The storied Shenmue franchise has finally expanded with its third entry, Shenmue 3, out now.
With one of the most storied behind-the-scenes journeys in video game history, the series is as infamous as it is iconic. Much of this is due to its ground-breaking early foray into open-world gaming, as well as a frequently bizarre plot and an extravagant budgets. The beleaguered road to the series' third entry has also been the subject of much controversy, and that third game is finally approaching its release date, almost 20 years after Shenmue II. Given the story-centered gameplay, new fans may be confused if they jump into the new game blindly. Even old fans may want a refresher on the 20-year-old franchise’s epic, sometimes meandering plot. Let’s take a look back at the story of the series so far, as well as what fans should know going into the third one.
Director Yu Suzuki’s ambitious adventure story Shenmue was years in the making. Though it could be traced back to a Sega Saturn prototype, the 3D game that became Shenmue started life officially as an RPG on the Saturn called Guppy. This game later turned into Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira’s Story, detailing the origin of Akira, the protagonist of Sega and Yu Suzuki’s popular Virtua Fighter series. The game’s basic premise of this character traveling the Far-East seeking revenge for his father mirrored both Chinese theater as well as the final game’s story. The game later ditched its Virtua Fighter connection, and it was rebranded Project Berkley before the title Shenmue was decided upon.
The restructured plot centered around the original protagonist Ryo Hazuki, a man who goes on a grand quest for revenge after witnessing his father’s murder at the hands of the mysterious Lan Di. The story from there involves gang warfare, a kidnapped love interest, and even forklift racing, as Ryo hunts for Lan Di and the whereabouts of the equally mysterious Dragon Mirror. The game combined action-adventure with social aspects, allowing players to enjoy music, gambling, and in-game recreations of Sega classics such as Hang-On.
This made Yokosuka, the city that Shenmue took place in, feel alive and real yet embodying the original role-playing intent. The gameplay also went on to inspire Sega's other series, Yakuza. The sprawling adventure made the game the most expensive video game ever developed at the time. Some of this cost also covered the sequel’s production, however.
Shenmue II (2001)
Picking up after the first game’s rather abrupt conclusion, Shenmue II sees Ryo leaving Japan for Hong Kong, seeking martial arts master Lishao Tao for information concerning why Lan Di killed his father. He’s joined by the free-wheeling, fortune-seeking gang leader Wuying Ren and Western motorcyclist Joy. A quest into the walled city of Kowloon reveals that Lan Di blames Ryo’s father Iwao for his own father’s murder. The mysterious mirrors that Lan Di has sought are also revealed to be the key in resurrecting the legendary Qing Dynasty.
Ryo later meets a seemingly magical girl named Shenhua, whose family is connected to the mirrors. From there, Ryo waits in her home village of Guilin, where Lan Di is supposedly headed. The first game was released on Sega’s Dreamcast, as was its sequel. Due to that console’s early demise, however, the developer later made a port for the Xbox. In 2018, Shenmue I and II received high-definition remakes for Windows, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, paving the way for the next chapter in the saga.
Shenmue III (2019)
After its tumultuous development cycle, the long awaited third Shenmue has finally been released. Yu Suzuki had always intended for the saga to be spread across a multitude of games, but the development of Shenmue III was indefinitely postponed following the commercial failure of the expensive previous games. Thus, Suzuki launched a Kickstarter campaign for the game, which subsequently broke records for crowdfunded video games and crowdfunded projects in general. By the end of its campaign in 2018, it had raised over $7 million in fan-donated funding. The need for this funding was Sega’s licensing the Shenmue franchise to Suzuki’s company Ys Net.
The game again picks up from the previous game’s story, with Ryo residing in a Chinese mountain village in Guilin. The main settings include the more remote Bailu Village in Guilin, as well as a riverside village with hotels, shops, and other open-world social elements. Ryo teams up with recent ally Shenhua to finally face Lan Di, as well as a new villain named Niao Sun. Suzuki has stated that he does not intend to include the story in this entry and hopes for more future installments, but only time (and wallets) will tell if that happens.
Shenmue 3 is published by Deep Silver and developed by Neilo and YS Net. Franchise veterans Yu Suzuki and Keiji Okayasu co-directed the game. Shenmue 3 is available now on PC and PlayStation 4.