Shenmue I & II – the world’s first walking simA reader tries to explain the enduring appeal of Shenmue but admits that the sequel is much better than the original…
The Shenmue series. It’s quite… eccentric, isn’t it? Last August, when the HD re-release of the first two games came along, you would hear of many newcomers feeling perplexed. You would see many a commentator scratching the skin off their scalps trying to work out what in the blazing Randy Pitchfords the appeal was supposed to be. To them it’s one of, if not the very worst game ever made. Whilst it would be somewhat mean-spirited to call it the very worst game in existence, you can see where the critics are coming from.
I shall try to explain what the fans, myself among them, see in these very curious beasties. Let’s start sensibly. At the start. And when we get to the end… we’ll stop. I played Shenmue pretty much when it first came out, in early 2000, a short few months after its UK release. All the Dreamcast magazines unanimously awarded it very high scores, with at least one or two generous enough to furnish it with top marks. Edge magazine were a little more guarded and gave it an 8 out of 10. At the time. Which today is much too high.
For me, though, it was my first experience of any kind of open world game. The day/night cycle, being able to knock on doors, playing games within a game, a robust set of martial arts moves to utilise in its much-vaunted free battles – it was a heady and enticing mix. It was also responsible for popularising, if that’s the appropriate word, quick time events. Or QTEs, for short. Hell, it even coined that term! Now, there’s a not insignificant portion of gamers who despise QTEs no matter what. And if that’s you, then there’s nothing I can say that will convince you of their value here. I feel that they’re fine – not as effective as Resident Evil 4 or Bayonetta’s but nowhere near as awful as the examples so beloved by insufferably pretentious ‘auteur’ David Cage.
But there is definitely a whiff of loving one’s own farts to Shenmue. Certainly the first one, which is much more difficult to defend. The story is so boring. After the dramatic event of Iwao Hazuki’s murder – the father of protagonist, Ryo – very little of any real interest actually occurs. In fact, if I were to act as editor to the narrative as a whole, the only parts you should keep are Lan Di killing Ryo’s dear old dad and then Ryo leaving for Hong Kong to chase him down. Everything else is just so much tedious filler.
None of the characters are memorable or well-drawn. For anybody about to point out Tom, the African American immigrant trying to earn money in Japan selling hot dogs, don’t be silly. He is such a thin, flimsy caricature that it would be funny if the script had a sense of humour. He only makes any impression at all because he has at least some superficial flamboyance amid a universe-wide charisma vacuum that is the rest of the cast.
And if you thought Ryo was dull, just wait until you meet Nozomi – the game’s romantic lead. Or ‘Snore-zomi’ as I prefer to call her. Ha ha. I’m here all week. And I played with the dubbed, American voice actors initially! She’s so weak and bland that if she were a table sauce she’d be pre-boiled water. Pre-boiling it takes all that pesky taste away! Delicious! Predictably, she’ll get herself kidnapped towards the end of the game. You’ll need to go through a motorbike section against the clock which is a lot less exciting than it sounds. The handling is so slippery and over-sensitive, honestly Super Hang-On plays better. I have to say, I would just rather the useless, little waif died than go to the trouble.
Playing through it again now, the Japanese voice actress isn’t much better. But it’s only the fault of the writing – she’s just so insipid and uninteresting a character. Of course, some will try to assert that it’s so bad it’s funny. True, the lady who voices an elderly antique shop owner has some entertainment value to be had from the dubbed version. In just the same way that there is entertainment value in hearing Freddy Krueger’s claws scrape a blackboard. ‘Oh, it’s so awful that I want to insert electric kitchen knives in my ears! What japery!’
As a veteran, there was some nostalgia to be enjoyed in traipsing through the snowy, grimy streets of Dobuita again. But to be brutally honest, it’s like walking through the Coventry of Japan. From the same time period. And I can say that because I was born there. Not Japan, obvs.
The first game is not friendly to players at all, new or old. There are no mini-maps. You have to wait for all your scheduled appointments in real-time with no option to fast forward. You even have to wait for the bloody bus! I had forgotten that and it weirdly enraged me more than anything else. The straw that broke the camel’s back, I suppose. There are several occasions, especially after Ryo gets a job at the docks. (Union’s been on strike. He’s down on his luck, it’s tough, so tough.) The stubborn, little sod will refuse to leave the area until you’ve advanced some more of the story. Who’s playing this game, Ryo?! Me or you?!
Then we come to combat. Which has a surprisingly extensive move set for Ryo to deploy, consisting of punches, kicks, throws, and the odd special attack. That being said, you’ll only use the more unusual stuff to show off. For the most part, Ryo’s opposition is laughably weak – it would be like pitting Bruce Lee against a gaggle of toddlers. Which would be highly unethical. When you do run into a tougher enemy, they’re really just damage sponges.
Nor do you really have any idea how well you’re doing against them, as none of them have health bars. When it comes to the 70-man battle, which the game is oddly proud of, you’ll find that most of them go down in a hit or two. And if you do find yourself surprised when one of the bigger guys take off about 30% off your health, simply pressing the dodge button a few times and keeping your distance will see it magically regenerate.
