The Troubled History of SHENMUE

After over a decade of extinction the Shenmue saga finally rose from the dead when Shenmue 3 was announced at Sony 2015’s E3 conference to overwhelming applause. Since then the series has gathered mainstream attention and while there are many that adore Shenmue there are just as many who have never heard of the cult classics and are wondering what the fuss is all about.

As far as I’m concerned the Shenmue series should be up there with Metal Gear Solid and Legend of Zelda but it was never straight sailing for Shenmue. Whilst the games provided expansive open-worlds rich with life, culture and interaction fuelled by an emotionally driven storyline issues being confined to limited audiences alongside budgeting issues and numerous delays meant that Shenmue never got the time in the spotlight it really deserved.

What’s a Shenmue?

A mixture of RPGs, Action-Adventure and Beat-em up genres, the original Shenmue games offered a whole new level of realism. You take on the life of Japanese youth Ryo Hazuki after watching his father murdered at the hands of the Chiyoumen and embark on an adventure to find your father’s killer.

Shenmue’s highly-detailed world was large and life-like. You could explore shops, the Hazuki residence and more. To add an extra sense of authenticity, Suzuki ensured that any person approachable in the game was fully-voiced which was unheard of at the time. You could learn new martial arts from several masters, ask civilians for clues or waste your money playing SEGA game at the local arcades or even gamble in Hong Kong’s many dodgy back alleys. The sense of freedom offered was akin to the GTA’s today.

ryo asking

Taking on Ryo’s life literally meant living in his house, taking on his job and being the gossip of all the locals.

Shenmue had Quick-Time Events before they were mainstream. The games had several interactive cut-scenes where your actions would have consequences. Many a time when engaging in the unfolding storyline; Shenmue throws a QTE at you reminding you that this is a game not a movie. Well-known titles such as God of War, Resident Evil 4 and even GTA owe homage to Shenmue. The Shenmue games offered a very unique experience and after all our personal investment in the series as fanst, Shenmue 3 is a chance for us to finally finish what we started 15 years ago.

Sega Saturn Shenmue

The beginning of Shenmue actually goes back to the early 90s. When veteran Sega developer Yu Suzuki was tasked with creating a fighting game in 1993 he embarked on a trip to China for inspiration on martial arts. This would lead to the Virtua Fighter series but having become mesmerized with Chinese culture Suzuki’s trip inspired him to create something more.

At one point the game was codenamed

At one point the game was codenamed “Virtua Fighter RPG” with VF Fighter Akira given the leading role.

Suzuki wanted to create a longer experience suited to the home console. Coined as a “45-hour, 11-chapter revenge epic in the tradition of Chinese cinema” he aspired for a whole new degree of interaction through his experiences’ during his travels. Development started for the Sega Saturn with the game intended to be the console’s “killer app” against the original Playstation and Nintendo 64.

However, such an ambitious game would prove to be challenging to forge and the Sega Saturn was notorious difficult to build games for. Development for Yu Suzuki’s grand project was said to be “painfully slow” and by the time the game was ready in 1997, the Saturn had been deemed a colossal failure which Sega would no longer invest in, rendering Suzuki’s work redundant even if it did look like the best Saturn game around.

70 million Dollars

Sega moved on to its next generation console, the Dreamcast, and “Project Shenmue” was moved as well. On Sega’s improved console Shenmue’s development went swiftly and the game would finally be ready for purchase in the new millennium. At this point however, Sega as a company had been getting their ass kicked for the last 5 years and was financially on its knees.

Shenmue’s years of drawn out development was also proving to be costly. In additional to being difficult, the Saturn was also expensive to develop for and by the time the game was released the funding for the project was rumoured to have reach $70 million at this point making it the most expensive video game produced at the time. Shenmue was released to critical acclaim however, despite selling 1.2 million copies which would usually be a success, Sega never made any profit from the game due to its sizable costs.


It’s said that every Dreamcast owner would have had to buy Shenmue….twice for Sega to make a profit! No Pressure.

Shenmue 2 on the other hand did sell poorly. Quality wise it was even better than the first one but it was released late 2001 on the Dreamcast after it had been discontinued. To make matters worse, Sega cut a last-minute deal with Microsoft to have Shenmue 2 exclusively for the original Xbox in the North American region, which left a lot of fans who bought the first game unable to play the second.

At the time Xbox was new and not exactly popular either so the game didn’t sell well. So having released two games without gaining a penny back Sega were understandably not keen to a third any time soon; leaving the story stuck on Shenmue 2’s cliff-hanger. That’s where we’ve been stuck for the following 12 years. Sega would never fund such a game again so Yu Suzuki could never finish his story.

Third time lucky?

Years and dozens of online fan petitions later….SHENMUE 3!!! Since Sega wouldn’t fund the game, Suzuki turned to the fans. Suzuki announced Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign at Sony’s 2015 E3 Conference. The initial target of $2 million was smashed within 9 hours. The campaign did have its critics. How can $2 million be enough to fund the third game when it’s common knowledge that the Shenmue cost $70 million? But did it really?

Will Ryo finally avenge his father's murder? He's had to wait over 15 years?

Will Ryo finally avenge his father’s murder? He’s had to wait over 15 bloody years!

Suzuki has stated many times that the game only cost $47 million, already a significant difference, but what is more important is what that figure actually includes:

  • The Saturn version of Shenmue 1
  • The Saturn version of Shenmue 2 *Shenmues 1 and 2 were actually made together and then split in two.
  • The Dreamcast version of Shenmue 1
  • Several assets for the Dreamcast version of Shenmue 2 and groundwork for future Shenmue games.
  • All associated marketing costs of the released Shenmue 1.

One could argue that $70/47 million actually covers three and half games. The original Saturn versions were pretty much complete when it was scrapped so essentially the games were made twice. Today Suzuki’s team is more experienced with building open world games and there are now many development kits to specifically suit to these types of games meaning budget and development hopefully won’t be an issue this time around.

Shenmue 3 will be available for the PlayStation 4 and PC. Its availability on the PS4 already gives it a much better chance commercially than the first two games and add the fact that Sony behind the games’ marketing perhaps Shenmue can finally reach to the masses. Here’s hoping.

Edited by Ayrton Noye George


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