It’s no secret that the Sega Dreamcast is one of my favorite consoles of all time. I remember getting mine on a cold winter day at a Circuit City in Northern Virginia shortly after Christmas my freshman year of high school. I have fond memories of exploring Ragol with fellow players during sessions of Phantasy Star Online. I smile when I think of playing Bomberman Online with my friends until the early hours of the morning on my 16th birthday. Then there’s the quirkiness of Samba de Amigo and peculiar nature of Seaman. There’s no shortage of interesting and delightful games on the Dreamcast. However one particular game tugs on my heartstrings most of all: Shenmue.
What makes Shenmue Special?
Shenmue was unlike any game I experienced before. Created by renowned Sega developer Yu Suzuki, Shenmue was originally based off of a character in the Virtua Fighter Series. In its introductory scenes, the main character Ryo Hazuki frantically runs home to discover his father in the family dojo locked in battle with a strange man. Coming to his father’s (Iwao’s) defense, the man who we come to know is Lan Di, demands a mirror or threatens to kill Ryo. After Iwao tells Lan Di the location of the Dragon Mirror, Ryo watches as Lan Di murders Iwao. Days later, the game drops you into Ryo’s shoes and you set off to discover the identity and motives of Lan Di. Along the way you’ll fight adversaries with a battle system similar to Virtua fighter as you set forth on a path bent on revenge.
What makes Shenmue unique is the interactivity, attention to detail, and scope. Ryo can interact with virtually anyone in the game. Ryo will ask people for clues as to advance the plot. Each unique character has a daily routine. Ryo can visit many locations within his neighborhood of 1980’s Yokosuka. In the course of the day you’re free to practice your martial arts, play minigames (including Yu Suzuki’s arcade hits Space Harrier and Hang-on), and explore. The game has an ingame clock and calendar, weather corresponding to historical weather records, and entirely spoken (albeit cheesily voiced) dialogue. One could also upload high scores using your Dreamcast’s built in modem.
For a game arriving before the age of huge open-world games, Shenmue had both breadth and depth. Without being critical of games like Grand Theft Auto, the MMORPG genre, or most recently, games like Assassin’s Creed, Crackdown, and Watch Dogs, Shenmue felt robust. Early open-world games felt large but empty and isolating. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the GTA series, and the story-telling in Assassin’s Creed. With Shenmue however, there’s something that has stuck with me.
What happened next is a bit of a history lesson. Sega announced that it was no longer going to produce hardware (console gaming systems) and instead focus on being solely a software developer and publisher. This was unfortunate, as Shenmue’s story ended on a cliffhanger. Fortunately, Shenmue received a sequel, aptly named Shenmue II. The game was released on Dreamcast in Europe and Japan, and in the United States, exclusively released on Microsoft Xbox. The story picked up on Ryo’s journey to find Lan Di and avenge his father. The gameplay elements, storytelling, and fights embodied the first game. Even more unique, if you played on Dreamcast, your saved game files could be imported to bring your inventory, proficiency of martial arts, and resume your quest in alignment with the in-game date and time you finished the first game. So did Shenmue II conclude the story? Nope, yet another cliffhanger ending! Gah! Fans were treated to a dramatic ending that embodied something close to magical realism. That was 2001.
Shenmue and Shenmue II’s were not commercial successes, though they were fan favorites and gathered a cult following. With Sega navigating its transition and restructure to a software only company, it appeared Shenmue was a series that would fall to the wayside. When it appeared that Shenmue II would not get a sequel, fans started voicing their appreciation of the series and begging for Shenmue III. Despite the games appearing on many shortlists for greatest games of all time, Shenmue appeared to be not on Sega’s to-do list. Fans were relentless however, and would frequently take to social media to let their voices be heard.
In 2015, we were all treated to delightful news. Shenmue III would be given the chance to become a reality. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, as part of Sony’s press conference, Yu Suzuku announced a Kickstarter crowdfunding initiative to bring Shenmue III into development. Within 7 hours, Shenmue had raised nearly $2,000,000. Within a month, Shenmue raised $6,000,000. To this date, it is the highest funded video game Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunding campaign ended in September of 2018, with 81,807 backers contributing over $7,000,000. This is such a unique time to be alive. For a fanbase so passionate about this game, I have to believe that there are plenty of other positives that crowdfunding campaigns can accomplish. With funding in place, Yu Suzuki’s team assembled, and further support from Sony, the game launched into the development phase.
