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Gaming's Greatest Flops: Shenmue

Was Yu Suzuki's magnum opus a hubristic failure, or an evolutionary path left untraveled? As its 15th anniversary draws near, we find the answer could be somewhere in the middle.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

Every Thursday this August, Gaming's Greatest Flops will examine one of our industry's biggest failures in an attempt to understand what went wrong. This week: Sega's great white hope for the Dreamcast, Shenmue (1999).

The 2000s opened on a sour note, with the catastrophic failure and subsequent exile of two video game visionaries. Square's Hironobu Sakaguchi bet the farm on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and this attempt to bring his series to a wider audience ended with box office returns that didn't come close to recouping the film's $147 million budget. Artists floundering in a new field provide the most common stories of failure in the entertainment industry, though, making the tragic tale of Yu Suzuki's Shenmue all the more devastating.

Shenmue is widely known as the game that killed Sega, but obviously, their financial state offered little hope for fans before the time of its release. But true believers knew in their hearts this game would be the one to save the industry's scrappy underdog. After all, Shenmue would be helmed by none other than Yu Suzuki, the man who rose through the ranks at Sega by developing games like Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, and Virtua Fighter: spectacle-based arcade experiences offering minutes of jaw-dropping visuals for only a quarter. This new creation, which began life as an RPG, would be unlike anything else he worked on—an experience so new it required the christening of an genre. We didn't quite know what "FREE" (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) entailed, but that didn't mean we weren't anxious to find out.

Meet Ryo Suzuki, Shenmue's protagonist. He's loyal, stoic, and unfortunately, kind of dull.

It's important to note that Shenmue entered development before the concept of the "open-world" game had been fully realized, mostly because console hardware of the era could never support such a technologically ambitious experience. In fact, Suzuki first envisioned Shenmue as a Saturn game, though the console's general failure and unfriendly hardware caused his team (which numbered over 300) to instead focus their efforts on the Dreamcast after six months of development. Due to the complexity of the game, Shenmue saw its share of delays, and a demo disc sent to those who pre-ordered it in Japan—titled What's Shenmue?—contains some self-effacing humor that points directly to Sega's troubles at the time. The preview disc co-stars Hidekazu Yukawa, Sega's Head Managing Director at the time, and when protagonist Ryo stumbles into the man's office, he's depicted cradling his head in his hands, surrounded by boxes of unsold Dreamcasts. Even if Sega had a sense of humor about their plight, they clearly understood something was about to give.

In our modern era, we scoff at the presumption of video game publishers who announce entire trilogies before anyone can even react to the first installment. Back in 1999, Yu Suzuki envisioned Shenmue spanning 11 chapters—a somewhat arrogant plan, especially in the years before digital distribution. In all fairness to Suzuki, he at least had the foresight to sketch out this narrative well in advance, but thanks to the generous budget provided by Sega—$47 million at last count—his working environment must have discouraged thinking small. The first installment of Shenmue establishes the story of a young man named Ryo out to avenge his father's death and retrieve a mysterious artifact from the enigmatic Lan Di, and stands as the only chapter of the story to come into being as intended. And, unsurprisingly, Shenmue feels like the beginning of a story, one that barely allows its lead to achieve any meaningful goals. At best, the first Shenmue is the story of a man in search of which way a boat went.

Raising an orphaned kitten is just one of the many pointless diversions that makes Shenmue so special.

Even so, Shenmue's focus on mundanity offered a significant amount of appeal—remember, it launched just as The Sims taught us the sick pleasures of paying fake bills and queuing up bathroom breaks for our tiny avatars. Its world offered a level of unnecessary detail that's rarely been seen since: Even if you couldn't interact with every item you found, the contents of drawers, cabinets, and shelves could be inspected thoroughly. In addition, Ryo can nurse a kitten back to health—an act with no real purpose outside of the cuteness factor—collect capsule toys, play authentic Sega games at the arcade, and engage in several other pointless activities that didn't help the game's pacing, but gave the city of Yokosuka a sense of richness atypical for a video game backdrop. This slavish devotion to capturing the reality of 1986 Japan definitely didn't help the efficiency of Shenmue's production, as lead programmer Tak Hirai points out in an interview with 1UP.com.

