The Importance of Shenmue

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A History

Gaming has come a long way in forty years. From two white controllable dots on a black screen, to such levels of photo realism, you would be hard pressed to tell which is real versus which is generated.

If one thing has been proven by the ever increasing age of the games industry, it’s that target audiences grow up, many put the controllers down for good ¬†for whatever reasons. Only for a newer, younger generation of gamers to take their spot. and while the audience is forever in flux, game titles are a bit more rigid.

Most of the new millennials know Nintendo’s history back to front, as they have likely been raised on them as have a few generations before them. They may even know the man behind the curtain Shigeru Miyamoto. Be it Mario, Starfox or Zelda. Such is his legacy he will be remembered as a founding father of gaming as it stands today for the rest of time.

But there is another man who teenagers would likely say, ‘who?’ at when mentioned, but has just as strong a legacy. For anyone who frequented an arcade in the 80’s & 90’s you played his games. Be it Hang-On, Outrun, Space Harrier, After Burner. Yu Suzuki not only was the creative mind behind these titles, but his biggest ripple lies in the fighting game genre with the creation of Virtua Fighter.

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Excuse me I’m looking for some sailors, have you seen any sailors?

Virtua Fighter by today’s standards is a horrible blocky mess to look at, but it is the first ever 3D platform fighting game. Street Fighter maybe the most beloved fighting game franchise today, but Virtua Fighter took fighting into the third-dimension. Back when SEGA was still a hardware manufacturer, a fresh faced SONY needed a competitor. So enter Namco with Tekken. While Tekken lives on, Virtua Fighter introduced the masses to the 3D fighting arena. It’s iterations would ebb out past it’s hardware and live on until the PS3. Before becoming a subsidiary license you can now see in Dead or Alive: Final Round on current generation consoles. Virtua Fighter was a success, but while a hit in arcades, it’s exclusivity to a failed hardware hurt its legacy in the long term.

Then one day, Suzuki-san had an idea to advance Virtua Fighter from basic arena combat. In a move akin to the classic Streets of Rage, he wanted to focus on the main character Akira. So by the late 90’s Yu Suzuki’s AM2 team began work on ‘Akira’s Story’ for Sega Saturn. Virtua Fighter would become a fighting game RPG. But back in the 90’s console generations appeared every five years or so, and with a upcoming Dreamcast announcement this would later be scrapped to focus on the newer hardware. In the move upward however they removed Akira as the principal character and give us Ryo Hazuki, ultimately creating – Shenmue.

Shenmue was beyond ambitious for its time. It is partly why game budgets don’t spiral out of control. Because it was so expensive to make at the time, to so much as break even, every owner would have had to purchase the game twice. Yet by comparison other games couldn’t hold a candle to it in graphics. By comparison other rival titles release in 1999 were Final Fantasy VIII (8), Unreal Tournament, Grand Theft Auto 2, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Donkey Kong 64 and many others besides. But if you compare the graphical quality back then, it is akin to comparing 90’s movie blue screen to today’s level of CGI in movies. The differences are vast and obvious.

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An Uncertain Future

However, Shenmue was partially a success, in terms of the player base and reviews anyway. Yet a commercial failure, not recouping the massive budget of $70 million. The largest budget of its time, (Which is now utterly eclipsed by the franchise budget of Destiny’s $500 million.) There was nothing like it before at the time. This was the greatest graphical jump in gaming since the advent of 3D games. At its core was Virtua Fighter combat, but with sandbox exploration and RPG elements. So diverse was the game it didn’t fit any modern classification of its time and was dubbed ‘Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment’ or F.R.E.E.

You may however now know the ‘Reactive Eyes’ part more commonly as ‘Quick Time Events’ or QTE’s. Because Shenmue reinvented what Dragon’s Lair had pioneered. Modernising it with a mentally scarring sound effect anyone who has played Shenmue cannot forget.

The story of Shenmue is surprisingly at its baser level; a revenge plot. A son seeks revenge upon his father’s killer – Lan Di. Set in the early 1980’s, you as a teenage Ryo Hazuki start your adventure in your home town of Yokosuka. It’s here that you will discover slowly, the truth about your father’s past as the town knows it. But as a player, the city is alive. Revenge soon hits the back burner, as you help school friends, train your skills, learn new fighting combinations, help the elderly, earn money, spend money on capsule toys and play other actual games within a game.

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A Legacy

The amount of things Shenmue is responsible for which even games today use and players take for granted, is the equivalent to when Call of Duty added the experience system to the multiplayer of their game. Such a simple concept, which slowly gets taken for granted and practically standard practise for games today.

