Shenmue I & II: The Ultimate Way To Experience Yu Suzuki's Masterpiece

I thought long and hard about how to approach writing an article like this. I've never made any secret of the fact that while I find Shenmue to be a marvellous technical achievement and a glittering jewel in the Dreamcast library, I also found the original experience to be a rather cumbersome affair. The stilted scripting, the awful controls and the constant loading screens juxtaposed with sublime visuals, deep and interesting storyline and a dazzling amount of extras in terms of in-world detail, meant that - for me at least - the whole experience was rather uneven. On the one hand it is incredible; but on the other there are many minor annoyances.
When Sega initially announced that Shenmue and Shenmue II were being repackaged and released for the current crop of consoles and PC, the gaming community went into a bit of a nostalgia-fuelled meltdown. It was as if a long forgotten king was coming back to reclaim his crown from the usurpers. Shenmue was coming back to reclaim it's crown as the greatest videogame that most people had never played.
1986 never looked so good
See, even though the majority of people who come here to read our articles may be considered dedicated Dreamcast fans, and by extension are more likely to have actually played the original Shemmue or its sequel (on either Dreamcast or Xbox); there seemed to be something amiss with the celebratory outpourings of emotion on social media. That being, that while the re-issue of Shenmue and its venerable sequel was indeed a cause for celebration, it seemed that a significant majority of those voices proclaiming a victory in having 'saved Shenmue' had never actually played the thing in its original guise.
In this life or the next!
For this reason alone, doubt crept into my mind. Would the people screaming to the heavens in ecstasy upon hearing about the re-release of Ryo Hazuki's (as yet) unfinished quest for vengeance actually appreciate the foibles of the game once they actually got to experience it? I won't lie - I was a little worried that resurrecting Shenmue and Shenmue II for a new generation of gamers who didn't have to put up with the grinding of the GD drive, the d-pad controls, and relatively small gameplay areas filled with countless painted on shop fronts and houses in which 'no-one's home,' would sour the experience and rob Shenmue of its deity-like reputation.
Please excuse the battered boxes
Shenmue is a game of its time if ever there was one, it is slow and it is plodding. It makes the player work for the next reveal in the plot line. There is no huge tutorial and there are scant onscreen prompts. You literally have to sit and read Ryo's notebook to work out what you're meant to do next, and in this current climate of instant gratification and the apparent unwillingness of a certain demographic to actually read anything, I was apprehensive. However...

Guess who's back...?
Upon playing the new Shenmue and Shenmue II re-releases on the PlayStation 4, it's clear that I needn't have been worried. That's because this is a masterclass in how to bring back an old favourite. But not just that. It's a masterclass in how to repackage an old favourite and make enough quality of life changes to the overall experience in terms of controls, game flow and presentation that it matters not a jot if you never even touched the Dreamcast originals.
You'll be seeing a lot of Ryo's notebook
This is by far and away the best way to experience Shenmue whether you're an old hand who enjoyed it on the Dreamcast back in the day; or if you're a complete newcomer to the series. In the rest of this article (which isn't a review, I must emphasise), I will take a brief look at how the HD versions of Shenmue and Shenmue II take the original 'draft' and build upon them with significant improvements.
You will be purchasing a lot of capsule toys...
For those who aren't familiar with the plot, in Shenmue you assume the role of one Ryo Hazuki, a determined and eager young man whose father is killed in front of his eyes by the mysterious Lan Di. There's something about a mirror and his father's dark past...but that's pretty much it. You are then thrust into the world of 1980s Japan with little more than a notepad, a Timex Expedition and some kind words from the housekeeper; and so begins the great Dobuita detective tale. Who is Lan Di? Why did he want that mirror? Why did he kill Ryo's father?
It's nice, but it's no Triumph Bonneville...
The resulting adventure takes Ryo all over town and into a series of bad situations - some of which can only be solved with a bit of fisticuffs. By the time the sequel enters the equation, Ryo has travelled to Hong Kong and things get even spicier as the descent into the criminal underworld goes even deeper. There are some really unsavoury characters to meet, some great arcade games to play and some really interesting plot twists, too. Not to mention a ridiculous number of mini-games, side quests, quick time events, weird and wonderful locations to visit and people to interact/fight with. As I said earlier, this isn't really a review but I wanted to set the scene so as to give the uninitiated a little bit of background on what the whole Shenmue experience is all about.
"A pack of woodbines and a pound of corn dog, please"
With that out of the way, lets turn our attention to the matter in had - the brand new release of Shenmue and Shenmue II for the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Due to the fact that I own a PlayStation 4 Pro, I am basing all of the following on the PS4 release, however I fully expect that the experience will be nigh-on identical regardless of which platform you're playing on, such is the scalability of what Sega and developer d3t have achieved with the original Shenmue source code.

