Of late we’ve seen a steady stream of remasters. Classic or highly-regarded titles getting a new lease on life across PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One – where often the barrier for entry is simply a full-HD widescreen presentation and the removal of the need to dig up old hardware, discs, and cables. For the most part though these re-releases have been for titles first released within the last decade or so. With many modern-day remasters highlighting some of the more notable efforts from the previous generation of hardware.
The Shenmue collection from SEGA (which includes both Shenmue I and II) goes back even further - to the early days of 3D gaming. Where developers were still figuring out what worked and what didn’t and all whilst trying to find success with the still relatively recent transition from 2D to 3D.
Shenmue is a name both fondly remembered by those that played it on Dreamcast during its original launch window, as well those that were alive and playing console games in the late ‘90s. A fact born from Shenmue’s long and expensive development cycle, which began for the Sega Saturn before finally launching in the closing moments of the millennium - December 29, 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast.
From acclaimed Sega designer Yu Suzuki, the creator of arcade classics like Out Run and Virtua Fighter, Shenmue was to be his magnum opus. A multi-chapter epic, spinning a tale of revenge, myth, history, martial arts, fantasy, and realism across both mainland China and Japan. A story that would require several games. Ambition at this level, although not always attainable or feasible, is certainly admirable. In the end we only got two Shenmue games covering about a third or less of the planned narrative. With a third Shenmue, surprisingly, on its way next year.
Outside of its staggering scope Shenmue was always destined for fame and infamy. The first game, which covers only the first chapter of a supposed fifteen-chapter story, presents the idea of an open-world in a way that is fascinating for just how different it is to the genre’s later highlights like Grand Theft Auto 3. Games that favoured action, spectacle, experimentation, relentless pacing, and giving the player the choice of seemingly countless things to see and do. In Shenmue the goal is often to simply exist, to move from one location to the next. Or to spend an afternoon practising martial arts in a carpark or dojo. Play games at the local arcade before the next big story event. Visit friends just to say hi.
Outside of its dated look it would be a lie to state that Shenmue has aged poorly because of how it plays. Okay, so the quick-time events and tank-like controls are mostly terrible but Shenmue’s intent, as strange as it sounds, was always to place you in a small Japanese coastal town and let you experience day-to-day life. In Shenmue time passes at a leisurely pace even though it’s a long-way from being real-time. Morning leads to day and day to evening and evening to night, and during this passage of time across both weekdays and weekends the citizens of Dobuita and the surrounding locations go about their daily routines.
This means if you were to follow a shopkeeper when he closes for the night he might head to a local bar for a drink, mah-jong parlour to gamble, or home for a meal. The elderly will visit parks to sit and relax, kids will play in the street, and events both related to the story or not will only happen at certain times and at certain locations. Compared to the size of the open-worlds we see in games today the world of Shenmue is, well, small. But it’s size hides detail and care at almost every level. The weather system famously mirrors the actual weather patterns from the mid-1980s region that it depicts. Authenticity without feeling like nostalgia or a loving nod to an era.
Shenmue’s world is indeed, still a fascinating place to visit after all of these years. Also, it’s still a boring one. If you need to meet someone the next day as protagonist Ryo Hazuki investigates the recent murder of his father Hazuki-sensei, you’ve got no choice but to wait out the daytime, head home, go to sleep, then wake-up the next day.
At a certain point late in the game you get a warehouse job to not only try and infiltrate a gang to learn the whereabouts of your father’s killer, but also to earn enough money to purchase a ticket to Hong Kong. Wake up, head into town, wait for the bus to take you to the docks, hop into your forklift, and then spend several in-game hours moving crates from one spot to another. Laying out the sequence of events like that might seem laughable or the antithesis of the sort of escapism one expects, the mundane nature of the gameplay carries with it and sells a sense of focus and determination on the part of Ryo.
A passion for vengeance, that although might be born from his own young age and love for this father, will not diminish in the slightest. Even though it’s his third-day moving crates around warehouses and he’s still a long way from catching up with his father’s killer or having nowhere near enough money to purchase a ticket to Hong Kong. Does it all make for a great game? Probably not, but for all its faults and this remaster’s bare-minimum approach to presentation – Shenmue is still worth playing. And hey, any game that can be described as Virtua Fighter meets The Sims, set in Japan during the 1980s, always will.