Shenmue I & II Review

Does Ryo Hazuki’s adventure hold up almost 20 years later?

There aren’t many games as influential as Shenmue. Yu Suzuki’s seminal franchise, which was originally released on the Sega Dreamcast back in 1999, was a sight to behold. At that point in time, the Dreamcast was very much a next-generation platform; the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox hadn’t yet launched. And as much as titles like Sonic Adventure wowed audiences at the time, Shenmue gave all of us an enticing glimpse into the future; it pressed up against the boundaries of what the Dreamcast hardware was capable of and it influenced many games that followed.

It’s now been almost 20 years since the release of the original game on Dreamcast; Sega have just released Shenmue I & II as a single package for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

The folks at Sega were kind enough to provide us with PS4 review codes for the game. Given that I have such fond memories of the original Dreamcast releases, I thought it might be best to approach this as a two-person review. I’ve been playing through Shenmue II, while Daniel Ware — a newcomer to the franchise — has been playing through Shenmue I.

What is Shenmue?

There is a very good chance that you’ve never played a Shenmue game before. Although the game has seen numerous re-releases on several platforms since its debut on Dreamcast, it has always been considered a cult classic rather than an industry-storming blockbuster.

At its heart, both Shenmue and Shenmue II are inherently simple; they follow the adventures of a young man named Ryo Hazuki who is avenging his father’s murder. As far as tales go, Shenmue doesn’t stray far from classic narrative archetypes — not only in terms of the fairly straightforward revenge plot in the original game, but also through the sequel’s “small town boy meets big scary city” setting.

What’s arguably most important about the franchise has nothing to do with its plot or characters per se, but with Yu Suzuki and team’s sheer gall. That Shenmue — let alone its sequel — was even made, is remarkable. Back in 1999, it was rumoured that Shenmue cost something in the region of $70 million to develop and publish. The pricetag was so astronomical that Sega itself was said to be on the verge of implosion. Suzuki had planned to create a series of Shenmue games (at one stage, around 11 story chapters were proposed, which would have equated to roughly 4 or 5 games), but ultimately Sega were only able to fund two games; the third game — somewhat miraculously — is being funded through Kickstarter and is being developed by Suzuki’s own company, Ys Net. But I digress.

More than anything else, Shenmue was a marvel of engineering and raw ambition. The first game takes place in the sleepy Japanese town of Yokosuka, circa 1986 — you can actually watch YouTube videos that compare Sega’s digital version to the real town. The likeness is stunning, even by today’s standards. Not only can Ryo explore the town at his leisure, but — just like the real thing — Shenmue’s iteration of Yokosuka adheres to both daily and seasonal rhythms. Residents of the town have everyday routines — including jobs that they actually do — every business operates during realistic hours, and the weather is not only dynamic, it is actually modelled on Yokosuka’s actual weather patterns during 1986.

Shenmue’s “simulated” Yokosuka was deeply impressive in 1999. In some respects, it’s still impressive in 2018.

Many of these elements have become relatively commonplace in games today, but it’s worth remembering that Shenmue was released well before Rockstar’s revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III. In so many ways, Shenmue set entirely new standards around what video games can be.

It is also true that Shenmue influenced — directly and indirectly — many games that came after it. In a narrow sense, we can largely thank Shenmue for popularising “Quick Time Events” (the proper noun was coined by Yu Suzuki himself, and the gameplay technique was a core — and at the time, still highly novel — component of Shenmue). But in a broader sense, Shenmue established clear guidelines around how a genuinely immersive, realistic world should be built in a video game. Many of the ideas introduced in the first two Shenmue games are still alive and well today, and have become staples of modern open-world games.

It’s important to consider Shenmue’s place in the pantheon of legendary games that pushed the industry forward. This is valuable for its own sake, but also because playing Shenmue I & II in 2018 is — for reasons we’ll discuss — quite different than playing either game when they were first released, especially if you’ve never played either title before.

Being Ryo

Earlier I mentioned Shenmue I & II’s fundamentally simple plot; I didn’t cite this in order to criticise the game. In fact, this simplicity gives Ryo a clear goal to drive towards; and, at any rate, the game’s moment-to-moment emphasis is much more about solving a murder mystery while also living life. Ryo lives in the family home, and he has a curfew. He receives a daily allowance. And, at a certain point in the game, he can get a part-time job to make some extra money (and to dig further into the town’s seedy underbelly, as he gets closer to understanding the mystery behind his father’s murder).

The plot is a slow burner, and so is the gameplay. The game reveals itself slowly, and actively encourages you to stop and smell the roses. If you enjoy games like Animal Crossing, where great pleasure is taken in the simple joys of everyday life, then you’ll have at least some understanding of Shenmue’s appeal.

