Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Secret of Miao Village: Analysis of Village Screenshots [Part One]

Following the release of Shenmue II on the Dreamcast in 2001, a number of intriguing screenshots (a selection of which is shown above) were revealed on the Shenmue.com website by AM2, Yu Suzuki's development team at Sega, showing content that had been cut from the game before release.

Several of these screenshots showed an unfamiliar village and a temple setting, with some even containing subtitles of dialogue between Ryo and a character who was unused in the released game.

Fans later also managed to uncover unused loading screens, one of these showing the name  "Miao Village" - and so it is by this name that the location of these screenshots has come to be known by the community.

Various theories have been put forward and discussed over the years, although even today, these screenshots still hold a great sense of mystery. In this series of posts, we will gather together as much as we can find about them, as well as carrying out some digging of our own, and see what conclusions can be drawn as to their true nature.

There is a lot to talk about, so the planned post topics for this post series will be as follows:
Models and other data were extracted from the game discs with the excellent Wudecon converter tool created by LemonHaze. The comprehensive Shenmue II Character Database by Stuart of the Shenmusings blog, was a fantastic resource for checking character names and usage.

Let's get started!

Screenshots Analysis

The screenshots first appeared in issue #29 (June 2002) of Muecas, the name of AM2's online Shenmue fan club. They were grouped into three sections: Ryo on a bicycle with Xiaoqin (which we have talked about in this post); Ryo in a village setting; and Ryo in a temple setting - this series will focus on these last two sections. At the time they were presented as content that had been cut from the released game, but no further explanation was provided.

We'll start by examining the three screen shots that show Ryo exploring the village, and highlight any features and small details:

Village screenshots

After that, we will move on to the four screenshots of a temple setting which include subtitled dialogue.

Order of the Screenshots

The screenshots were presented with a numbered order ("2-1", "2-2"... etc), and so it might be assumed they were presented in order of time as Ryo made his way the area.

However, in fact this turns out not to be true for all the images. If we overlay the first two screenshot images and compare the position of the minute hand on the on-screen watch, it can be seen that the second screenshot occurs slightly earlier in time than the first one.
Comparison of the watch display between screenshots 1 and 2

This is useful to know for tracking Ryo's movement through the village, so we'll start with the earlier screenshot.

Also, speaking of the watch UI, in these screenshots its position is at the lower left of the screen, however in the Dreamcast release version of Shenmue II it was moved to the top right of the screen (bottom-right in Shenmue I).

Village Screenshot 1/3: Path in Village

In the first image, Ryo is running along a wide dirt path in a village setting. According to the watch display, the time is approximately 12:50 pm, and Ryo is heading north.

The sides of the path are bounded by crude fences made from thin pieces of bamboo. Ahead lies an intersection, with paths running in various directions. A number of wooden houses with thatched roofs stand around amongst the trees in a flat grassy area.

Screenshot 1: path in village

Straight ahead and slightly to the left is a large tree under which is a wooden bench [circled area "a" - I've indicated this area with yellow as this same landmark is visible in the next image also].

The screenshot also features a number of NPCs: although hard to distinguish against the background, standing in front of the tree is a figure in a beige top and dark pants ["b"] and what appears to be a figure in grey on a distant path at the left ["c"], squatting down and possibly with a child on their back (just a guess as the resolution is poor). A couple of villagers stand at the right, holding a conversation ["d"]. Closer to Ryo and facing him, stands a fourth character, a child in a maroon top ["e"] - we shall see her appear again in other screenshots! 

Other features in the screenshot include a couple of tall, thick wooden posts ["f"], although wires are not apparent and their purpose is not clear.

While the figures are generally very blurry and hard to distinguish, an interesting project would be to try comparing their appearance against the set of character models (especially those that are unused in the game) to see if there are any matches. The total number of unique characters in Shenmue II is around 850, with approximately 150 of these being unused in the released game but whose data exists on the game discs and can be examined.

Village Screenshot 2/3: Tower

The time on the watch display is now around 12:51 pm, placing it only a minute after the image above. Now the compass shows that Ryo is heading northwest through the village. In the background are large hills and trees.

Screenshot 2: tower

The tree with the bench underneath seen in the previous image can be seen again here at the right ["a"], allowing us to conclude that Ryo turned left after reaching the path intersection in the previous screenshot.

The most prominent feature is a tall wooden tower straight ahead ["b"], which has a ladder running up it to a roofed platform. Beneath the roof is a small dark shape that may be a warning bell, and at two of the roof corners hang lantern-like shapes.

Below the tower are some wooden structures with diagonal struts ["c"]. It is rather difficult to make out exactly what they are at the moment; the following screenshot shows them in more detail.

A number of characters are also present in this scene. On the path ahead we can see the same child in the maroon top from the previous image ["d"], and based on her clothing this looks very much like Xiaoqin Liu from Sunny Capital Pharmacy.

The child in the distance looks to be Xiaoqin Liu

Ahead to the right, in the middle distance, are several figures on the grass and nearby path ["e"]. Two martial artists appear to be performing moves or poses; walking past them are the figures of three adults and a child.

The two wooden buildings at the far right are the same ones seen in the previous image, from a slightly different angle. We now see that one of the buildings has two white banners ["f"] set outside it - perhaps a shop of some kind. A couple more buildings are also present in the distance, and the roof of one barely peeps up above the ground ["g"], showing that the land falls away to a lower level.

