January 24, 2019 at 9:36 PM #587
Shenmue I & II
Rating: 3.5 – Good
The port isn’t what it could’ve been, but getting to experience these iconic games one more time shouldn’t be missed
With the abrupt cancellation of the Sega Dreamcast, which was gaming’s first 128 bit console and Sega’s final effort in the hardware business, we saw many incredibly promising games and potential franchises relegated to the dustbin of history. Few have gained as much notoriety as the Shenmue series; due in part to their notoriously high development costs and Shenmue II’s legendary cliffhanger ending, along with Sega’s apparent policy not to so much as speak of them for what became something like 15 years, what was a series that many thought would never be finished has finally been given the chance to continue on.
The announcement a couple years ago that Yu Suzuki was planning to finally develop Shenmue III was a momentous occasion that took the industry by complete surprise. With the long-awaited 3rd installment finally on its way, Sega has, for better or for worse, decided to deliver HD remasters of the first two iconic open world games, and Shenmue I and II is the result.
The Shenmue games were almost unheard of in how they upended what seemed possible in gaming back when they released in 1999-2002. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenager who returns home one day to find a sinister man, Lan Di, confronting his father. Lan Di demands a mysterious object called the Dragon Mirror before killing Ryo’s father and departing in a black car. Ryo vows to take revenge, and sets off into the fully realized open world setting of Yokosuka, Japan, talking to people and looking for clues that eventually leads him to China, where Shenmue II continues the story and pulls Ryo much deeper into the criminal underworld.
Released at a time when many video games still didn’t have voice acting, Shenmue lets you talk to anybody you see; 100% of the characters are voice acted. In something that’s still incredibly rare even today, the Shenmue games allow you to enter almost any single building, complete with their own shopkeepers, their own music, and other NPC characters entering and exiting the stores, restaurants, and bars that you find yourself in. Every time Ryo gets a clue that pushes the story forward, a notebook icon on the screen glows, and reading the note tells you your next objective. It’s a system that’s incredibly satisfying, and the numerous different ways you can arrive at the same conclusion (say, by talking to one person instead of another, setting off a different chain of events) means that even having played these games more than a dozen times over the years, I still managed to witness scenes that I’d never seen before when playing this remaster, which really goes to show just how much they had to offer.
Though much of the Shenmue experience consists of wandering through ambient, beautifully-scored worlds and interacting with locals, friends, and business owners who all operate on their own schedules, there are fights and action scenes that break things up. Despite featuring a form of the complex Virtua Fighter fighting engine, the fights only rarely offer much of a challenge, but they’re always fun when they do show up. QTEs, which the Shenmue games helped to popularize, are also cool, especially when they involve chasing people through the streets and dodging obstacles, or slamming someone across a bar counter or into a food stand.
Shenmue I is hurt a bit more by the passage of time than its sequel, mainly in that its fights and QTE sequences feel short and simple by today’s standards. As a result, these action scenes lose a bit of their punch, making Shenmue I feel slower-paced as a whole than Shenmue II and its far more exciting action sequences and encounters. That said, neither game is designed to be a thrill ride; wandering through town (or in Shenmue II’s case, wandering through the city) and looking for clues is certainly no Call of Duty or Uncharted, so those going in expecting an action game or even a beat-em-up similar to the Yakuza series will likely be disappointed. And that was true back when Shenmue first came out, as well; gaming at the time was still very arcade-driven, so even back then, the Shenmue series was somewhat divisive in that you either loved it or hated it. Shenmue II does greatly up the ante in the action category, its occasionally slow first half aside, and Shenmue I has its thrilling moments as well, but generally speaking these are not action games, or fighting games, and were never intended to be. Instead, the beauty of the Shenmue series has always been immersing yourself in their environments: watching day turn to night as snow begins to fall on the quiet neighborhood of Sakaragaoka, arriving home and noticing Ine-San dusting the house, swinging by the local arcade and playing some video games or some darts to kill time, or wandering into a hidden warehouse on Fortune’s Pier to gamble your money away. The number of activities to do in the world may no longer be unsurpassed when compared to the open world games of today, something especially evident when playing Shenmue I, but the atmosphere and the level of interactive detail that exists, I’d argue, remains almost unprecedented to this day.
