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Shenmue – The cancelled remaster

Posted on October 16, 2018 at 20:52 PM BST

Despite enjoying the newly re-released Shenmue I & II on PS4, Xbox and PC, John Linneman from Digital Foundry brought us some news yesterday, of a newly discovered Shenmue prototype. It seems at one point, a full remaster of both Shenmue and Shenmue II was on the cards, and the video production below goes through some of the visual changes which seem to have already been worked on. We have also transcribed John’s work, as well as taken select images from the game. 

John Linneman – Digital Foundry

“Shenmue. A game of discovery and adventure. A timeless classic, but one with a rather interesting history. A history which gains a new page, starting today.

Now at this point, Shenmue fans are well aware of an unfinished version of the game on the Sega Saturn. AM2 worked on this prototype prior to making the jump to Sega Dreamcast. In the end it was the right choice for the game and the system, and Shenmue became one of the Dreamcast’s most beloved titles. But the history of its development, and the knowledge of the Sega Saturn’s development is important in defining the history of the series. The Shenmue community is richer for it. Almost 19 years later, Shenmue was given a second shot with the release of Shenmue 1 and 2 HD on modern platforms. This is a project Shenmue fans the world over, had anticipated for years, and it finally happened, albeit, with some flaws.But what if I told you that this was not the original version intended for release? What if there’s another Saturn Shenmue moment out there, so to speak, just waiting to be discovered?

This is Shenmue; the remastered version. It’s just a taste of what was in store for fans prior to 2018, and if you couldn’t tell, this is NOT the version of Shenmue 1 and 2 HD that we received. It is instead, a cancelled, unfinished version of the game. So where the heck did this come from? Well, the details are rather murky but as we understand it, this remaster was in development for quite some time, before the plug was pulled, likely due to budget constraints or perhaps concerns with the changes being made of the core assets. The decision was made either way, to scrap this version, and instead focus on rebuilding the games for release on consoles using the original assets instead.

Whilst we don’t know the full details here, this version of Shenmue was cancelled sometime in late 2017, and the team responsible for it went on to create the HD version that was released, suggesting that time constraints were significant during this project. Theoretically, this may help explain the inclusion of various bugs and glitches in the release version. The scope of the project simply changed. So, we have a rough idea of what happened and we can’t possibly presume to understand the business reasons behind it, but, we’re glad that its existence is no longer a mystery. This is an important work that should be preserved for the betterment of series history, even if it’s just in the form of a video right now. But how does it compare? It doesn’t really look like a brand new 2018 game after all right? So what is it? Let’s walk through some of the key areas featured in this video using the released HD collection as a comparison point, to try and appreciate differences. Keep in mind that this is very much incomplete, and was still in development.

So, let’s begin here, just outside the gate of Ryo’s home. The cancelled version suggests significant improvements to the rendering engine, proper shadow maps are now visible, textures and foliage are much higher resolution, and geometry complexity is increased.

If we look closer at the gate, you’d notice ambient occlusion, and additional geometry here as well. The roof tiles are fully modelled in the cancelled version, same for the fence posts, which are very flat in the Dreamcast original. The overall look is rather similar, but detail is increased across the board.

Moving inside the Hazuki compound the overhaul to foliage is immediately evident once again, as we see things like detailed stone work here on the edges, improved structures and a better looking tree model. Real-time shadows are also once again evident here. In my opinion, this is one of the nicest looking areas in this unreleased version of the game. The atmosphere is similar enough to the Dreamcast release, but there’s just enough added detail and granularity in everything. This is definitely the kind of thing I would want to see in a remastered version of Shenmue.

Let’s go back outside then. This shrine here in Yamanose exhibits one of the larger upgrades in the demo. It’s just flat out much more detailed all around. Texture and geometry detail are pushed up significantly, and the new lighting and shadows lend the scene a nice new look. Though I should say when you look at scenes like this, some of the changes to lighting have a significant impact on the overall atmosphere. Perhaps a cool feature would have been the ability to toggle between the new and old graphics, similar to something like ‘Halo – Master Chief Collection’. It would certainly have been an ambitious feature to include, but I think it would be well worth doing.

So the areas around Ryo’s house are quite detailed indeed but what about the town itself? Whilst I couldn’t get a good comparison angle here, you can see the addition of light shafts in the scene, and also using improved texture work on the sign. It’s kind of a shame that the light shafts here didn’t make it into the release version of the game. This also highlights a debug featuring in action here, with a placeholder ring around a characters head.

Speaking of characters heads, the next shot suggests increased geometry on NPCs, along with new, normal map texture designed to increase the perception of detail. Comparing this with the original then, there’s still a boost in detail evident here, but it does feel less significant overall in the specific area. There’s definitely additional work that could have been done here. The textures though, are certainly much sharper, and again, the shadows… and that’s pretty much the entirety of the Shenmue 1 footage in this video. All the lighting in town are certainly different than the original game. I do feel that this is an upgrade over all, and would have been a fantastic way to re-release the game. Especially if the option to switch back to the original visuals had been available as well. But of course, thus far, this video is primarily focused on the original Shenmue, but that doesn’t mean work wasn’t also carried out on it’s sequel.

