First launching nearly 20 years ago, the Shenmue series has garnered a cult following throughout the years. Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus has paved the way for the open world games we enjoy today and, luckily for you, the Shenmue I & II HD Collection is now available on GamePass.
Taking place in 1986 Yokosuka, Japan, Shenmue I begins with Ryo Hazuki returning home just to witness his father dying at the hands of the mysterious martial artist, Lan Di. Like any good Kung Fu story, this pushes Ryo into a quest for revenge while learning about the mystical stone dragon mirror stolen by his father’s murderer. In Shenmue II, Ryo’s adventure takes him to Hong Kong, Kowloon City, and eventually Guilin. For this epic sequel, the sense of scale increases tenfold as Ryo learns more about Kung Fu while befriending a larger cast of characters.
The two games present an interesting contrast that shows Ryo adapting throughout his adventure. For example, in Shenmue I, Ryo is familiar with the locations and locals; however, in Shenmue II, he is clearly in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the locations or the people, which is something the game does a great job demonstrating.
Part adventure game, part action game, part RPG, part classic arcade, and part life simulator, it’s hard to pin down what genre Shenmue falls into exactly. The closest equivalent today would probably be the open world genre. Though, unlike many open world games, the scope of Shenmue lies within the minute details rather than general land mass. On your mission for revenge, you can pet a kitten, play classic arcade games, shop at the convenient store, drive a forklift, collect capsule toys, and interact with hundreds of fully modeled items, all for the sake of immersion. This attention to detail includes a day/night cycle and a weather system based on actual weather data from that time period. Shops open and close at scheduled times and NPCs react to the weather as they go about their daily routines.
The world of Shenmue just begs for you to soak it all in. A perfect example is how navigation is handled in the game. Unlike many newer games, there are no waypoints or breadcrumb trails leading you to the next objective, so you need to talk to locals and pay attention to street signs to find your way around. This old school design adds to the appeal, in my opinion, and contributes to Shenmue’s unique experience.
However, some aspects—such as the pacing and controls—have not aged as well. The story in Shenmue 1 is a slow burn, maybe too slow for some in this Fortnite-fueled world. Much like the first chapter of a book, Shenmue slowly introduces you to the world and it could take a while before the action gets started.
One design choice that further hinders the flow is how reliant the game is on time. As mentioned before, the Shenmue series follows a day/night cycle, and some tasks require you to be somewhere at a specific time. This means that you may need to pass time in the arcade, practicing moves, or some other activities until the scheduled event. Thankfully this is addressed in Shenmue II, where you have an option to wait and fast forward time. The pacing in the second game is also greatly improved with the action starting only minutes into the game and new objectives consistently pushing you forward.
The controls in the game can also seem awkward at first. These titles were made before open world games had a modern template to use as inspiration. So, the tank-like controls may take some getting used to, but once you have them down, you’ll be able to navigate around the world with little to no issue. Don’t let these issues discourage you from experiencing one of the most unique adventures in gaming. Like all examples of where good games fall a bit flat, these annoyances pass and do not take away from what these games have to offer.
The structure of both Shenmue I and II is primarily broken down into three parts: exploration, quick time events (or QTEs), and a 3D fighting system roughly based on the Virtua Fighter combat engine. The majority of the game focuses on Ryo exploring the world, asking locals for information, and searching for clues. It’s during these segments that you’ll have the opportunity to take your time and fully enjoy all the options the game has to offer.
The quick time events provide some cinematic flair while still giving you some level of control. These QTEs are seamlessly introduced into the game and definitely keep you on your toes. The 3D fighting portions provide gameplay similar to what we see in today’s beat-em-ups. During Ryo’s adventure, your Kung Fu will be put to the test as you face off against multiple opponents. The combat can be as shallow or deep as you’d like with the game offering a plethora of moves for you to master.
New techniques can be learned through scrolls or from lessons with martial art masters you meet along the way. Each move in your arsenal can be leveled up, evolving how Ryo performs these moves while making them more powerful. One of the coolest features in the series is any move or item collected in Shenmue I is carried over to Shenmue II. These gameplay mechanics may not benefit from the advances found in today’s game design, but they are solid overall, especially considering the period in which these games launched.
For titles that originally launched in 1999 and 2001, the presentation holds up surprisingly well. The games are only rendered at 1080p but are very clean, even on a 4K display. Character models are nicely detailed, there is plenty of variety in the environments, and the game just offers a refreshing look that stands out in today’s market. New graphical features like bloom lighting can be toggled on or off, you can switch between 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios, and even render the game at a lower resolution, similar to what’s seen in the original Dreamcast releases.
The audio is kind of a mixed bag. Every character is fully voiced with their own actor and personality. Unfortunately, due to limited disc space on the Dreamcast, the dialogue and some musical tracks suffer from compression. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it is noticeable. The majority of the music sounds amazing, though, and the composers have crafted some of the most beautiful music found in gaming, even today. Overall, there is very little to complain about in regard to Shenmue’s presentation.
The Shenmue I & II HD Collection offers an interesting look at a piece of gaming history. When playing the games now, it’s easy to see how Yu Suzuki and the team at AM2 were pioneers in their field. If you’re a fan of classic Kung Fu movies and enjoy unique gaming experiences, I think you owe it to yourself to try out the Shenmue I & II HD Collection on GamePass.