Perhaps we should start this review with a disclaimer - Shenmue is up there with our favourite games of all time. Back in 2000, when the first game released on the Dreamcast, it was a game that broke so many moulds, no-one really knew quite how to describe it. All they knew was they were playing something special. While "groundbreaking" might be a word that gets thrown around a lot, Shenmue was a game of so many firsts, it genuinely changed what everyone expected from a game, and influenced so many games that followed.
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Telling the story of Ryo Hazuki, a young martial arts mad, dragon jacket wearing, sailor searching student, Shenmue is an epic of cinematic proportions, with a soundtrack and scope to match. Starting out in suitably dramatic fashion, poor Ryo turns up at the Hazuki dojo at just the wrong moment, in the middle of a storm, only to witness his father get murdered by a mysterious Chinese dude named Lan Di. With his only clue being that they seemed to be having an argument over some kind of mirror (of all things), it falls to Ryo to set out on a journey to find out who Lan Di is, why he was so desperate to get his hands on that mirror - and most importantly, to avenge his father.
While some games are somewhat derogatorily referred to as "walking simulators", if anything, the easiest way to describe Shenmue might be as more of a life-in-a-city simulator. With a day and night cycle, Shenmue brings its city to life like no game had before, with shops that open and shut on a schedule, citizens that go about their daily routines, weather than can change in an instant, and so, so much to do. Here's just a few of the highlights.
Explore the city!
Talk to the friendly locals!
Get into fights!
Take a job at the docks!
Buy the very best batteries! (They take AGES to run down...)
Be insulted by odd men in unusual ways!
Get confused by automatic doors!
Drink/shower yourself with coke!
Find out what your future holds...
Ask some familiar questions...
Learn valuable lessons about stereotypes
And some... unusual lessons too
Discover the joys of gatcha machines! I love these!
And form an addiction that's hard to break...
But that's not all! You can play arcade games! (No, really - they're properly emulated and everything!)
Play more arcade games!
Play even more arcade games!
And even play darts!
Of course, being a teenager, there's only one thing on Ryo's mind - and he just can't take his eyes off it...
Which brings us on to another thing Ryo can do...
You get the idea...
But don't worry, Ryo always gets the [redacted] in the end...
And this, in a pictorial nutshell, is Shenmue. It's a game about exploration, about people, and about dialogue, as you start to get to know the residents of the town, strike up conversations with strangers, and slowly but surely start to uncover the hints and secrets that will lead you towards Lan Di. With just the right mix of story, exploration, and combat - not to mention a handy diary, where Ryo keeps note of anything anyone says that might one day come in useful - Shenmue is a game that still, even now, can suck you into its world. Not bad for a game that's almost two decades old.
However, unfortuantely, it's not all plain sailing for the Shenmue 1 and 2 remasters. Though there hasn't actually been that much in the way of upgrades, those that have been made aren't actually all that good. While the main game now plays in widescreen, most cutscenes are still locked to 4:3 for some reason - something that's more than a little bit jarring when the game switches between the two. And while the game looks much the same as it ever did, only rendered in a higher resolution than the Dreamcast could manage, the sole visual addition, bloom lighting, simply means every cutscene seems to start each new camera angle at pitch black, only to gradually lighten, before changing camera and starting the cycle all over again. At least they had the decency to let you disable it.
More worryingly, there's actually a surprising amount of bugs in Shenmue 1. We've seen models not load in; we've heard sound effects get jammed on; and perhaps most worryingly, we've had cutscenes not actually load in at all, with the game instead showing us a particularly interesting slice of pavement, while the cutscene dialogue runs in the background, and you can't see a thing that's happening. This last one is particularly bad, as the story is the whole reason you play Shenmue - to find out about the Four Wude, to learn where you can find those sailors, and to chase down Lan Di. While reloading our game let us see the cutscene, if you aren't saving regularly, you could miss out on a valuable piece of story - and that's not good. It's even worse when you're playing £25 for what's essentially an all but untouched version of a Dreamcast classic (or two). £25! To put that into perspective, similar Dreamcast classic Jet Set Radio was just over £6. OK, so this is two games in one, but even together, that makes it £12-15, not £25. On the plus side, at least Shenmue II doesn't seem to be quite as buggy...
With a release date for the third, and much wanted game now finally set in stone - and with neither Shenmue I or II having drawn a profit the first time around - perhaps SEGA can be forgiven for trying to recoup their losses. However, for a collection that's meant to serve as an easy in for Shenmue III, and one that's presumably meant to help more people get on board the hype train in time for next August's release, £25 is far too much of an asking price for the casual fan. And that's a real shame, because whether you played it the first time around or not, this is still one of the very best games ever made, and a fantastic piece of gaming history, brought to life for a whole new generation. Whether it's your first time at the rodeo, or you're back to play Shenmue for a second, third, or god-knows-how-many-th time, this is a collection worth picking up. Just wait for it to drop in price first.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4