Shenmue might have a devoted group of fans from all over the world, but it was still a disappointment for Sega when it came to actual sales of its Dreamcast releases. Fortunately for fans, it’s trendy to dig up the past these days and the time has finally come for the Shenmue games to get the remastering treatment, ahead of the release of Shenmue 3.
Shenmue starts off the epic journey of Ryo Hazuki as he tries to find the man who murdered his father and avenge his death, but ends up also getting involved in a task about finding magical mirrors. Funnily enough telling someone about how Shenmue is played might be one of the toughest challenges in the games industry. It feels like it just won’t do it justice if you say that it’s a game about talking to people to find clues and eventually working a couple of shifts at a job moving heavy boxes with a forklift. There is more to Shenmue than meets the eye and most of it makes more sense once experienced in person.
The real charm in Shenmue is its ability to make players want to know more about the characters and the world they live in. The world of Shenmue might seem closed off to the rest of humanity, but this intimate look at a rural Japan in the 80s can feel more authentic than what could be gained from watching a documentary.
The only way to effectively progress is by interacting with locals and making a real effort to get acquainted with this detailed take on 80s Japan. There are no arrows showing the way or glaring objectives popping up on the screen that need to be completed. Instead the tools players will have at their disposal consist of good old fashioned communication and a diary that keeps track of any information Ryo has gathered. Most people that can be interacted with seem to know the main character, Ryo Hazuki, fairly well given the rural setting. What is fascinating is watching how these individuals go about living their own lives. It’s this autonomous behaviour that makes them feel alive because they are more than pawns that players occasionally prod for information. Even the quirky in-game time system is used to easily show these transitions and holidays such as Christmas are included as locals go about celebrating them in their own way.
At the time of release it might not have seemed like such a leap, but even the use of the technology in Shenmue is a fascinating look at the era it is set in. It would be amusing to see how a teenager playing the game would react to seeing characters make use of what can be considered archaic technology by today’s standards.
Not that playing Shenmue is the equivalent of merely running around as if taking a tour through a museum exhibition. There is plenty for players to do that doesn’t involve just interacting with the many characters in each of the locations Ryo can explore. Those inclined to do so can get involved in various activities such as collecting toys from capsules or even playing Sega arcade games. It’s up to players to choose what they want to get out of Shenmue. Make little effort and it might feel like a chore. Dive in and you’ll be rewarded with a rich world just begging to be explored. Obviously, pretty much every activity is optional and there are players who might be more inclined to only tackle the main story, but their journey won’t be as immersive.
Although there is a deadline to complete the game, Shenmue still gives players plenty of time to play in their own way. The attention to detail makes for a remarkable trip around this Japanese town. The game has aged really well because it still feels so unique compared to games like it. What game can claim to have characters talk in codes over the phone and driving a forklift for a living? Even the popular Yakuza franchise doesn’t manage to present a version of Japan that is arguably as fascinating. It certainly helps that the game’s soundtrack has a tendency to make it seem like Shenmue was meant for greatness with its various inspiring and yet mysterious music tracks.
Shenmue also has the advantage of not making players constantly put up with random fights. The combat is robust and very similar to that found in Virtua Fighter – Sega’s premium fighting franchise. It’s also great to see martial arts being treated with respect or at least it seems so by the way that characters go about making use of them. Even just simple animations as bowing before sparring shows how committed the development team was at the time it was originally in development for the Dreamcast. In fact, the way that characters chat might seem odd and usually formal, but it also feels appropriate for the setting. For example, the various interactions between Ryo and his high school crush Nozomi might have seemed tacked in if it wasn’t for the awkwardness that makes them feel real.
The port itself might not have seen any major changes, but at least it looks better in high definition and there are no significant new issues with the port. Even if the cut-scenes had to be kept at the same ratio with black borders. If anything, just drastically reducing the amount of time it used to take to load into an area is already a significant improvement.
What hasn’t aged particularly well are the clunky controls that make it awkward to walk around, let alone trying to successfully maneuver the forklift without crashing it into a wall… or a random cat walking by. At least the quick time events that Sega seemed so proud of at the time of the original release are not a nuisance and make sure that players pay attention to any cut-scenes.
Shenmue might not have been the success story that Sega hoped for at the time, but it’s certainly one that still gained the attention of fans that will no doubt cherish the opportunity to play through the title again in high definition. Those new to the world of Shenmue might find its lack of hand holding jarring at first, but the reward for getting used to it will most certainly be worth the effort.