Something borderline miraculous has been happening on YouTube lately. The old BattleTech animated series has been appearing on Renegade HPG in a remastered form that makes it a heckuva lot better than a bootleg VHS, and way better than the version we’ve got stored here on Sarna.
Besides making these videos my new workout entertainment, I decided to sit down with the dynamic duo that is bringing this old cartoon back from the dead. This week on Community Outreach, we sit down with Emil of The Art Of BattleTech and Travis from Renegade HPG, two folks that are preserving and even improving on BattleTech’s classic media.
Read on to find out how Emil and Travis are going about restoring and remastering BattleTech: The Animated Series and maybe even take in an episode or two over on Renegade HPG. Enjoy.
Sarna (Sean): Who are you? Briefly introduce yourself.
The Art Of BattleTech: My name is Emil Hammar and I’m one of the three people in Denmark who follow BattleTech and MechWarrior (the tabletop is practically non-existent in Denmark). I also have a Ph.D. in video game studies (yes, it’s a thing).
Sarna: When did you two get into BattleTech?
The Art Of BattleTech: In 1995 when my family got their first PC – a pristine Pentium 75mhz with a whopping 8MB of RAM and 875MB of hard drive space. My brother got a PC magazine demo disc with MechWarrior 2 on it. The intro blew me away so much that I memorized all the lines and I repeatedly played the one mission in the demo. When the full game was released and I got that nice big box and its thick manual, I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.
Renegade HPG: My step-brothers introduced me to BattleTech 2nd Edition when I was fairly young…11 maybe?
My primary exposure to BattleTech was reading the novels as a teen, creating custom ‘Mechs and characters, and then a lot of hours playing MechWarrior 2. I distinctly remember my 8th grade English teacher telling me that while my weekly book reports were very good, that he’d like me to choose something other than a BattleTech book for one. I picked up the CCG when it came out but no one else in my friend group was interested. I set my BattleTech collection aside after going to college but it survived a couple of decades worth of moves. I dove back in about a year and a half ago and have been having a blast since.
Sarna: What’s your favourite ‘Mech? An all-important question.
The Art Of BattleTech: Not the most unique response, but the Timber Wolf, especially the Steve Venters version. I even got a huge Timber Wolf blueprint tattoo on my leg. On other days, I really enjoy the classic Stormcrow and Mad Dog as well, so I guess I’m a sucker for chicken-leg mechs.
Sarna: What parts of BattleTech do you play? Perhaps a better question, what HAVEN’T you played?
The Art Of BattleTech: It’s only the art, fiction, and video games that I have really been able to participate in. Because there is almost no one who plays BattleTech in Denmark, I’ve never actually played the tabletop (but I do collect and paint the figures!). It has primarily been the video games that I have played religiously ever since 1995 and onwards with MW2, Ghost Bear’s Legacy, MW2: Mercs, MW3, Pirate’s Moon, MechCommander, MechCommander Gold, MW4, MechCommander 2, MW4: Black Knight, and MW4: Mercs. It was some harrowing twilight years between 2002 and 2012 when Microsoft abandoned the MechWarrior franchise to focus more on its Xbox portfolio and dedicate FASA’s resources to console games (and ultimately dissolving the studio in 2007). It was some dark years, I have to say, with especially the MechWarrior license being almost entirely abandoned by Microsoft. Luckily there has been light at the end of the tunnel with MechWarrior Online, HBS BATTLETECH, and MW5: Mercs. In contrast to the “Microsoft twilight years,” we are definitely living in a golden age of BattleTech & MechWarrior with PGI’s resurrecting the series and giving us the first single-player MechWarrior in 17 years; HBS having released an excellent turn-based tactical game that I am extremely thankful for; PGI getting the Unseen back for everybody and hosting the Mech_Cons; and then with Catalyst really going all-in with new products, new fiction, new art, new ‘Mech designs headed by Anthony Scroggins, and of course the successful Clan Invasion Kickstarter. I may sound like an old “get off my lawn” type of person now, but we fans really should appreciate what we have these days because those late ’00s were rough. So I’m super happy about what we have and I wish other BattleTech and MechWarrior fans really were aware of how good we actually have it thanks to the hardworking people at PGI and Catalyst and until recently, HBS.
“I may sound like an old ‘get off my lawn’ type of person now, but we fans really should appreciate what we have these days because those late ’00s were rough.”
Sarna: Man, they sure fuckin’ were rough. How ’bout you, Travis?
