Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rebuilding a legacy: the Shenmue remasters

On January 5, 2017, registrations for the and domains by SEGA Europe have been found and made public by outlets TSSZ News and ShenmueDojo. Both domains, registered in September 2016, points to blank pages as of now, but SEGA expressed interest in remastering the first two Shenmue titles back in May 2016. So the stars may be aligning slowly but surely for the company's ill fated epic: the announcement of Shenmue 3 by Ys Net at Sony's momentous E3 2015 conference is mostly responsible for putting all the gears in motion, rekindling the hopes of a sizeable hardcore fanbase and tickling the interest of a much younger audience at the same time - people who have never played a Shenmue game before.

The followings are opinions and speculations based on the existence of two official web domains pointing out to remastered versions of the original Shenmue 1 and 2. Explicit confirmation from SEGA is yet to come.

Since the end of Shenmue 3's record setting Kickstarter campaign, updates from legendary game designer Yu Suzuki and his team has been pretty regular, and last December they reassured everyone about a smooth and steady development, prompting SEGA's aforementioned domain registrations. That's welcome news for sure, but the enthusiasm one can expect from people such as me (or the odd neighbour that kept playing his Dreamcast in 2001 while the PS2 was taking the world's markets by storm) can be put aside for one moment to ask why is SEGA caring about Shenmue at all, after relegating it to a limbo for about 15 years.

The Shenmue remasters sounds
more like chasing an opportunity rather
than a renewed act of faith towards
the series' groundbreaking legacy

For those who were interested in videogames back when SEGA had to quit the hardware business, it's easy to picture the company's struggle with Shenmue: on one hand, they had two of the most beautiful, complex and ambitious titles to ever grace an home console, while on the other, they represented a 70 million $ gamble that had a significant impact in their subsequent financial dramas.
What happened to SEGA in 2001 was a painful sign of where the gaming industry as a whole was heading, a place where the dream of a true open world with detailed visuals, highly granular interactions, a strong reliance on systemic features and artistic merit was just too big for the budgets of the time. From then on, in order to ensure (a) that the software quality reflected the capabilities of newer hardwares and in turn (b) financial sustainability, game making became a strictly collaborative effort.

Only recently SEGA has returned to an healty status thanks to smart investments on the PC market, but this alone doesn't justify a new investment on the Shenmue series: the kind of wound you've been reading about until now is extremely hard to recover from, and would rightfully make any businessman wary of the past and overly cautious about his future choices. There would be no need to reintroduce Shenmue to a new generation of gamers without future perspectives, which in this case comes from Ys Net, not even SEGA itself. That's why the Shenmue remasters sounds more like chasing an opportunity to me, rather than a renewed act of faith towards a series that tackled narrative open world design in a way most developers of today still strive for... or rather shy away from because, you know, games are just business.

There's a good part to Shenmue's legacy, SEGA. With so much water under the bridge, you really should know better.