After giving up on seeing Ryo’s adventure reach its conclusion for years but then having the delightful reveal of Shenmue III, fans of Shenmue are also finally able to play the first two games again in a glorious remastered form. Yes, SEGA listened, and so many years after its release (and the company seemingly killing the series off) Shenmue I & II are back.
There’s no denying that they were revolutionary games that did something truly different back in the day, and in their time they were bloody brilliant. However, that was nearly twenty years ago so the question remains: does a fresh lick of paint help them stand the test of time and still provide a great experience in this day and age, or do Shenmue I & II just belong in gamers’ memories?
Shenmue I & II put you in the shoes of Ryo Hazuki, a young man who returns home to witness his father’s murder by the enigmatic Lan Di. With Lan Di escaping with the treasured Dragon Mirror, Ryo seeks revenge on him with the first game seeing Ryo learn more about Lan Di and how to find him and the second game seeing him grow as a martial artist as he travels through Hong Kong.
It’s a typical tale of revenge and it is common knowledge that it doesn’t reach its conclusion in the first two games – why do you think fans had been crying out for Shenmue III for so long? Either way, across the two titles you’ll see Ryo grow as a person and the world around him change. It’s a world that’s full of detail and an expansive lore too, with each character you meet proving to be full of personality and pivotal to the extensive tale that the games tell. It’s easy to find yourself completely engrossed in it, though you can expect plenty of moments where it drags along too.
The key gameplay components of Shenmue I & II revolve around investigating your surroundings, all whilst speaking to the inhabitants around you as you look to find your way to Lan Di. This involves a lot of exploration and believe me, this is an area where both games shine.
Exploration is fully free in the game, and nine times out of ten if you see a building you can enter it – there are so many places to explore that are full of things to interact with and people to speak to. It makes you feel like you’re actually a part of this little world and it’s a feeling that even modern games have struggled to capture so efficiently. Sure, we get larger open worlds that are a lot more detailed and full of things to see these days, but the way that the world genuinely hooked the player in and involved them in its going ons was truly revolutionary when Shenmue launched all those years ago and it still feels impressive to this day. There’s a day and night cycle in place too so you have to be at certain places at specific times, whilst the weather will change up too (and it accurately represents the weather conditions of Yokosuka during the same time period, so there’s extra realism there).
Whilst the exploration is undeniably neat, it can start off a little boring. A lot of it is unnecessary and doesn’t affect the plot, and whilst it does act as a neat way to take in more of the world, it could also completely drop the pace of the game too. Add to that some clunky controls (which feel a lot more apparent in the tighter confines of the first game) and it can make some aspects of exploration and interaction feel mundane and even a little frustrating.
Then it clicks. The plot of the first game takes a while to get going, but when it does and you find yourself a lot more involved with the world, suddenly all of this seemingly menial exploration becomes more endearing and you won’t be able to help yourself from trying to take all of the world in. The personalities of characters and their surroundings start to shine through and the adventure doesn’t just feel like it’s about taking down Lan Di, but also taking in the world around you too.
Or maybe it won’t. Shenmue I & II are divisive games, and you’re either going to love them and get totally absorbed in the adventures they offer or you’re not. The exploration side of the game holds up well and feels enjoyable, but there’s no denying that you can tell that it has come straight from 1999 and that might not be enough for some gamers.
It’s not all exploration in Shenmue though and you can expect more than a few showdowns with enemies throughout the game. These encounters are normally done in one of two ways: through QTEs or combat.
Shenmue was a pioneer for QTEs back in the day, so you can expect an abundance of them throughout both titles. Whilst they did become a little frustrating over recent years in video games, their presence here is a little bit more meaningful and works contextually with what’s going on. There’s also the fact that I know that the game was one of the first to use them prominently though, so maybe I’m giving it a bit of a free pass. It’s just a case of mashing and tapping buttons when told, which is simple and effective.
The combat on the other hand is pretty decent and actually implements a few neat ideas. The core mechanics themselves are simple, with the player able to button-mash their way through most encounters if they choose. However, as you progress through both games you’ll unlock an assortment of moves that are more stylish and useful in encounters. However, when you first learn them they’re not as powerful or efficient to use – the more you use them though, the more acclimatised with them you’ll become and the more effective they are. It’s a clever system that really puts an emphasis Ryo’s journey to become powerful enough to take of Lan Di, and it’s something I appreciated throughout the game.
One thing I have to mention is that Shenmue I & II are both full of little fun mini-games to take part in, with things like classic SEGA titles including Space Harrier and Hang On available to play in the world’s arcades, miniature toys to collect, pub games such as darts to compete in and even jobs you can take on for people adding little twists to the main gameplay experience. There is a heck of a lot of stuff to do in the game and whilst it’s never really pivotal to progression in the game, it’s hard not to find yourself hooked in. It adds an extra degree of personality and believability to the world and it helps define Shenmue for what it is – a game where you’re given the absolute freedom to play how you want.
As far as remasters go, Shenmue I & II is pretty decent. Sure, you can tell it’s an older game but it never looks terrible, whilst there’s a smooth frame rate to go along with the action too. I do wish they could’ve fixed the controls up a bit and there were also a few odd moments where the camera would act sketchy and seemingly fall out of shot, but there was never anything game-ruining that deterred from my overall experience with the titles.
One neat new addition that comes with the remastered release is the improved saving system. No longer do you have to sleep if you want to save game – you can save wherever you want at any time. I actually forgot how frustrating it would be to have to head home and sleep to save when Shenmue originally came out, so this is a massive plus that’ll not only make series veterans happy but also give those new to the games an easier time too.
Audio-wise, the soundtrack is as fantastic as you probably remember, but the voice acting is still a bit terrible (but in an endearing way). However, whilst these are things that gamers might remember affectionately, the quality of the audio itself is pretty poor. The voice work in particular sounds bad throughout, with this distorted echo-like sound heard throughout each piece of speech. It’s disappointing and certainly makes some of the game’s cinematic scenes feel a touch underwhelming – it’s a shame it couldn’t be fixed in the remastering process.
As video games alone, I’ll always have a fondness for Shenmue I & II that will never go away. I genuinely think they hold up well today, and whilst they might have shoddy controls and the pacing might be a little off (particularly in the first game), even now they’re great fun to play. Still, that won’t be the case for everyone and I think the whole ‘love it or hate it’ argument will still be as strong with this release as it was when the game first came out in 1999.
Whilst I’m a big fan though, I can appreciate that this remastered release isn’t perfect. Whilst the visuals look decent and the ability to save anywhere is great, the audio quality is often terrible and there a fair few glitches here and there. There’s nothing game-breaking, but it’s certainly noticeable.
Still, seeing Shenmue I & II return on modern consoles is truly fantastic and it’s great to be able to re-visit Ryo’s journey once more. There’s no doubting it won’t be for everyone, but those who find themselves hooked into the journey will find it to be one they’ll never forget.
Format(s): PlayStation 4, (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC