Shen­mue I & II

Beloved Dream­cast epics She nmue I & II fi­nally make their PC de­buts.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Andy Kelly

For years now, a Dream­cast has sat du­ti­fully un­der my TV. Be­cause, un­til now, Sega’s ill-fated con­sole was the only way to play the orig­i­nal Shen­mue. Yu Suzuki’s bold, di­vi­sive mar­tial arts ad­ven­ture that was, at one time, the most lav­ish, ex­pen­sive videogame ever made. But I no longer have to en­dure the whirring and grind­ing of the Dream­cast’s GD-ROM drive, or those achingly slow load times, be­cause now I can play it on PC. It’s 1986 and on a bleak, snowy Novem­ber day, teenager Ryo Hazuki wit­nesses his fa­ther’s mur­der at the fam­ily dojo. Swear­ing re­venge, he ded­i­cates his life to find­ing the man re­spon­si­ble—a mis­sion that takes him from the streets of Yoko­suka, Ja­pan to the sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis of Hong Kong and beyond, across two huge, am­bi­tious and idio­syn­cratic games. Many of the fea­tures that were con­sid­ered ground­break­ing back in 1999 may seem quaint by mod­ern stan­dards, but al­most 20 years af­ter it was first re­leased, Shen­mue is still an ex­pe­ri­ence that no other game will give you.

The first game is set in a small cor­ner of Yoko­suka, which in­cludes the sub­urbs of Sakura­gaoka and Ya­manose, and Dobuita, a busy high street with shops, bars, restau­rants, and ar­cades. It’s the ’80s af­ter all. Ryo doesn’t know who killed his fa­ther— only that he’s Chi­nese, wears a coat with a dragon on it and drives a black car. And so, armed with this in­for­ma­tion, he wan­ders his home­town look­ing for clues. Much of your time in Shen­mue is spent on the street ask­ing peo­ple ques­tions. Most of them won’t know any­thing, but the ones who do will trig­ger fur­ther lines of ques­tion­ing, slowly un­rav­el­ing the story and lead­ing Ryo down an in­creas­ingly dark, dan­ger­ous path.

One of Shen­mue’s many con­tra­dic­tions is that, de­spite this ur­gent, driven quest for vengeance, it’s a slow, peace­ful, and thought­ful game. As much as it’s an epic mar­tial arts ad­ven­ture, it’s also a painstak­ingly de­tailed and won­der­fully mun­dane life sim­u­la­tor. If your in­ves­ti­ga­tion hits a brick wall or you have to wait un­til evening or the next day to con­tinue it, there’s no fade to black. You have to while the re­main­ing hours of the day away.

Liv­ing the life of an aim­less Ja­panese teenager is com­pelling


Yoko­suka may be small, but it’s a re­mark­ably rich, de­tailed space, of­fer­ing nu­mer­ous ways to kill time. You can go shop­ping, feed an or­phaned kit­ten, play Space Har­rier at the lo­cal ar­cade, work on your cap­sule toy col­lec­tion, or prac­tice your moves in the dojo. Strangely, these un­event­ful mo­ments are among the most mem­o­rable in Shen­mue. Sim­ply liv­ing the life of an aim­less Ja­panese teenager is in­cred­i­bly com­pelling, and later on the game’s love of the mun­dane reaches its peak when Ryo gets a job at the har­bor as a fork­lift driver, which you ac­tu­ally have to do, pick­ing up crates and fer­ry­ing them be­tween ware­houses. It’s glo­ri­ously un­nec­es­sary, but also the kind of grounded es­capism which makes Shen­mue so cu­ri­ously and won­der­fully be­guil­ing.

Some­times you’ll in­ves­ti­gate a clue that leads to some­thing that’s a lot more tra­di­tion­ally ex­cit­ing. An­other of Shen­mue’s beau­ti­ful con­tra­dic­tions is how Ryo is a softly spo­ken, good-na­tured, gen­tle soul, but also a skilled mar­tial artist who can kick the shit out of any­one who crosses him. His pur­suit of Lan Di, his fa­ther’s killer, leads to run-ins with lo­cal crim­i­nals, biker gangs and other shady types, which is where the Vir­tua Fighter- in­spired com­bat comes into play. There are a va­ri­ety of moves to learn and mas­ter, and bat­tles range from one-on-one fights with pow­er­ful foes to multi-en­emy brawls. But vi­o­lence is al­ways a last re­sort for Ryo, which makes those rel­a­tively rare mo­ments where a fight breaks out even more im­pact­ful.

Trou­ble usu­ally finds Ryo at night. By day, Dobuita is a lively, bustling shop­ping dis­trict, but as dark­ness falls the shops close, the bars open, and the place takes on a very dif­fer­ent am­bi­ence. Drunk­ards stag­ger down the nar­row streets, and me­nac­ing char­ac­ters lurk in the shad­ows. But de­spite this, it’s one of the cosiest, most at­mo­spheric set­tings I’ve en­coun­tered in a videogame. Cute de­tails such as peo­ple us­ing um­brel­las when it rains, Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions ap­pear­ing as you move into De­cem­ber, and snow pil­ing up

on the streets make Yoko­suka feel like a real, liv­ing, evolv­ing place.

