Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Prototype that Served Its Purpose: Thoughts on the Leaked Footage for a "Full HD Remaster" of Shenmue I & II

Yesterday, a video was released by Digital Foundry, showcasing leaked footage of a partially-completed remastered version of Shenmue I & II (which we'll refer to as a prototype) that was eventually shelved in favor of a version in which the enhancements were more manageable. This version was also worked on by d3t, the same development company who went on to develop the Shenmue I & II re-release that was released earlier this year.

The footage takes the form of a number of camera "fly-bys" around certain locations from the games (the Hazuki Residence, Yamanose and Dobuita from Shenmue I, and a few street areas in Hong Kong), highlighting comprehensively remodeled graphics.

The author, John Linneman, also provided a few more details in a discussion on the Shenmue Dojo forums (from his anonymous source):
  • The assets seen in the video were newly created for the project.
  • A toggle button was to be implemented that would allow switching between the original and new graphics.
  • When the decision was made not to continue down the path of a full graphical remake, Shenmue I was "50% complete" and Shenmue II was "10% complete".
The video can be viewed here:

SEGA has since issued a comment as follows; it explains why they decided not to to proceed in this direction:
"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."

A Feasibility Experiment

When reacting to the revelation of this prototype's existence, and subsequent change of direction, a few considerations come to mind.

There is the question of whether making such an extensive graphical overhaul should be carried out at all; it can such changes remain faithful to the spirit and charm of the original games, given that Yu Suzuki was not involved in this project? With such care taken in designing and building Shenmue's detailed world, any changes made would necessarily some artistic decisions to be made; decisions made without Yu Suzuki.

Also, a project that was only partially complete is of course a world away from being a completed game. For example, from the video footage, there were no interactions or even main character shown, let alone all the other areas that would need to be upgraded. Shenmue contains a huge number of NPCs and objects populating the landscape, for both interiors and exteriors, all of which would need to be remodeled to maintain graphical consistency. Clearly a great deal of graphical work still remained to be done.

Specifically mentioned by SEGA was that applying the upgraded graphics while keeping the original animations and characters did not give a satisfactory result, something that may have led to a ballooning scope in order to address properly.

And finally there is the role that remasters / re-releases fulfill within the larger scope of continuation of the franchise. As Shenmue fans we have longed for the next game in the series to be produced, and that is now happening with Shenmue III's release in August next year. And going hand-in-hand with that is the need to introduce as many newcomers to the series as possible, ahead of that release. This has been achieved with the Shenmue I & II re-releases.

One take-away for me is that it sheds further light on just how much passion d3t poured into this project under the constraints of the deadline. Needless to say, much of the work spent on working with & understanding the original code when building the prototype would also apply to the eventual approach.

And so, while the footage certainly stuns (especially the Hazuki Residence garden) and is another fascinating addition to the game's history, it can be considered part of the normal prototyping and decision-making that are part of such projects. 

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