Playing Shenmue in 2018 is the Ultimate Definition of Bittersweet
Like many of you, I was one of those gamers out there who went completely bonkers when Yu Suzuki showed up at Sony’s E3 2015 conference to present his Shenmue III Kickstarter project. I didn’t even mind Sony made a lot of noise for a project people had to back: I threw my money at my laptop screen in a split second. I grew up playing a ton of Shenmue II on my original Xbox, but I always dreamed of playing the original game. Getting a Dreamcast wasn’t exactly difficult, but getting a working copy of the original Shenmue was financially unviable for a kid at the time. I was over the moon when Sega finally announced the re-release of both Shenmue and Shenmue II to modern consoles. I could finally play the game everyone and their mother call a masterpiece. And then I started playing it.
Just like every new release, I was thinking about doing a review for Shenmue, until I started playing it and realized this wasn’t an experiencing-changing remaster like what Night Dive Studios did with Turok, for example. The game looked pretty much the same, sounded the same with a ton of compressed audio, and had untouched controls. To summarize, it feels like I’m playing a recoded Dreamcast game on an Xbox One. On one hand, this is great: it feels like I’m legit playing Shenmue like back in 2000, with the exception I’m not using a CRT. On the other hand, it showcased how unbelievably poorly this game has aged in some aspects and how some of its gameplay elements have never been good to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong, I try to enjoy an older game as much as I can despite the limitations imposed by its older hardware. I’m still one of the very few human beings on Earth who adores Castlevania 64, even though its controls aren’t exactly the best, for instance. The thing with Shenmue is that not only are the controls absolutely rough to endure, but the entire gameplay is effectively flawed.
Before I dabble into my points of criticism, I need to praise what I feel Shenmue does right and trust me, there’s a lot is does well. The towns of Yokosuka and Dobuita are alive. Shenmue succeeds at creating a deep and believable virtual world in a way the vast majority of games released nearly two decades later still struggle to achieve. Every NPC, despite the rough polygonal faces, acts like a real human being with schedules. Think of it as Majora’s Mask on steroids. The level of detail in every street, alley, house corridor, drawer, is insane. The fact the game lets you inspect anything you can put your hands on with no reason other than letting you do so is a great testament to how Suzuki managed to push the Dreamcast’s hardware to its absolute limits back in the day.
The game also paved way to tons of elements that would lately be better implemented in future titles from other franchises. Shenmue was one of the very first games to implement quick-time events and while some people, myself included, loathe when developers overuse this gimmick, I still have to give the game credit for popularizing this feature. I firmly believe that, without Shenmue’s QTEs, we wouldn’t have had Doom‘s Glory Kills, for instance. Shenmue, alongside GTA III, also paved way to other polygonal open-world games like every other sandbox out there, thanks to its myriad of side activities besides the actual plot. It is thanks to Shenmue that we now have Yakuza. The amount of dialogue and voice acting included in this game was absolutely groundbreaking and it’s still impressive to this day, even if it sounds very compressed. I could go on and on and on…
Now it’s time to talk about what Shenmue didn’t do right even back in its Dreamcast days. To put it simply, it is a fun and engaging game, but at the same time, it’s not exactly fun to play it.
Shenmue‘s gameplay is mostly comprised of talking to people in order to unlock new dialogue possibilities with other people just so you can schedule an appointment with other people in order to go on with this same loop. Occasionally you will face enemies in a pseudo-beat-em-up style, as well as going through a few previously mentioned QTEs every now and then. The “appointment” bit is one of the main issues. While I applaud Shenmue for creating a living breathing world in which you can only do certain things at certain times of the day, it really fails at providing enough side content to make up for waiting until said event is available for you to do. You can spend your money buying miniatures for the sake of it, you can waste your time playing a few rounds of the eternally classic Space Harrier… and that’s basically it. You can also waste your time by aimlessly wandering around town, but then we reach another main issue: the controls.
Shenmue‘s controls are bad. I’m not saying they’re dated. They are just bad, even for Dreamcast standards. Controlling Ryu is so rough and robotic that the developers had to add an extra walking button by pressing the right trigger on your controller. Ryu feels incredibly tanky and heavy, and even an action as simple as turning around. Walking inside a tight house, something preeeeeeeeetty common in a Japanese setting, can be one of the most frustrating experiences in this game. The combat is also clunky and occasionally faulty in terms of responsiveness. That puzzles me, given the fact Yu Suzuki pretty much invented polygonal fighting mechanics as we know them.
At first, I thought to myself that this was a hardware limitation issue, then I decided to boot up my old Dreamcast and play a few games. Nope, it wasn’t a Dreamcast issue. Phantasy Star Online plays perfectly to this day. Other games like Rayman 2, Soul Reaver, Virtual-On, Toy Story 2 (really underrated game) and Berserk all felt responsive in a third-person polygonal setting.
I should also point out that the voice acting still sounds extremely compressed, but that’s not exactly a fault from the original Shenmue per se, but more of a fault of the remaster. Trying to include so much dialogue in a 1GB disc back in 1999 wasn’t exactly an easy task, it was actually commendable, but we’re in 2018, and we have enough techniques in order to fix those issues, even if a little bit.
Playing Shenmue in 2018 was a magical experience. It was also frustrating. It was engaging in a way few games manage to do. It was also clunky. For every revolutionary and groundbreaking element this game had to offer, there’s something that deeply irritated me in an equal intensity. I will always affirm that Shenmue is one of the most important and revolutionary games of all time and I’m glad the game has been re-released, but I won’t be able to say this is a perfect masterpiece. This game is very rough around the edges in a nearly uncountable amount of ways and not always fun in the literal sense of the word, but I will forever give it credit for paving way for much better titles to take inspiration from its gameplay elements in order to create truly unforgettable experiences. I really hope Shenmue III will fix some of these issues going forward. Thank you for everything, Shenmue, but get the heck away from my hard drive.
Do you agree with our assessment of Shenmue? Do you believe it should still be considered a masterpiece, or do you think that time has romanticized its perfection? Please let us know in the comments!