For years, it has been rumoured that the beloved Shenmue and Shenmue II would be getting remastered.  Then when Shenmue III was announced at E3 2015 with a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, it was only a matter of time until the rumoured remaster become a reality.  It may have taken Sega much longer than expected, but finally the first two Shenmue games are remastered, albeit somewhat of a light remaster, but still, it’s great that fans can now experience the titles in glorious HD for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.  It also gives those that missed the initial releases that want to jump aboard the Shenmue III hype train, an opportunity to experience why this series is held in such high regard by fans.

Returning fans to the series will be well aware of this epic revenge tale, but for those new to the series, I won’t spoil anything here, so fear not, but I will gloss over the story for the benefit of this review and those considering picking up these titles for the first time.  Set from 1986, you play as teenager Ryo Hazuki, brought up in a life of martial arts by this father and sensei, Iwao who was murdered by a mysterious Chinese man by the name of Lan Di with Ryo’s father dying in his arms; Lan Di was after an artifact known as the Dragon Mirror.  This sparks a relentless investigation by Ryo as he aims to discover the meaning of the Dragon Mirror and gain revenge against the man that murdered his father.  The adventure starts from his home town of Yamanose, Yokosuka Japan to the mean streets of Hong Kong throughout the course of both games.

While some may still view the Shenmue series with nostalgia tinted goggles (and I may very well be one of those to a degree), even when the first game released in 2000 (or 1999 in Japan), I was well aware that the game was very clunky at times to manoeuvre Ryo and it still is.  In fairness to Sega, the kind of revamping that the gameplay would require to truly fix this chunkiness, would more than likely need the games to be re-built from the ground up, hopefully this issue won’t be present in Shenmue III, which is set to release next year.  So with that said, you’ll need to go into these remasters with the mindset that manoeuvring Ryo can still be awkward, which may be more of an issue with newcomers to the series.  But if you can look past that, just as I did in 2000, you might just experience that unique magical charm that this series has to offer.

These re-releases/remasters also come with improved HD visuals, although at the time of writing there are no major benefits when playing on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, however the PC version has far more graphical options.  The user interface is also a little tidier and easier to navigate, you can choose to have the original or new Bloom visual effect, and you can select to have either the English or Japanese voice-actors for both games, and you can choose to view the game in its original form of 4:3 or 16:9 aspect rations.  Now the wide-screen option should be a great feature to have, but at least in my experience when playing on the PS4, choosing this option has resulted in me having a glitch that blacks out the screen when in cut-scenes, even though I can hear the dialogue and the sub-title text appears on screen.  So for that reason, until the game is patched and fixed, I’ve had to play it in the 4:3 aspect ratio format, which is a frustrating shame.  Another issue that I encountered is that after one or two cut-scenes, I would enter a permanent 1st-person view for which I couldn’t escape and the only way to leave, would be to exit the game and reload my previous save.  Which by the way, get in the habit of saving a lot in these games, just to be safe, as it would be very disheartening to loose progress due to an unfortunate glitch.

One element that hasn’t been improved upon however, is the quality of sound during dialogue.  Back in 2000 and 2001, the quality of sound can be forgiven somewhat, but to hear the tiny/echoing dialogue still being present in a 2018 remaster, isn’t quite as forgivable.  Now of course I’m no developer, but clearing up that audio would have gone a long way with many fans and newcomers, unless you want that nostalgic authenticity, but if that was the case, perhaps having the choice of two audio quality options would have catered well for fans on either side of that fence.

Both games are full of QTE’s, so if you’re not overly keen on this mechanic, then this may also frustrate you.  In this day and age, it seems that QTE’s are on their way out, but there are times where they do have their place and Shenmue is certainly a home to the QTE.  However, unlike some games where QTE’s are more of an inconvenience that don’t allow you to chill out and watch a story unfold with a well-rendered cut-scene, QTE’s are very much a part of the Shenmue’s gameplay and sure they might frustrate you with their overly sensitive timing, but I believe that they’ve always had their place in this series and some can be quite challenging.  Heck, I remember pulling out a notepad and writing down the QTE sequence for Shenmue II to memorise them, just so I could progress to the next chapter.

Combat also plays a huge part in Shenmue and is based upon the Virtua Fighter series.  To be honest, I enjoyed the beat ‘em’ up combat then and I still do now, though it would have been handy to perhaps have had some kind of auto-aim implemented into these remasters.  Ryo will start off with basic combat skills, but you will unlock new moves by purchasing scrolls or finding them throughout the big open-worlds.  You can also fine-tune your skills by practicing in an empty car park or dojo, which can increase their power.  Though when training, it would have been helpful to have the move-commands appear on the screen in the remasters, something that wasn’t present in the original.  Purchasing new moves and getting the practice in will come and handy, and I’d certainly recommend upgrading Ryo whenever you can, because battles can become very intense later on.  As a handy tip, there’s an antique shop in Ryo’s home village early in the game which has several move-scrolls, purchase all of them as soon as you can.

Other then Ryo and the cast of characters, arguably the biggest character in both of these games is its open-world.  For its time, they were revolutionary with the interaction with worldly objects, such as addictively buying every toy capsules (trust me, you’ll be having many “just one more” purchase all the time), playing in Arcades with such classics as Hang-On, Space Harrier, After Burner and more.  The world will also be populated by loads of NPC characters, some are idle and some offer side-quest opportunities.  You can even get a job as a folk-lift driver to earn money so that Ryo can travel on his adventures, later in t he series you’ll also be able to run a pachinko stands and even earn money by gambling, street fighting and arm wrestling.

You’ll also need to keep an eye on the world progressing in real-time, albeit much shorter then a proper 24-hour passing of course.  In the first Shenmue, Ryo will have to return home by 11pm, so you’ll need to get done all you can before that time.  He’ll also have a daily allowance as he begins his day, though spending that allowance wisely on move-scrolls instead of toy capsules is a very challenging predicament indeed.  Shops will open and close during working hours, some NPC’s will only appear during certain times of the day in their own routines, buses will run via timetables and there’s even seasonal weather.  While these gameplay aspects might not be quite as impressive in this day and age, especially when compared to games such as The Witcher 3 or even the Yakuza series, again for its time, the Shenmue series was way ahead.  Also as you progress from Shenmue to Shenmue II, you’ll be able to import data such as martial art moves, items you’ve collected as well as money, and also in the sequel you’ll be able to fast-track the time (this would have been a great feature to add to the first game to save a lot of waiting around by the way).

In conclusion, some remasters do a job better than others.  For example, something like the original Resident Evil remake or this year’s Shadow of the Colossus, are remakes built from the ground up.  Then you have remasters such as Shenmue and Shenmue II, while not on the same level as the aforementioned remasters, are done to a quite minimal degree with a handful of improvements made here and there.  It’s easier for the likes of Shadow of the Colossus to welcome in newcomers with its big-budget production, but with remasters such as this one, they can be seen more of a fan-service, which is perhaps why you can bag both games for no more than £25 at launch.

So with that said, these somewhat light remasters still possess that magic and charm which has resulted in such a loyal and vocal following since the early 2000’s.  This collection might struggle to attract a new audience with their ‘fan service’ approach.  However, if you can look past some of the gameplay and technical flaws, this will not only be the perfect time to prepare for Shenmue III’s release in 2019, but in doing so, you might just discover the magic of Shenmue and find out why these games are so beloved by its fans.  Oh and on the off-chance, I don’t suppose you might know where some sailors hang out?  Nope?  Ok, never mind then.