While it might be hard to know if you played the game today, the original Shenmue was a transformative experience when it was originally released in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast. With an in-game day and night cycle, one of the earliest usages of quick-time events, the need to get an in-game job, an unprecedented amount of freedom, real-life stores that players could shop at, and incredible production values for the time, it was truly unlike anything else being released in that era. Its influence can be seen all over games that would take those sort of ideas to the next level like Grand Theft Auto 3 and the Yakuza series. However, the initial two titles didn’t light the world on fire commercially and that has left the series in a weird state of limbo for nearly 20 years as many people never thought Shenmue 3 would come out. The impossible is finally happening as it releases this month for PlayStation 4 and PC.
Originally meant to be released for the Saturn as a Virtua Fighter spin-off called Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira’s Story, the game eventually morphed into the Dreamcast title that players know in love. It kept many aspects of the original idea as the series uses the Virtua Fighter combat system and still revolves around heading to China in order to avenge the death of the protagonist’s father. The lengthy development cycle and the high production values meant that Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed at the time. The plan was that they were laying the framework for future titles, as the game’s story required multiple titles, that could recoup the cost after the first game was successful. However, Sega cut the cord on the series after the second release, as they were having financial trouble after the Saturn and Dreamcast failed to match Sony’s PlayStation in hardware sales.
The core of the problem is that Shenmue and its story was far too ambitious for its time period. Anyone that has played the HD collection of the original games can tell how hard it was trying to push gaming in a more cinematic direction, one that is now commonplace, many years before anyone else was. In fact, the story is comprised of 11 distinct chapters, the first of which is seen in Shenmue. The second chapter (which follows protagonist Ryo Hazuki’s ship ride to Hong Kong) isn’t in any game as it was cut, and was instead featured in a comic book called Shenmue Side Story. Shenmue 2 then told chapters three through five of the story as Ryo spent time in Hong Kong, the walled city of Kowloon, and then met Shenhua Ling in the remote Chinese town of Guilin. Shenmue 3 will continue the story, but won’t complete it as it will take another game or two to do so.
There were several failed attempts at Shenmue 3
After Shenmue 2 failed to be a success financially, it looked like the series was dead in the water. However, the series found popularity in China and Sega decided to target that market with a massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Shenmue Online. Announced in 2004 as a collaboration between Sega and Korean company JC Entertainment, it was meant to be a game where players could join one of three factions led by Shenhua Ling, Xiuying Hong, and Wuying Ren, respectively. It was meant to take place in several of Shenmue 2‘s locations in addition to Macau. However, JC Entertainment pulled out of development in 2006, and the game was eventually shelved despite a 12-minute video being shown at China Expo.
The next attempt at reviving the series was more successful, as the mobile game actually released, but it still didn’t convince Sega to create the third entry. Called Shenmue City, creator Yu Suzuki retold the story of the first Shenmue as players were a friend of Ryo that could attempt quests and become stronger through training. It was largely inspired by Mafia Wars and was supposed to be released for browsers as well. However, it wasn’t a success on mobile and got shut down a year after release.
Despite all these setbacks, Suzuki never gave up hope on continuing the series. During the 2014 Game Developers Conference, Suzuki gave a talk on the series and mentioned that crowdfunding was a possibility for a new entry. This led to Sony approaching him about funding as fans had been requesting Shenmue 3 for years.
Crowdfunding finally made Shenmue 3 a reality
The announcement of the Kickstarter was one of the biggest surprises of Sony’s surprised-filled E3 2015 press conference. It was an immediate success on the platform as it raised over 2 million dollars in under nine hours. It ended up gaining over $6 million in pledges from fans in addition to funding by Sony and publisher Deep Silver. While it was originally meant to release in by the end of 2017, Suzuki opted to delay the title rather than rush out a release that fans were heavily anticipating.
That leads us to the present, as Shenmue 3 is mere days away from releasing. While the game isn’t a technical achievement like the original, and isn’t going to redefine what gaming can do, it will continue the one aspect of the series that has stood the test of time: its story. Players finally get to see the next step of Shenhua and Ryo’s journey, and that’s an incredible achievement that was long thought to be impossible. Whether their tale will ever get finished is another story entirely, but for now, fans can enjoy a victory as the game thought to never released is actually coming out.
No matter if Shenmue 3 feels old or straight up bad, it will still prove an important point about never backing down. Suzuki never gave up hope on the series and always pushed for a sequel, and eventually he was able to make it happen. That type of tenacity is worth celebrating and it’s the type of perseverance that would even make John Cena blush.