Category Archives: Editorials

Editorials meaning extended rants.

Must-have features for Shenmue HD

Now that Shenmue III is a reality, and with Sega snapping up related domains, it’s more likely than ever that we’ll see the two Dreamcast games – both among my favourites ever – coming to modern hardware. As I have done with all previous versions, I’ll be buying it on every platform available so as to maximise the series’ commercial viability and do my part, but what does Sega need to do to make this the best possible revival? I have a few ideas…

Shenmue HD

  • Offer a Japanese language option. Freed from the limitations of a GD-ROM, there’s no excuse not to rectify the single biggest complaint about the English-language releases. Even if the Hong Kong where everyone spoke Japanese made little sense, the PAL Dreamcast version of Shenmue II was light years ahead of the truly horrendous dub for the Xbox edition, and for a game that so celebrated Japan, the decision to dub the original was baffling. Although I can only understand one word in a dozen, my Japanese copy of Shenmue is my preferred medium for a playthrough nowadays. This shortcoming must be rectified in the re-release, whether it’s by including only the Japanese dialogue or by making everyone happy with a toggle.
  • On similar lines, base it on the Japanese game. The stories of how Sega paid to feature real products in Shenmue – the opposite of how product placement is supposed to be done – is one of the famous examples of the mismanagement that led to the series’ crippling budget, but I’d still like to see the realism of buying Coca-Cola while checking my Timex watch added back in. If this is to be the definitive version, we can’t overlook how the little touches like this were what made people fall in love with Shenmue’s world. And if you don’t want to pass the cost on to the consumers, make it paid DLC. I’d buy it.
  • Port the Dreamcast version of Shenmue II, not the Xbox one. Putting aside the dub issue, although it was technically superior and better in some areas, the odd differences in environmental geometry between the DC and Xbox versions often left the Microsoft one coming up short. If this is to be the full-fat, best-of-both-worlds Shenmue experience, I want all the signs from the Dreamcast game. Someone should also point out that vending machines in Hong Kong offering prices in Japanese yen makes no sense, especially when they correctly operated in Hong Kong dollars the first time around.
  • But still fix the pop-in and slowdown. This was something that the Xbox game indisputably got right. The slowdown and characters materialising two feet in front of you was bad in Shenmue and downright terrible in Shenmue II, which really pushed the Dreamcast beyond its limits. There won’t be any excuse for modern hardware not to be throwing Shenmue round at full speed. And improve the quality of the 32kbps MP3s used for dialogue while you’re at it.
  • Make it widescreen while you’re at it. I’d hope this goes without saying, but Sonic Adventure for the Xbox 360 and PS3 was pillarboxed 4:3. Fans have got Shenmue most of the way there with emulators, so Sega can’t fall short here.
  • Dual-analogue controls. We’re now far enough removed for me to admit that the Dreamcast controller isn’t particularly enjoyable to use. Shenmue did a decent job with the tools available, but the HD version must give us analogue movement and use the two sticks to remove the need for hand gymnastics if you want to run around (up on the D-pad and hold left trigger) while admiring the scenery (analogue stick, also on the left). By all means keep the movement on the D-pad for authenticity’s sake, but dual analogue simply must be an option.
  • Give it online leaderboards and theme them like Shenmue Passport. The oft-forgotten fourth disc of Shenmue offered a cut-scene viewer, music player, and tech demos that gave information on all the systems at play in simulating the world. What it also allowed you to do was go online to read detailed background information on every NPC in the game – finally settle those arguments over the blood type and zodiac sign of the girl in Hokuhoku Lunches – as well as view maps, gameplay stats, and global leaderboards for the numerous mini-games. None of this has worked since 2002, so I’d love to see this all make a comeback with the more robust online infrastructures of the current consoles behind it.
  • Don’t be afraid to use Shenmue II to improve the first one. I might generally prefer the first game, but I’m not so hung up on it being authentic that I’ll turn down the backporting of the numerous mechanical improvements of Shenmue II. Being able to skip ahead when waiting for an appointment, for instance, was an undeniable benefit.

