I’ve just finished playing through the remastered versions of Shenmue I and II. They’ve held up surprisingly well almost twenty years later, and I became fully immersed in Ryo’s journey, especially in the later half of Shenmue II. But you have to give them a fair chance if you’re used to faster paced games.
A quick note about these remasters - they aren’t perfect. The audio glitches in places and the frame rate isn’t perfect in the outdoor sections (at least on PS4). The widescreen support and updated visuals are very welcome, although many of the original textures have not been redone and the cut scenes remaining letterboxed in 3:4 aspect ratio for the most part (some in Shenmue II are letterboxed in a boxed 16:9 aspect ratio).
While the events of the games often take place at what seems like snails pace, especially during the sections where Ryo gets a job, it eventually becomes apparent what Yu Suzuki was trying to achieve. The Shenmue games promote a particular value system, which is often at odds with the instant gratification we’re used to in modern games. Patience, calmness, and perseverance often take precedence over force and reflexes (QTEs aside - more on these in a moment) and these values tie in with the story.
Much of the gameplay is spent asking people questions on the street, and while the dialogue can feel repetitive, there’s an amazing level of detail implemented here and a non-linearity to how you go about finding the information which rivals and in many cases beats today’s open world games. There’s also an organic quality to the quest system which is missing from more mechanical modern games with quest markers and mini maps everywhere. I like the vagueness of Ryo’s journal which records clues rather than saying explicitly what you have to do next.
While Shenmue’s dialogue and voice acting definitely has some problems, it becomes apparent as the story progresses that much of Ryo’s portrayal is intentional; the character clearly has some emotional issues. I liked how the portrayal of Joy in Shenmue II is basically the complete opposite of Ryo; Ren is good counter character to Ryo’s seriousness too.
Often the gripes people have with these games are actually part of the design and these features actually add to the immersion. For example, being forced to wait until certain times of day to meet someone or get on a bus in Shenmue I is definitely frustrating, but now that I’ve done those sections I can appreciate how it would it felt being Ryo following vague clues and having to live by normal constraints, rather than being instantly handed the next level on a plate (as in most quest-based games). Shenmue I showed us what starting out with nothing is like in explicit detail - it probably shouldn’t be copied by other games in such depth and yet that presentation of being forced to live within the constraints of normal life while pursuing the greater goal is absolutely an achievement in game design.
Shenmue II quickens the pace and adds shortcuts to move time forward but at the same time money collected in the game becomes more important which does lead to a type of grinding, essentially swapping one type of frustrating realism for another. Thankfully there’s more variety/options and more of a story connection with the systems introduced in the game. The combat has quite a lot of depth too, connecting seemlessly to story and quick time events. Speaking of quick time events, I’m not a huge fan of these mainly because my reflexes aren’t the greatest and sometimes failing a QTE takes you back to the beginning of a long sequence - but I can appreciate the cinematic end result at least.
I was a lot younger when I first played these games; at the time didn’t appreciate aspects of them, especially gameplay features that could be considered long-winded. Revisiting Shenmue I and II in 2019, I actually enjoyed most aspects of the games and their slower paced approach to progression. In many ways, Shenmue is the opposite of the much more concise Panzer Dragoon Saga and that’s totally fine. There’s no one size fits all for telling a good story and producing a solid gaming experience; it’s clear to me that the Shenmue games are also some of the greatest games ever made. If you haven’t played these games in years, or at all, give these remasters a try and then look forward to the continuation of the story in November with the long awaited Shenmue III… I certainly am.