As you walk along the sleepy, quiet streets, snow fall­ing gen­tly from a grey, over­cast sky, it’s ab­so­lutely trans­port­ing—and, im­por­tantly, sad too. Shen­mue is a deeply melan­choly game, and there’s a tragedy to Ryo sac­ri­fic­ing his youth, his safety, and his loved ones to sin­gle-mind­edly pur­sue a man who could prob­a­bly kill him in the blink of an eye. Ryo’s re­la­tion­ship with No­zomi, a lo­cal girl who cares deeply for him, is ab­so­lutely heart­break­ing, be­cause his thirst for re­venge makes him ut­terly obliv­i­ous to her kind­ness. It’s an ex­tremely emo­tional game, even if the English voice act­ing is ter­ri­ble to the point of be­ing com­i­cally sur­real. Ev­ery­one sounds stiff and bored, or wildly over­acts, which is, hon­estly, a big part of the game’s weird charm.


And then there’s Shen­mue II, which sees Ryo leav­ing Yoko­suka be­hind and trav­el­ing to Hong Kong. Although the fun­da­men­tals of the game are pretty much the same, the shift from a hand­ful of small, in­tri­cate streets to a mas­sive, mod­ern city makes the se­quel feel rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent. From a char­ac­ter per­spec­tive this is fan­tas­tic. You get a pal­pa­ble sense of be­ing a stranger in a strange land. You have no friends, very lit­tle money, and no solid leads to fol­low up. But the re­sult is a set­ting that feels less de­tailed, at­mo­spheric and in­ti­mate. It’s still an im­pres­sive creation and has a grand sense of scale, but com­pared to Yoko­suka, it’s harder to fall in love with.

Once again, Ryo spends the bulk of the game wan­der­ing the streets, in­ter­ro­gat­ing peo­ple, and fol­low­ing leads—but now there are hun­dreds more peo­ple to talk to, which can make this as­pect of the game feel slower and more la­bo­ri­ous than in the orig­i­nal. Luck­ily there are a few qual­ity-of-life im­prove­ments, in­clud­ing NPCs who will gen­er­ously walk you to a lo­ca­tion you’re look­ing for, and the abil­ity to fast for­ward the clock in­stead of hang­ing around wait­ing for an event to trig­ger or a shop to open.

There are also part-time jobs to take on in Shen­mue II, in­clud­ing lug­ging crates around For­tune’s Pier and man­ning a Lucky Hit gam­bling stand. But these aren’t even half as en­joy­able as the orig­i­nal’s fork­lift driv­ing, mak­ing work­ing in the se­quel feel like a chore.

One thing I re­ally love about both Shen­mue games is the lack of hand-hold­ing. There are no ob­jec­tive mark­ers or min­imaps: Just a few lines in Ryo’s note­book about what lead to in­ves­ti­gate next. As an ex­am­ple, early in the first game you have some Chi­nese writ­ing that you need to trans­late. You can ask around town and some­one will even­tu­ally point you to a lo­cal Chi­nese res­tau­rant: Or you can draw that con­clu­sion your­self and find the res­tau­rant with­out any help. It’s a game that re­wards pay­ing at­ten­tion to your sur­round­ings and think­ing log­i­cally— although, ad­mit­tedly, the vastly in­creased size of Shen­mue II can make do­ing so a lot more dif­fi­cult.

Ryo even­tu­ally leaves Hong Kong and a lit­tle of the quiet in­ti­macy of the first game is re­stored. He jour­neys to Kowloon, a ram­shackle, self-gov­erned Chi­nese city based on the real-life Kowloon Walled City. Then, later, to Bailu Vil­lage in an idyl­lic forested re­gion called Guilin. Nei­ther reach the heights of Yoko­suka in terms of world-build­ing or at­mos­phere, but the change of scenery is a wel­come one—es­pe­cially in such a long game.


This PC ver­sion is in­cred­i­bly faith­ful to the orig­i­nal. I’m glad SEGA chose not to dra­mat­i­cally over­haul the vi­su­als, be­cause they’re a vi­tal part of the game’s dis­tinct char­ac­ter. But it has been pret­tied up a lit­tle with a crisp HD in­ter­face, de­cent an­tialias­ing, and some sub­tle bloom light­ing that looks great at night. As a fan, be­ing able to en­ter build­ings with­out an eter­nity of load­ing, save any­where and use the ana­log stick to move around are all mas­sive im­prove­ments—and en­sure I never have to turn my Dream­cast on again. (Sorry, old friend.) The im­por­tant thing is, this re-re­lease looks and feels like the Shen­mue I re­mem­ber, and that’s all I wanted. It is, how­ever, locked at 30 frames per se­cond—a lim­i­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to SEGA, of how the game was scripted. This didn’t bother me, but I know it can be an is­sue for some.

Shen­mue is a strange, me­an­der­ing, of­ten ob­tuse se­ries. You spend most of it walk­ing up and down the same hand­ful of streets ask­ing hor­ri­bly­acted NPCs ba­nal ques­tions. Some­times you might get to fight some­one, but not of­ten. And yet, I love it. I love its pas­sion for the mun­dane. I love its sad, down­beat tone. I love the de­tail of its en­vi­ron­ments. I love it when it snows. I love that stupid rock mu­sic that plays when­ever Joy is rid­ing her mo­tor­cy­cle. I love ask­ing peo­ple if they know where I can find some sailors. I love the mu­sic that plays in the jazz bar. I love that fight on the rooftop as the sun sets over Kowloon. I love fork­lift rac­ing. And I love how, all these years later, I’ve never played any­thing else quite like it. You might not love these things yet, but you will.

Ryo spends the bulk of the game wan­der­ing the streets

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