The build-up to the release of Shenmue for the Dreamcast in 2000 was intense if you were a fan of Sega back in the day. Sega’s final home console got off to a fast start in the west, with its first 24 hours breaking a record in the US and sales across Europe were steady, bolstered by arguably the greatest line up of launch games ever seen. But sales were starting to wane, and fans were looking for that one blockbuster title which would reignite interest in the system after the reveal of the PlayStation 2 stole the spotlight.
Shenmue’s story predates the Dreamcast itself, with the game starting life as a Sega Saturn role-playing game set in the Virtua Fighter universe, but development shifted to the Dreamcast out of necessity. The Saturn was a monumental retail failure outside Japan, which didn’t help the situation, but it was becoming increasingly clear to Yu Suzuki that his revenge epic was simply too ambitious for the Saturn hardware. In truth, you could argue it was too ambitious for the Dreamcast as well, even if both the game and the console are now intrinsically linked. Calling Shenmue ambitious alone is a huge understatement considering the state of gaming at the time of its initial release in Japan in 1999. Never before had a virtual world felt so alive as it did in Shenmue, with even the most minute detail seemingly recreated beautifully in digital form.
Shenmue received a generally positive critical response at the time of its release, but it is fair to say the title was far from being universally loved. It was a very polarising game for many reasons. It was undoubtedly a huge accomplishment, which all reviews seemed to acknowledge, but that wasn’t enough for some journalists. When the game was reviewed by GameSpot the reviewer, Frank Provo, summed it up with a simple sentence: “Indeed, while Shenmue is revolutionary, the game is far from perfect.”
Even amongst the small selection of Dreamcast fans I knew at the time the reception was divisive, but this didn’t stop the game becoming this legendary title for Sega. Those who loved Shenmue, myself included, loved it unconditionally. Whenever I speak to a person who disliked the game I honestly struggle to argue the case for the game. It’s one of those rare games which I adore despite being able to accept that it has many flaws. The pacing is terrible, there really isn’t that much to see or do in the grand scheme of things, and the voice acting is poor (and even was so for the time). Yet, I still love it. I love all the little details, even if they don’t necessarily make it a better game. I love how you can just go to the arcade and play some Space Harrier and Hang-On when you want to pass some time. I love how you can spend a silly amount of money trying to collect all those capsule figures. I love how when it rains you see NPCs get out their umbrellas. And I love how, thanks to the inclusion of a time system and days of the week, the programmers could make each character you see have their own daily routines.
Shenmue sold well for a Dreamcast game. Only five games managed to sell over one million units and Shenmue was one of those games, but it was a financial disaster for Sega at a point in time when Sega’s financial woes were already dire. Shenmue II was eventually released in 2001, which expanded upon the original in a few meaningful ways, but the planned third game was scrapped.
So when the Shenmue III Kickstarter was announced at Sony’s E3 press conference in 2015 fans all over the world were rightfully excited. We had given up all hope of ever seeing the next chapter in the epic saga, so it was a very exciting time for fans. Yet for me, the announcement of a Kickstarter wasn’t necessarily a good sign. I was happy to see the chance of Shenmue III being finally realised, but the Kickstarter announcement was just another sign that Sega, and no other publisher for that matter, had any faith in Shenmue III. Seeing Yu Suzuki walk out on stage to announce the Kickstarter was amazing to witness, as it has always been clear to fans that his desire to continue the story never faded, but knowing that this was Sony’s press conference and that even they didn’t have enough faith to support it as the publisher, was telling.
Various controversies arose in between the massively successful Kickstarter and the eventual release, such as Deep Silver coming on board as publisher a few years into development and the announcement that the planned Steam version would be cancelled to make the game an Epic Games exclusive on PC, but the closer that release date drew the excitement could not be contained for long-time fans. The fact that I knew I was finally going to scratch that 18-year itch was almost too much for me to handle.
Us fans also knew how it was going to go down. We all fully expected the game to be slated by critics. The game was staying very faithful to the design of the original games, so much so that it seemed like the game was being plucked from gaming circa 2003. We knew critics were not going to like that, and we also knew that modern gamers wouldn’t either. But, as long as we were happy that was enough, right?
This is where my disappointment with the game started to creep in. When I finally installed the game to my PS4 and updated the software it was a truly surreal experience playing the game for the first time. Indeed, those first few nights felt like a trip down memory lane. I felt immediately at home with the game, wonky controls and slow pacing to boot. The opening of the game in Bailu Village was enjoyable, but it was also the first inclination of how I was about to feel going forward. A lot of gamers felt the original Shenmue was filled with unnecessary busy work and pointless tasks, but towards the end of Bailu village these problems started seeping into Shenmue III with greater regularity, and it only got worse from there.
The second half of the game was a true slog. There were a few nights where after coming home from work I didn’t even want to turn the game on. Some nights I played for two or three hours and felt like I had made no progress at all. Even the first game, as glacial in pace as it could be at times, was never quite this bad. It was evident that the budget the game had, while very good for a Kickstarter project, simply wasn’t enough to create a game like Shenmue III. The second half of the game had a ridiculously high amount of filler. It was simply inexcusable. And this was compounded by the fact that the game world felt less alive than the previous games. There were certainly distractions for the player, like in the previous games, but knowing that I could no longer go to the arcade to play classic AM2 arcade hits made me feel a little sad. Those fine details, while there to some extent, didn’t feel as important or as impactful they were before. The game just felt like it lacked soul, and that’s certainly something which cannot be said about the Dreamcast games.
Worst of all is that the game accomplished very little when it came to its narrative either. By the time the game came to an end, it felt like the story had hardly advanced at all. There were a few revelations, but when the credits rolled I felt very little satisfaction as none of the questions I had from Shenmue II were truly answered. Indeed, Shenmue III was never supposed to be the end of the franchise. Yu Suzuki’s original vision was going to be five games at the very least, but in reality, that is never going to materialise. I can certainly respect Suzuki’s drive to achieve his dream, but I honestly think he should have wrapped things up with Shenmue III. It may not have been ideal, but fans simply need closure. We waited so long for Shenmue III and now we’re none the wiser after having played it. If anything we’re even more confused than we were before. And the future is once again uncertain. The game hasn’t sold well, staying faithful to the legacy of the first two games in that regard, so we are being left in limbo once again. We are facing another unimaginable wait to see what happens next, and I don’t think I could or want to wait 18 years again.
There were parts of Shenmue III I really enjoyed. I loved driving that forklift once again. I enjoyed the combat, as simplistic as it is. I loved how you could call characters from the previous games and talk to them over the phone to give them an update on how your adventure was progressing. There were even some nice new characters and the game looked very nice for having had such a small budget. But none of what I liked can make up for its shortcomings. I really hope we will one day see the end of Ryo’s adventure to avenge his father, but I’m resigned to the fact that day will likely never come.