The original games on the Dreamcast were truly ground breaking for console visuals at the time. When Shenmue hit the scene, there simply wasn't another console format available that could produce the types of high quality character models and solid-looking environments that Yu Suzuki's game offered. Naturally, things have changed drastically since those heady days of the early 2000s, and anyone going in to Shenmue or Shenmue II expecting to see the type of visuals you might expect from a remaster of an Xbox 360 or PS3 game will be disappointed.
16:9, enhanced resolution, bloom on
4:3, reduced resolution, bloom off
While everything is up-rezzed beyond belief, the same Dreamcast and Xbox games remain at the heart of what is being shown on your screen. What this means is that while polygons are razor sharp, textures are hugely degraded. Floors and walls and the contents of store shelves and bedroom drawers are very low res, taking on the type of appearance you may see in an emulated Nintendo 64 title. The Dreamcast game was never intended to be displayed at the types of resolutions that the current gen consoles can kick out, and in the cold light of the modern gen, it all looks a bit strange. Almost as if it's super sharp, yet super blurry all at once.
The 'fade in' of NPCs is less noticeable in the Xbox derived Shenmue II
These modern releases do add some nice graphical extras, such as light bloom; and some of the slightly iffy Deamcast effects are totally re-done (the motion blur effects in particular look a lot nicer). Slowdown in outdoor areas is eliminated and the 'fade in' on NPCs as you traverse the more densely populated areas is less obvious. There are some cool extra options in terms of resolution and screen aspect ratio too, so if you want to experience these games as they originally looked running on a Dreamcast, dropping the resolution down and opting for a 4:3 ratio will give you a fairly authentic recreation of what it was like to be sat in front of a 14" CRT back in the day.

The control scheme used in the original Dreamcast releases of Shenmue was - let's not mince our words here - utterly awful. Controlling Ryo using the d-pad and using the analogue stick at the same time to control the camera was a feat best left to someone who only had two left hands. Obviously, the developers could only work with what they had, and only having a single analogue stick on the Dreamcast controller really hampered a game like Shenmue.
The Dreamcast controller and VMU on the options screen is a nice touch
This wasn't so much of an issue with the Xbox release of Shenmue II, but for all intents and purposes, this is the first time you've been able to experience the first instalment of Shenmue with decent controls. On PlayStation 4 you can control Ryo with the analogue stick or the d-pad, using the right stick to control the camera. Triggers are used to run, focus on items or enter first person while the various face buttons are always displayed onscreen and their functions change depending on the situation. Overall, Ryo does seem to be a little less rigid in his movement than he did on the Dreamcast and that's to be welcomed.

If there is one area above any other where the new ports of Shenmue suffer, it has to be the sound. While the musical score and sound effects are as rousing and crisp as they ever were, the quality of the voice overs leaves a lot to be desired. I'm not talking about the quality of the acting - no, I'm talking about the actual audio quality of the voice samples. It's clear that the same audio has been ripped from the Dreamcast game in the case of the original Shenmue, and because of this it sounds very low fidelity.
The opening scene of Shenmue II is a treat
It's actually quite jarring, especially considering how well the visuals and the controls have been brushed up. It could well be that the original high quality audio recordings have been lost to time (highly doubtful, but what other explanation could there be?), but the audio quality on the dialogue really is quite poor. On the one hand it does give the game an authentic 'turn of the century' feel, but on the other it just doesn't sound right. Of course, the alternate dubs of the game in Japanese are available in the first game if you wish to play it that way; and likewise the US-only English dub from the Xbox version of Shenmue II is set by default in the sequel.
The Timex of yore has been replaced with this fetching Sega timepiece
Apart from the oddly low quality of the voice sampling though, everything sounds just as you'd expect it to. From the glorious intro theme and instantly recognisable background beats, to the shrill menu select sound effects, this is unmistakably Shenmue.

