Availability: Released on the Sega Dreamcast on December 29th 1999 in Japan, November 6th in Europe, and November 8th in America. Japan would later get a re-release titled US Shenmue on July 5th 2001. US Shenmue was essentially the American version of the game released for the Japanese audience. It included all the English voice acting and any other changes done to the American copy while still retaining some Japanese text including subtitles. Shenmue has never been ported or re-released to other consoles.
Version I Played: American release.
Review: I wonder why I'm even talking about this since this is one of the most famous titles for the Dreamcast. Well seeing as I have a Sonic Adventure review waiting in the sidelines I think it's okay. That and despite it's popularity I wonder how many of you, my readers, are even aware of what this game is about, how it plays, or if it REALLY is any good. So with that in mind I will talk about it. So... yeah, screw you I guess?
And since this game has a lot of history I want to talk about that first.
When Shenmue was first in development it was planned to be a traditional role playing game based on the characters of the Virtua Fighter series (can't imagine that would have been very interesting) with the main character being Akira. When you look at Akira and then at Ryo you can see the resemblance easily. It was also originally planned to be on the Sega Saturn, but due to the failure of the console (everywhere BUT Japan) it was never completed for said console after two years of development. The project continued on the Sega Dreamcast where it founds it's home. Also as a little easter egg you'll find Katana brand cigarettes within the Shenmue world. This is a reference to the Dreamcast's original name, Katana, appropriately.
When the game was delayed (after setting a proper release date on Dreamcast) in Japan, anyone who pre-ordered the game got a special disc on the day of the intended release called "What's Shenmue?" Now kids, this was before we could download demos onto our home consoles so pay close attention. What's Shenmue? was a demo disc of sorts to introduce the player to the way and the world of Shenmue. You got to visit limited areas and do some interacting. It worked more as a tutorial to explain what the full game would be like. Four videos were also included to help expand beyond what the demo showed.
Shenmue is not only one of my favorite games on the Dreamcast but also one of the best. When it was released it got a lot of mixed reviews, all very polarized. Many critics praised it for being so innovative. On the other hand many criticized it for being very slow moving and the poor voice acting. Yes it is true the game has some pretty terrible voice acting, at least in the states. I cannot judge the Japanese version because I don't know Japanese and wouldn't be able to tell if they're screwing up. And yes the game is very slow but it is exactly as immersive as all the overwhelmingly positive reviews were giving it. It's a mind-blowing game and nothing like it came before or since. P.S. I haven't played Shenmue II but from what I can tell it's a similar yet pretty different experience.
The biggest disappointment from Sega's end was in regard to money. The game wound up with a substantial budget of $70 Million (or $95 Million in modern dollars) which accounts for the years of production and the plans for more games. Because of this budget it was stated that at the time of release every Dreamcast owner would have to purchase the game twice for Sega to turn a profit. So while it was successful in almost every other aspect it was technically a failure in sales. But if it was a success then that would be a big chapter in video game history! Despite this "disappointment" and "failure" (so weird to say all things considering) the game was the 4th best selling game on the Dreamcast selling over a million units. It was later stated by Yu Suzuki, the game's creator, that the $70 Million was an embellishment and that it only really cost $47 Million to develop and produce.
Lastly before I get moving there was a Shenmue movie released not long after the first game came out. Now it wasn't a live action or adaptation. Nothing like that. What it was, was a 90 minute compilation of major cutscenes from the game with key fights played out by experts of the game. I have not seen it so I cannot judge the quality. In Japan it was released theatrically and in the States as a bonus DVD with Shenmue II when it came out on XBox (ugh, more on that at the end of the review).
So, this game has mega history behind it and has left quite a legacy. So what are my thoughts? Fantastic thoughts. I have so many things to say about this game I don't even know where to begin. But I think I will start with my memories of the game.
I've been a big supporter of the Dreamcast since the beginning. I even got one within two weeks of it's original release. Sadly at the time I was only 12 and was still going through a big buy/sell/trade phase with video games. So I don't have my original Dreamcast, but I have one again none the less and have been rebuilding my collection. So I was present during the Dreamcast's entire lifespan. I remember anticipating this game and I remember playing it when it was new. This is a time when I definitely was happy I subscribed to the VERY short lived Dreamcast magazine. When Shenmue came out they gave it a glowing review hitting on all the big aspects of what makes the game great. I read every word and was fascinated knowing I had to get the game as soon as possible for this incredible looking experience.
