By Chris Schilling
The games industry has an uneasy relationship with its past. Often we’re encouraged to forget it and focus on the future: to constantly look forward, to anticipate the next entry in a series as soon as we’ve finished the current one, or to embrace a new generation of technology before most of us are ready to move on from the existing one. And yet at the same time, nostalgia can be a powerful hook: that’s why we have virtual consoles and HD re-releases and franchise reboots.
In the former case, classics are very rarely treated with the respect they deserve. In many cases, little consideration is given to how an emulator functions, while compilations of old games are often little more than a collection of old ROMs slapped hurriedly onto a disc. In recent years, it seems more companies are making an effort – Capcom’s Final Fight: Double Impact was a lovingly crafted remake, while the same publisher’s Darkstalkers: Resurrection benefited from some stellar work by Iron Galaxy Studios.
Few games, however, have had as much attention lavished upon them as the Sega 3D Classics series. The idea was mooted when Nintendo first announced it was set to release classic NES games for 3DS which would be converted into full stereoscopic 3D. Yosuke Okunari was the producer for Sega’s PlayStation 3 and Wii Virtual Console ports, and suggested that the company should follow suit. “Once we decided to supply a few titles for the 3DS Virtual Console, I approached the project leader at the time, Haruki Satomi, and asked if we could develop the eight titles that are currently on sale as something separate from Virtual Console”.
The first wave of titles was released between November and December of last year, in pairs over four successive weeks. Space Harrier and Super Hang-On were the first to land, followed by Altered Beast and Sonic the Hedgehog, then Ecco the Dolphin and Galaxy Force II, and finally Shinobi III and Streets of Rage. The three arcade titles were chosen for their natural 3D perspective, as Okunari explains: “Galaxy Force II, which was never an especially well-known game, was one that we added because we knew the addition of stereoscopic 3D would have a very dramatic result.”
Meanwhile, for the five Mega Drive/Genesis titles, Okunari and the development team at M2 looked at the most popular Sega titles on the Wii Virtual Console, and whittled the list down to ones they felt would work well in 3D. “We did a quick and dirty 3D implementation to get an idea for what it’d be like. Games back then often had backgrounds drawn in pseudo 3D-like ways but the perspectives often clash with one another. When you put these into stereoscopic 3D, the 3D effect breaks down. So we removed games we felt the stereoscopic implementation would be particularly difficult.”
Even so, the porting process was long and complex. There were several technical hurdles to overcome, not least because Okunari and M2 believed it was important to “properly recreate the feeling of the original controls”. If, for example, the original game ran at 60 frames per second, to run it in stereoscopic 3D required two separate images running at that speed – in other words, it needed to be 120fps. To solve the problem, the studio built a new virtual console, affectionately termed the GigaDrive, and which M2 president Naoki Horii referred to as “an unofficial new Sega console”. It’s essentially a Mega Drive with a number of technical augmentations, including improvements to video display processor functions, additional background layers and more.
￼The first game on the list was Yu Suzuki’s Space Harrier, and by the time M2 had finished the project, 18 months had passed. “We were optimising the code right up until the day before submitting to Nintendo,” admits Okunari. As the projects overlapped during the development period, the team gradually became more adept at the process. “In order to put a game into 3D, there’s a sort of special sense you need to do it. As a result, the later games like Shinobi and Streets of Rage are much more refined when compared to Altered Beast, which was developed early in the project.” It was Galaxy Force II that proved the most problematic of the initial wave, however. “This game originally ran on three 16-bit CPUs, so on top of just getting the software to run as it originally did being a challenge, we were also trying to use graphics that were enlarged versions of the originals. Ultimately, we ran out of memory to work with, so we ended up cutting the sound emulation and using streaming as a means to replicate the music to get it running.”