But, I do enjoy the combat. It is satisfying. You’re more concerned with your positioning, as the dodge button lets you shuffle around the arena in three dimensions and hit the enemy in a blind spot. It’s hardly as elegant as the eight-way run system from SoulCalibur, more like Virtua Fighter after it’s got a bit drunk. ‘Wait, did I team up with Dead Or Alive last night? No! I can’t have! That would’ve been crazy! And I never do crazy! That’s something Tekken would do!’
Yet even though some sections of the first game were a real slog to get through, it still had a zen lure. I’ve got my platinum trophy from it now and I have a save waiting during the famed forklift racing section which I may go back to now and then. Probably not the whole thing, though. And, unless the first game pulls you in within the first hour, give up. Trust me, it won’t get any better for you. There’s nothing in there that’s all that essential – even to the series as a whole.
You do have a nice, Christmassy atmosphere when it gets to that time in the game. You can even hear a beautiful instrumental rendition of Silent Night coming from an alley in Dobuita. But you can also hear it on YouTube.
Everything gets better for the sequel. The script is so much stronger that even the American cast sound more enthusiastic. You should still stick to the original, though, as they are far more professional. Not that there aren’t still clangers in the dialogue, but there is far more charm and wit on display.
Almost the moment you step off the boat, you’ll run into the aptly named Joy – a redhead who loves tearing around Hong Kong on her sporty, red motorbike. She must be a fan of Yu Suzuki’s Super Hang-On, huh? But at last! You encounter somebody with a personality!
You do immediately get the feeling that this is going to quite different from the last game. Those Sega-blue skies, the clear waves lapping Fortune’s Pier, Wan Chai – at last, Suzuki and his team have let their hair down and decided that this is more concerned with being an actual video game! Yay!
Joy, in spite of Ryo’s constantly surly attitude, is nothing but helpful to you throughout your adventure. She seems to something of a local hero, everybody knows her. From sleazy photographers and violent hooligans to business owners and dock workers. Her connections get you a good price at a local hotel and a part time job. Ryo isn’t very appreciative of this, because he’s not exactly the most sympathetic protagonist. He’s easily provoked to violence, won’t hesitate to torture or threaten its use, and is about as smart and charismatic as a broken brick. Although at least he likes cats and collecting capsule toys, so he isn’t exactly pre-2018 Kratos, either.
Now, if the story was better written, Ryo’s less sociable attributes could be the result of him losing his dad. But we never really get an indication of his emotional state as he’s just so blank and wooden. It’s not even any of the actors’ fault who play him – he really is that dreary. As such, whenever Joy or any of the other characters you meet bewilderingly want to spend time with this idiot, he always says he’s busy – even when he clearly isn’t.
The frustrations of playing as Ryo come into focus when you meet the person you were told to find, Master Lishao Tao of Man Mo Temple. Or Xiuying, to her friends. When Ryo first meets her, he doesn’t believe that she could be a martial arts master. Because it’s the 1980s and she’s a girl. Yes, it’s that lazy and tiresome. There is a nice pay-off, however. Xiuying then demonstrates exactly what she’s capable of. And she’s not just simply better than Ryo. Her prowess is god-like. Ryo can’t even land a single punch.
You try to hit her and she’s just not there anymore. It’s honestly kind of scary. She is so powerful that she could probably defeat Lan Di at any time. But, like a One Ring sort of situation from Lord Of The Rings, she doesn’t do so as using her abilities in such a way would mean giving into evil. Or something. A lesson that Ryo isn’t learning. Which is why Xiuying is not all that eager to help him.
But if Ryo wasn’t so thick, he would be able to approach it from a different angle. Rather than: ‘Revenge! Revenge! I must have revenge!’, why not ask her about the Phoenix Mirror? You know, that MacGuffin that seems to be so important? Or maybe he could remember that he was told to contact this woman for help. Obviously she opposes Lan Di and his organisation, wouldn’t she want to know what he’s up to? But no, Ryo doesn’t think of that because that would involve thinking.
Which I feel is a deliberate, creative choice. He’s meant to be a big, dumb meathead who only ever thinks about fighting. Other characters will even point it out. Much like Link, Ryo is meant to be the blank canvas. You uncover the mysteries of the game as he does. But quite frankly, I’m surprised this boy knows how to tie his own shoes. Which does no favours for his depth as a character or your emotional investment.
Happily, in the sequel, the other characters are here to pick up the slack. Like Fangmei, the sweet girl Ryo befriends while he stays with Xiuying and is made to perform community service at the temple. She doesn’t like being compared to cats and you can even buy her a present for her birthday where she’ll profess her love for Ryo. No idea why, the poor girl. And, of course, the second part of one of gaming’s most beautiful bromances: Ren of Heavens. Ren is everything Ryo is not. He’s a crook, he likes dressing as a pirate for some reason, he’ll get others to do things for him as much as possible, he has a flamboyant personality, and is quite smart and funny.