Eventually I picked it up. Keep in mind I was getting into this game in the late 90s/early 2000s. This was when the idea of a game coming on multiple discs meant you were in for one massive experience. It was true for many RPGs back on the Playstation so when I got this game and it was on three discs, I was psyched. Right away I was immersed. It was and still remains to be one of the most unique games I had ever played. This was also in a time where my interest in Anime and Japan in general was at it's peak. This was at a time when many gamers still looked to Japan as this wonderland of gaming where all the REALLY good stuff was still there while we got crap instead. So playing this ticked my fancy on a billion levels. It felt like nothing i had played made by Americans. It felt so Japanese in so many wonderful ways. Little did I realize how much of a game changer it was in Japan as well. But until I realized that this was truly a dream come true for me.
I must have played through the game many times. I even played around with the fourth disc, Shenmue Passport. The Passport was like a bonus feature for the game. It didn't include making of videos or anything like that. But you could re-watch videos and re-listen to music you've unlocked throughout the game as well as delve into further details of the game. Not only that but you could also toy around with the game's mechanics in different cutscenes but messing with the camera, weather, etc, all pretty much as a showoff of the engine Sega developed. The only thing I didn't and wasn't able to play around with were the extras available via online capabilities. I never had my Dreamcast hooked up to the internet because I didn't have much use for it and I was barely a teenager so I wouldn't be able to talk my parents into it anyway. So I don't know what that experience was like but according to resources it states there was an online manual, rankings for different sections in-game, and bonus downloadable VMU related items.
I cherished these memories so much. It's been over ten years since I first played the game. I was bummed when I found out the sequel was going to be released on XBox in the States with it being on Dreamcast EVERYWHERE ELSE! But again more on that later. So I still haven't played the sequel so I don't know what happens next. But does the experience hold up? You bet your ass it does!
The story of Shenmue goes like this. In a way it's a pretty straight up revenge tale. You play as Ryo Hazuki and live in a small Japanese town in the mid-80s. One night you run home and in your family's dojo you see your father confronted by a mysterious looking man who looks like he could be part of Yakuza or something similar. This mysterious man is demanding something known as a "Dragon Mirror," but your father keeps refusing. Giving the impression it's a very important and powerful item. Your father takes a deadly blow from this mysterious man and it winds up killing him. Sadly in the process the mirror is given up under the threat of killing Ryo. So the game starts out with you mourning the death of your father with the intent of chasing down dangerous men and uncovering the mystery of why they needed this Dragon Mirror. Pretty heavy stuff for someone who doesn't look a day over 18 at best. It is suggested he is at the end of high school so this isn't an illogical conclusion. From here you go on your investigation talking with whoever you can getting them to know whatever they know.
Okay let's talk gameplay. The game uses a gameplay approach called FREE, which stands for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. And let me tell you, when they say FREE they really mean it. You can go damn near anywhere in this game and it's brilliant. Obviously you can't go INTO any building but that's still true for most games today. Simply put this game did free roaming, sandbox-esque style gameplay in a 3D environment before games like Grand Theft Auto III. And it does it much more realistically. But that's not what GTAIII is all about and that's not what I want to talk about here. This review is about Shenmue, DAMMIT!
So what FREE entails is you can freely move and look around in the environment around you. You can walk through your home and dojo, searching through cabinets and drawers. In those you may find some fun extras like cassette tapes or photos of family and friends. Not everything you find is essential to the story but there will be some items so don't go ignoring exploration completely. And I think a lot of the people who would play and enjoy this game would be all over the exploration aspect. Just knowing what all you can do and in such great detail is so unique to this game. Seriously, while there may be exploration of the tiniest of spaces in modern games none of them do it as well as Shenmue does. This FREE movement does such a fantastic job at adding a sense of realism to the game. This game realizes the realism in the gameplay by deciding to own it. And you have to work around your schedule in order to make sure you're getting to the right places at the right time.
That's another thing. This game has a calendar with key scheduled events and you have to make sure you keep an eye on the time. Ryo has a notebook with important phone numbers and will make notes throughout the game to remind you what you need to do next. It is super handy and... you guessed it... adds a sense of realism. It doesn't just flash up to you all the time, either. Usually if you need a reminder on a phone number or an event that wasn't in the most recent entry you'll need to flip through the pages to find said information. Then the clock. The time goes faster than real time of course to keep the pace moving. That way you're not sitting around waiting for literally hours waiting for the next timeframe where you can do things. But this will work against you. For example if you're out late you will be scolded by your... um... mom? aunt? guardian?... I'm never really sure what role that lady plays but I'm assuming mother. That or you could be late for an appointment you made, therefore working against you again. But at least there are ways to kill time if needed.
