The original Shenmue was released for the Sega Dreamcast in North America on November 8, 2000. Yu Suzuki, the game’s director, described categorized the game as F.R.E.E. (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) as players have the freedom to live the life of Ryo Hazuki. They can either pursue his father’s killer, Lan Di, or simply explore Yokosuka, Kanagawa, to take on odd jobs (including driving a forklift) and play arcade games.
The first title came with three game discs in addition to a soundtrack CD and a special Passport disc where you can re-watch in-game cut scenes, upload high scores and more. With that said, the online features for the game are no longer supported as Sega discontinued the service shortly after the company decided to abandon the Dreamcast.
About Shenmue II
The direct sequel, Shenmue II, was released for the Sega Dreamcast in Europe on November 23, 2001. In North America, however, the game was ported to the Xbox and launched on October 28, 2002. The Xbox version comes with improved graphics, an extra DVD movie disc detailing the events from the first game, digital comic book that covers the missing chapter between the first and second installments in addition to a snapshot mode.
The other major difference between the two versions is the localization. The European Sega Dreamcast release only features English subtitles with Japanese voices. On the other hand, the Xbox release comes fully dubbed with the original English voice cast from the first game. Furthermore, while you can’t import your save data on the Xbox like you could with the Dreamcast release, the player do get a lot of extra bonuses at the start in the North American release of Shenmue 2.
Why the Shenmue series is so special
So why are the first two Shenmue games so special? First off, no other open-world game has been able to duplicate the attention to detail. The world of the titles are littered with collectible toys, arcade machines in addition to other mini-games. Another nice touch is that Ryo can learn new moves for combat by interacting with martial arts master in addition to reading through scrolls.
Yu Suzuki also took great pride in recreating the areas of Yokosuka, Hong Kong, Kowloon and Guilin during the 1980s. Not to mention that there is also an in-game clock and randomized weather system. In terms of atmosphere, both titles are unmatched even when compared to modern AAA games.
The Shenmue series also had a somewhat unprecedented way in telling a story. Yu Suzuki crafted an epic saga that would span 16 chapters. The first chapter was covered in the first game while the second chapter took place between the events of the original and Shenmue 2. The second game covers the third, fourth and fifth chapters. Fans of the series were left hanging after the cliffhanger ending of the second Shenmue game; this is why a lot of gamers got excited with the Shenmue 3 announcement at E3 2015.
The series also does a masterful job in storytelling. In the games, you will spend most of the time wandering around the massive areas looking for clue on where to go next. Ryo can talk to everyone in the world as he can ask these unique non-playable characters questions relating to his latest objective. As a result, eventually finding your way through the next revelation is extremely rewarding due to the amount of work you have to do.
Of course, the first two Shenmue releases do have some flaws. While the graphics hold up pretty well, the cheesy and robotic voice acting does not. With that said, the voices do have a certain charm to them in that you may eventually grow to appreciate.
The other main issue is related to how the controls are set up. The games were originally developed for the Sega Dreamcast, so it only uses the left analog stick to look around and the directional pad for movement via tank controls (similar to how the old school Resident Evil games are controlled). This is the case even in the Xbox port of Shenmue 2. While you will most likely get used the controls, it is still not the most efficient method.
Even with the issues, both Shenmue and Shenmue 2 are still worth playing as there is nothing quite like these games. This is especially true when you consider that Shenmue 3 takes place directly after the cliffhanger ending of the second game. While there will be recap videos of both game in the third game, the experience of watching is simply not the same as being able to control Ryo as he walks around trying to figure out where to go next.
If you are interested, you can purchase the first two games on Amazon with the following links: Shenmue (Dreamcast) and Shenmue II (Xbox). With Shenmue III not expected to come out for the PlayStation 4 and PC until the holiday season of 2017 at the earliest, you should have more than enough time to play through the first two installments of the series.