Category Archives: Sega

Shenmue: A pilgrimage to Yokosuka

On my recent trip, I fulfilled a long-held ambition by visiting Dobuita Street in Yokosuka, one of the primary locations in one of my favourite games ever, Shenmue.

It’s fairly out of the way for a day trip from Tokyo, but it’s only 20 minutes or so down the train line from Kamakura, which is a spectacular day out in its own right. Fortunately we’d decided to go there, so I was able to abandon the group for an hour to pay a visit.

Found at the end of the conveniently named Yokosuka Line, Yokosuka is dominated by its harbour. It’s the home base for the US Navy in Japan and, as such, you don’t have to look very hard for sailors. Many were drunk, but they neither called me school boy or tried to serve me milk. I couldn’t see any forklift racing going on in the harbour, but there was a trio of Japanese submarines lined up in rather photogenic fashion.

Dobuita isn’t far from the station, requiring only a short walk through a pleasant naval-themed park and crossing a footbridge outside a mall that you can’t really miss. It starts around here if you find yourself making the same trip.

Appropriately enough, the weather did turn to rain that day – the only bad weather of the trip, really. But before rejoining the collective for dinner back in Kamakura, my usual reticence to pose was overcome for a quick look for sailors outside Tom’s hot dog stand bar.

Mission accomplished.

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.

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.

Shenmue III reaction

I’ve never given up hope that Shenmue would get its conclusion, and it seems that my faith has been rewarded.

Shenmue III Kickstarter

It’s funny, though. For years I’d always suggest Shenmue III as a dream E3 announcement as a joke, opening myself to a ribbing, but in the last couple of years it started to feel like a real possibility. Yu Suzuki started to make public appearances more often, dropping hints that were taken as hope by some, trolling by others. He was pictured with Sony’s Mark Cerny at a time when Sony was openly courting developers, and then Suzuki uttered the words “to be continued” after the Cerny-hosted GDC postmortem.

This all left me more disappointed that it didn’t materialise at E3 2014 than I had since 2002. But I still had the feeling that there’s no smoke without fire. Something had changed, even if I wasn’t sure precisely what.

Fast forward to this E3, and this tweet:

Surely he’s not that cruel? Even if Suzuki thought that was just a cool-looking forklift, he knows what people are going to read into that, right? But the seeds were sown, and I started to believe. I put the possibility of Shenmue III somewhere below the similarly MIA The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy VII remake, both of which were all but leaked in the days beforehand, but I went to bed last night with my fingers crossed.

It’s going to seem like I’m making stuff up here, but I genuinely dreamt that Shenmue III was announced last night. It was an MMO in my dream, and I remember seeing all the NPCs in the various neighbourhoods with player handles above their heads.

Sorry, Barney.
I’d like to apologise to my brother for the early awakening.

I then inexplicably woke up at 4:30am – normally it takes a good few runs through the snooze button to get me up when the alarm goes at 7:30 – and checked my phone to see the news on GAF. $300 plus shipping went into the Kickstarter fund immediately. Then came much celebrating and annoyed texts from those I’d bothered with early morning messages. They’ll forgive me eventually.

I’m just absolutely ecstatic. It’s hard to believe that this has finally happened, after all the jokes and teasing aimed at those who’ve been carrying the torch for so long. I’ve spent the morning on Twitter, sharing reactions that mirrored my own, finding out which tiers my Shenmue-loving friends have pledged at. People who remember my old Shenmue website have been emailing me out of the blue to share their happiness too.

What a day.

Pirates or Preservationists?

There is some good in the ruthless drive of technology, pushing gaming forward into easily defined generations of hardware, in that it’s allowed phenomenal progress in only a few decades. The downside to such rapid development, though, is that the past gets left behind, and without efforts to preserve it, it’s lost.

I can watch any almost any movie from any decade on some form of disc or streaming service nowadays, even if they were produced decades before digital video, the Internet and even televisions existed, and it’s essentially the same experience as anyone who saw it on day one. I can walk into any of a range of high street shops and find popular films from the 30s and 40s, brand new and easily accessible.

