Why a niche game for a failed console continues to inspire passion in its fans more than a decade later, and how it broke Kickstarter and Guinness World Records
Q. What would your dream Shenmue be?
A. One where the player could live in that world. A second life.
Part I: Of Dreams and Dreamcasts
The 15th of June 2015. It is the 21st Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3. Game developers and publishers battle it out to win the hearts, minds and wallets of gamers watching all over the world. The three remaining console manufacturers, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, vie for exclusives that will grant them a greater share of an industry that is worth over $90 billion. After Microsoft’s showing the previous night touting sequels to contemporary popular franchises such as Halo, Sony took the stage and announced that The Last Guardian, a one-time PlayStation 3 game assumed to have been cancelled, had been reworked for the PS4. Following it up with a long-awaited remake of the beloved PlayStation title Final Fantasy VII, victory was already being declared by many for Sony at this year’s E3. As the applause for Square’s game died down, Sony’s Adam Boyes walked on and talked of the recent success of crowd-funding for games on Kickstarter that eventually made their way to Sony’s console. He spoke of a title that PlayStation fans had been “very, very vocal about…”
Cherry blossom petals fell on-screen, and a Chinese violin began to play a few familiar notes. The audience erupted. At long last, after an eternity of waiting, it was here.
An unassuming Japanese man walked on to a standing ovation, holding back tears as he counted down to the launch of the much-awaited sequel’s fund-raising campaign.
But amid the cheers and roars of the faithful who had prayed for this moment for more than 14 years, many at E3 and at home were asking themselves…
The year is 1996, and the outlook for Sega is grim. Having at one point successfully usurped the reigning video game champion, Nintendo, they now found themselves not only lagging behind their longtime rival, but being outshone by a newcomer to the gaming world. Two years prior at the same E3 that the Sega Saturn met with a muted reception, the Japanese electronics giant Sony formally announced the PlayStation (its own genesis as a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo is infamous, though less well-known is that a Sega-Sony console was proposed at one time). Arguably technically superior in its 3D capabilities to the Saturn, and certainly easier to code for than Sega’s console, this perception along with a lower price tag endeared it to developers and buyers alike, leaving Sega in the West to consider what means they would have to take to ensure their survival (though the Saturn ended up being Sega’s most successful console in Japan).
As the death knell was being rung for the Saturn in the West, Sega of Japan’s AM2 division was working on a new game. It took its roots from their popular Virtua Fighter series, but had ambitions that eclipsed not only its fighting game origins, but also anything seen before in video games. The director of this project had always pushed the boundaries, and he was now being given a blank cheque by his employer to devise a system seller.
1983. Having failed his entrance exams to dental school and not having much luck with the guitar, a young man named Yu Suzuki drew inspiration from the toy blocks of his childhood and decided to take computer programming classes while at the Okayama University of Science. Upon graduating he looked to put his newfound coding skills to the test and joined Sega. After developing Champion Boxing for the SG-1000 console, Suzuki set up his own division within Sega called AM2, tired of having his pay docked for not turning up at 8:30am. The late starts were not a symptom of laziness; on the contrary, Suzuki consistently held the company record for overtime during his time at Sega, sleeping on a flattened cardboard box on the office floor; Suzuki reminisced in a recent interview, “when the president of Sega found out, he decided to put a shower in the office and set up a room where people could take naps.” At the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), Mark Cerny quipped that the joke everyone told was that the name AM2 came from the fact that 2:00am was the only time all the developers were in the office.
“The hours between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. became [Suzuki’s] favourite time of day, a time when he could escape from the distractions of managing a team and work for himself. “During those two hours, I got the equivalent of a normal person’s two weeks of work done,” he says. And when he did fall asleep, he would keep a pen, pad and recorder next to him in case he came up with an idea in his dreams — a practice he termed a “pop-up.”
Visualising the right camera mechanics in Virtua Cop? Came to him in a pop-up. Balancing the characters Wolf and Jeffry in Virtua Fighter? Came to him in a pop-up.”
In July 1985 Suzuki and AM2 released their first game: the arcade title Hang-On, which saw gamers straddling a replica bike, leaning left and right to steer the bike as they raced down winding roads.