No excuses, Sega.

A slow year for games

Yesterday’s update on my HTPC was my first post on here since my annual look at the best of the year, a gap of nearly ten months. I must have a lot of exciting games to talk about after such a long hiatus, right? Well, no.

Truthfully, the back end of this site is loaded with unpublished drafts of hands-on impressions of the impressive HTC Vive, the gloriously nostalgic revival Doom, The Witcher 3’s standard-setting expansions, the ridiculously gorgeous Uncharted 4, and even a handful of books. None more than a few paragraphs and all abandoned after my failure to arrange them into a coherent post in time for a timely publication.

Really, though, that about sums up my gaming for the year. There hasn’t been much of it. I’ve played some Doom, Witcher and Rainbow Six over the last couple of evenings, which was my first time on a ‘proper’ game in nearly two months, judging by the timestamp on my Doom save. I moved to a new flat in December and sold a lot of the family silver to pay for that, so even my collection looks threadbare and shorn of its crown jewels. Invitations from gaming friends to arrange a game in Battlefield 1 this weekend have been rejected because I haven’t even bothered to preorder it. I’m helping my girlfriend move house in preference to playing a new Battlefield. What’s happening? It’s like I’ve become an adult or something. *shudder*

I’ve been one of those people who talks about games more than actually plays them for a while now, and this indifference has recently acquired a pining for the old days and a cynicism of what now constitutes a game. An occasional release will pique my interest and bring me out of retirement – Persona 5, Red Dead 2, The Last Guardian and, of course, Shenmue III are a few that will do that over the next couple of years – but I now struggle to put together a top ten for the year simply because I haven’t played that many games.

Don’t expect things to change any time soon. My only preorder for the rest of the year is for a Nintendo Classic Mini, after all. But I’m still here, and I’m going to keep posting.

Shenmue on a Kickstarter budget

ShenhuaEven if the numbers Shenmue III is pulling in are strong for a Kickstarter project, they’re not anywhere close to a modern, big budget, open-world game. They’re not even close to the $70 million that gets thrown around in discussions about the original’s extravagant cost. But the arguments are frequently misleading, so I want to take the opportunity to discuss some misconceptions and how an authentic Shenmue III experience could be delivered with a much-reduced budget.

For one thing, the $70m figure is an exaggeration. Yu Suzuki himself has put it closer to $47m, which doesn’t even hit $70m when adjusted for 15 years of inflation. Not small change, to be sure, but not even close to what a major open-world game can cost today.

It’s thanks to the current prevalence of open-world games that a Shenmue game could be made on a more modest budget, hence this one running on Unreal Engine 4. Shenmue was pushing boundaries with a bespoke engine, doing things that hadn’t been seen before; much of it is commonplace now, easily achieved using off-the-shelf middleware.

The explosion in gaming budgets since Shenmue came out doesn’t make $47m less gigantic in the context of 1999, of course. But something that’s frequently forgotten is that much of that was an investment in this revolutionary tech, which was supposed to power a multi-episode Shenmue saga. The engine was ultimately only used for Shenmue and a single sequel (four chapters in total), making profitability impossible and giving the game the appearance of an outrageous budget. Numbers aren’t available for Shenmue II on its own, but you can see how much further the money went, once it didn’t have to pay for the tech, in its sheer scale.

With that obstacle removed through the use of a third-party engine, able to render environments on the scale of Shenmue in its sleep, all the money goes on content. A budget that’s likely under $20m all-in is still tight, but it appears doable.

My final point is that this simply won’t be as big as Shenmue II. That game was ridiculous in its scale, dwarfing the already-impressive original game. The series has gone from a small hometown to playing the stranger in a foreign metropolis, and this one looks like changing it up again, continuing the rural Chinese setting of Guilin. Even with three locations, Suzuki has compared the planned scale to Dobuita in the first Shenmue, and that’s okay. We’re getting Shenmue III, and it’s a series about density and realism in its detail, rather than sprawling scale. After all these years, I’ll take it.

