Shenmue I & II review: A slightly rusty time capsule
Rediscover the eternal quest for black cars and sailors in bars.
To understand the appeal of the Shenmue series, nay the cultish love many gamers feel for it, is to reconfigure your brain to a simpler time. At the dawn of the new millennium, 3D, third-person open-world adventures in “living breathing spaces” were unheard of. We didn't even have a term for it back then. Which is why Sega insisted that 1999's Shenmue was a new genre to be known as Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment (or FREE). It was pretty wanky in retrospect.
Unless you grew up with these games, you should lower your expectations early for the Shenmue I & II bundle. In the interest of time, I'm going to get all of the bad stuff out of the way early, and though I thoroughly enjoyed my time revisiting these games, there will be a lot of it. Such is the way of nostalgia.
The voice acting is borderline hilaribad and Sega clearly only had access to the heavily compressed audio files from the original Dreamcast releases. So yeah, the soundtrack is lovelier than ever but you can expect hours of Ryo Hazuki sounding like he's asking his awkward, stilted questions through a walkie-talkie. Do yourself a favour and play this in Japanese + English subs. This way your eyes won't roll out of your head and down the street.
The visuals haven't seen a massive shot in the arm either. This is a pretty simple upscale job that on one hand has these two games looking the best they ever have; however, decent anti-aliasing exists alongside minor texture improvements that are all over the place. The 2D UI elements and a bunch of key quest items have seen obvious care – a lot of the incidental objects, places and people can look a little washed out. It's not bad enough to make you want to gouge out your eyes, but some more care and consistency would have been appreciated.
Also, newcomers and veterans with rose-tinted glasses of coke bottle thickness ought to know that the depth of content here is a little thin on the ground. Shenmue I & II revelled in the mundane in a way no modern game would ever dare to. You get up every day, go investigate quite a small world – be it shopping, doing fetch quests, working on a forklift or playing arcade games – and then you're forced back to bed at 11:30pm. Screw your rules, Ine-san. You're not my mum.
Basically, these games are incredibly quaint, goody-two-shoes precursors to the Yakuza series. Only this time, you're not doing mob jobs, you're searching for the murderer of your father and trying to trace the purpose of a few mystical artefacts. Action-wise, Kazuma Kiryu has fights waiting for him around every corner, but Ryo's life journey feels about 70% training by himself in a parking lot and about 30% actual skull-cracking via a combat system that's certainly no Virtua Fighter 2. The only standout action moments involve one-off brawls with 70+ goons.
Be that as it may, my heart still skipped a beat when I booted these two up for the first time. Because I was a front-line fan of these games back in the day, I went to great cost and lengths to import an out-of-region Dreamcast just to play them, and I never once dared to hope that I'd one day get to relive them in 1080p30 and 16:9 (note: cutscenes are still 4:3). The Shenmues are primitive, but they're still oddly charming and, I think, are important stepping stones in our gaming heritage.
I can sometimes speed whip through games I have to review. This was a stop and smell the roses experience that had me poking through every nook and cranny, studiously earning yen to spend on my gacha gacha toy addiction. Not to mention that raffle in the local Tomato Mart which holds the Holy Grail of collectibles – game discs for Ryo's Sega Saturn.
Speaking of games, I spent way too much time belting around in Hang On and murdering two-headed dragons in Space Harrier. It was the same deal with darts, pool shots, forklift racing and getting my quick-time on with that boxing arcade cabinet. Actually, I'd almost forgotten that factoid: Shenmue was basically the godfather of QTEs. So expect a bunch.
Ultimately, Shenmue I & II is a bundle that's for a very specific target audience. Younger gamers will likely only see faults and boredom aplenty and will wonder what all the fuss is about (they may even cancel their Shenmue 3 pre-order because of it). Crusty old gamers like myself will purchase this reflexively and take a delightful, awkwardly animated stroll down memory lane. It'll be a walk filled with warm fuzzy feelings and many a question about sailors.
We reviewed Shenmue I & II on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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