Suzuki followed up the success of Hang-On with increasingly well-received arcade titles such as Space Harrier, legendary racer Out Run, and the Top Gun-influenced After Burner. His desire to take games into the third dimension saw the creation of Virtua Racing, but it was the 1993 release of the first 3D fighting game, Virtua Fighter, that resonated with gamers and saw the birth of a franchise.
Initially wanting to make a 3D sports game, it became apparent that technology at the time would not allow for more than two polygonal characters onscreen, and this combined with Sega’s desire to make a “Street Fighter-killer” led to Suzuki turning to the one-on-one fighting genre. Virtua Fighter 2 became the first game to employ motion-capture technology, previously only used in healthcare and the military. As with his earlier games, Suzuki eschewed the fantastical in favour of a more realistic approach, choosing to forgo hadoukens and spinning bird kicks and instead to ground the game in the martial arts of the Orient. It was in 1993 during research for the second game in the series that Yu Suzuki would embark on a trip to China that would change the course of both his life and video game history forever.
Infatuated with everything the country had to offer, from the martial art of Bajiquan to street vendors selling pork buns, Suzuki was determined that his first foray into story-driven gaming would draw from the richness of the Chinese culture.
Disappointed with the RPGs (role-playing games) that existed at the time, in particular their lack of voice acting and basic graphics, in 1995 Suzuki put together a prototype for the Saturn called The Old Man & The Peach Tree. Set in Luoyang, the historic capital of China, it followed the well-worn trope of a young student seeking the wisdom of an old kung fu master. The prototype was not known to the public until Suzuki brought it up in an extensive November 2013 interview with the Russian video game magazine Strana Igr (Gameland):
Just imagine: an open world, where there are growing apples and peaches, that you can collect. An old man is sitting on a bench. You ask him questions but he ignores them and whines that he wants a peach. If you bring him an apple or mandarin, he gets angry and yells that he doesn’t eat those. Another old man is fishing, and there are kids playing around him. But in fact he is a great master of martial arts. And he is so cool that he throws a pebble in the water and kills three fishes with the ricochet, which float belly-up. The kids are happy. He is such a professional, and not only in martial arts.
Here’s another example: you are travelling from one city to another, and you see a man standing by a bridge. You want to pass through and the old man throws his sandals into the river. Then he says to the protagonist, “Oh, I lost them somehow, can you bring them for me?” He also is a master in martial arts, and this request is a goal, which you need to complete. Even if you manage to find the items he demands, he would throw things into the water again and beg you to bring them back. You would need to do it three times for him to make sure you are patient enough, so he would then give you valuable information.
From this simple story and prototype came the beginnings of Virtua Fighter RPG.
Initially centred around Virtua Fighter’s Akira, Suzuki determined that it would be the first truly 3D RPG. Players would talk with fully-voiced non-playable characters (NPCs), and there would be real-time fighting against multiple opponents.
Unusually for a developer, Suzuki is not particularly fond of gaming in his own free time. In the case of Shenmue, he sought to draw inspiration from films, in particular the kung-fu movies of Hong Kong cinema he loved so dearly. He hired screenwriters from the Japanese film industry to give the project the cinematic quality he strove for, and even real-world architects to give an air of authenticity to the game’s homes and buildings. Suzuki tasked Toshiyuki Watanabe with composing a four-part orchestral suite to aid the creative process. Akira’s Story/The Legend of Akira would in turn have a four-act structure, which evolved into an 11-chapter epic. Along with a novelised outline came 11 pieces of concept art, revealed to fans for the first time at GDC 2014.
After years of research and planning, development commenced in 1996.
“Shenmue began development on the Sega Saturn. Besides the visual elements, how much of it had changed by the time you began development for the Dreamcast? How long were you working on the Saturn version?
Tak Hirai (lead programmer for the Shenmue series): Six months, just on programming.
Yu Suzuki: It’s amazing how much we accomplished on the Saturn. It’s unthinkable now.
Tak Hirai: Yeah, it was something. I never want to do that again.”
