Shenmue 1 & 2 HD Review – The Legendary Series Returns
Shenmue is a very unique game series. There is no arguing that. Many have praised Shenmue for its intriguing revenge story, and the painstaking attention to detail put into recreating daily life in Japan for a teenager in 1986. Others have ridiculed it for its clunky controls (even for its time), terrible voice acting, lack of action, and the sheer boredom that players must endure alongside protagonist Ryo Hazuki. Whether you hate it or love it, one thing is for certain: those who play it will remember Shenmue for its originality. Many of the mechanics that we take for granted in modern games originated in Shenmue, a groundbreaking game for 1999.
The setup for Shenmue is rather simple. Protagonist Ryo Hazuki comes home one day to find his father, a martial arts master who runs a dojo, being attacked by a superior fighter named Lan Di. He questions Ryo’s father about the whereabouts of a mirror, before giving him a warrior’s death. Ryo is consumed with rage and wants nothing but vengeance against the man who murdered his father. Ryo will have to travel through Japan to find clues that will lead him towards this ultimate goal.
I only played a small section of the original Shenmue on a friend’s Dreamcast back when it released. It completely blew my mind at the time – its graphics and gameplay were so ahead of its time. I was a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid, a game with mountains of spoken dialogue which really pulled me into its world and story. Shenmue managed to create an open world game (before Grand Theft Auto 3, mind you) where every person you ran into had a unique face and voice, and could tell you where the local shops were, give you clues about your objective, and offer some random gossip.
It seemed insane to me that this huge amount of dialogue could be squeezed into the Dreamcast’s GD-ROM disk, and while the quality of the audio was pretty awful due to the insane amount of compression they had to use, it really pulled me into Ryo’s universe and made me want to run around speaking to every person I could and explore Sega’s rendition of Japan. The visual fidelity was miles ahead of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation consoles that I owned, and Shenmue alone made me want to buy a Dreamcast. I never got the chance, as Sega’s final console faded into the sunset just as Sony released the PlayStation 2, the only console where I could play Metal Gear Solid 2. Dreamcast games just had such a unique feel about them though, from Sonic Adventure to Crazy Taxi to Jet Set Radio. Once Sega started porting all of those games to modern consoles, I immediately got hyped at the potential for remasters of Shenmue 1 & 2.
I felt a wave of nostalgia hit me as soon as I booted Shenmue up. The first thing I noticed was that the load times were greatly improved, almost instant. The resolution is upped to modern console standards, and seeing the game’s vibrant colors on an HDTV rather than a muddy CRT television is awesome. The HUD has been updated as well, but aside from that this is the same Shenmue that everyone played back in 1999.
I’m happy that these games have been preserved for modern audiences, but this is far from a remaster. They literally just added a new HUD and bumped the resolution in an emulator and called it a day. I don’t have a problem with this, as the game looks pretty damn good already, but I think modern gaming audiences expect a bit more when it comes to HD ports these days. There are no new HD textures, no updated character models. The audio is still compressed to hell and back.
This actually worried me a bit. Does Sega not have the original voice files from one of their biggest titles? Shenmue 1 & 2 Collection is a great little time capsule and it’s amazing to finally play through this cult classic – it’s truly a piece of gaming history. But I’m also worried that if a game company as big as Sega is already losing files from their biggest releases, that many games will soon be completely lost to time (especially with Nintendo recently shutting down every major emulation site).
There are a lot of things to do in Ryo’s world. You can listen to music on a cassette player, play full versions of Sega classics like Hang-On and Space Harrier at the local arcade (and at home on a Sega Saturn), visit a fortune teller, take care of an orphan kitty, practice your martial arts skills, and buy items in the local markets. But the main gameplay of Shenmue involves investigation. As someone who had only played a few minutes of the original Dreamcast version of Shenmue, I found myself recalling games such as L.A. Noire as I wandered around the city, talking to locals and writing clues in my journal. Shenmue never explicitly tells you what your current objective is – you have to do some detective work, speaking with shopkeepers and passersby, investigating the environment for clues, even just being a good samaritan can help move the story forward.
But in between the story beats, there are long stretches of utter boredom. While it seems as though there are many things to keep you busy around the city, the pacing is thrown off when you can’t visit a shopkeeper that you need to speak to, because it’s too late at night. In these instances, you can’t just fast forward through time. Shenmue has a full day/ night cycle, and all of its inhabitants keep their own schedules. While this is very interesting and innovative for its time, making the people of the city feel more real, it really drags the pacing down to a crawl.
Ryo can’t go to sleep until at least 8:30 at night, and minutes can feel like hours after dark. The developers obviously are trying to recreate the feeling of boredom and frustration that Ryo must feel, having to kill time in arcades and practice his kung fu while wanting nothing more than to get one step closer to finding his father’s killer. I often found myself just pressing the PlayStation button and reading articles on my iPhone until I finally heard Ryo utter those magical words, “It’s getting late.”
When the next day arrives, you’ll find yourself trying to cram as much investigation as possible into those precious daytime hours, before the shops close at 5PM. Your detective work is soon interrupted by having to get an actual 9-to-5 job to pay for things you need to move the story forward. And these aren’t fun minigames, you are literally moving boxes with forklifts for a lot of in-game hours for meager pay, meaning you’ll have to do this tedious work quite a bit to progress. It’s a far cry from the Yakuza series, a spiritual successor to Shenmue where some kind of action is hitting you left right and center at practically every moment. Let’s just say Kazuma Kiryu would destroy Ryo Hazuki in a streetfight, but maybe Ryo would beat him in a forklift race or something. Shenmue’s combat system is based on Virtua Fighter, yet these games hardly let you fight anything.
I feel like there are much better ways that Shenmue could have showcased the sheer boredom of teenage life than padding the game completion time with dull mini-games . Ryo practices kung fu for hour upon hours, and there are hardly any actual fights in the game. Again, I see what the developers were going for – I found myself excited whenever some sort of action would happen, adding some much-needed drama to my monotonous day. And then, once again, I’d find myself in the same cycle of waiting for the gods of time to finally relent and let me sleep. Shenmue 2 makes the experience quite a bit better by allowing you to skip forward in time, or wait at a shopkeeper’s door until their store opens. Despite all of the bad game design and awful pacing, the story of Shenmue kept me coming back to see what happens.
I’m glad that Sega has finally ported the Shenmue series to modern consoles. It helps game collectors, who previously had to shell out lots of cash for a working Dreamcast and pricey copies of the games on eBay. It also helps the developers of the games, as they can earn money from the series instead of the zero percent cut they got on second-hand sales up till now. While it’s really the most barebones HD re-release I’ve seen, Shenmue 1 & 2 Collection preserves a legendary series in a time capsule for modern audiences, and maybe that’s enough. But there’s only so much aimless wandering that the average player, used to the streamlined and frenetic pace of modern games, will be willing to endure. I have a feeling many newcomers will play Shenmue 1 & 2 Collection for an hour or two and feel that they’ve experienced enough of a relic from the late 90’s. But Shenmue’s story and investigative gameplay always kept me coming back for more, and I really enjoyed getting to know the inhabitants of Ryo Hazuki’s world and experiencing every aspect of daily life with him. I’m excited to see if Shenmue 3 can live up to fans’ expectations while modernizing the series for a new audience.