How D3T brought Shenmue to PC.
Until now, the only way to play the original was on the Dreamcast. But thanks to a relentless campaign by fans to bring it to modern platforms, and UK development studio D3T, Yu Suzuki’s ambitious martial arts epic has finally been given a new lease of life. Shenmue I & II collects the first two games in the series, enabling you to play them in 4K with a few subtle visual tweaks including anti-aliasing and subtle bloom lighting.
“The love and passion that went into these games is clear to see,” says Noel Austin, technical director at D3T, when I ask him why he thinks Shenmue has such a cult following. “The world is incredibly detailed and researched, and really makes you feel like you’re living in Yokosuka in the ’80s. Also, there’s very little hand-holding. You have to use maps and talk to people, which is quite refreshing in this age of constant objective markers.”
D3T first received the Shenmue archive from SEGA back in October 2015 and there was a huge amount of data to sort through before development could begin in earnest. “Ramp-up was slow while we picked through the massive data archive and planned the approach we would take to porting it,” remembers Austin. “Over the lifetime of the project, at least 20 people have touched the code, although the peak team size was probably around ten developers.”
“The pressure was immense,” he adds. “Both from the expectations of the community and the importance of the Shenmue brand within SEGA. We know how passionate the community is about the game, and rightly so. The fans worked really hard in pushing for this re-release and we were grateful to be the studio given the opportunity to bring it back.”
But getting a 20-year-old Dreamcast game to run at a high resolution on a Windows 10 gaming PC was no easy task. “It was incredibly difficult,” says Austin. “We’ve worked on some really challenging projects at D3T, but this was by far the toughest. There was no source code, so we had to reverse engineer from assembly code. The Dreamcast had a 32-bit processor, so getting it to work on 64-bit CPUs was a massive engineering effort.”
Cutscenes were also a problem. While the game itself has been adjusted to support a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, cinematic scenes remain in the Dreamcast’s original 4:3. “The game was designed to run at 4:3,” explains Austin. “This meant many of the cutscenes didn’t work correctly, so we had to maintain the original aspect ratio and add black bars on either side.”
Then there was the language barrier. Shenmue was developed by a Japanese team, SEGA AM2, which caused even more headaches for D3T. “All the comments in the code were written in Japanese, so we had to use Google Translate to get a handle on it. Then there was the additional problem of the game logic being written in a separate scripting language, meaning all the function names and variables were in Japanese, too.”
D3T also noticed that when it increased the resolution of the game from 640x480, the Dreamcast standard, new problems emerged and existing ones became more prominent. “The original was a technical marvel and was highly tuned for the Dreamcast, which didn’t give us as much performance headroom as we were expecting given the age of the game. Some of the features of the hardware would prove difficult to emulate.”
Music is one thing the Shenmue remaster doesn’t quite get right. It sounds fine for the most part, however diehard fans with a keen ear will notice some of the instruments aren’t synthesised in the same way. “The audio on the Dreamcast is mainly driven by a completely different chip to the main CPU,” says Austin. “It’s loaded with different programs defined by the original developer, specifying things like loop points, reverb, volumes, etc. We didn’t have the source data for this, so we had to reverse engineer it.”
Shenmue superfan BlueMue also noticed some visual differences, mainly involving licensed brands being quietly removed from the game. Glenfiddich whisky bottles now say Golden Whisky, Ryo’s bank statement is no longer from the real-world Sumitomo Bank, but the more generic-sounding Yokosuka Bank, and the Timex logo has been removed from his watch. With almost two decades passing since these licensing deals were first made, it’s understandable that D3T had to make these changes.
I ask Austin if D3T found anything interesting in the game files. “So many things,” he says. “The moon in Shenmue II is not a texture but an actual 3D object in the distance correctly lit by the direction of the sun, which produces accurate phases. The physics of the ball in Lucky Hit is affected by the time of day, weather, and temperature. In cutscenes the game switches to higher quality head and hand models, allowing for more expression. We were amazed to discover this level of hidden detail.”
Porting such an old game was clearly a struggle for D3T, but it was worth it. This is now the best way to experience Shenmue, which is every bit as compelling, atmospheric, and idiosyncratic as it was back in 1999. “I hope fans can get some understanding of the difficulties in resurrecting these games, and that the new features have been positive additions,” says Austin. “On a personal level, I’m still amazed that the game I played so long ago is now available in full HD on a modern gaming PC.”
“The original was a technical marvel and was highly tuned for the Dreamcast”
Goro has never looked better.
FAR LEFT: Cutscenes use higher resolution character models.
LEFT: The new subtle bloom lighting makes a big difference.