No trip down memory lane for the Dreamcast could go without mentioning the martial arts elephant in the room — Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue.
If you think the hype around Destiny was immense, Shenmue shared a bit of the same craziness. Bernie Stolar, President and CEO of Sega of America at the time, was quoted as saying “Shenmue will be a real-life experience that will rival a Hollywood movie in its visual quality, dynamic storyline and ability to evolve true emotion in the player.”
In the context of the features that the game would boast, it’s easy to see why he’d say something like that. Shenmue aimed at being an open-world game with a day-night cycle (which the official site put under “Time Control”), weather effects (or “Magic Weather”), and roughly two-hundred scheduled NPCs who had their own “lives” to follow. It’d even have a martial arts fighting system with special moves. While it all sounds great, part of that excitement was also because of the man behind the game, Yu Suzuki.
Yu Suzuki got his start at Sega Enterprises in 1983 as a programmer with his first game being Champion Boxing which also ended up on the SG-1000, Sega’s first console. But he would shake the world in the arcade with amazing games such as Hang-On with its innovative controls and graphics in 1985, Space Harrier with its 3D like third-person action (also in 1985), and the incredibly popular Out Run in 1986. More hits would follow later such as After Burner in 1987 and breaking the 2D barrier in fighting games with 3D polygons in Virtua Fighter released in 1993 stunning audiences and invoking another “me-too” revolution as others followed in its footsteps.
The developer and his team, AM2, would later embark on Shenmue — a project that would span five years in the making — first as an RPG project based on Virtua Fighter. The Saturn was initially targeted and Shenmue was expected to be the “killer app” that would thunder its name across retail channels everywhere, but Yu Suzuki and his team were also beset by the machine’s notoriously difficult-to-program architecture. After two years of work, the project was frozen when the Saturn bombed, but the Dreamcast would revive its fortunes and Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Fighter RPG fell back into production.
Though it started out with Virtua Fighter roots, AM2 eventually diverged their project from the fighter creating its own identity borrowing elements (such as the fighting system) while re-inventing everything else. It was hugely ambitious for a console game of its scale — a third-person sandbox (which Yu Suzuki coined “FREE” as in Full reactive Eyes Entertainment to describe its openness) with a living, breathing piece of 1980’s Yokosuka in Japan that players could freely explore outside of the main story. It wasn’t the first to try a few of these ideas — CRPGs like Origin’s Ultima V in 1988 had a day-night cycle system along with scheduled NPCs — but one could consider it a massive leap over what was nominally available on consoles at the time. Production-wise, it was also considered the most expensive game made at the time to the tune of $47 million USD.
As magazines and Sega hyped how revolutionary Shenmue would be for the console space, a lot of that spilled over to gamers, too. I was excited to see just what Shenmue was all about, especially since I wanted a new game for my Dreamcast. So when it finally arrived in 2000 for the US, (it landed in Japan first on December 29th, 1999), I snatched it up, ran home, and popped it into my waiting Dreamcast.
The game kicks off with what looks like an in-game cutscene at the beginning as a mysterious girl standing atop a cliff recites a prophecy of a saga and the destiny of the person to follow.
Right after that, the games takes us to 1986 in Yokosuka, Japan, as Ryo Hazuki comes home to find mysterious strangers led by a man dressed in a Chinese robe named Lan Di accosting his father for a mysterious mirror. When he threatens to kill Ryo, his father relents and reveals where the mirror is hidden and when it’s recovered, it appears to be a mysterious jade disk with a dragon carved on it with a gem in its center. But by then, Lan Di had already given Ryo’s father a “warrior’s death”, leaving with the mirror and Ryo to grieve.
Swearing revenge, Ryo’s quest starts shortly afterwards as he explores Yokosuka in search for clues while helping around with a number of side quests. His father’s dojo is the base where he can return home at any time and where he also gets a daily ¥500 allowance. Most of the game is spent exploring, like in a typical adventure, walking up to NPCs (all of whom are voiced) and generally trying to discover as much as he can to move the story along.
Shenmue’s world boasted an incredible amount of detail for a game at the time. Yokusuka and its different areas are filled with storefronts, houses, streets with roaming NPCs along with a few just going about their usual business whether it was parking a bike or moving to the beat of music that only they could hear. The interiors are also filled with plenty of atmospheric touches creating an effective illusion that nothing was copy-pasted — this was a world that felt custom crafted from brick to brick by AM2’s artists. I’d roam around just to see who I could talk to and what I could do. Ryo could even take on a job driving a fork lift later in the game to earn some extra cash to buy food and other knick knacks that can help out on his journey.