Both Shenmue I and Shenmue II were games that I’d considered the best I’d ever played back when they released and over the years, and they remain that way today. There was simply nothing like them at the time when they released, and though many of their mechanics have since been adopted by others, there really still isn’t anything that looks, feels, or plays like Shenmue. That’s not to say that the games don’t have their faults, something worth bearing in mind especially now that these are older games, having been released over a decade and a half ago. Some of these faults could have been smoothed over had this remaster been even slightly more ambitious (more on that later) but without a doubt there are genuine faults in the game design that haven’t gone away with age. Shenmue I locks you onto a more linear path in its final act, as Ryo attempts to infiltrate a gang and gets a job moving forklifts in a crime-ridden harbor. This part of the game is still a lot of fun, but having your character automatically teleported to work in the morning and then keeping you in the harbor until nightfall felt like it took away a lot of the freedom that you’d previously been given, and that remains something that I’m not thrilled with today. Similary, the original Shenmue can feel frustrating at times as you struggle to find Â¡Â°the right personÂ¡Â± to talk to in order to progress the narrative, an issue that doesn’t happen often, but when it does come up it can be fairly tedious. Shenmue II largely fixes the latter issue but struggles with its pacing in the first half, though it more than makes up for it as it goes on. Still, the first few hours of that game can feel even a little boring at times, with a mandated mini-game involving airing out books in particular stopping its early hours dead in their tracks. I hope it doesn’t prevent people from continuing with what, all said and done, turns out to be an incredible experience, as it’s true that playing these games does require a bit of patience at times.
Visually, the Shenmue series really pushed the Dreamcast hardware to its limit when it originally released, and it’s still mindblowing that Sega’s final console was able to deliver these incredibly demanding games during what was still essentially the PS1/N64 era. Shenmue I and II features the same visual assets but presents them in full 1080p. Certain textures do show their age, especially on the characters, and the pop-in/pop-out of NPCs hasn’t been fixed, but in terms of sheer detail and atmosphere, both games hold up well today, and the improved lighting system presents a noticeable improvement. Probably the biggest night and day difference between this remaster and the originals is the removal of the load times, something the original releases understandably struggled with, which is a huge boost to this version and alone makes a major difference in the fluidity of the experience. Unfortunately, the audio of the voice acting, especially in Shenmue I, sounds incredibly compressed by the standards we’ve become used to, and it made toying with the audio settings necessary for me to find a volume that I liked. This is the type of thing that could have and should have been smoothed over. That said, for the first time in series history, Shenmue I and II allows you to toggle between English or Japanese voice acting, which is a great addition, despite the somewhat legendary notoriety of the English dub. I personally feel that Shenmue I still plays better in English; the quality of the NPC voice acting varies wildly from the acceptable to the strangely awful, but the main characters’ English voice actors actually bring a distinctive and memorable flavor to each of them; maybe it’s nostalgia, who knows, but there’s a strange charm to Shenmue I’s English dub that actually made it hard for me to enjoy playing it any other way. Shenmue II, on the other hand, saw a bit of a step down from even Shenmue I’s inconsistent dubbing; Corey Marshall returns as Ryo, and despite doing a good job in Shenmue I, and despite him being a huge fan of the series, he sounds utterly bored throughout Shenmue II, something he hopefully manages to fix with his work in the upcoming third installment. Shenmue II still has its good English performances (Yuan and Ren, especially) but if you’re going to play one of them in English and one of them in Japanese, I’d recommend Shenmue I in English and Shenmue II in Japanese, personally. Regardless of which you choose, the option is always there and can be changed on the fly, which is a wonderful thing and a lot of fun to mess with.
