Shenmue may be considered a cult classic, but it’s important to remember that Ryo Hazuki’s revenge mission divided critics when it originally released on the Dreamcast almost two decades ago. SEGA legend Yu Suzuki spent a small fortune on the first foray’s dingy Yokosuka setting, but despite being wildly original, the game attracted both criticism and acclaim for committing rigidly to reality. The sequel improved on the concept dramatically, expanding on the scope and introducing a raft of pacing improvements, but the series was always considered an acquired taste – and 20 years later, that very much remains the case.
Save for a late camping excursion in the Guilin countryside towards the backend of Shenmue II, the franchise bucks the trend of idyllic settings, settling for the drab backdrop of mid-80s Japan and Hong Kong. The game’s revolutionary FREE gameplay format promised Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment at the time – better known as open world today. But unlike the likes of Grand Theft Auto, the sandboxes of Shenmue are deeply interactive, with a seemingly limitless number of buildings that can be entered, and tangible objects that can be collected and inspected. This is all while the world independently goes about its business, wholly dependent on the time, day, and weather.
It was revolutionary at launch, and there’s still nothing quite like it today; you can see components of the series in franchises like Yakuza and Persona, but Shenmue very much stands as its own thing. Of course, there are drawbacks to its structure: the first game is unevenly paced, with very little happening in its opening act beyond the breadcrumb trails of some basic detective work. Events unfurl after your father is murdered by a mysterious Chinese man named Lan Di, and both games in the Shenmue I & II compilation see you trying to track him down. While he’s the main thrust behind the fiction, the series is more about the relationships that Ryo establishes along the way.
The infamous voice acting is just as atrocious today as it was in the early 2000s, but this PlayStation 4 re-release allows you to toggle between English and the slightly less horrendous Japanese dubs. Both tracks are plagued by terrible mixing and compression, as it seems SEGA failed to hold on to the original recordings. While this is an unavoidable irritation, it’s unfortunate that the ports are hampered by prolific audio bugs, which stop key sound effects from triggering at the right time. In fact, there are a catalogue of small-to-medium technical flaws that affect both games, which will need to be promptly patched. Some of these can, sadly, ruin key scenes if you’re unlucky.
If you immerse yourself in these worlds, though, there’s really nothing quite like them. The original game is claustrophobic but it feels appropriately homely, as Ryo is on first-name terms with all the locals and its layout becomes imprinted into your brain. Shenmue II, meanwhile, which takes place in Wan Chai and later Kowloon, has an epic scale to it – the maze-like structure of its various urban quarters make you feel like a foreigner far from home. The latter game is much more consistent and includes various quality of life tweaks to enhance the overall experience, like the ability to skip time so that you don’t have to sit twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next event.
But a lot of Shenmue’s appeal is simply exploring and familiarising yourself with the world. There are tens of buildings that you can enter and hundreds of people that you can talk to, but none of it is necessarily required to further your quest – it’s all optional world building designed to further submerge you into its lore. And when you do choose to focus on advancing the plot, the game introduces a range of endearing characters that, while never particularly well written or acted, will live with you longer than the cast of most games. There’s a thoughtfulness to the series’ fiction that impresses even in 2018 as long as you’re willing to give it the time and opportunity.
And that’s the thing: Shenmue is, like we mentioned at the start of the review, an acquired taste. Its penchant for the mundane means that you can easily find yourself wasting hours carrying crates for a quick buck, but that’s part of what sets it apart. It’s rare to see the realities of everyday life take centre stage in an action game, but here you need to go to work and get to sleep at a decent hour. There are a smattering of functional fighting sequences – the project was originally billed the Virtua Fighter RPG, after all – and its infamous QTE segments inject some cinematic action into the otherwise ordinary events elsewhere, but you have to be prepared for long stretches of gameplay where not a lot happens at all.
The ports themselves, aside from the aforementioned bugs, are adequate but uninspiring. You can toggle between widescreen and the original 4:3 aspect ratio, while a new high resolution rendering option allows you to significantly clean up the image quality for a modern display. All of this can be altered on the fly, while you can switch between the various audio dubs without needing to reload as well. The textures and geometry remain identical to the originals, although the art style holds up impressively even today, and the lightning fast loading times owing to the modern hardware really improve the experience – particularly in the larger Shenmue II.
Shenmue I & II divided players and critics on the Dreamcast, and will continue to do so on the PlayStation 4. These games are an acquired taste, but there’s nothing quite like them, and if you can overcome some of their more awkward idiosyncrasies, you’ll be rewarded with a set of revolutionary sandboxes that impress even today. The ports are let down by a handful of recurring bugs, but are otherwise presented authentically, and while the voice acting is no less embarrassing in 2018, there’s a charm to both the script and performances that can be endearing to an open mind. There’s no question that these titles deserve their place in the annals of gaming history – but whether you’ll love them or loathe them will ultimately come down to personal taste.