Released in 1999 on Sega’s flawed, but underrated, Dreamcast console, Shenmue was a big deal for the games industry. The action-adventure title was innovative for the time and offered a highly unusual detective story which didn’t follow a traditional game structure. The result is Shenmue is considered way ahead of its time, but this isn’t to state it’s flawless. A highly ambitious project it was, it met with strong reviews and has only grown in stature since.
The series is arguably Sega’s hottest property right now, even above Sonic the Hedgehog. After the Dreamcast (which wasn’t a commercial success), the company decided to head solely into game development. It’s had a lot of misses ever since, such as the notorious Sonic 2006 disaster on the PS3 and Xbox 360. However, Shenmue has remained lurking away with cries from its fans to bring the series back to life. Well, it’s happening, so here’s a look at where it started.
Yu Suzuki created the series – he headed Sega’s research and development department for almost two decades. Having become famous in the early 1990s for popular arcade games such as Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and similar punchy titles, the shift towards Shenmue is akin to Michael Bay (the explosives expert) turning his hand to a Shakespeare production.
Undeterred, Suzuki crafted an intricate world powered by the Dreamcast’s, at the time, highly powerful specs. It was insanely expensive, too, the most expensive game ever released! Suzuki’s focus was to develop a large open world with landmark levels of detail, including the chance to pick up random objects for inspection, take on mini-games, subplots, or just lark about day after day not really progressing the plot.
Into this world, the player takes control of Ryo Hazuki in 1986 Yokosuka, Japan. Returning home to his family dojo one evening, he finds his father in a confrontation with a Chinese martial artist called Lan Di. His father is slain, forcing Hazuki to set off on a quest to find out who Di is, hunt him down, and either: A) Murder him good, or B) Have a spot of tea.
It’s a detective story, essentially, and you head out into the local village and town to dig up clues to keep in your journal. However, Suzuki and his team worked hard to create some 1,200 individual rooms and locations, along with 300 different characters for you to meet on your mission. Weather patterns and day/night cycles were developed to work via an algorithm, so your average day is always going to be different.
The sense of freedom certainly is unique and, as the player, you are drawn into Hazuki’s life. You meet his friends, make enemies, and work your way (at your own leisure) towards discovering new details about Lan Di, whilst managing Hazuki’s life by not staying up too late, learning new martial arts tricks, and even getting a forklift truck job (a dream career for most of us!).
You Innovative Son of a Gun
Over the years, the game has come to be revered by some gamers. There’s a cult following of fans who really do love the game, some of whom claim it’s the greatest game ever made and a masterpiece. We can’t say we agree with that but, first of all, let’s take a look at the many positive aspects to Shenmue.
After it’s opening section (which you can watch in the clip above, if you so wish!), you’re immersed into an atmospheric and innovative title which effectively stands as the Dreamcast’s showpiece. Simply put, the more you put into the game, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s not one for shooty boom ratta tatta tatt fans, but for anyone wanting an engrossing experience which draws you into a small community, this is a great choice.
The sense of freedom was, at the time, remarkable as you can really go more or less anywhere in the village and town near your home. This often amounts to nothing more than going into someone’s property to pick up a lacquer cup, but it’s a little flourish which some gamers will enjoy. It’s the escalating plot and advancment towards solving the mystery that’ll keep you coming back for more, plus it’s just often fun hanging out on the atmospheric streets.
Whilst we completed the game at the time, and enjoyed its unique qualities, it certainly hasn’t aged particularly well. The voice acting can be horrific, real-time events jarring, and the control system is fiddly. The story can also be plodding and monotonous and, whilst Suzuki tried hard to get some levels of profundity across, it’s more clumsy than triumphant in its delivery.
In part, that’s due to the technological limitations at the time, but also as he was trying something genuinely new here – that’s tough to do! It falls a bit short of greatness (in our opinion), but full marks for effort. We fondly remember simply waltzing about the place with no real goal, taking in the atmosphere, living life in the community, and gradually solving the murder mystery.
It was a unique experience, one we believe many modern gamers will find stunted and awkward if they’ve played games such as Breath of the Wild, but for old school gamers there’s a lot on offer and plenty to still enjoy. Oh hey, so you can pick it up right now on Steam, but there’s more news!
Recently, Sega stated it had an “exciting announcement” which many took to mean it was planning a new games console. Instead, the news is Shenmue I and II (the sequel was released in 2001) will be getting a HD makeover for the PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Fans went ballistic, of course, and you can see a short trailer for what’s coming this year above.
There’s also Shenmue III in development. It’s set for release this year on the PC and PS4 – this was initiated by fans, who funded a Kickstarter campaign (which was successfully licensed by Sega, and approved by Suzuki) to get the project up and running. Such is the dedication of these folks, it’s impressive to see! We’ll wait to see what’s going on with that, but for an innovative series deeply entrenched in portraying Japanese life, we’re hoping it delivers a goddamn knockout blow.