Revisiting Shenmue I & II Completely Changed My Perspective On This Series

I spent nearly two decades carrying around a very specific memory of Shenmue I & II. The short version? Shenmue I was the influential foundation for many modern games, but Shenmue II was a slog with too many Quick Time Events (also known as QTEs, a term coined by Shenmue’s developers to indicate a quick, pass-or-fail button prompt flashing on the screen during a cutscene). These weren’t false memories by any stretch, but the bad parts of Shenmue II were the only memories I carried with me for years, at the exclusion of anything else. Now, years later, having played Red Dead Redemption 2, Yakuza, Deadly Premonition, and so many other games influenced by Shenmue, I find my opinion in a very different place.

Maybe it was the 80+ hours I spent moseying around Red Dead Redemption 2’s deliberately-paced world. Perhaps it was the time I spent exploring the small town of Greenvale in Deadly Premonition, seeking out every detail and sidequest, even when the core gameplay fought me every step of the way. Or, maybe it’s just that I’m older now and more mature. Whatever the reason, the additional patience I gained for the Shenmue games in 2020 made replaying the second game a profound experience.

Shenmue I is, in many ways, the same game I remembered. This prologue chapter has protagonist Ryo Hazuki running around his Japanese hometown of Yokosuka, interviewing gangsters and sailors, getting into fights, and trying to find the truth of his father’s murder. Along the way, the player explores Ryo’s neighborhood, a small mainstreet with shops and bars, and finally, the harbor. It’s a small world with a lot of minutiae. You can buy capsule toys, go to the arcade, or spend hours opening every drawer and cabinet in your house. You can talk to every single NPC in the world about your current objective, and many of them follow a routine over the course of the day.

The story is minimal in Shenmue I. There’s an interesting revelation or two, but all-in-all, it’s a lot of you walking around as Ryo “The Wet Blanket” Hazuki, asking questions and twisting the arms of thugs who won’t give answers. The appeal isn’t really in the story, or the moment-to-moment gameplay—except for the rare combat encounters where the gameplay blends Virtua Fighter with Streets of Rage. But no, the highlight of Shenmue is the way it captures, often despite itself, a genuine slice-of-life. With limited polygons and low-resolution textures, Shenmue manages to transport players to the mundane moments of life in late-80s Japan.

That immersion extends to Shenmue II, except this time it gets blown out into a frankly enormous world. The game starts with Ryo arriving in Hong Kong, where he is immediately robbed, forced to take on small jobs, gamble in dimly-lit warehouses, and sleep in a dingy hotel.

Shenmue I & II capture the ugly beauty of the real world in a way unlike any other game that came before or after them. This isn’t the grime of GTAV’s strip clubs or Kane & Lynch 2’s naked torture scenes. It’s the built-up cruft of a lived-in world—dirty pots and pans piled up in a restaurant, bottles left scattered around an apartment so small it seems unlivable, dirty snow sitting on the sides of the road for days, refusing to melt.

Shenmue II’s Hong Kong is a bustling city full of shops and people, lovingly-crafted. It’s big enough to be overwhelming, yet small enough that it avoids the copy-paste cheats that make Assassin’s Creed cityscapes so vast. Alone it dwarfs the original game’s Yokosuka, and yet Shenmue II doesn’t stop there.

The game really captured my imagination when I arrived in the story’s middle chapter, leaving Hong Kong to venture into Kowloon. For those that don’t know, Kowloon was a real city that was demolished in 1994. Shenmue II’s version is a very rough approximation, yet it still sparked curiosity in me. The city is a series of tall buildings all packed on top of each other. Some of the buildings are collapsing, and Ryo must balance across wooden beams to make his way to secret hideouts 14 stories up.

Shenmue II’s Kowloon cannot compare to the real thing, and in fact, my experience in the game led me to seek out multiple YouTube documentaries about the city and its history. It’s obvious the Dreamcast could have never captured something so complex, and yet Shenmue II approximates the feeling of being lost in endless dark hallways, climbing your way up one building after another. Shenmue II models every single floor of these buildings, not so you can explore them for a thousand tiny secrets like most games demand, but simply to capture a feeling of being lost in an urban sprawl.

Shenmue II still has a lot of frustrating QTEs and moments where the story drags or gets repetitive, but I didn’t find it nearly as disappointing or exhausting as I apparently found it back in 2001-2002. In fact, my opinion of the two games flipped completely. Shenmue I is merely an appetizer to Shenmue II’s grand feast. Sure, I might not care too much about whether Ryo ever avenges his father’s murder, but I’ll never again forget my time exploring these lovingly detailed cities.

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