"There were a lot of things that didn't make it into the game," says Hirai. "The hardest thing, and it doesn't even show on the screen, was the phone cord... The phone cord wasn't even showing up on camera, but [Suzuki] insisted on making it look realistic. I even made an eight-minute video presentation for the phone cord, but it didn't make it into the game."

Of course, the novelty of recapturing mid-80s Japan didn't hold the same appeal for an American audience. Though the beginning of America's short-lived anime boom had done its best to inform a young, gaming audience about Shenmue's country of origin, the late-90s U.S. perspective of Japan was that of a strange island that gave us sushi, karate movies, and tiny electronics. To soak up American dollars, Shenmue would need a thoughtful English localization capable of easing a foreign audience into its unfamiliar setting. Unfortunately, the sheer size of Shenmue's script—which includes fully voiced lines for every NPC—stood as an enormous challenge, especially for an industry just discovering the benefits of quality localizations.

These little kids had no idea that one wayward soccer ball would lead to the unholy reign of QTEs in gaming.

Questionable casting decisions also dragged down the English localization, especially that of Corey Marshall as Ryo Suzuki. Marshall had no prior acting experience, but landed the job due to Suzuki's insistence that the voice actors resemble their characters—presumably for the type of cross-media promotion that's common in Japan. Marshall's poor performance, combined with the game's wealth of inexplicable line-readings, present an unintentional layer of humor that lends the English version of Shenmue the cheesiness of an ancient Godzilla dub.

In an interview with Hardcore Gaming 101, Jeremy Blaustein (who's worked on the localizations of Metal Gear Solid, Snatcher, Silent Hill 2, and many others) discussed the difficulties of this huge, expensive undertaking: "I've done a lot of these projects, and a lot of the times we've talked about my past work I've complained about how the budgets are low, and there isn't enough money, and here's a case where they made so many mistakes in the opposite direction. There was poor management and too much money thrown at it. It was rushed, and I know enough about games to know you're unlikely to get a consistent product. You have bits of it that were translated well, but there were probably 20 translators touching it, would be my guess. And with that many translators, working on that many characters, with a story that diffuse, you're going to have huge problems with consistency, huge problems with the story, huge problems with characters speaking."

It may sound arrogant to insist that Shenmue needed to appeal to Americans to find success, but that isn't the case at all. To be a success, Shenmue needed to appeal to everyone. Though its sales would have been considered a victory for Sega in any other case, the game's massive budget—now just a drop in the bucket compared to what's spent on AAA development—ensured that only an impossible amount of profit would have made Shenmue's production financially worthwhile. Just six years later, and you can see Sega directly apply the lessons learned from Shenmue to the Yakuza series. Though Yakuza features a Japanese setting and characters, it uses the touchstone of organized crime to lure in an audience who normally wouldn't be interested in a story completely divorced from America. And for its initial launch in the United States, Yakuza featured an all-star cast, with Michael Madsen, Mark Hamill, and John DiMaggio, amongst others. Later, Sega would realize gamers interested in playing very Japanese games probably don't mind if the characters actually speak the Japanese language.

Tragically, Shenmue's central romance contains all the unbridled passion of a whiskery kiss from grandma.

In retrospect, it's difficult to understand just how Sega couldn't have prevented the failure of Shenmue at some point along the way—even if they had to kill it. But, knowing how much money they sunk into the production, Suzuki's pet project seemed to exist as an all-or-nothing gambit for the company, one that could possibly prove their relevancy and keep them solvent in the cutthroat world of gaming consoles. Thankfully, Suzuki has recently come out of hiding—like Hironobu Sakaguchi before him—occasionally tossing out a casual remark about his possible interest in continuing the Shenmue series, even if this does seem like the least likely thing to ever happen. Should the series remain stalled out forever, Shenmue will continue to exist as a testament to the plucky spirit of Sega, who decided to go out with a bang, when seeking the safest, cheapest way to stay out of the red would have been their best option.

But would that business strategy have given us the story of Ryo, the story of an honest man in search of black cars and sailors? I think not.

Most images courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101.

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Comments 21

  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #1 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    The Saturn footage of Shenmue is pretty fantastic given the platform. Faaaar ahead of the other 3D stuff I played on the system.

    Shenmue was a huge disappointment for me. Thought it was gorgeous but really, really boring. Never did find those sailors. Maybe I will some day!Edited August 2014 by JohnnyBarnstorm
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  • Avatar for nickdaniel17 #2 nickdaniel17 3 years ago
    I never understood what was supposed to be so appealing about Shenmue in the first place.

