Posted on 21 Aug 2018 by L Coulsen

Shenmue 1 and 2

The Defence

Developer: D3T
Publisher: SEGA
Genre: Action, Adventure
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 21 Aug 2018

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3,3 GHz
AMD FX 3,8 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti
AMD Radeon 6990
HDD: 30 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 30

The Case

Shenmue boasts itself as “the saga that defined modern gaming”. Which is a bold claim indeed, and one that is far more apt than many may realise. Though it has long remained something of a niche title, due to being formerly exclusive to the ill-fated SEGA Dreamcast, with the second later seeing an original Xbox port. It remains a name that has stayed at the forefront of many gamers’ minds, even those who did not experience it the first time around. Ask most gamers where sailors hang out, and they’ll at least have an idea what you are talking about, even if it is not as widespread a meme as the infamous, Valve cake. But the influence Suzuki Yu’s epic has had extends far beyond that, so let’s dive in and have a look shall we? Whilst asking the most important question of all, is it really that good?

The Trial

Yes, yes it is. Okay, let’s get the hard part out of the way first. The port, because that’s what this really is, is about as barebones as it comes. The control scheme remains almost entirely unchanged from the, even at the time, clunky tank controls of the Dreamcast. Given that it had only one analogue stick, it wasn’t possible to have movement and orientation handled independently. And though the re-release does allow the use of a second analogue stick for looking around, it’s honestly more hassle than it’s worth, making it very easy to lose track of where you are headed, and start walking straight into walls, people and everything else in the environment. Worse still, even though both original and remaster allow movement via the left analogue stick, it still falls to a shoulder button to allow Ryo to run. Something which is frankly baffling, because even on the Dreamcast, the triggers allowed analogue input, so Ryo could walk, jog or run depending on pressure. Why this option wasn’t simply tracked to an analogue stick, then or now, is a complete mystery.

Other control issues come in the form of a look button, which is needed to interact with much of the environment. You zoom in, look at the thing you want to fiddle with (a desk drawer for example) and the camera snaps to it, thus allowing you to open draws, pick up objects and the like. It’s a stupid system now, and was stupid at the time. Though, given just how many things there are to look at, I suppose it’s not the very worst way of doing it. Chests of draws, in particular, have multiple points of interaction (one for each draw and door) and it’s nice to have direct control over which one you want to open up, rather than just spamming the use button. But surely, hitting use, then going into a close-up view would have worked just as well. I mean, that’s what you do to choose a can out of drinks dispensers, so it’s clearly a viable option.

Sadly, the gripes don’t end there. Larger complaints can be found in how the games handle level of detail, which stands out like a sore thumb now more than ever. Things such as buildings have seen a massive improvement, with far more fine details visible pretty much at any distance, but character models still pop in, out of nowhere, at a range of about ten feet from Ryo. This was acceptable back in the day, considering just how busy the world of Shenmue is, but for a remaster it smacks of extreme laziness. Though, truth be told, it probably comes as an inherent layover from the way the original engine worked. And, again, it is well worth reiterating that this is a remaster only in the most barebones of senses. Far more akin to a remastered film, which simply sharpens up what is already there, rather than a rebuilt game. Though truth be told, that’s all that a remaster really is. We’ve merely been spoiled by others that are far more complex. Having said that, Shenmue I & II no longer identifies itself as such, but it was implied strongly enough that those going in expecting a brand new product are going to be sorely disappointed.

Oof! Low blow.

Another mark against this is the 30fps lock. This one if frankly baffling. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter to me personally, as I’d much rather have a stable framerate than a high, inconsistent one. Though of course, high and stable will always be better. Why we’re locked to 30 this time is just…look, the original releases supported a 50 or 60hz refresh rate (in pal territories at least) so why the port is locked at 30hz is just beyond me. Because that’s what the issue is here, not that the frames are locked, but the refresh rate, which obviously limits maximum frames too by its very nature. Worse still, cutscenes are all locked to a 4:3 ratio, likely because they were built using game assets, but didn’t actually run in game and would have needed to be remade otherwise. Though, for Shenmue II they were drawn with pillboxes to make them appear 16:9, so surely they could have just zoomed in on them or something. Even for the first game, I’d honestly have preferred they do that. I would have happily sacrificed some extra details in favour of a consistent resolution. But sadly, this was not the case.

