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Shenmue/Development

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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[1]. At this point in development, most of the game was said to take place in China and feature four "main" characters[1]. As a nod to this Chinese focus, a "hugely popular Chinese pop star" took to the stage to sing the game's theme song[1].

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)[2]. 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[3], which ballooned into a 16-chapter[3] epic to be shipped as one game in early 1999[4]. 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[5]. 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[6].

August 5th, 1999 became the new release date for the first part of Shenmue[7], with part two arriving "just before Christmas"[5]. Part one was then delayed again until October 28, with part two set to arrive a couple of months later[6]. 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[3], 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[8].

On September 30th, Sega announced another delayMore...[9], and that the first part of Shenmue, set in mainland China would launch in Japan in April 2000[10]. The second part in Yokosuka would follow some time later[10], with potentially more sequels to come. The blame was placed on the complexity of the AI and weather routinesMore...[9]. 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[10]. 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[11], its sequel being pushed back further to an undisclosed date[3], leading to stocks in Sega rising by 5%[12]. 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[8]. 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[13], 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[14].

In terms of polygon counts, the first location background in Shenmue has 57,120 polygons,[15] in addition to 3207 polygons per tree,[16] and with 3000 to 14,331 polygons per character.[17][18]

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[19]. 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[19]. 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)[19].

Despite Marshall fulfilling Suzuki's list of requirements, his voice was adjusted digitally for the final game to make Ryo sound younger[19].

Other localisations include the main atagonist, Souryuu, being renamed Lan Di for the Western versions.

Event appearances

References


Shenmue
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Books: Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Saisoku Kouryaku Guide (2000) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Kanzen Seiha no Sho (2000) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Complete Guide (2000) | Official Shenmue Perfect Guide (2000) | Prima's Official Strategy Guide: Shenmue (2000)
Music: "Shenmue"/"Shenhua" (1998) | "Shenhua: Jiang Qing Ri Bao Hua Ge" (1999) | Shenmue Orchestra Version (1999) | "You're My Only: Shenmue no Sasayaki" (1999) | Shenmue JukeBox (1999) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Original Sound Track (2000) | Shenmue (2015)
Videos: What's Shenmue (1999) | Shenmue: The Movie (2001)