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Time has not been kind

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Shenmue 1

By Alexander O. Cuaycong and Anthony L. Cuaycong

LONGTIME gamers remember Shenmue fondly for what it tried to achieve. The open-world adventure brawler was revolutionary in its ideas, trying its hardest to blend an engaging narrative, extensive exploration sprinkled with minigames of various types, quick time events, and combat sequences. Released back in 1999 as a Sega Dreamcast exclusive, it met with extremely positive praise, but somehow failed to parlay its critical acclaim into commercial appeal.

Still, Sega AM2 believed in its potential, and sought to push the envelope anew with Shenmue II. The sequel was released on Sega’s console in 2001 and on the Microsoft Xbox a year later, but, the continued support notwithstanding, suffered the same fate as its predecessor. With the Midas touch of director and producer Yu Suzuki — evident in hit after hit across several platforms — tested and found wanting, the series was thereafter seen to be confined to the dustbins of video game history.

Until recently, that is. Despite failed attempts at having spin-offs Shenmue Online and Shenmue City gain traction, Suzuki kept his dream alive. Licensing the title from Sega, he launched in 2015 a Kickstarter campaign for Shenmue III that proved to be massively successful. It took just a third of a day for it to meet its crowdfunding target, and then a little over a month to become what was then the best-backed video game project in the public-benefit company’s history.




Banking on the cult following of the series and projected success of Shenmue III, Sega went about updating Shenmue I and II and releasing their remastered versions late last month. Featuring retouched graphics, better audio quality, and a more player-friendly interface, the ports for the PS4, Xbox One, and personal computer highlight the videogame giant’s moves to bring the franchise to more modern audiences.

Shenmue 2

Shenmue follows the story of teenager Ryo Hazuki, who sees his father slain firsthand by the mysterious martial artist Lan Di. Swearing to find the perpetrator and avenge his father’s death, he embarks on an investigation that has him exploring Yokosuka in search for clues. Shenmue II starts where the first ends, with him in Hong Kong on the trail of his father’s killer and preparing for what he deems to be an inevitable confrontation.

Admittedly, the storyline of Shenmue and Shenmue II isn’t unique; revenge-fueled games featuring the principal protagonist spurred to action by the demise of a loved one are a dime a dozen. That said, there’s something honest in how the series presents itself and its characters; it makes up for the inability of its narrative to break new ground with its own distinct polish. At the time of its release just before the turn of the millennium, never before had a title try as hard as it did to immerse players in its setting.

In this regard, Shenmue I and II are hardly typical examples of an adrenaline-filled title that breezes through its story. They dare to be much more, and actually succeed in their objective. The game play requires a delicate balance between Ryo’s investigation and the passage of time. Non-playable characters who might have valuable information tend to be available only in given places and instances, thus highlighting the importance of time management.

In Shenmue I and II, progression entails figuring out exactly when and where certain people will be, and then coming up with a schedule that works. It sounds — and actually is — tedious, but it‘s likewise refreshing to have to figure out how to best use idle moments. Waiting for an NPC next to an arcade? Play a game of Space Harrier. Have excess money? Collect in-game gachapons and display them on your cabinet. Need to kill time? Train and practice for combat in the parking lot. There are any and all manner of minigames and distractions on hand.

After a while, though, the biggest draw of Shenmue I and II becomes their most difficult hurdle as well. Once the novelty of making idle time productive wears off, the process becomes a source of frustration. There is no skip feature. There can be no accelerating the clock, thus compelling players to wait for the next important plotpoint to occur, for the next QTE to be triggered, or the next helpful NPC to arrive. Granted, there are myriad things to do. On the other hand, most of them don’t feel like they’re crucial to the narrative moving forward. Ryo can gamble, or arm wrestle, or even operate a forklift — but the disconnect remains.

Players do still make choices in Shenmue I and II, to be sure, and the downtime does help flesh out Ryo’s personality. Then again, the gaps between relevant story sections become noticeable over time, and all of them are punctuated not by grinding but by tedium. Parenthetically, it doesn’t help that the “improved controls” their current-generation versions are supposed to parade are still on the clunky side.

In sum, Shenmue I and II boast of an interesting story, but the way it’s told exposes them as products of their time. Countless games have been released since their inception, and while not all possess as much courage in aiming to be different, many are more technically polished, boasting of more content and less downtime in between. They may have been progenitors of the open-world exploration genre, but time has not been kind to them; even at their remastered state, they’re rudimentary at best when compared to new releases.

Nonetheless, gamers would benefit from trying Shenmue I and II out. Given the faithfulness of their high-definition selves to the original, going through them at least once becomes a productive lesson in history. Even absent any luster, they have their charms, and their legacy deserves to live on.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi

POSTSCRIPT:
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi (PS4) — New to the Nobunaga’s Ambition series is the importance of a certain lord’s “Resolve,” which reflects his personality and mind-set. Comprehending this and crafting strategy accordingly are keys to progressing in the game. Whereas one daimyo may favor army building, another may lean towards intensifying trade relations. Whereas one may want to strengthen diplomatic ties, another may have protectionist predilections. To maximize buff effects and subsequently move forward, players will want to act on the basis of their chosen clan’s strengths and weaknesses.

Admittedly, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi has its flaws. While parts of it have improved compared to Sphere of Influence-Ascension, a handful of design choices do limit it from being as good as it should be. For example, battles feature a morale bar, but the removal of tactics outside of initial planning effectively negates its purpose. Meanwhile, building provinces appear sound in theory, but harder to do in practice. Also absent is combat along territorial waters.

On the whole, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi comes off as a subtle reimagining of the series, sacrificing some depth in favor of greater accessibility. For those new to the franchise, it serves as a good introduction. Longtime followers, however, may be left wanting and wondering why it didn’t just add to Sphere of Influence-Ascension. It’s still one of the best historical simulation games in the market, but, depending on perspective, it’s either a glass on its way to being full or a glass on its way to being empty. (7.5/10)

Crayola Scoot

Crayola Scoot (Nintendo Switch) — The game boasts of impeccable, crisp colors to complement the highly detailed, bright graphics of the arenas, and rightly so. After all, it cannot be “Crayola” without the wonderful hues and shades. And what the game lacks in appealing characters, it more than makes up in fluidity of action. Jumps, spins, and turns all seem effortless and seamless — that is, until one falls over in a faulty move and lands like a broken marionette.

The gameplay of Crayola Scoot proceeds without lags or slowdowns on the Switch, and scene changes shift in unbroken sequences, a definite plus in further highlighting movement and color in the game. Then, too, it benefits from a more than modest soundtrack — upbeat, quirky, and high on the LSS factor. Gamewise, the learning curve gets steeper with the more difficult stages as tricks require several combinations of buttons and Joy-Con stick movements to perform.

It must be said that, at first glance, similarities to other games are evident. Crayola Scoot calls to mind some well-known titles, among them Nintendo’s Splatoon, THQ Nordic’s De Blob, Sega’s Jet Set Radio, and Activision’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater. By combining creativity (coloring, painting) with action (skating, racing, scootering), it gathers inspirations from the elements of these games to create a new take on an otherwise well-represented genre, delivering entertainment for children and adults alike. (7/10)


Video Game Review

Shenmue I and II
PlayStation 4

THE GOOD

• Extremely faithful remasters of the original releases

• Immersive and interesting, with novel concepts scattered throughout

• Wide variety of minigames

THE BAD

• Too much downtime between story segments

• Slow paced and tedious at times

• Clunky controls that show their age

RATING: 7/10