    I remember hearing something about there being different stuff in every cabinet and drawer in the game and imagining a world full of furnished but otherwise empty office buildings where there was nothing to do but check desk drawers for rubber bands and pens.
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #3 jeffcorry 3 years ago
    I am fascinated with this game. I have never played it, but wish I could give it a chance without having to purchase a Dreamcast...
    Digital Distribution would be nice. Hey. Sega, would you please port this to the Playstation Store...or something? ;)
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  • Avatar for Thad #4 Thad 3 years ago
    I have a copy but never even got past the opening movie. Go figure.

    Always meant to give it a shot. Maybe one day.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #5 metalangel 3 years ago
    Shenmue was a fascinating game. Even if Ryo was the most wooden protagonist since Sega's own Woody Pop, the world he lived in was fascinating to explore. It just seemed ridiculous how he was completely determined to avenge his father's death, but would be happy to be distracted for years by his anachronistic Saturn, capsule toys and kittens.

    It was a surprisingly compelling story once you got past the lengthy introduction sequence, and you had more freedom to explore the game world. My mother found it and the relationship between Ryo and Nozomi mesmerizing, and wanted to find out what happened. I was more concerned that Ryo never seemed to change his clothes or even take them off.

    But seriously man, look past Nozomi's Velma Dinkley ensemble and get going.

    http://chugworth.com/archive/comics/031022.gif
    (a few naughty words, that's all. NSFW?)Edited August 2014 by metalangel
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  • Avatar for kingaelfric #6 kingaelfric 3 years ago
    Great article, Bob. It's a testament to my love of Shenmue that my first reaction was "HOW COULD HE CALL IT A FLOP?" and then I step back and remind myself that yes, it was a ridiculous, unmitigated, tremendous flop. It's a beautiful failure, though. It did, I think, to some degree, represent an alternate evolutionary path, but one that was well premature (and I'm not sure we could pull it off now). Shenmue was a real world, as opposed to the Potemkin villages of Grand Theft Auto and its ilk. Sure, it was a boring and frequently obtuse world, but it taught us all that blackmail is way uncool.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #7 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    I bought the Dreamcast after seeing screens of this game. It was a GameWorks - remember those? - and they had a little game store at the back, which didn't amount to much other than a Sega carnival barker telling you to buy Sega games. My 5th grade self asked him the exact same question that I still ask of new consoles today: "yes, but what about the RPGs?"

    Well, Shenmue wasn't really an RPG, but I was sold nonetheless. It didn't hurt that my birthday was September 9 - the release of the Dreamcast (and FFVIII, while we're at it). There are very instances where nostalgia is powerful enough to overcome crippling, shoddy game design - but that is the case with Shenmue (and that loathsome Sonic Adventure, which I still adore).

    Shenmue isn't terrible, and it still impresses. There was such dedication to telling this story, telling it slowly, telling it the way Suzuki wanted to. It never seemed like a particularly interesting story, and it wasn't particularly well told, but holy hell it did not compromise. There's nothing like it, honestly.

    Playing Shenmue 2 years later on Xbox, its flaws are more apparent (even though many of them were improved), and it lacked the same magic (i.e. nostalgia). Then again, perhaps they knew this; they bundled it with a DVD of hobbled-together cut scenes from the first game - at feature length! As if to remind you of your own nostalgia.

    And then there's that very weird and abrupt turn it took at the end. I don't want to spoil it, but more than actually wanting to play Shenmue 3, I have always been very curious just to see what he intended to do with the story. It was a left-field twist, and Shenmue 3 could have gone in so many different directions after that.
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  • Avatar for orient #8 orient 3 years ago
    What I love about Shenmue is that it isn't beholden to the nebulous idea of "fun" -- it's content with just being an interesting experience -- something that AAA blockbusters like The Last of Us could learn from.

    Not everyone loved it, but it's also unfairly maligned by the same kind of people that refer to Gone Home as a "walking simulator".
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  • Avatar for pdubb #9 pdubb 3 years ago
    Surely this rastafari dude in the middle of a sleepy Japanese town belongs here and is in no way a social outcast. A veritable cornerstone of the community!
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #10 Lord-Bob-Bree 3 years ago
    I've never really played Shemue myself,though I watched someone stream it and it's sequel. I actually enjoyed it. Part of it is up to the person playing it of course, but there was still something to like there.

