1999’s Shenmue was a product of love, untamed ambition, and the overflowing pocketbook of a Sonic fuelled SEGA. The once most-expensive-game-of-all-time was originally praised for its expansive world, its realism, and its ability to immerse you in the revenge-focused life of its teenage protagonist. But in an era where trucks of artists are required to design pristine toilet stains in every video game bathroom, how does this once-graphical-powerhouse stand-up? The recent HD remaster allows us to view Shenmue through fresh eyes.
You’re Ryo, a seventeen-year-old boy who’s just witnessed the murder of his father by a mysterious martial artist. Bathed in sorrow, vengeance, and a stoic desire for the truth, you’re tasked with… ambling about and having polite chats with your neighbours. The game play loop is as follows: walky-walky, talky-talky, punchy-punchy, talky-talky. Ryo isn’t much of a detective, the poor sod, so your investigation involves naively following the advice of anyone you speak to – often leading to a clunky punch-up.
Which all sounds terribly tedious, but there’s a comfy warmth that grows from the meandering gameplay and laid back pace. Shenmue has a clear desire for realism. Every item is examinable, up-close in Ryo’s polygonal little mitts. Every character in your neighbourhood is interactable, and follows their own routine throughout the day. There’s a vast amount of restaurants, all enterable, where you can make small-talk with the racial stereotypes that work there. There’s real pleasure to be found lazily strolling through Ryo’s home of Yokosuka, going into first-person mode and perusing store fronts of the two available jean outlets. Just large enough to be daunting, just small enough for you to learn of all its winding alleys and low-res inhabitants.
Shenmue puts great pride in its attention to detail, and shoves your face into every single item they’ve created for you. While I’m happy to praise the chap who spent hours designing the rolls of toilet paper, the crunchiness of 20-year-old textures places them in the realm of the abstract. This adds a dirty grit to the low-rent apartment blocks and tattoo parlours, but doesn’t have the same effect when the game is beaming about its barely visible panty-liners. Similarly, the voice acting has the charm of the 90s about it, i.e. it’s admirable that they tried, but it’s destined to be in countless Youtube compilations making fun of it.
If you’re hankering to experience the life of a teenage boy in 1980’s Japan, there’s no better boots to fill than Ryo’s. Eat hamburgers, flirt with the cute girl from school, play video games at the arcade, solve the mystery of your dad’s murder – it’s here for you to enjoy in Shenmue. But, if you want a game that respects your time by leading you directly to the fun and explosions, you’d be best to let this one disappear back in the previous millennium.
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, Playstation 4
Release Date: August 21, 2018
Genres: Adventure, Fighting
Photos by author