Shenmue I & II remaster

While not as earth-shattering as the Shenmue III announcement, the weekend’s news that the first two games are getting a remaster has been almost as long coming. It’s multiplatform, it has a physical release, it has dual languages, and considering that even Sonic Adventure didn’t justify a standalone release back when Sega was pushing Dreamcast ports, this series getting one is pretty fucking vindicating.

And even with my intention to support the series by buying every version, it won’t cost me as much as the Shenmue III Kickstarter did.

I posted last year with a few of my wishes for a then-hypothetical remaster, so it’ll be interesting to see how many we actually get. From what I can tell, these are in the bag:

  • Japanese language option – The most important feature, without a doubt, and the one thing that will guarantee my happiness with this port. This is the first time, short of messing around with CD-Rs and hacked undubs, that it’s been possible to play Shenmue in Japanese with English subtitles. My life feels kind of empty without this drum to bang. What do I complain about now?
  • Widescreen – It’s unclear from the trailer what exactly will be offered here, as the announcement trailer shows both gameplay and cut-scenes from Shenmue II in 16:9, with the first game’s gameplay in 16:9 but cut-scenes in letterboxed 4:3. But while we wait for all the details, the important thing we do know is that Shenmue and Shenmue II will both be playable in widescreen.
  • Fixes for pop-in and slowdown – No mention of this but I’m taking it as a gimme. No way does this get the widescreen TLC and interface polish without making sure it’s running smoother than a Dreamcast.
  • Dual-analogue controls – Admittedly all we know for sure is that “choice of modern or classic controls”, but it would be inexplicable for them to not take movement off the D-pad. I’m claiming this one. Giving us the choice is good too – everyone should experience the hideous claw hand required to run and look around at the same time like Ryo was always doing in the trailers.
It’s in widescreen! And it has a new interface! (Note the icons in the bottom right.)

Whether or not it’s based on the Japanese Dreamcast versions won’t become clear until more media is available but I think it unlikely, simply because of (a) licensing issues and (b) using the Xbox port of Shenmue II saves a lot of work. Online leaderboards/Shenmue Passport are moonshots, but I’ve seen lower-profile remasters with comparable supplemental material, so let’s see.

Unfortunately the backporting of the time skip is a no, which is disappointing given that interface work is happening elsewhere. But even so, there’s enough going on here to suggest more than simple emulation, as simply making the original game function glitch-free in widescreen, which has so far been impossible with emulators, is no mean feat.

Naturally, I’ll be following this one closely.

Running with the Apple Watch

Apple Watch Workout appI’ve been running for a couple of years now, having started with a C25K programme and working my way up to regular 10Ks, 10 miles, obstacle runs, and several 5Ks a week. I’m doing my first half marathon in April and, assuming that goes well, might do a full one in October. Rain (sometimes) or shine, on a weekday evening I’m a regular somewhere along Bournemouth seafront, where you’ll find me somewhere between Boscombe and Sandbanks.

Until now I’d been tracking my runs with my phone strapped to my arm with Strava, but waking up on Christmas morning to a brand new Apple Watch provided an opportunity to improve my fitness tracking.

Integrating Apple’s Workout app with Strava

Apple Workout run in progressApple’s Workout app is excellent, offering support for tons of different activities and providing lots of lovely stats afterwards. It can track my heart rate during and after a run, syncs with numerous other devices without needing to pay a premium subscription, and doesn’t provide the bafflingly inflated calorie estimates that Strava is known to do.

My problem was that I had several years of runs and a handful of similarly inclined friends on Strava, and I didn’t fancy losing that social aspect, not to mention my PBs on the numerous Strava segments I regularly run.

Strava has its own Apple Watch app, of course, and it’s perfectly functional and capable of depositing its runs into the Activity app alongside any Apple-tracked workouts. In fact, my first run with an Apple Watch, on Boxing Day, was tracked with the Strava app. But it lacks some of the stats, including heart rate recovery (being a native app, Apple’s Workout can keep tracking your heart rate after the run has ended) and those all-important GPS-tagged route maps. And since I was going to be using Activity for tracking weight training and other workouts anyway (Strava is limited to running and cycling), I was keen to streamline things by using one app for all my exercise.

The solution, then, would appear to be liberating my Apple-tracked data and dropping it into Strava. But that’s not always an easy thing to do with Apple.

HealthFit solves the problem

Trying a failing with a few apps, I came across HealthFit, which, wonderfully, does exactly what I need it to and nothing else – the last thing I wanted was to bring a third fitness-tracking service into this. All it does is export your workouts from Apple’s Activity app in the widely supported Garmin .FIT file format, where they can be saved to your iCloud Drive, emailed or automatically uploaded to a number of different services, Strava among them (the others are TrainingPeaks, SportTracks, Final Surge, Selfloops and Dropbox).

Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava in HealthFit
Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava

A few taps and my run is exported, and it’s a matter of moments before Strava pops up a notification that it’s ready to view in its app, indistinguishable from a Strava-tracked run. Better, in fact, since my exported runs feature heart rate charts – a Strava Premium feature if I used their Apple Watch app.

The only niggle was that, since Strava was installed on my phone and allowed to write its workouts to the Health and Workout apps, anything exported into Strava through HealthFit was appearing twice. That was solved by simply revoking that permission in the Health app (in the Sources menu), giving Strava read-only access.