    Definitely left me wishing there was a third one, but ah well. The extent of its world still seems unique even today, but I admit I'm not necessarily up on everything cutting-edge.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #11 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    I never enjoyed this game.
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  • Avatar for Zomby-Woof #12 Zomby-Woof 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by Zomby-Woof
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #13 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Never played it - would very much like to. Seems like a real outlier in terms of gameplay and its overall experience.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #14 bobservo 3 years ago
    @photoboy Actually, based on my research, it seems Suzuki initially intended for Shemmue to span eleven total games, but the budget issues with the first chapter caused him to scale back and start condensing the story. The entire second game, for instance, was supposed to focus only on Ryo's boat trip to Hong Kong -- I really would have liked to see how that played out. Maybe Suzuki planned on having some chapters be less dense than others?
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  • Avatar for alexb #15 alexb 3 years ago
    Your "cheapest, safest way" is the current holocaust of mobile gatchapon, moe pantsu, and in-app purchases that define Japanese games in 2014. I wish all of my old favorites had died a decade ago in a blaze of glory rather than become stunted, cynical husks that ruin their legacies with trash.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #16 benjaminlu86 3 years ago
    I never owned a Dreamcast (I picked PS2) so I've never played Shenmue, despite hearing mountains about it. Is it time for an HD remaster on current gen? Dual audio so I can hear the original English performance as well, preferably?
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  • Avatar for danger.to.others #17 danger.to.others 3 years ago
    To this day I still have nightmares about the warehouse work and that cursed forklift.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #18 pdubb 3 years ago
    Also apologies if anyone else mentioned it, but with a VGA box the graphics for this and other Dreamcast games at the time were just mindblowing. It was high def gaming before high def was even a thing. Once I got that taste I never played my Dreamcast on anything other than my 15" monitor unless it was time to beat down scrubs in Soul Calibur.

    Also thanks to Shenmue 2 one of my old roommates makes fun of me to this day about "Would you like to play a game of Lucky Hit?" "How about a game of lucky hit?"

    Good times
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  • Avatar for sgmagpy #19 sgmagpy 3 years ago
    I really enjoyed this game as a kid. I got totally immersed in all the various diversions Shenmue offered, though I do remember the QTEs, fork-lift driving, motorcycle driving, etc. frustrating as hell to get right/control. I remember enjoying the fighting a lot (beating up 100 dudes in a row at some point toward the end) and learning the various techniques. I think they definitely accomplished what sounds like their biggest goal: capturing 1986 Japan; the atmosphere totally washed over me every time I span the ol' Dreamcast up. :)
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  • Avatar for Nazo #20 Nazo 3 years ago
    Wonderful games, I never did finish the second one though.
    I've got a month off coming up soon, it might be time to get the trusty DC from the attic and play through them both again.
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  • Avatar for jameswalker24 #21 jameswalker24 2 years ago
    Interesting...

    I feel that it's not fair to solely place them blame with Suzuki and Shenmue for its commercial failure. Had the Dreamcast sold better in the first place, Shenmue would have made more. Bad marketing for the console and shoddy business practices meant Shenmue never had a real chance anyway. Plus, they were up against Sony; as soon as the PS2 was announced (with its DVD playback, no less), many gamers' interest in the DC simply fizzled out.
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  • Avatar for SegaFreak1991 #22 SegaFreak1991 A year ago
    It's amazing to think that this game was originally in development for the Saturn. I didn't realize this until after going through some extra content after I had just finished Shenmue II on the original Xbox.

    Though I fail to see a reality where Shenmue had, in fact, been released on the Sega Saturn & still retained its essence. I mean, it probably would have been spread across six or more CDs (given that the multi-disc Dreamcast release used the higher-capacity GD roms--and still managed to use up a total of 4 discs) and been full of bugs and graphical glitches. The performance of the sample footage from the early Saturn production was underwhelming in my opinion--albeit certainly ahead of anything on PlayStation or N64 at that point.

    Adam Koralik has instructed that the Dreamcast version of ShenII is superior to the Xbox version, with the ability to essentially "carry-over" content from the first game into the second game. I think this would be more interesting if the Dreamcast had survived long enough to house the third/final entry into the saga. This would essentially have been the PRE-HD Era equivalent of Mass Effect at that time.Edited August 2015 by SegaFreak1991
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