One day in late 2013, I woke up to dozens of emails and Twitter messages from people with accounts like "@Shenmue5K" and "@SaveShenmue". They wanted me to help them save Shenmue, a video game series I'd barely heard of.
I'd just interviewed Sony VP of publisher/developer relations Adam Boyes at the PS4 launch event, see, and he'd brought up Shenmue as one of the top entries on their big list of third-party games to revive on PlayStation platforms. Given that the last Shenmue game came out in 2001 — and that the chances of us ever seeing a third game seemed beyond dismal — the mention came as a shock to a whole lot of Shenmue fans. Loud Shenmue fans.
"Please help us save Shenmue," they'd tweet at me, at Boyes, and at anyone else who would listen. Again. And again. And again and again and again.
Two years later, these hardcore fans have finally pulled it off. Against all odds — and thanks to the crowdfunding power of Kickstarter, a platform that mitigates creators' financial risk by placing it in the hands of tens of thousands of fans — Shenmue III is actually happening. Well, it's theoretically happening — some Kickstarters never quite come to fruition, and scepticism is usually warranted. (At the very least, we should be sceptical of that "December 2017" estimated release date — almost all Kickstarter games are delayed beyond their estimated targets.)
Forget about the drawbacks of crowdfunding for a second, though. Think about how remarkable it is that this is even a possibility. When Shenmue and its sequel came out in 1999 and 2001, respectively, rumours pegged them as two of the most expensive games ever made. Although Shenmue II ended on a brutal cliffhanger, director Yu Suzuki had trouble getting a third game off the ground, and over the following years he'd suffer through multiple Shenmue III cancellations before finally leaving Sega in 2011. (In 2010 he released Shenmue City, a Japan-only social game that nobody wanted and that would go on to close after a year.)
The first game sold well; the second didn't. But they both resonated with people, and somehow, after years upon years of teasing and speculation, Suzuki has A) put together a licensing agreement with Sega; B) convinced Sony to help publish; and C) launched a Kickstarter that became the fastest ever to hit $US1 million. This all for a Sega Dreamcast series most people have never heard of — a series that was trending on Twitter throughout the first two days of E3.
It's only because of those crazy Shenmue fans — the ones with weird Twitter handles and incessant pestering messages — that a third game is happening. If Shenmue fans weren't so outspoken, constantly bugging Boyes on Twitter and reminding Suzuki that, yes, there are people still waiting to see the end of Ryo Hazuki's story, there's no way any of this could've occurred. Shenmue would have just been another casualty of the Japanese game industry.
I've never played any of the Shenmue games, but I can certainly relate to the attachment. Back in the 90s, I discovered a series with an even worse title that would also go on to become a cult classic: Suikoden. Suikoden changed my life. Suikoden II, chock full of translation gaffes and errors, made me realise that video games can tell emotionally resonant stories in a way no other medium can. Suikoden III persuaded me to fake sick and stay home from school for a week. Suikoden IV was kinda disappointing, sure, but Suikoden V was a true return to form, and I spent the two weeks before its official release date calling my local game store just to see if they'd maybe by some chance gotten an early copy? The series grabbed me in ways that nothing else really has.
Like Shenmue, the Suikoden series remains unfinished — all five games have left loose threads and teased an ultimate showdown that never came — and the publisher, Konami, has no interest in bringing it back. Yet… if, somehow, Suikoden director Yoshitaka Murayama popped up out of nowhere and announced plans to Kickstart Suikoden VI, there would immediately be a pile of bricks directly under wherever I was sitting at the time. If you ever see a Kotaku article with my byline and the title "HOLY FUCK HOLY FUCK HOLY FUCK," it's probably Suikoden VI.
So I can sympathize when, say, Shenmue fans react negatively to a piece like the post one of our guest-writers ran on Friday about the new Kickstarter's placeholder box art and what that art may have signalled about the quality of the overall Shenmue Kickstarter effort. I empathise with what hardcore fans have been through — 14 years is a long time to wait! — and I totally get why they were so pissed off at Kotaku last week. For a while now, in their eyes, it's felt like some people have looked for any opportunity to crap on high-profile Kickstarters like this one, which is a slap in the face to those fans who have been waiting a decade and a half for Shenmue III to happen.
There are some healthy sceptical questions to ask here, of course: Do Suzuki and crew realise, for example, just how much time and money they will have to spend on the dinners and other swag rewards they have promised? Suzuki says they'd need to hit $US5 million for "one of the things I really want to do with Shenmue 3 [to] become a reality" — why such a seemingly arbitrary number? Why do they need to hit $US10 million to make it "truly" an open world? And will they ever tell fans exactly how much money they're getting from outside sources?
In the coming months, as curious journalists and passionate fans follow this remarkable story — and it is a remarkable story, no matter what else happens — we'll be watching for delays, for obstacles, for budget issues. We'll be probing Suzuki and crew to be transparent about their process and their finances. And I'll be paying particularly close attention to what has become the most compelling part of this story: how fans made something impossible happen.
That said… please stop tweeting at me to #saveshenmue. You've already saved it. Promise.