Now this is one of my favorite parts of the game. If you need to pass some time in the game there are definite time killers. One that is obvious would be to train. You can do that in the dojo where it works like the practice mode of a regular fighting game like Tekken. You can get a list of moves and practice pulling them off. But fuck that because there are arcades in this game! Now remember that this game is already loaded with so much story and high production value. On top of that you get to play through some games in the arcades. There's a couple different darts (not sure what's different besides HOW you throw and what the board looks like), there's a boxing game, and, oh yeah, FULL! ARCADE! VERSIONS! OF! FUCKING! SPACE HARRIER AND HANG ON! This blew my mind when I got this game back at the turn of the century. Here you're already playing a fantastic Dreamcast game, and then it comes up to you and says, "Oh yeah, want to play some classic Sega arcade games, too?" It's fantastic how those games are included. You just need to make sure you watch your wallet because you will need money for this game. And until you get a job at the harbor you will only get so much money per day. But you can always win copies of Space Harrier and Hang On in the convenience store raffle drawings. Then you can go home and play them on your Sega Saturn. The most unrealistic part of the game. How does he own one nearly 10 years before it came out? That's gaming magic I guess...
And I've got to say, with all the things it crams in here it all works very well, adding to the experience many times over. You really get a sense that you're a part of the life of the character. No it doesn't have interactive speech like in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but there's a clear story being told. Ryo is a very specific character with a very specific character arc. He's not a blank slate for you to put your face on. As fun as morality and interactivity in more modern RPGs can be I think I prefer this. I'd rather have a clear and consistent story that is solid instead of one I interact with. Because then that'll just poke holes in the story, lessening the experience. One of the very few problems I had with Persona 4. And speaking of problems... this game has them... despite being considered one of the best games ever made.
Again I cannot give Sega enough props for making every single character you encounter unique. Heck, they all have their own voice and the game never resorts to using just text. It's all spoken and everyone has a uniquely designed face as well. However the biggest problem is that you can tell some were much more inspired and thought out than others. Ryo looks great, Tom is very unique, and even the hobo at the harbor has a unique personality. But once you start to get down to the Joe Nobody you talk to off the street they all start to look similar and sound alike. Not to mention that some of the voice acting is pretty terrible. Some of these actors had no idea what they were doing. Again, the lead characters all look and sound great... for the most part... but when it comes down to it this game has aged about as well as any game with high levels of voice acting. At least it isn't Resident Evil bad. No "Jill Sandwiches" here.
Another problem with the game is a section I am glad there isn't a lot of. Combat. I do not like the combat in this game. The game was originally inspired by Virtua Fighter but something must have gotten lost along the way. The combat is terribly clunky with unresponsive controls. Chances are all the fights you go through will be cumbersome, maybe even won out of luck. I dread these sections when they come up. I didn't even like then when I first played it as a young teen. They're not fun if you ask me.
Come to think of it, in many ways the controls can hinder your experience. Generally speaking I think the controls are just fine. However you will run into plenty of moments where you're just trying to navigate around someone and you find yourself stuck in a spot that feels like you had to try and get stuck there. But one spot in particular that really pisses me off is the one stealth section of the game. Early in the game you find yourself needing to sneak into a restricted area of the harbor. You have to do it at night Metal Gear Solid style by avoiding guards. However you don't have a Metal Gear Solid style radar (as you wouldn't expect) so navigating around them is a pain in the ass. And if they spot you, you can attempt to get away but it's hardly worth it. You're pretty much caught. It's in this section when the clunky tank-like controls work against you. I must have done that spot over and over and over... at least 10 times before I got it this last playthrough.
But really those are the few complaints I have. The acting is rough around the edges, the controls can be a pain, and I hate the fighting system. Other than that... I really don't have much of any complaints. Maybe the harsh randomness of the raffle ticket drawings making me buy merch over and over again just to get the littlest of prizes but that hardly detracts from the actual game. Just the bonus stuff. Otherwise this game is so supreme, immersive, and fun! Even if it was one of the grand-daddy's of quick time events. Back then some of us thought that was pretty cool because it got us more involved in the cutscenes.
The only other thing I really want to talk about is the game's legacy. It's hard to place the game's legacy. It was well received and sold in fantastic numbers back in the day. However it doesn't seem like a mega ton of people played it. It's been considered one of the best games ever made, but if you talk to your other gamer friends about the Dreamcast they may talk more about Sonic Adventure or Soul Calibur than Shenmue. It's like it was a sleeper hit without actually being a sleeper hit. In any regard I believe this game was far more successful in Japan than it was in the states.
