Get Involved!

Make yourself known:

Why I Love… Articles Retrobate Profile Retro Game Profiles

The Making Of Shenmue

13,016 views 2 comments

It’s one of Sega’s most celebrated games, and people still sign petitions asking Sega and Yu Suzuki to finish the story of Ryo Hazuki. Groundbreaking at the time, and one of the most expensive games of all time, Shenmue stands apart from its peers and represented Sega at its creative peak. Here, lead programmer Tak Hirai explains how the elaborate expensive game came to be.

Over the years there have been many games hailed as triumphs of game engineering, as milestones of progress in the industry and as huge leaps forward in terms of depth and gameplay. Of these titles, few have encountered as many difficulties or been as beloved by its fans as Shenmue. Within its development, the series has outlived two consoles, racked up a monumental price tag and created a fan base that has endured nearly a decade since the last release.


Hero, Ryo Hazuki is driven by his quest for revenge.

As many Shenmue fans will already know, the series’ beginnings were rooted deeply in another Sega-AM2 series, as a planned RPG expansion of the Virtua Fighter universe intended for the Sega Saturn; a genesis that can still be seen not only in the character modelling, but in the source code as well. The brainchild of Yu Suzuki, even in the final release of the game, Ryo’s character ID remains ‘AKIR’, a shortened form of ‘Akira’. Although it is difficult to pin down exactly when the game grew beyond these humble roots, it would certainly seem that it came late in the project’s two-year-long development for the Saturn or early in the Dreamcast development. In fact, it’s hard not to develop a knowing smile looking over early pictures of the character that would become Ryo while comparing them to images of Akira from Virtua Fighter 2. Even in the video of a development version of Saturn Shenmue, packaged with the Dreamcast Shenmue II release, the resemblance to Akira is obvious.

Despite the obvious amount of progress made during this two-year span, the writing on the wall was becoming clear for the Saturn as North American sales lagged, developers struggled with the notoriously difficult setup of the system’s hardware, and support from Sega of America began to fail. Work on the Saturn version was halted; it was clear that if the Shenmue saga was ever going to see the light of day, it would have to be done on a different console, and Sega had just the console in mind.

Thus was the beginning of Project Berkley, the codename used for the early development of Shenmue on the still pre-launch Dreamcast. Several videos of these Project Berkley tech demos can still be found on the internet. It is interesting to note that the age of these demos marks Shenmue out as possibly one of the very first games to begin development for the Dreamcast. The Project Berkley moniker remained attached to the project for some time, sticking long enough to appear on the teaser disc attached to the Japanese launch release of Virtua Fighter 3tb. This disc was, for most, the first glimpse of AM2’s new project.


It might look a little sparse now, but scenes like this
were groundbreaking in 1999.

Although it’s tempting to blame much of the cost of Shenmue’s development on the difficulties encountered during the Saturn era and the shift in development from the Saturn to the Dreamcast, it would not be entirely accurate. Regardless of the change to the more coder-friendly console, the Shenmue project was still no laughing matter. The sheer cost of manpower and organisation for such an undertaking is immense. In fact, when we asked lead systems programmer Tak Hirai about his role in the development of Shenmue for the Dreamcast, he replied: “I was responsible for managing a team of 87 programmers. I also made final judgements regarding the overall program behaviour of the whole game. Managing this huge team of programmers was a nightmare since it could take more than 14 and a half hours a day just speaking with each person individually. If I only spoke with each programmer for ten minutes, you can see how it would add up.”

In terms of his own programming workload alone: “I was in charge of not only constructing the coding environment but also coding a fundamental processing architecture to make system programmers easier to work with. I was also in charge of the character system, rendering pipeline, lighting engine, and also optimising the performance of these systems. I had my hands dirty on playing around with SH4 assembly [programming language] on the Dreamcast to tune up the performance. Small and detailed codes used in the cut-scenes such as physics simulation of phone cords, handcuff chains in the second chapter, and trailing visual effects of the car signals were also done in my spare time. I finally ended up creating around 200 source files out of more than 300 files in total.”

To this day it’s amazing that the project was completed at any cost. Although it’s possible to point to other games released in the same era with a similar scope of story, we’ve encountered nothing on the same level in terms of the game systems. With such a large team and array of smaller projects involved, development required fantastic organisation of not only the available manpower but also of the game’s program and the programming environment itself.


One of Shenmue’s best bits is entering the arcade and discovering you can play classic versions of old Yu Suzuki games.

