Shenmue, called Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka (シェンムー 一章 横須賀) in Japan (i.e. "Chapter I: Yokosuka") , is an adventure game produced and directed by Yu Suzuki and developed by Sega AM2. It was published by Sega for the Sega Dreamcast in late 1999.
Shenmue stands as one of the most significant video games ever published by Sega, at the time being the most expensive game ever produced, and having unparalleled interactivity and freedom, real-time day/night and weather systems, fully voiced non-playable characters and cutting edge graphics. Borrowing from many genres of video games, Suzuki coined a new genre name, "F.R.E.E." (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) to describe it.
As the Japanese name suggests, Shenmue consists of the first chapter in what is currently an unfinished story.
The fictional story of Shenmue begins on November 29, 1986, in the perspective of the protagonist Ryo Hazuki (芭月 涼 Hazuki Ryō) returning home to his family dojo to witness his father, Iwao Hazuki battling with a man named Lan Di, dressed in Chinese attire, who demands he hand over an item known as the "Dragon Mirror". Ryo intervenes in battle after his father is felled, but is injured by a blow from Lan Di. As his father refuses to reveal the location of the mirror, Lan Di lifts Ryo from the ground and threatens to kill him with a final blow, which prompts Iwao to reveal its location underneath the Cherry blossom tree.
After Lan Di's henchmen recover the mirror, he asks Iwao if he knows of a man called "Sunming Zhao" and then kills him after forcibly asking him to stand as a warrior to face his end. As Ryo lies injured on the floor of the dojo, Lan Di and his men leave the Hazuki household. After Ryo has partially recovered he feels that he must dutifully gain revenge for the murder of his father, and begins to instigate inquiries into the incident with the local people of his hometown, Sakuragaoka.
Ryo's first clue is a car that some of his neighbours saw on the day of the murder. Though his leads are few and far between, Ryo slowly makes progress in his investigation by interviewing people all over Yokosuka. Just as he is about to run out of leads, a letter from a man named Yuanda Zhu suggests that he seek the aid of a certain Master Chen, who works at the harbour. Through Chen and his son Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local wharf gang known as the Mad Angels is connected to Lan Di's crime organization, the Chiyoumen. Ryo also learns that "the mirror" stolen by Lan Di is part of a set of two mirrors. After much investigation, he locates the second mirror underneath his father's dojo. This mirror is decorated with a Phoenix.
Ryo takes a job on the waterfront in order to learn more about the Mad Angels gang, and eventually he causes them enough trouble that the gang kidnaps his friend (and principal love interest) Nozomi Harasaki. To rescue Nozomi, Ryo must first fight Guizhang, then team up with Guizhang to defeat all seventy members of the Mad Angels gang. Upon defeat, the gang's leader reveals to Ryo that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong. With the aid of the Chen family as well as his family and friends, Ryo boards a boat to Hong Kong. Before the close of the first chapter (and subsequent end of the game itself), he is instructed by Master Chen to seek out the help of a master of the Chinese martial arts located in Wan Chai named Lishao Tao.
Shenhua, a mysterious young girl who haunts Ryo's dreams.
Concluding the first chapter of Shenmue, Ryo boards a boat and travels to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lan Di.
Shenmue was envisioned as the next evolution of RPGs, although its design incorporates a number of genres, attempting to simulate life in the mid-1980s while also including puzzle solving, fighting segments and even the occasional race. The game is very much story-driven, and uses very simple mechanics designed so that anyone could play (as opposed to the likes of Virtua Fighter, which Yu Suzuki claimed were too daunting for younger players).
Most of the game is spent, as Ryo, walking around Yokosuka in Japan, talking to people. It is interspersed with many "mini-games", including forklift and motorcycle races, bar fights, chases down crowded alleys, full versions of Sega arcade games Space Harrier and Hang-On, dart games and 'free fighting' sequences. The game was remarkable for its time for allowing the player to talk to every NPC they came across (who are in turn, fully voiced) and allowing Ryo to interact with hundreds of object seen in the game.
Shenmue is governed by an in-game clock and fully implements a day-to-night cycle, with certain events only occuring at certain times of day (or indeed year, in some cases). Players are not, however, restricted by the date and time - it is fully possible to spend in-game months and years in an area. How the player plays the game in this first chapter of Shenmue was originally set to influence the story in later chapters, though this feature was never fully implemented.
Weather also changes depending on the time of year, and is reportedly based on observed real-world weather patterns of the mid-to-late 1980s.
Most of the action occurs in quick-time event (QTE) sequences, in which cutscenes differ in outcome depending on your accuracy in hitting buttons in a timely fashion.
As opposed to standing still and dispensing the same lines of dialogue, as is common to most RPGs, non-playable characters in Shenmue live their lives in accordance to Japan's then-5½-day working week, leaving their houses to start work, taking lunch breaks and going home at the end of the day. The development team also made sure each NPC has its own name, age and hobbies, and characters will also react to the weather, with some taking out umbrellas when it begins to rain.