Having said that, if cutting edge eye candy is all you want…well, actually, Shenmue has stood up exceptionally well considering it’s well nigh two decades old. With the improved texture resolution, things do look crisp and clear, for the most part. Whilst the art design is still some of the best the industry has ever seen, especially on this kind of scale. Characters models are nice, and the world at large is absolutely teeming with little details such as cracks in tarmac, branches and leaves on trees and the like. And the skybox, oh boy, don’t even get me started on that one. It looks gorgeous, with a staggering array of variance depending on time of day and weather patterns. Consisting of deep blues, warm yellows and oranges, deep, ominous grey. A variety which is carried across into the world at large. Even the harbour district which consists of most of the latter half of the first game is made up of more than just the expected greys and browns. Then there are places like the Man Mo Temple and Guilin from Shenmue, the former framed by a cluster of dazzling cherry blossom trees, and the latter being far and away the most visually stunning vistas ever put in game. Guilin is a real place by the way, and one of the most breathtaking on Earth, both in game and out.

Character animations are generally solid, most notably during the games’ actually quite sparse action set pieces. Themselves split into two sections, with roughly half taking place as QTEs, and the rest being a fairly straight-forward beat-em-up modelled off Virtua Fighter, with back/forward/attack combos and everything. It’s pretty easy for the most part, with very few times when the player will face any real challenge, even during boss fights. Only that bloody speed freak Chai and Dou Niu, the effective end bosses of Shenmue and Shenmue II respectively, require any real degree of effort to defeat. Though there’s a section with an underground fight club in Shenmue II which takes place in an abandoned building that offers some interesting battles too. With each bout taking place on a piece of almost free floating masonry several stories up. Oh, and the guy in the cage towards the end of the same game (Master Baihu) who uses the mythical Tiger Swallow Style. But those are more satisfying displays of your abilities than anything else.


Speaking of QTEs, those were, and remain, one of the most memorable and best parts of the series. Whilst it may not be true that Shenmue was the very first game to ever implement a QTE system, it is where we get the name. They also remain, hands down, the very best use of them to date. Where many, later, games throw them in out of nowhere, almost certainly in an attempt to catch you off-guard in many instances. Shenmue makes them an integral, ever-present aspect of the experience. Always clearly telegraphing their arrival with musical cues that set the tone and they are generally quite forgiving, with at least a couple of seconds time for you to react. There are also two arcade games specifically built around this system to give us an easy way to go and practice at any time. Better yet, pretty much none of them are an insta-fail if you miss one button, often continuing onwards for at least a couple more turns before it all goes tits up, even then rarely resulting in a restart, and never in a game over. Best of all, some of them even change depending on which moves Ryo currently has at his disposal and how proficient he is with them.

The real meat and potatoes of the series are in exploring the world. With the vast majority of game time consisting of wandering the streets finding people to talk to and asking them if they have information relating to whatever you might be trying to find out at the time. Many do, even if it’s only a minor tidbit like “the bistro is on that street” though some will just jabber away about their own daily lives. And it is actually here where Shenmue most shines, and undeniably where it sets itself apart. Open worlds are ubiquitous to gaming now, with people having their own routines and responsibilities. But no game has ever committed to this the way that Shenmue did. Sure, there have been some that will only have a quest giver be available at a certain time of day, but those are few and far between, and often still have you in a specific time slot for the task allotted. Shenmue, on the other hand, is far more rigid, but also more free-form at the same time. Characters may only be available at set times, the bars will only be accessible in the evenings for example, but events take place when you encounter them. Even things like the first game’s fight with ‘Charlie’ outside the arcade. It only happens at night, but it can happen at any point in that night. Whereas other things, like stopping Nozomi being hassled in the park, can be anywhere from noon, to mid-afternoon or later.

Little things like this are what really brings the world to life. There’s inherent replay value simply in the desire to have a scene take place at a different time of day, or just in different weather. This design philosophy remained consistent through both entries and seems to have stuck with Ys Net for the upcoming third entry, and it will ever and always be the thing that most distinguishes Shenmue from the crowd. Though, one cannot make such a statement without also touching on the overarching narrative. Which itself is one of the key factors in its continued success. Starting out small and extremely intimate, the main plot revolves around protagonist Ryo Hazuki seeking revenge for the death of his Father, killed in the opening moments of the first game by a Chinese man named Lan Di. Someone we see only a scant few times as the story unfolds, though his presence is ever felt. So let’s talk about the story, shall we?