Hirai was kind enough to go on to explain the streamlining required: “The programming section was roughly divided into two groups. The first was the system programming team and the other was the game event programming team. In-game events in Shenmue were driven by the scripting language. Regarding the program interface, we defined the table of functions associated with in-game event functions so that it wouldn’t affect the event program structure whenever we updated the system components. In order to maximise the performance in an environment where up to 87 programmers had to work together, we eased the workflow by downloading pre-compiled object files, which didn’t depend on source code, in an individual programmer’s local environment. I thought it was ridiculous for 87 programmers to spend time recompiling just because someone modified one bit of source code.”

Regardless of the expense of such a development, it was necessary to realise the vision intended for Shenmue. “We took tremendous efforts to implement features that were invisible to the player,” continues Hirai. “If the game felt natural to you and nothing stood out as particularly unrealistic, that’s because we spent a lot of time to create the game’s subtle details despite the very limited hardware horsepower and technology of the time. When it comes to the weather system, it heavily depended on the processing performance, so the most important issue was to optimise the performance. Regarding non-player characters, all 300 characters were specifically positioned in the game field so we didn’t have to blindly calculate the collision between all characters if everything was in sync. However, when a non-player character had to change their walking path to avoid the player, it became increasingly harder to manage what would have been a very simple thing in the real world, such as making an off-track character stand right in front of a door.”

It’s difficult to explain to a modern gamer just how amazing these features were at the time of Shenmue’s release. We can still recall our awe, watching the fish swim in the koi pond or noticing Ryo’s shadow falling in different positions depending on the time of day. Although the features may have been, as Hirai says, largely invisible to the player, they certainly did expand upon the game in truly amazing ways. Even if, unlike us, you didn’t spend at least a few of Ryo’s lunch breaks at work chasing birds that would scatter realistically as you charged towards them.


Shenmue has the DNA of Virtua Fighter running through its veins.

As the creation of the game progressed, of course some of the features originally planned for the game did have to be scrapped, even in a game as epic as Shenmue. Of these features, the most talked about certainly had to be the ability to ride a bicycle, which was demonstrated in one of the early tech demos. We couldn’t resist the urge to ask Hirai just why this feature didn’t make the cut and what other features failed to make it into the final version that he may have liked to see on the published discs.

“Actually, I was the first guy who implemented the bike-riding feature,” he explains. “This was done at the early stage of the development. We originally intended to begin the game in China, so I made it as a showcase to see how it looked when you rode the bike in a meadow. Another programmer took over that part of the project and worked on the vehicle programming at the end of Shenmue. I personally think that we had to cut this feature out from the game because there wasn’t a significant enough advantage for the player to ride a bike through the city over simply running around in Yokosuka. “During the development, there used to be special features, like the player being able to lift up an object like a house and throw it. Fast-forwarding or rewinding the day and night cycles worked great for debugging the game, so I wanted to leave these features in the final product as Easter eggs.”

Regardless of what features failed to make an appearance in the published version, the final release suffered from no lack of things to do. Above and beyond the systems discussed earlier, the breadth of little extras is fantastic. You could choose to spend your time collecting toys, drinking sodas, buying crisps, taking care of your stray cat or playing games at the local arcade. It’s a funny thing, as truly engrossing as the story of Shenmue is, that it is quite linear, allowing only a few hidden scenes without any true branching 
of the main storyline. That said, the funny thing is that we’ve never felt at all constrained while playing Shenmue, which we believe is a result of these extras. Somehow the ability to waste a day playing darts, to choose dried 
fish over milk to feed your cat, to satisfy your voyeurism by rummaging through Ryo’s drawers, or just to give Ine-san a call during your lunch break 
all comes together to give you an amazing feeling of freedom. Seemingly, that was no accident.


Although the amount of interaction was not as amazing as first claimed, it still managed to impress.

“We created a lot of innovations never seen before Shenmue,” says Hirai. “I would say the hardest part of this project was to imagine and create a ‘you can do anything’ kind of feeling, which did not exist in that era.” Shenmue’s impact on the gaming industry was huge, opening a door to a new sub-genre of games that did not previously exist. Even beyond this, it opened our eyes to what could be done, and it raised the bar just a little in terms of the effort and forethought that we demand from game designers.

“I think that Grand Theft Auto owes Shenmue a lot for its great success, even after coming into the 3D realm,” posits Hirai. “Everyone I’ve met also mentions the detail quality in Shenmue. I’ve been told: ‘Don’t do so much on the quality to the extent of making a cod in a pond swim smoothly.’ Some even said this to me out of fear, since we might make this level of quality an industry standard! It might be simple to say it’s about the quality, but I’d rather say it’s about ‘quality to make it feel real’, which is how this project contributed to push the envelope of the gaming industry.”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Shenmue in issue 78. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

Tags: , , , ,