In October last year a new drama debuted on TV Tokyo, portraying a teenager’s efforts to impress a beautiful girl by dethroning the local arcade prodigy, despite having no prior interest in gaming at all. The title of the series, No Con Kid, is an abbreviation of No Continue Kid, referring to one who completes a game on a single credit.
Scenes in the show will be familiar to all who reminisce about arcades in the 1980s. But even its lead characters would drool in envy at the sight of the Shenmue arcade lovingly redesigned in HD this year, by a South Korean gamer who nicknames himself after the show.
NoconKid stunned the gaming community, and in particular the rabid Shenmue fanbase, when his YouTube videos went viral in August. Depicting an arcade filled with sleek cabinets proudly animating the attract modes of a host of classic Sega titles, along with a meticulously detailed recreation of downtown Dobuita and more, his demonstrations excited and inspired fans whose pleas to Sega for Shenmue updates have fallen on deaf ears for too long.
This weekend we had the chance to grill the man behind the magic, when the power of the Internet allowed an American to co-ordinate an interview with a South Korean by an Englishman using a translator in Argentina.
Good luck doing THAT in the ’80s.
To kick things off, we wanted to know more about the kind of person who dedicates such time and energy to Shenmue. What are the roots of his personal connection to this game?
“I was a Sega fan since childhood,” he explained, “Because of that I’m a big fan of the games made by Yu Suzuki, and Afterburner, OutRun, and Virtua Fighter are games that I still enjoy playing. So I took a lot of interest when Shenmue was announced.
“Before the game was launched I saw many trailers and screenshots about it and began to imagine the game in my mind. When the game hit the streets and I played for the very first time, it was what I had imagined the whole time waiting for it to launch. During play, although knowing nothing about Yokosuka and Japan in general was hard, as time went on I started to feel as if that place was like my own village, and Japan became natural. Shenmue was the very first game to give me the notion of ‘I’m living in this place.’”
We observed that this immersion is an experience shared by many fans, wherever they come from. “We all feel the same way,” agreed NoconKid.
Having grown up with games created by Yu Suzuki, we wondered if this super-fan still indulged in modern releases. “I haven’t really played a lot of games recently,” he confessed, “I don’t own a PS4 or an Xbox One, but I’ve played a few newly released games on PC like Watchdogs, Sleeping Dogs, The Evil Within and a few more. I’ve just played enough to appreciate the graphics. The game I’ve played the most until two years ago was Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. I still play and enjoy old games.”
At this point we all succumbed to the giggles when our interpreter mistranslated The Evil Within as The Evil Wedding, which is a game we would definitely play. We imagine the dreaded Mother-in-Law to be the coldest boss character since Lan Di.
Composing ourselves, the appreciation for contemporary graphics is key to NoconKid’s pursuit, and we enquired as to the role that graphic design has played in his life:
“In the 2000s I started creating 3D graphics just for fun. Then between 2003 and 2005 I got into military service [as is mandatory in South Korea]. In 2005 I began studying things related to graphic design to obtain work, and in ’06 I started working in a company creating background graphics for an online FPS game. I worked in that place for six years and now I’m taking a little break to chill out.”
We can think of no better place than Dobuita to chill out, but what exactly made him decide to begin his homemade ‘Shenmue HD’ project? And have his goals evolved since those initial objectives?
“I had the idea of developing Shenmue HD when I began working in the games industry,” he recalled, “I just naturally started to think about how all the graphics in the game could be remade in HD.
“In the beginning when I started making it, it was only possible to create modeling and texturing. But access to more powerful tools gave me the chance for low level editing of things to recreate everything with more ease. At that point I didn’t have the time to make it, and took a four month break from the project, but now the project is ongoing again.
“To put it simply I just made it because I love Shenmue. I know it will take time, but creating Shenmue 1 completely from the ground up is my objective. Soon I will be working again but in my free time I will keep developing it. It just won’t be as quick as it is currently while I have a lot of free time.”
This cleared up another query we had, as to whether Shenmue’s original assets were being used and simply upgraded for this HD version of the game. He elaborated:
“At the beginning I used the NullDC emulator with a 3D model ripper to capture the data, but always failed. So I was in a dilemma on how to proceed. After thinking hard I decided to make everything from scratch. If I had succeeded in capturing the data, this project would have advanced ten times faster. But looking back, maybe the decision to create everything from the ground up was not a bad one.”
We certainly agree. And as it turns out, the only thing seen in the videos that hasn’t yet been built from scratch is the Ryo Hazuki model, the animation for which has received rather less praise than other aspects of the project.
“Right now I’m using the data captured from Sega All-Stars Racing to model Ryo,” he disclosed, “As the project advances I want to create as many characters as possible. But for now it is much harder than creating locations or buildings, because I have not modeled characters in a long time and am still not used to creating characters in the game engine.”
Talk of adding many characters and recreating Shenmue 1 had us wondering where the finish line is drawn for this one-man marathon. Will he be satisfied with completing the game’s explorable environments, or does he really intend to reproduce the whole of Shenmue as a fully functioning game, with action sequences and an advancing story-line?
“This is being made with Unreal Engine and for now it would be a free roaming world, where you can travel across the city with a mouse and keyboard or using an Xbox 360 gaming pad,” he envisions, “But as I said before, as the project continues I would like to finish it as a game. I’m just a graphic designer and not a programmer, so at this point only the graphical aspect will be done. But this project will not be finished until a team is created, for the other aspects like programming, and a game is made of it.”
