Shenmue I & II Review
Yu Suzuki was a pioneer. He wasn’t just responsible for arcade staples such as Out Run, After Burner and Virtua Fighter, but he broke Sega’s bank bringing his magnum opus, Shenmue (and its sequel) to the Dreamcast. While the final figure is still unclear, it’s likely to have cost over $50 million and probably a lot more — an unheard of amount of money for a game in 1999. At the time it was a critical hit and showcased the power of Sega’s final console; financially it was a flop, and the story remained unfinished until Shenmue III was greenlit on Kickstarter and interest in the series resurfaced. A timely opportunity for a cross-platform remaster, then, and perhaps a way for Sega to claw back some of that lost yen. I’d played neither before this review, though I was aware of the importance of the series. Given how excited my friend was diving into it almost two decades ago, I was looking forward to playing a part of gaming history.
What was groundbreaking then...
At its core, Shenmue is a tale of revenge. Ryo Hazuki returns home to find a mysterious man has attacked his father while in search of a mystical mirror. As his papa dies in his arms, Ryo sets off to find the culprit and discover the reason for the attack. The quest sees you control Ryo around a fully explorable 3D environment set in Japanese suburbia, and the level of detail is still impressive. You can switch to a first-person camera to explore most things up close: signs can be read, objects can be picked up and put down, and wardrobes can be investigated. I probably spent the first half an hour just wandering around Ryo’s house, opening drawers to have a nose inside.
Time ticks on though, as the icon in the top right of your screen will point out. A persistent clock isn’t the only innovation the first game brought to the table — it introduced the kind of staples we take for granted in open world games these days. The likes of day/night cycles, changeable weather effects, built-in minigames and collectibles, and independent AI routines for NPCs were unheard of at the time. You could trigger events depending on the time of day, what the weather was doing, or if you’d engaged with specific characters previously. It set the bar for open world games, and the core concepts it introduced permeate today.
But, for all of this innovation we’re in 2018 not 1999, and it turns out that when playing it today, Shenmue isn’t actually very good.
...has dated badly.
When we write Brutal Backlog pieces, we judge a game by today’s standards. You’re buying a game to play it today, and your expectation is built on your past experience with groundbreaking titles across a variety of formats, so telling you that something which is ropey now was fantastic twenty years ago is not going to assuage your disappointment when you boot it up. Just as I can look back at the likes of Roland on the Ropes, which I enjoyed immensely playing on Amstrad as a kid, I couldn’t revisit it now without cringing. Reviewing Shenmue feels like I’m criticising a cult classic, and while it has its moments, the overwhelming feeling is one of ennui.
Let’s start with the positives. Atmospherically, Shenmue ticks all of the boxes. The areas you explore feel authentic and colourful, if not vibrant, but certainly interesting enough to explore. Citizens go about their business, scooters honk at you when you’re in the way, and everyone gets out an umbrella when the heavens open. Ryo’s house and dojo, replete with sliding doors, koi carp and cherry blossoms invoke a sense of Japanese culture which makes me want to visit the country even more.
Musically, it’s also a winner. Traditional Japanese folk beats at the dojo mingle with more modern hyperactive electronic jingles in the bustling market street, both culturally and tonally appropriate. Keeping track of your next move is simple thanks to the notebook Ryo keeps, jotting down the time and place he needs to be. And the aforementioned minigames found in the arcade prove to be a fun diversion. If you want to try your hand at some of Yu Suzuki’s older classics, Hang On and Space Harrier are waiting for you. You can now save anywhere too, rather than the clunky bedroom-only save that the Dreamcast offered (unless you include the option to suspend the game with a one-time only overwritten file — now rendered moot).
But for every high point, there are a fistful of lows. The control system is as unwieldy today as it was back then; manipulating Ryo in open air is challenging enough, but in enclosed spaces it’s like trying to use a forklift to pick up a slinky. The camera fights you at every stage, and when it isn’t, Ryo himself does, turning around and stubbornly refusing to move where you want him to go. Speaking of forklifts, the section where you’re required to get a job as a forklift driver and take part in mandatory life-sapping races every day before proceeding to move boxes from one warehouse to another? Yeah, it sucked then, and it sucks now.