Renegade HPG: I haven’t played MWO, Alpha Strike, Combined Arms, AeroTech, BattleSpace, ClickyTech [MechWarrior: Dark Age], and have only completed the first couple of missions of HBS’s BATTLETECH. Video games are a dangerous rabbit hole for me I try to avoid if I don’t have massive amounts of spare time available.
Sarna: Let’s talk about your work, Emil. I know you’ve been posting remastered art on social media for a little while now. How do you come across these old pictures and what do you use to make ’em like new again?
The Art Of BattleTech: Whenever I’ve surfed the web since I started going into BattleTech and MechWarrior online communities around 1997 (shoutout to DropshipCommand!), I’ve always saved the images I came across. So, little by little, I’ve amassed a sizable but also chaotic collection of BattleTech and MechWarrior art from both official artists and fans. In 2013, I started the Art of BattleTech blog on Tumblr and Twitter just to archive the amazing artistry found in many old BattleTech books and credit the artists behind them. This free-time project started out mostly as scans of the books I have, where I figured that a lot of the interior art deserved to be archived, shared, and celebrated because they aren’t really propagated that much. I then started sharing some of the more elaborate colored pieces that adorn the covers, digital wallpapers, game boxes, promo art, and so on. A lot of these images are difficult to find nowadays because some of the older sites have shut down and wallpaper sections at official sites are a thing of the past. In fact, I’ve even purchased old magazines in order to scan and make digital versions of those art pieces that we can’t find online. And I’ve also been in personal correspondence with several artists who’ve done contract work in the ’90s for the MechWarrior and BattleTech media in order to see if they had higher-resolution renders available.
More recently, I’ve dived into AI upscaling. The “dawn” of AI upscaling in today’s amateur environment has meant that a lot of older media can be resurrected in much higher resolution that makes older 2D art look absolutely gorgeous and modern. We’ve not only seen static images but also videos and even games that benefit from this sort of amateur remastering. For example, someone made a 4K texture upscale of the Wii game Muramasa: Demon Blade and it looks stunning in comparison to its 480p original artwork. I recently played Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast with a fan-made AI-upscaled texture pack and it looks mind-blowing for a “simple” algorithm to have improved so much on a now 18-year-old 3D game. So, in many ways, AI upscaling has been revolutionary across visual media, at least to fans and amateurs who want to “remaster” older, low-res art.
AI upscaling has meant that a lot of the source art that we fans do not have access to can be rejuvenated and restored into something with a higher pixel count and more detail. It is obviously not the same as the original source art but seeing how some of this has been abandoned or forgotten, the AI upscaling is the next best thing, in my opinion. For people who want to adorn their phone backgrounds or desktop wallpapers with some gorgeous classic BattleTech art by Doug Chaffee, Steven Venters, or Jim Holloway without scan lines and blurry pixels, then this AI upscaling is my attempt at sharing and rejuvenating old art for others to enjoy. It’s better to have a 4K image to look at than a blurry 640x480 image from back when everyone used 56k modems.
Sarna: Let’s talk Renegade HPG. I’ve linked to your videos a few times, especially when it comes to our mutual love of the BattleTech CCG. What made you want to get started making YouTube videos?
Renegade HPG: My career was as a rowing coach and nonprofit founder/executive. Recently I have been producing a podcast with a YouTube channel focused on coaching/athlete education. Outside of a bunch of gameplay videos and Tex’s work there wasn’t a whole lot of quality BattleTech content out there, so I thought it would be a fun thing to pursue. I’d also taken an interest in the old BattleTech CCG and would love to set aside athletics to start a production company to launch a new CCG for the IP. I haven’t had any luck getting the guys at CGL to respond to my inquiries about licensing that option yet though. Will keep trying. I also have an interest in getting a license to produce legit BattleTech merchandise because let’s face it, a logo on a shirt is pretty lame.
In the meantime, I’m happy to build a channel/resource/archive for the BattleTech community. Talking to guys like Bob Charrette and Mike Stackpole have been very cool benefits along the way.
Sarna: How did Renegade HPG and Art of BattleTech get together for this project?
“Travis really went above and beyond with the project.”
