HIGH Offered an unprecedented level of detail for its time.
LOW The ludicrous maze-like layout of the Yellow Head Building.
WTF The absolutely bonkers left turn Shenmue II takes in its final moments.
When Yu Suzuki announced a third entry in his long-dormant Shenmue series a few years ago, the reaction from fans was enthusiastic to say the least, but the rest of us could only shrug our shoulders given that Shenmue found life on a console that was only on shelves for a year and a half.
So regardless of where anyone falls on this famously polarizing series, we can all be happy that such an important artifact has finally been made accessible on modern platforms because preservation of art is a good thing – and “preservation” is certainly the word for it. Even the series’ most ardent fans acknowledge that it hasn’t aged with grace, so Sega’s decision to barely update these two games is a bold one. The textures and modeling look straight out of the late ‘90s, movement is unwieldy even by Resident Evil tank control standards, and the voiceovers still sound like they were recorded in an empty tissue box. The resolution has been upgraded, but that’s about the only major change.
So, while no one can question Shenmue’s historical significance, the question of whether or not these games are actually good rages on. I’ve just played through both of them for the first time, and I still don’t have a confident answer.
Shenmue is a series of third-person martial arts adventures famous for a pace that I would charitably describe as “unhurried,” and its quasi-sandbox environments operate under a strict in-game clock – NPCs go about daily routines, shops close at night, and events will only trigger at certain times. From the number of interactive objects to the astounding amount of recorded dialogue, there’s an impressive level of detail poured into these worlds – and there would need to be, given how much time players need to kill.
The slow pace is at odds with a plot that couldn’t be any more straightforward. Shenmue is about a Japanese teenager, Ryo Hazuki, tracking down the man who killed his father. That’s it. So far, almost the entire extent of this blatantly unfinished story deals with Ryo asking around for the villain’s whereabouts. It’s not until the final moments of Shenmue II that we finally get a glimpse of the grander machinery at work here, and that’s when it cuts to black. I now get why fans are so hungry for a third installment — after nearly 50 hours of time spent in Ryo’s world, it was an odd thing to leave players with such a blatant sequel hook just as things got interesting.
Yet that’s weirdly part of Shenmue’s appeal – it goes through deliberate lengths to not be traditionally stimulating. When Ryo learns that the villain may have relocated to Hong Kong, any other developer would have cut straight Hong Kong. Instead, Suzuki chose to depict the lengthy process of Ryo actually gathering up the funds to make that trip, mainly through blue-collar work. Literal hours of the original Shenmue’s notorious final act are spent performing menial tasks with a forklift down at the local dock.
While the forklifting is the most egregious segment, the entire series is like that. Whether Ryo is loading pallets, moving stacks of books or operating Plinko boards on the street, Shenmue is a martial arts story that doesn’t cut to the most thrilling parts, but instead shows every mundane second of our hero’s journey. It’s a bizarre approach.
Even more bizarre is that there’s no sweeping narrative buried beneath all of the slice-of-life pacing. The writing and voice acting are uniformly terrible, and the series isn’t even exciting when it tries to be. The combat system feels like the world’s most pedestrian fighting game, and a majority of the action sequences are tied to quick-time events. I’ll give Shenmue some leeway for essentially inventing those, but it doesn’t make them any less stale by 2018’s standards.
So given how few positive things I have to say about the Shenmue games, why the hell did I enjoy them?
The clearest answer is that, even almost two decades later, I’ve never played anything quite like them. It’s not just Shenmue’s devotion to depicting day-to-day life in this universe, but how awkwardly its ‘authenticity’ clashes with stilted dialogue that’s not even remotely convincing. It’s an unholy blend of realistic and ridiculous that still feels wholly unique.
The Shenmue games also have astronomical camp value, and whether that’s intentional or not, entertainment is entertainment. Ryo in particular is the sort of protagonist who’s so one-dimensional that he circumvents the globe and winds up on the other end of the spectrum – a great character for how delightfully single-minded he is.
His stubborn tendency to blindly trust anyone who might have a lead to the villain’s whereabouts gets him into trouble constantly, yet he’s a good enough fighter that he’ll always climb his way back out. As such, he’s the perfect hero for the sort of martial arts story where every street is a seedy underworld lit with neon signs and populated with burly, posturing men who solve every conflict with fisticuffs. I wouldn’t want to play a game that’s simply an accurate simulation of working-class life, because I already experience that every day. I want to feel like I’m living in a cheesy, melodramatic kung fu movie from the ‘80s, and the Shenmue series pulls that off with consistently amusing results.
If nothing else, Shenmue is fascinating. I don’t know how a project as off-kilter as this managed to secure a larger budget than any game that came before it, but the risk seems to have eventually paid off, given that fans’ long-standing passion has finally justified a third entry. Having now played both games, I kinda get it. Shenmue occupies its own space and couldn’t care less if prospective players adjust to the rules. The result is something weird, ambitious, flawed, and endearingly unique. As someone who came to it decades after its initial release, I’m glad I won’t have to wait as long as everyone else did to jump back into this world.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Sega, while the port was handled by d3t. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 47 hours of play were devoted to the single-player modes, and both games were completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco and Violence. Nothing about these games stands out as particularly offensive. The violence, though plentiful, is completely bloodless and limited to hand-to-hand combat. The profanity is mild. Sex is only ever very vaguely implied. Note that players have the option to gamble in casinos, and are encouraged to do so when money is required at certain points throughout the story.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and the games are perfectly playable without audio cues. Text is not resizable.
Remappable Controls: There is no control diagram, and controls are only remappable on keyboard and mouse. With an Xbox controller, players use the left analog stick to move, the right trigger to run, the left trigger to switch to first-person mode, and the face buttons to interact with things. During combat, the face buttons are used for various attacks.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.