There’s more to the 3D Classics than simply the original game running in 3D. Each of the games features additional options: Shinobi III, for example, includes options for ‘fall in’ or ‘pop out’ 3D, while players can choose from the International or Japanese editions of the game, or whether the audio emulation should sound closer to the Mega Drive 2 or the original version. There are new game options, too: Shinobi III has an Expert Ninja mode, while Streets of Rage’s playful Fists of Death mode allows you to defeat enemies with a single punch. The currently Japanese-only port of OutRun features options to tune up your car, from a more powerful engine to improved cornering. Other games feature alternative difficulty options and the much-needed option to save anywhere.
Okunari explains that the adjustments were partly to suit modern audiences, but that the 3DS itself and the habits of its players were key considerations – not least because many Japanese gamers play on the train. “The play environment is different from the way things were played with controllers and joysticks in the past. So on top of the fact that the feeling of the controls isn’t the same, the actual place you are playing in often necessitates shorter play sessions. As far as preserving the challenge, the original versions’ difficulty is faithfully implemented as well, so I don’t think there should be any problems for anyone.”
While the arcade games benefit from more viewing options, including widescreen mode, one of the finest nostalgic touches is the ‘classic’ viewing mode, which recreates an old-fashioned CRT display. The image curves outward at the edges, while the crisp pixels become fuzzier, but the effect will take gamers of a certain vintage back to their youth. “Other companies have done this sort of thing before,” says Okunari, “so in addition we adjusted the colour and made the colours bleed to recreate that feel of a real composite video connection. I’m glad it’s been so well-received.”
Though the games have reached an appreciative niche audience, so far sales have hardly been commensurate with M2’s efforts. Japan aside, Okunari concedes, the performance of the likes of 3D Space Harrier and 3D Galaxy Force II fell some way below expectations. Indeed, while Japan has since seen ports of AfterBurner II, Fantasy Zone and OutRun, there’s no indication that they’ll be released in the west. And yet you sense the whole process has been rewarding in a very different way for the producer and his team. "Every time we would put any of these games into 3D for the first time, every single person on staff would always be surprised by the result,” he enthuses. “It was part of what made developing these games fun.”
Okunari still believes that there’s plenty of untapped potential in the benefits of stereoscopic 3D, though it’s evident how it improves the original games. “Without a doubt, games that have depth as part of their game system become easier to play when you use 3D,” he explains. “This is natural because you are getting a better sense of where things are in the game. This is particularly apparent in Galaxy Force II’s cave stage, where if you play it in 2D, the holes in the caves can be very hard to see. Sometimes you’d lose sight of where you needed to go in the original, and subsequently run into the walls and die.” Even so, he’s modest about his team’s role, preferring instead to generously credit those responsible for the original games. “We’ve made a reality of what the original development team was going for in their design. So in a sense, you could say that the original Sega development staff was 20 years ahead of its time.”
“I don’t think there’s anything particularly magical or extraordinary,” he continues. “When it comes down to it, what we do is similar to those 3D postcards of famous paintings you pick up at art museums.” In this instance it’s hard to agree: M2’s work is extraordinary, precisely because few companies treat their back catalogue with this level of reverence, not just preserving the past for a new generation, but in some way helping realise the original vision of those who first worked on the games decades ago. We put it to him that the games industry could do more to respect its heritage, and his response says much about the pride he and the staff at M2 really take in their work.
“I just work as hard as I can to recreate and share that ‘lustre’ that people like myself see in these games. I think we are something like art curators. In any case, I think there should be a means by which people can properly - not illegally - easily access these famous games of the past, similar to a collector who collects old arcade machines and takes great care to maintain them. Let me give you an example. I love movies. When I was a student some 20 years ago, you couldn’t find Akira Kurosawa’s movies on movie rental shelves, and I had to wait for a showing at a traditional movie theatre. Now, it’s really easy to see them. I think games should be the same way.”
Despite the disappointing sales outside Japan for the 3D Classics series, Okunari insists he’ll continue to “investigate new titles” and tackle fresh challenges. “I continue to do this work because there’s always this certain number of people throughout the world that have continued over the years to endorse these sort of projects. As long as the fans and lovers of these old games continue to be a market, I think we will be able to continue doing this work.”
Here’s hoping he’s right.
For more technical information on the GigaDrive and the process of developing the 3D Classics series, visit the official blog.