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Shenmue I & II

Posted by GG Goblin On August - 29 - 2018

Step back in time.

SEGA’s Dreamcast was a magnificent machine, way ahead of its time in terms of power and capabilities, and packed with an impressive library of great games. From Crazy Taxi and Metropolis Street Racer, to Soul Calibur and Jet Set Radio, the innovation that the Dreamcast inspired was obvious. But perhaps nowhere was it so obvious as the fan favourite Shenmue series.

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Spurred on by the constant fan outcry, and possibly the fact that a new Shenmue game is in development, SEGA have finally re-released the original two games for the current consoles. It may be nearly twenty years since the games were originally released, but now those older gamers who remember playing these two titles on the Dreamcast in their original form can get a healthy dose of nostalgia, while younger gamers who have never had the pleasure of spending time with Ryo Hazuki can finally discover what all of the fuss was about. This should be interesting…

The story is a fairly classic tale of revenge. Set in Japan 1986, Ryo Hazuki is witness to the murder of his father by the mysterious Lan Di, in suitably dramatic form, and a magical mirror is taken. So, Ryo is then destined to seek revenge for his father’s murder, although the urgency of that revenge is not quite what you would expect.

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Shenmue, and then Shenmue II, introduced a lot of new concepts to gaming, many of which have been refined and still exist today. Features such as an open world, or an in game clock that dictates when things happen in that world, are things that we have seen since in games. However, one thing that I can’t remember any game having done since, at least to such a successful degree, is ask the player to just exist in this game world.

The tale of revenge is something of a slow burner. The player will have to investigate the surrounding areas in order to find clues and the like by talking to the locals, but they are dictated by the clock and the on going lives of those locals. This is a world that is continually going about its business, no matter what the player wants to do. Finding the clues needed, which are helpfully listed in Ryo’s notebook, will mean not only talking to the right people, but talking to them at the right time. Sometimes, they may be too busy to talk to Ryo, or they may be distracted by something that they need Ryo’s help with.

The result is a game where the player will spend a lot of time distracting themselves. Fortunately, there is plenty to do in this open world, and the player will quickly fall into a cycle of waking up, grabbing their daily pocket money, and heading off to explore, making sure they get home at a reasonable time so as not to cause worry. There is so much to look at, and it is quite easy to waste time playing classic SEGA games in the arcade, or purchasing capsules containing collectible toys from the various vending machines. It’s like a little ecosystem that is just existing while the player goes about their business.

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Heading into Shenmue II, the pace of life is ramped up somewhat, but players should still expect more of the same. At this time, Ryo has moved the action to Hong Kong. There are more people in the streets of Hong Kong to interact with, all still going about their little virtual lives, and it may take some time for the player to find their feet in the sequel, not that finding their way was particularly easy in the first game.

It’s not all wandering, talking and buying collectible figures while watching the time, mind you. Occasionally, Ryo will get into a fight, and with a fighting system based on the Virtua Fighter games, these are always going to be interesting. The combat is relatively light, and as such rarely challenging, but it can be quite enjoyable in its jankiness, a feature it shares with the rest of Ryo’s movement in the game.

Then there are the much reviled QTE’s. Shenmue was the birth place of the Quick Time Event, something that many gamers truly revile. The idea of a cut scene that will suddenly throw up button prompts for the player to press in order to affect the outcome of the scene came to really upset many gamers, but here in the Shenmue games they feel far more innocent and enduring than those that have come since. Personally, I don’t mind a QTE as long as it works in the context of the game, and these events in Shenmue are always fun and fit in.

So, in nearly twenty years, there must be plenty of places where the developers could have made improvements to the game for this re-release, right? Well, you would have thought. But this re-release of Shenmue I & II is much more of a simple port. I say simple, but the visuals have been beefed up to HD, and a stable frame rate throughout, which is something the originals struggled with, is undoubtedly an improvement. There are some small quality of life improvements, and widescreen support for the actual gameplay, but otherwise this is just a faithful port, which is no bad thing considering how loved the original games were. That being said, both games are really looking their age now and newcomers may find this off-putting.

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Shenmue I & II achieved cult status, partially because of how ground-breaking they were at the time, and partly due to the fact that they simply haven’t been around for ages. Now, they are back, and all of their flaws are there for new players to discover and wonder over. While still supremely playable today, this re-release is perhaps more important as an introduction for newcomers to this influential series, and to raise the hype for the sequel. A unique, but flawed, gaming experience that rewards the patient.




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