With it being increasingly obvious that the Saturn could not compete with Sony’s PlayStation, in 1997 development shifted to Sega’s as-yet-unnamed console. While Hirai had had a gruelling six months of development on the Saturn, his task would now become even more onerous:
“I was responsible for managing a team of 87 programmers… I was in charge of not only constructing the coding environment but also coding a fundamental processing architecture to make system programmers easier to work with. I was also in charge of the character system, rendering pipeline, lighting engine, and also optimising the performance of these systems. I had my hands dirty on playing around with SH4 assembly [programming language] on the Dreamcast to tune up the performance. Small and detailed codes used in the cut-scenes such as physics simulation of phone cords, handcuff chains in the second chapter, and trailing visual effects of the car signals were also done in my spare time. I finally ended up creating around 200 source files out of more than 300 files in total.”
Each of Shenmue’s 300 characters had their own daily schedule, and creating such an unprecedentedly detailed virtual open world brought unique development challenges. Suzuki would recall at the GDC 2014 Shenmue post-mortem that at one point they found the residents of the town were not turning up to work as scheduled; instead they had all gotten stuck inside the local convenience store. As such, they had to make the automatic doors wider and to limit the store’s total occupancy.
Under the codename “Guppy”, it was expected to offer 45 hours of gameplay, with a mix of cinematics, exploration and combat. It became clear, though, that the deep open world that Suzuki had in mind was far too ambitious for a single game, and thoughts turned to making a game for each chapter. Suzuki wanted gamers to explore this open world deeply and at a leisurely pace. The codename “Guppy” was abandoned for “Project Berkley”, and it was decided that for the game and the next Sega console to succeed, it would have to be a new franchise, with its own hero.
Eigo Kasahara, planner for the project, came up with two names: Genpuuki (Tale of the Mysterious Wind) and Shenmue. Genpuuki was thought to be too hard to pronounce for Western audiences, and Shenmue more pleasing to the ear. After considering Ryo Kamizaki as a name for the protagonist, they settled on Ryo Hazuki.
And so Akira’s Story became Shenmue — Chapter 1: Yokosuka.
Yu Suzuki was intimately involved with the creation of the Saturn successor’s hardware: wishing to provide a greater aural experience for Shenmue, he demanded that Yamaha, the makers of the console’s sound chip, double the number of sound channels from 32 to 64. Suzuki led a team of five to produce a tech demo for the Dreamcast’s unveiling in Tokyo on the 21st of May 1998. Produced in less than week, the real-time demo saw a camera swooping over buildings in a town before flying over the Tower of Babel. Attendees were blown away at how this early tech demo presented 1 million polygons at 60 frames per second, and the demo would later form the basis of Shenmue II’s Kowloon.
On the 27th of November 1998, Sega launched the Dreamcast in Japan. The Japanese launch line-up of games was not particularly impressive, and of the four titles only one came from Sega: Virtua Fighter 3tb. Inside the game’s case, though, was an extra disc with the following behind-the-scenes look at an upcoming release:
Fans scrambled to internet message boards: was this a Virtua Fighter RPG? CG clips are all well and good, but when would we see real-time gameplay?
One month later on the 20th of December at the PACIFICO Yokohama convention centre, the first gameplay footage of Shenmue was revealed.
The graphics were mind-blowing, the real-time weather system unprecedented, and audience members were astounded by the cinematic quality of conversations with NPCs. The introduction of Quick Timer Events (now known as Quick Time Events or QTEs), where button prompts would flash onscreen, had fans divided, however. Intended to add an element of interactivity to cutscenes and to add variety to the gameplay, hardcore Virtua Fighter fans were alarmed to see them, though the real-time fighting against multiple opponents still proved enticing. With motion capture technology having improved since Virtua Fighter 2, Shenmue’s characters moved more realistically than ever.
In an attempt to describe Shenmue’s gameplay, Suzuki coined the term “FREE”: Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. While the phrase itself never gained popularity, the open world gameplay on display here would set a template for many popular titles years from its release.
