Category Archives: PlayStation

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.

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.

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.

Best of 2016

Better late than never!

I found last year about as good for games as it was reasonable political discourse and beloved celebrities. Hell, my annual top tens, shortened to top fives in recent years, now find themselves shortened to a three-game single-post list – and still there weren’t many notable leftovers. These were basically the only ones that gave me the butterflies that a true GOTY contender should bring.

I enjoyed Fire Emblem Fates but disliked its split across three games; the long-awaited The Last Guardian came close but fell short due to technical issues that were somehow worse than its 2005 predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus, making it my least favourite of the series; Pokémon Go was among my most-played games but I don’t think there’s enough actual game there for me to put it up there with these three; Battlefield 1 was reliably fun and surprisingly polished for a DICE game at launch, but couldn’t hold my interest for long. I liked Project X Zone 2 as well, but I can’t ignore the fact that its main hook for me was the presence of Ryo Hazuki.

With most of my gaming time spent on retro these days, I had worried that my declining interest might have been terminal. But my document listing potential GOTY nominees for 2017 is already longer than the below, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is coming, so maybe it was just a crap year.

3) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

The most technically impressive reason to own a PS3 continues the pattern on the PS4. Uncharted 4 is stunningly beautiful, as I’m sure you’re aware – probably the closest we’ve come to a playable CG movie, so polished in its performances, cinematics and attention to detail that it makes everything else look amateurish. Frankly the visuals would have been enough to drag me through it, but it’s one of the strongest adventures in the series, and deserves credit for being the only mainline Uncharted game not to shit the bed with annoying supernatural enemies in the final act.

That said, I’ll be disappointed if we get Uncharted 5. ND’s done well to wring another top release out of this series and I’d like to see it turn those remarkable skills to something new.

2) The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine

Yes, one third of my already-truncated list is an expansion. I said it was a bad year.

Blood and Wine, though, is the first expansion in a long time – maybe since the GTA IV episodes – that’s an actual expansion. Not a handful of missions wrapped up in poor-value DLC. It’s new environments – on a similar scale to the already vast original and arguably the most beautiful locale yet – hosting a new scenario, new gameplay styles, new characters, an almost entirely new story.

It’s also probably the best part of the game. It was fun to take part in a smaller adventure, where you’re not fighting for the fate of the universe, that doesn’t use narrowing the focus as an excuse to skimp on the production values.

CD Projekt Red has fast become one of my favourite developers; one that – like Naughty Dog above – commands my full attention simply by announcing a new game. Only this is done without the financial and technical powers of a first-party publisher behind it. Is it simply lower costs of doing business in Eastern Europe, or an unexpectedly vast bounty coming from the admittedly brilliant Good Old Games? Who cares as long as Cyberpunk 2077 can come close to this?

1) Doom

I could probably have guessed at the beginning of 2016 that new releases from Naughty Dog and CD Projekt would be there or thereabouts when I was compiling my favourites of the year, but a new Doom? No way. I don’t think id’s games have been hugely relevant since Doom 3 got overshadowed by Half-Life 2, and the multiplayer and E3 demos didn’t instil confidence.

What I got, though, was a shockingly fun old-school shooter that revelled in its status as a game, and a Doom game at that. It has the visual design of the classroom doodles of a 14-year-old angsty teenager – but that’s a good thing. It’s about speed, responsiveness and blasting demons without only token gestures towards providing depth and a storyline for motivation – but that’s a good thing too. The soundtrack is awesome, no caveats required. The whole thing pressed the buttons I’ve been trying to touch with a recent retro fixation, reminding me why I grew up loving games above any other medium.

It’s brilliant, pure and simple. The excellent Wolfenstein: The New Order – based on an id property but not developed by the studio – reminded us to pay attention, but it was only the herald for the true return of id Software.

Best of 2015 #1: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild HuntWhen I finished The Witcher 3, for the first time in a while, I was left with the feeling that my most anticipated game of the year had knocked it out of the park. I’d expected great things, having loved the previous game and enjoyed the books too, but The Witcher 3 turned out to be a genuine, unequivocal masterpiece that puts similar games from bigger developers to shame.

I love how The Witcher 3 not only seems to invite the comparisons with Skyrim but revels in them once you get to Skellige, a cold, mountainous and Nordic land ruled by jarls and peppered with ruins to explore and dragons forktails to kill. And The Witcher does it with an astonishing breadth of content that belies how little it cost, every quest offering its own plot arc and well-acted, well-voiced characters – a far cry from Skyrim’s endless treks to identikit dungeons on the orders of barely animated automatons.

A truly good game shouldn’t be defined by its competition, though. This game is put together with confidence, from the writing – it’s come a long way from the stunted script of the first game – to its treatment of difficult subject matter. I didn’t feel like any of the list of touchy subjects, from abortion to spousal abuse via racism and persecution, were given superficial coverage here.

What could be described as the typical fantasy fare, too, is interesting. CD Projekt Red delved deeper into real-world mythology than is typical – elves and dwarves are relegated to side characters while you’ll face obscure creatures from Eastern European and Asian folklore like djinn and the fabulously creepy – particularly when you stumble upon them when you’re woefully under-levelled, as I did – leshies. I mentioned before, apropos Metro 2033, that I often find Eastern European takes on sci-fi and fantasy refreshing next to the predictable English-language offerings around at the moment, and the Witcher series is a big part of that.

It took me months to get through The Witcher 3’s main campaign, and it’s still in my PS4’s drive as I find new secrets and work my way through the first and smallest expansion – and CDPR’s positive approach to DLC in these cynical times deserves commendation on its own. Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to justify the gorgeous Blood and Wine expansion as a contender for the Best of 2016, but I suspect it wouldn’t be undeserved. A superb game.

Best of 2015 #2: Bloodborne

BloodborneI’m still yet to get further than about ten hours into a Souls game, and that trend continues with this spiritual sequel. I’m afraid I just don’t have the nerves, nor the patience, for it these days. But even if I couldn’t get to the end, this is probably my favourite of the lot.

It’s slicker and significantly less janky, more focused on timing, aggression and combat skill than skulking along behind a shield. Also gone is the medieval European fantasy setting, which had its own take on the style but inevitably felt limited because, honestly, what is there left to do with knights and dragons?

I’d been saying for a long time that Assassin’s Creed should do Victorian London, and in the year that it happened, this did it better. This isn’t precisely Victorian London, of course – more like the comic book take on that era of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies crossed with a dash of Lovecraft – but it’s really wonderful. Oppressive, frightening, unique and filled with much more personality for that unique brand of minimalist storytelling than swords and sorcery.

The one prediction I can make about Dark Souls III with reasonable certainty is that I won’t finish it. But although that’s not a criticism in my case, what may be is that I’m far less interested in another romp through ruined castles after playing this.