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What's the Story With Shenmue?

by Todd Ciolek,
Do you know any places where sailors like to hang out? Do you know where there's a pay phone around here? Do you remember that day when snow turned to rain? Did you happen to see a black car that day? It wasn't the kind of car usually seen around here. Do you know anyone who can speak the language of Chinese?

These are but a few of the important questions that Shenmue—or rather, protagonist Ryo Hazuki asks as he wanders his hometown, searching for clues about the gangsters who killed his father. In the process, Shenmue becomes a recklessly ambitious game, building an intricately realistic world that players can explore, right down to the vending machines. And Shenmue did it all twenty years ago. It seems unfair that the games are now most remembered for Ryo stiffly asking townspeople about travel agencies and men in black suits.

[Not the best-selling game of 2000, but probably the most often mispronounced one.]

Shenmue itself invites bigger questions. Where exactly is it going after three massive games? Did it really put Sega out of the game console business? Why does it have a fanbase devoted enough to revive it with a $6 million Kickstarter? Aren't the games really just about frittering away an afternoon? And why is Shenmue getting an anime adaptation now, of all times?

Sega wasn't having the best decade by 1996. Their Saturn console, while a success in Japan, was stumbling internationally and being rapidly eclipsed by Sony's PlayStation in the world of fancy new 3D games. Yet Sega had done well in arcades, and much of that was due to a producer named Yū Suzuki. Sega's biggest arcade hits of the 1980s, from OutRun to After Burner to Space Harrier, all came about thanks to Suzuki. His homerun streak had continued into the 1990s with Dayton USA, Virtua Cop, and Virtua Fighter, the last of which proved a runaway success in Japan (though less so in North America and Europe). And as Sega's home console fortunes staggered, the company looked to Suzuki.

[Yū Suzuki also was in changed of Psy-Phi, a neat-looking arcade fighter that got canceled. Boo.]

Yet Suzuki was getting tired of arcade games. Inspired by a trip to China, he began work on a traditional Sega Saturn RPG called The Old Man and the Peach Tree. Suzuki's arcade successes loomed too large to ignore, however, and the game gradually turned into a Virtua Fighter spin-off starring series protagonist Akira. The tides turned once again, and the project became an original game called Shenmue. Instead of a traditional dungeons-and-battles RPG, it aimed to build a sprawling 3D world for players to explore as they guided a young man named Ryo in his quest to track down his father's killer.

[If you want to know why this is impressive for its day, go look at footage of Dr. Hauzer for the 3DO .]

Shenmue started off as a Sega Saturn title. While the system was often chided as weak in 3D processing, this never seemed to bother Sega's internal teams. Indeed, given the hardware it's using, footage of the Saturn version of Shenmue is remarkable in its elaborate environments and character expressions.

Sega had another system called the Dreamcast on the horizon, however, and it proved a better home for Shenmue. When the Dreamcast hit Japan in late 1998, anyone who picked up Virtua Fighter 3TB found a nice bonus—a Shenmue preview called Project Berkley. In the footage, Suzuki described the game's approach as FREE: Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. In practice, FREE proposed a rare degree of freedom: a game that let players move around the fully realized town of Yokosuka circa 1986. Protagonist Ryo could talk to dozens of characters, pick fights with street punks, raise a kitten, play arcade games, peruse vending machines, cluelessly placate a girl with a massive crush on him, and do just about anything a teenager in 1986 could do in a small Japanese town. Much of these options are commonplace in today's open-world games, but in the late 1990s it was madly ambitious—and expensive.

[Does anyone really LIKE to do that?]

The game industry had emulated movies many times before, whether it was the full-motion video games of the Sega CD or the lavish cutscenes of Final Fantasy VII. Sega gave Suzuki unprecedented scope with his new project, banking on his skill with arcade games. Such carte blanche Is common among studios and film directors; John Boorman used the success of Deliverance to greenlight the bizarre, underrated fantasy Zardoz, while Andrew Stanton parlayed his accomplishments with Pixar films into a massive John Carter of Mars movie.

But never before had a game company bet so heavily on one creator's vision. Years later, localizer Jeremy Blaustein compared Shenmue to another notorious tale of Hollywood excess: Michael Cimino, fresh from scoring Oscars with The Deer Hunter, ran up such a huge bill with his indulgent western Heaven's Gate that it bankrupted the entire United Artists studio.

Shenmue's budget remains in debate: some sources placed it at $70 million, while Suzuki himself estimated it closer to $47 million. In either case, it was the most expensive video game of its day, eclipsing Final Fantasy VII's already staggering $45 million price tag. In some respects, the cost was inevitable when making a fully-realized 3D world, but spending ran reckless in other departments.