Unfortunately, my praise for the quality of the Shenmue I and II remaster ends there. It’s great to get to experience these incredible and unique games again, so in a sense, the somewhat sub-par quality of the porting is something that I’m ultimately willing to live with, even knowing how much more this remaster could have been with a little more time and a higher budget. On launch day and for months after, both games were riddled with glitches and bugs; not even just minor technical glitches, but objects meant to be interacted with that were completely non-functioning, the existence of major audio bugs, and even full on lighting systems being completely missing in action. A couple patches (which sure took their time to arrive on consoles) fixed many of these problems, though a few still remain. It was sloppy and rushed and, given how long fans have been waiting for this, completely unacceptable that Shenmue I and II was allowed out the door in the state that it was in. While I’m glad these issues have ultimately been almost totally (but not completely) patched out, their existence really took a toll on my enjoyment of playing through these games again. The lack of significant graphical updates is also disappointing, given the potential that was offered by today’s hardware. Thankfully, both games were technical powerhouses back in their day, so the fact that their visual assets (such as textures) weren’t upgraded whatsoever here (aside from the bump in resolution) is not a deal-breaker, though every poorly-textured tie and strange-looking face serves as a constant reminder of what this remaster could have been had it been given less of a lazy treatment by UK developer D3t and publisher Sega.
The improvements that are made are inconsistent; Shenmue I now allows you to save anywhere you want like its sequel did (the original only let you save in Ryo’s room) which is good, but D3t didn’t see fit to import Shenmue II’s time jump mechanic or its ability to let you skip cutscenes after losing a fight or QTE, both of which seem like no-brainers but still for some reason remain Shenmue II exclusive. Both games still feature a 4:3 ratio in the cutscenes rather than enhancing them to 16:9 like the rest of the game; Shenmue I’s are tolerable, but Shenmue II’s are squeezed into such a small portion of the screen (due to part II’s additional letterboxing) that it really takes some time to get used to. The slowdown that still exists here and there in Shenmue I, especially in the harbor area, is noticeable, as the game shouldn’t be doing much of anything to make the PS4 hardware sweat. Shenmue I’s newly-designed title menu looks and sounds cheap, and the revamped in-game menus are cumbersome and take up far too much of the screen. The music, which is incredible and a gigantic asset to both games, experiences inconsistent sound quality on modern TV speakers, with some songs sounding a little strange while others come across as outright glitchy.
Thankfully, the price is at least right. With a $30 price point, Shenmue I and II is a steal, as you get two unique and incredible games with plenty to explore and to experience, while bumped up to a modern resolution and with the removal of load times. Throw in the ability to switch between English and Japanese voice acting, and there are definite merits to this remaster, even if they aren’t quite what I’d expect for such an iconic release from a major publisher. Without a doubt, further visual and audio improvements would have been nice, and some aspects of these games of course haven’t aged as well as others, but it remains the case that as long as you download its post-release patches, Shenmue I and II is easily the best way currently to experience these games in all their glory.
You can read my more in depth thoughts on the two games if you dig up my past reviews of both, but each offers incredibly distinct experiences. Shenmue I’s small town setting is wonderfully realized. You run into neighbors and shopkeepers you know as they go about their day to day lives, while heading home from Dobuita’s shopping street takes you through the quiet, beautiful residential neighborhoods of Sakaragaoka and Yamanose as the snow begins to fall, something so peaceful that it feels so incredibly real. Shenmue II sees Ryo leave his home and friends behind as he travels to the massive city of Hong Kong, where environments are less detailed but far larger and packed to the brim, providing so much more to explore, your adventures taking you from a sketchy Pier and the bustling streets of Wan Chai to both the dangerous and intriguing Walled City of Kowloon and the forests of Guilin, resulting in a much larger and more thrilling, if a slightly less immersive and character-driven experience. Both games provide very different yet similar journeys, and if you’re new to them, the ability to jump into Shenmue II immediately after finishing Shenmue I is an amazing thing that I’m incredibly envious of. This isn’t how I would have chosen to port these games. But accepting the bare-bones nature of this port for what it is, if you have the patience for their occasionally slow paces and really allow yourself to be absorbed into their worlds and brought along on their adventures, then the opportunity to try these games out (or to replay them) shouldn’t be missed. In many ways, Shenmue I and II served as the basis for much of what we see in both modern day open world and cinematic gaming, and it’s great that many more people will have the opportunity to check them out.
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