You’re a really good friend
For nearly two decades now, Shenmue has been regarded as one of the defining moments in the Dreamcast’s history. Combining elements that we now take for granted, it was a truly groundbreaking title… in 1999. Still, I can definitely see why people fell in love with it and have heralded it as Yu Suzuki’s crowning achievement.
When compared against modern games, though, Shenmue fails to live up. While one can still have fun revisiting Yokosuka and playing many rounds of “Lucky Hit,” there isn’t a single idea present that hasn’t been done better somewhere else. Even the story, while epic in scope, has been perfected by other games.
While I don’t expect anyone already in love to agree with me, those brand new to the series, like me, will likely find interesting concepts that are marred by poor execution. This game is definitely not for everyone, but it does still have its charm.
Shenmue I & II (PC [Reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Release: August 21, 2018
If you were to boil Shenmue down to its most basic elements, it would be that of a kung fu revenge story. The game opens with a mysterious man named Lan Di entering the Hazuki Dojo and murdering Iwao Hazuki, father of protagonist Ryo Hazuki. As Ryo sits there in anguish, Lan Di mutters something about pieces of a sacred mirror and then takes off. After recovering for a few days, Ryo decides to set off on a quest for revenge and the plot begins.
Or at least, that is what would happen if this were a story with any kind of momentum. Instead of thrusting you directly into anything resembling action, Shenmue’s story is an incredibly slow burn. You only have a few clues to go off of and need to piece things together with detective work. This means walking around your town of Yokosuka, Japan and asking people if they noticed anything about a black car on “that” day.
After talking with enough people, you’ll start to get more clues about citizens that can help you and it begins to feel more like a point-and-click adventure game. Even after just half an hour of playing, I get the feeling that Yu Suzuki’s intention with Shenmue wasn’t to make a martial arts epic, but a reality simulator. People walk around the town of Yokosuka with their own schedules and you’ll need to manage your time to make sure you can enter stores before they close. You also have a curfew that prevents you from staying out too late, which can be a real pain in the ass.
At least the world building Shenmue has is still quite a feat in this day and age. I don’t think I’ve ever been as connected to an environment of a game like I have become to Ryo’s hometown. That’s all down to how Shenmue requires you to make progress. You won’t be able to just pull up a map, mark locations or check store names on the fly. You need to talk to people, learn information, check a local map directory from the street and memorize the locations you’re trekking through.
This is all done so organically that it never feels tedious. I’ve done similar things in my own life, be it learning a college campus, or exploring cities around the USA. That a game captures that feeling so well is remarkable, especially for a title that came out in 1999. It honestly rivals the work that Bethesda did with Morrowind a few years later.
By the end, I came to really love the humble town of Yokosuka. It made me nostalgic for an era I was never a part of (1980’s Japan) and it showed me how much we take for granted in modern game design. If Shenmue were made today by the same triple-A studio, it would likely have waypoints and be a completely guided tour. I mean, what other game can you go into your room and open the sock drawer to find actual socks?
Where things start to crumble, though, is with the pacing. While all this attention to detail in world building is nice, Shenmue really has no respect for the player’s time. While moving through the story, you’ll get a lead on some information and then be told to return at 2 pm the next day. Instead of being able to skip time, or even just jumping straight to that point, Shenmue makes you wait the clock out in-game. Depending on how early you are at certain events, this could mean an entire hour needs to be wasted before you can go to sleep for the next day.
There are distractions in Yokosuka to help you pass that time (including some classic Sega arcade games), but that comes off more as a bandage to a problem that could have easily been tweaked. I understand trying to stay true to the original vision of the game, but why not just add Shenmue 2’s time skip feature as an option? There is a new feature in this HD port of being able to skip directly to specific sections of Yokosuka from Ryo’s house, so why hold back the one feature that could have improved things dramatically?
Another thing that is completely lacking is the combat system. Somehow, Shenmue has both an advanced and deep combat system that also manages to be really finicky and sloppy. You’ll do battle in a fashion similar to Virtua Fighter (of which Shenmue actually uses Virtua Fighter 3’s engine), but the camera system is all over the place. Making matters worse, you’re constantly up against multiple foes and Ryo has no idea which person he should be targeting at any given time.
If battles were kept to 1-on-1 affairs, Shenmue might have actually gotten away with its poor controls, but being ganged-up-on while you have no real control over your inputs sucks. It is a miracle that you can even win battles at all. I at least appreciate how specific fights will have different outcomes if you fail. It adds another dynamic to Shenmue that is completely missing from modern game design: skippable content.