It's pretty simple, really. If you've never had the opportunity to experience Shenmue in its original form on the Dreamcast, or the sequel on either Dreamcast or Xbox, then you need to purchase this collection. Hell, even if you own the aforementioned versions (as I do), then it's an essential purchase. There's never been a better way to jump in to Ryo Hazuki's adventure and see what all the fuss was and is about, and all the little improvements make this the definitive way to become immersed in the atmospheric and engaging world of Shenmue.
The world of Shenmue is beautifully realised
Keep in mind that these are games from another era in gaming, but titles which undoubtedly planted the seeds of what modern, sprawling, story-driven adventure games have become. Keep this in mind and you will not be disappointed. Furthermore, the budget price point means you really are getting a hell of a lot of game for the admission fee.

Of course, there will be purists for whom the thought of playing either of Ryo's adventures on anything but a Dreamcast will be akin to heresy; but you owe it to yourself to give the Shenmue & Shenmue II collection a fair crack of the whip. At this price point and with these improvements over the original iterations, you really have no excuse not to.
Where it all began...
The Shenmue I & II collection is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC both physically and as a digital download. Prices vary but are generally in the £25 - £30 range. Thanks to Sega Europe for providing preview versions of Shenmue and Shenmue II for the purposes of creating this article.

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Blondejon said...

Brilliant article and although i will be sticking to my original versions its not because im a purist😄😐its because im brojeI

hoogafanter said...

It's a shame about all the sound glitches and such. I wouldn't call this the ultimate version until all these issues get patched out, if they ever do...

DoubleVision said...

Any improvement on Ps4 Pro vs Ps4?
I'm on Xbox and thinking of upgrading to Xbox One X so interested to see if any improvements to the old Shenmue.

Unknown said...

A little bit disappointing that the Japanese voice acting is only available for the first part.

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Fantastic article, Tom!

I'll expect a lot of the discussion among established fans will largely center on the technical quality of these ports and how well they hold up amidst a competitive dichotomy of intense, decades-long fandom and evolving modern standards. However, I'll be eager to see what new conceptual and critical discussions unfold around Shenmue and whether it can find a modern audience apart from the one it was originally intended. And for that I have plenty of hope.

Working to its benefit: Shenmue can no longer be branded as a triple A experience in 2018 and I'm hesitant to assume newcomers would look to the GTAs and Breath of the Wilds as its immediate benchmarks for comparison. For all intents and purposes, Shenmue is practically an indie title despite having a budget which once broke a world record and a company. But with that comes a great deal of upside.

Perhaps it will also help Shenmue's cause to consider all the disparate and fragmented spaces games are now allowed to occupy and thrive within. The proliferation of emergent sims, walking simulators, life simulators, and other plodding gaming experiences has shown that slower-paced games can still succeed without trying to be everything to everyone. Unlike its initial run, Shenmue no longer needs to cater to a mass audience and their grandiose expectations yet now there’s a strong precedent of support for a healthy niche of games sharing its quirkier and more divisive sensibilities.

Instead, Shenmue is now allowed to present itself proudly on its own terms -- as an idiosyncratic '80s Japanese schoolboy simulator set within a densely detailed and jaggedly-rendered town, featuring robust walking simulator mechanics, and kung fu. At the end of the day, I still expect Shenmue I & II to be as divisive as ever but I wouldn't be surprised if it emerges as a cult darling for a new generation of fans.

If nothing else, people really love '80s shit right now.

Hiro said...

This port I see that they have put an illumination filter in such a way that you see all polygons of the casting of the characters. That with the help of shadows hide them in the DC version.

Even this port softens the wrinkles of the faces as well as the hands because of the lightening filter.

That Shenmue 2 comes out of the XBox version even though it has good filters is censored andthat there is a certain borrocity when you fight.

The port is noted the rise of frames, also the loads of the game is fast and is smoother to move in the world of Shenmue.

It will be interesting to see the comparisons.

To be honest there was no mime in these remastered.

DCGX said...

The Digital Foundry comparison really sold me on this. Well, that and the included poster. I'll be picking this up from Best Buy today (still have GCU discount!).

Hiro said...

I have to say one important thing.

If you are going to play the ports of Shenmue, I advise you to lower the lighting of the monitor or the TV.

Unknown said...

I'm a bit torn on this one. Ps4 vs Dreamcast on a multi format crt monitor. I think I have to give it to the Ps4 for improved controls. Lag could be a deciding factor. With an overclock mod you can mod out the lag on the DC version. In my mind it says Ps4 but in my heart I want to stick to the crt.