Shenmue II Retrospective: Sega’s Swan Song

By 1999, the Sega which had dominated the video game console market of the early ‘90s was unrecognizable. Many poor financial and creative decisions, as well as the emergence of Sony’s PlayStation as a popular new competitor, reduced the former titan to little more than a laughingstock in the video game industry over the course of a few disastrous years.

Faced with the threat of the company’s demise, Sega placed all their bets on the Dreamcast, the first in a new generation of consoles which would be their final hope for a future in a market they once trounced their competition in.

For their new console, Sega would similarly invest everything they could into a single game, one which they hoped would become the Dreamcast’s definitive title and would turn the company’s fortunes around. This game would become Shenmue, an open-world experience unlike anything ever seen on a gaming console before.

Shenmue took players on a journey through 1980s Japan as they stepped into the shoes of Ryo Hazuki, a teenage martial artist who witnessed his father’s murder and sought vengeance on his father’s killer Lan Di, the powerful kung fu master and feared leader of a Chinese cartel.

The brainchild of Yu Suzuki, one of Sega’s elite game designers, Shenmue featured meticulously detailed visuals and a vast scope that pushed the Dreamcast’s technical capabilities to its limit. However, this came at a cost, with its reported budget of between 47 and 70 million dollars making it the most expensive video game ever made at the time and posing a massive risk to Sega’s financial future.

The game sold moderately well, but it was not nearly enough to save the dying Dreamcast. The console officially ceased North American production in March 2001 and would fade into obscurity as the rival PlayStation 2 became an international phenomenon.

However, this would not mark the end for Shenmue.

Suzuki’s vision for the Shenmue story spanned an entire 16-chapter saga, and the original game could only cover the first of those 16. For Shenmue II, the scope would be vastly increased, as Ryo’s quest for revenge would leave Japan and follow clues of Lan Di’s whereabouts into the Chinese locales of Aberdeen, Wan Chai, Kowloon and Guilin — making up the third, fourth and fifth chapters, with the events of the second taking place between the two games.

Shenmue’s core gameplay style took inspiration from a variety of popular genres, including fighting games, role-playing games and beat-em-ups, while also introducing entirely new concepts such as quick-time events and what would later become known as open-world games. Shenmue II takes the unique gameplay of the original and refines many of the flaws that came with being the first game of its kind.

As in the original, much of the game consists of exploring the environment and asking people you encounter about where to go to progress the story. In Shenmue II however, the tedium and confusion of exploring without direction has been partially alleviated by offering the option to buy a map of Ryo’s current location and featuring passerby characters who now offer to guide Ryo to his requested destination. Regardless, this gameplay style is not for the impatient, as its slow-burn approach can certainly feel mundane at times.

The free battle sections of gameplay pit Ryo against opponents in a style similar to Virtua Fighter, Suzuki’s hit fighting game series, and will often have Ryo defending himself against hordes of enemies, which require him to be strategic about the moves he uses. There are numerous people throughout the story who teach Ryo new moves to use in battle, with each move having its own stats, adding to the strategy in fights. However, there are very few places in the game that allow Ryo to practice his moves outside of battles, which discourages players from learning his special moves and using anything other than basic button combinations to get through most fights.

Having a surplus of money is rarely required throughout most of Shenmue II’s story, with only two objectives preventing progress if Ryo does not pay a certain sum. However, there are plenty of ways for Ryo to make money, with the primary options being working part-time, gambling and selling items at pawnshops, while also including arm wrestling, pachinko gaming and prize fighting as alternatives.

Shenmue II features various mini-games and side quests separate from the main story which serve as fun diversions and can also grow Ryo’s relationship with certain characters, revealing more about their backstories in the process. The inclusion of four playable classic Sega arcade machines are welcome inclusions, and the capsule toy machines are a cute nod to both the original Shenmue and Suzuki’s history with Sega.

This emphasis on the subtle minutia and close attention to detail can be seen throughout the entire game and is one of Shenmue II’s most interesting attributes. Every character in the game, no matter how insignificant, is fully voiced and has their own observable daily routine. While there is some variance in the quality of character models and textures based on their importance, even many passerby characters look fairly detailed by modern standards.

The attention to detail shines through most in the creation of Shenmue II’s environments, made clear as soon as Ryo steps onto the vivid, bustling streets of Wan Chai and explores its diverse districts. As soon as Ryo steps into Hong Kong, this game’s world unravels and starts to feel so alive, with so many avenues to explore and secrets to uncover. Wan Chai exemplifies this, as the city is oozing with culture and is filled to the brim with a vast variety of merchants, restaurants, parks and plenty more. Many of the game’s charming side activities are hosted in Wan Chai, and some can be easy to miss, warranting multiple play-throughs and revisits for those who seek the full Shenmue II experience. An array of vivid colors illuminate the city streets, and the personalities of those roaming the streets can be just as colorful.

While Kowloon’s dense and compact sea of interconnected buildings generally do not allow for much creativity, even it has its moments of brilliance. Based on the real-life Kowloon Walled City, an ungoverned enclave within Kowloon, Hong Kong that was demolished in 1993, Shenmue II’s depiction feels accurate to the lawlessness of its inspiration, as the city is overrun by the criminal Yellow Head organization and unsanctioned street fights can be found around seemingly every corner. Much of Kowloon feels grimy and run-down, but the two Dragon Gardens in the city’s Stand Quarter, while not actual gardens, are fighting rings held at the bottom of a large flight of stairs that lead out to the mountains, giving the Gardens a majestic feel that is complemented by the ring area resembling a broken down temple.

