Sunday, 15 April 2018

Shenmue I & II - Initial Thoughts

Yesterday at Sega FES, what we've been begging for for many years, was finally announced.
Shenmue I & II will be rereleased on current gaming plattforms, with a number of improvements.

In this post I want to summarize how I feel about it and what I expect of Shenmue I & II.
No dive into the obscure of the games this time, just some personal stuff I want to express.

There have been too many cases to count over the last few years where things pointed at a possible announcement of a Shenmue HD at various events. People can't be blamed however. While there have always been naysayers that doubted any new Shenmue release to ever happen, a lot of people, including me, never gave up their hope. Rereleases of Shenmue and Shenmue II have always been a lot more likely than Shenmue III and ever since the Kickstarter was announced, the likelynes of the former to happen aswell only kept rising and rising.

Still, as the gaming events came and went without a sign of a Shenmue HD, I took a more relaxed approach on how to view those events. I kept the optimism, but wasn't fully expecting anything. That way I was not disappointed to no end when nothing came out of it. I think that was also beneficial to keeping my hopes up while more batches of other people gave up with each disappointment.

With Sega FES I specifically decided against staying up late to watch it live, even though the signs have been really strong for this one and I even had a noticeable different feeling about the chances of Shenmue HD in my guts. Still, I left the things to roll on their own, you know, the relaxed approached. When I woke up early I immediately grabbed my phone and checked the news and there it was "Shenmue I & II announced". As I had some expectations in my head this wasn't a huge suprise so I didn't freak out and calmly, but very happyily dived into the community.
And as the day passed a lot of things crossed my mind and I just want to collect them all here.

The name

This is of course the first thing that everyone saw. But what did they see? On many gaming sites you can read HD or something about remasters when in fact the rerelease isn't going to carry any suffix to the names of the games and it simply just "Shenmue I & II".
This decision is a bit strange because it makes it a bit hard to distinguish it from the originals. With the lack of anything about their rerelease status or things like "Collection", "Bundle" or "Pack" it's quite natural that people added something to the name in the headlines to instantly make clear what it's about.

I personaly think the name has the benefit that it is free of any restrains as to what has been done to the game. The term "remaster" is used in a very loose way and can mean anything from simple rereleases to full blowns remakes, not just to the developers but also the customers. So it can create false predictions. I'm actually glad that it doesn't have "HD" in its name because in this day and age of 4K and HDR being all the rage, HD is simply just an outdated term. While there has only been a promised resolution of 1080p, not naming it HD leaves open the possibility of Shenmue I & II having 4K and HDR features after all, at least on the high spec versions of the systems it comes out on.

The logo

Of course there never was a roman number 1 to go with the first game but the one for number 2 also deviates just the smallest bit from how it used to look for Shenmue II. What should be more obvious is the completely redrawn S, wich lost a lot of its cursive elements. It took me a while to realize that something was even done. Maybe my eyes were just glued to the numbers, the generally original font of the logo, or my head was more focused on the game itself but I think that it is just the elegant way that they changed it, that made it.

Combining traits of a fresh new approach and the good old familiar
I quite like this approach of making the S more readable. Some may be disappointed it doesn't carry the "real" logo anymore but I think this is a compromise to all the "young people can't read cursive anymore" problem that Yu Suzuki raised with the Shenmue III logo, wich underwent a bunch of changes. Yu is of course proud how his new handwritten logo looks and I fully respect the choice but with this type of design applied to I & II it would work quite well for III to. I'd personally like to see it follow suit.

The platforms

Shenmue I & II is going to be release for PS4, Xbox One and PC. While it was a given that it has to hit the platforms that III is going to appear on later, I'm happy that they decided to include the Xbox One aswell. I have dreamed of getting achievements for playing my favorite game ever since the early 360 days and I'm excited I finally get to do so soon.

If Shenmue I & II sells well on the One then it might open the way for Shenmue III to appear on it in the future aswell. In any case, the more platforms that I & II is available on, the more potential buyers there are. With that being said it is a bit strange that they left of the Nintendo Switch. It has a totally different userbase of its own that could get introduced to the magic world of Shenmue but for some reason it is not meant to happen. This could be either to save costs since the Switch has a different architecture versus the very similar one of the PS4 and One or just because the game's engine is geared towards more powerful hardware to improve the graphics, performance and framerate as best as they can.