Get a move on
The story, which should be a highlight, is a laborious succession of to-and-fro encounters between Ryo and the townsfolk. Twenty hours in you’ll know every nook of Dobuita’s streets, which makes the fact that you are passed back and forth between shop owners that much more exasperating — especially when you have to wait until a specific hour to trigger a scene. No live minimap has been added, so your first few hours with the game will be spent trying to remember landmarks or locating a street map to pinpoint your location. Additionally, one of the biggest bugbears of the first game has not been updated here: you cannot fast forward time, instead you must idle around waiting. There is a lot of waiting. Half of this review was written while waiting for a scheduled time to be reached so I could move things forward. Shenmue II at least addresses this, but the mind boggles why this wasn’t also added to the first game. It's a game that you have to spend time entertaining yourself; you'll basically move from scene to scene and from shop to shop talking to people who point you to the next location. And because there are two distinct time periods — morning to evening, and after sunset — and because some of these tasks are time-specific, you’ll find yourself at a loss about what to do to fill in that time.
Even if this weren’t an annoyance, the plot itself leaves much to be desired. Part of this is due to the frankly abysmal dialogue which has been left intact. NPCs respond to Ryo with exclamations completely at odds to his initial greeting (example: Ryo: “Excuse me.” NPC: “Excuse me.” NPC (unprompted): “Ask me again some other time.” But…I’ve not asked you anything yet!), and the terrible writing is surpassed only by the English voiceover track which has to be heard to be believed. Take everything you know about bad Japanese dubbing and throw it in the bin, because some of those 90s manga classics will sound poetic after subjecting your ears to what Shenmue spews into them. A relief, then, that the Japanese voiceover track is also included for you to switch to, so the subtitled words only have to damage your eyes, and not your ears.
Then there is the actual remastering of the game. There are bugs galore, not least among the cutscenes which are rendered in 4:3 ratio rather than the 16:9 seen everywhere else. Sometimes the camera decides to focus on the floor while a cutscene is playing out. Occasionally, audio loops can be heard behind the voice overs. At one point I got stuck in first-person viewpoint and had to restart to fix it. One scene in a warehouse played out in complete darkness aside from the subtitles. If the game’s story is its heart, then at the very least this remaster should have ensured these glitches were removed lest they ruin key plot points. The developers informed Jump Dash Roll that there were minor bugs being addressed for release, but none of these issues were either included in their bug list, nor indeed are they minor. The graphical update, as it were, is barely that. It certainly doesn’t compare to the likes of Crash Bandicoot or the forthcoming Spyro and one has to consider the point of releasing a shonky update of something so revered by its fans.
A mixed bag
While the gameplay is a mixture of free roaming, RPG elements, Virtua Fighter-style combat segments, QTEs and minigames, they all feel disparate. The combat in particular is clunky, just as the game which influenced it is when played today. QTEs are replayed until you succeed at them, some of which are lengthy chase sequences requiring impressive feats of memory.
Though it obviously didn’t have the same impact on the industry as its predecessor, the sequel is the better game. The story moves to Hong Kong, increasing in scope and making the original’s hubs feel like a tiny playground in comparison. The staples from the first game are all there — Out Run and After Burner make a welcome appearance — and the story is arguably more enjoyable with a few surprising twists, but at the expense of the homely familiarity of the first. You’re a stranger in a strange land, and navigating the suburbs feels more bewildering, even with the additional wait function to let you speed up time. Oh, and yes, there are still plenty of bugs.
This isn’t about whether Shenmue is an important pillar of gaming history; that has already been established as fact. This is about whether a twenty-year-old game should be played now, in the state it’s been released. Sega could have done something great here: removed the annoyances that we coped with all those years ago, squashed the multitude of bugs plaguing the game, and even (gasp) re-recorded the dialogue so it wasn’t ear-meltingly awful. Some may say that these all add to the charm of the game. For me, in a full price re-release they’re simply unacceptable.
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