Conclusion

Were I not into fitness, I’m not sure I’d find the Apple Watch worth it. A timekeeping and notification machine is cool, but a questionable value proposition. However, if you throw in comparable fitness-tracking to the high-end offerings from Fitbit – at the time of writing the only Fitbit with built-in GPS is the Ionic watch, which starts at £299, or only £30 less than the much more flexible Apple Watch Series 3 – and it becomes much more justifiable. The fitness-tracking focus of watchOS 4 suggests that a couple of years on the market has led Apple to a similar conclusion.

The Apple Watch is the absolute definition of a technological luxury item, completely unnecessary but kind of cool when you have one. It’s a fantastic fitness-tracker, though, particularly for outdoor activities, and the sheer omnipresence of iOS means, by proximity, any fitness-focused online service is likely to have some level of support. This comprehensiveness, coupled with the constant nudges to close my rings, is often enough to get me out when the cold weather and post-work fatigue might otherwise tempt me to take an evening off.

See you in Southampton!

Best of 2017

It’s been a while since I played enough games to populate a top ten, so let’s follow last year and stick with the top three.

2017 was arguably the best year for games in a while, with a number of early contenders that would likely have made the list, had I played them. Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have ensured me a good time whenever I buy a Switch, getting me more excited about Nintendo games than I’ve been since the N64. Surprise critical successes like Nioh and Nier Automata intrigued. Resident Evil VII proved the series’ versatility with another complete overhaul that went over well. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins confounded my expectations by doing the over-designed open-world thing well. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is also likely to grab me just as firmly as its predecessor.

The above would almost be enough to populate an impressive top ten on their own, but alas, I didn’t play them. Oh well.

There are, though, a couple of honourable mentions for games that I did play but didn’t make the top three. First is the 3DS Dragon Quest VIII remake, which did a good job of transferring a rather immense PS2 game to the handheld with surprisingly few compromises, and saw me through a couple of long flights. Then there’s Monument Valley 2, an excellent sequel to one of my favourite phone-based Escher-like mind-benders. Both are firm recommendations for anyone with time to kill and a handheld gaming system on their person.

3) Sonic Mania

A remarkable revival for a series that I don’t think has been worth writing about since the Dreamcast, and arguably not truly great since Sonic 3. Sonic Mania reminds me of something like Shovel Knight, in that it echoes a familiar classic gaming staple without being completely beholden to it – it’s how you remember the Mega Drive games looking, even if it’s technically far beyond what that hardware was capable of. I had a wonderful time playing it, feeling transported back to those early 90s stolen moments on my brother’s Mega Drive.

It’s easy to make fun of Sonic’s true believers, but maybe, after seeing how completely Christian Whitehead blew away expectations, the fans were right all along.

And maybe, if Sega had done something like this on the Saturn, things would be different now…

2) Metroid: Samus Returns

I’m slightly baffled by the fact that, after such a long, notable absence for Metroid in the N64 era – there were eight years between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime – it’s now been even longer since the last proper one. How many best game ever contenders does Samus have to star in to guarantee herself a regular appearance outside Smash Bros?

An enhanced remake of the second game, coming a mere 13 years after the enhanced remake of the first game (the pattern continues!) will have to do. MercurySteam – a strange choice of developer for this one, it must be said – put out a beautiful game, with understated stereoscopic effects adding much-needed visual flair to the most neglected game in the series, left to languish for too long in monochrome. While I’ll admit that the melee counterattack system hurts the pacing, discouraging fast traversal and otherwise turning many enemies into annoying bullet sponges, that Metroid magic was there, reminding me why Super Metroid remains my favourite game ever made.

I’d dearly love an entirely new instalment in this style, but if that’s not on the cards, the obvious next step is a similar remake of Super Metroid, which would make me fucking ecstatic. See you in 2030, then!

1) Persona 5

It was a safe bet to make the list after the last two games clicked so solidly with me, and here it is. I loved this game. The slick presentation and the music deserve mention, of course. The juxtaposition of carefree leisure time with really quite dark undercurrents was brave and amused me, too. But my most heartfelt praise goes to Atlus for demoting the random dungeon-crawling to a side quest in favour of properly designed, non-random dungeons, fixing my single biggest criticism of Personas 3 and 4.

Part of me misses the small town Japan feeling of Persona 4, which itself evoked the small town Japan feeling of Shenmue, but at the same time, this game’s setting in the middle of Tokyo has earned it a special place in my heart. My time with it bookended last year’s trip to Japan, meaning I visited many of the places I’d been spending time at in the game, lending a special weight of nostalgia to the memories of Persona 5. As the J-pop beats of Ouendan defined my holiday in 2005, then, so this will do for one of the best times of my life.

Returning to Japan

AkihabaraIt’s been 11 years since I last went to Japan, which seems particularly long given that I went twice in the space of a year back then.

I’m going back in less than a month, and this time will be particularly interesting. For one thing, I’m going with a much reduced interest in games, which was always one of the attractions before. I’ll check in at Akihabara once or twice, of course, and I might try to squeeze in a visit to Yokosuka, but this time I’m going to be travelling all over, from Osaka to Hiroshima, Hakone to Miyajima. Maiko performances and onsens rather than afternoons spent in Super Potato. I’ll be with friends, most of whom have never been before and couldn’t care less about whether my Dreamcast games have spine cards.

I doubt I’ll be doing anything resembling blogging beyond a few updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But expect photography. Lots and lots of photography. I have two cameras, unlimited data, a lot of cloud storage and, by god, I know how to use them.

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.