Welcome back to Hong Kong, in the unreleased version of Shenmue 2. This is a very different situation compared to Shenmue 1. The sequel was packed with large tall buildings, and lots of wide open flat surfaces. Compared to the granular level detail on display in the original Shenmue, Shenmue 2 instead chooses to focus on scale, thus first impressions suggest that the version being worked on here, doesn’t impress to the same degree as the original Shenmue.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that there have been plenty of changes nonetheless. Once again, texture detail is ramped up significantly here, and the addition of shadow maps adds depth the environment. It’s becoming a bit routine at this point, but, you get the idea.

The next shot though, showcases some additional reflectivity in the glass windows here. This effect was not really possible in the original game on the Dreamcast, but it looks great, and even the overall scene detail isn’t massively ramped up. It’s a really nice touch.

If we dip inside the Golden Shopping Mall, than I observed an increase in geometry texture detail once again. There are the more rounded arches here in the distance, not to mention the higher resolution sign texture.

The monitor here for Excite QTE 2 appears weirdly gitchy in this build, but the rest is rather interesting. You can see evidence of more modern rendering techniques throughout the scene, but I’m not necessarily certain that it looks better than the original version. This is definitely a room I prefer the original version.

Then there is Man Mo Temple, which benefits from the greatly increased geometry detail, and shadows once again.

Next up is this area beneath the tree, which seems to be performing quite poorly in this build, but again it’s unfinished software. If we compare with the original, there is more detail present, including the leaves on the ground, rather than just a simple texture. Ambient occlusion is also quite evident. That’s pretty much the bulk of what we have here. It’s just a tiny taste of what was possible compared to the original release.

So, what do you guys think? It’s interesting take on Shenmue isn’t it? Now, it’s worth keeping in mind that this type of thing isn’t uncommon in the industry. Developers regularly prototype ideas and projects all the time, and many of these projects never get made. It’s really difficult to say for sure what happened here. It certainly could have been a budgetry issue Sega may have realised at some point that hey, it would cost too much to finish the project at the rate the team was going. So, let’s just go for the original style instead. Or perhaps, seeing as this was developed in the West, maybe the original Japanese team wasn’t entirely happy with the changes being made. That’s also absolutely possible. Either way, it is a tad disappointing that we never got to play it, as it would have been a neat to revisit the games, but at least we can see it here. What I’m more curious about here though, is how the rendering has changed from the back end of this build, and the final release that we got in August. The version of Shenmue 1 & 2 that we would have seen, does look very much like the original games, without bringing any significant visual changes to the table. There’s bloom lighting of course, which is nice, but would it have been possible to push the game even further I wonder? Things like shadow maps and light shafts that have featured prominently in this video, for instance, would have been a great addition even with the original assets. But it’s not entirely clear this would have even been possible. We don’t know how much of the original code is running in the background here, and we certainly don’t know how much work done for this portion of the project, is carried over to the final release.

Then there’s the matter of development time. I’d imagine the team learned all about the source code working on the project at this point in time, and that knowledge was likely invaluable in building the final release. Even still, it does seem like the development cycle for Shenmue 1 & 2 was relatively short. Seeing that the game exists in this form however, this is a little insight into what was happening behind the scenes, and understand how certain issues may have slipped through. It’s certainly must have been a challenging project to work on. I’m just glad to see that it exists at all. We may not have received this version of Shenmue, but you can tell a lot of love and care went into the project.

So that’s basically we’re at with this. In the end, we ended up with Shenmue 1 & 2. Now, I had a really good experience overall, and have since finished the game. But it’s clear now  that there were plenty of bugs present in certain areas of the games, if you look hard enough. Things like the darts not working properly in Shenmue 2, some of the music sounding incorrect ,and a lack of analogue control and some of the arcade games. The good news is that a lot of these major issues have been corrected with the current version of the game, but it’s not clear if the remaining flaws will ever be touched upon. Still, knowing what we know now, I think it’s pretty clear this was a very challenging project for the team, and I do think it’s somewhat understandable why the final release has some of these issues. But, that’s all for the moment. Perhaps in time will see more of this version of Shenmue. It’s a key piece of series history, and it deserves to be preserved.”

The full video from John can be viewed below, from the Digital Foundry Youtube Channel:

Writing for Euorgamer, John also broke the news on their site, and since then, Sega have issued an update as to why the remaster was indeed cancelled:

UPDATE 16/10/18 3:52pm: Sega has been in touch with a statement – “SEGA and D3T indeed had started exploring the feasibility of a full HD remaster for Shenmue I & II. That being said, we soon realised that this was a project with its own set of challenges. Working with original animations and characters but meshing them with enhanced HD visuals gave us a game that we felt would not meet the standards that Shenmue fans expect and deserve. Rather than going ahead with a release that may disappoint fans, we chose to focus on bringing the classic game to PC and modern consoles, so that new players could experience Shenmue’s original charm.”

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