This is probably the most intimidating review I’ve ever had to write because of how important Shenmue is to me.
Since a young age, I always enjoyed games with a good story. Monkey Island. Grim Fandango. Chrono Trigger. Shenmue. It’s been in my Top 20 since the day I first played it.
But it’s been 18 years since I picked up that Dreamcast controller and set off on an adventure with Ryo Hazuki. 18 years since I’ve played that consoles’ most important game and fell in love.
As it turns out, revisiting Yokosuka isn’t as glorious as I remembered it.
Sensei and Sensibility
Shenmue represented a significant shift in how storytelling was done in games due to its FREE system where you use the left trigger and right stick to interact with and get a closer look at items. With its interactive cut-scenes and large expansive areas, there was nothing else like it.
And while that was revolutionary at the time, it has aged badly. The one stick control immediately removes the free-roam of movement we’ve come to know and expect from modern-day action adventures like Yakuza, such as a complete 360 degree camera pan.
I often found I was bumping into things with Ryo or not lining up exactly with the person or object I wanted to interact with. There’s a clunkiness and inconsistency to the movement that feels like Hazuki is tripping over his heels every few minutes.
And also because of the age of the game, cut-scenes are a bit of an eye-sore. They will not take up the full length of your screen and there’s no surrounding border to at least make it easier on the eye.
The good news is, you will acclimatize. The auto-run movement holding in the R2 button still feels very smooth and gets you around very quickly. Likewise, the in-game action takes up the full screen – though you can change the aspect ratio to 4:3 if you prefer everything to be consistent and authentic – but mostly Shenmue has been upscaled quite nicely.
The Shenmue Collection opens with Ryo Hazuki, a young man who seems to wear the same brown leather jacket and pair of jeans everywhere he goes, watch as his father is murdered by a man named Lan Di at their dojo. Ryo tries to fight back but is easily overpowered, and Lan Di escapes with a beautiful phoenix mirror which is seemingly very important to him.
Not to be deterred, Ryo decides to go out into the world to track down the man who killed his father and so begins an epic adventure through all of Japan and in Shenmue 2, Hong Kong. During his travels, Ryo can work jobs, play games, take on challenges, and interact with a living, breathing world, making notes about all of it in his book.
Shenmue is also on a constant timer with a watch in the top left of the screen and was one of the first games to introduce a true day and night cycle with different things happening at different times. And with Shenmue 2 continuing right after the first, the Collection also lets you use the same save file to keep your moves, money and skills which is a nice touch.
Both games have HD rendering, though you can choose to emulate the original resolution if you so wish. There’s also post FX bloom, UI positioning and the option to improve the contrast, often important because some areas are overly bleak and shadowy. The result has some lovely effects on the skyline and general environment.
Character faces look more lightened and lively, with colours that pop and environments more vibrant.
It’s just a shame this isn’t a complete remastering, reimagined like the Yakuza Kiwami games have been as it’s still very obvious you’re playing a last-last-gen game, though, at times, Shenmue Collection still stands up quite well on its own.
Except for the sound. The recorded dialogue sounds muffled and distorted through modern systems. While the music has been touched up and often sounds delightful, dialogue which makes up such a big part of Shenmue really does not.
You can listen to the original Japanese vocals along with subs now, and even though the voice acting itself hasn’t aged brilliantly, its certainly a big part of the games’ charm and definitely feeds into some truly infamous lines, like ‘How about a game of Lucky Hit?’.
The Shenmue Collection are cornerstone titles for the industry. At the time, they were the most expensive video games ever made, clocking in at around $70 Million dollars and with Shenmue 3 lurking on the horizon, it’s important the world is reintroduced to these games.
My concern is that this collection will probably do very little for someone playing the games for the first time and when you’re trying to reintroduce an intellectual property as important as Shenmue on the eve of a full-blown sequel years in the making, it needs to be done right. And a part of me can’t help thinking this could damage Shenmue 3’s longer-term prospects.
As someone who loved Shenmue all those years ago, I get it, and I’m very happy to revisit this world. The memories came flooding back and made me gush and smile. But unlike some retro games like Sonic and Mario which seem absolutely timeless, Shenmue often shows its age.
I feel incredibly grateful that a contingent of gamers will finally get to experience such special games. This collection is by no means perfect and probably shows off Shenmue’s imperfections more than its strengths, but just having the Shenmue Collection at all still blows me away as it reminds me that this world still holds a very special place in my heart.
+ Shenmue Collection offers hours of play across the two games
+ Compelling story told throughout
+ Upscaling looks quite nice
– Controls and interface are very dated now
– Dialogue sounds horrible and muffled through modern sound systems
– No borders for cut-scenes
– Some gameplay bugs
7 out of 10
Tested on PS4
Code provided by the publisher