[Boy, I hope you weren't expecting a quick answer, Nozomi.]

As Blaustein recalls, Suzuki made extravagant choices even in localizing the game. Common practice was to record English dialogue in America with experienced voice actors, but Suzuki required the game's English version to be recorded in Japan—and for Ryo, his demi-girlfriend Nozomi, and other lead characters to be voiced by actors who partly resembled them. Forced to cast hundreds of roles with a limited pool of English-speaking actors in Japan, Blaustein had to fly voice talent from the U.S. to Japan for the recording sessions, and even then the actors had to make do with an already-translated script that left no time for rewrites.

Shenmue was bound for financial failure even before its release. The Dreamcast had more traction than the Saturn, but it still wasn't as big as the PlayStation. In a 2015 retrospective, Games Radar estimated that Shenmue would've been a success only if each and every Dreamcast owner had bought the game twice at full price.

When Dreamcast owners picked up their copies of Shenmue in late 2000, though, they weren't thinking of how much money the game might lose. They were eager to see just how well the game delivered on its bold promise of an interactive world beyond anything previously seen in video games.

[Yes, I'll avenge your death...right after I get the high score on Space Harrier.]

And Shenmue delivered. The game opens with a familiar trope: young Ryo Hazuki sees his father murdered by a man named Lan Di (who resembles Virtua Fighter's Lau just a little), apparently due to old grudges and a strange mirror hidden on the Hazuki estate. Ryo sets out for revenge, combing his home city of Yokosuka for clues. He'll talk to his neighbors, battle street gangs, and have visions of a strange girl named Shenhua before he finally sets off for Hong Kong.

Shenmue doesn't tell any radically new story, but this was hardly the point. Ryo's journey is filled with diversions. The game world progresses in real time, and in between asking townspeople about mysterious men and Chinese history, Ryo had more distractions than any video-game hero before him. An arcade offered many of Suzuki's past hits. A stray kitten needed to be adopted. Vending machines dispensed soft drinks, snacks and collectible Sega figures.

Many RPGs had offered detailed worlds to explore, but no game had pulled it off with Shenmue's 3D looks—or its mixture of the cinematic and the mundane. Ryo wandered among residents with their own daily activities, voices, and changes in dialogue. His search for his father's killer extends all over town like some Family Circus scribble, leading him to shoot pool against sailors, manipulate gang rivalries, and drive a forklift quite a lot.

[Never mind Nozomi. How could he leave his KITTEN behind?]

And that drew in players. Shenmue's storyline may have been generic, but Shenmue wasn't just a storyline. It was a world, one where players could ignore the allegedly pressing tale of revenge in favor of feeding cats and playing Hang-On.

Martial arts figure prominently into Shenmue's backstory, and so Ryo spends a good chunk of his time brawling and learning new moves. Yet the game introduced a simpler approach to other actions: the Quick Time Event. When Ryo countered a punch, dodged a soccer ball, or went through some other mundane challenge, players had a brief window to press a button that appeared on screen. It was a seemingly simple idea: a more forgiving version of the cues in laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair and Time Gal, but it would prove to be one of Shenmue's most enduring innovations.

Even Shenmue's troubled localization may have helped it. Video game fans often cherish goofy dialogue more than competent prose, and Shenmue launched into memorable, unnatural tones every time Ryo asked a passerby where sailors hung out. There was something endearing in the awkward sentences recited by random people, or in Ryo's habit of announcing “I'll play one game” or “I think I'll buy another” to no one in particular when he patronized arcades or gashapon machines.

[Nah, I'll just save up for a Nintend—uh, I mean a Sega Mark III. Yeah.]

Shenmue earned decent reviews, but praise wasn't uniform. The game's slow pace was evidence of its lofty ambitions: Suzuki planned Shenmue for eleven chapters, and this was merely the first. At the game's end, after three discs of questions and combat and roundabout conversations, Ryo had just left his hometown. Even Shenhua, who appears on the game's cover, showed up only in Ryo's dreams for the entirety of Shenmue.

There was also the matter of Shenmue's bill. With the game never recouping its budget, Sega found itself millions in the hole. Some cited Shenmue as a prime factor in Sega exiting the console market as the Dreamcast capitulated prematurely. However, while it didn't help, Sega's lengthy string of financial errors and misguided hardware upgrades make it impossible to blame Shenmue alone.

