Shenmue (シェンムー 一章 横須賀, Shenmū Isshō Yokosuka, lit. "Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka"), also known as Shenmue I, is the first installment in the Shenmue series.
The story follows a Japanese teen's search for his father's murderer.
Shenmue borrows gameplay elements from several different genres, but largely consists of open-world adventure segments with real-time 3D battles interspersed throughout. Suzuki coined a genre title, "FREE" (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment), for the game, based on the interactivity and freedom he wanted to give to the player. Suzuki intended to achieve this by simulating aspects of real life through the game, such as the day/night/sleep system, real time variable weather effects (unheard of in a game of this kind at the time), fully voiced non-player characters with their own daily schedules, quick time events, and various other interactive elements such as vending machines, arcades, and convenience stores.
Shenmue and Shenmue II were adapted into Shenmue the Animation in 2022.
Shenmue begins on November 29, 1986. Ryo Hazuki returns home to his family dojo to witness his father, Iwao Hazuki, battling with a man dressed in a green silk Chinese suit known as Lan Di. Lan Di demands Iwao hand over an item known as the "Dragon Mirror", though Iwao refuses to reveal where it is. Ryo intervenes in battle after his father is felled, but is injured by Lan Di. He then lifts Ryo from the ground and threatens to kill him, prompting Iwao to reveal its location under the cherry blossom tree. After Lan Di's henchmen recover the mirror, he mentions a man called Sunming Zhao, who was allegedly killed by Iwao in a rural Chinese village. The two then fight, as he wishes Iwao to die "as a warrior". Lan Di finishes the fight with a deadly blow, and he and his men then leave. Iwao dies shortly after in Ryo's arms.
Ryo is instilled with the desire for revenge above all else. He begins to instigate inquiries into the incident with the local people of his Japanese hometown, Sakuragaoka. Ryo's first clue is a car that some of his neighbors saw on the day of the murder. Though his leads are few and far between, Ryo slowly makes progress in his investigation by interviewing people all over Yokosuka. He eventually discovers Lan Di is heading to Hong Kong in China. Ryo uses Asia Travel Company to buy a ticket but is, unfortunately, scammed when his ticket is eaten by a strange hostile man named Chai.
Just as he is about to run out of leads, a letter from a man named Yuanda Zhu suggests that he seek the aid of a certain Master Chen, who works at the harbor. Through Chen and his son Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local wharf gang known as the Mad Angels is connected to Lan Di's crime organization, the Chi You Men. Ryo also learns that "the mirror" stolen by Lan Di is part of a set of two mirrors. After much investigation, he locates the second mirror underneath his father's dojo, dubbed the Phoenix Mirror and decorated with a phoenix.
Ryo takes a forklift job on the harbor waterfront in order to learn more about the Mad Angels gang. After a few days of work, eventually he causes them enough trouble that the gang kidnaps his friend (and principal love interest) Nozomi Harasaki. To rescue Nozomi, Ryo must first fight Guizhang, then team up with Guizhang to defeat all seventy members of the Mad Angels gang. Upon defeat, the gang's leader reveals to Ryo that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong, China.
Ryo is confronted by Chai and defeats him. With the aid of the Chen family as well as his family and friends, Ryo boards a boat to Hong Kong. Before the close of the first chapter (and subsequent end of the game itself), he is instructed by Master Chen to seek out the help of a master of the Chinese martial arts located in Wan Chai named Tao Lishao. Ryo boards the boat and travels to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lan Di, concluding the first chapter of Shenmue.
If Ryo stays in Yokosuka until April 15th, 1987 a non-canon bad ending will occur. Lan Di demands the phoenix mirror; Ryo refuses so he kills him using the same move he used to kill his father.
Shenmue takes place within Yokosuka, Japan. The four main areas of Yokosuka available to the player are detailed and offer many avenues for exploration. The Hazuki Residence is located in a small hamlet called Yamanose, where many of Ryo's childhood friends and neighbors live. Directly next to Yamanose lies Sakuragaoka, a slightly bigger neighborhood. There are several points of interest here, including Setsu Abe's candy shop and Sakuragaoka Park.