The developer

Shenmue I & II is going to be developed, or ported if you will, by D3T. I personally never heard of them before as it seems they are the kind that is working more in the background.
They are a relatively small and new studio based in the UK and their track record includes a lot of very minor games but they have also worked on Little Big Planet 3 and Witcher 3 for PlayStation consoles. While their exact involvement is unknown, those are undeniably some very big names.
They have also worked with Sega before and created the backbone for Mega Drive Classics.

While it is a testimant to Sega's standpoint towards Shenmue to not let one of their internal teams work on the rereleases, I have a good feeling about D3T and faith in them that they'll deliver a great experience for all of us.

The features

Not a whole lot has been said about the game yet but the features that have been stated so far sound interesting and cover some of the most wanted things that fans expected.

The user interface will get an update. This is due to there being 3 new button designs to work with now. The PC and its keyboard and mouse style and the respective buttons of the PS4 and One. They could technically reuse the design of the buttons for the One from the Xbox Shenmue II, as the letters and colors match, but they don't represent how the buttons actually look and how games on the platform, even ones that were previously on the 360, display the buttons. Notice that it includes the camera icon from the Xbox version, so the snapshot feature will very likely return.

An enlarged view of the only glimpse at the new interface so far
It will feature a fully scalable screen resolution.While this may only be true for the PC version, where such a thing is a natural given it could also carry over to consoles as a means to switch between widescreen and the classic 4:3 look. The trailer switches between both, impling even more that such a feature is a thing.

The controlls will be reworked, with the classic scheme still available as an option. No specifics on that yet but it sounds like we'll be getting truly modern analog stick movement for Ryo. This is great for newcomers who simply can't get into the "tank controls" of Shenmue, a term that they really don't deserve by the way. They are far more fluid and advanced than the typical term coiner found in old Resident Evil.

Lastly there is a dual audio option and various language subtitles. This is definately the most interesting feature for the veterans as many have wished to play the game in Japanese with English subtitles. Skillful and dedicated members of the community have made this possible before, but not without a lot of pitfalls and hiccups. It remains to be seen how the rerelease can handle the differences in the scripts.

The release

I am in a position where I really cannot wait to get the game but as with everything it needs time to turn out good and a well chosen spot on the calender to drop. Only "2018" has been stated yet, with something like "second half of the year" popping up somewhere.
I think a good spot for Shenmue I & II's release is November or December. The Shenmue games have somewhat of a tradition to arrive at this time and since it's only a rerelease of a somewhat niche title it doesn't have to worry too much about the AAA games that hit the market around it.

The much more important part about the release is how far ahead of Shenmue III it can come out.
I'd say I & II has to come out at least 4-6 weeks in advance so people can actually find the time to fully enjoy every aspect of it. Depending if Shenmue III does meet its promised release of late 2018 and I & II being far along enough already it could make something like September and be early enough. I'm in the camp that expects a release somewhere in the further end of 2019 for Shenmue III and I'm on that mindset for quite some time now. With the announcement of I & II the number of people in the camp only rose.

It could of course very well happen that the games come out within days of each other or that I & II is only ready to hit the scene after Shenmue III is already out. I really don't know wich of these scenarios is worse and I hope that both Ys Net and Sega are in good communication to avoid something like this.

Questions and wishes

This post has become quite long already and I promise that this will be the last paragraph.
It will be quite a handful but it won't be without some thought provoking bits for sure.

As not a whole lot has been unveiled, there are a number of things that are of great interest to me.
What assets will D3T get to work with? What new features can they bring in? What has to go?
Will the Passport return? Where can the games be improved without altering the experience too drastically? Will the games be bound closer to another? How can it link with Shenmue III?

I will start with the Passport as this is my most burning question. The fourth disc of Shenmue only contained supplementary content but it was content like never seen before and hardly seen since in a game. All the info about characters, places, moves, the collection of music and cutscenes, toy capsule trading and true online only features like news and leaderboards.
Most of this stuff can easily be brought back but the leaderboards obviously take some extra effort and investments. I hope they don't forget about them and I dearly hope they don't just leave out the Passport entirely.
It could easily be expanded into a bigger collection of features like in Shenmue II, where you can access all the mini games directly. It would also be an awesome addition if you could trade capsule toys with other players. This can all be thrown into a blender for one big Shenmue goodie mix.