Contrast that with games. Try finding a particular game from outside the top 40 new, or anything but the most popular games from last generation. Try finding anything from the generation before that. There are, of course, services like Good Old Games, which are certainly good things, but what happens to games from long-dead developers or ones that aren’t deemed commercially viable? What route is there to play, say, Spectrum games? PC Engine? Almost any system has at least a couple of gems, but it’s impossible to play them without getting lucky on the used market or resorting to piracy, both of which we keep hearing are as bad as each other from the publishers’ perspective.

Some classic publishers like Nintendo and SNK are still going concerns in one form or another and so can offer their older games, and that’s fantastic. I’ll happily support those offerings, especially those that allow me to pick and choose reasonably priced and well-emulated individual games. But for plenty of older material, that’s not an option – it’s not like you can download some C64 games onto Commodore’s latest machine.

It’s when you start looking into community-led preservation efforts that you realise how much better they are than their official equivalents. Perhaps the best example is World of Spectrum, which not only functions as a massive database of information on Speccy games but also offers the majority of them to download or to play in a Java-based emulator directly on the site. Scans of covers, cross-referenced articles from the magazines of the time, meticulous attempts to preserve every version of every game, and all with the admirable ambition of being a comprehensive, free museum for an important period in gaming history. It’s not done for profit, and when actual games are offered to download, it’s done with the permission of the original developers and publishers.

Even for classic hardware without the following to sustain a site of such size – or, perhaps less defensibly, those from a couple of generations ago that are still the subject of poorly emulated and overpriced compilations – chances are a glance at certain more seedy websites will unearth a torrent with every game and an emulator, tied up in one handy download. Illegal or not, until this industry takes a step back and realises how inaccessible its past really is, I’m crediting the pirates there with providing a valuable service.

New games are increasingly encumbered with DRM, sometimes to the extent that the game will become unplayable if the studio and its authentication servers ever go offline. That’s all well and good now, but the experience of the last few years and the fact that it only takes a glance at the big developers of the SNES generation to see how few of today’s will still be around in another decade suggests that the only hope for the future playability of those games is either to hope that studios in their death throes have the wherewithal to produce a patch to nuke the DRM or to let pirates do it. Only one of those options is anywhere close to being a sure thing.

It’s important to note that I’m not going to support those who are pirating current games because they want them without paying, even if it’s those people’s work that ultimately allows the mass archival that I’m championing. The best examples of these projects are done on long dead platforms that aren’t going to cost anybody any money, and taking revenue from the industry – and, arguments over exactly how much aside, it does cost publishers money – will only affect what is left to preserve in the future.

Ten Years of Shenmue

In amongst the endless [something] of the decade features doing the rounds at the moment, one snippet that almost slipped my mind is that just over ten years ago, on 29 December 1999, Shenmue was released in Japan. That means that somewhere around this time ten years ago I was in the Video Game Centre, failing to disguise my enthusiasm for the imminent arrival of my import copy.

Dobuita

It had already sent me on a wild adventure of learning HTML and using it to create the imaginatively named Shenmue Fan Site, and my first couple of trial-and-error playthroughs – I didn’t speak Japanese, and no one else had yet written a guide, which made simple tasks like ‘speak to Yamagishi-san’ very difficult – were followed by my first FAQ, which directly led to freelance work with the precursor to the company where I now work. I’ve wanted to write about games for a living for a long time, but no single game had as much direct influence on my future career path as Shenmue, and that’s a big part of why I still hold it in such high esteem.

To be honest, if I was trying to choose my game of the last ten years, this would probably be it. It was highly influential – not many games had real-time weather and day/night cycles in 1999, and it’s largely responsible, for better or worse, for the continuing popularity of the QTE – and far ahead of its time. Its cult following is formidable and still rapacious, devouring every snippet of ‘news’ that comes out of Sega regarding the future (or not) of the series. My bet is that the inclusion of Ryo will be directly responsible for at least half of the sales of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Hell, that’s why I’m going to buy it.

Sakuragaoka

Playing it now, parts of it are of its time, and it may have been pushing the Dreamcast hardware further than was wise, but it still has so much atmosphere, even when playing the impenetrable Japanese version, and that’s a big part of why I love it. Yokosuka feels real – I know it is real, but you know what I mean – and, way back when, I had a place where I’d like to live, a favourite Chinese restaurant, the works. How many games do that now? Bethesda’s stuff, maybe.

The lack of Shenmue III is an empty space in gaming to me and is, sadly, likely to remain so. But, until then, we’ll always have Sakuragaoka…