If you want to feel instant decrepitude, consider that most modern gamers will recognise Ryo Hazuki and his roaring tiger jacket from playing the the Sonic All-Star Racing games than from his own series. Shenmue was a critical darling when it released in the centre-parting heavy late 90s, and went on to be one of the best-selling games on the Dreamcast, though that’s perhaps damning it with the faintest of faint praise.
Given the fervour that the announcement of a Shenmue 3 Kickstarter brought a few years ago at E3, you’d think that it was the most popular series in the world. The truth is that while it was well ahead of its time, Yu Suzuki’s opus was undoubtedly hampered by appearing on Sega’s final underperforming console, with only its sequel garnering a port to the original Xbox after the Dreamcast’s demise. This re-release is the first time you can play the original game anywhere else, and it’s there to prepare gamers for the final chapter before its launch sometime in the future. Whether it’ll have quite the effect that everyone’s hoping for is an interesting question.
It’s immediately obvious that this is a straightforward port rather than a remaster or remake that rejuvenates the game. Though a few extra niceties easily make this the definitive version of this aging classic, what we’re getting is a sharp, high-definition translation of the original game – right down to the pre-widescreen 4:3 aspect ratio in cutscenes and original textures – and otherwise very little has been done visually. Thankfully you can opt to play the main body of the game in widescreen, though if you’re feeling truly nostalgic you can play with the original resolution, and in 4:3, without any bloom. Listening to Five or The Offspring while you do so is entirely optional.
You might want to, given that the quality of the game’s audio is incredibly inconsistent, and it’s quite clear that they’ve done absolutely nothing to improve it when bringing this port across to the modern machines. The audio quality of the character’s speech is incredibly low, presumably suffering from some major compression in order to fit on the Dreamcast’s custom GD-ROM discs, and when much of the dialogue is as badly written or dry as Shenmue’s is it really drags the entire production down.
However, you can now choose between English or Japanese voicework, and the game takes on a whole new level of authenticity in its native tongue. Switching across will mean you don’t get to hear some of Ryo’s most iconic phrases like “Do you know of a place where sailors hang out?”, but the repetition the game is renowned for doesn’t seem quite so bad in a language I barely understand. Besides, the English voice-acting wasn’t of the highest calibre at the time, and returning to it here really emphasises that fact. Beyond nostalgia, I genuinely don’t think there’s any reason not to play either the original or its sequel in Japanese.
Whatever the characters might be spouting, the soundtrack itself is occasionally fantastic, with some beautiful, delicate moments interplayed against the more dramatic or action-filled ones. During much of the game though it’s quite underplayed, with simple tones and incidental sounds adding to the atmosphere, both of which serve the game well, even if there isn’t too much variety to them.
The original game, which charts the beginning of Ryo’s investigation into the truth about his father’s death, hasn’t aged gracefully, but there’s still the core of an engaging story. While they’ve tinkered with a few things, like the ability to fast travel straight to different areas from your home rather than having to traipse all the way back to them each day, there are mechanics here like QTEs whose time in gaming has largely come and gone. Ryo also handles with all the grace of a tree stump with rickety trolley wheels on, particularly indoors. This starts to wear thin very quickly and isn’t helped by a camera that only vaguely does what you tell it to. Overall it just serves to show how far we’ve come in the past twenty years.
That said, Shenmue was the first of its kind, and Yu Suzuki is arguably one of the most important Japanese developers of the era. While QTEs have gone the way of the dodo outside of Quantic Dreams, Shenmue featured plenty of other cutting edge ideas, such as a full day and night cycle that influenced what shops were open or which characters you met in the street. The world building that’s on display really set the tone for how to construct a living and breathing game world, and its personal, tightly focussed areas become real to you.
I still, nearly twenty years after first playing it, remember where Tom’s hotdog wagon is and how to get to the arcade, and that’s as remarkable as it was then. Shenmue also features some of the best distractions you could ask for in an open world game, with fully playable versions of Space Harrier and Super Hang On tucked away in the arcade – or Afterburner and Outrun in the sequel – while there’s a worrying number of different Gacha figures to waste your in-game money on. If you’re so inclined you can manage to not actually play the game for a very long time.
The sequel is a far more refined game, expanding the tale to Hong Kong and opening up an array of possibilities for the third and final game when it arrives, though many of the same problems that you’ll experience with the first remain present here. The key improvement was the ability to alter the time of day, doing away with the annoyance of having to wait for shops to open or for people to do their scheduled tasks, though in doing so it loses a dose of the reality that the first one goes to such lengths to put in place.
As far as nostalgia goes, plenty of aging gamers will fall for Shenmue’s shonky charms all over again, and revisiting Ryo’s tale of revenge can be a deeply enjoyable experience. However, newcomers will face an uphill struggle to get past the poor controls, terrible English voice acting and grinding repetition. It’s still a great primer for the third game, but only if you’ve been here before.