The Art Of BattleTech: I’ve remastered all the MechWarrior and MechCommander FMVs or videos and put them on my own personal YouTube channel. I then looked to upscale some more BattleTech videos and saw some amazing upscaling results with the very low-resolution VHS-to-MPG conversions of the Animated Series. Even though the show never aired where I grew up, I wanted to share the upscaling with all the BattleTech fans. So I tweeted about the amazing results and announced that I was going to release them on my YouTube channel in the near future until Travis contacted me and asked if he could host them on his. Given Renegade HPG’s excellent work this year with some really in-depth and well-researched interviews with people associated with BattleTech since the ‘80s, I really think Travis would benefit much more from having the videos and collecting them on his channel.
Travis really went above and beyond with the project. For example, the only publicly available sources are pretty bad, so some of the upscaling didn’t produce the best results. Sure, the upscaled videos were better than the original 320x140 pixel source videos, but it still was like squeezing water from a rock. Travis then searched the web and even ordered a DVD collection with the show in the hope that the source files would be better than what we could scrounge up. It turned out that whichever shop that made that DVD collection had just downloaded Oldbob’s YouTube videos and put them on a DVD. So it wasn’t the best solution. We then ended up using the original episode one source file that I had already remastered and by some miracle, the Reddit user Aura-Z contacted Travis and provided him with some super excellent videos of the majority of the show. These versions had fewer artifacts, were in higher resolution and didn’t have the television channel timestamp on them. It was such a huge gift. I used those to upscale from and the good quality episodes you’ve all seen is thanks to that user.
Another example of how Renegade HPG really made a big effort: Travis wanted to make things special, so he also cleaned up audio, edited the videos, and gave them beautiful preview artwork to provide some consistency to the various files. He even sent over some old commercials and demo reels that I’ve upscaled for him to share among the BattleTech fans.
“Episode 1 released to a great response from the community but in the background, we were receiving and upscaling these new versions which turned out to be WAY better than what we had.”
Renegade HPG: Along with my interest in creating a new CCG for BattleTech I’ve been creating a full custom card set for the old TCG. Finding quality art is a project on its own and a lot of the old art is only available as low-quality scans. When I found Emil’s project on Twitter upscaling BattleTech art I was delighted to have a new library to draw from. A little bit after I found him there he tweeted something about upscaling the old BattleTech cartoon. As far as I was aware, he did not have a YouTube channel (I later learned that he did, just under a different handle) and I reached out to offer Renegade HPG as a platform for the episodes once they were ready. Emil had been following Renegade HPG and was a fan of the work I’d done and was excited by the idea, so we dove in.
Emil was working with the Sarna.net files but there were definitely issues with them. Episode 2 was horrible and I was nervous that if we ran with what we had, then having the second episode as the worst of the bunch would discredit the project as a whole and people would lose interest. So I started digging for better copies. I found a bootleg DVD online and bought that. Some of those versions were slightly better, especially Episode 2, and the sound quality overall was easier to work with, so we were going to run with a combination of those and the Sarna files. There were still issues with them though (timestamps, watermarks, variable image quality, etc.) so I still held out hope we’d get better copies to work from. Rather than dump the full series, I decided to spread out the release, including a short teaser of the opening scene, hoping maybe someone in the community would come forward with better copies. Well, it worked, the night before Episode 1 released someone reached out on Reddit. Episode 1 released to a great response from the community but in the background, we were receiving and upscaling these new versions which turned out to be WAY better than what we had. I turned around the new version of Episode 1 as soon as I could and re-released it. A couple of episodes were missing from this new collection, so they aren’t all the same quality, but we’ve also found better copies for 2 of the missing 4 (7 and 9), and then the remaining 2 from Sarna (3 and 10) were actually pretty fair quality anyway.
Basically, Emil and I find the best digital copies that we can. Emil upscales them. Then I splice the best clips together, clean up the audio/video for the final version, make sure the thumbnails are eye-catching, and blast it out on social media so everyone can enjoy the work.
Sarna: I’ve seen your work remastering old BattleTech paintings, but this is an animated cartoon. How much of an undertaking is it to remaster the original BattleTech cartoon? How is it different from remastering a still image and what programs/software are needed?
The Art Of BattleTech: At first I used a very long-winded process of unpacking every single frame from a video, bulk-upscaling each frame, then recompiling each frame along with the audio track into a video. That took ages. This was an acceptable visual result, but it had some notable issues in-between frames that would make motion appear juddery and “watery.” Luckily, automated video upscalers such as Topaz Labs’ AI Video Enhancer makes the process easier and also does a much better job at the motion. It costs money, but it was worth how easy it makes the process.
Sarna: As you’re both almost certainly aware, BattleTech has a pretty litigious history. Are you worried about getting a C&D on this project?
