Tag 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.

Console Wars

Console WarsAs much as I love my well-thumbed copy of Game Over, it’s over 20 years old. Its account of Nintendo’s rise lacks two decades of changing perspective, context, new information that has emerged as people retire, move on and, separated from events by years and expired NDAs, give increasingly candid interviews. It’s from a world where the Atari ET landfill story is apocryphal.

Console Wars’ chosen subject is different, coming in when Nintendo has already risen to its zenith and concentrating on the competition with Sega in the early 90s. There’s none of the smart, nimble Nintendo that came out of David Sheff’s book; this is the empire whose monopolistic tendencies alienated enough third-parties to create the way in that Sega and ultimately Sony exploited.

There’s a major movie in development (at Sony Pictures, amusingly) based on this book, hence the foreword by Seth Rogen, which is extraordinary to me. There’s the kernel of a film here – indeed, everyone knows the snappy line to win an argument in a way that no one does in real life – but while The Social Network proved that the rise of a major tech company can make a fascinating cinematic experience, Blake Harris and the team behind Superbad aren’t David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. Time will have to tell on that one.

The book itself is solid but unspectacular. The aforementioned tendency for everyone to speak like polished movie scripts can grate, as can the Hollywood stereotypes that uniformly present the Americans as hard-working creatives and the Japanese as stoic, conservative and petty. It may be true that Sega of Japan was the architect of Sega’s post-16-bit downfall, and the book makes a convincing argument for this viewpoint, but a bit more nuance would have been nice.

But I still learnt a lot, even as someone who grew up consuming everything I could about gaming in this period. Did you know, for instance…

  • …that Nintendo was once so big that it accounted for 10% of Walmart’s total profits?
  • …that Sonic 2 was both the first global launch and the first set-in-stone release date in gaming history?
  • …that Sega passed up the opportunities to release the hardware that would become the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64?
  • …that Sega’s Tom Kalinske was responsible for the Nintendo-Silicon Graphics relationship that gave us Donkey Kong Country and the N64?
  • …that Sonic’s iconic silhouette was achieved by combining Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse? And his middle name is actually ‘The’?
  • …that the born-again Christianity of Konami’s president turned Dracula Satanic Castle into the more enduring and Jesus-friendly Castlevania?
  • …that the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Nintendo was completely by accident filed on the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?

Those little snippets are the kind of things that I lapped up. There are enough of them sprinkled liberally throughout that I was willing to overlook the liberties taken by the author. Well worth a look for anyone who honed their debating skills on the school playground in the early 90s.

Game Over’s still the daddy, though.

Vanquish or: Wait For Year End to Choose a GOTY

To be fair, Vanquish isn’t my favourite of 2010, mainly because I love Red Dead that much, but also as it has a story that makes me feel less intelligent for having sat through it and can be finished off in a few hours. The four hours that was being bandied around before its release seems a touch on the harsh side – I did it in a hair under six hours on normal difficulty – but it would be enough for me to question the value of a full-price purchase. Find it for something around the £12.98 that I paid in the post-Christmas sales, though, and you shouldn’t hesitate.

Vanquish

Vanquish is just a good old-fashioned blast, of the kind that Japanese developers would have been pumping out with some regularity had they not gone to shit this generation. It takes the handful of things that I like from the Devil May Cry and God of War kind of games and mixes them with a dash of Gears-style cover shooter, and it ends up being one of the best of both styles. More accessible than DMC, more varied and deeper than God of War, and faster and more intense than Gears of War.

Although it’s developed by Platinum with Shinji Mikami at the helm, it’s published by Sega and feels like something that would have come out on the Dreamcast in its all-too-brief heyday. In that respect it’s like Bayonetta, not ashamed of the fact that it’s a video game and revelling in its lunacy and heritage. The story is utter shite most of the time, with characters who make cardboard cutouts look deep and some absolutely barking twists and turns that won’t do much to convince gaming’s detractors of its storytelling strengths, but even with these flaws and a slight feeling that it peaks too early, I can’t help but love it.

Platinum’s fast becoming one of my favourite developers, just because it’s proud of its and gaming’s heritage, and the enthusiasm shines through in its games. This and Bayonetta are two superlative examples of games from crowded genres that manage to possess great originality and polish, and they really buck the trend of the downturn in Japanese gaming so far this generation.

As long as Platinum’s fruitful relationship with Sega continues, I’m going to keep playing its games in a little time warp. Dreamcast 2: not just a console but a state of mind.

Best of 2010 #6: Bayonetta

BayonettaConsidering that I generally don’t get on with the genre at all, the fact that I liked Bayonetta as much as I did is a minor miracle. Or maybe it wasn’t, because the Platinum Games connection always seems to guarantee a deep and polished experience, regardless of genre, and Bayonetta trumped the rest in almost every respect.

First and foremost, it played wonderfully, with accessible, balletic combat and movement that flowed hypnotically, whether you were a button-mashing beginner – or a God of War fan, natch – or took the time to learn it. And I loved how the deep combat mechanics avoided a common pitfall by offering a carrot rather than a stick – mastery of the dodging system conferred a benefit, rather than punishing those who failed to use it properly.

Of course, the glorious presentations deserves plenty of credit. Beyond looking gorgeous, it was a love letter to Sega gaming – within minutes you’re driving along to Magical Sound Shower – and never failed to impress when it came to scale. Show me another game that ends with you riding a motorcycle up the side of a rocket into space to fight God, and I’ll thank you because I want to play it.

I wouldn’t have given Bayonetta some of the more excessive scores that it obtained this year, but it stands as certainly the best in breed for this year, and is up there with Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry as one of the few that I might return to without a gun to my head.