At Game Developers Conference 2014, Yu Suzuki presented a postmortem of Shenmue, one of the single biggest project ever undertaken by Sega (or indeed any video game company), with an end budget of reportedly $70 million USD (thought to be shared between Shenmue and Shenmue II). Development began as early as 1993, when Suzuki took a trip to mainland China, learning about martial arts and scouting locations for possible game ideas.
In its earliest stages, Shenmue was known as The Old Man and The Peach Tree, a Sega Saturn game set in the city of Luoyang in 1950s China. The game was to feature a protagonist, Taro in pursuit of a mysterious figure called Master Ryu, and would play like a more traditional RPG.
As time moved on, The Old Man and The Peach Tree became a spin-off of the popular Virtua Fighter series of fighting games, now starring Akira. Now the project was being referred to as Virtua Fighter RPG (codenamed Guppy), and many of these early Virtua Fighter elements still exist in the final game, both in the fighting mechanics, and lead characters, Ryo still loosely resembling Akira and Lan Di possibly resembling Lau. The game was set to be a 45-hour adventure at this point spanning 11 chapters.
Nearing two years of development, Virtua Fighter RPG shed its Virtua Fighter aesthetics in favour of an original cast of characters (although the idea was partially revisited in 2004's Virtua Quest). A significant amount of footage has emerged from the period which followed - Shenmue, much as we know it today, running on the Sega Saturn, in what is widely considered to be one of greatest technical showpieces on the system. Yu Suzuki has claimed that working on the Saturn was a very difficult task, but he was proud of what his team had achieved on the 32-bit system.
Inevitably due to the Saturn's struggle in Western markets, the still untitled Shenmue was brought to the Sega Dreamcast (then under its codename "Katana" - Katana-branded cigarettes are available throughout the game as a reference to this period). In the early days, the Katana specs had not been finalised, forcing Suzuki's team to make educated guesses as to how the game would perform. It was later retitled Project Berkley, and featured on a special preview disc distributed with the 1998 Dreamcast release of Virtua Fighter 3tb in Japan (although aside from broad concepts and glimpses of artwork, the disc explains very little).
Shenmue (under its final name) was shown to the world for the first time on December 20th, 1998 at the National Convention Hall in Yokohama. At this point in development, most of the game was said to take place in China and feature four "main" characters. As a nod to this Chinese focus, a "hugely popular Chinese pop star" took to the stage to sing the game's theme song.
Yokosuka was set to appear in this earlier version of Shenmue, but only briefly, in a period set 30 years before the main events of the game (which would have meant the mid-1950s). However, only Chinese footage was shown during this period - nothing from the Yokosuka section would be seen until mid-1999.
Shenmue was an ambitious game and remains to this day one of the most costly video game projects ever conceived. When the project was first made public, it was said to involve three chapters, which ballooned into a 16-chapter epic to be shipped as one game in early 1999. No firm release date was given, however, and the deadline was missed - the first of several. The new release date was pencilled in as August.
Towards the back-end of March 1999, at Tokyo Game Show '99 Spring, Yu Suzuki announced that the full Shenmue package had been delayed. Instead, the game would be split into two for Japanese audiences, however by the time of the planned US launch in 2000, the two halves would be combined into a single package.
August 5th, 1999 became the new release date for the first part of Shenmue, with part two arriving "just before Christmas". Part one was then delayed again until October, with part two set to arrive a couple of months later. A decision was made to release a "demo" version of the game, What's Shenmue in August in its place, to help promote the game ahead of the full release.
The 16 chapters of Shenmue were at this point set to be spread across three games, however no details were released about part three. It was suggested that the explanation of the term "Shenmue" would be revealed in the third part, however.
As the year drew on, Sega announced another delay, and that the first part of Shenmue, set in mainland China would launch in Japan in April 2000. The second part in Yokosuka would follow some time later, with potentially more sequels to come. It was at some point in 1999 that the Yokosuka section was expanded significantly, eventually becoming the subject of the first game.
There were still plans to release the game in the West in the Winter of 2000, but it was widely assumed to be subtitled. Delays for the European version were attributed to the many lanugages the subtitles would need translating into.
In a rare move for the industry, part one of Shenmue had its release date brought forward to the 29th of December, its sequel being pushed back further to an undisclosed date. This time the game launched in Japan as expected, though the combined version once planned for the US and Europe would now be split as well.
At some point the number of overall chapters was reduced from 16 to only 7. Part one would contain the first chapter, part two would contain 2, 3, 4 and 5 and part three (presumably) 6 and 7. Such was the state of development that chapter 2 would later be relegated to a comic book, while the contents of chapters 6 and 7 were never publicly discussed.
Shenmue, in its raw form at one point covered 50-60 CD-ROMs, forcing the team to focus on ways to compress data. One space saving measure employed was to recycle animations for multiple characters, including at one point, to animals, leading to bipedal cats and men "strutting like Marilyn Monroe".
