Yu Suzuki was an early innovator at Sega, creating experiences like HangOn, Out Run, and Virtua Fighter. He developed quick-to-play, proﬁ table experiences for Sega, but as early as the Sega Saturn era, he began exploring long-form narrative games with the intention to build something bigger.
Shemue began in earnest as an RPG based on Virtua Fighter starring the series’ poster boy, Akira. However, the game transformed into the story of an original character seeking revenge against the people responsible for his father’s death.
Shenmue was planned from the beginning to be a series of games with a story living beyond its ﬁ rst entry. Despite achieving critical success with an average review score of 89 percent according to GameRankings.com, the game failed to recoup its massive budget, which was rumored to have reached up to $70 million. As a point of comparison, Heavy Rain, a similar game in many ways, cost approximately $55 million to develop.
Thanks in part to the Dreamcast’s small install base, the game sold just over one million copies. It’s a respectable number, but the game is considered a commercial failure. A sequel, Shenmue II, released in Japan and Europe, and was later localized in North America by Micro-soft for Xbox, but it was too little, too late. Despite frequent and loud fan outcry for a third entry, many had given up hope until Yu Suzuki took the stage during Sony’s 2015 E3 press conference to announce a Kickstarter for Shenmue III, which garnered $6,333,295 in funding.
Years before titles like Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead put emphasis on narrative, with quick-time events in place to supplement important scenes, Shenmue’s protagonist Ryo was tapping buttons to on-screen prompts and spending more time chatting with NPCs than punching them. Shenmue is all about its story, its huge cast of characters, and its 3D open world. The combat, while competent and fun, is second to building a believable world.
The game begins with Ryo witnessing his father’s death in his own home at the hand of antagonist Lan Di. Ryo’s life pursuit from that point forward is discovering why his father was murdered, and ﬁnding Lan Di to return the favor. This new direction for Ryo, however, does not change that he has a life, responsibilities, and the human necessity of sleep.
Shenmue took the unique approach of making the player live out Ryo’s life, waking up each morning, exploring the city of Yokosuka, developing relationships, and slowly picking away at the mystery that has become his larger purpose. At a certain point in the game, Ryo even needs to acquire a job.
Its pace is undeniably slow, but it is all in favor of building a living, breathing world that cannot be broken down by force alone. Shenmue was ahead of its time in this way, with a clear understanding that action and combat are not necessary to engage a player. A quiet scene reading a letter from Ryo’s departed father or buying food to feed to an orphaned cat are just as important as picking a ﬁ ght in a bar to track down sailors who know the whereabouts of Lan Di.
Outcry for a sequel has been strong since the release of Shenmue II in 2001, mainly because the story was never completed. Ryo never found Lan Di. Sega devoted an incredible amount of time and money to Shenmue and its sequel to create an explorable world, and it all ultimately lead to an uncertain cliffhanger. An unresolved narrative arc is not uncommon in the world of entertainment, but Shenmue stands out as one of the ﬁrst video games that heavily emphasized story without being able to deliver a satisfying conclusion.
An incredible amount of personal interest is invested in the outcome of Ryo’s future. Finding Lan Di and the family heirloom he stole is important, but being able to role-play as Ryo again and explore his world is just as enticing. It’s the reason a Kickstarter campaign became one of the biggest stories of E3 2015, why the game set a Guinness record for the fastest crowd-funded game to reach $1 million, and how it set a Kickstarter record to become the most funded video game in the service’s history