Shenmue and its sequel hold some of my fondest memories from childhood gaming. I remember eagerly anticipating its arrival for what seemed like forever and when I finally got my hands on a copy for my back then game-changing Sega Dreamcast one Christmas Day, it blew me away. But that was almost 20 years ago. It couldn’t it still hold up today, could it? Well thankfully Shenmue is so unique and so special it feels more like an experience than a game, and in that essence, it holds up pretty darn well.
Shenmue casts you as the saint-like teenager Ryo Hazuki. After witnessing the murder of your father in your own home, at the hand of a mysterious dark martial arts master, Ryo has sworn to track down and face the killer and avenge his father. Armed with only a note pad and a trusty leather jacket, Ryo sets out into the neighbouring area and town where he lives to investigate.
Whatever your last note pad entry is will be your topic of conversation. Sometimes only certain people will be able to give you the next clue you need and other times it’s more general, like finding a certain place, just as you’d expect if you asked any local for directions on the street. Getting new clues drives the progression and moves the game forward. Most of the time what to do next is fairly obvious, although there were a couple of occasions the note pad entry left me scarring my head. It’s rarely frustrating though as just by talking to people you can usually get a rough idea of how to proceed.
The story is excellent as it retains a great sense of mystery, allowing you to uncover just enough to keep you going, whilst still not giving you the whole picture. It’s a great driving force for the game as you strive to uncover a new investigative lead to push it forward.
From time to time you may find yourself involved in a fight. Luckily for you Ryo has grown up learning kung-fu from his father, who was pretty serious about it. No, seriously the guy has a full dojo in his garden. These fights, usually against multiple opponents, actually hold up surprisingly well, even if how you perform moves does feel a bit arcadey. But the fighting still looks fluid enough, and triangle/Y acts as a parry/dodge style move that isn’t a million miles away from what we see in some games today. It’s still fun to lay a beat down on a group of two bit punks!
Other encounters can take place as quick time events – or QTEs for short – you know, those interactive cutscenes that prompt button presses at you to progress? QTEs are notoriously divisive among gamers, and you’ll either love or hate them. Shenmue was one of the games most famous for introducing them. I personally do not find them too intrusive, it feels more like an interactive cutscene. You can’t let your guard down in a cutscene, of course there are plenty that don’t contain any QTEs, but if the situation changes they can be injected without warning.
The world in Shenmue feels alive. Even after all this time it’s the little things that impress me. The way every NPC seemingly has a schedule, goes about their daily routine and goes home, the way they all get out umbrellas when it rains, phone numbers you can actually call, the variety of weather day-to-day, the Santa Claus and banners that show up around Christmas time, decorating the high street. Most of the shops you can actually go inside, like a real highstreet. They they offer varying degrees of interactivity, but some like the arcade will have a few Sega classics you can actually play.
The soundtrack is broad and fitting. Orchestral scores swell for emotional impact, and the general ambient is always memorable, if at times a little cheesy. All this praise isn’t to say the game is perfect. There are a few issues, of which some are port related and some are related to the age of the game. Most of the cutscenes revert to the original 4:3 format which results in black bars either side of the image. This is amplified in the sequel because the original cutscenes were in a wide screen format to start which means you end up watching them in a box.
The sound, particularly the voice acting, sounds a bit low quality. I think they were ripped from the Dreamcast, so were originally compressed to fit on the disc. The English voice acting is notoriously bad, so bad in some cases it’s even laughable. This only draws attention to how ropey the quality of the voices are. Thankfully you can change them to the original Japanese voice acting. It certainly fits the game better, so if you don’t mind reading subtitles, or you speak Japanese it’s the way to go.
The pacing suffers in places throughout however I’m sure this was deliberate, to give you time to absorb yourself in the world. But I can see new players expecting modern standards could be turned off by the patience required to get the most from the game. There is a lot of waiting around in the first one particularly. Granted overall the pacing is much better in the sequel, the end section goes on for way too long though.
Shenmue triumphed in its story telling and unique game design. It’s age means that today it’s tailored to a certain audience. I’d absolutely have to recommend it to those who have played and enjoyed it in the past. I would also recommend it to anyone who has the patience to really soak up the story and become fully embraced by the world that Shenmue is set.
Overall though, Shenmue is a great game. There’s a great story here that inspires an epic journey across two games. It’s a fantastic adventure, and although it’s not always action packed, it definitely has its moments. With the release of the third instalment announced as 27th August 2019, this could be the start of a Shenmue Renaissance.