Back in 2014, I sat down with Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone, to discuss his upcoming game, Volume. During our interview, I asked him if there was a defining moment in his life when he realised that making videogames was his calling. This is what he told me:
“I actually do! So I was a child actor — my whole childhood I wanted to be an actor … I had been in a play in London, and when the play had all finished my agent called me. I was sat playing Shenmue on the Dreamcast.
“My agent called me saying they want to tour this show. It’d be going around Europe, and I was just about to my GSCEs. So either had to sit my GCSEs, or quit school, flop my exams and do this play. It was basically ‘this will set up your career if you want it’.
“I looked at Shenmue, and I looked at my phone, and I decided that I wanted to make Shenmue more than I wanted to be an actor, so I said thank you and never spoke to her again. From that day on, I was going to make videogames.”
It was with this conversation in mind that I sat down to play the HD remasters of Shenmue and Shenmue 2 on the PS4. This review will look exclusively at the first of these two games. In Shenmue, you play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenager in the suburban town of Yokosuka, Japan, in the 1980s. Ryo witnesses the murder of his father — a karate instructor — by a Chinese man who uses a strange form of martial arts. What ensues is a quest to track down the murderer and avenge your father by putting your karate skills to the test.
Back in 1999 when Shenmue was released on the Dreamcast, it was a pioneer of the then unnamed ‘open-world’ genre. It was so dynamic in its gameplay and had such phenomenal detail that there is no question of whether it deserves its place in the annals of videogame history; this won’t be a review of whether Shenmue is good game. Instead, we will consider whether or not this game is worth picking up in 2018 — a time when we are swimming in rereleases, remasters and remakes.
So which of these three brackets does Shenmue fit into best? As it’s a high-definition port, it’s closest to a remaster, but the graphic fidelity of the game isn’t quite there with the likes of Crash Bandicoot or the upcoming Sypro game. Instead, the graphics are about as blocky as Brother’s face in the PS4 release of Final Fantasy 10. The only characters which look notably high-definition are Ryo and his love interest. Similarly, the controls are still as clunky and tank-like as all the other games from 1999. While there have reportedly been some control improvements, this won’t feel like a modern game.
Right off the bat then, Shenmue doesn’t look or feel anywhere near as polished as you might hope, given what we know the PS4 to be capable of. There is a nice addition to this release in that Shenmue comes with a full Japanese audio track, for those who want to use it. However, the game is also riddled with audio bugs, like answering a telephone which rings through the next two cutscenes, a cat which meows at the same volume no matter where you stand on the map, and cutscenes (which are still in their original 4:3 ratio instead of the 16:9 that the rest of the game plays in) not playing when they should. I had four cutscenes in a row play incorrectly. This involved looking at black screens instead of the characters talking, a sky with snow, and a box that had clipped through the dojo wall. The caveat to this is that the developers have promised that these are issues that are being addressed and will be fixed by release date. I genuinely hope this is the case, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it, given how game-breaking this could be. Cutscenes in Shenmue are home to quick-time events that you need to pass if you want to continue the game; if these don’t fire properly, you are not finishing Shenmue. It’s that simple.
Looking past the graphics, sound and feel then, is it worth playing Shenmue in 2018, if you missed it back when Sega was arguably bigger than Nintendo? Probably, yeah — but again with a few caveats. The controls still feel dated. Shenmue involves a lot of running around and talking to people, and trying to piece the world together along the way. In doing so, you’ll come across a string of Japanese names and kanji (Chinese characters) written across everything. Having lived in Japan, I could tell Yamamoto’s house from Yamagishi’s at a quick glance, so when I was told to look for Yamagishi, I had little problem. However, with the clunky controls, no explanation on how to get the English names to come up (pro tip, hold L2 to ‘look’ at things, then try to focus on the right spot to get a translation), and access to maps only on some street corners, there’s going to be a lot more trial and error for the average player who doesn’t happen to speak Japanese.
There is also a permanent clock in Shenmue which governs what can and cannot be done — you can’t sleep before 8pm and you can’t go to Sakuragaoka park to see someone if they wouldn’t normally be there at that time of day. Even the busses run to a fixed timetable — annoyingly, the bus doesn’t always spawn, and if there is anything that is un-Japanese, it’s poor-quality public transport.
Sadly, the game clock is relentlessly slow. This is my biggest problem with Shenmue — when the game was first released, we had all the time in the world to sit and play epics like this. If you have to kill six hours in the game, you can simply go to the arcade and play some mundane minigames, go open some capsule toys or go stroke your adopted pet cat. When this game first came out and I was a kid, whittling away time like this was of no concern. Unfortunately, now that I’m older, I have a finite amount of time to play games, and I don’t want to spend that time whittling away time until I can play the game I want to play. This may not bug everyone, but it’s a huge consideration for anyone who has to budget their time. It seems that in Shenmue 2 there is a button that allows you to speed up time, which is great, but it is conspicuously absent from the first game. I understand that some people want the pure experience of the first game, but when Final Fantasy 12 was last released, the fast-forward button was added because the developers know that not everyone wants to sit and spend hours watching time pass by. The addition didn’t change anything for people who didn’t use it, but it changed everything for those who did. There is no good reason I can think of why the developers omitted a fast-forward button from this release of Shenmue. On the upside, I guess, it was vaguely fun playing with the backlight on Ryo’s watch while sitting there bored.
The game isn’t all boring time-wasting though — far from it. There is an excellent story tucked away here, with a martial arts system that encourages to practice at every opportunity if you want to improve your abilities. The window into Japanese lifestyle and Chinese lore is fantastic, and the nuance that goes into the little things, like Ryo taking his shoes off in the genkan, or bowing when entering the dojo, really do make for a more engaging game.
Shenmue is a great game that’s worth a look if you like playing through the old classics. However, you absolutely need to know what you’re getting yourself into before you start, or you’re not going to have a good time. This is not a quick game, and it’s not one you’re going to speed run with any real satisfaction. If you’re after a game where you can sit back and immerse yourself, and time is of no concern to you, you may be onto something — Shenmue has a rich and wonderful world to explore. Just hope that the bugs mentioned above are fixed before you play though. There’s nothing that ruins a game like not being able to see the cutscenes.
My final thoughts with this game return to that conversation with Mike Bithell, reminiscing about the game that changed the course of his future. In his words:
“I’ve not played Shenmue in years, but in a world before Fable when open-world games didn’t really exist, it was pioneering. I imagine if you played it now, it would seem a little bit less impressive because things have moved forward; but in terms of being a pointer in terms of where videogames were going, things would go, it was years ahead of its time.”
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
- An accessible way to play one of the games that drove open-world exploration forward
- There is a lot packed into this game, and you can — and will — spend hours trying to discover it all
- Shenmue has a rich and wonderful world and an exciting story of revenge
- Shenmue is not a game for anyone who doesn’t have time to play it at the game’s pace.
- It looks and feels like a relic from the past — not necessarily a con for everyone, but it doesn’t hold a candle to other recent remasters.
- This version is riddled with sound and graphic bugs — something I am overlooking in my score on the developers’ promise that these will be fixed by release, but something you absolutely need to be aware of if you’re buying it in August 2018.