North American 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 in Japan and 2000 in other territories. It is the first game in the Shenmue series, a "revenge epic in the tradition of Chinese cinema", which Suzuki plans to span at least four games.
Shenmue consists of open-world 3D environments interspersed with brawler battles and quick time events. It features a level of detail considered unprecedented at the time, including a day-and-night system, variable weather effects, non-player characters with daily schedules, and various 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 (1985), Out Run (1986) and Virtua Fighter (1993), Suzuki wanted to create a longer game experience. AM2 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; critics praised its graphics, soundtrack, realism and ambition, but criticized its slow pace and voice acting. Though its unusual focus on mundane details divided players, it attracted a cult following, appearing in several "greatest video games of all time" lists, and it is credited for pioneering and popularizing game technologies including quick time events and open-world environments. Despite sales of 1.2 million, Shenmue did not recoup its development cost and is considered a commercial failure.
After the release of Shenmue II, further games in the series entered development hell. In July 2015, Suzuki and his development company Ys Net began developing Shenmue III for PlayStation 4 and PC after a successful crowdfunding campaign, having licensed the rights from Sega.
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 a mysterious stone artifact known as the dragon mirror. 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 arms.
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 Chinese man named Zhu Yuanda suggesting he seek the aid of Master Chen, who works at Yokosuka Harbor. Through Chen and his son Guizhang, Ryo 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.
Chen reveals that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong. Ryo borrows money to buy a plane ticket from a disreputable travel agency; when he goes to collect the ticket, he is ambushed by Chai, a member of Lan Di's criminal organization, the Chi You Men, who destroys his ticket. Ryo learns that the Chi You Men is connected to the local harbor gang, the Mad Angels, and takes a job at the harbor as a forklift driver to investigate. After he causes trouble, the Mad Angels kidnap his schoolfriend Nozomi. Ryo rescues her and makes a deal with the Mad Angels leader 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 Mad Angels.
Ryo arranges to take a boat to Hong Kong with Guizhang. On the day of departure, they are attacked by Chai. Ryo defeats him, 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, Hong Kong, named Tao Lishao. Ryo boards the boat and leaves for Hong Kong.
The player controls teenage martial arts pupil Ryo Hazuki as he investigates his father's murder: exploring the game's open world, searching for clues, examining objects and talking to non-player characters for information. The game also features a 3D fighting system similar to Sega's Virtua Fighter series; Ryo can fight multiple opponents at once, and practice moves to increase their power. In quick time events, the player must press the right button within a time limit to succeed.
Shenmue features a level of detail considered unprecedented for games at the time. Shops open and close, buses run to timetables, and characters have their own routines, each in accordance with the game's persistent clock. Ryo receives a daily allowance which can be spent on objects including food, raffle tickets, audio cassettes and capsule toys. There are several minigames; in the local arcade, for example, Ryo can throw darts or play complete versions of the Sega arcade 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." In 2015, Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki said he felt the series was popular because "by focusing on nostalgia and the ordinary, Shenmue creates a window into Japanese and Chinese culture ... it shows us cultural differences through the ordinary and familiar."
Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki joined Sega in 1983 and went on to create several successful arcade games including Hang-On (1985), Out Run (1986) and Virtua Fighter (1993). 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, he 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 Saturn 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 multi-part story, which IGN described as a "revenge epic in the tradition of Chinese cinema".
In 1997, development moved to Sega's upcoming console, the Dreamcast. In 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." The same year, to better market the game as a Dreamcast "killer app", the Virtua Fighter connection was dropped and Suzuki announced the working title Project Berkley. By the time of the Dreamcast's release in Japan in November 1998, the game had been titled Shenmue. In the same month, Sega announced that the game was of a new genre it termed "full reactive eyes entertainment" or "FREE".
AM2 focused on developing the game's world, creating a large open environment with minigames and subquests. They worked with interior decorators to design rooms and furniture, and created over 300 characters with their own names, personalities and relationships, some modeled on Sega employees. Motion capture was used to capture the movements of real Budō (Japanese martial arts) experts. Cut scenes were rendered in real time, without the use of FMV. The team added algorithmically-generated weather and day-and-night cycles 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 also caused problems; on one occasion, characters became trapped in the convenience store where they had gone 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, with over 300 staff and no experience of large projects.
Shenmue became the most expensive 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
On November 27, 1998, Sega released the Dreamcast in Japan. The launch game Virtua Fighter 3tb included a preview disc of 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 the Shenmue saga in multiple parts and allowed the public to 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. NHK broadcast a making-of documentary about the game before its release, having spent six months with the development team. Shenmue was released on December 29, 1999 in Japan, November 8, 2000 in North America, and December 1 2000 in Europe.
Shenmue sold 1.2 million copies and became the Dreamcast's fourth-bestselling game. However, its sales did not outweigh its development cost and it is considered a commercial failure. 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 received mostly positive reviews, with an average aggregate score of 89.34% on GameRankings. 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 Shenmue is "involving, and ultimately rewarding, but only represents a step towards what may be possible in the future, rather than the milestone Edge hoped for." It received the Excellence Prize for Interactive Art at the 2000 Japan Media Arts Festival.
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 is credited for pioneering several game technologies. In its list of "Top 5 Underappreciated Innovators", 1UP credited it as the original "open-world city game" before the idea was popularized by games like Grand Theft Auto III (2001). 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 have been compared to later sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels, Sega's Yakuza series, Fallout 3 (2008), and Deadly Premonition (2010). Shenmue is also 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.
The game's emphasis on mundane details divided players. In a 2014 retrospective article, Edge wrote that "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." The Guardian wrote that the game "seemed to provide an accurate snapshot of Japan in the late 1980s with all the mundane rhythms of everyday life baked into a gripping narrative." IGN UK's Martin Robinson described Shenmue as "a deeply personal game" that "opened my eyes to a whole new world for video games, 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."
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 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." In his 2010 book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, David McCarthy wrote of Shenmue's "paradigmatic impact on the entire video game 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."
Shenmue attracted a cult following, and has been included in several "greatest games of all time" lists. In 2008, it was voted #25 on GAME's "Greatest Games of All Time" user poll of over 100,000 votes. In 2006 and 2008, IGN readers voted Shenmue and Shenmue II #81 and #63 respectively in IGN's "Readers' Choice Top 100 Games Ever" list. In April 2011, Empire ranked Shenmue the 42nd best video game of all time. In April 2013, Den of Geek ranked Shenmue and Shenmue II the joint-best Dreamcast games. In September 2013, readers of the German games magazine M! Games voted Shenmue the best game of all time. In October 2013, MSN UK named it one of the 20 best games of all time. In June 2014, Shenmue was ranked #71 in Slant Magazine's list of 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time. In August 2014, Empire ranked Shenmue the seventh best game of all time.
Suzuki plans the Shenmue story to cover at least four games. Shenmue II was released in 2001 in Japan and Europe and 2002 in North America, but was also a commercial failure and Shenmue III entered a period of development hell lasting over a decade. On June 15, 2015, Suzuki announced a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for Shenmue III during Sony's E3 conference, having licensed the rights from Sega. In just over nine hours, the campaign reached its initial $2 million goal. On July 17, 2015, Shenmue III became the fastest-funded and the highest-funded video game project in Kickstarter history, earning 6.3 million USD.
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. A compilation film of Shenmue's cut scenes, Shenmue: The Movie, was released as a feature film in Japan in 2001 and packaged with the Xbox version of Shenmue II.
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