For anyone who owned a Dreamcast back in the early 2000s, Shenmue is likely a deeply resonating experience. It was the reason to own the console up until 2018, when Sega published a compilation of Shenmue and Shenmue 2.
Before then, the only way to play the original was on the Dreamcast. All these years later, I still recall running along the solitary streets of Sakuragaoka, stopping at the Abe Store and spending Ryo’s allowance on the addictive Gacha machines.
Then, I would continue along the main road to the Dobuita shopping district. I would run by Liu Barber and the Lapis to get a refreshing drink at one of the vending machines.
Ryo’s signature Timex watch showed early morning; a new day had just begun. I could go and play at the “You Arcade” or practice Ryo’s combat moves at the nearby parking lot.
Or, I could act like an adult and take a bus to the harbour and earn some money by working as a forklift driver. Shenmue was a smorgasbord of activities uncharacteristic to its peers at the time.
Even so, the range of pastimes was limited, but because of its smaller setting, Shenmue felt like an intimate experience. It felt like something personal even if thousands of players were following a similar routine.
Eventually, the well of engaging pastimes dried up and Shenmue encouraged you to wrap up the story. For better or for worse, Ryo’s pursuit of his father’s killer led him to a much bigger playground.
Ryo travels across the sea, from his humble hometown in Yokosuka to the overwhelming metropolis of Hong Kong. Narrow streets and traditional Japanese homes are replaced by towering residential buildings and bustling shopping districts.
Street vendors urge you to purchase souvenirs, whereas pawnshops will obtain your Gacha figurines at a reasonable price.
Shenmue 2 offers way more pastimes than its predecessor. Arcades lure you in with striking neon billboards; gambling stalls tucked away in shady alleyways will gladly take a bet from your hard-earned dollars at the pier.
One of these stalls could become your new part-time job, should you wish to. If not, activities like arms wrestling and illicit street fights could significantly improve your wealth and reputation while also putting your button-mashing skills to the test.
Shenmue 2 simulates the feeling you experience when visiting a foreign country; you feel alone and vulnerable. A random stranger could show you the direction to your desired destination just as likely as they could steal your bag.
There’s no Ine-san to ask guidance or receive your weekly allowance from. There’s no Fuku-san to practice moves with at the dojo. And there’s no timid Nozomi to spend an awkwardly romantic evening at the park with.
Hong Kong leaves you largely on your own, and if you’re not careful, it will tear you apart.
“Keep friends, those you love, close to you”: these are Iwao Hazuki’s — Ryo’s dying father’s — last words. Indeed, in Hong Kong, you need close friends more than ever. Luckily, Shenmue 2 gives room to a greater supporting cast.
Almost as soon as he steps onto the soil of Hong Kong, Ryo meets the flamboyant and jovial Joy. Her name says it all, really; she rides around on her bright-red bike and becomes immediately attracted to Ryo’s mysterious Japanese persona.
Joy seems like a regular girl, yet local gangsters and business owners tremble at the mere mention of her name.
Speaking of local gangs, Ryo’s investigation eventually leads him to Wuying Ren, the leader of the Heavens gang. Ren makes the opposite first impression to Joy. A thief and a conman, Ren tries to benefit from Ryo’s gullible nature.
Although their relationship doesn’t start on the best of terms, a common adversary prompts them to team up.
But Ryo went to Hong Kong for a specific reason: to meet master Lishao Tao, aka Xiuying Hong. Calm and collected, Xiuying commands a powerful presence; she not only makes Ryo into a more skilled combatant, but also tempers his emotions.
Xiuying disapproves of Ryo’s desire to take revenge, a mindset that’s reflected by her own painful past.
Shenmue 2 finally introduces you to Shenhua Ling, a girl Ryo keeps seeing in his dreams. Shenhua plays an integral role in helping Ryo understand the purpose behind the coveted twin mirrors.
Unlike the other characters, she lives a humble life in the secluded Bailu village. Its lush and untouched landscapes contrast with the concrete scenery of Hong Kong and briefly bring back the intimacy from the original.
How Does Shenmue 2 Compare to the Original?
Both games work as part of a greater whole; both feature the same excellent soundtrack and combo-based combat. That said, Shenmue 2 undoubtedly reigns supreme when it comes to the environment and the sheer number of pastimes.
This variety makes you far more likely to forego the main story and spend time on side activities. Combined with the broader range of lively characters, Shenmue 2 feels like a more robust open-world game.
But all of it comes at the expense of sacrificing much of the intimacy and warmth found in the first game.
There’s no place or person, no routine that feels as my own. Just like Ryo, I’ve taken a trip to a foreign land, but once my business is done, I’ll be going back home, back to the familiar streets of Sakuragaoka.