It’s finally here. When Sega started releasing HD versions of DreamCast games on the last generation – Jet Set Radio, Sonic Adventure, etc. – it seemed only natural that Shenmue would be on the cards, but it never came (neither did Phantasy Star Online or Skies of Arcadia. Hint hint, Sega. Let’s get some Saturn games whilst we’re at it). With seemingly no Shenmue 3 in the future a re-release of the original two games was the best people hoped for and at last Shenmue I & II have been released as a collection for PS4. Now with the third part set to be out in about a year (hopefully) returning players have a reason to go back and experience these undeniable classics again whilst others can give them a try and see if these divisive titles live up to the hype.
Shenmue starts out as Ryo Hazuki returns home to find his father in a martial arts battle with a robed man. Stopped by some guards from intervening, Ryo watches on as his father is murdered and a mirror is stolen. So starts Ryo’s quest for revenge as he questions the locals about what they saw, who the murderer was and where he can find him.
After such an intense and dramatic opening, with some great use of camera work and music, what follows may surprise some. Shenmue is an adventure game first and foremost, meaning you’ll be wandering about town talking to people and looking for clues. The pace of Shenmue might be what puts people off, everything takes time and Ryo has to sleep and sometimes he’ll need to wait until the next day or a certain time to meet someone or enter a shop that has closed for the day. As there is a day/night cycle that means you have to make yourself busy doing other things, or simply wait, until you can progress which will infuriate many.
There aren’t too many things to keep you occupied either, though I remember back when it was released the fact that there was anything other than the normal gameplay mechanics to be incredible. You can spend time at the arcade, playing Hang-On or Space Harrier, as well as darts and other machines. You can play slots, buy toy capsules based on classic Sega franchises from machines in the hope of collecting them all (luckily microtransactions hadn’t been invented at this point as it does feel very loot boxy in hindsight) or you can train your moves in an empty park or car park.
When you do make progress you’ll generally piss off the wrong people and get into fights. These can take two forms, quick time events (QTEs) or real time battles. Shenmue pretty much invented the modern QTE as we know it and they’re still some of the better ones out there. A button prompt will flash on the centre of the screen and you’ll need to press it in time for Ryo to perform an action. The button generally represents what action you’ll perform (pressing left will dodge left, will punch someone, etc) and you can always see the action which is often a problem in other games as you keep an eye out for prompts. Failing one prompt doesn’t always mean instant failure either so they’re more forgiving than most too.
Real time battles play in a Virtua Fighter-lite sort of way. You have a punch, kick, dodge and throw, with a wide range of moves available with single or double taps of directions. You’ll learn more moves as the game goes on to really fill out Ryo’s repertoire from people you meet or from finding move scrolls. You never really have to engage too much with the more complex side of it though. If you spend time learning moves then you’ll have more fun but you can pretty much button mash your way through most encounters without too much trouble. As you use moves you get better at performing them, so a clumsy back hand which leaves you facing the wrong way will become far smoother and not leave your back to your opponent as you become more adept at performing it. It’s a cool feature that shows a level of detail that is obvious throughout the game.
Shenmue is nearly twenty years old so of course the visuals are showing their age. Little work has been done to textures and models here, you just get a bump in resolution, a widescreen mode (but cinematics are still 4:3) and a bloom effect. It can still look fairly decent at times considering and unlike on the DreamCast there is no slow down. Add to that the fact that you can inspect lots of items and go into shops, most of which have no purpose, and talk to pretty much everyone as they go about their daily routine, though some people are more generic than others, and you have to appreciate the attention to detail that has been lavished here.
You will get to recognise and know the locals too as there are only five relatively small areas to visit and explore, with the last one only opening up later in the game. Running through the same area again and again looking for clues may become tedious for some people but those who get into it really get into it. I certainly did back in the day.
