Sunday, February 28, 2021

Early Shenmue UI Textures | Dragon & Phoenix Project Discoveries

The recently-announced Shenmue Dragon & Phoenix project promises almost limitless possibilities for experiencing Shenmue I and II running on the modern Unreal Engine. (See this great overview video and project team interview by Segalacious to learn more).

Such a project naturally involves thorough analysis to evaluate and comprehend the existing game files to ensure the gameplay is ported across accurately; and this also means that the team is perfectly positioned to uncover a wealth of new findings under the hood. As fans are very much aware, the games are so packed with content and secrets that previously-unknown easter eggs are being discovered even to this day.

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Today we'll look at an interesting find by the project team - a set of early UI graphics that may even date as far back as the days of Shenmue development for the Sega Saturn!

The UI Texture Sheet

In Segalacious' interview linked at the start of this post, project team member Dewey made mention of a set of UI elements that the team has found which are unused in the game and may potentially have been created far back in the game's history, when it was being developed for the Sega Saturn console:
"We’ve also found a few interesting textures, like a set of UI textures that may date back all the way to the Saturn era of development, given the resolution of the texture sheet, among other clues." 
- Dewey
The set of textures in question are shown below, courtesy of project lead LemonHaze:

UI textures

This image (which is one of several small texture files inside the file SPRITE/COMICON.SPR in the original Dreamcast release), has a resolution of just 128 x 128 pixels and contains several individual elements that appear to relate to the game's user interface:
  • A long rectangular shape with rounded ends
  • Two short buttons with angled ends: a pink "No" and a green "Yes".
  • Along the bottom:
    • A square of grey "noise"
    • A grey triangle with rounded ends
    • N/S/E/W lettering, with the "N" in red

Action Selector Buttons

The first element (the rounded rectangle at the top) may look familiar, and in fact it is the graphic that is used as the background image of the so-called "action selector" buttons in the Dreamcast release:

It is notable that the brightly-colored "No" and "Yes" buttons aren't seen in the final Dreamcast release of the game and represent unused assets. However LemonHaze has made the discovery that the Yes / No buttons actually appear in footage contained on the "What's Shenmue" promotional VHS tape that was released ahead of the game in the first half of 1999.

In the What's Shenmue VHS footage, they are shown when the player is making a choice of whether or not to play a game at the You Arcade, whereas in the final game more specific actions such as "Play / Don't Play" are provided:

The Yes & No buttons in footage from the What's Shenmue VHS tape: the player is prompted whether to play a game of Excite QTE 2 at the You Arcade.

While this provides confirmation that these Yes and No button graphics were used during an earlier stage of development on the Dreamcast version, their bold style and bright colors set them apart from the more refined UI that came to be used. Together with the relatively low resolution of the texture sheet itself (128 x 128 pixels), it seems plausible that these graphics have been carried over from much earlier in the project - perhaps even as far back as development for the Sega Saturn version, as suggested in Dewey's interview comment.

A screenshot from the legendary and unreleased Sega Saturn version

Compass Direction Lettering

Let's turn our attention to the N / S / E / W lettering on the texture sheet. Their style is similar to the lettering on the on-screen compass in the release version of the game, but in fact these are from a different texture sheet, so these letters appear not to be used. If that is the case, it seems likely that these may be from an earlier stage during development of the game.

The lettering on the compass "ring" in the release version (left) can be found in a separate texture file (top right). The lettering on the sheet containing the Yes / No buttons (lower right) appear to be unused.

A compass indication is one of the few informational UI elements that can be seen in online footage of the Sega Saturn version, while Ryo is running along a path in Guilin. This display can be seen at the top of the screen in the capture below. While the lettering style is not dissimilar, the "N" is not colored red and it seems rather to be part of a simple text overlay.

Help Button

The rounded triangular shape on the texture sheet suggests the shape of the Start button on the Dreamcast controller, which performs as the Help button during gameplay in the Dreamcast release. Here again, on-screen Help graphic can be found in a separate file, leaving this as potentially another unused element.

The graphic for on-screen Help UI (left) exists on a separate texture sheet (top right). The rounded triangle on the Yes / No button sheet appears to be unused.

Other UI Elements

One other intriguing-looking element is the square of "noise" at the bottom-left of the texture sheet, which looks like something that might be seen on a CRT TV screen that has lost its signal. (Any suggestions as to where this might have once appeared in the game are welcome in the comments!)


Many thanks to LemonHaze for passing on this finding of the texture sheet for us to write up in this post. It appears to contain a mixture of used and unused elements for the game's UI, and allows us to peek back at an earlier time in the game's history. In the case of the Yes / No buttons in particular, it is fascinating to think of the possibility that we may even be looking at graphics that were created as far back as the days of development for the Saturn.

We will be sharing more Shenmue discoveries and secrets courtesy of the Dragon & Phoenix team on an on-going basis. (The next one is truly astounding - watch for it soon!) 

About the Shenmue Dragon & Phoenix Collection

Shenmue Dragon & Phoenix Collection is an engine replacement mod for the 2018 release of Shenmue I+II for PC that replaces the original engine with Unreal Engine 4, allowing for massive improvements across the board. It is an entirely non-profit fan project.

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