Growing up in Abu Dhabi I would often pass the time by reading comic books and video game magazines in my local supermarket. One day, I noticed a magazine with the image of Ryo and Shenhua at the top of this article. I was immediately drawn to it. Unlike female video game characters such as Lara Croft, this mysterious woman was not overtly sexualised, and instead had an air of grace and serenity to her. As I flicked through the pages of the magazine I was entranced by the art style and level of detail of this Shenmue game. Though I didn’t quite grasp it at the time, this was the first time I had seen a video game attempt to be more than entertainment, and to bring something of beauty to the medium. I was smitten.
Sega started rolling out the hype machine, unveiling the voice cast (and their shoe sizes) in February 1999, demoing the game at the Tokyo Game Show the following month, and releasing a CD of orchestral arrangements of the game’s music in April.
For months and months and months, all I could think about was getting a Dreamcast and playing Shenmue. That summer I got my hands on various Dreamcast demonstration kiosks in Toys Я Us and Electronics Boutique when visiting family in the UK and Virginia. Blown away by the graphics of Sonic Adventure and the kinetic fighting of Power Stone, I eventually convinced my dad to get me a Hong Kong model Dreamcast in September 1999 (similar to the Japanese unit but lacking a modem) from a shop in the Hamed Centre, a mall where various vendors imported games from Japan and the US, but would also mod PlayStation consoles in the back so they could play the pirated copies that they also sold. It was my first console, and remains my favourite to this day, thanks not only to Shenmue but such classics as the frenetic Crazy Taxi, LSD-inspired techno-soundtracked shooter Rez, and the best party game of all time, Samba de Amigo, where you have to shake plastic maracas in time to popular Latino songs such as “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and the Macarena.
After numerous delays that saw the previously announced release dates of 5th of August and the 28th of October come and pass, Shenmue — Chapter 1: Yokosuka was finally released in Japan on the 29th of December 1999. Unable to speak Japanese, though, I could only stare longingly at an imported copy behind the glass display at the Hamed Centre.
In March of 2000, we went on a family holiday to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. While I was excited to go the Magic Kingdom and ride on Space Mountain, I was eager to visit the technology-centric Epcot theme park. I had heard that Sega had arranged for a showcase of Dreamcasts and various games at the park’s Innovations exhibit, and among them was Shenmue.
Racing past the displays of Criterion Games’ hoverboarding game TrickStyle and Virtual Concepts’ NBA 2K, I finally got my hands on Shenmue. Unbeknownst to me, it was actually a copy of What’s Shenmue, a demo disk that was released in Japan on the 5th of August 1999 to tide fans over after Shenmue’s numerous delays.
After what had seemed like a lifetime of waiting, and now finally walking around a virtual Dobuita and speaking to townspeople, I was… underwhelmed. Limited by my lack of Japanese and the NPCs blocking various paths in the demo, I could only buy virtual cans of Coke and occasionally crouch down in the middle of the street (a feature that was removed from the final game for its complete lack of purpose).
Still, I knew Shenmue wouldn’t disappoint once I got to play it fully. And so, not long after the game’s US release on the 8th of November 2000, I went back to the Hamed Centre after school one day to claim my copy of Shenmue. Even though I had school the next day, I had to play the game that evening. I booted up the Dreamcast, its orange power light accompanied by the bleeping of a Visual Memory Unit (VMU) with dead batteries.
From the opening cinematic, I was hooked.
“Do you remember Zhao Sunming?
That’s the name of the man you killed in Meng Cun…”
Beginning with the death of Ryo Hazuki’s father Iwao at the hands of a mysterious man named Lan Di, the epic tale of Ryo’s quest for revenge is set in motion. Who is Lan Di? Why did he kill my father? What is the secret of the Dragon Mirror? And what of my father’s last words?
“Keep friends… those you love… close to you…”
But from this action-packed opening, the player is slowly introduced to 1986 Yokosuka. Leaving Ryo’s bedroom, the Hazuki residence’s housekeeper Ine-san gives you your daily allowance of ¥500 before you put on your shoes and head out the door (as is custom in Japan, Ryo always takes his shoes off before entering the home or the Hazuki dojo). The Hazuki residence itself is incredibly detailed, with cupboards and drawers that can all be opened, revealing items such as a portable cassette player in Ryo’s room, or an anachronistically placed Sega Saturn in the TV cabinet. The rotary telephone can be used to call your friends, or you can simply dial for the day’s weather forecast.