Renegade HPG: That was definitely a concern. I did what research I could online to make sure it wouldn’t cause any problems. Several low-quality versions of the cartoon had been on YouTube for over a decade and Sarna.net had them available too with no legal issues. There were a lot of other examples of old cartoons with no official releases that were shared on YouTube. Most notably the old Star Wars Droids cartoon had been shared with no issue, and those would have been subject to LucasFilm and Disney’s zealous defense of their IP. The precedent seemed to be there that as long as I wasn’t trying to squeeze profit out of the project and was just sharing to celebrate something I loved with the community, then there were no legal concerns. So I ran with it. My contact info is available on all videos so if we get a C&D in the future or an official rerelease is announced, I’ll take them down.
Sarna: Are there any more remaster plans for 2021?
“I still have a lot of images left to upscale and share.”
The Art Of BattleTech: I still have a lot of images left to upscale and share. I might dip my toes into in-game photography of MW5 thanks to the excellent photo mode tools by GhostInTheCamera, but I would need a beefier GPU to play and enjoy the game in 4K with all the bells and whistles. I’m also working on importing Alan Yeoh’s beautiful Steve Venters-like 3D models of the Timber Wolf and Mad Dog into MW5, but I foresee that it will require a lot of 3D work, so it’s a long-term project and I’m awaiting Gentle Payload to upload their tutorial for importing 3D models as mechs into the game. If there’s any videos that BattleTech and MechWarrior fans think should be upscaled or cleaned up, just DM me on Twitter.
Renegade HPG: I’d love for Renegade HPG to serve as a media archive for the BattleTech IP, so if there are more chances to bring back celebrated old content, I’ll be happy to do so.
Sarna: Anything else you’d like to share? Feel free to get shameless self-promoty.
The Art of BattleTech: My biggest wish of all time is to have the classic MechWarrior and MechCommander games available on GOG and Steam. They are currently the second-most requested series of all time on GOG’s user wishlist with over 55 thousand votes. It’s only second to Diablo, one of the biggest PC series of all time. They’re ahead of major franchises like Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, No One Lives Forever, Starcraft, and all the classic Lucasarts games. Yet Microsoft sits on the Mechwarrior IP and doesn’t want to move a finger because they are too big of a company to really care about old games. As Jordan said in an interview back in 2015 about convincing Microsoft to get the old games on Steam and GOG, to them “it’s peanuts”. After MS purchased FASA Interactive back at the end of 1998, they’ve owned everything between MechCommander Gold, Mechwarrior 3, and Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. So it’s mostly a question of will with regard to re-releasing those old games. At the same time, in the case of the classic MechWarrior 2 games by Activision, we have the legal conundrum that both Microsoft and Activision would have to settle on some kind of legal agreement to re-release that trilogy. And having two major companies and their legal teams is very costly and complicated, so unfortunately it would probably take a miracle to get them re-released.
“I’d love for Renegade HPG to serve as a media archive for the BattleTech IP.”
One of the reasons I advocate for this is also because it’s a missed business opportunity and harms the cultural legacy of the video game series. We saw a huge financial success of Age of Empires 2 re-releasing on Steam with the AoE2 HD games thanks to the small studio Hidden Path Entertainment convincing Microsoft to get those old abandoned games available on digital platforms back in 2012. This resulted in millions of sales that prompted Microsoft to release three entirely new remakes with the ew Definitive Editions and even greenlight a brand new sequel helmed by Relic Entertainment. I really wish someone would convince Microsoft to do the same with their MechWarrior and MechCommander games. Not just in terms of business, but also in terms of the cultural importance of the MechWarrior games. It means a lot to archive and share these old classic games so that other people and younger generations can be exposed to them and understand their time and impact in video game history.
Otherwise, one final thought: It’s important to remind ourselves how much of a golden age we live in and cherish the time we have right now. It’s an amazing time to be a BattleTech and MechWarrior fan!
Sarna: Wow, well said, and some very good points. I’d love to see a remastered version of MechWarrior 2. Travis, anything to add?
RengadeHPG: Definitely check out and consider supporting Renegade HPG on Patreon if you’ve been enjoying the content. I’d love to be able to devote more time to it and the more pennies being tossed into the pot the more freedom I will have to do so.
Beyond that, people can keep commenting and sharing. It’s always nice to know that the work you are doing is being appreciated.
Thank you, Emil and Travis, for restoring this cartoon to its former glory and giving me something to watch while I’m doing jumping jacks in my basement.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.