Shenmue III was not without its setbacks. Yu Suzuki’s team was much smaller than the original that produced the first two games. The game was delayed on multiple occasions. Though a small amount of fans were irritated by the game’s delay, the majority were comforted that Shenmue III would arrive and be more polished rather than a rushed end product. Another small controversy was a one-year exclusivity deal for Shenmue III to be distributed on PC via the Epic Games Store, as opposed to earlier mentions that the game would be available on the Steam platform. An agreeable solution was offered for backers to select another platform or a refund. All during development however, fans were treated to numerous updates, trailers, and interviews with the developers. The original voice actors would reprise their roles. The game appeared to bring modern polish, while retaining the spirit of the first two games. This sounded promising and reassuring.
Which brings us to November 19, 2019. After four years of development, I held in my hand, my very own backer-copy of Shenmue III. I was one of the 81,807 who gladly contributed my money to help make Shenmue fans’ wishes come true. It has been 18 years of wondering where Ryo’s journey would lead him. Would he realize the dangerous cycle of revenge, and choose a more virtuous life to lead? For the longest time fans have these questions and many others.
There’s been two generations of consoles between Shenmue II and Shenmue III. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Sega’s series Yakuza. Many consider it a spiritual successor to Shenmue. There’s exploration, great characters, a robust fighting system, and cheesy over the top dialogue and plot. It’s a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s plenty of contrast to both series, but I believe they’re both excellent on their own merits. With so much time in between games, would Shenmue III keep the charm from its first two games but also meet the standards of modern-day games. In that sense I hope that Shenmue III, which helped pave the way for many open world games, is reviewed fairly and be met with critical acclaim and commercial success.
To everyone’s surprise, in 2018 Sega released an HD version of Shenmue I and II all on a single package. Regarding reviews of Shenmue 3, I feel like to understand the series and review the game fairly one should experience the first two games. I don’t necessarily know from which vantage point most reviewers critiquing the game are writing from. Still, I can understand the perspective of reviewers who may think the game is dated or that it can’t compete with modern triple A studio games. Of course, a studio of 75 can’t compete with a developer like Rockstar or EA, that’s an obvious conclusion. Most importantly, I want to avoid plot spoilers (reviews often spoil plot details) at all costs. With these premises in mind, I’ve been avoiding reviews of Shenmue 3, as to let the game wash over me and let me form my own perspectives and opinions on it. Realistically, Shenmue has always been about the journey. The first two games hooked me with a sense of exploration and wonder. And to be able to experience this again is a special feeling.
A Gamer’s Journey Beyond Shenmue
I can’t help but reflect on my own journey. In 18 years, I’ve graduated high school, and completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree at my alma mater. I’ve moved multiple times, started new jobs, lost my grandmother, got married to a wonderful woman, discovered the financial independence movement, had a child, and recently moved to an entirely new part of the country. Life is so dynamically different and more complex than it was 18 years ago. But despite this, holding Shenmue III in my hands gives me the feeling that I’m a teenager again. Perhaps it’s nostalgia to a degree, but I never thought that I’d be walking in Ryo Hazuki’s shoes after such a long time. Ryo has remained ageless, still stuck in the 1980’s. Even though I’m now in my 30’s, it still gives me great joy to experience a new Shenmue game. Even cooler, I can’t believe that I’m in the game’s credits!
What a time to be alive. It’s amazing that a devoted fanbase can help create a movement and pool resources to help realize a dream. I’m sure there will be some that don’t enjoy the game. There will be others who will love it. If I was given the choice between having Shenmue III and not having it, I’d certainly choose being able to play Shenmue III. To that, I wish to offer the most heartfelt of thanks to Yu Suzuki and his team, the Shenmue community and all Kickstarter campaign backers, Sony, and Shibuya Entertainment for helping Shenmue III materialize into what it is now. So, without any further remarks, I’m off to experience the next chapter of Shenmue. C’mon Ryo, let’s track down Lan Di!