On your way to Dobuita you’ll find a kitten who has lost her mother, who you can pet and feed. An old woman struggles to find a home with her poor vision, so it is up to you to look at the names by the entrances of the houses in the town. Outside the local store you can buy capsule toys featuring Sega characters. Children play in the streets and elderly men sit on park benches, smoking or drinking sake.
It is this contrast of exhilarating cinematic action and everyday Japanese life that led to Le Monde describing Shenmue as “Ozu [mixed] with martial arts”. While Ryo’s quest to find Lan Di will see the hotheaded youth beat up many a gaijin sailor and local street punk, the player has the option to kill time by playing Hang-On at the Dobuita arcade, try their luck at the pool hall, or play darts at the harbour canteen. The town fortune teller will impart your lucky number of the day for a small fee, which you can recoup at the slot machines. You can pop by the pizzeria to learn a few words of Italian, and talk awkwardly to florist and high school sweetheart Nozomi.
As a diligent student of the Hazuki Style, Ryo can practice his martial arts moves in parks, in the Hazuki dojo or even at an empty parking lot. The more time spent practicing, the more powerful and precise his moves become, some dramatically changing in appearance and technique. In true kung fu movie tradition, frail old men and unassuming hobos often prove to be seasoned masters of the arts, imparting their wisdom to a young man always eager to add more strikes and throws to his repertoire.
The residents of Dobuita had their own lives with daily schedules, walking around town, running errands, or setting up shop. When night fell restaurants would close, bars would open, and the odd salaryman could be seen drunkenly stumbling around, suitcase in hand. Rainy days meant umbrellas would come out, and on New Year’s Day the women of Dobuita would walk around in festive kimonos.
Even on its release in 1999 the game evoked a sense of nostalgia among older Japanese gamers who noticed all these details of small-town life in Showa-era Japan that Yu Suzuki and the team at AM2 had taken so much love and care and time to faithfully recreate.
Come mid-December, shops would play Christmas jingles and a Store Santa could be seen walking around town wishing everyone a Merry Christmas before informing them of the latest sales in town.
While exploring Dobuita the game’s soundtrack is at times soothing and eerie; Suzuki told sound director Takenobu Mitsuyoshi to seek inspiration from Buddhist sutras. In addition, each store and restaurant had its own specific composition play when you walked through their doors.
After an infamous search for sailors and the bars where they hang out, Ryo decides to seek employment at the Yokosuka harbour to get the necessary funds for a ticket to Hong Kong. In the five in-game days that follow, each work day starts with a forklift race with your coworkers, before you go about transporting crates from one warehouse to another.
After frequent interruptions to his work day by members of a gang called the Mad Angels, and a late-night motorcycle race against time to save Nozomi, the player takes on the entire gang in an epic 70-man battle. For players who had spent hours training up their moves, this was their time to shine.
Departing on a boat to Hong Kong, the game’s narration declares “And thus, the saga begins…”. It wasn’t long after completing the game that I knew I had to play it again, venturing back to Yokosuka twice more in the days leading up to the release of Shenmue II.
Upon release some critical outlets were quick to praise Shenmue as Suzuki’s masterpiece and a revolution in video gaming, while others found the game tedious and slow-paced. I remember the highest score any of the critics in one of my favourite magazines, the now long-gone GameFan, awarded Shenmue was a mere 70/100 (despite what Wikipedia may say). I tried to present Shenmue to my friends as a reason to get a Dreamcast, but they were unconvinced, turned off by the leisurely pace and the English dubbing. While the dub for the first game gives it a kung fu B-movie charm and always brings back memories of playing the game as a child, in November 2013 a fan named “sm1th” released the first version of Shenmue with the original Japanese dub and English subtitles. A fellow devotee going by “kogami” built on his work and released their own attempt in February 2014, optimising and updating it as recently as July 2015.
For those who found themselves deeply affected by the game, this would be the start of a lifelong obsession with all things Shenmue.