One of the most famous video games of all time finally receives a remaster on consoles and PC, but how does it play today?
The press release that came with our copy of Shenmue I & II describes it as the saga that defined modern gaming. On the face of it that sounds like typically over-the-top marketing rhetoric, but after replaying the games, and considering their historical context, were beginning to think it might be true. Thats helped by the fact that both games have aged remarkably well and are just as impressive – and infuriating – to play today as when they were first released almost two decades ago.
The modern era of video games is generally agreed to have started with the advent of the CD as a storage medium and Sonys entry into the video game market in the fifth generation. Titles like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Resident Evil are some of the most important milestones in video games history, but the original PlayStation console had such limited graphical power that it greatly restricted what could be done with its games – with many forced to make extensive use of pre-rendered backdrops or restrictive camera views.
The subsequent generation was kickstarted, not by the PlayStation 2, but by Segas final home console: the Dreamcast. Its graphical capabilities were greatly superior to anything that had come before but even then Shenmue was only made possible by what for years remained the biggest video game budget ever seen. It never came close to making its money back though and when the Dreamcast came to an early end so seemingly did Shenmue, with the only other re-release, until now, being a port of the sequel onto the original Xbox.
The lack of availability on modern formats is undoubtedly one of the reasons for Shenmues cult status, but there are many more. It has always been very difficult to describe what exactly the games are, since there is nothing else like them on any other format. Large, open 3D environments werent entirely unknown at the time – Shenmue I came out a year after Zelda: Ocarina Of Time – but Shenmue is not primarily an action game. It has a simplified combat system based on Virtua Fighter but the fighting is almost trivially easy most of the time, and by no means the focus of the game.
In fact, there is, quite purposefully, no focus at all. And instead the appeal was always meant to be the chance to experience the game world at your own pace, exploring and interacting with characters in order to further the plot but also living a relatively mundane virtual life in the meantime. Nowadays Shenmue is often compared to Yakuza, but while there are some broad similarities Shenmue is closer to a modern day walking sim like Firewatch.
The first game is set in Japan in 1986 and casts you as teenager Ryo Hazuki, who at the beginning of the game witnesses his father being killed by a mysterious Chinese crime lord called Lan Di. This immediately sets him on the road to revenge, but the overarching plot of the series only really comes to the fore in the last hour of the sequel. For the majority of the first game youre simply living your normal life in Japan: interviewing people and following up clues when you can but also going to work and wasting time in the local arcades (stocked with contemporary Sega games).
Shenmue is aimless, long-winded, and frequently very dull. And thats before you bear in mind that many encounters in the game only occur at specific times of the day, and you just have to wait around until they happen. But these problems were evident way back in 2000 as well, and since then the novelty of subsisting in an open world town hasnt really become anymore commonplace. The level of detail is still astonishing and the games obsession with triviality and mundanity is as fascinating now as it ever was.
We are, after all, talking about a game whose most famous sequence is having a forklift race at work, as a respite from moving boxes around a warehouse. That part at least was presumably supposed to be entertaining but at other times its frequently hard to understand what the game is going for. Touring dockside bars in search of sailors is hilarious to a Western audience, but its obvious that the game makers had no idea it would be taken that way.
Theres a lot that is either amusing or charming about Shenmue but its arguable how much of it was actually intended. Especially given how Ryo is so utterly devoid of personality and its usually only the side characters that show any real verve, either because of awkwardly translated dialogue or bad voice-acting (for which you now have the option of Japanese dialogue, although it often sounds distractingly muffled for both languages).
And yet still the game works. Despite the terrible pacing and deeply flawed storytelling theres still nothing similar that attempts to simulate the real world in such exacting detail. Grand Theft Auto, for example, might be far more advanced on a technical level but its experience is constantly broken up by action and violence. Whereas Shenmue is confident enough to let you just live out a virtual day where the most exciting thing that happens is you forgot to feed the cat.
As you can imagine, Shenmue is an acquired taste.
Those who have only ever heard about it spoken about by fans in awe should prepare themselves for the reality of what it actually is. The sequel is more action-packed (and includes the ability to fast forward time) but these are games to lose yourself in for hours, not switch on for a quick adrenaline rush.
The irregular fight scenes are entertaining but almost impossible to lose at, although most action sequences in the games are QTEs. Shenmue was the game that invented the quick time event, where you control more complex sequences simply by pressing the buttons that flash up on screen, and while some may find that hard to forgive theyre not that intrusive in their original setting.
In terms of the quality of the remasters, little known British studio d3t has done extremely well with what we imagine was a limited budget. The graphics have been changed surprisingly little (the only new options are resolution, bloom lighting, and widescreen) but the sheer scope of the visuals is still enough to impress. Some surprisingly active cinematography also means the cut scenes retain a certain liveliness, even when youre just buying capsule toys at the local shop.
The controls have also only had a minimum of improvement, and still retain an element of the originals sloppy imprecision. But it rarely causes any real problem and were actually glad it retains something of the feel of the original, rather than smoothing everything out into banal perfection.
Shenmue and its sequel are among the most famous games that most modern gamers will never have had a chance to play. As such it will have been very easy to get the wrong idea about them. But as painfully dull as they can often be their strange, earnest charm remains in full effect. Modern games have learnt many of Shenmues lessons about creating an immersive world but few have had the courage not to be an action game and just allow you to lose yourself in a virtual environment.
If youve read this review and are not immediately repelled by what it describes then wed definitely recommend trying the games out, especially given the surprisingly generous price. But if youre an old school fan who already knows what youre getting into, youll find the games still as uniquely innovative and absurdly ponderous as you remember.
In 18 years theres never been another game like Shenmue, and it seems its only the long-awaited arrival of the third entry that will ever see the like again.
Shenmue I & II
In Short: Yu Suzukis classics remain as unique and fascinating today as they ever were, if you can tolerate the painfully slow pacing and wooden dialogue.
Pros: The size and intricacy of the game environments is still impressive today, as is the attention to detail and refusal to fill the game with needless action sequences. Good quality port.
Cons: The pacing and progression is glacially slow. Weak dialogue and poor characterisation. Sloppy controls.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: d3t and Sega AM2
Release Date: 21st August 2018
Age Rating: 12