How available hardware impacted design.
● Intended audiences for the game.
● Critique the game. Talk about game
design, visuals, mechanics & performance.
Available Hardware at the Time
Talking about the Dreamcast and its development could honestly take days. To shorten this I’m going to skip out on most of its earlier (failed) development cycle, all the in-fighting between Sega branches and stick to the final product. In my opinion Sega attempting to make the console four times amounting to a huge amount of wasted R&D money contributes to their financial trouble and eventual downfall in the hardware market. However don’t misinterpret me, I ADORE my Dreamcast.
Sega released the Dreamcast’s predecessor, the Sega Saturn on November 22nd 1994 in Japan and almost immediately began research into their next machine. Admitting right of the door that Sony had bested them at their own game with the launch of the Playstation. While technically the Playstation had less power than the Saturn, it was easier to program for, had more available development tools and Sony had already struck deals with some major developers before launch. The new kid on the block just burst onto the market with an unpredictable force.
The Dreamcast was eventually launched in November 98′ in Japan and was the first of the 128-bit console generation. Hardware wise I won’t get into specifics, but was the first console to use off the shelf parts more similar in nature to those from a personal computer. Games could be written directly for the hardware or using DirectX API libraries as the system also ran an embedded version of Windows CE. This made it easy to port PC games to the platform. Compared to anything before it the DC was a console powerhouse, and would only be rivaled by the soon to be PS2.
However this article is tied to Shenmue specifically and its development life started on the Saturn, pushing the system to its theoretical limits before being told to stop Saturn development but continue the project. This left the team in a multi year window where they didn’t know their target hardware. Yu Suzuki, Shenmue’s creator was quoted as saying he wanted the game to be a console title without limits and personally put down a prediction for the upcoming hardware specifications. While there is no evidence to support this, I wouldn’t be surprised if this flagship title for the system had some influence over the final hardware considering the $70 million dollars they poured into the games development. A monumental sum back in the 90s.
The age rating for Shenmue at the time was Teen, or in the UK 12+. This was the first time anyone and I mean anyone had attempted such an in depth, open world, story telling experience like this in a game. In an era of beat em ups and arena shooters, it stood alone as a marvel of technology and game design. In my opinion, I take that 12+ literally, regardless of age or gender there was something in Shenmue for everyone. At its core it was a people drama based around discovery and revenge.
There was however concerns that an attempt to re-create a perfect mid 80s Japan wouldn’t resonate with Western audiences and in an attempt to fix this the game needed a full English localisation to ease players into the unfamiliar setting. Due to the size of the game this was an enormous task challenge at the time and famously some of the voice casting decisions were….questionable and dragged down the quality of the localisation.
Game Design & Mechanics
Trying to sum up Shenmue is going to be a challenge. Originally Suzuki wanted the game to be an RPG based on the Virtua Fighter series, with voice acting, elaborate combat sequences and a cinematic approach. The tie in to Virtua Fighter was dropped once development left the Sega Saturn behind but plenty of evidence of it stills exists online.
The final core game has you travelling across a large open environment, full of minigames, subquests and character interaction. Things we take for granted today but monumental in the 90s. The player character could interact with a lot in the environment, cupboards, drawers, fridges, vending machines etc, and hold up objects to the camera to 360 rotate around and look at them. This blew my mind back then. On top of this the game had a fighting, martial arts mechanic which would be required frequently, this is likely still a holdover from when the game was going to be based on Virtua Fighter. The in game weather was even based on meteorological records from the 80s for the exact dates the game is set, Again the attention to detail to craft this game world was insane.
All of these mechanics were used to discover where the murderer of your father has escaped to, in the style of traditional Chinese cinema. I was always fond of the time of day system, all NPCs had a scripted daily routine based on the time, stores opened and closed at their own set hours, sleep was required before a certain time and some dialogue interactions with NPCs were based on time of day meetings. I was always fond of the section where you took up a part time job to look for information and had to drive a fork lift truck during your contracted hours. All of this was such a monumental effort that the development team had to invent a new type of data compression to fit the game on the eventual 4 discs. Without it they estimated it would have taken up to 60 optical discs.
I’ve left it till last but this topic couldn’t end without bringing up the QTE (quick time event), Shenmue gave birth to this idea of quickly reacting to an on screen prompt for a button press during a pre-scripted cutscene/event. While I accept the mechanic in this one game, the idea became a plague that spread to many games over several years, we’ve only recently seen the end of it. The idea was to give you some input on what happens during cutscenes, to feel like you’re still part of the action. However more often than not they just became a frustrating exercise in reaction speed to ever increasingly complex inputs, that required frequent reloads until you memorised the pattern.
All told it isn’t surprising it held the Guiness World Record for most expensive game ever made for quite a number of years. Sadly Sega never made the money back on it and became one of the many reasons for their eventual downfall from the console market.
All the visual influence for Shenmue was based on a mid 1980s image of Japan, specifically the port city of Yokosuka where the US setup their naval base post WWII. Nobody had to come up with an art style, it was all based on real world architecture, fashion, pop culture and overall history of the time period. There isn’t much to be found online about its visual influence probably to it all being real world reference.
The game ran well on the specifications the Dreamcast finalised with, transitioning from game to cutscene in the seamless manner we come to expect today. However performance isn’t always about framerates. Likely due to the compression and the sheer size of the game, load times could be quite lengthy between areas. Never helped by the Dreamcasts famously noisy disk drive.
I should mention the sequel here, some of the development costs for the first game leaked over into the second as they were back to back projects. However the environment detail for Hong Kong in the second game were scaled up significantly and the Dreamcast lost a lot of frames. The sequel was released at the time of the Dreamcast’s demise and in an effort to help sales the game was also ported to the original Xbox where it ran considerably better. The Xbox version is also the only version with an English localisation as it was rushed to shelves for the DC before it died. It’s amazing to think the development spanned the life of two consoles, took both of them to their limits and still required more power. As projects go it was certainly ambitious.