On its initial release, Shenmue was the most expensive video game ever created. Much like the case with such tales, both Shenmue I and II were commercial failures on their initial release in 1999 and 2000 respectively. In spite of that (and again much like the case in such tales), the games seemed to accumulate a cult following over the years. Now that could just mean, that everyone who played the game liked it (because let’s face it, there weren’t a lot of Sega Dreamcast around), but it could also mean that those edgy Dreamcast owners were just touting a mediocre game. With the remaster of the two games finally available on the PS4, Xbox One and the PC, we can finally find out for ourselves.
Shenmue I & II: HD Collection is a remaster (not a remake) of 2 action adventure games (Shenmue I and II) developed by Ys net and Sega AM2, and published by Sega. The game was released on PC, Xbox One and PS4 on the 21st of August 2018.
Shenmue I & II: HD Collection
Graphics & Performance
I know why you all are here for. So let’s get into pixel crunching. Both games are locked at 30 fps irrespective of hardware (So no graphics comparison videos. Thank god), which never stutters, never chops and never bothers me.
Both games also display at 1080p resolution an upgrade from their original. There is also an option of viewing the game in full 16:9 widescreen or its original 4:3 aspect ratio, while also toggling low resolution rendering down to the original 480p (but I don’t recommend it for the sanity of your Smart 4K HDTV).
While the above setting applies to most of the game, the cutscenes are still displayed in 4:3 irrespective of the settings in place. Of course, Shenmue II looks way better than Shenmue I but for someone who was playing the franchise for the first time, but knows how games looked in the late 90s and early 2000s, I would say the remaster guys have done a pretty decent job.
The biggest benefactor of the remaster is the loading times, which are minuscule, in fact at times, it made me wonder if the loading screen serves any purpose at all apart from telling you the location and the time. They have a little more relevance in Shenmue II as the setting is much busier, but really after playing Bloodborne on release, this is Flash level fast.
Story & Narrative
Ok, as normalcy returns to this review. Let’s talk what Shenmue I and II are all about. Like many of the Eastern blockbuster during its time (most of them starring Jackie Chan), the story revolves around a hot-headed, kind-hearted, skilled martial artists teenager who is in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. Oh, and he also wears a leather jacket with a tiger on its back. As the story unfolds, he finds himself in a much more sinister and larger conspiracy than just revenge.
Throughout the 2 games, Ryo Hazuki pursues the killer of his father with a single-minded doggedness only taking breaks to play darts, old SEGA video games, collection toy capsules, playing a daily raffle, feeding a kitty, racing forklifts, gambling, arm wrestling and learning new Martial Art moves. Ahh, the fun of Japenese video games!!
Most of the narrative is delivered through cutscenes, and while most of the game is sequential, it does provide an illusion of choice through a clever implementation. The game is also loosely time-bound, and there is a bad ending if you do not complete your main objective before a deadline. But the actual deadline in question is so far out, that the bad ending is more of an easter egg, than a viable alternate ending.
Gameplay & Mechanics
It must be noted that some data carries over from Shenmue I to Shenmue II, transferring money, items, and martial arts moves. Which is nice, because I worked really hard on a forklift to earn that money (read sleepwalk), and spent a lot of time practicing those moves (read more sleepwalk). The collectible toys, however, do not, which is sad, because I spent all my money on them before I got to know that money carries over.
When you are not spending your time buying useless bling, you would be spending it fighting thugs either in Free Battle Mode, which is basically inspired by the then-popular Virtua Fighter or through QTEs. The free battle mode is easy to understand, with punches, kicks, grapple and dodges all mixed together to form combos. You can learn new combos by either buying/finding scrolls or by interacting with other NPCs. Which by the way you are going to do a lot of.
Because most of Shenmue, however, is a detective game. Each day Ryo Hazuki opens his memo diary and reads his last entry. With no mini-map, objective indicator, or path highlighter it is up to you on how you want to proceed. While this may produce an appearance of open-endedness, a quick search on the internet reveals that there is always just the one path to progression, so your playtime is basically spent in a vicious cycle of trial an error, as Ryo pulls up random people walking on the street asking them about the Chinese Mafia, in a desperate attempt to get some information before his clock ticks 11 PM.
The clock is another big factor in the game, with a dynamic day-night cycle implemented. Some shops only open for specific hours during the day or night and most NPCs work on their own specific schedule. So if you find that you need to approach a shop owner at 9 in the night, and his shop only opens from 10-2 in the morning, well tough luck; come back tomorrow Sherlock. This effect is more prominent in the first game, where you can’t skip time, but that’s where the lenient deadline helps. Though be prepared to sometimes wait for hours or even days (in-game not real time) before you can progress story wise.
Time may have been the biggest qualm I had with the game (Not sure why Japanese games are obsessed over time), but its the camera that takes the cake. The camera control is atrocious, absolutely atrocious. It’s so atrocious that it made me feel I was back in my childhood room, playing on my PC with a 200 rupees Joystick plugged in. Throughout the game (especially the first one), I was in a constant battle with the game trying to screw me over with placing the camera in unreasonable places. I collided, got my head kicked in and interacted with the wrong person/object multiple times because of it, but I persevered.
Why? Well for one I had to finish the review. But also because the more I played Shenmue, the more I was intrigued by the seeds it was sowing for open world and action adventure games that were to come later.
One of them is how the game encouraged normal traversal (won’t call it exploration) over fast travel. Every day as you head out of your home, you have an option to fast travel to a variety of locations. But if you skip that and travel through the streets of Sakuragaoka and Dobita, you will run into random encounters. Most of them are completely optional, but when encountered they not only result in you gaining something (mostly new combat moves) but also help in fleshing out the world around you. It’s a nice little break from the monotony of go there, talk to him, and then come back and also gives you an understanding of the map which is extremely helpful because as mentioned before the game doesn’t have any mini map built in the HUD.
There is a lot to learn from Shenmue I and II. While both maps are small when compared to modern games, sometimes there is an obsessive amount of detail cramped in. They also successfully show how a linear story can be manipulated to be approached in an open, non-hand-holding way.
On the other hand. It also shows that sometimes making a game too realistic can hurt it. It also shows why treating a video game narrative like a TV Show might hurt it in the long run, especially if the 3rd one can take up to 18 years to arrive.
Shenmue I and II might make for a beautiful case study for someone tracing the evolution of action adventure games. But even the remaster has faults that justify its initial rocky days. Having said that playing Shenmue HD collection, will definitely help you set yourself up in anticipation to Shenmue III. Try it if you are more of a connoisseur than a hardcore gamer.