You might find yourself thinking that you’d rather be playing this game as him. Clearly Toshihiro Nagoshi thought so too and gave us the Yakuza series. Although Kazuma is less of a scoundrel than Ren is. Which is really saying something. Those stolen glances, those lingering looks, the time they spent handcuffed together and Ren needed to take a leak – the fan fiction writes itself.
I’m going to say it now: I think that Shenmue II boasts one of the greatest ever game worlds of all time. It’s certainly in my own top 10. It made me want to know more about Wan Chai and Kowloon. Incidentally, the walled city of Kowloon as seen here is long gone now. The British and Chinese governments considered it a hotbed of crime, too difficult to police. They wanted that place gone. And yet it is a fascinating and vibrant place.
When you go into one of the buildings, you’ll find the first floor of each taken over by local businesses. One building specialises in bird feed, being the Three Bird Building and all, another will focus on bars, still another tea houses. Usually the third floor is a ‘retail section’ as well. It’s nice just to look around even when you can’t buy anything. It’s such a good idea, it makes me wonder why it hasn’t been attempted here. It would instil a strong sense of community in what are otherwise soulless, grey tower blocks. Unless it has somewhere, I don’t know – somebody will point it out in the comments if it has.
A slight disappointment when playing Shenmue II for the Trophies, is that it’s clear that d3t, the developer, weren’t huge fans of the game. There’s nothing for uncovering the secret fighters, collecting the medals, the Fangmei birthday event, or otherwise seeing and doing things that could be missed. But hey, that’s just Achievements in general for you. They rarely are all that inspired.
There is still an impressive amount of things to see and do here, a world away from its predecessor. You can now play darts against a series of characters, you can take part in street fights, try to win big money in high stakes gambling, play pachinko tables, or carry crates for a living. That last one gets very dull very quickly so if you need money, I would recommend the various gambling houses on either Fortune’s Pier, Wan Chai, or the Old Government Office Site in Kowloon. You can win up to HK$18,000!
Speaking of money and secrets, there is of course ducks. No, I’m not mad. This game is. Because, after meeting certain conditions, you can take part in illegal street duck racing! ‘Wait, what?’ you say. No, you read that right the first time. It takes place in the Wise Men’s Quarter of Wan Chai and you need to have reached it before you meet Ren.
The whole Quarter is closed off and eight ducks in differently coloured bow ties will race one lap around it. I don’t know how you would train a duck to do this. I don’t know why they wouldn’t just fly off for the winter or something. I don’t know how you calculate the odds in such an endeavour. But you need to stop thinking about it so hard because none of these things matter! What matters is picking one which will net you the highest pay out, then keep reloading until you win the big bucks! Ha ha, fast ducks for big bucks.
All your street fights, mini-games, and arcade games will be stored in your Shenmue Collection on the main menu for whenever you feel like punching Master Baihu in his stupid, pasty face again. Which is quite good. Sadly, if you want to see the madness of duck racing again (and you absolutely must at least once before you die), you’ll need to either play through the game again or leave one of your save files around about that area.
So yes, there are still some sections that will irritate newcomers. That part time job carrying crates where your partner screams QTE instructions at you like a lunatic, dancing around the floor like you’re some sort of ice skater. It is reliable, steady money though. You can even do it again in Kowloon if you’re some sort of masochist. The QTEs are harder there and the operation is run by a girl Ryo’s age wearing all black leather like some sort of Casual Friday dominatrix. I’m pretty sure she’s a criminal. If popular culture has taught me nothing else is that girls in black leather are usually up to no good.
Carrying those books out of the temple library for Xiuying every morning until you decide to go after Ren can be quite the test, too. Yep, more QTEs here, in case you were wondering. No, I don’t know why he has to carry them in such unstable and ungainly piles and no, I don’t how ‘airing out the books’ is supposed to be a good thing, either. I think Xiuying is just screwing with Ryo on purpose. She almost admits as much. That said, I’m pretty good at them by now and if you carry them all out you’ll be awarded free move scrolls by the monk, Hanhui. I think he gives you up to five.
You may also be confused by the Guilin section. You would be forgiven for assuming that the bit where you Die Hard your way up the Yellow Head Building is the finale. And it is. So you may well question why the game is carrying on. This is where you’ll finally meet Shenhua, the girl on the front of the box. Yes, she is somewhat dull – but to say she’s more so than Ryo is much too harsh. Have you already forgotten Snore-zomi? Oh, I see. Of course, you would have. Hey, she at least has magic powers and might even be a Chinese equivalent of Princess Anastasia Romanov! Just a guess. Think of this bit as an extended, semi-interactive ending sequence. The scenery is lovely, there isn’t much in the way of threat and you can relax. How much mileage you get out of such a reward will naturally vary.
So, there you have it. I hope this lengthy dissertation has helped explain what the fans of Shenmue see in it. Or maybe it hasn’t and you think we’re all quackers.
By reader DMR
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