Sometimes, the sky opens up, light glimmering its way to the surface majestically, and miracles happen. You wake up in the morning thinking it’s a regular day and by stroke of luck, meticulous planning, or just cosmic strangeness, great things happen. In the case of the impending Shenmue III, the miracle isn’t so much that it is, in fact, a real thing (but it’s close), it’s that the patience and dedication of a chosen few have been so generously rewarded.
But first, says the booming ethereal voice of they who bestow great things upon us (in this case Sega), we need to be taken back to the beginning. As such, and after a decade and a half, we’re finally seeing a Shenmue remaster for current hardware in preparation for next year’s big show. The cynic may see this as a way to continue bankrolling what is already one of the most expensive series ever developed. The romantic, though, will view it –as all true believers do—as a way for the young and old alike to experience a masterpiece, and have it available forever.
I am neither of these people. I had never played Shenmue or its sequel before this week began, and only know the series from a distance. If anything, I had become a conscientious objector over time, only knowing the saga of Ryo Hazuki through reputation. I never had a beef with Shenmue, as they say, but as time went on, and other games had taken up the mantle of open-world Japan, the need to play to the series faded away.
But that’s not why people read reviews of remasters, and I know that. In fairness to you, then, I have conveniently split this into two logical subsections: The first is a view of the Remaster as a package for the people that going to buy if it were simply the game’s code written on papyrus. The second is a sober look at the games from the perspective of a Shenmue neophyte. It’s difficult to make everyone happy, but at least this way, we can at least make it efficient. And so…
For Veterans of Shenmue
Visually, the first Shenmue was merely okay from a graphical perspective, and compared to its contemporaries, had probably gotten a pass due to its sheer scope. Muddy and smeared textures, then, can only go so far without a complete overhaul of the game. To their credit, developer d3t, who handled the port, did what they could with the sparse backgrounds and low-res text. But everything from models to backgrounds don’t look significantly better than they would in 1999, and the first Shenmue doesn’t look much better than it would on the Dreamcast. No dramatic alterations were made to the characters or how they move, and signs on buildings are sometimes difficult to read.
Shenmue II fares better. Images and textures are still smeared, but much cleaner with a crisp finish and more defined contour lines on things like street signs and character models. The tiger on the back of Ryo’s famous jacket is clearly articulated, for example. Throughout the whole first game, I honestly thought that it might have been a scorpion. It certainly helps that Shenmue II is a more busy game aesthetically. The streets of Hong Kong, with its high-level walkways and constant barrage of signage, are packed with things to see, and care was given to how well the player can parse them through the retouching process. It’s not accurate to assume the games may look better in the rose colored glasses of your memories, but it’s clear that Shenmue II received some added care here, while the first game was handled the best way it possibly could.
Perhaps the best addition to the collection is the wider aspect ratio. Though purists can still play in a classic 4:3 ratio, the addition of playing in 16:9 makes for a much less cramped proposition, especially since it’s un-stretched. Environments feel easier to explore, and since both games retain the quasi-tank controls, the added screen real estate makes getting around on foot more palatable when you know what’s further to the side like walls and other bystanders. As a test, I played for an hour in 4:3 and found that I was a much clumsier martial arts prodigy. The widescreen mode gave me the breathing room I needed to keep things moving as fluidly as I could. Cutscenes are locked at 4:3, which is a bit jarring if you’re sticking to 16:9, but never becomes obtrusive to the experience.
Nothing makes it more obvious that Shenmue was meant to be a cinematic experience than how Ryo controls and the camera working in tandem with those controls; this is where the remaster will turn off most players unfamiliar with the games. He doesn’t control fluidly in a full 3D space, employing something of an evolved tank control scheme where pushing down on the directional-pad or analog stick makes him turn around in place with the camera swinging around to get behind him again. The right analog stick adjusts the camera angle, as most modern games do, but from a locked position. When trying to work in concert, both sticks together make for a frustrating ride, especially if you overshoot an interactable NPC or door to open.
This is a curiously missed opportunity to update the control scheme, and makes for two games that are often maddening to play. I understand the need to keep the original fans happy (they’re the folks more interested in this remaster than anyone), but other re-released games that employed tank movement like 2015’s Grim Fandango Remastered updated the controls while giving the faithful the option to switch back. The fact that this isn’t standard practice for two much larger games like this is a bit baffling, and ultimately sad.
The audio has a bit more variation in quality. It seems as though the original voice work may have been lost to time as all spoken words (in both English and Japanese, but if you don’t play in English you will lose some of these games’ more batshit charm) are muffled. For a re-release like this, one would expect that the dialog would be cleaned to the best possible state it can be, as conversation is a constant factor in solving puzzles. Here, simple mutterings and full dialog never sounds better than a garage band’s best demo.
The music, on the other hand, gets its chance to shine on several occasions. The sweeping orchestral score of the scenes with Lan Di are stirring even in the series' most self-serious moments, and just about every background track in Shenmue II is funky and smooth with audio that sounds clearly remastered.
For New Players of the Shenmue Experience
At the risk of offending those that have held out hope through some very dark times, it’s important to know that I say this with care and reverence: the first Shenmue may be an important touchstone, but it is not what I would consider a very good video game. It is tedious and plodding with a camera that will fight you harder than Chen’s bodyguard and faux-tank controls that were never meant for open environments. It offers plenty of ways to waste time, to be sure, but nearly always at the expense of the player’s patience. As a piece of history, it cannot be denied the forward step it took in making open-world games an honest, achievable development goal. As a piece of entertainment, though, it’s a drag.