A part of that could be that they have so much more variety and avant garde choices, leaving them more open to new things than Americans. Shenmue came out at the turn of the century, shortly before every other AAA game was a first person shooter. Come to think of it this was released in America a year before Halo, effectively changing the entire gaming market for the worse. But going back to the success in Japan. The game was not only released over there in open arms but even a re-release happened (that I talked about in the "Availability" section of my review) called "US Shenmue" that contained all the stuff from the U.S. version of the game with some small spots still containing Japanese such as sub-titles and text in Ryo's notebook. On top of it all the Shenmue movie, which was simply a compilation of cutscenes from the game, was fucking released theatrically in Japan. That would NEVER happen here. Only a movie adaptation of a video game with at least a budget of a million-bajillion-kajillion dollars and starts whoever the hell the big action star is at the time.
Of course a sequel was made as was the intention from the start. This Shenmue ends with a cliffhanger where Ryo is finally on his way to Hong Kong to hunt down his father's killer and unlock more on the mystery he's discovered. The sequel was released on the Dreamcast in Japan and Europe but somehow missed the boat here in the states. By the time Shenmue II got released in America the Dreamcast was done for. So the game was released on XBox for some reason... you got me... didn't seem like a logical choice then and it still doesn't. Would have had a better home on the PS2, heck even the Gamecube. That's when we got the Shenmue movie on DVD as a bonus with the XBox version of the game. Cause chances are XBox owners didn't previously have a Dreamcast so they needed to get caught up on the game.
Shenmue II sold relatively well in Japan but poorly in America. No one wanted to play it on XBox, they wanted to play it on the Dreamcast. So instead many American Dreamcast owners imported the European version so they could play it the way it was intended. Causing the European version to sell in fantastic numbers. Also reviews show Shenmue II improved in many ways based on complaints of the first game. A third game was always intended but is likely never to see the light of day.
Since then there has been two other Shenmue related games, both only released in the land of the rising sun. Okay I should be technical because the first one I'll mention was actually cancelled. Shenmue Online was set to be an MMORPG set in the world of Shenmue II (so in Hong Kong instead of small town Japan). It started development in 2004 with beta testings popping up in Korea and China in 2005. After many complications the game quickly declined and has long since been considered cancelled. Really not much to report on. The other Shenmue game was similar, called Shenmue City. This was actually released in Japan but only for Smart Phones and was based entirely online. You would play as a side character of the original Shenmue and would follow along Ryo in quests and other such shit. A PC version was announced but never released. Much like Shenmue Online there's not much on the subject. Also the game had a very short life. Originally released in December 2010, but was formally shut down on December 26th 2011. I'm sure for some Japanese gamers that was the worst Christmas present they could get.
Shenmue is a pretty big deal in the gaming community that hardly gets the respect it deserves. It's a strong contender that can stand up today if modern gamers can get around the less than stellar acting and dated graphics. It's well written, well respected, and if there was a Criterion Collection for games I can guaran-damn-tee that this would be one of the first games to be a part of it. The game obviously means a lot to me, too. I look at some games as landmarks in my time as a gamer. Obviously Super Mario Brothers marks the beginning. Sonic the Hedgehog is me growing up. And so forth and so forth. But Shenmue does mark a special chapter when I was starting to expand my horizons farther than just what's familiar. It was when I first started getting interested in imports. It was when I finally saw what gaming could be, even as an art form. And that's the biggest thing. Shenmue is a fucking beautiful work of art that remains incomplete to this day.
In a dream world the entire trilogy would have been released, all of which would have been on the Dreamcast. That time has sadly come and gone and we're likely to never see Shenmue III. Honestly I don't even want there to be a new game, at least not for modern consoles. If I could have it my way there would be a special Dreamcast release. That'll never happen. Not even in a kickstarter type thing. It would cost far too much or wouldn't be of the same quality as the previous games. If there were a Shenmue III for Playstation 4 or something it wouldn't really be Shenmue III, it would be something different, if you know what I mean.
One of these days I'll be able to get around to playing Shenmue II (The European Dreamcast version. I'll never touch the XBox one). I already know it has a cliffhanger ending. Leading up to an ending that will never be seen the way it was intended. I'm not being a negative nancy here, I mean it. Even in a world where Duke Nukem Forever can finally be released and there still being some thought of Half Life 3 being made, there's no chance in hell that Shenmue III will be released. I still want to know what happens. I would love to read a script, book adaptation, whatever Yu Suzuki has in mind. But sadly I know it'll never come out the way it was intended. I've accepted that. And you know what, maybe it's better not knowing. In a way it makes it more of a magical experience.