If you know what you’re doing, you can skip over entire portions of this game. One segment requires you to get some Chinese letters translated and if you know which character does that, you can simply go to them and bypass asking for clues. Along with that, there are entire shops that serve no purpose other than to be a part of a living, breathing world. You’ll never be required to step foot into them and most players will never see them, but they exist. I didn’t realize the fortune teller was a real thing until I took a gander at the achievement list, for example.
While I really dug all of this, it really doesn’t excuse all the tedium that is baked into the experience. The forklift segment that everyone raves about is a prime example of this. It definitely is charming the first time, but quickly wears out its welcome the third time you do it. It serves no other gameplay purpose and mainly exists to drag out an experience that would be about seven hours long without it.
At least when you finally do finish that segment, the final action sequence is killer. You don’t battle foes that often in Shenmue (maybe nine times in total), but the build-up to the final showdown is incredible. Every skill you’ve learned and practiced over the game comes back to you in a sequence that goes on for 15 minutes straight. To spoil it would rob the game of its one truly outstanding moment and I’m not going to steal that joy from anyone.
There’s still is fun to be had with Shenmue in 2018, but a critical analysis of it just makes me think of Ian Malcolm’s famous quote from Jurassic Park. Yu Suzuki’s team was so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. This open-world design was truly original and fascinating in 1999, but there really wasn’t a need to include half of the features that Shenmue has. Just a few small tweaks could have made this game one worth revisiting, but I’m likely to never replay it after this review.
Shenmue 2 picks up immediately following the events of the first game. Ryo Hazuki has arrived in Hong Kong after his previous ordeal and is determined to find Master Lishao Tao. Not even ten minutes after he has stepped on Chinese shores, Ryo gets robbed, has his ass handed to him and is forced to take up a part-time job to pay off the nightly fees of the hotel he is staying at. To say the intro accurately captures the fright one would face in a foreign land is understating it.
It doesn’t take much longer until Shenmue 2 starts to find a good rhythm. It also comes off like Yu Suzuki and his team had a fire under their asses because the pacing for the first third of Shenmue 2 is dramatically better than the original game. Ryo still walks around asking people for information, but your goal is more clearly defined, the new map system helps prevent you from getting lost and the “Wait” feature is an absolute god-send.
That being said, the biggest departure with Shenmue 2 is that time of day doesn’t play as big a factor in the story. There are certain events which will require you to come back another day, but you can typically cruise through the plot with disregard for the in-game clock. Some of that is due to the “Wait” feature, but a lot of it is just a better understanding of what worked from the original game.
The character development in Shenmue 2 is also handled much better. Not only do you actually meet people that play a key role in the plot, but they have personalities and interactions with Ryo that help flesh them out. Ryo might be laser-focused on his goal of avenging his father, but he isn’t willing to ignore their plights for the sake of his own, showing new sides to him that the original only ever hinted at.
Really, the whole Hong Kong segment of Shenmue 2 is pretty damn great. The combat mechanics haven’t been improved over the original, but the game doesn’t put too much emphasis on them. Most of the scenarios you’ll encounter don’t have fail states, just alternate outcomes. Ryo can fall in battle and the game keeps trucking along, which certainly prevents frustration from building.
Before even getting there, though, Ryo has to locate kung fu masters, with the game really nailing the philosophy behind martial arts. Each person imbues the knowledge of their ancestors into Ryo’s move set and it helps to create an atmosphere, not unlike a Shaw Brothers film. I’ve long been interested in martial arts films and everything about these scenes reminded me of some of the greatest movies of the genre.
Though the intro initially put me off, I started to fall in love with Shenmue 2 as it progressed. The larger Hong Kong location was a stark contrast to the small town of Yokosuka and its streamlined approach to progression made it hard to put Shenmue 2 down. Maybe not every aspect of the game held up to the qualities that the first had, but it was plain easier to get through and just more enjoyable.
Then I got to Kowloon. Originally taking place on the third disc of the Dreamcast version, Kowloon is another stop in Ryo’s journey that shifts him to a strange land and has him asking for more clues about his father’s death. Instead of honing in on the adventure game aspects that really work for Shenmue, Kowloon goes heavy on the combat and tailing missions. It even drops the careful pacing that the first section of the game nailed so well.
You’ll still do some light detective work, but the game basically ferries you back and forth between much smaller districts, has you climbing skyscrapers in real time and introduces some horrendous quick time events (QTEs) that are completely unfair for a first-time player. On top of that, the combat mechanics are simplified from the original title and now devolve into button mashing, as your specific inputs rarely seem to work.
I didn’t bring up the QTEs while talking about the original game as they weren’t really worth mentioning. You did them maybe five times in total and mistiming a button press didn’t always result in failure. With Shenmue 2, though, someone had the bright idea of introducing a Simon Says styled function that quickly flashes at the end of many sequences and often results in failure due to how poorly telegraphed it is. Worse still is that any player consideration is thrown out the window in Shenmue 2, you’ll often be tasked with repeating entire segments instead of quickly restarting from where you failed.
