In order to understand why we won’t ever see a Shenmue III, we must first understand what Shenmue is as a series. Shenmue is the story of Ryo Hazuki tracking down his father’s killer. It started its life being developed for the Saturn, was eventually shifted to the Dreamcast, saw a two-for-one sequel on the Xbox, and then slipped quietly into the night while Sega started spending time and money on its spiritual successor, Yakuza.
What It Was: The next chapter in the 12-part tale of Ryo Hazuki tracking down his father’s killer.
What Happened: It turns out games need to make lots of money to have sequels greenlit.
Why We Wanted It: After writing this I’m not sure I do, but it’d be great to see how the story ends.
Shenmue was originally intended to be told in 12 parts. I’m not going to lie to you: 12 is a lot of installments for any sort of entertainment media, but it’s outlandish for a video game series. The only series I can think of with that many entries is Final Fantasy and, aside from two direct sequels (Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XIII-2) and the hype phenomenon that is Final Fantasy VII and its various spin-offs, each game is only related in small ways, like featuring terrifying giant horse-birds and having a guy named Cid in them.
Can you imagine a 12-part movie? I can’t. I can barely wrap my mind around the seven (book) or eight (film)-part Harry Potter series, and I’m a quick reader and movies are on average only two hours long. My Shenmue and Shenmue II saves had well over 20 hours on them. I’m not sure, assuming we got one game per installment left, that I have 180 hours of Shenmue playing time left in me. I’m not sure that anybody does. Or that anybody should. A game so heavily focused on narrative probably shouldn’t have ever been a video game in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Shenmue. It was amazing in 1999 when it came out. I was engrossed in looking for sailors, playing Lucky Hit and racing forklifts to make money. It was, at least to me, the beginning of the resurgence of the adventure game. Ryo’s quest wasn’t about killing every enemy and saving the world – it was about finding out why his father was killed and making the killer answer for it. Yu Suzuki showed us what an adventure game could be today, and even if not every game released fits his mold exactly, we’ve got more of them today than anybody probably expected.
The market isn’t oversaturated, but it doesn’t need Ryo in it anymore. If a third installment were released tomorrow, it would have to come with the first two games bundled in anyway just to make sure that people knew what was going on. In the U.S. at least, Dreamcasts and Xboxes aren’t common anymore. Shenmue never showed up anywhere else, and Shenmue II isn’t backward-compatible on the 360. Jumping into any story in chapter four just doesn’t work for most people.
If Sega decided to throw some money away and finance a third Shenmue title I would certainly buy it, but the first two games were expensive, and they didn’t make a whole lot of money. Some of that has to rest with the fact that the two platforms Shenmue games have been released on weren’t exactly living room fixtures, but some of it has to lie with that the adventure game audience is smaller than the military shooter audience, and budget has to reflect that. Shenmue games aren’t cheap, and to make one affordable you’d have to sacrifice what makes the series special. I don’t want a Shenmue game where I can’t buy capsule toys, play in the arcade and watch every NPC go about their daily life. Lots of series are unfinished, and I have a feeling that Shenmue will always be among them.