014, the Guardian wrote: "[Shenmue's] pacing might be glacial compared to the rollercoaster tempo of Uncharted, but slowing things down allows for a greater appreciation of everything that Suzuki and Sega’s AM2 department achieved here ... how everything is held together remains quite exquisite, under the closest scrutiny, even by 2014 standards."
Shenmue has been included in several "greatest games of all time" lists. In 2008, Shenmue was voted #25 on GAME's "Greatest Games of All Time" list based on a user poll with over 100,000 votes. In 2006 and 2008, IGN readers voted Shenmue and Shenmue II at #81 and #63 respectively in IGN's "Readers' Choice Top 100 Games Ever" list. In April 2011, Empire ranked Shenmue as the 42nd best video game of all time; In August 2014, Empire ranked Shenmue as the 7th best video game of all time. In April 2013, Den of Geek ranked Shenmue and Shenmue II the best Dreamcast games. In October 2013, MSN UK named Shenmue one of the 20 best video games of all time. In September 2013, readers of the German games magazine M! Games voted Shenmue the best video game of all time.
IGN did not include Shenmue in its 2009 list of the greatest Dreamcast games, a decision so controversial IGN produced a separate article explaining why. IGN Xbox editor Hilary Goldstein praised Shenmue for its "great ideas" and for influencing the development of future open world games, but said it was "ultimately uninteresting". IGN Nintendo's Matt Casamassina felt the game was "more of a technical demo than a coherent game". However, IGN UK's Martin Robinson defended Shenmue as "a deeply personal game" that "opened my eyes to a whole new world for videogames, suggesting that they didn't have to be about shooting aliens in the face, rescuing the princess or slaying orcs for hours on end – they could be about real people in a real place... it's the mundane moments that gave Shenmue its poetry."
Suzuki plans the Shenmue story to cover at least four games. Shenmue II was released in 2002. Sega cancelled Shenmue III after the first two games failed to recoup their development cost. In 2012, Sega told Eurogamer that Shenmue was "among its most requested rereleases." In 2013, Complex.com ranked Shenmue #1 on their list of "10 Sega Games Desperate for a Modern Reboot". On June 15, 2015, Suzuki announced a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for Shenmue III during Sony's E3 conference. In just over nine hours, the campaign reached its initial $2 million goal.
Sega released a soundtrack album, Shenmue Orchestra Version, on April 1, 1999, before the game's release. A two-disc soundtrack album, Shenmue OST ~Chapter 1: Yokosuka~ was released on March 23, 2000.
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