Ultimately, the precise breakdown of Shenmue III’s funding is unclear. We know that Sony is providing some money for publishing and marketing support, but the team has clarified that the bulk of it will come from Kickstarter. Evidently, Suzuki was prepared to make the game on a budget of $2 million, plus a modest amount of outside funding, and since the game has already breezed past the target, anything we can add, even if this doesn’t approach the scale and grandeur of the Dreamcast games, is gravy.

2014: Everything was Remasters

Everything was remastersI’m planning out my annual Game of the Year list for 2014 and I have a serious problem: I’m fairly sure I haven’t even played ten new games this year. I still don’t have a Wii U, meaning I’ve so far missed out on a couple of gems there – Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 would almost certainly make the list – and I’m aware of a couple of candidates that I haven’t touched on the big consoles – The Evil Within, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadows of Mordor, Far Cry 4 – but it’s still a disappointing crop.

That lot, coupled with the ones I actually have played, would still only take me up to a dozen or so, which is well down on years when putting together a top ten was a challenge for good reasons and left me with enough worthy games to fill an impressive honourable mentions list. Now, though, I’m either dropping it to a top five or just going with a handful of favourites to be hailed as one.

One trend is clear, though. My one remaining preorder for the year is Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD, which joins Final Fantasy X HD, Grand Theft Auto V for the PS4 and Metro Redux on my shelf. And I’ve been quite selective with those four, skipping Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and no doubt some lesser examples that are slipping my mind. Just today, Dark Souls II was announced for the PS4 and Xbox One. Not the superior previous games in the series, and coming in the face of the series creator’s eagerly awaited next project. Just Dark Souls II. Again.

I know this isn’t necessarily a zero sum game where we’re getting remasters instead of new games, but such a barren 12 months really makes it feel that way.

I felt positive about this new generation after a generally disappointing and far too long one, but it’s been marred by technical issues and this blight. Thank god we have the scintillating first half of 2015 to make up for it.

Converting Blu-ray HD audio to FLAC

As I mentioned in my first look at ripping Blu-rays, converting uncompressed PCM and lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to FLAC for use in XBMC carries a number of benefits.

  • It’s also lossless, so no quality difference.
  • FLAC is an open, well-documented format and so you’re not reliant on reverse-engineered implementations.
  • XBMC can decode FLAC to PCM and output it over HDMI, whereas it currently can’t for DTS-HD.
  • Hard drive space savings can be significant, especially for PCM soundtracks.

There’s little penalty in terms of the time taken to rip the disc either, as it’s unlikely that your BD drive can copy data from the disc fast enough for the conversion process to become a bottleneck.

What you need

This process still uses MakeMKV, with the feature enabled in by checking the advanced options box in the settings. TrueHD decoding is built in, but you’ll need to find a separate DTS module and point MakeMKV to that.

MakeMKV

All you then need to do it choose the ‘FLAC’ preset when ripping a disc. Otherwise the process is identical.

File sizes

I picked three movies representing the three HD audio formats supported on BD. All were ripped to an MKV file containing only the main video, the lossless main audio track, and no subtitles; file size recorded; then passed through MakeMKV again to convert the audio to FLAC. After conversion, MediaInfo was used to verify that the number of channels, sampling rate and bit depth (some versions of the DTS decoder have a bug that will change 24-bit audio to 16-bit, hence the use of 24-bit audio tracks below) were unaffected.

Movie Audio Original size New size Delta
2001: A Space Odyssey PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 20.10GB 16.38GB 3.72GB (18.5%)
Blade Runner Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 18.22GB 18.08GB 0.14GB (0.8%)
The Bourne Identity DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 25.96GB 25.42GB 0.54GB (2.1%)

I noted a few more, with all the data recorded in this spreadsheet. The range of formats reflects the predominance of DTS-HD on Blu-ray these days, but there’s a clear 2-3% gain on substituting FLAC there. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s half a gig when you’re talking about files of 20GB and up.

