The year was 1999, the Console Wars were over, the fifth generation was drawing to an end and having failed with the Saturn, SEGA’s latest and final contribution to the home console market was finally released in the west – the powerful 128-bit SEGA Dreamcast.
In our current age, with the advancement of technology delivering Playstation 4 or Xbox One capabilities, GTX 2080Ti graphics cards and instant Ultra 4K visuals, looking back to those golden days of video games seems almost humiliating. We question how we were blown away with such medieval graphics and when revisiting promised moments that we were once a hero dear.
But it is important to remember that at the time, the fifth generation of consoles (Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64 and SEGA Dreamcast) operated at 64-bit maximum and was considered great technological advances, the Dreamcast would boast a 128-bit system, an online functionality and a removable memory card (The VMU) that doubled as a Tamagotchi-style handheld device that featured mini-games – it was truly a magnificent feat. When the SEGA Dreamcast was released in Europe, games such as Sonic Adventure, Space Channel 5, Power Stone, Soul Caliber and Crazy Taxi would capture a generation of gamers – but it wouldn’t be until the following year, on 1st of December, 2000, that the Dreamcast cult classic would be released in the west – a little game called Shenmue.
Prior to Shenmue, creator Yu Suzuki was mostly known for arcade classics such as Hang On, Outrun, Space Harrier and Virtua Fighter. It wouldn’t be until Suzuki groundwork on an RPG based on the Virtua Fighter series for the SEGA Saturn, that he would start to formulate a multi-part epic which he would later call Shenmue.
Set during the winter of 1986, Shenmue tells the story of Ryo Hazuki, a young martial artist who witnesses his father’s death at the hands of Lan Di, a mysterious Chinese martial artist. Vowing revenge, Ryo sets off on an investigation to find Lan Di, whatever the cost. The first game takes place in Yokosuka, Japan and contains five main areas: The Hazuki Household, Yamanose, Sakuragaoka, Dobuita and New Yokosuka Harbor.
Shenmue was an ambitious project, the most expensive title of its day, costing roughly $ 70 million, it was a game that would serve as the blueprint for modern-day open-world settings. An open, interactive environment where each NCP (non-playable character) operated to their own schedules – arriving at their place of work in time for the opening, operating a full working day, then returning home in the evening.
One of the greatest qualities of Shenmue that is often overlooked, that is the protagonist Ryo, actually goes home at the end of the day, as he is instructed that he is back home before 11 pm at the latest – if you choose to ignore this, the game will automatically return you to the Hazuki house in time for bed.
The world of Shenmue operates on a timetable, where Ryo will typically wake around 8.30 am and will have until 11 pm to complete the day’s events. As the player is gaming, each shop/bar/restaurant will operate at their set opening and closing times, which means that if Ryo has to speak with any individual, he must catch them between these times, or will have to wait until the following day. The beauty of the timetable is that it encourages the player to remember particular shops operating time and can teach patience. As there is no mini-map/waypoint in Shenmue, the player must find the location by either asking around or searching each building. Don’t worry if you arrive before the opening time however there is always the GAME Arcade, where Ryo can spend free time playing darts, capsule machines, Hang On or Space Harrier – or simply explore the five areas of Yokosuka. You will also get a job as a forklift driver in Shenmue and will be expected to work a full working week – which is why you may have heard about forklifts.
Not only does the game offer these (at the time) groundbreaking mechanics, but the weather system within the game, was able to recreate real weather data tasks from that time (Nov/Dec 1986) which is known as the ‘Magic Weather System’. The game would also pioneer the ‘QTE’ (Quick time event) which would be popularized throughout the following decades. It has inspired many modern-day open-world games and was the basis and inspiration for the Yakuza series.
Visually, Shenmue, was a product of its time, but in terms of creativity and playability, it was far ahead of its time – originally conceptualized as a multi-part epic that Yu Suzuki would not be able to complete, it would lie dormant following the release of Shenmue II in 2001, and would be until the announcement of Shenmue III in 2015 – a Kickstarter project that would receive $ 6.3million, making it gaming’s highest-funded Kickstarter at this time of publication.
In 2018, SEGA finally released the HD remasters of Shenmue I & II which will expose a new generation to Yu Suzuki’s creations and will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those who experienced and enjoyed them back in their heyday.
Shenmue is a masterpiece, a project that has survived the test of time, a true achievement and SEGA’s final gambit – even if we only remember the capsule toys and ‘I’m looking for sailors’.
Shenmue I & II HD is available for PC, PS4 & Xbox One now.
Shenmue III will be released on November 19, 2019.