We know for a fact that many Shenmue fans with a knack for coding and other elements of game design would feed their internal organs to a hungry kitten for the chance to collaborate on this HD remake. But before anyone starts carving out their spleen, we clarified with NoconKid that while he has had informal discussions with character modelers and programmers, he is not yet building a team to work on the game. We’ll give you all a heads-up the moment we hear of that changing, so peel the band-aid off your cheek and slap it over that midriff incision for now.
In the meantime, we were curious if a Sega fan in South Korea had realized how many Shenmue fans were out there, and whether he had anticipated the reaction his videos would receive when he put them online.
“I am happy about all the attention from Shenmue fans,” he smiled, “In Korea we have Shenmue fans too, but we are a minority. I created this to share it with the fans from here. After the first week of the Shenmue HD videos being on YouTube, Bertie Wiseman discovered and shared them all over the ‘Net, creating tons of views and likes from all over the world. We don’t have any Shenmue-centered community fan pages or forums [in this country], and having so much positive feedback let me know that the world is a big place.”
So in the view of someone who’s painstakingly rebuilt much of Shenmue’s setting by himself in his spare time, should Sega be making the same effort with its own resources to release an official Shenmue HD game? Is he motivated by a desire to prove to Sega that it can be done?
“If Sega make it, it will make lots of fans happy across the world,” he stated, “If not, I will make it for all the fans. Sega has ignored the fans’ petitions for far too long, so we need to be more resolute and bold. I thought about making a Kickstarter campaign, and if we could meet the quota I would deliver a “What’s Shenmue HD” demo free for all, but [frustratingly] Kickstarter is not supported in Korea. Anyway, I’m thinking of how we can fire up Sega in a direct way.”
As campaigners we can appreciate NoconKid’s sentiments here, but we ought to point out for readers that Team Yu is firmly against fan-led crowdfunding when it comes to Shenmue. Of the many reasons, not least is the risk of muddying the waters in the event of an official crowdfunding campaign being launched in the future (Yu Suzuki himself has been exploring this method, and Sega recently invested in a Kickstarter-like service for games and anime). It may never happen but if it did, and the uptake was lukewarm due to previous, unauthorized crowdfunding in the name of Shenmue, the fanbase as a whole would have shot itself in the foot.
Of course, if the hard work of NoconKid were to become a licensed product, there would be no problem. So we asked him how he’d react if Sega were to approach him with an offer:
“I don’t think that will happen, but if it does I will be more than pleased. And the working conditions will be better so delivering Shenmue HD to everyone will be faster.”
Though he’s not holding his breath, adding, “I don’t care if Sega cannot deliver the game. I will support it.”
On the flip side however, there have been some well documented cases of Sega sending in the lawyers to shut down fan-made games. Is he concerned that he might be forced to abandon this project after all the work he’s put in already?
“I’m not so afraid,” he told us, “If Sega make a complaint with a cease and desist I will shut down the project. But won’t that mean that Sega has had second thoughts about Shenmue?
“For now I’m just working on inanimate things that are not playable so I think that I’m safe for the moment. But when the playable portion is made I don’t think that would be safe anymore.”
We share this trepidation, but NoconKid’s principle of firing up Sega to do the right thing speaks to the heart of all we stand for, and so we asked NoconKid for his thoughts on the #SaveShenmue Tweetathon, a social media frenzy that takes place on the 3rd day of each month:
“I think it’s a good idea. It’s a method that no one here in our country ever imagined. Doing this campaign for so long is good to attract more fans and let their voices to be heard.”
Knowing that games such as Afterburner, OutRun and Virtua Fighter are close to his heart alongside Shenmue, we had to ask what NoconKid would say to Team Yu’s namesake, Yu Suzuki, if he had the chance to meet the legendary designer of all these games:
“For Yu Suzuki I have the utmost respect, and to be able to make Shenmue with him would be the best opportunity and the greatest glory.”
After seeing what he’s accomplished so far as a lone wolf, there must be many fans eager to see that opportunity come NoconKid’s way. We asked if he had any final comments for those followers of his progress reading this interview:
“I started this project with the idea of ‘If I can do something to revive Shenmue…’
“Working alone on this project, that probably will take a long time and never see the light of day as a game, but I want to at least make a free roaming world and give it as a gift to all my fellow Shenmue fans in the world.
“Of course I will be happier if Sega can hear our pleas and make Shenmue HD and Shenmue III.”
The plot of the TV series No Con Kid begins with the lead character, fifteen-year-old Watanabe Reji, pretending he’s the super gamer whose name tops the scoreboard on every machine. But while that attempt to deceive the girl of his dreams is at the expense of the true king of the arcade, NoconKid’s imitation of Suzuki’s Shenmue is the sincerest form of flattery, aiming to evoke the same hard-earned awe and aspiration that the real arcade king inspired in every gamer who entered Ryo’s world the first time around.
Whether he succeeds in recreating the whole Shenmue experience with QTE fights, capsule toys and detective work, or has to ‘make do’ with a fully explorable and super detailed resurrection of Ryo’s hometown in glorious high definition, we will be watching his journey with great interest and admiration. We only hope that Sega, a company more often at war with its fans than most, summons the decency to let him get on with it if they have no solid plans to release the official version that we’ve all been crying out for.
Shenmue 3 Kick-Starter donate here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ysnet/shenmue-3