Dobuita, the second largest location in the game, is a busy town that boasts a wide variety of people and activities. Dobuita offerings include an eclectic and diverse selection of shops in the game, from convenience stores to specialized antique shops where valuable martial arts scrolls can be purchased. Nozomi is often found in Dobuita at her grandmother's flower shop. There is also a red light district with several bars, restaurants, a small slot machine parlor, and a mahjong parlor. The bus service that allows Ryo to travel to the New Yokosuka Harbor District is also located here near a tobacco shop.
The Yokosuka Harbor is the largest environment. Ryo first travels there to meet Master Chen, and eventually gets a job at the harbor to gain information on The Mad Angels, who have a large criminal influence in the area.
By 1993, Yu Suzuki was seeking a new challenge in his career and decided for the first time in over a decade to create a game for the home console market. Suzuki studied many computer role-playing games from the 1980s and found he was dissatisfied with some of the design decisions these games had made. To correct these faults, Suzuki decided he wanted to create an RPG.
Suzuki developed a very early prototype titled "The Old Man and the Peach Tree" on early Saturn hardware as a test. In the prototype the player controlled a character who was searching for a martial arts master by the name of Ryu in China. This early version contained some of the features later present in Shenmue.
By the mid 90s, Sega wanted Suzuki to take Virtua Fighter and spin it off into something new – something like an RPG. He rushed home and began jotting down ideas for his own epic RPG narrative about a boy on a quest to avenge his father’s death. Before long, a small team of Sega employees was helping Suzuki prototype this new RPG for the Sega Saturn. The game’s early working title was The Legend of Akira, named after one of Virtua Fighter’s mainstays, but as development progressed, the title evolved into an identity of its own. Suzuki renamed the game Shenmue, a Japanese word meaning "spirit tree." Originally pitched as an RPG, Shenmue was wildly experimental and combined 3D fighting elements with adventure game-like information gathering and a finely detailed town that players could explore at their own pace. In 1999, the term open world hadn’t been coined, so Suzuki described Shenmue as a F.R.E.E. game – an acronym meaning Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment.
The game was released in December, 1999. The game's total budget came to $50 million, making it the most expensive game Sega had produced at the time.
Gameplay in Shenmue is diverse. While most of the game is spent walking around the Japanese locations in a third-person 'chase cam' mode (talking to people, searching for things, and so forth), it is interspersed with many 'mini-games', including forklift and motorcycle races, bar fights, chases down crowded alleys, full versions of Sega arcade games Space Harrier and Hang-On, dart games, and fighting sequences.
During the majority of Shenmue, the player will explore the Yokosuka area. Often, these leads will be gained by talking to local people who can provide important clues. If the player so desires, they can explore the area simply for fun without progressing through the game. Furthermore, talking to a variety of local people that although will not progress the narrative, can greatly enhance the player's understanding of the plot or gameplay mechanics. There are also several side quests for players to engage in throughout the game. These will not affect the main narrative, but might provide Ryo with useful items or further develop characters and storyline for the player. Items collected and martial arts skills leveled up in the first game could be imported into Shenmue II on Dreamcast after completing the game.
During Quick Time Event sequences, a button will flash on screen briefly and the player must press the button or combination of buttons to trigger Ryo's actions. Fights against opponents can take place in QTE form. In addition to battles, QTE sequences are used for various other scenarios. For example, at one point a QTE sequence is used when Ryo must chase Jimmy Yan of Asia Travel Co. who has stolen money from him. The sequence takes place in the middle of a busy town center. As the game progresses, the reaction speeds required of the player become quicker and the button combinations become more complex. The player's success or failure in these scenes can affect the flow of gameplay as well as the current cutscene.
The battles pit Ryo against one or more enemies. Ryo has a large list of martial art techniques. The player has the ability to enter a practice mode of sorts, in which Ryo will practice his various martial art techniques, either alone or with a friendly opponent. This helps to increase the player's familiarity with the battle system. While progressing through the game, players have the ability to learn more techniques, adding to Ryo's repertoire and ultimately making him a more powerful martial artist. There are several senior martial artists that Ryo meets throughout his journey, and they offer to teach him new skills. The player has the choice to decline these offers. Another method for learning new techniques involves Martial Arts Scrolls. These antique instructional scrolls can be found, or purchased, at various locations in the game. Once Ryo has read the scroll, the technique will be added to his repertoire, but the player will need to practice the key combinations it requires to truly master it.