Looking closely at the posing martial arts figures, they appear to be dressed in turquoise tops with purple pants and white-colored sleeves. And a figure of a child's height, walking on the path nearby, also wears a similarly-colored costume.

Searching through the character models reveals three candidate matches dressed in identical outfits, whose model IDs are D01D02 and D05:
Possible character model matches

The first two models are unused in the game - but the last may look familiar. It's Zongxiao Bian, an orphan Ryo meets at the Moon Child Orphanage in Kowloon. His character may have been originally intended for use at this location but was moved once the decision to cut the village was made.

Two other unused character models whose IDs follow the "Dxx" pattern - D03 and D04 - also exist on the disc. They are the two unused female character models below - two more characters created for this village, perhaps?

Unused character models D03 and D04

Historical note: the discovery of matching characters, likely to be the ones above, were reported way back on the Shenmue Dojo forums in 2003 by Mestre Ziming. In his short post, he describes having found "two men and a kid" matching the screenshots, as well as "two women that seem to belong to the same people but they have different clothes".

Village Screenshot 3/3: Training Bars

Regarding this screenshot image itself, it can be seen that, for some reason, it was cropped at the time of its original publication, with part of the on-screen watch being truncated. The location is slightly further ahead of the previous one, traveling in approximately the same direction moving closer to the watch tower, the beams of which can be seen at the left.

In the foreground, the identity of the structures seen in the previous image is revealed as being some kind of exercise or training equipment made from bamboo poles, with four figures suspended in the air by their feet, and one other similarly-dressed figure standing alongside - perhaps an instructor. They are all dressed in the same outfit of a turquoise tunic with yellow sleeves, a red belt around the waist, purple trousers and red shoes. The figures are blurred in the screenshot, indicating the figures are in motion as they perform "hanging sit-ups".

Village screenshot 3: training bars

In the background can be seen a better-defined view of the buildings seen in the previous image. One of the white banners seen earlier is visible ["a"], and at this distance we can confirm that it has writing on it (unfortunately too blurry to read from this screenshot), bolstering the probability of this being a sign of some kind.

Some other characters are also standing a little further away ["b"]: on the path is the familiar sight of the child in the mauve top - who we have picked to be Xiaoqin - surely not a coincidence! We will return to the significance of her frequent presence in the village screenshots later on in the series. Nearby to her is another child in a yellow shirt.

The child in the yellow shirt matches with a character model that is used in the final game - none other than Xiangwen Cao, the child at Workers Pier who finds Ryo scary and Ryo's attempts at conversation go nowhere! (Thanks to Stuart from the Shenmusings blog for the identification). Whether or not this child would have found Ryo equally as intimidating if he had approached him in this village setting is an interesting point to ponder...

Xiangwen Cao: "I'm scared!"

At the bottom left ["c"], the diagonal leg of what looks to be part of another training structure can be glimpsed.

Somewhat unexpectedly, there is a purple "R" button icon showing near the top ["d"], a button prompt that never appears on screen in the released games.

While the "R" icon does not exist in the release version of the Dreamcast games, a trace of an earlier graphics set remains on the Shenmue disc which contains the following unused set of icons. It includes "L" and "R" icons in two styles: trigger and round button - as well as a "C" button icon.

Unused button graphics (SPRITE\COMICON)

The "C" button may be a leftover from early development days, as one is present on the control pad for Sega's previous console, the Saturn, Shenmue's original development target. Round versions of the "L" and "R" trigger icons may have been created for consistency with the others, as even on the Saturn these buttons were non-circular shoulder buttons. 

The presence of the onscreen "R" icon in this screenshot is intriguing. It is reminiscent of a QTE button prompt - but you would normally expect Ryo to be shown onscreen for a QTE sequence, which isn't the case here.

What action might the R trigger have represented? It would seem unlikely that Ryo would be able to interact directly with the characters who are busy training. If not a QTE prompt then might it have been indicating a special action - for example, using the trigger button to view the training, in a similar way to the way the trigger is used to zoom when exploring?

One other small detail is that the top of the "A" prompt button can be seen at the bottom right of the screen ["e"], just above the crop line of the screenshot, indicating that this button (and possibly others) was also available at this moment.
The tip of the "A" button can be observed

A search through the character models on the disc did not turn up an exact match for the martial artists seen on the bars. In the released game there is a similar costume that shares the same yellow sleeves and a turquoise top which is worn by several characters. The costumes / characters in the screenshots may have been removed or adjusted before the game was released
Although not the costume in the screenshots, this costume has a similar turquoise top and yellow sleeves.

In Part Two, we will continue on to dig through the game files for objects and models that were left behind on the disc after the village was removed from the game. (Surprisingly, there are several!).

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  1. Oh yes give that analysis to me, I've been a very naughty Shenmue, my phantom river stone is sooo wet and polished right now. Show me the wulinshu! Wait! Wulinshu..! Scan ME! I need ya, I want ya. Can't wait for 2nd round babe

  2. In the past I was SO SO curious about these screenshots and removed content from original Shenmue 2. Maybe Miao village was planned to be placed just before or after the ending cave? It's really nice to see someone doing a deep analysis of it after so long... thank you very much!

    1. Glad they are of interest, even if so many years later! We'll also be talking about where this village would have been in the story in an upcoming part.

  3. Super interesting as always!

    1. It's a fascinating topic to look into. Plenty of room for theories and speculation!