Conclusion

According to my unscientific tests, then, converting to FLAC delivers a saving in file size over the untouched original track across the board, with a minimal reduction for TrueHD and a handy half-gig saved on DTS-HD. Obviously, since the others are already losslessly compressed, the biggest gains come over PCM, where FLAC can shave 3.72GB off the size of the 2001 MKV – enough for another couple of DVD rips on my HTPC’s hard drive.

Running classic PC games on a Mac with Wineskin

I’m in love with Good Old Games. They distribute classic PC titles, getting them running on modern operating systems, bundled with extras, and all without DRM.

What I like most about it, though, is that GOG is up there with Valve in its efforts to make Mac gaming less of a wasteland. When it comes to retro computer games, DOS isn’t too much of a hurdle because the hardware requirements are trivial and apps like Boxer make emulation simple, but the Windows ultra-dominance of the late 90s through late 2000s are a dark spot. If you have fond memories of a PC game of that era and it’s not from Blizzard or id, odds are it didn’t get a Mac release.

I recently noticed that GOG was offering Mac versions of PC-only Black Isle RPGs like Planescape: Torment. My curiosity over what witchcraft was enabling this led me to Wineskin, which now has me running stuff like RollerCoaster Tycoon natively in OS X. And it works with basically anything short of the latest and greatest. Here’s how it’s done.

You will need…
  • Your PC game
  • Wineskin Winery (download)
  • Enough hard drive space for the install plus about 150MB
A little background

I’m going to be doing this with the GOG version of RollerCoaster Tycoon. GOG makes it easier because the games are mostly a single installer and have no DRM to worry about, but disc-based games can be done too by copying the contents of the disc to a folder on your computer, so do that first. As long as the game doesn’t require anything newer than DirectX 9.0 or host particularly invasive DRM (e.g. StarForce), chances are it’ll work.

This all works using Wine, with Wineskin bundling the installed game and a Wine compatibility layer in one Mac app. It’s not emulation, strictly speaking, so what you’re getting is a Windows game running at native speed on OS X.

Wineskin WineryGetting started

Fire up Wineskin Winery. You’ll first need to download an appropriate engine for the game you’re running, but thankfully people will have done the legwork for you. The Wine Application Database is where users document their experiences of running software with different Wine engines, and its entry on Rollercoaster Tycoon notes that the GOG version runs with platinum compatibility (“flawlessly”) on 1.6.2. Therefore that’s the version I’m going to download.

With that downloaded and the latest wrapper downloaded, hit the ‘Create New Blank Wrapper’ button and give your new app a name. In this case, I creatively opt for ‘Rollercoaster Tycoon’.

Let the process run. It may ask you to download a version of Mono and/or the Gecko engine. Old games will almost certainly not need Mono but may use Gecko; use your own judgement, or just go ahead and install them since it’ll ensure a trouble-free conversion.

When it’s finished, click ‘Show Wrapper in Finder’ and you’ll be presented with a generic Wineskin app, ready to be turned into your chosen game.

Installation

Run this new app to be presented with the following window.

Wineskin

Click ‘Install Software’, then ‘Choose Setup Executable’, and point it at the installer from GOG. This is where things start to look interesting.

Wineskin installation

That looks suspiciously like a Windows installer on a Mac, doesn’t it?

Once the installation process is complete, resist the temptation to play the game for now and click ‘Exit’. You’ll see the following window, which lets you tell your Wineskin which executable it should run on launch. In this case it’s correct and I’ve never seen it need changing, so go ahead and click OK.

Wineskin executable

Wineskin iconThe Advanced menu that you can see mentioned can be accessed by right-clicking the newly created app in the Finder, clicking ‘Show Package Contents’, and then double-clicking the Wineskin icon in the resulting folder. Among other things, this allows you to change the app icon; find an appropriate ICNS file from a site like VeryIcon and select it in there to get things looking more official (see right).

Rollercoaster Tycoon on a Mac

Isn’t that a beautiful sight? You end up with a self-contained OS X app (by default located at ~/Applications/Wineskin), created through a process that works on basically any game. No fiddling with Boot Camp or Parallels to run an old favourite that hasn’t been ported, and none of the performance penalty that comes from emulation. Lovely.