Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Evolution of the Shenmue Undub Part 1: The Sm1th Release

Evolution of the Shenmue Undub: The Sm1th Release

When Shenmue 1 was released, the spoken audio for the game outside of Japan came only in English. For international fans wishing to play with the original Japanese voices, there was no real solution for many years; even importing the Japan release was not much help unless you had a good understanding of the language, as this did not come with English subtitles.

Fans soon became interested in creating their own version of the game that would couple the original Japanese voice-acting with subtitles in English - in other words, an "undub" version of the game.

However this proved to be no easy task, and the situation did not change for more than 13 years after Shenmue's release.

Then, in late 2013, the break-through many had been waiting for materialized at last - the appearance of the Shenmue 1 Undub.

Audio + Subtitle Combinations for Shenmue 1

The first Shenmue for the Dreamcast was released in a number of audio & subtitle combinations.

There was the standard Japanese release, which naturally had Japanese audio + Japanese subtitles; the American and European releases which had English audio + English subtitles; and the confusingly-named "US Shenmue" which was in fact a Japan-only release and which had English audio together with the in-game option to choose between Japanese and English subtitles.

US Shenmue (left), Japan Shenmue (center) and Europe Shenmue (right).
No official version supported the original Japanese audio with English subtitles.

Summary of the audio & subtitle language combinations for the Shenmue I releases.
Summary of the audio & subtitle language combinations for the Shenmue I releases. An "Undub" version would fill in the gap left by the official releases.

Shenmue Undub by Sm1th

In November of 2013, after spending almost a full year working on the project, a community member going by the username of Sm1th released what many had been longing for: a Shenmue Undub.

The release was made in conjunction with the ReviveDC project team, who helped to optimize and prepare the release for running on a real console, and the announcement was met with great excitement across the Dreamcast and Shenmue community forums.

The release even had its own cover design.
The release even had its own cover design.

The Approach Used

Creating the Shenmue Undub was a technical challenge, so it is worth briefly reviewing the way it was put together.

Firstly, this Undub uses the European PAL release of Shenmue as its base.

One of the main factors behind the choice of this version was that only a PAL version would allow a player's save file to transfer over smoothly to the European release of Shenmue II for the Dreamcast: Shenmue II checks the save game file and rejects it if not saved from a Shenmue of the same region.

Then, to give the game Japanese audio, the numerous English audio files were swapped out with ones from the Japanese (NTSC-J) version to produce the Undub.

The process is summarized in the diagram below.

Undub creation: original method
The method used by Sm1th to create the Shenmue Undub: audio files from Japanese Shenmue were copied over to European Shenmue.

However a complicating factor affecting this method was that the line ordering and amount of dialogue lines in Japanese are not the same as those for the English dialogue (particularly for Ryo's conversations with characters).

Due to this, Sm1th commented that a lot of the time was spent on file renaming and creating dummy files to ensure that the expected filenames could still be found by the game.

As well as the audio manipulation, extra features were also added to the Undub release, such as replacing the vending machine and soda can textures so that the official Coca-Cola branding appears as seen in the Japanese game.

Audio down-sampling and other space-saving techniques were also applied so that each of the disc images would fit within the capacity of a standard 80-minute CD-R.

The Result

This first Undub was remarkable as it allowed players for the first time to experience playing with Japanese voicing and English subtitles.

Furthermore, almost all cinematic cutscenes in the game displayed as expected with correct Japanese audio and English subtitles.

Unfortunately, when it came to the "FREE" conversations with characters in the game, audio was present for only about 60% of such conversations, and lines would occasionally play out of order. This was due to the data compatibility issues when mixing files from each language that was mentioned above.

Happily, work was already in progress on a Undub that would succeed in pointing such issues to rest.

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  1. You do such great work here, Switch. Thank you so much for this blog! ^_^

    1. It's awesome comments like this that inspire more content - thanks for supporting the blog!

  2. Interesting article! Thank you for the effort you put in for us hardcore Shenmue fans, it's appreciated!

  3. The undub is fantastic and so is this blog!

    1. In the words of Wang after you buy him a soda: Thanks a lot, you've made my day!