As of May this year, I’m 22 years old, born in 1996. When Shenmue released on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999 I.... wasn’t playing it. I had been playing video games since the age of 2, and I was 3 at the time, playing Konami’s Metal Gear Solid. Two years later I would go on to play Halo: Combat Evolved at the age of 5 and the following year at the age of 6 I was playing Grand Theft Auto III. Years went by and I owned almost every system from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. But back in 1999, I didn’t have a Dreamcast, my family had a PlayStation and a Super Nintendo(We had an original Nintendo, but according to my older brother I broke it some time between the ages of 1 and 2 by jamming a cartridge into it. I don’t remember that so he must be making it up... Oddly we have some NES games laying around. Weird.). So to me, a game like Shenmue was lost to time. Stranded on a system I never owned and never would. A system I didn’t even realize existed until I was in my mid-teens.
Now, nearly 20 years later, thanks to Sega, I was able to experience the game that everyone was saying was so great. And I thought to myself “There’s no way a game from 1999 could still be as good as people are saying. Its gotta be archaic by this point.” But I couldn’t have been more wrong, though not for the reasons you might think. Graphically, Shenmue has a lot of rough edges, which is to be expected from such an old game. And yet, the graphics look oddly sharp even though no work was done on them for this HD re-release. The lighting is beautiful, the voiceover work is fairly decent, and the soundtrack is moving. Ryo’s quest for vengeance, despite the fact that I’m only one act in, is already engaging and I found myself attached to the characters, no matter how brief their appearance.
But above all of that, it was like I had been transported back in time to something nostalgic. While someone like me may never appreciate the game in the same way that someone who played it back then does, what allows me to appreciate the game the way I do, is that it reminds me of my childhood, of a feeling I’ve come to think of as “home.” I’m of course, talking about its 80's/90's aesthetic. Having been born in the mid-90's it’s hard for me to remember exactly what it was like to live in the 90's, similarly to how the 00's also feel foreign in a way to me because it was a time of transition and great technological progress that made everything so different so fast. You could describe it similarly to whiplash because just as you’re getting used to something, it changes, but it changes so fast that it whips you around, and as a result the only constant image I have in my head is what my family’s home was like at the turn of the century, my earliest memories, when things were still as they were in the 90's. Shenmue is set in 1986, but to me the aesthetic of 1980's Japan, at least the one depicted in Shenmue(Compared to the more glamorous, colorful and crazy depiction in Yakuza 0.), feels no different from that of the American 90's, especially with the idyllic small town setting. And I mean come on, Ryo wears a really sweet bomber jacket, white shirt, and jeans. You can’t beat that look. And that’s what attached me to this game, in a way that no other game really can. It brought me back to a time in the farthest corners of my memory, and that’s a feeling I can never forget.
If there was a beef to be had with this game, it would honestly have to be how much of my time it wastes while waiting for the next story beat to be available. The game has a full day/night cycle, a living world, and certain main story segments can only be done at specific times of the day. You could wake up one day, go to where you’re supposed to be, and then you’re told to come back the next day, except you’ve now got an entire day with no more story, but you can’t skip to the next day until 8pm. Guess I better spend my time in the arcade... or minimize the game and do stuff while the time passes. I don’t entirely hate this about the game. It’s yet another thing that makes the game feel classic. A time before waypoints and waiting systems, a time when developers wanted you to find other things to do while you waited without telling you what you should do. It’s refreshing in a way, but I could have finished the game a LOT faster if I didn’t have to sit around so much.
Now, if I had to pick something that I felt was even worse than that, it would have to be the keyboard and mouse controls on PC. The game has no built-in gamepad support oddly enough, so if you want to use a PS4 or Xbox One controller, you have to manually configure the controls. And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure what I should map to what buttons, and so out of frustration I decided to just try the keyboard controls(You don’t use the mouse at all.). Since the game mostly consists of exploration, you can pretty much play the game one-handed most of the time. The WASD keys move the character around, the SHIFT key is for running(For some reason, and I’m not alone with this problem, the key didn’t work so I had to remap the control to the space bar, but anything I mapped to SHIFT after that worked just fine. Same with zooming on CTRL, which I remapped to the F key.), CTRL for zooming, R for interacting, Q for the journal, and TAB for the menu. This works just fine, I like it especially after I did a little remapping. However, the part I hate is the QTE’s and combat because the controls for that are so stupid. For QTE’s you have to use WASD & the 1,2, and 3 keys above them. This meant that whenever a QTE came up, because I couldn’t hit them quickly enough with one hand, I had to place my right hand on top of my left so that I had all the buttons covered at once. As for regular combat, the controls for that are mapped to the Numpad keys, namely 4,5,6,8, and 9. I can’t seem to figure out if 7 did anything. Once you figure out which keys do what, it’s not too bad, but performing special moves or combos could be frustrating. I really wish the game had official gamepad support, which seems like a really strange omission for a game that was originally on consoles, and a re-release that is also on Xbox One and PS4.
Setting that aside though, the original Shenmue is like a blast from the past for me, and a part of me hates that I never got to play it back when it first released. You may question whether or not a 3 year old could have played it, let alone understood it, but make no mistake, I knew what I was doing, and I would have understood the story just fine. I got Metal Gear Solid after all and that came across just fine. But even getting to experience this gem now, after all these years, is still an unforgettable experience. I had wanted to play it ever since Shenmue III was announced in 2015. While the reveal initially did not excite me, I loved the aesthetic on display in the trailer, as well as the music, so my curiosity was peaked. And then the audience’s reaction to just the sound of the theme caught my attention. It was the kind of excitement and applause reserved for only the greatest of reveals, and now I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Now I do, and it was worth the wait.
If I were to tell you whether or not you should buy the HD collection and try this game, I would say absolutely. No number rating or a scale of bad to good can do this game justice. It’s something that needs to be played, not just seen, to understand. Also you can race forklifts. I mean, come on, that’s just awesome.