This week, for the first time since the early ’00s, Sega’s Shenmue games will be available on modern platforms. Both original games, 1999’s Shenmue and 2001’s Shenmue II, arrive on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC on Tuesday, August 21, as a $30 compilation.
Chances are, you never got to dive into either, owing not only to their age but also their exclusive launches on largely unpopular consoles in the West (the Dreamcast and original Xbox, respectively). This week’s compilation changes the access-half of the equation (and comes to tide fans over while waiting for the crowdfunded Shenmue III). But does it deliver a must-play return to Sega’s console swan song?
Not really. The team responsible for restoring this pair of games has erred on the side of authenticity. In good news, that means everything from the original games—art, dialogue, presentation—has been shined up as much as humanly possible. These are the best versions of Shenmue games in the world. But hundreds of open-world games have surpassed Yu Suzuki’s classic in the days since, and none of those later games’ successes have inspired Sega to fix what’s broken here.
70-Man Battle returns!
Nearly 20 years ago, Shenmue emerged as arguably the most ambitious video game of its time. All of this Sega game’s characters looked realistic (for the time) and had a ton of fully voiced dialogue. Most of its buildings could be entered, wandered around, and poked through extensively. And the whole affair was draped in “interactive” cut scenes and propped up by a robust martial-arts battle system.
Call those common or familiar buzz terms now, but the game’s late-1999 Japanese Dreamcast debut had no peer.
Even so, let’s not forget: nearly 20 years ago, some of us were already asking where the fun was. Web comic Penny Arcade famously poked fun at Shenmue‘s uneven tone. My own review, from the game’s December 2000 launch in the USA, pointed to “shoddy controls,” “tiresome tasks,” and dialogue that was “worse than a Jackie Chan movie.”
Still, the game’s combination of ambition, intrigue-loaded plot, and “real-life” immersion received its fair share of praise, and its sprawling plot was unfortunately cut short by the Dreamcast’s demise in 2001. Thankfully for series fans, an English version of Shenmue II found its way to Microsoft’s first Xbox, but future episodes and original ports alike never saw the light of day.
The games center on Ryo Hazuki, a teenager hell-bent on avenging his father’s death at the hands of a Chinese criminal magnate, Lan Di. The first game follows Ryo from his hometown village across Japan until he finds a way to chase Lan Di to Hong Kong; the second game sees Ryo arrive in Hong Kong and immediately get caught up in trouble thanks to owning one of two mysterious mirrors (Lan Di killed Ryo’s father for the other one).
Confrontations with criminals and street gangs revolve around martial arts, and Ryo buffs up his move set by acquiring “spirit scrolls” and meeting new trainers. Shenmue’s fighting has perhaps aged better than anything else in the package, if only because the original games saw series creator Yu Suzuki flex his Virtua Fighter prowess in a beat-’em-up. This isn’t a balanced, finesse-loaded fighting game, mind you, and nowhere near the slick fight-and-dodge stuff of the Batman Arkham series, but anybody who still has a good time with classic, tons-of-baddies games like Final Fight will appreciate Shenmue’s big fights. (In particular, the 70-Man Battle near the end of Shenmue 1 is still a thrill, though I miss the Dreamcast’s VMU panel as an indicator of how many baddies remain in that fight.)
QTE does not mean Quality Turning Experience
Getting to those fights requires getting through two things: “QTE” cut scenes and city exploration.
QTE, short for quick-time events, became a gaming industry scourge in the PlayStation 2 era, as countless games padded their overlong cut scenes with button-prompt demands to essentially keep players on their toes during otherwise static cinematic scenes. But nearly two decades later, Shenmue’s take on the system feels a bit charming, if only because its scenes are so simple and predictable to anybody who has been playing these kinds of adventure games for years.