Shenmue incorporates a system to produce the game's in-universe weather conditions. Named the Magic Weather System, it is one of the most important elements for creating the game's universe. For every day that the player progresses through, weather conditions are randomly generated. Conditions vary from rain, to snow, to overcast skies to sunny and several other variations. Furthermore, weather can change throughout the day. For example, a rainy morning followed by an overcast afternoon and evening. The weather has direct impact on how the game looks - on a rainy day, people are walking around with umbrellas, and on a snowy day, the street is covered with snow. The conditions generated are reflective of the season in which they take place. In addition, records of actual weather conditions of the Yokosuka area during 1986/1987 were implemented into the game, giving players the option to experience these weather conditions in addition to those which are randomly generated.
In the localization for the game, small changes besides a full English dub were made from the original Japanese version due to licensing issues.
- Originally the drink vending machines were the Coca-Cola brand, and Ryo could buy Coca-Cola drinks like Coke, Sprite, etc. This was changed in every other version so it was a generic brand called "Jet-Cola" most likely because Sega of America and Europe didn't have the Coca-Cola license.
- In the PAL version, any instances of the Dreamcast swirl like the Dreamcasko capsule toy, was changed so it was blue instead of red, since Europe used a blue swirl for the Dreamcast.
Shenmue received mostly positive reviews, with an average aggregate score of 89.34% on GameRankings. Many reviews praised the game's graphics, realism, soundtrack and ambition. The character models were revolutionary for their realism, and became the new standard that realistic games in the 21st century gaming would aspire to.
The NPC system was also praised; there are randomly generated NPCs in the game. Every NPC has a name, a schedule, a voice, a profile, and some also have backstories. Every NPC can be interacted with; although most will say "Sorry, I'm busy" or "Get lost" to Ryo, many will also provide clues and hints.
IGN called Shenmue "a gaming experience that no one, casual to hardcore gamer, can miss". Eurogamer called it "one of the most compelling and unusual gaming experiences ever created." GameSpot wrote that though Shenmue is "far from perfect" it is "revolutionary" and "worth experiencing - provided you have the time to invest." Edge wrote that Shenmue is "involving, and ultimately rewarding, but only represents a step towards what may be possible in the future, rather than the milestone Edge hoped for."
Several reviews criticized:
- The game's "invisible walls", which limited the player's freedom, and the overall world of the game not being that large.
- The inability to progress without waiting for events scheduled to occur at specific times.
- Lack of challenge (apart from the finale of the 70 men battle and the final Chai battle, which some players have found difficult).
- Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote that the story "lags" on the third disc (the harbor). GameSpot wrote that by "the time you're driving forklifts and participating in the game's QTE-filled conclusion, hours upon hours of boredom will have taken their toll."
- Game Informer criticized the game's lack of action, writing: "Determining your character's next move requires little more than talking to someone, who will then tell you who to see or where to go ... all that's left is a guy walking around an amazingly detailed environment. If I wanted to experience that, I could see it in another game with proven endless entertainment value. It's called life."
Although not the game's fault, at launch, some people were disappointed because they did not know Shenmue was going to be more of a life simulator where about 98% of the time, the player would be exploring and talking to people, instead of the other 2% actually fighting people. Many players did not expect the the game's 3 to 5 hours of cutscenes and high emphasis on its cinematic storytelling, which was incredibly unusual for a video game in 1999.
Since the game's release, Shenmue has been criticized for popularizing and spreading QTEs throughout the gaming medium, as many people hate QTEs, while others are more indifferent about them.
In a controversial video by Jim Sterling, he called the game dreadful. He noted that while the game was revolutionary and amazing for its time in 1999, it does not hold up as well compared to the other open world games released since then. He criticized the game's time progression system which often forces the player to wait around or try to find something fun and meaningful to do, although he felt that the game does not have many fun things to do, saying, "I don't play video games for real life. My real life is annoying enough as it is, thanks." He still gave the overall game an 8 out of 10, commenting that while the gameplay can feel dated, Shenmue still deserves credit for setting the foundation for modern open world games. In a follow up video, Jim Sterling criticized the elitist people in the fanbase who act like no one is allowed to have a mixed or negative opinion of the game.
Some call Shenmue the "prototype" to the Yakuza series and even Shenmue II, which many fans prefer over the original Shenmue due to changes such as a bigger open world, the ability to fast forward time, etc.