Sunday, 28 October 2018

Shenmue I + II ★★★★★

I can ask most of my friends what they were doing “the day the snow turned to rain”, and usually get a similar reference in return. As one of the most requested re-releases for the past 15 years, from fans the world over, it's by no coincidence that we get it now with the release of Shenmue 3 lingering ever so slightly nearer thanks to its Kickstarter campaign, four years ago. (I've waited sixteen years. One more should be okay).

Shenmue was released, for the Dreamcast, back on November 6th y2k. (Dec 1999, in Japan) keep in mind that GTA 2 had dropped only a month before it and was still in its camera looking down days. It was a game so massively ambitious and ahead of the time that it's production nearly killed Sega. Costing somewhere in the budget of $45 million (originally falsely claimed to be $70m) - a figure that is dwarfed by today's games like GTA, Mass Effect and Destiny - Shenmue would have needed to sell at least two copies of the game to every Dreamcast owner, just to break even. So it never really had a chance to succeed. This is why it's never made sense to me that Sega never ported the game, to every machine possible, in an attempt to try and recoup some of their losses back. But then, Sega isn't really known for their smart decisions, communication or planning. This is why they refused to acknowledge that Sonic makes for awful 3D games but tries over and over, anyway.

For me, Shenmue is a large nostalgia trip, instantly taking me back to my teenage bedroom (covered in game, band and movie posters) so take everything I say as slightly rose-tinted, but I'll also try to be as unbiased as possible. For the most part, the two games feel mostly the same when compared to their Dreamcast counterparts. Aside from a few little tweaks to certain areas of the game. Some new checkpoints have been added, to relieve some frustration of retries and I'm quite sure the fight with Master Baihu used to be a lot harder. I'm sure this will go down as pandering to a modern audience, us old people love to blame younger gamers, but overall these changes didn't discourage my enjoyment of replaying two of my favourite games. I'm very curious what the younger generation will think of the game and how many are willing to try it out. I'm interested to see how they will take to its slow-paced gameplay, which largely consists of wonder around and asking every NPC the same vague questions until one of them gives you the next clue and triggers the next sequence of events. A lot of the gameplay mechanics are quite tedious, by today's standards, but the pacing really gives you the time to wander around the areas of the game, get involved in other people's daily routines, just chill at the arcade for a few games of Space Harrier, or to take in all the attention to detail that AM2 had originally put into their pièce de résistance. 

The games won't hold your hand. You're encouraged to explore and talk to people, to progress through the story, with your only clues being the notes in Ryo’s notebook. Supposedly there's an updated control system. Personally I found it not too different to the original and Ryo still feels a bit like a tank. I just stuck with the original, -used the D-pad- and swapped Look and Run. This method controlled just as I'd expect and felt pretty close to using the Dreamcast. A new additions allows you to control the camera with the Right Analogue Stick, which is good… I guess. Although, in Shenmue 1, at least, you'll become aware of how broken skybox is; as it appears to be attached to the direction the camera faces. Loading times are now extremely fast, making entering new buildings, areas and exploring a far less tedious task. Which is good because Shenmue 2 was somehow more ambitious, than the first game, with even more and much larger environments. Shenmue boasts hundreds of individually voiced NPC's, each with their own daily routines. You can just stalk these people for hours, minding their own business. Something I've only ever seen since, on a much smaller scale but more integral to the overall game, in Zelda: Majora's Mask. Shenmue set a presidential standard of modern AAA games, interactivity and open world environments near twenty years ago. Most games still don't let you pick up each individual item within the world for absolutely no reason at all.

This is basically a straight port and not a Remaster. Textures haven't been improved, they just appear clearer, so it can't technically be called an HD edition, either. That's not to say the game hasn't been visually improved somewhat. Both games now run at 30 frames at 1080p, with the option to use with 16:9 or the original 4:3 of our old prehistoric televisions. All cutscenes are still locked to a 4:3 ratio. Slowdown and character pop-up are still fairly common, as you walk through a busy street. The clean up has also makes it easier to spot the edges and the seams of geometry. Anti-aliasing helps smooth out the old jagged edges and eliminates the shimmering of things like power lines and fences and a new optional bloom has been implemented. The Pc has some extra options, with higher resolution options, res scaling, supersampling and some extra fxaa. The voice overs are still the same compressed originals, straight from the Dreamcast. Presumably, the original audio files no longer exist. These don’t sound too great these days. A nice extra feature is the choice of the English or Japanese dubs. Which is the first time Shenmue 1 has been playable, outside of Japan, in Japanese.

Shenmue I + II does well as a preservation piece. A more reasonably affordable way of getting a piece of gaming history into new hands as well as longtime fans. Hopefully, the majority of the new bugs and glitches will get fixed, over time. By the time you read this, most of the ones I encountered during my playthrough should be fixed. Fuku-San is the Milhouse of the Shenmue-niverse.

Bry Wyatt

Shenmue I + II at CeX

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