UPDATE 16/10/18 3:52pm: Sega has been in touch with a statement - "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."

Original story: Shenmue - a game of discovery and adventure. It's a timeless classic and one with a deep and fascinating history - which becomes even more compelling today. As we know, Sega tasked UK developer d3t with remastering Shenmue and its sequel for the current generation consoles and PC. What we received was a good game that brought classic Shenmue to today's machines, albeit with visuals based almost exclusively on the original AM2 assets. But what we now know is that prior to completing this work, plans were afoot for something considerably more ambitious - a comprehensive remake with completely revamped artwork more in step with the capabilities of the host platforms. We've seen it and today, you will too.

So, what's the story here? Well, the details are murky but as we understand it, this more in-depth remaster/remake was in development for quite some time before the plug was pulled due to budget constraints and development delays - and perhaps owing to concerns with the nature of some of the changes being made. We only have a rough idea of what happened and we can't presume to understand all of the business reasons behind Sega's change in direction, but the bottom line is that in common with other unfinished and cancelled projects, the work-in-progress video we received adds a further dimension to the history of one of gaming's most celebrated franchises.

Based on the video, there are a number of things we can tell about the ambitions behind the cancelled work. For starters, there's the suggestion of significant improvements to the rendering. Proper shadow maps are implemented, textures and foliage are of a much higher resolution while the complexity in geometry is increased: flat textured roof tiles and fence post become full 3D objects - it's the same game, the same environment, but substantially reworked. Foliage, trees and stone work benefits from all of the same improvements, light shafts are added in one location showcased in the video, while ambient occlusion - not a feature of the original game - is also added to the mix. NPCs are also upgraded, with increased geometry and new normal maps designed to increase the perception of detail. Compared to the original, there is a boost in detail but it feels less significant in this area. We'd say that there was still work to be done here.

A look at the lost Shenmue remake, stacked up against the remastering work completed by the same developer and based more closely on the original AM2 art.

The video also includes footage of Shenmue 2, suggesting that full remakes for both titles in progress. The enhancements here seem a little thinner on the ground - perhaps because it was earlier in development but again, texture detail is boosted significantly and the addition of shadow-maps adds depth to the environment. The same philosophy behind the upgrades seen in the first game extends to the second, though getting to see more content reveals more upgrades - like improved reflections in glass windows, for example.

Overall, the video of this discontinued version of Shenmue HD represents a fascinating, more ambitious and certainly more risky path for the project - which may explain why Sega decided to play it safe with a more conventional remaster based on existing art. Now, it's worth keeping in mind that this kind of situation is not uncommon - developers prototype ideas and projects all of the time and many never get made. That doesn't change the fact that - in my opinion at least - the quality of the remade assets really holds up here, and it's a shame that Sega pulled the plug on it.

What I would say is that some of the changes to lighting do have a significant impact on atmosphere, though - changing the ambience of the experience. Perhaps a cool feature here would have been a toggle between new and old graphics, similar to Halo: the Master Chief Collection? It would have been an ambitious component to include, but also well worth doing: one game with two intepretations of the artwork.

Final ReleaseUnreleased Version
The Hazuki residence receives a significant overhaul in the cancelled release. Scene complexity is ramped up, foliage is rendered with more detail and shadow maps are now in use. Notice how smaller details, such as the roof tiles or small stones along the path, are now fully modelled.
Final ReleaseUnreleased Version
This small shrine highlights further changes - lighting is handled completely differently while textures and overall detail is greatly increased. This also highlights a glitch in the PS4 version specifically - the left-most banner appears split into four chunks.
Final ReleaseUnreleased Version
ManMo Temple benefits from greatly increased texture quality and higher resolution meshes. Details represented as textures in the original game are now fully modelled.
Final ReleaseUnreleased Version
Most of the work completed on this project was focused on Shenmue 1 but this shot gives us an idea of where the team was heading with the sequel. It loses a bit of that 'AM2 look' in the transitions but the results are fascinating.

What I'm curious about is how the rendering changed on the backend between this build and the final release. The version of Shenmue HD that we received looks very much like the originals, without bringing any significant visual changes to the table. The extra bloom lighting we received is nice, of course, but would it have been possible to push further? Components like shadow maps and light shafts, for instance, would have been a great addition to the original assets, in the same way that the bloom effect integrated well with AM2's original work.

One takeaway I have from this video is that while we may not have received this version of Shenmue in the end, you can tell that a lot of love and care went into this project. As we understand it, this remake was developed by the same team that delivered the final remasters, and after this, there's the sense that the team were even more invested in the project than we thought.

That said, we do wonder if the late cancellation of the full remake did adversely affect the quality of the remastered version that eventually launched in August. I had a good experience playing that, but it's clear now that there were plenty of bugs present in certain areas of the game. The good news is that a lot of the major issues have been corrected with the current patch - but it's not clear if the remaining flaws will ever be touched upon. It's certainly clear that this was a challenging project and knowing what we know now, I think it's perhaps more understandable why the final release has these issues.

As for the status of the remake shown here today? We asked Sega for comment and will update with any response, but our understanding is that this video represents the tip of the iceberg and that a significant amount of more advanced work was completed. Whether we'll ever see it remains to be seen, but what we know is that a PC build does exist somewhere out there - and in the same way that foota of the early prototype Saturn version of the original Shenmue emerged some years on, maybe we'll see more of the this remake in the years to come.

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About the author

John Linneman

John Linneman

Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.

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