The problem with Shenmue, at least in the slow early hours, is that it’s a confounding game to parse. It opens with the death of protagonist Ryu Hazuki’s father in their family dojo, murdered in brutal hand-to-hand combat. This might make you think that Shenmue will often see Ryo jump into action as a brawler or fighting game with its clear Virtua Fighter influence in combat. These instances wind up being rare though, especially since Shenmue often employs quick time events (QTEs) to handle action scenes.
Immediately after his father's death happens, Ryo wakes up and wanders around his home town to gather information; this amounts to hours of interrogating the locals, dozens of them, not unlike the opening hours in the beginning towns of JRPGs of yore. After eight to ten hours, though, Shenmue curveballs and throws in item-hunting adventure game elements to move forward. It isn’t that the game surprises you with new and fascinating twists on gameplay, it’s that Shenmue wonders why you haven’t figured it out yet, and why you haven’t used your time with it wisely.
Ryo and everything around him is a slave to timed routines, something that Shenmue is the progenitor of in modern gaming. The critical path of the game is often "go here, talk to this person, and find out the next person to talk to," but this frequently comes with the caveat of having to do these things during specific times of the day. It’s a matter of killing a few hours here or there. More often, it’s having to waste an entire day. The villainous Lan Di may be Ryo’s greatest foe, but the slow, entropic ticks of Father Time are the player’s worst enemy.
The question then becomes what do you do with yourself in these down moments? Famously, Shenmue is a game that pushed for full immersion when it was developed. No desk drawer or closet is sacred ground and Ryo can score a part-time job to supplement his daily 500 yen allowance. When he’s ready to blow through that cash, he can head to the slot machine parlor or video arcade for some emulated Space Harrier. After settling into how the game wants you to play, you find yourself managing your time by way of efficiency, not always fun. There were times I found myself cleaning my own kitchen or fixing myself a drink while the hours in Japan drifted by, gatekeeping me from that shady tattoo studio on the second floor of the apartment complex.
Having said all of this, I can see a certain appeal in viewing Shenmue as an elaborate puzzle box of time management. Knowing the solutions to conundrums and conversations, the type of player that enjoys return trips through games will find Shenmue ripe for playing specifically for the efficiency I mentioned over exploration or narrative. A person with careful forethought and meticulous planning can walk into this game a curious bystander and walk out a Swiss clockmaker.
Like other adventure games that were assuredly the inspiration behind Shenmue’s feedback loop, though, the enjoyment comes from figuring out the solution to the current puzzle while trying to get ahead of the next few down the road. I can’t say that it excels in this regard, but that eureka feeling is there, especially at deeper points in the game that take advantage of some minor inventory management. My own experience was high on the elation of contrasting the earlier hours of the game, because my time didn’t feel deliberately wasted; the more adventure game-y portions give the player much more agency and control.
Talking about contrasts, though, is the perfect segue into how assured Shenmue II feels compared to its predecessor right from the jump. Though lacking the immediate cinematic excitement of seeing a man beat Ryo’s father to death, the sequel begins as a much more guided experience while still giving him plenty to do. Now in Hong Kong, our protagonist is nearly as free as one of the sailors on leave that he hates so much.
To modern eyes, this shift in setting makes for a fascinating piece to ponder. Essentially, it turns Ryo into a fish out of water, something wildly different from the first game’s parade of childhood friends and familial safety nets. Hong Kong is immediately threatening; crime and gambling are rampant on the street and not tucked away to the quiet corners and dingy warehouses of Yokosuka. The first game in the series had an unsettling isolationist undertone. Foreigners are often portrayed as brutish and stupid, and now that we see Ryo away from his home turf, the Hong Kong of Shenmue’s 1980s is something to be feared. Worse, Ryo, having been robbed immediately after crossing the sea, is forced into a certain indentured servitude to survive.
Certainly, we know that these games aim to be as true to life as directing impresario Yu Suzuki could make it, and money, or the lack thereof, is one of reality’s frequent cold showers. Perhaps there was something Yu Suzuki was trying to say about Japan and its place in the world through these depictions and interactions. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, these things exist in these games, and one can only wonder if they would still be there if Shenmue were developed even five years ago, much less today.
Shenmue II, ultimately, is much smarter in its execution than the first game. The aforementioned theft of Ryo’s belongings and cash at the beginning of the game tutorializes his second adventure in clever ways, both mechanically and narratively. More options for interactions are given much earlier, even the boring part-time jobs, so you can go find some way to (in Ryo’s lovably horrific voice-acted altruism) paint the town. The quality of life improvements like a constant mini-map and the ability to play unlocked mini games from the starting screen menu show that Suzuki and his teams learned a great deal about not only the development of games they were pioneering, but also how players wanted to interact with them. Though longer, it feels like a faster, but looser game, and with that as the antecedent and nearly 20 years of other open-world games behind it, makes the prospect of Shenmue III appealing. Going in blind, I hesitate to tell people that they should skip the first game as the narrative is the hook that has kept this a cult classic series for so long, but it can’t be overstated how much better a game Shenmue II feels like so many years removed from release.
As a package, then, Shenmue I and II is hard to recommend to people new to the series (like me) that want an open-world game, even one that lends much more to adventure game roots as Shenmue does compared to those of a post- Grand Theft Auto III freeform riot. The historian in me can see the significance of this game , and its community, for the contributions it’s made to the art of interactive entertainment. Citizen Kane was like that. People don’t often remember, though, that Citizen Kane is boring, too. I’m a firm believer that remasters are good for a medium with trouble taking control of its own history. But this is a mediocre re-issue, and not at the standard it should have been.
As a person that didn’t play Shenmue when it was new, I found it a very difficult game to come back around to with its awkward controls and plodding nature. The second game is faster and more giving with its content, which makes for a better game and the highlight of the package. Slavish fans of the original will find this a workmanlike repackage of the original games. Modern audiences, though, will still have to overlook some serious rough edges to find out what the big deal is.
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