Now, with my reviewer hat on the excitement isn’t there the same as it was the first time (and plenty of other times after that). Whether that is down to me knowing the ins and outs of it or simply my tastes changing over time or advances in gaming in general I don’t know. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, far from it, the time flew by as it did back then. However I could also see many flaws. As mentioned before there isn’t a lot to do, despite there being quite a lot of time to kill. Titles such as Yakuza (sometimes seen as a spiritual successor to Shenmue) offer many more activities, but also don’t leave you with nothing to do, they’re just optional extras. The voice acting is quite poor (in English) and the sound quality is also very bad. Ryo controls rather awkwardly, though this is rarely a massive problem and more an annoyance. Similarly the camera during in battles is all over the place and fighting multiple opponents is clumsy, but as I said they aren’t too difficult so it will rarely cost you. Even if you do die the game is very generous with its checkpoints.
These issues were there back in the day as well, but were far more forgivable back then as Shenmue was doing something brand new. We’ve had nearly twenty years of progress since then so as no work has been done at all to try and improve things you can see this as a moment of gaming history, accurately portrayed, although it is missing the Shenmue Passport which was similar to a special features section of a DVD. Less forgivable are all the bugs that only exist in this version. Like I said, it’s been nearly twenty years, there was no need to rush out an unfinished port now.
The most glaringly obvious bug has the camera not showing you the action during cutscenes, you’ll just get a still shot of some wood or something as the dialogue plays. I can picture the cutscenes having played the game a lot back in the day but people new to the game will wonder what the hell is going on. It didn’t happen in every cutscene, all major cutscenes and QTEs were fine, but minor cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game suffered from this, the bug being less prevalent in the middle of the game for some reason. I was also not given the option to save the game after completing it, meaning I had to go back to my save (which you can make almost anywhere) to finish it again where I did get the option this time. Other less intrusive but also annoying bugs are sounds not playing, other sounds looping when they shouldn’t, music not playing and there are others being reported that I didn’t experience luckily.
Of course there are two games in this collection, Shenmue II carrying on shortly after the conclusion of Shenmue I. You can carry over your save (hence why I finished it again to get a completed save) which will include all your moves and toys. I won’t go into too much detail with this one but where as Shenmue I was small and personal, Shenmue II is far larger but becomes less personal. Where as the first game is Ryo taking on thugs and bettering them, here he starts to become a true martial artist, learning life lessons from martial arts masters. There is more to do but there is less reason to utilise it as you can ‘Wait’ at a location, moving time forward, which is a definite improvement.
Visuals have also seen a rather vast increase in quality, probably because this was ported to the original Xbox, so has better textures and could probably pass for a game from the last gen. Maybe. Not a AAA title but I was surprised at how good it looked at times. Voices are also recorded in better quality, even if the acting isn’t. QTEs also get a slight tweak allowing for more complex inputs and the majority of it moves at a far faster pace. There are a few sections at the end that slow things down a little too much, and the final chapter slows things waaaay down before ending on the famous cliffhanger, but in general you always feel like your making progress to something in the sequel.
Again there are bugs however. I was ready to say there weren’t any obvious ones in Shenmue II compared to the first, but then I played the After Burner machine. I could only control it with the right stick, it had no music and upon exiting the game it crashed which never happened in my time with the first game. Beyond that some of the music sounds off, there was a visual bug with the watch icon not disappearing when I stayed out too late and the darts mini game doesn’t seem to work properly, making it impossible to win. Apart from the crash none of it stops you playing it though, some people might not even notice, but these are issues that weren’t there on the DreamCast and, if you see this as an historically accurate release, a love letter to Shenmue like I do, then they shouldn’t be here either.
However, these are still games that are worth playing through. Shenmue isn’t for everyone, it wasn’t at the time and it certainly won’t be now, but Ryo’s incomplete quest for revenge is an engrossing adventure that will enthral the right type of players, new and old. If you think stepping into Ryo’s shoes and slowly discovering clues and investigating before beating fools down with sweet martial arts skills sounds appealing then you’re welcome to join the legions of people waiting patiently for the third instalment. You’ll have to join the back of the queue though, some of us have been waiting a very long time. Literally half my life at this point.
+ Ryo's quest is pretty epic
+ QTEs are actually decent
+ Hi-def and widescreen
+ Still nothing else quite like it
- Lots of down time
- Pacing is off
- Some quirks due to its age
- Plenty of bugs, some worse than others
- Still have to wait for Shenmue III