But getting around cities and building interiors alike has aged very, very poorly, and this is the crux of the new compilation’s problem. Both Shenmue games revolve around “tank” controls, owing to the Dreamcast’s single-joystick controller, and Sega hasn’t seen fit to remedy this with any controller revisions for either gamepad or mouse-and-keyboard players. (Mouse motion is actually wholly disabled while playing the PC version, and those players cannot map mouse motions to either your vision or movement.) Worse, the original game’s take on tanking has a few twists, including a “turn 180 degrees” command attached to pressing backward on the joystick.
To some extent, players can adapt to this awkward system, but it’s all too common to run into moments where you have to align Ryo to an exact spot near a building, a cabinet, or some other necessary interaction and lose 10 to 15 seconds to this ancient-gaming shuffle. Double this frustration when a given interaction requires holding down a “look” button to switch to a first-person perspective, which is required to find and dig through many of the game’s closed drawers, shelves, and closet doors.
From there, really, how you’ll feel about the series comes down to personal tastes. The Shenmue games do things their own way, and the designers march players confidently through tedious tasks and laughable dialogue alike. (Have you seen any sailors around here, dear reader? We’re looking for some sailors, and we’re going to ask everyone we know until we find some freakin’ sailors.) You might find the whole package exhausting, mesmerizing, or some mix of the two—and that’s totally fine. Shenmue’s importance is as much in its boundary-pushing tech as in its frozen-in-time sensation that a series like this could have only existed in the incredibly weird Y2K era (all while burning through the last of former-Sega’s mountain of cash). This series, after all, was the peak of weird-Sega mountain, above the wonderfully odd likes of Samba De Amigo, Space Channel 5, and Seaman.
We only tested the prerelease version on Windows PC, and, in addition to the above control awkwardness, we found one other puzzling limitation: a hard 30 frames-per-second lock. Sega representatives did not answer our questions about this limit ahead of the game’s launch, so we’re unsure whether this limitation is due to the original code locking its animations to a 30fps refresh or some other issue. Even so, having the option to at least crank up default camera-sway refresh speeds would have been welcome.
The PC version’s menus do offer a simple path to super-sampling, which means we were able to run both games at an effective 8K resolution while locking to a 30fps refresh on our high-end testing rig. That probably comes down to the game’s original low-poly models, weird shadows, and super-blurry textures returning wholesale. If there’s any under-the-hood system tweak to something like lighting or rendering, it’s absolutely not apparent. In better news, we only saw a couple of very brief bugs while playing, but nothing worth reporting here, and we appreciated having a stable, clean version of the game to run at whatever resolution we pleased. (And from the look of things, Sega opted to port the Xbox version of Shenmue II, not the Dreamcast one, which means slightly higher polygon counts and a better lighting system. Thus, shadows can be cast upon characters, and shadow maps sport a higher resolution.)
Eagle-eyed fans will notice some welcome updates to the games’ UI, at least. Shenmue I now sports the same button-guide icons found in Shenmue II, and both games’ menu interfaces have been streamlined to simplify picking through everything from gameplay options to martial-arts moves to toy-capsule collections. Fonts have been touched up throughout the game, as well. The tweaks aren’t small or subtle, and they make us wonder why Sega didn’t go one further with something as big as a control-system overhaul.
Another Sega option?
In my ridiculous dreams, this Shenmue duology would have returned as a VR experience. The frustrating controls would melt away with a headset-driven system, and the game’s “humdrum” tasks and distractions would gain a new quality from VR’s immersion factor. Like, “I’m actually in 1980s Japan and China, picking through toy-capsule machines!” Instead, anybody who comes to Shenmue via this duology will have to jump through a lot of late-’90s hoops (and that’s not even getting to the whole “work as a forklift operator” part of Shenmue I, ugh).
If you’re willing to exert energy forgiving Sega’s ancient design decisions while wading through Suzuki’s ridiculously dense approach to dialogue, task completion, and side hobbies, then this compilation is for you. Otherwise, if you’re looking for Shenmue’s spirit applied to more modern gaming ideas, finely position your tank-controlled body in the direction of Sega’s newer Yakuza series (now available on Windows PC).