Now, even though it was a sandbox, it wasn’t a “you can do everything” kind of sandbox — Ryo Hazuki, young, upright man that he is, can’t use his martial arts skills to beat up everyone in front of him just for the hell of it. The conversations were also pretty one-sided. There was no list of questions to scroll through, just a prompt for Ryo to start talking and the game took over from there. But it also came with an in-game journal that kept track of all of the leads that the player picked up.
Even though there was a lot of voice acting to build up this beautiful world and its characters, some of the conversations could come across as a little…stilted? Ryo’s questions, in particular, can come across as being particularly blunt resulting in a bit of unintended humor.
The game also put the player on the clock. A watch kept track of time in the lower right of the screen but the game didn’t force the player to follow a schedule. It even had something called “Passport” which came on a separate disk (the game came on 3 GD-ROMs) allowing players to re-watch cut scenes, listen to music, or learn more about the game and its world. It even had an online option allowing players to share scores (working arcade games like Space Harrier were in Shenmue) or even trade items like capsule collectables found in the game which was relatively unheard of in a console title.
Shenmue also used QTE (quick time event) sequences though they weren’t called that back in the day. These were interactive moments in the game where a series of actions played out and prompted the player to hit buttons at the right times, kind of like the old laserdisc arcade games such as Dragon’s Lair. For example, Ryo might be walking down a street and a cutscene starts with him bumping into a guy. After a few words, the two get into it but instead of fighting it out like in Virtua Fighter, the player is prompted for a series of button presses that make Ryo look like a total hardcase. There’s quite a few of these in Shenmue and some have even gone so far as citing the game for being the godfather of QTEs which was probably helped by its high profile.
Yet the Virtua Fighter influence was still present. Later in the game, certain fights will require the player to help Ryo find the techniques and fighting skills needed to give him a chance at winning. These are free-form moments — no QTEs here, just the player’s skill. Fortunately, there’s a way to practice Ryo’s moves, but they can still be somewhat tough on players that aren’t very good at fighter games. I wasn’t at the time — still aren’t, really — so these were challenging moments in the game for me.
Shenmue ended on a cliffhanger as Ryo finally gets a lead that will take him to Hong Kong where the story continues in Shenmue II. Unfortunately, the game also had its flaws not the least of which were reportedly disappointing sales in comparison to its extremely high budget. Though it was a top selling game during the holiday season for the Dreamcast, that was little solace considering that Sega would announce the next year in 2001 that production would end for the console.
There were also problems with the pacing that a number of critics pointed out and which I can also understand from where they were coming from. Shenmue is a slow boil of a game.
Most of the first few hours feel more like a traditional point-n-click adventure title which not a lot of players may be expecting on a console. The “actiony” pieces of the game, outside of QTEs, don’t come until a few hours later when Ryo picks up a job and starts doing something other than walking around talking to strangers. Just as some players complain about “too much reading” in CRPGs, some didn’t appreciate Shenmue’s heavy weight of adventure elements in the first part of the game. I didn’t mind that too much, though at times, I found myself wishing that there was more to do.
Despite having a sequel released in Japan and Europe (and eventually North America courtesy of the Xbox), Shenmue’s expected saga didn’t quite get a definitive ending leaving fans like myself wondering when Ryo will actually solve the mysteries behind his father’s death finally confront Lan Di. In the years since, fans (like me) have fervently held out hope that a new Shenmue might yet emerge from the shadows with Yu Suzuki back at the helm. He had even hinted at the possibility of looking into Kickstarter to fund it, though the actual mileage on that rumor may vary considering how terse his response was (“I am researching it.“).
Despite Shenmue’s fate, the legacy it left behind has endured. Sega’s Yakuza series can be looked at as the spiritual successor to what Yu Suzuki and his team at AM2 had managed to do years earlier, at least as far as the design elements go. Yakuza’s open world (modeled after a real-life part of Tokyo called Kabukicho), fighting system, adventure questing for clues, cast of characters, and online pieces like a leaderboard for activities, can all point back to Shenmue’s own efforts while padding in a lot of new ideas in becoming its own series.
Shenmue was a fun and incredibly ambitious game. It might not have been perfect, but the potential that it brought to the console space was huge — it really broke a lot of ground on what was possible on the Dreamcast and demonstrated how big of a vision Yu Suzuki had for the game that he’s probably best known for today. It blended a number of genres together in a melting pot of light romance, mystery, adventure, and knuckle dusting kicking off not only a quest in search of vengeance, but also create a legacy that its fans and a generation of developers continue to keep alive.