I see what you did thar!


The game opens on a cold, snowy day in November. Ryo is running full tilt to reach home, where he quickly sees signs of a scuffle. Rushing around back, he sees his Father’s student, Fukuhara, thrown from the family dojo and, upon entering, sees his Father, Iwao Hazuki, engaged in martial combat with a man in green. Lan Di, the villain of the piece. He asks for a mirror, which Iwao initially refuses to him. Though when Lan Di holds Ryo aloft by the neck in one hand, clearly intending to choke him to death, Iwao relents and informs him it is buried beneath the cherry tree outside the dojo. One of his men retrieves it, and Lan Di then kills Iwao with a single blow to the abdomen, though not before revealing that Iwao was responsible for the death of a man in China several years earlier. Something which is almost as shocking to Ryo as his Father’s passing. After a couple of weeks of recuperation, Ryo awakes and vows revenge.

From here, we scour the local area, later progressing to a nearby harbour, chasing down every lead we can find on who and why Iwao was killed. Beginning with asking neighbours about the black car Lan Di arrived an left in, but quickly progressing to learning about Chinese mafia, tattoos and, of course, the infamous sailors. All set against the backdrop of some faithfully recreated, real-world parts of Japan in the last months of 1986 and early months of 1987. Ryo’s quest introduces him to a vibrant and varied cast of characters, all of whom we can see doing their own things both before and after he talks to them. Assuming he ever does. Because there are so many different people to talk to, you can go through multiple playthroughs without ever even seeing some of them. It is almost never a case of talk to this one specific person to learn a specific piece of information, and even when an NPC cannot be of immediate use, they can often still point you towards someone who can.

Over the following weeks and months, one day at a time (one game day lasts one real-world hour by the way) you will get to know a lot of these people intimately, coming to know them as if they were your actual friends. They will aid you in finding a job at the harbour, where you start each day with a forklift truck race (this is the most amazing thing ever put in a game). They’ll help you care for a kitten whose Mother was run over and killed by Lan Di’s car. You’ll help a yanki (street hood) propose to his girlfriend and start going straight. They’ll help you learn about and track down a second mirror and discover more about your Father’s past. And, ultimately, you will learn that Lan Di has left for China and you will set out to find him. Taking all of these memories of your friends along with you, as you make your way to…

X marks the sailors.

Shenmue II

Picking up a few weeks after the end of the first game with Ryo’s arrival in Hong Kong, he initially wants to track down a Master Tao Lishao. But only shortly after his arrival, his bag is stolen by a street urchin called Wong, sidetracking him as he tries to track it back down and find somewhere to stay now that he has no money. Worse still, arriving at Master Tao’s address, he learns the enigmatic martial artist has now moved away and he must explore still further. It’s a bit of a contrivance, but from a design perspective, it’s a stroke of genius. The environments in Shenmue II make the first game seem like the sandpit in a school playground. So this extra time exploring the sprawling metropolis allow the player time to get back into the feel of the game. Of course, things only grow more complicated from there, as the revelation of Master Tao is something of a culture shock to Ryo, for several reasons. It also helps further muddy the waters by making Ryo question his goal for the first time.

Up until this point, he’s been running pretty much full tilt compelled by a lust for revenge. His arrival and time in China, however, expose him to a new world and new world view. one which makes him pause to consider the full ramifications of what is come. Especially when he learns that the reason the “evil” Lan Di confronted his Father was, in itself, fueled greatly by a desire for revenge over the man Iwao killed all those years ago. It gives our boy Ryo a lot to think about, for obvious reasons. It is here where the story of the franchise really starts to come into its own, raising it up and elevating it above many of its peers. It greatly expands on what it means to be a martial artist, beginning to segue into the more fantastical, mystical aspects of the genre, whilst still keeping it very firmly grounded in the real world. A delicate balancing act it has maintained with aplomb.

