Shenmue: The Rise and Fall?
Updated: Sep 15, 2021
A deep dive into the innovation that Shenmue brought to the gaming world and the taste of nostalgia that never left our mouths.
I was 13 years old and the year was 2000... Old Man Winter’s bite was blowing through the streets, but I felt warm within my house- eyes glued to that all-too-familiar blue glow of a CRT television. Below laid my Sega Dreamcast; its power indicator emitting a soft orange light, humming as it spun a disc within while I hunkered down for a long haul. Shenmue was my game of choice and at the time I had no idea how much my mind was about to explode.
“For all those God of War lovers out there who never played Shenmue...you're welcome!
Innovative To Say The Least
Shenmue helped shape the gaming industry as we know it today. The Yakuza games themselves are essentially spiritual successors to Shenmue. The vastness of Shenmue introduced players to a massive, immersive, living, and breathing open world. Set in Yokosuka, Japan during the 80s, players are thrown into a revolutionary, at the time, experience. I won’t go into story details as this post isn’t about that, but I will say it was beautifully written. Granted that may be a bit of a biased opinion.
After the intro, you’re left to explore Yokosuka in order to uncover clues that progress the story. This game was absurd with the number of details crammed in while simultaneously being among the first to introduce open-world exploration. You could do just about anything you wanted and at the time, this had never been seen before. Do you want to go to an Arcade and play a game? Shenmue has it. Want to go to a bar and play darts or billiards? Yup, you could do that too. How about going to a market to buy generic items? Uh-huh, you bet you can! Well, what if you wanted to get a drink from a vending machine? You get the idea.
Not only was Shenmue filled with hustling and bustling civilians with which you could converse, but it also had innovative systems like day/night cycles, weather cycles, and good ole quick time events (QTE). That’s right! Shenmue not only created but popularized QTEs. For all those God of War lovers out there who never played Shenmue…you’re welcome!
Poor Sales Don't Mean A Poor Game
In addition, the game came with four discs, one of which was a ‘Passport’. This disc utilized online aspects Dreamcast offered allowing players to download info on Shenmue like character biographies, 3D models, as well as upload scores from minigames. Some might be asking, “Well, if it was such a great game then what happened?” To those who are I’ll say this: Sales, it’s as simple as that.
Though it did sell 1.2 million copies, became a top-seller for Dreamcast, and created a cult-like following; commercially speaking it flopped. Unfortunately, sales did not match its development cost, an estimated 70 million, and what may surprise you is 9/11 may have had a hand in this too. Shenmue was designed by the legendary Yu Suzuki and intended for it to be a global experience; however after 9/11 emotions changed among your average consumer’s open-mindedness to culture from foreign location aiding in decreased sales.
Fast forward down the road a year and we are met with Shenmue II. With the release of Shenmue II there were hopes to recoup for lost profits, however, to an unfortunate turnout it sold even fewer copies than its predecessor. This was in spite of not only releasing on Dreamcast but the original Xbox as well. So that’s it, the end of Shenmue’s legacy…or was it...?
Resurrection Through Crowdfunding
Fast forward 20 years and we finally have Shenmue III. The much long-awaited continuation of our protagonist, Ryo Hazuki. The only reason this exists, however, was due to that cult-like following I mentioned earlier. Emotions ran high during Sony's E3 press conference. Not only was the remake of Final Fantasy VII finally shown, but Sony took us through a roller coaster of emotions when that iconic sound of Shenmue’s soundtrack reached our ears.
“All of my four viewers cried in agony as their ears bled."
I myself was streaming on Twitch at the time and basically screamed into my mic when I heard this. All of my four viewers cried in agony as their ears bled. What pains me about Shenmue III was the lack of support from Sony themselves. You see, if you’re unfamiliar with Shenmue’s story at this point, the third installment was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. Sony obviously didn’t believe in Suzuki's San dreams or capabilities, so he had to turn to us- the fans!
They knocked their goal out of the park, I know, I was a backer. Sadly, even exceeding goals and providing incentives, the game flopped commercially- again. Other than diehard fans there wasn’t much want or need for Shenmue as marketing was left in the dust. In this age of gaming, Shenmue was a ghost. Forgotten by many and unknown by more. So, a lack of marketing left many not knowing what it was if they hadn’t heard or played during its original reign. Sure, you saw ads here and there in gaming magazines or the internet, but that’s about where it ended. On top of this, those who backed the project claiming a PC/physical copy for Steam were stabbed in the back.
A Fan-Only Service
You see, months prior to its release Epic was having a hoot claiming exclusive releases on their Epic Gamestore and Ys Net (Suzuki San’s company) took the bait. All the backers, myself included, wanting a physical copy for PC/Steam were denied and forced an Epic Games copy. A lot of consumers not only disliked this but did not want it either. This forced them to refund pledges or offer a switch in rewards towards either a PS4 or Xbox One copy.
On top of everything else the game stuck true to its roots, which for lifelong fans was great, but it left a lot to be desired for newcomers. Alongside keeping the atrocious voice acting, iconic as it was, the overall mechanics/system Shenmue was known for, barely changed with a lack of innovation that was seen from the earlier games. This game was, in my opinion, quite literally designed for fans only. Now, I for one loved the game, but it also left me feeling sour. At long last, after 20 long years, I had Shenmue III. I was so excited as I finally was going to see the end to this epic saga! Right? Well, sadly no…
“I was left feeling cheated, in all honesty."
When I was amping up for an epic ending I was left with yet another cliff-hanger. One that was extremely anticlimactic at that! I wasn’t mad nor was I angry. I was left feeling cheated, in all honesty. I thought the reason we the fans strove to fund and bring this to life, to bring Yu’s vision to life, was to have the conclusion we all dreamed of for so many years. Here we are though, left pondering what might happen to our protagonist...
I love Shenmue. It is, for what it’s worth in gaming practices, a true masterpiece and a culmination of gaming itself! But, this leaves me wondering... has Shenmue really ended? Fans feel betrayed in a sense by Suzuki San for leaving us with such a punch to the gut. It will take a lot from him to patch things over and gain our confidence once more. Suziki San has made statements saying Shenmue IV will become a reality though. So maybe this is just the beginning and Shenmue will rise once again and become another memorable sensation leading in innovation when it comes to gaming. I like to think Shenmue will rise once more...