Despite this, there are some elements that are tricky to look past in 2018, whether you’re new to the series or whether you enjoyed the original back in the day.

Much of Shenmue is about balancing everyday life with the need to resolve a murder mystery.

As I stumbled my way around Ryo’s house for the first time, I remember thinking: “damn, this game really is nineteen years old.”

My patience was tested mightily as I struggled to figure out the controls, and how to best move efficiently around the game environment. Unfortunately a fresh lick of paint can’t fix the game mechanics from the late ’90s; it is still an old game. In this way, Shenmue reminds me a lot of the remastered version of Shadow of the Colossus that was released on PS4; that game also did a great job of updating the graphics, but did not sufficiently modernise the controls to eliminate unnecessary frustration.

Having said that, I really appreciate the way Shenmue incorporates both navigation and progression organically within the game world. Each location you travel to as Ryo has a town map for you to peruse, but there’s no HUD-based map that you can instantly access; you literally have to run around the various locales and find physical maps to figure out where Ryo needs to go to find his next clue.

Clues are an important gameplay element — as Ryo explores the world and begins to unravel the central mystery, he’ll jot down specific clues in his trusty notebook. You can literally flip through each individual page of the notebook by hand (or, by Ryo’s hand, which you control on-screen). I tend to take modern HUDs and menu systems for granted; it was refreshing to play something that demanded the patience that Shenmue requires.

Another aspect of the game that maintains a commitment to realism is the concept of time and space. If Ryo needs to meet someone at 3 in the afternoon and it’s currently 10 in the morning, you’ll have to find a way to kill time while you wait (James: you can indeed skip forward time in Shenmue II). At times, this tested my patience, as I felt like there was a bunch of dead space in the game that could have been better utilised. And yet, at the same time, there’s an authenticity to this design decision — it does encourage you to explore the world and to make the most of the options at your disposal.

There are moments of fire and fury; combat is somewhat rare, but it does occur, and it operates completely differently to regular navigation (having been built on the rather robust Virtua Fighter engine, which in its day, was fairly cutting-edge in terms of fighting game mechanics). But like the rest of the experience, combat hasn’t held up particularly well, though I definitely found the amount of combos you can perform to be impressive; they require a great deal more timing and finesse than the combat in Yakuza, another popular Sega franchise that carries a healthy dose of Shenmue’s DNA.

Despite all of this nuance, I still found myself button-mashing through most fights — perhaps due to my millennial impatience.

The combat is as good as you could probably expect from a game almost twenty years old. I found it impressive the amount of combos the combat system has, as it requires much more finesse and timing than say the combat of another popular SEGA series, Yakuza. Despite this, I still found myself button mashing through most fights, most likely due to my millennial impatience.

Shenmue in 2018

Shenmue is impressive, even today. Of course, improved visuals and audio can only achieve so much when considering the game’s ungainly controls — this is one area where strict adherence to the original was perhaps not the wisest design choice. But, it is what it is — a game released in 1999, when many of its constituent parts were radically new and genuinely novel. When you consider the many advancements in game design since then, Shenmue is still a marvel. It is a game I will definitely come back to, especially considering that Shenmue III is due for release in 2019.

Playing Shenmue now is a bit like reading classical literature from the 1800s. You might be able to read it, but you won’t necessarily understand or comprehend everything. It’s definitely true that you will still feel some of the magic and charm that original readers did, and this is absolutely true of Shenmue in 2018. It might feel dated to many — especially newcomers — but there’s still that semblance of magic and charm that permeates the experience. For that Shenmue is truly unique.

Shenmue II expands on the original with a bigger world, more characters, and more activities to do.

I may be stretching the analogy here, but Shenmue is a bit like 1933's King Kong; in its day it was a showcase for the medium’s most advanced technology. So much of what made it special was that technology. When viewed through a 2018 lens, there’s a lot to enjoy and to appreciate, but it’s simply not possible for the game to convey its true ambition in an environment where radically more advanced games have become commonplace. Many of the ideas that Shenmue pioneered have been endlessly iterated over nearly 20 years, and so, there is something unavoidably anachronistic about the first two games today.

In some ways, the dilemma is even more stark if you actually did enjoy the original releases. I hadn’t played either Shenmue game in years, and I was looking forward to diving into them. But I quickly realised that the overwhelming awe I felt when I spent many hours playing these games on my Dreamcast simply can’t be evoked today — and, of course, it would be too much to ask given that Sega has remastered rather than remade these games.

The bottom line is, Shenmue I & II doesn’t seek to reinvent the original experience in any way, it simply make both games more accessible on modern consoles. I’d argue that this release is a great example of game preservation; Shenmue I & II have never been easier to access, and the fact that they can now play nicely with modern TVs is going to be bonus enough for some gamers.