Wich brings me to the next bit and how much more both games will be interconnected. Of course a direct selection to chose wich one to play is a must. As much of a unity as Shenmue and Shenmue II are, bonding them together for good is a bit much, at least for the replay value.
How could the afformentioned collections of features of both games work in the menus? Like a section for all the music and stuff. How many gameplay features of either game can make it over to the other one? Will Shenmue get the snapshot features aswell? Will the interface be changed to more closely match that in Shenmue II, including a health meter for the enemies?
There could easily be a time skip and save anywhere option in Shenmue and free training in Shenmue II and those would greatly enhance and smoothen the experience. Especially the additions to Shenmue are very crucial to newcomers, who might not have the required patience. But it's also helpful if you have played the game countless times and just want to breeze through, or even if you're on a speedrun.

A walk through Guilin with Shenhua will always be nice

Going from the link between I and II there is the question of the possible link with III. If both development teams and publishers can agree on a working solution we could get a feature to load a cleared Shenmue II save in Shenmue III after all. The fighting system will be greatly reworked for Shenmue III but the moves could still be left the same. Some of the moves could be made to carry over, as is their proficency aswell as a bunch of key items, capsule toys, money and not to forget, the date the game was finished on.
Basically just how it worked going from I to II. This would definately be a welcome feature and yet another instance of Shenmue doing something that possibly no game has done before, perfectly bridging a 17-18 year gap between two releases of series.

Answering what has to go could be a thing to bring sad thoughts. I doubt that any gameplay elements, graphical workings, music or other integral parts have to go but Shenmue has quite a bunch of product placement that would require a lot of licences to be renewed. I fear this could be the most likely victim to cost cutting. The trailer already shows a Bellwood's vending machine in the background and Coca Cola has only been featured in the original Japanese release. Shenmue II never had Coke but Sapporo, wich all versions featured.

But things go a lot further than carbonated soft drinks. The next most important thing is Ryo's Timex watch. It is so iconic that it came full circle and Timex released a Shenmue branded variant of a real wristwatch (wich I'd love to have, like no other Shenmue item). The redesigned interface also has a redesigned clock display wich had some people rallying instantly but this doesn't have to mean anything yet. As mentioned above the interface had to reworked to meet multiple platforms and the watch stays very true to its classic design, with just the little "am / pm" icon moved from the lower left corner next to the watch to inside the face, wich I quite welcome.

There are also Ryo's Case Logic bag, Sumito Bank account, the Zippos and Hitachi TRQ-298 tape recorder. While those can be redesigned to made up brands Ryo's bag is quite a prominet thing in Shenmue II and at least the Zippos have some deeper element to them. The stands around Hong Kong sell genuine ones and fake ZUPPO lighters, wich plays a role when pawning them. Moreso there is a clear distinction between the real thing and a typical license free approximation, that can of course be used for all of them if everything fails.

Nice view of the Green Market Quarter

Last important bit is what assets D3T is getting from Sega. No one outside of Sega's deepest core really knows how much of the original textures, designs and audio recordings are still kept from the production of Shenmue. Shenmue the Movie makes clear that there at least were some uncompressed voices and Yu Suzuki once stated that a good bit of the textures has been created with higher resolution displays in mind originally.
The Shenmue II screenshot above is an indication of quite a lot of things when it comes to what assets are currently dealt with. I have to mention the camera icon yet again but also look at the wall tiles in the back of the store in the very lower left. These are of a bigger size than the ones found in the original Dreamcast version. Also notice the sign behind the watch in the comparison screenshot? It is completely abscent in the other version. That along with the more detailed jacket that Ryo is wearing points towards the Xbox version being used for Shenmue II. This could be a little concerning since there are a bunch of things changed in the enviroment for no apparent reason. Also there are no shadows for any of the characters yet, just like the game would look when played on the 360.

This is how the Dreamcast did it

Since I mentioned the more highly detailed Ryo, this brings the post to improvements on the graphical level. The trailer shows some added haze effects in the shot with Shenhua from the prologue while the fogginess of the openening is somehow missing. The sky in Shenmue, wich is pretty pixelated and one of the few things really dating the game, has also been smoothened.
This makes clear they are working on it on a deeper level. While they are at it, they can easily use the same higher resolution textures for Ryo in Shenmue. While it would be a double edged thing to bring over the highly detailed face of the Passport Ryo into gameplay, it could ultimately be done.
I definately hope they can use the added hardware muscle to get rid of any slowdown, shorten the load times, eliminate NPC fade in and make low poly hands during gameplay and low poly Ryo plus the abscense of a sky during the 70 Person Free Battle unnecessary.

With all that being said, it is still too early to truly judge any work that has been done with Shenmue I & II so far and we should all wait and see how they can deliver and hope for the very best.

1 comment:

  1. Great questions! I look forward to hearing the answers from Sega.