The Most Expensive Game Ever Produced.
Back in Sega's commercially relevant days as a first-party developer and console manufacturer, many would criticize Sega's gaming library as somewhat superficial with little depth or replay value. And to an extent, this would be a supportable argument. You had the Sonic games, which were fast and fun... but to be fair they did not have enough content to sustain more than maybe two full play throughs (one for simply familiarizing yourself with the levels and completing the game, and a second for speed-running or viewing the alternate "bad" or "good" ending). After that, for the most part, a player may be enticed to play a level or two and then call it day. That was also true for a lot of other games produced by Sega. Having said that, it really isn't a bad thing. You have to remember that the market for video games (even though Sega did target a slightly more mature demographic) was in the age range of anywhere from 10 years to around 17 years of age. Kids in this age-range typically won't have the attention-span necessary to become invested in a lengthy or complex plot or play style.
In addition, the hardware of the time wasn't conducive to any such experience. You had cartridges, and CD-ROM technology for gaming was in its infancy and developers were still learning how to make good games that used the advantages of the CD format. Most games during the 90's did not support a save function unless you had a specific game with that technology built-in or some sort of expansion for the console (e.g. memory upgrade cartridge or card). Games during this time, and especially in Sega's case where a lot of games were being ported from the arcade, were meant to be played in one-sitting. Additionally, these games very rarely had more than one way of progressing through them. You had levels always starting at 1, then 2, then 3 & 4 and so on. You would encounter the same enemies at the same exact points each time you played the game.
Enter the Sega Saturn. The Saturn is an interesting milestone for Sega and gaming in general. The system was originally built for 2D-centric games with minimal 3D effects. A second processor was built-in to the console to allow developers some wiggle room with more advanced 3D games. Unfortunately, Sega did not provide development studios with dev kits early enough for them to really practice with the new technology. They also rushed the launch of the console, forcing some developers to cut projects short... resulting in incomplete or buggy games being released. The system had a limited amount of storage for game data built into the motherboard, but it often ran out. Sega released an expansion cart to remedy this situation. The concept of picking up where you left off was new in this generation. It existed in a small number of previous games from the Mega Drive/Genesis days, but it wasn't common. Normally players were required to write down codes and re-enter them in times where memory cards & hard drives simply were not a part of console gaming.
WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY!---------------------------------------------------------------
Now we were beginning to really settle into the technology that would allow for players to save progress & enjoy deeper experiences than in past years. Shenmue was originally in development for the Saturn. If you own the Xbox port of Shenmue II, you can even see some tech demo footage for it. Obviously, this project was dropped and moved to the Sega Dreamcast. We were now at a point where the technology was able to deliver a more immersive & complex experience. Graphics were now ready to deliver more cinematic effects, memory cards were becoming an industry standard with a substantial number of games beginning to support the feature & the CD-ROM format was now common and allowed for significantly more storage than past mediums.
The Sega Dreamcast, while ahead of it's time, still suffered from the same stigma of offering games that were fun, but too shallow and/or short. Especially with gamers growing up with the company who were now entering the teenage or young adult phase of life. For the most part, this "issue" would remain unresolved. All you have to do is skim over the DC's library, and you won't find very many complex or time-consuming options. The Dreamcast did not have many RPGs, which at the time was irrelevant to me because I did not have the patience or psychological maturity to appreciate complex stories, character development or strategy. Shenmue was one of those project announcements that would cause Dreamcast owners to look, scratch their heads & and then go back to playing their beat-em ups or platformers. To be perfectly honest with you, at the time of the Dreamcast's commercially relevant life, I didn't even know Shenmue existed. I didn't even know it was for the Dreamcast until many, many years later.
When I began working part-time and had access to my own money, I started looking back at my childhood, wanting to relive the simplicity and pleasant memories. I saved up enough money to get a Sega Dreamcast (which at that point wasn't that hard) from a local Vintage Stock. Then I started getting the usual suspects for my gaming library, like Power Stone & Crazy Taxi. I remember seeing Shenmue in the store for the first time and cringing a little, because I vividly remember trying an RPG (Evolution, I believe it was) when I was younger and absolutely hating it. I just remember being bored, confused & frustrated that I hadn't picked a better game. But, I was older now. I was more mature and had to admit that, while games like Hydro Thunder & Ready 2 Rumble Boxing were extremely fun in short bursts, they wouldn't hold my attention for very long before I would become underwhelmed with an urge to switch to a different game.
I decided to pull the trigger. Along with Soul Calibur, I purchased a used copy of Shenmue with zero expectations. I remember not even touching it for a good while. I continued to play arcade ports & platformers, unwilling to risk wasting my day off on a bad game. Then, I don't remember exactly why or when, I decided to put in the very first disc of Shenmue. I think that the fact that this was the only multi-disc game I owned or had ever owned was a factor in my apprehension towards the game. I carried on, bravely, through the boot-up sequence to the title screen. That was probably my first major surge of interest in the game. I sat there listening to the looping title theme for several minutes before moving on.
Then I made it to the opening cinematic. I was just like, "Great! It's already starting to happen!" I gritted my teeth as the scene continued past the three-minute mark. I was tempted to turn off the system, but I continued on anyway. As soon as the camera panned outside around the leafless tree with rain pattering down with audible thunder in the background.. I knew that something about this game was.. different. I didn't really know how to explain what I was feeling, or even if the feeling was good. I made it to Ryo's bedroom. The very first thing that hit me in the face were the controls. Shenmue has a very awkward control scheme for those who've never played before. I eventually came to terms with it.
The second major issue I ran into was the lack of an auto-save feature. In my haste to go to work, eat dinner or whatever it was that forced me to quickly quit during my first experience with the game had caused me to overlook saving my progress up to that point. So, when I eventually returned I was forced to repeat the opening cinematic. I was nearly ready to give up at that point, but I kept telling myself to just be patient. And boy, you better believe that the very first action I took when I had control of Ryo again was saving that bad boy.