Kowloon is the smallest of the story’s three main locales in terms of size, but it crams so much explorable space into it that it becomes the area that players will likely be spending the most time in. The Yellow Head building is the city’s centerpiece and features 45 floors, roughly half of which Ryo will need to traverse in order to progress. Progressing through the building has the large scope of. a Zelda dungeon mixed with the stealth-based gameplay of Metal Gear Solid, however its size does become taxing about halfway through, especially with the game’s insistence on locking the player into a cutscene of Ryo pointing out a new flight of stairs on every single floor. Ryo’s trek through the building is made worth it with an epic final showdown on the rooftop, wrapping up the story’s penultimate chapter quite nicely — even if it leaves more questions than answers.

Nowhere is Shenmue II’s gorgeous approach to world-building as apparent as in Guilin, with the sheer natural beauty of its labyrinthian forests providing a wonderfully serene backdrop for the story’s conclusion. Guilin is such a pleasant place to explore that getting lost in the forest and hitting a dead end feels more adventurous than annoying, as it gives the player the opportunity to immerse themselves in every bit of the nature around them. However, most of the time in Guilin is spent trekking through the winding forest en route to the story’s final moments, which can potentially overstay its welcome.

Complementing the game’s environments is a soundtrack that feels so true to both the mood that the story wants to convey and the culture which this game so authentically emulates. Most of the tunes are relaxed and serene, as is much of the game, but the soundtrack can also bring the tension when the story calls for it.

Perhaps Shenmue II’s greatest success comes in its colorful cast of supporting characters and the relationship dynamics between them and Ryo which advances his own character development. Ryo remains as simple and stoic as a main character can be without being entirely mute, but this works to the story’s benefit by allowing the friends and mentors he finds along his journey to interact with him in interesting ways. This is exemplified in Ryo’s relationship with Ren, a cunning, snarky gang leader who reluctantly chooses to help Ryo once he senses a money trail along the way. Ren refuses to accept orders from Ryo and the pair often bicker, but Ren always has Ryo’s back in dire situations and they progressively become closer comrades whose bond makes for one of the story’s most interesting relationships.

Ryo shares a litany of memorable moments with those around him, even those who don’t follow Ryo throughout his journey. Whether it be the unforgettable lesson taught by Master Zhangyu, developing Ryo’s relationship with Fangmei, or helping Master Zhoushan reconcile with his past, every supporting character gets their time to shine throughout the story. Before Ryo leaves Wan Chai for Kowloon, the player is given the option to say goodbye to anyone who helped Ryo along the way. If the player chooses to do this, Ryo will bid his farewell and bow before them as a sign of respect, demonstrating how impactful even somewhat minor characters can be on the main character’s growth. Moments like these define Shenmue II and give the story such an admirable and inspirational charm.

With the massive leap in scope from the original to Shenmue II, there were certain compromises that had to be made in translating Suzuki’s vision onto a more technically demanding game. These compromises are sadly felt in the lack of interactivity with many rooms, shops and restaurants, as there are so many interesting places to explore with plenty of items fully rendered in detail that the player cannot buy or otherwise fiddle with. Additionally, conversations with workers and other bystanders offer little other than advice on where to go next, leaving the overworld to feel unnecessarily hollow at times.

The game’s controls take a lot of getting used to, as the default setting maps movement to the directional pad and camera view to the analog stick, although the analog stick setting can be changed to control movement. This proposes its own problem however, as while movement feels much more fluid with the analog stick and running can be executed by holding the stick forward instead of having to hold the R-trigger, command inputs for the game’s many quick-time events can only be executed with the directional pad, resulting in a constant swapping between the two. Given that quick-time events force instant reaction time, switching between them is far from ideal and can lead to many failed QTEs.

Taking this problem even further, Ryo’s movement feels clunky and turning is especially difficult on both the directional pad and analog stick. The entire game has Ryo moving on foot, so the clunky movement and suboptimal control scheme do leave a bit of a damper on the gameplay experience.

Despite its problems with window dressing in the overworld, poor movement controls and occasional subpar pacing, Shenmue II is not only a worthwhile sequel, but both a massive improvement and an excellent video game on its own.

Shenmue II certainly merits a playthrough for any dedicated gamer in 2020, but that raises the question of how one should play it in 2020. As the Dreamcast had already been cast aside in North America by November 2001, the game was never released for North American Dreamcasts, and thus, was not translated into English until it was ported to the Xbox in 2002. However, arguably the most infamous flaw of both Shenmue and Shenmue II are their poor English-dubbed translations, which can add unintended humor to serious or otherwise unassuming moments and have become a meme almost bigger than the games themselves.

As a result, some players who want to play on the game’s original hardware may want to opt for the authenticity of the original Japanese voice acting with English subtitles, but this only exists on the European release of Shenmue II, which generally resells at over $100 and requires modification for players outside of Europe. For players who want to experience the original Shenmue the same way, they are entirely out of luck.

Thankfully, there is finally a definitive way for modern gamers to experience both Shenmue titles, as a high-definition port of both games was released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in 2018. This version features fully customizable language settings for the first time, as well as enhanced visual quality and more control scheme options.

As evidenced by the somewhat dated feel of both its 2018 rerelease and 2019 sequel Shenmue III in how loyal they are to the originals, the game’s ideas have been better refined and developed in later years as consoles and game developers became more capable of handling such massive projects. Despite this, Shenmue II remains a shining example of how to improve on innovation.

The legacy of Shenmue II should live on for generations as a game that — despite its region exclusivity — defined the Dreamcast, became one of its console generation’s greatest experiences, and above all, signaled a sea change in game design that would inspire some of the most revered video games of all-time.

Shenmue may not have saved Sega from its inevitable demise in the console market, but Shenmue II gave the company’s final console the beautiful swan song it deserved.

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