Moreover, Sega had already pumped so much into Shenmue, and a sequel was underway. Shenmue's enormous budget helped finance its second chapter, which found Ryo in Hong Kong when it arrived on the Dreamcast in 2001. Shenmue II continued Ryo's journey of mystic entanglements, martial arts, and countless side quests. It upped the stakes a little as well: Ryo befriends street punks and bikers, comes close to catching Lan Di, and finally meets Shenhua. It would have to wait a little while to reach North America, though; Sega had all but abandoned the Dreamcast by the time Shenmue II came along, and the game saw release only in Japan and Europe, the latter version getting English subtitles instead of a full dub.

[Shenmue II: The Epic Conclu...hahaha just kidding.]

It wasn't until 2003 that Microsoft re-issued Shenmue II on the Xbox, complete with English voices, enhanced graphics, a DVD movie that covered the first game's story, and a North American release. Its sales would've been a modest success for other games, but against Shenmue's budget, the game still couldn't turn enough profit. And so Sega put the series on hold, leaving Ryo newly arrived in the Chinese province of Gulin at the game's end.

As Shenmue took a break, the game industry moved on, frequently following Shenmue's path. Grand Theft Auto III brought its carjacking and violence into a fully 3D world of side attractions and player freedom. Action games like Resident Evil 4 integrated Quick Time Events. And Sega stared up Shenmue's most obvious descendant with the Yakuza series.

In many respects, Yakuza presented a sharper take on Shenmue. Instead of a protracted tale of boilerplate revenge, each Yakuza tells a self-contained crime saga centered on gold-hearted gangster Kazuma Kiryu. His days are filled with side attractions from arcades to batting cages to hostess clubs, and it's all quicker in pace and more immediate in rewards than Shenmue was.

Yet even as the Yakuza series grew and filled Shenmue's shoes, fans weren't about to abandon Ryo's unfinished quest. After investing untold hours guiding him through cities and working part-time jobs, Shenmue's fanbase wanted to see the story to its end. It was the biggest cliffhanger in the game industry, and that was hard to resist.

Another thing aided Shenmue's legacy: the Dreamcast itself. As Sega's final system, the Dreamcast earned a dedicated cult-following that praised the console's library and bemoaned its premature demise. Shenmue had been the most prominent part of that library, and as the Dreamcast gained a posthumous reputation as a neglected gem, so did Shenmue.

It also helped that Shenmue's fanbase had over a decade to simmer. The rise of Kickstarter gave developers the chance to go directly to the fans for money, and in 2015 Yū Suzuki and his company Ys Net announced a funding campaign for Shenmue III.

[That poor kitten is still wondering where its owner went, I bet.]

If anyone doubted Shenmue's enduring popularity, the Kickstarter proved it by soaring past $6 million—the highest sum raised by any video-game project on the service. Other companies, including Sega's erstwhile rival Sony, also funded the game, and after several years of development, Shenmue III carried on the story. Sega even brought newcomers up to speed with remastered versions of the first two games.

The game industry of 2019 might have been radically different from the one that birthed Shenmue, but Suzuki and his team didn't let it bother them. Shenmue III picks up precisely where the second chapter let off, with Ryo and Shenhua exploring Gulin's criminal underbelly and figuring out exactly why Lan Di wanted that mirror in the first place. Ryo confronts his father's killer and uncovers his backstory, but the overarching story remains far from resolved.

[At last you'll pay for...wait, why was I looking for you again? Something about forklifts?]

A more pragmatic developer might have rushed a finale, but Shenmue III stuck to Suzuki's vision for the game, emulating the overall approach of its predecessor even as it improved things here and there. It also saw Suzuki clarifying just how broad the series might be: even though he had planned eleven chapters, he expects them to fit into four or five games in total.

One thing eluded Shenmue even in its glory days as Sega's prestige project: an anime adaptation. Sega's successes, from Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon to Sakura Wars and Valkyria Chronicles, usually saw anime incarnations (varying in quality), but Shenmue didn't.

[Shenmue: The Long-Overdue Animation]

That changed this September, when Crunchyroll and Adult Swim revealed a 13-episode Shenmue anime series with Suzuki as producer and Chikara Sakurai, director of One Punch Man's second season, at the helm. The promotional art and synopsis are vague about just how much of Ryo's journey the series might cover, but it most likely won't involve hours of raising a kitten and asking about sailors.

And that remains the challenge of any Shenmue adaptation. The story is only half of the appeal, and so much of the games' allure lies in the little things players can discover on the side. Even so, the Shenmue anime chose its source material astutely; if there's one thing the series does consistently, it's leaving fans clamoring for more.

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