Easily one the biggest surprises of E3, the announcement of Shenmue III whipped up a frenzy of excitement and debate but considering it has been almost 15 years since the release of Shenmue II a lot of younger gamers may be wondering just what the big deal is. Well here’s a run down of all things Shenmue to help alleviate some of that confusion.
What is/was Shenmue
Shenmue is an open world action adventure game from SEGA that was produced and directed by Yu Suzuki. Originally intended to span across four games the first title was released for the Dreamcast in 1999 with the second arriving on Dreamcast and Xbox in 2001. Sadly that was the last we ever saw of the popular protagonist Ryo Suzuki until he made his reappearance earlier this year. At the time Shenmue was the most expensive game ever made but a look at what it offered shows just how revolutionary it was for its time. The game had a day-and-night cycle, NPCs had their own day-to-day schedules as they went about their lives, the weather system was variable (or you could even set it to run off the official weather records for Yokosuka in 1986) and it was packed with mini-games. It even included in-game arcades that would allow you to play full versions of old Sega arcade classics. Considering that games today still struggle to successfully implement some of these features it is safe to say the Shenmue was ahead of its time and the critical response was accordingly positive.
A (Very) Brief Plot Summary
This the story of the Ryo Suzuki, a teenage martial arts student on a quest to find justice and revenge for his murdered father. In 1986 Ryo’s father died in his arms after being attacked in the family dojo by Lan Di, a man searching for the “dragon mirror”. Ryo swears revenge for the murder. Discovering that the dragon mirror was part of a set he finds the “phoenix mirror” in his father’s basement. Eventually he discovers that Lan Di is in Hong Kong and he sets out by boat to journey there. In Shenmue II we see him arrive and discover why his father was killed. Lan Di’s own father had been killed and he believed it to have been the work of Iwao (Ryo’s father). He specifically desires the mirrors because he believes they are the key to resurrecting the Chinese Qing dynasty. Ryo is told to continue his search in Guilin and that Lan Di is on his way there. Here he discovers a woman who appears to have magical abilities. She leads him to an old stone quarry where they find a note and a sword. Combining the sword with the phoenix mirror reveals a large mural of the dragon and phoenix mirrors and ends the second game on quite the cliffhanger.
Shenmue – The original game has three key gameplay elements to it. Investigation, QTE battles and Free battles. For the majority of the time Ryo is exploring Yokosuka and talking to NPCs in the hope of gaining some sort of lead as to the whereabouts of Lan Di. While some NPCs will be able to help in his investigation others simply help to flesh out the world of Shenmue and its backstory. The game had quite a heavy reliance on Quick Time Event sequences but of course this was before they became the overused lazy mechanic they often tend to be in modern gaming. Finally in free battle sequences the player got to make use of all that martial arts training that Ryo has under his belt.
Shenmue II – Shenmue II was a slightly more linear experience than the first but it also contained a number of improvements to the formula. While failing a QTE in the first would simply result in a retry failing in Shenmue II it could in some cases cause the story to branch off. It also boasted a feature that we would probably feel a little lost without in modern games, a new question system which allowed the player to select from a variety of questions when talking with NPCs. The Dreamcast version also had another feature that has only recently come into its own. It had a data transfer option that allowed players to import their save data from the original game into Shenmue II which would allow them to carry over in-game money, items and skills.
Why are we only now seeing Shenmue III
Although the series was heavily praised by games media and gamers alike it underperformed in sales, especially considering the hefty development costs. Shenmue sold 1.2m copies by October 2001 while Shenmue II only sold 400k. The series was predominantly associated with the ill-fated Dreamcast, probably the best “failed” console to date and while Shenmue II was also available on the original Xbox it would be of little appeal to those who had not already played the original on Dreamcast. Sadly Sega had little option but to cancel the project. Despite the setback Yu Suzuki never stopped wanting to complete his story and now the rise of crowdfunding has given him an opportunity to do so.
Sony and the Kickstarter Controversy
As most of you will be aware Shenmue III was announced at the Sony E3 press conference but the announcement was that a Kickstarter was being set up for the game. Sony stated that they were supporting Yu Suzuki and the development team which naturally led to some understandable skepticism about why anybody should Kickstart the project if Sony were funding it. The information was murky for quite some time but now that everything has settled a clearer idea of exactly what is going on has been formed. Yes Sony are supporting the project but that support is primarily focused on marketing the game rather than developing it. The majority of the development costs will be covered by the Kickstarter project. Sony will not be receiving any of the money raised by crowd-funding.
Suzuki recently issued a statement regarding this issue. “Sony and Shibuya Productions have been wonderful partners because they believe in Shenmue and want to see the best for the fans and the game. Their investment in (and support of) Shenmue have helped to realize a sequel that will stand proud with its predecessors. While it is not business practice to discuss the specific details of such arrangements, I can say that with their assistance on the production and marketing end, and in Sony’s case with some publishing support as well, Ys Net is able to use more of the money we collect through Kickstarter purely for Shenmue 3’s development. It is also important to note that your funds are going strictly to Ys Net for development of Shenmue 3 – Sony and Shibuya Productions are not seeing a cent of your Kickstarter dollars.”
Shenmue cost $47m, how can Shenmue III cost $2m?
This is the second major controversy surrounding the announcement of Shenmue III. Exactly how much Shenmue cost to develop is a much debated topic with answers ranging from approx $45m all the way up to $70m yet the Kickstarter goal for Shenmue III is a mere $2m. There are a number of factors involved here. While it is quite apparent that Sony are not as heavily involved as some people initially suspected, and sadly they probably couldn’t afford to be, the removal of marketing, production and publishing costs would have a huge impact on the overall costs associated with the game. Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed at that time. More recently we had Destiny take that crown and while marketing Destiny they spent $6.7m just on television advertising for the US (although it’s hard to imagine Sony forking out that much). It is also important to go back and consider just what Shenmue did and why it was so expensive to develop. Dynamic weather, advanced NPC routines, day-and-night cycles, fully functioning arcades… these ideas were revolutionary or the time and they were extremely expensive to implement. Moving forward 15 years and these are now fairly typical game mechanics and certainly a lot more affordable. Shenmue III is not going to testing the limitations of industry and it’s not going to be setting out to blow us away with elements that won’t become commonplace for another decade. Finally there is the simple fact that at $2m in funding Shenmue III will come anywhere close to the scale of the original game. It will be a comparatively brief linear continuation of the main story based narrative. $2m is not the budget for a vast open world experience but it instead the bare minimum needed to be able to proceed with the plot.
Could we see a HD Remake of Shenmue I/II?
SEGA own the rights to these games meaning that any decision on this matter would lie with them, not with Yu Suzuki. That said Suzuki has stated that he will be asking SEGA about the possibility.