In the 15 or so years between Shenmue installments, the fanbase has gained a reputation that they are obnoxious. While that might be true, their fanaticism and love for the series comes from a very real place. Having revisited Shenmue 1 and 2 HD recently, its innovation and historical importance still shines through even though the first “four chapters” of Shenmue have not aged all that gracefully. That is why you check out these landmarks in gaming history before playing Shenmue 3 when it releases on November 19.
There are a few important things that anyone new to the series should know going in so they don’t have their expectations out of whack. While they get compared a lot, and it makes sense due to their eccentricities and incredible level of detail, this is not like the Yakuza series. Anyone expecting constant fights and over-the-top action will be shocked by just how little combat there is in the original. In fact, there are probably less than 15 actual fights in the totality of Shenmue, despite it using a robust modification of the Virtua Fighter engine during combat sequences. The sequel has a lot more encounters, especially once you start to infiltrate underground street fighting arenas, but it is still common to go hours without throwing a punch.
While the series’ protagonist, Ryo, is set to avenge the death of his father, there is a lot to figure out first. Nearly everyone has seen the memes surrounding the original about trying to find sailors and working a forklift at the docks in order to gain information and make ends meet. The games move at a pretty slow pace, but they’re all essential parts to the long journey that could wind up being more about Ryo learning about himself and choosing a path to go down rather than simply tracking down and murdering Yan Di. Much of Shenmue 2 is spent learning about the core tenants of Chinese martial arts and the conflict that his desire for revenge has with his teachings. Understanding this will be key to fully appreciating whatever happens in Shenmue 3 later this year.
Shenmue 1 and 2 HD feature gameplay systems that are now mainstays
Originally in development for the Sega Saturn, it is incredible how much Shenmue offered in 1999. It’s incredibly rough in a lot of areas when viewed with modern eyes, but it delivered an incredibly cinematic story that allowed you to explore a virtual world in ways that were never possible before. Ryo doesn’t just run through the streets of Yokosuka; he actually lives there. Everyone in town is familiar with him and he can enter any establishment that is open for business even if it’s not central to the story (make sure to check out Bob’s Pizzeria!). It’s certainly limited in scale, but you can interact with much more of the world than what’s seen even in modern open-world titles. It was groundbreaking at the time, and is still impressive to take a look at.
The full day and night cycle were also innovative as sequences are often tied to meeting characters at specific times to progress the story. This is roughly implemented in the original, as there were many times where you have to kill about 40 minutes in actual time just waiting for the in-game clock to get to where it needs to be, but this is fixed in the sequel as you can skip time. Even with its shortcomings, Shenmue is structured in such a unique way that there is nothing else quite like it.
Even now, we’re still seeing features implemented in the Shenmue games start to become commonplace. The Xbox port of Shenmue 2 featured a number of filters that the player can put on in order to take stylized screenshots of the oftentimes gorgeous view of Hong Kong and mainland China. We’re seeing photo modes get patched into many of the biggest releases now, and it’s wild to think that Shenmue was doing it far before the technology made sense, but it’s that pioneering attitude that make it so special even through a modern lens.
Despite rough edges the Shenmue 1 and 2 HD journey is one worth partaking
Not every aspect of Shenmue holds up as it can be a very frustrating journey. Some of the quick-time events in the sequel are extremely finicky with inputs and the final boss fight has to be replayed if you miss them. It can also be confusing as to what you’re supposed to do at times, but thankfully, there are easily available guides to consult online that are worth using if you value your time. You’re not missing anything by doing so, and it makes the series much more playable in 2019.
Despite their many issues, running through Shenmue 1 and 2 HD is still an incredible journey. The very last section of Shenmue 2 is beyond gorgeous and has heavy story implications as Ryo finally meets Shenhua, the girl that he’s seen in his dreams since the very first game. With the release of the third game just a few months away, it’s easy to anticipate it as long as you have realistic expectations. Is the story to fully wrap up? Probably not, but playing these two earlier games will prepare you for how the story moves and warm you up to its characters, especially Ryo and Shenhua.
While they are not the greatest games ever made, and many of their innovations don’t stand out as being quite as impressive in 2019 since they’ve become normalized, the first two Shenmue games still have a lot to offer players both old and new. Whether it’s your first time playing an important part of gaming history or just want a refresher on what to expect from Shenmue 3, you should explore parts of Japan and China with Ryo before November 19 arrives. It’s not the smoothest vacation but it’s one worth taking.