HEnmue, SHEnmue, WEnmue…
I have played neither of the Shenmue games. The series has always been a personal fascination for me given the reverence I’ve seen for these games, and the immersive worlds they present to the player are very interesting. Full of anticipation and curiosity, I booted up Shenmue I & II. And after four hours of playing it…I realized something.
These games are most certainly a product of their time. In short, the moment to moment gameplay of Shenmue I & II is some of the most sluggish and repetitive nonsense I have ever experienced in games, but there is something compelling about Ryo’s journey and the world surrounding him that makes Shenmue a compelling game.
The story starts with teenager Ryo Hazuki walking home on a snowy evening to his house where his father, martial arts expert Iwao Hazuki, is training in the family dojo. Suddenly, three men break into the dojo and knock out Iwao’s student Fukuhara and their leader Lan Di batters Iwao right in front of Ryo’s eyes. Lan Di asks Iwao about a mirror that he’s been seeking that has mystical properties and when Ryo’s father declines to tell him he is killed.
Ryo then embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s murder by seeking out the men by any means necessary. That includes talking with the townsfolk about what they saw that night, interrogating sailors, buying capsule toys out of various vending machines, learning martial arts moves from old men in a park, feeding a cat, and uh well…you probably get the idea that there is a lot to do in this game.
Know Your Roots
Shenmue I mostly revolves around Ryo trying to wrap his head around the nature of the two mirrors that his father’s killer is so adamant about claiming, which does make for a lot of interesting story beats in this otherwise realistic depiction of 80’s Japan. Ryo can travel between 5 distinct areas that all have a colorful cast of NPCs he can interact with. For a game made in the late nineties, there’s some impressive depth to how these NPCs behave. There isn’t a whole lot you can actually do with these characters, often it’s just talking with them and hearing the comically bad English voice-over work that can both detract and add to the gravitas of the game’s more tender moments. But the fact that every NPC is voiced is impressive for console games released on the relatively meager hardware of the Sega Dreamcast.
Each NPC also has a daily schedule they adhere to; shopkeepers will be seen roaming around Dobuita before and after their shops are open and Ryo knows them all personally making for a very communal Stardew Valley-like feel.
In fact, when playing Shenmue today you can see the DNA of other games that came years after it. This makes for an interesting thought experiment for what concepts were repeated and others that were left by the wayside or expanded upon. You’ll see shades of games like L.A. Noire where Ryo holds up various objects for inspection similarly to Cole Phelps, and SEGA’s later Yakuza games where worlds are filled with minigames and the occasional street fight.
Shenmue II improves upon a lot of the first game’s flaws by ensuring multiple ways the player can reach story moments and an expanded conversation system that lets the player asks various questions. Exploration in II feels more rewarding as well with more scenic worlds that aren’t as cluttered with interactive junk. The plot feels more momentous than its predecessor with Ryo in an unfamiliar place where he doesn’t know a whole lot of people and finds him having to take care of himself without relying on the support of others. The sequel does force you down a direct path more than the first game but it retains the wacky NPCs and an air of mystery surrounding the life of his Father Iwao.
You Guys Like Button Prompts?
For a lot of players the introduction of QTEs, or Quick Time Events, into the gaming landscape will stand out the most. You will get many cutscenes in-game that spring button prompts in front of the player and you press that button quickly or witness some pretty hilarious screw-ups. For me, the first QTE involved children kicking around a soccer ball when the ball gets kicked astray and is headed straight for a little girl’s noggin. I totally forgot that this was a big feature in Shenmue and watched as Ryo didn’t react quickly enough to catch the ball and it hit her right in the face.
She cried and the boys all ran to comfort her while I sat there feeling like the world’s biggest jerk. The game had my undivided attention in cutscenes from that point on so maybe it was a net positive? Unfortunately, the timing window on a lot of these sequences is so tight that it can get difficult to hit the prompts even when you’re focusing very hard on hitting the buttons. Thankfully, the sequel is a bit more forgiving in this regard.
A Fresh Coat
There are a lot of notable improvements to the original games that these HD remasters from developer D3T. First, both games can be saved at any time so Ryo won’t have to travel to his bed every night before you can turn the game off. There is full controller support that lets players use analog sticks instead of the D-pad to move Ryo, an Updated UI with way more aesthetically pleasing font. Finally, and in my opinion the most effective change, there is full widescreen and HD rendering that go a long way in making the game easy on the eyes.
Make no mistake, the game still looks like an up-rezzed Dreamcast title, but the lack of restricting the player’s view to a 4:3 letterbox and cleaning up the visuals and lighting so they don’t look so muddy are great! I had no trouble reading things or finding my way around the dark streets of Wan Chai at night thanks to these improvements.
Shenmue I & II as a collection of both games felt like the ideal way to experience these games, warts and all. There is a fascinating story here with Ryo’s journey, but so much of what you actually do in these games just feels repetitive and slow that it may deter you from wanting to continue. Your mileage may vary, but these games do have a lot of historical significance that it warrants attention from hardcore gamers who want to see the evolution of game mechanics and the idea of a “lived-in” world.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC(Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: D3T; Players: 1 ; Released: August 21, 2018; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of Shenmue I & II given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.