I won't go into very much detail about the story or game play from this point on (we'd be here all day), but I will provide some of the highlights. One of the first things you'll notice is the very open-ended nature of the game. There are no arrows, GPS, radar or magical hint balls to hold your hand through the game. You rely solely on your own intuition and the environment in order to progress through the game. This means that no two players are likely to have the same experience while playing through the game. You don't even have to move forward at any particular time. You have the freedom of forging on to the next major event or taking it easy in the arcade or supermarket. You can complete the game at your own pace without worry. In order to progress through the narrative, the player will be required to talk with the townspeople or shop owners in order to get "clues" which Ryo will write in his personal notebook. You can access this notebook at any time (except during battles or QTE events).
Some players may be turned off by all of this. At times, it can feel like you aren't accomplishing very much. Talking to one person may point you in the direction of another individual, who in turn directs you to yet another person. You have to understand that a game like this places equal amounts of emphasis on the journey as well as the destination. Don't become discouraged when you finally get that piece of China you were looking for, only to find out that it is merely one component of the many that you actually need to complete a quest.
The graphics for that time back in 2000 were ahead of anything seen on PC or console, given the sheer scope of this title. It's the little things, like manually dialing a number on the telephone, opening a cabinet to discover a Sega Saturn, and playing darts in the arcade that really put this game over the top for me. Just the fact that I have the freedom to turn my bedroom lamp on or off is flooring. The fact that they went to the trouble to include all of these little things really shows the effort that was backing this game. Sega really believed that this could be the killer app that would move systems off of shelves. In fact, it absolutely had to be just that. The Dreamcast began a rapid decline in performance mid-way through that year, and it was clear to Sega that they needed software that would really make the DC popular in time to build a strong install base before the launch of the PlayStation 2 & other sixth-generation platforms. They had a great launch (which could have been even greater had the graphics chip manufacturer not run short on supply) and had a steady install base growing, but Sega needed more than average sales on this system. There was a lot riding on the Sega Dreamcast & Shenmue.
Now, don't quote me on this. I haven't done the hard research or math to confirm this theory, but I have heard on more than one occasion that due to the production costs involved in Shenmue, Sega would have to have sold at least two (2) copies of the game for every Dreamcast that was in a home at the time of the game's release in order to break-even. Now, that sounds absurd, but Sega was most likely planning to have a larger install base by that time or at least manage to create the necessary install base with the release of this game. So perhaps Sega was hoping, no... relying on the chance that consumers would purchase Shenmue along with a Sega Dreamcast (or two). Console manufacturers will nearly always take a loss on hardware, making up for this deficit through software, accessories & subscription services. Shenmue was supposed to be the Halo 2 equivalent for the Dreamcast. I always like to think that Sonic Adventure 2 held this prestige, but the game wasn't released until after the Dreamcast had already been discontinued.
Unfortunately, Shenmue did not perform to the levels necessary to keep the Dreamcast popular and selling well. Sega was desperate to strengthen the number of households owning a Dreamcast. Price slashes began. Some DCs were given away at no charge to individuals signing up for the SegaNet subscription service. At one point, you could could literally have purchased a brand new DC for $50 or less. Despite all of this, U.S. sales just weren't high enough and consumers weren't buying Shenmue. This resulted in an early discontinuation in the Western market. At the beginning of 2001, Sega of America announces that they will no longer manufacture the DC & will be exiting the console market entirely. Peter Moore, the head guy in-charge of Dreamcast marketing (shortly after Bernie Stolar departed after launching the system) during the latter half of its life, decided against an American release of Shenmue II. Instead, Moore used Shenmue II as a bargaining chip to get a similar position with Microsoft in the Xbox division.
This has frustrated me to this day. Why on Earth would he do that? Shenmue II was a Japanese game, made by a Japanese company on a Japanese console. Why would you move such a game to an American-branded platform with no track-record of success in the Japanese market? To add insult to injury, the original Shenmue was never ported to Xbox, but instead was included in movie-clip summary form with Shenmue II. Needless to say, it didn't sell very well. Critics were harsh on the game's visuals & poor acting, stating that while the presentation was impressive by Dreamcast standards, they looked dated on the Xbox (being known for it's higher-end, PC-like performance). I would have to say that that's my only primary complaint when it comes to the game's sequel. In fact, let's talk a little more about that game.
Shenmue II was released on September 6, 2001 as a sequel to the original Shenmue on Dreamcast. This game hands down is home to the superior soundtrack out of the two available. The only concern I had with this game, which in no way is a deal-breaker, is the lack of any noticeable improvement in visuals. In fact, it seems as if the development team just copied the first game and altered the environments to represent Hong Kong instead of Japan. To an extent, this would be consistent with claims that the team behind the first game was also working on the sequel in a side-by-side fashion.
Despite the overwhelming effort by Sega, Yu Suzuki & Dreamcast marketing.. the game simply did not perform well enough to earn a profit or save the company's hardware business. We never got a third installment or conclusion to the epic saga. Though recently, there was a kick-starter campaign for development of Shenmue III on PlayStation 4 & PC platforms. The event was met with high enthusiasm from gamers & quickly met the initial goal of $2 million dollars (See link below).
To summarize, Shenmue is nothing short of a masterpiece. The graphics, detail, scope, varying weather & night/day effects are legendary and quite possibly responsible for inspiring later titles, such as Mass Effect. It's the most incredible gaming experience available. No gamer's collection is complete without it. If you haven't played it yet, go buy a Sega Dreamcast, a VMU & a VGA cord/box along with a copy of this piece of art & enjoy gaming at it's creative peak.