So why is Shenmue III so important? Why is it getting so much attention you might wonder? Let me put it in a more modern scenario for you. Imagine if you will; Halo. Now Imagine a world where Halo 3 does not exist. All you have is Halo: Combat Evolved & Halo 2. The quick among you probably shuddered or grimaced in horror at the thought of being left on such a cliff-hanger. Shenmue II did just that essentially. While it was no ‘finishing this fight’. It did nothing but leave a thousand questions in its wake with very little answers with its ending. Shenmue II took Ryo out of the comforting surroundings of home and literally robbed him of everything in a new country and new place, for him to go through street thugs, helping strangers, and luring those who stuck around into his problems and plot for revenge, only to meet the mysterious Shenhua, a girl Ryo had even been dreaming about since the first game. Lan Di had a literal killer obsession with the Dragon & Phoenix mirrors which are the catalyst of the story only to leave Ryo and Shenhua in a cave with two enormous versions of the exact same mirrors. The reveal of them and the questions they immediately flood the players mind with are left unanswered.

This isn’t necessarily Shenmue’s or Yu Suzuki’s fault however. Because not too long after Shenmue II’s release on Dreamcast, AM2 continued to work on Shenmue III for a short while. Until SEGA began announcing it was cancelling all projects and in an effort to save itself. Pulled out of producing hardware in 2001 and SEGA would not show a NET profit for over two years, remaining a float by becoming a software publisher. Development teams were scrapped, projects thrown to the wayside and a fifteen part franchise was left to the ether.

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‘When is part three coming?’ The haunting question

For years loyal SEGA fans hoped and prayed Yu Suzuki would find a way to get Shenmue III made. Until it was made quite clear that Shenmue would not see the light of day as SEGA withered into a shell of its former self. Using its limited resources to pump out Sonic game, after Sonic game. For all of SEGA’s amazing library it focused on one, out of hundreds. while making only the safest of bets it could to margin a profit. SEGA own the license, and Yu Suzuki seemed out of options and possibly dejected at the thought of going elsewhere to find funding.

Developers move on, and the more time goes on the more the deck gets shuffled, and people are lost in a variety of ways. Yet that wasn’t the last we saw of Shenmue. As Microsoft would get a port of Shenmue II on the original Xbox with a Shenmue short film detailing the key plot points of the original game. While providing a new audience with a cliff-hanger that would seem like it would never see an answer too. Though this may have been an attempt to get Microsoft to help fund Shenmue III.

As Shenmue faded into the gaming history books along with other SEGA franchises and greats. Fans were teased with Easter eggs and comical appearance of Ryo in games such as Sega All Stars Racing. Driving a forklift truck, as the years passed and simulators of many types emerged. Shenmue is jokingly referred to as Forklift Simulator. This would be the extent of Shenmue’s legacy survived lovingly by its creator and its most loyal of fans through websites and emulators.

So hopefully this helps the younger generation to understand the explosion of games journalists and a internet frenzy at the announcement of Shenmue III. Even I was muttering, ‘no way’ repeatedly with increasing volume until I exploded with joy as I saw Shenmue III hit the screen. With an older, greyer, wiser Yu Suzuki-san coming out on stage to officially announce Shenmue III, was now in fact: real.

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A Kickstarted Future

It then only took 11 hours for Shenmue III to reach the lofty goal of $2,000,000 on its kickstarter page. With its announcement literally causing kickstarter to crash. Shenmue III also has the highest requirement for a game to become funded in the history of kickstarter. With other games like Bloodstained requiring just 500,000, with complete awareness that it was a goal to show its private backer that there is interest. But it was soon revealed Sony is helping fund the development of Shenmue III directly. Making its development not only a certainty, but securing it’s console side exclusivity.

So by the time Shenmue III hits shelves it will have been eighteen years! Since the original game first released. That is a legally grown adult! To which you can obviously be forgiven for going ‘who? what?’ when you come across the announcement of Shenmue III. Not only will it have been eighteen years. It will re-emerge like a phoenix from its own ashes, on what looks to remain the most popular console system. But also hit PC with talks currently going on about the possibility of porting to originals over to Playstation & PC platforms.

If the ports do make their way to PC also, Yu Suzuki’s dream will become fully realised not by himself and the development teams behind Shenmue, but by fan modders. Every texture will become ultra high resolution. As like minded people who turned Grand Theft Auto IV into a photo realistic sandbox for high performance systems. over time. So will Shenmue become a slightly blocky, but ultimately life like version of itself.

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