The 15:00 hype train has arrived.
June 2015, Sony Conference at E3. Nostalgia was thrown into the air as Shenmue III was announced. The room was full of screaming fans, finally realising that this story will have an end after so many years, and many others who were confused about the screaming.
What happened was Shenmue III landed on Kickstarter with the rather hollow promise that if enough people showed support then bigger names would throw their chequebooks in the ring with us peasants screaming outside the castle window. It destroyed its Kickstarter goal for sure. But I worry the precedent this sets for other games, because if companies think they can supplement their wallets with ours then as likely as the wind blowing they will.
But before I even consider Shenmue III I should probably catch up with everyone else. Luckily enough Shenmue I & II is out on PS4, Xbox One and PC for you to inject that sweet nostalgia straight into your eyeballs. Comparing these to the originals will be difficult, as I have never played the originals and am not forking out for a Dreamcast and two games. But as a whole, these should be the games you fans will remember, with a few nuances here and there changed around to catch up with the times.
For those who have never played a Shenmue game, they follow the story of Ryo Hazuki, whose father is murdered in front of him at the age of 18 by a mysterious Chinese man. With very little to go on Ryo decides its best to go try and avenge his father’s death armed with three clues: The man’s name is Lan Di, he has the Dragon Mirror, and they are Chinese.
Real Sherlock Holmes level stuff here.
Now what made Shenmue stand out at the time was a couple of things: Firstly, Shenmue I was the most expensive game produced at the time, with estimates between 70 and 74 million dollars. Secondly, they had a realistic persistency of the world around you. Shops had opening and closing times, characters had routines and your time would be filled with the menial tasks required to get by such as working jobs and making sure you get exercise. Even I was impressed when I saw buses running on schedule. Thirdly, it pioneered many mechanics in a way we consider standard today such as large open worlds and quick-time events.
What also made the games stand out were the fact they did very little hand holding. Now not in the (dare I say) Dark Souls sense where the mechanics and systems are there and you have to learn them, rather the entire game lets you loose right at the start to find your way. You have no objectives so to speak, only Ryo’s notebook which he writes down clues and other notes along the way, and there is no map, meaning you must learn how to get places using your mind like old people used to have to.
Very early on in Shenmue I, I bumped into an old lady while following a line of inquiry. She asked me if I knew where Yamamoto lived, and Ryo told her to wait in the park and he would look around. Now I didn’t know where they lived, and not sure of how to find out I went around knocking on doors to no avail. Then by luck, I figured out if I looked at the signs they would translate them for me. I thought ‘Success, now to find the house!’ So after a short trawl around I manage to find Yamamoto’s house and waltz into the park proudly to inform this lady. But sadly she got bored and wandered off, leaving me alone where I decided to do some training instead.
Now if you’re happy without this handholding then I reckon Shenmue will do you alright. An RPG with a good dose of story and with this lack of babysitting really makes the mystery feel alive. Granted what didn’t help was the cheesy English voice acting, but luckily the game allows you to switch to Japanese for a less B-Movie feeling to the whole experience.
At this point, while writing I had to check myself for what word Sega was using to define Shenmue I & II here. ‘Remaster’ and this review would have gone a little awry here, but correctly Sega called this a high-definition port. This means you are pretty much playing Shenmue as people did back in 1999 and 2001 respectively with the benefits of upscale and widescreen to help.
This means that the game feels janky as hell. This isn’t because Shenmue is itself a janky game although tank controls are now pretty much unused. It is mostly because modern games have nailed control so well, and you’re ripping up around 18 years’ worth of refinement. This game will require patience, it’s the forefather to most modern RPG’s and while I can definitely see where series such as Yakuza have taken homage you got to grant it some patience. Again this is pretty much how it would have been played in 1999 and 2001.
That isn’t to say that some changes haven’t been made. The main ones are widescreen support and multiple voice options, and presumably various graphical options for PC (the review copy was PS4.) Graphically it looks better than the original thanks to a generous upscaling, and while it does make a few game faces look a bit scary on close inspection it does make everything around you feel smoother without dragging up load times by any significant margin above instantaneous. It confuses me that cutscenes are still rendered in 4:3, though I suspect this was due to coding at the time and Sega could simply yell ‘authenticity’ and silence dissent to hardcore fans.
From this logic, comparing the two means Shenmue II comes off feeling a lot better than Shenmue I, and anyone who is surprised by this has been failed by the education system. While II does have a few more general errors which Sega assures me will be fixed by the time you folks get to play it (and therefore do not warrant discussion too deeply) playing them back-to-back lets me feel the refinement of two years in as many seconds as it takes to load each game.
It would have been quite easy for Sega to remaster Shenmue I & II, building up hype for the upcoming Shenmue III. But I think a port was a smarter idea. Shenmue III was kickstarted on nostalgia primarily and a port plays into that nostalgia by allowing people to relive that experience from the millennium on modern consoles. But this also draws in new fans, people who saw people go mental at E3 and thought ‘what the hell is Shenmue?’ Well now for around £30 you can find out on your modern gaming device of choice, or you can hunt down a Dreamcast and a copy of both games (funny fact, Amazon still sells Shenmue I for around £40.)
So now’s your chance everyone. Book your tickets for the hype train now while seats are still available. And come the release of Shenmue III pray that it doesn’t get a rail replacement bus instead and we all end up dissatisfied with our experience.
Though if they are like the buses in Shenmue, I think we’ll be OK.
Shenmue I & II will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC