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Shenmue development
Missed release date(s): 1999-08-05[1], 1999-10-28[2], 2000-04[3]

At Game Developers Conference 2014, Yu Suzuki presented a post-mortem 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.

Virtua Fighter RPG

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.

It is under the name of Virtua Fighter RPG where Shenmue is understood to have been effectively greenlit by high-level Sega executives; upon a visit for GameWorks negotiations, Steven Spielberg was granted exclusive access to numerous prototype concepts at Sega's R&D offices. One of these was Virtua Fighter RPG, of which after Spielberg reportedly expressed enthusiasm for, full-scale development was allowed for the project moving forward.[4]

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 was included in the Xbox port of Shenmue II showing a prototype of the game running on the Sega Saturn. 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.

Project Berkley and initial unveiling

Main article: Project Berkley (demo disc).

While rumours of a Virtua Fighter RPG had been circulating for a while in the gaming press, the project was not officially announced until Sega New Challenge Conference II in October 1998, where it was given the code name Project Berkley[5] (named (albeit mispelt) after University of California, Berkeley because Yu Suzuki thought it "sounded cool"[6]). No further details would be revealed until the launch of the Dreamcast, in which a special Project Berkley preview disc was bundled with the console's most anticipated launch title, Virtua Fighter 3tb.

The Project Berkley disc features a 30-minute movie, showing pre-rendered sequences (many similar to the final game, albeit not rendered on a Dreamcat in real-time) and concept art. Most of the video features Yu Suzuki briefly exploring his history at Sega, and explaining his motives for creating an RPG, or, as was coined in this video, a new genre, "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment" or "F.R.E.E.". Notably despite using a code name on the disc itself, the Shenmue name is used in the video; likely the first time it was shown.

At the end, an open invitation is provided to the Shenmue Seisaku Happyoukai, a promotional event where the game was first shown to the world, running on a Dreamcast console. At this point in development, most of the game was said to take place in China and feature four "main" characters[7]; Ryo Hazuki, Rei Shenhua, Iwao Hazuki and Ren Wuying[8].

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)[9]. 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. At some point during development, Yu Suzuki is alleged to have been exempt from attending Sega board of directors meetings by Hisashi Suzuki due to his concentration on the project.[4] When was first made public, it was said to involve three chapters[10], which ballooned into a 16-chapter[10][11] epic to be shipped as one game in early 1999[12]. 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.


A live-action promotional event, held February 1999.

Towards the back-end of March 1999, at Tokyo Game Show '99 Spring, Yu Suzuki announced that the full Shenmue package had been delayed[13][14]. Instead, the game would be split into two for Japanese audiences (sold at ¥2,8002,800 each[14]), however by the time of the planned US launch in 2000, the two halves would be combined into a single package[15].

Nevertheless the game was playable, with several kiosks showcasing the game[14]. Three demos were on offer; a timed "Free Quest & QTE" where the objective was to explore a small section of Doubita looking for, and inevitably chasing down the character "Terry", "Free Battle" (the 70 man battle, albeit with time counting down, not up), and "QTE Battle" (where Ryo confronts a gang of thugs in a warehouse). There was also a tutorial where Tom teaches Ryo the Tornado Kick[16][17].

Reception to the game was reportedly mixed[16], as while the graphics were widely praised, questions were raised about the simplicity of the QTE segments. An almost identical build would later be showcased at Shinjuku Joypolis between 24th March and 4th April[18] for those who couldn't make it to TGS.

August 5th, 1999 became the new release date for the first part of Shenmue[1], with part two arriving "just before Christmas"[13]. Playable demos would also feature at Network Jungle II: Digitaliland and E3 1999 (with English subtitles) in May, the notable inclusion being some of the high polygon talking heads seen in Shenmue Passport.

At Sega New Challenge Conference '99, part one was delayed again until October 28[2], with part two set to arrive a couple of months later[15]. A decision was made to release a "demo" version of the game, What's Shenmue: Yukawa (Moto) Senmu o Sagase 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[10], 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[19].