As his journey continues, Ryo finds himself embroiled in a gang war between a group called The Heavens and the Yellow Head Gang, the latter of whom are directly connected to Lan Di. This takes him from Hong Kong to Kowloon, a city of massive skyscrapers, most of which can be fully explored. And from there, eventually, on to the rural prefecture of Guilin where, finally, we meet the pigtailed young woman who features so heavily in the promotional material. After only a single, in-game, day (and night) with her, we are taken into a cave. Here, the two mirrors that Lan Di has been searching for are replicated, built directly into the rock, each larger than a man. Revealed by a blast of magical energy from the mirror that Ryo still carries, the main theme kicks in…and we’ve been waiting seventeen bloody years to find out what happens next!

One day, our prayers will be answered.

Okay, this has gotten rather long-winded, but for a game series with so much weight behind it, and so much personal attachment, it was inevitable. I mean, my second child was born at the end of 2017 and I named her Nozomi, after the protagonist’s sort of girlfriend. $160 out of my own pocket went into the Shenmue III Kickstarter. So I want you to bear all of that in mind as we bring this to a close.

Shenmue is not a great port. It’s honestly about as bare bones as they come. Offering next to nothing in the way of PC specific features, and only really bringing an English dub for Shenmue II that was previously only available in the Xbox version of the game.  It runs extremely well, as it should for such an old game, with a 1440p resolution and 200% resolution scale still not causing a dip in performance, even if it barely makes any difference to the overall visual quality. The voice acting is pretty frikkin’ bad, and the audio quality only slightly better, though it’s pretty impressive actually, considering they were originally released on CDs, but it still sucks. The time spent wandering around trying to figure out who to talk to next, and even where to go in some cases, can get really tedious and, frankly, pretty boring.

But I fucking love these games.

And even taking all of those things into consideration, they are just as good now as they ever were. It may not be a great port, and by Gods does Shenmue have its flaws, but it is truly unlike anything else you will ever play. The scale of the world, the scale of the narrative and its implications on the lives of not just Ryo, but most of the people he meets. It remains unparalleled to this day. Those flaws it does have, mostly stemming from it being a product of its time, can easily be overlooked as quirks of an eccentric passion project. Which it is, for Suzuki Yu and everyone who first went out into the night, demanding to ride Akemi’s motorcycle, that’s what it is. And that’s what it will ever remain. Warts and all.

The Verdict

Shenmue is an average port of a truly spectacular game. Because in all honesty, that’s what it is, a single game, released in two parts (so far). The changes between the first and second are minor, with most amounting to nothing more than tweaking the engine for greater efficiency. There is just so damned much going on in the world, with entire sections that one might never experience even after multiple playthroughs simply because of the sheer scale of the environments, and that’s just the first game. Shenmue II has entire city blocks I still haven’t even set foot in. And in the time since I first explored Japan in 1986, an entire generation of new gamers has been born, grown to adulthood and now has the chance to experience one of the finest pieces of art ever made. Which is what I heartily, sincerely implore all of you to do.

Case Review

  • Living World: Unlike no game before or since, Shenmue’s world is genuinely alive. People have their own routines and do their own things whether you are there or not.

  • Scale: The first game is large, the second is absolutely massive, with not one, but two of the largest in-game cities ever crafted.

  • Visuals: Shenmue was something of a graphical powerhouse in its day, and remains extremely visually arresting.

  • Tank Controls: Though they are at the very top end of the spectrum, they were still kinda’ clunky even eighteen years ago.

  • A Port is a Port is a Port: One would have hoped that we would at least get reworked textures, but nope, just upscaled (admittedly very pretty) originals are all that’s on offer.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
An average port that do not, in any way, spoil some of the best games ever made.


  • Audio: All of the requistie options are present, with individual sliders for sounds, voices and music. There are also some options carried over from the Dreamcast regarding subtitles, with an option to only see them when dialogue is skipped, or have them in place of muted audio.
  • Controls: Customisable, but dated, they are nevertheless perfectly servicable. It would have been nice to see, at the very least, movement tracked as an analogue on a control stick though.
  • Graphics: I hope you like anti-aliasing, because that's pretty much all you can play with here. Oh, and bloom, ALL THE BLOOM, The very definition of bare bones, its still better than nothing at all, but only just.


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