STAFF REVIEW of Shenmue I & II (Xbox One)

Monday, September 10, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Shenmue I & II Box art As I write this, I’m currently staring at my Dreamcast copy of Shenmue. You see, I’ve owned it for many years, along with my Dreamcast, yet I never really got around to playing it after all this time for some reason or another. I’ve seen lots of videos about it, I know its impact that it had on the game industry and of course I know about the infamous sailor’s meme’s. I’m finally checking Shenmue I & II off my 'shame-to-have-never-played' list after all these years.

For its time, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed, and funny enough, for how revered it is by all the people that played it back in 1999, it never really sold all that well, which is probably why Shenmue III took nearly two decades to get off the ground and out of development hell. Do some research and you’ll see how the Shenmue development is an intriguing tale, and I can’t even imagine the fans that have been waiting since 2001 for some closure, waiting feverishly for Shenmue III.

I’ve heard so much about Shenmue over the years. How amazing and revolutionary its gameplay was, how broad in scope the adventure became, and all of the minute details that really made it unlike anything else at the time. Yu Suzuki is the main man behind the vision, having developed one of the most ambitious titles ever created at the time. There was a realistic time mechanic is place, stores had opening and closing times, every NPC could be talked to, arcade games could be played, there were collectable figures, drawers could be opened and items inspected and rotated. Sure, these days that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in 1999 this was absolutely mind blowing for Dreamcast owners.

Here we are, nearly two decades later, and a new generation will get to experience Shenmue is all of its glory, as well as allowing fans of the Dreamcast original a chance to relive their nostalgia. Shenmue tells a simple story about revenge. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a highschool student that witnesses his father’s murder by the hands of Lan Di. Lan Di steals a mysterious item called the Dragon Mirror for some unknown reason and Ryo vows to extract his revenge. The story is quite lengthy and interesting, so I don’t want to give much more away, but it’s the real reason to continue playing to see how it plays out. Sure, it’s a simple revenge story, but there’s more to it as you progress the narrative across both games.

What I didn’t expect was how slow the narrative plays out. The story is strong, but the game forces things to a crawl at certain instances, to the point where I’d estimate nearly half the game play time is ‘wasted’ with side stuff to do or waiting for a certain time of day. I love great narratives as well as characters that have depth and are interesting, and while Shenmue has this, the gameplay mechanics arbitrarily lengthen the gameplay to a crawl more than I expected. Case in point, there’s a section where you need to get a job for five days driving a forklift. I get that it’s slow by design, but there are times where it’s excruciating to get the willpower to get through another day.

Before walking simulators were a genre on its own, I think Shenmue could be categorized as one at certain points. It is more of a detective game more than anything else, and to find out the information you’re after, you’re going to have to walk around the town, asking people what they know, trying to find clues and piece together what to do next. Any NPC you encounter can be talked to, though the majority of the wandering ones are simply there to liven up the city and offer no real value or information.

Any relevant clues you come across get written down in Ryo’s journal, giving you hints such as where you have to go next or whom you should talk to. This way you don’t forget where or when you’re supposed to be next when you come back to playing. The biggest challenge you’re going to face though is simply controlling Ryo. Keep in mind that this game is from 1999 when control schemes weren’t as fleshed out as they are today. Remember in Resident Evil where up meant forward regardless of which way you were facing? That’s right, horrible tank-like controls are here and are absolutely terrible in every way, as I can’t even add up the amount of time I accidentally turned the wrong way or ran into a wall. Ryo can run forward with Right Trigger, but it will take some getting used to for taking corners.

So, you’ve played Shenmue nearly two decades ago and want to know what’s been improved for this collection re-release? Sadly, not all that much. The graphics have been slightly improved to HD quality, yet oddly enough cutscenes are still in 4:3 ratio. Japanese audio is included should you wish and the UI has been updated slightly. Aside from that, you’re going to have to deal with the ugly models, textures, and horrific voice acting. Consider Shenmue I & II simply a port with some very minor improvements, though being able to import your save data from the first game into the second and transfer over some items is welcome.

Sure, the 1080p upgrade is welcome, and I wasn’t hoping for a full remaster, but wow, the majority of the textures are outright ugly. Keep in mind that in 1999 this was revolutionary and absolutely mind blowing, but after all these years, it has not aged well at all. While loading is virtually nonexistent anymore, a welcome change, there’s a ton of bugs that I constantly struggled with. At least half a dozen times I somehow had my cutscenes messed up where it would use some far off default camera, making it too hard to see anything that’s going on, yet I was still able hear the dialogue. Another time I somehow had the camera stuck in first person view when controlling Ryo, which ended up with a game restart having to be implemented to fix.