On September 30th, Sega announced another delay[20], and that the first part of Shenmue, set in mainland China would launch in Japan in April 2000[3]. The second part in Yokosuka would follow some time later[3], with potentially more sequels to come. The blame was placed on the complexity of the AI and weather routines[20]. 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[3]. 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[21], its sequel being pushed back further to an undisclosed date[10], leading to stocks in Sega rising by 5%[22]. 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[19]. 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[23], 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 orchestra 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[24].

In terms of polygon counts, the first location background in Shenmue has 57,120 polygons,[25] in addition to 3207 polygons per tree,[26] and with 3000 to 14,331 polygons per character.[27][28]


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[29]. 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[29]. 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)[29].

Despite Marshall fulfilling Suzuki's list of requirements, his voice was adjusted digitally for the final game to make Ryo sound younger[29].

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

Event appearances

Concept artwork

Virtua Fighter RPG images


Design documents

Development photographs

Promotional screenshots

Hong Kong

As Shenmue was originally announced as one game, screenshots depicting Hong Kong, the setting of Shenmue II, were promoted alongside those of the first chapter.


GDC 2014 presentation

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Timeline (Dreamcast)





























1999-05-13: E3 1999

1999-08-05: Missed release date

1999-10-28: Missed release date

1999-12-29: JP release

2000-11-07: US release

2000-11-22: ES release

2000-11-30: DE release

2000-12-01: EU release, FR release, UK release

2000-12-22: AU release


  1. 1.0 1.1 Edge, "June 1999" (UK; 1999-05-19), page 14
  2. 2.0 2.1 Edge, "August 1999" (UK; 1999-07-13), page 6
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Dreamcast Magazine, "No. 3" (UK; 1999-11-25), page 16
  4. 4.0 4.1 (Wayback Machine: 2019-03-16 09:30)
  5. GamePro, "January 1999" (US; 199x-xx-xx), page 36
  6. Computer & Video Games, "December 1998" (UK; 1998-11-11), page 9
  7. Next Generation, "March 1999" (US; 1999-02-16), page 23
  8. Total Control, "February 1999" (UK; 1999-01-20), page 13
  9. Next Generation, "April 1999" (US; 1999-03-16), page 24
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Edge, "March 2000" (UK; 2000-02-22), page 40
  11. Total Control, "May 1999" (UK; 1999-04-16), page 103
  12. Dreamcast Magazine, "No. 1" (UK; 1999-09-09), page 34
  13. 13.0 13.1 Arcade, "June 1999" (UK; 1999-05-06), page 14
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Next Generation, "June 1999" (US; 1999-05-18), page 10
  15. 15.0 15.1 Next Generation, "October 1999" (US; 1999-09-21), page 37
  16. 16.0 16.1 Computer & Video Games, "May 1999" (UK; 1999-04-14), page 56
  17. Total Control, "May 1999" (UK; 1999-04-16), page 104
  18. (Wayback Machine: 2000-06-12 22:57)
  19. 19.0 19.1 Dreamcast Monthly, "May 2000" (UK; 2000-04-13), page 12
  20. 20.0 20.1 Edge, "November 1999" (UK; 1999-10-28), page 11
  21. Dreamcast Magazine, "No. 4" (UK; 1999-12-23), page 10
  22. Edge, "January 2000" (UK; 1999-12-21), page 132
  23. Interview: Yu Suzuki (2014-09-18) by Shenmue Dojo
  24. Next Generation, "October 1999" (US; 1999-09-21), page 34
  25. Location model
  26. Tree model
  27. Nozomi model
  28. Ryo model
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Interview: Jeremy Blaustein (2010-03-31) by GameSetWatch


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Main page | Comparisons | Credits | Hidden content | Development | Magazine articles | Video coverage | Reception | Promotional material | Merchandise | Artwork | Bootlegs

Books: Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Saisoku Kouryaku Guide (2000) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Kanzen Seiha no Sho (2000) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka Complete Guide (2000) | Shenmue: Ichishou Yokosuka World Guidance (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)

Sega Dreamcast
Prototypes: 2000-08-18