Also available on Dreamcast, Xbox One, and Windows
Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 5/21/2019 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Shenmue is one of those legendary cult classic games that only comes along once in a generation. It is, however, a controversial game among gamers. It’s a lot like the Hillary Clinton of Dreamcast games; people pretty much either love it or hate it with very little in-between. It saw a sequel release on Dreamcast, as well (unless you’re an uncultured American like me who only had an Xbox release), but it was always intended to be a trilogy. With the untimely demise of the legendary Dreamcast at the hands of the woefully inferior Lamestation 2 (yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro), however, that trilogy would go forever unfinished…or would it? Due for release in late 2019 on PlayStation 4 and Windows, the saga will be brought to a conclusion at long last. In an effort to build some more excitement for the release, Sega released an upscaled HD collection of Shenmue and Shenmue II on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows, giving a new generation of gamers the opportunity to experience this timeless classic.
Visually, Shenmue is fairly astounding if you consider the specs of the hardware it was designed to run on. The Dreamcast, while a very competent machine, was not a powerhouse especially by today’s standards 20 years down the line. Despite that, though, the visuals in the game hold up remarkably well. The HD releases on PS4 and Xbox One especially highlight this since the textures aren’t really changed at all. The only real graphical changes made in the rerelease was upping the resolution from 480p to 1080p. The fact that the textures still hold up fairly well with minimal polish is a testament to how well made the game was back during the Dreamcast’s lifespan.
Having played through Shenmue on both Dreamcast and PlayStation 4, I can assure fans that almost nothing is changed in the HD release. The visuals are polished up a bit (“a bit” being the operative phrase), and the content that relied on the online-connected Passport Disc in the Dreamcast original are automatically included, and you naturally don’t have breaks for disc changes, but the actual game itself it exactly the same. You play as Ryo Hazuki on his quest to track down the Chinese mobster Lan Di and avenge his father’s murder. This first game in the trilogy sees Ryo try to find clues to the identity of his father’s killer, uncover the greater plot surrounding his father’s death, and secure passage to Hong Kong to confront the wicked Lan Di. To do this, Ryo must gather information in what at the time of Shenmue’s original release was hands down the deepest and most detailed open world that had yet appeared in a video game.
The gameplay consists mostly of walking around the city, talking to NPCs, and gathering clues. You do have a time limit, but it’s a LOOOOOONG time limit. Like, the game starts on December 3, and you have until the middle of April to finish before you auto fail. Even in my very first playthrough without a guide, I don’t think I took into January. There are a handful of fights in the game, but those are definitely a fairly few and far between affair (until the end of the game, anyway), and I honestly wasn’t particularly fond of the fighting. The controls felt stiff and awkward to me, and I ended up having more difficulty with the timing, the positioning, and the overall handling in the fights than I feel like I should have. The part of gameplay that seems most divisive, however, is the forklift section. Towards the end of the game, you get a job at a harbor driving a forklift. Every day during this section of the game follows the same basic format – complete a three-lap forklift race, spend your day moving crates with the forklift, then investigate and try to find information about Lan Di. People seem to find the forklift work to be either cathartic and relaxing or painfully and frustratingly boring. I’m in the former’s camp. The forklifts are honestly one of my favorite parts of the game. I can definitely understand how some might end up screaming “GET ON WITH IT” throughout this segment of the game.
In addition to the actual main game, there are a few minigames that you can play in Shenmue. There are Space Harrier and Outrun machines that you can play, but there’s also my personal favorite minigame (and the one that most players tend to hate), ExciteQTE. It’s literally just a QTE game where you see how many QTE prompts you can get through without messing up three times. Most people hate QTEs, but for some reason, I’ve always enjoyed them. I’m not particularly good at them, per se, but something about them always just scratched an itch for me. ExciteQTE does serve an important purpose, though. There aren’t too many mandatory QTEs in the game, but there are a few, and they pick up a lot in frequency towards the end of the game. If you’re not particularly good at QTEs, then it might be worth playing a few rounds of ExciteQTE to get a feel for the game’s QTEs inputs and the timing.
Shenmue is not a game for everyone. I’d hazard a guess that the majority of gamers won’t be particularly ensnared by the game’s relatively slow pace and methodical investigation-driven storytelling. It is, however, an absolutely legendary game that is to be respected and revered even if not personally enjoyed. I absolutely love Shenmue and am proud to say that I was one of the Shenmue III backers who helped crashed Kickstarter within five minutes of Sony’s announcement several years ago, and I pre-ordered the HD collection of the first two games on PlayStation 4 as soon as it was announced. Very few games, especially at the turn of the century, told stories quite the way that Shenmue does, and while there are certain aspects of the game that have aged poorly and felt odd and out of place with modern gaming conventions, it’s still a game that I have absolutely no problem recommending to people at least to try.