In Shenmue, nearly everything is interactive. See a dresser, open its drawers and maybe find something pertaining to your quest. While in the beginning I was checking every interactive object I could find, there’s only a handful that are actually needed. When you do find an object, Ryo will hold in in his hand and you can rotate it around and inspect it. You’ll see how mechanic and stiff the animations are during this, but again, you have to remember that for its time there was nothing else like it. You’ll spend tons of time going to stores and checking items, just because. Seeing items close up is also where you’ll notice the low resolution textures, as even magazine covers and labels are completely illegible. Even main store names outside, the ones that are in English, will have you squinting to try and figure out what it’s supposed to say, hoping it’s the place you meant to go.

Time. This was my biggest frustration in the first Shenmue, more so than even the controls, visuals or voice acting. Particular events only take place at certain times of day. Stores have open and closing hours, like in real life, so much of your time is going to be waiting. If you need to meet someone at 6PM, you need to fill your day with activities to pass time, or simply wait it out. This causes such a slowdown of gameplay that it became incredibly frustrating, to the point where I didn’t want to sit and play for any prolonged length of time. Sure, there are tons of extra events you can do, mini-games and other things, but eventually these become tiresome as well. While Shenmue II fixed some of this, it’s absolutely painful to deal with in the original.

To pass time by, you’ll want to entertain yourself with mini-games and collectables. For those old enough to remember, there’s even an arcade to go visit and play a handful of games, including a few classic SEGA titles. These help distract you from the time sink for the first while, but after so many plays, it becomes somewhat boring quite quickly, so make sure to get some games of darts in, gambling or an arm wrestling match or two, simply to experience all of what Shenmue has to offer before it becomes mundane.

While not the first to use them, Shenmue is generally regarded as the game that really fathered the QTE’s (quick time events) in videogames in the current form that we’re used to. These are when you see a button or stick prompt on the screen during a cutscene, adding an element of interactivity that would normally be a linear watching experience. I personally enjoy QTE’s in games, whereas I know some loathe them and regard them as lazy development. They are not overly used here and make sense when they are added, so you need to pay attention during cutscenes just in case you get a prompt. Again, for 1999, this was an amazing feature, one that Yu Suzuki is generally regarded to as creating in its current form. Luckily if you fail, you’ll simply restart that cutscene again, hopefully having memorized the proper sequence to complete it.

Periodically Ryo will need to defend himself, as searching for the killer of his father will only get him deep into the underbelly of street gangs. Given that Yu Suzuki was part of SEGA’s AM2 development house, known for the fantastic Virtua Fighter series, naturally some of those mechanics were also introduced into Shenmue with its fighting sequences. When Ryo has to fight, you’ll be pulling off moves, much like in Virtua Fighter, with punches, kicks, throws and dodges. There’s many moves for you to learn as master (by practicing), and while it works in theory, some of the enemies are so cheap that you’ll sometimes have to resort to button spamming and praying you’re going to survive.

Simple attacks are done with a single button press, but you’ll learn more powerful and complex moves that require longer inputs, again, just like Virtua Fighter. Even if you master the moves, performing them while being attacked by 5 enemies is a whole other story. The input seems very laggy, so trying to utilize the more advanced moves never really worked out for me, especially during a 70 man battle in the first game and its boss fights.

Reviewing this Shenmue package was something I was very excited for. I’d finally get to experience one of the most iconic games from the Dreamcast era for myself, seeing what the big deal was. It was very difficult to review though, as I had to constantly keep in mind as if I was playing it in 1999 versus 2018. In 1999 I can see why it was such a big deal, as it introduced so many mechanics, a truly narrative driven and in-depth experience, something not really seen at the time. In today’s terms though, it would get ripped apart for those same reasons.

Playing Shenmue in 2018, I rarely enjoyed myself aside from the narrative. I was constantly frustrated with time management, terrible controls and absolutely atrocious voice acting. If I had played this in 1999, my nostalgia would have me grinning from ear to ear, so I understand the difference nearly two decades can make on a game.

Sadly Shenmue has not aged well, and given that Shenmue I & II is more or less simply a straight port, albeit with some minor improvements, it was almost torture at times to sit through. If I ever play a game again where I need to get a job as a forklift driver, it’ll be too soon. That being said, I can completely appreciate and respect it for what it is and the era that it released in. New players to the series, like myself, will find it hard to overlook its extremely rough edges, but original fans should fall right back in love with it. I hope that new players to the series can overcome its issues and experience and appreciate it for what it was back in 1999.

My score isn’t solely based on Shenmue’s experience from 1999, nor simply as a 2018 title, but instead, a mixture of both. It’s ugly to look at, the voice acting will make you cringe, it has a ton of issues and frustrations, but it’s a very unique experience, one that I’m glad to have finally enjoyed after all this time, even if it has not aged very well at all.

Shenmue has a very important part in videogame history, as a whole, for numerous reasons, which is why I wish it got some updated polish and improvements that it rightfully deserved. Given the series' turmoil history though, we should be happy we’ve at least gotten this port. If you want to experience a game unlike any other, and can keep an open mind about when it was originally released, you’ll start to appreciate it for what it was at the time, and in the present it is almost like a time capsule directly back to 1999.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 3.0 / 10


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