Shenmue employed various techniques that up until this point had only been seen in movie production. Every character, no matter how minor, was given a voice (both in Japanese and later English), and the game was given a cinematic musical score performed by an ochestra headed by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.
Originally, the main characters were sketched out and handed to AM2's 3D modellers, however the result was unsatisfactory, leading to Yu Suzuki and the team into creating full-size heads of the characters out of clay to assist the artists.
Extensive research into the time period was conducted by the team. Weather patterns of the mid-1980s were modelled for the sake of realism.
In terms of polygon counts, the first location background in Shenmue has 57,120 polygons, in addition to 3207 polygons per tree, and with 3000 to 14,331 polygons per character.
The Japanese release features licensed drinks from the Coca-Cola company. These were replaced in Western versions with non-branded versions, as Sega had only obtained the rights to these products in Japan.
Western localisation was handled by IMagic. One of the major stumbling blocks was Yu Suzuki's insistence that all the English dubbing occurred in Japan, despite the abundance of more naturally fitting actors in the US. A lack of English voice actors in Japan led to voice actors making the journey from the US specifically for the game, including Corey Marshall (Ryo) who had never visited Japan before. Marshall also practised martial arts, and was hired due to a policy of hiring voice actors who would be similar to their in-game counterparts (despite the actors never being seen in-game).
Despite Marshall fulfilling Suzuki's list of requirements, his voice was adjusted digitally for the final game to make Ryo sound younger.
Other localisations include the main atagonist, Souryuu, being renamed Lan Di for the Western versions.
Shenmue saw wide critical acclaim after release due to the many revolutionary features it brought to the world of video games. However, despite the praise, Shenmue struggled to sell. Some critics believed the game was far too slow and self indulgent. Though easy to sell to Japanese audiences, Western consumers found the game's themes unappealing.
The game sold at a massive loss, and it is predicted that every Dreamcast owner would have needed to buy the game twice in order for it to turn a profit. Initial plans were to create a trilogy of Shenmue games, and although Shenmue II saw a release (with a much smaller budget), Shenmue III has been in development hell for nearly a decade.
The game includes both Japanese and English speech/subtitles in the West. However in Japan, only Japanese was an option. For unknown reasons Sega would later release U.S. Shenmue in Japan - exactly the same game but with the English dub.
1.2 million copies of the game were sold worldwide.
While considered a market failure, Shenmue has developed a cult following and remains one of the highest rated Dreamcast games ever made. Many of its ideas regarding an open, freely explorable world have been revisited in the Yakuza series of games, starting with the original PlayStation 2Yakuza in 2005.
Voice Recording Production Coordination: Kei Kimura, Megumi Igei, Kei Miura
Voice Recording Assistant Manager: Emi Wakamatsu
Voice Recording Production Account: Yuriko Mameshiro
Translation Coordinator: Mayumi Sakazaki
Translation Project Manager: Pako Hanaoka
Translation Localize Engineer: Akiho Tazukuri
Translation Chief Editor: Sid Lloyd
Cast: Corey Marshall, Debora Rabbai, Ruth Hollyman, Paul Lucas, Robert Jefferson, Terry Osada, Eric Kelso, Dennis Falt, Ryan Drees, Jerry Ledbetter, Alex Hayns, Rob Croker, Eric Jacobson, Gregg Ladd, Anne Slater, Terry Osada, Guy Perryman, Lenne Hardt, Brian Matt-Uhl, Claire O'Connor, Cara Jones, William M. Sullivan, Lynn M. Harris, Dario Toda, Patrick De Volpi, Julia Yermakov, Jeff Manning, Jerri Sorels, Chris Wells, Colleen Lanki, Mireille Watanabe, Jeff Gedert, Kurt Common, Patrick Harlan, Robert Belgrade, Amanda Satchell
Other Cast: Tom Clark, John Ogelvee, Bianca Allen, Walter Roberts, Brit Ofstedal, Carlos Teuscher, Mark Hagan, Kezia Tobin, Mike Thro, Kimberly Forsythe, Michael Naishtut, Clark Bowdoin, Miki Sato, Greg Irwin, Mona Alawdeen, Jun Shimoda, Monica Taylor Horgan, Scott McCulloch, Monika Hudgins, Douglas J. Kirl, Yuho Yamaguchi, Takashi Yamaguchi, Rumiko Varnes, David Chester, Ross Mihara, David Schaufele, Lonnie Hirsch, Dennis Gunn, Donna Burke
Voice Talent Coordination: Voice Talent Coordination, New York Imagic Inc.
In Shenmue, the backgrounds consist of up to 58,000 polygons, while the characters can have up to 14,361 polygons per character. This was significantly higher than the polygon counts of non-Dreamcast console and PC games in 1999. In comparison, the highest polygon counts of any PC games in 1999 were 10,000 polygons per scene and 400 polygons per character.