This just works to highlight another aspect I really dislike about Shenmue 2: a lack of consistency. I can maybe understand changing button commands from the first game (this new HD port is based off the Xbox version), but having those same button commands change in between scenes is infuriating. I shouldn’t have to remember that talking to people is the A button while asking for directions to a gambling site is the Y button. Opening a door shouldn’t sometimes be A, but other times be X. Why can I sometimes ignore Ryo’s scribbles in his notebook, while other times are required to read them before being allowed to open a door?
Combat, though, just seals the deal for me that Shenmue 2 was over-reaching its own era. The camera is wonkier, fighting multiple opponents often means Ryo can’t get a good lock on anyone and even the 1 on 1 battles poorly imitate the Virtua Fighter game they are modeled after. It feels like the prototype for turning a fighting series into an RPG instead of being a finished product. I may have been aggravated in the first game, but at least I could learn a move list and execute it at times. Shenmue 2 just says the hell with that and demands you mash the dodge button enough to wear out your controller.
Getting past Kowloon doesn’t end the journey, as Shenmue 2 doesn’t know when to say enough is enough. After you defeat a boss and reach a truly climactic (albeit far too late) moment, you then need to walk through the wilderness for two hours straight to reach a secluded village that Ryo’s father may have once visited. I surprisingly didn’t hate this section, but this will likely be the final straw that breaks many players’ backs.
The original Shenmue had aspirations of being a martial arts epic that replicated real life, so it often took things too far. Waiting around for a damn bus is never fun, but I can understand how that would be so mind-blowing in 1999. Shenmue 2 cuts down on that tedium, but introduces poorly executed controls and mechanics that end up wasting your time in a different fashion. It also doesn’t have the decency to end in a reasonable manner, instead blowing out the journey to a whopping 25 hours, just to set up a sequel that is only now being realized.
The initial pacing is better realised and I enjoyed Hong Kong more than anything from the original, but Shenmue 2 is ultimately a failed experiment. Without the restraint of its predecessor, the game veers too far into the wrong direction and never corrects itself. If the combat was just fixed, though, I could likely see my problems being moot. I’ll never enjoy Ryo announcing, “These stairs go up…” fifteen times, but at least I wouldn’t dread getting into a confrontation.
How the ports hold up:
As for how these new ports stand up, they’re mostly okay. The visual presentation hasn’t been dramatically changed, but the Dreamcast original still looks pretty damn good. Shenmue was the most expensive video game ever made in its day and that high budget shines through. Character models look quite good, textures are of a mostly high quality and environments are detailed to an obscene degree. You can even play in widescreen now with the PC version supporting 21:9 displays and native 4K rendering.
Cutscenes are still locked to a 4:3 aspect ratio, but that has more to do with the expanded viewpoint ruining specific shots than anything. Shenmue 2 has something odd going on where cutscenes will play in 4:3 with letterboxing, but even that can be overlooked as the crisp presentation removes basically any hint of jagged edges.
The audio is where things start to get iffy. I appreciate having the option of the English and Japanese voice overs, but the quality of them is stupidly low. I think something happened with transitioning the files between systems, because I often encountered what sounded like blown microphones, inconsistent volumes and very tinny compression during conversations. Then there are points where everything was pristine and sounded wonderful.
The music, too, suffers from this. At times it is fine and then it will crackle and pop with some seriously odd compression going on. I’m sure this is more a technical glitch than indicative of the quality, but it hampers the experience some. Fans of Shenmue likely didn’t want its HD debut to be riddled with bugs and this re-release doesn’t instill much confidence.
I’m not sure if the controls have been overhauled, but Ryo’s movements feel a little more modern than I was expecting. The game still utilizes the right trigger to have him run, but at least turning isn’t relegated to tank controls. That being said, you’ll need to completely turn around if you hit a wall and making slight movements to the left or right will force Ryo to walk forward, which then has him collide with objects. It is a nightmare in tighter corridors, but manageable when walking down bigger streets.
Overall, while barebones, Shenmue I & II is a decent enough package. These are easily the best way to experience the games as they basically do nothing to alter any aspect of the presentation. The color palette might be a bit warmer than the Dreamcast original, but it doesn’t look like anything else was changed. Developer D3T has just applied some newer blur effects and scaled the resolution up.
It doesn’t make the games feel modern, but that likely isn’t the point. This HD remaster is mainly here to provide fans with a new way to play some of their favorite games. I can’t fault Sega too much for wanting to stick true to the original vision of Shenmue. If you were worried about compatibility issues or crashing, then you can rest easy. These ports are fine.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]