As the legendary developer of ground-breaking titles like Out Run, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter, and of course Shenmue, it’s no exaggeration to say that Yu Suzuki’s reputation precedes him.
In person, the 61 year-old cuts a pretty unassuming figure as he sits across from me in a casual beige jacket. Just over four years ago, I watched Suzuki walk out onto Sony’s E3 stage to announce the impossible - that Shenmue III was going to finally be made - and it still seems somewhat unbelievable that the game is real and coming out in a few months time.
Shenmue III is why he was at Gamescom, and I had plenty to ask about that. But it’s not every day you get the opportunity to pick the brain of an industry legend with a back catalogue like Suzuki’s. Despite all my eagerness and prep, I’m also at the mercy of my interview subject’s mood, timing, and the awkward translation process. In short, much like the mini-game of Lucky Hit, it can be a little unpredictable.
I begin with Shenmue III, a game that had essentially been frozen in time after the end of its last instalment (and the untimely demise of the Dreamcast). The original games were groundbreaking but open-world games have undergone a huge evolution in that time. Replaying Shenmue via the HD re-releases last year, you can feel just how creaky the mechanics are in 2019, so you have to wonder if Ryo’s adventure quite literally and technically carries on from where things left off in 2001 or if modern open world games had any influence in the development.
“No, there's almost no influence. There was stuff I wanted to do in Shenmue I and II that wasn't realised properly. So I'm still pursuing those ideas in Shenmue III,” Suzuki says via his translator.
I had read somewhere that despite his development background, Suzuki has never found much interest in playing other games, so it’s easy to believe that other open world games had no impact on him (though funnily enough, I would later bump into him for the same appointment to see Cyberpunk 2077, which really does show far the open world genre has advanced in the last two decades).
But it’s true that, even back then, you could tell there were restrictions in Shenmue’s design owing to technical limitations that made it far from the fully interactive game it claimed to be. Pressing for further details, Suzuki admits he was least satisfied with weak links between game elements in the older titles.
“With Shenmue III, we have a term we call the 'user cycle',” Suzuki says. “This allows us to have a stronger connection to everything in the game.” He runs through some examples, such as how you can make money from jobs like chopping wood, which can then be spent on gambling to make more money that you can then use for buying new technique scrolls, which you can then use to train in the dojo to improve your kung fu. That all sounds fine, even if I fail to see how that has really advanced from what I could have done in Shenmue II.
This prompted me to ask Suzuki about my all-time Shenmue II highlight, which I hadn’t even discovered until well over a decade after the game released: duck racing! For those who know, it was part of the most obscure and bizarre quest line in the whole series such that, in the HD releases, there’s not even an achievement for it.
To my disappointment Suzuki doesn’t even seem to remember this hidden side quest, or perhaps there was a misunderstanding in the translation. To quote that common Japanese expression, shō ga nai: it can't be helped.
Instead he delivers some other tidbits about Shenmue III: the third entry is structured like two parts, the first half much like a smaller intimate area like Yokosuka with the second set in a larger area more reminiscent of the sprawling Hong Kong environments in Shenmue II. Players can also expect a range of mini-games, including fishing, that great staple of Japanese mini-games - which is fine, but doesn’t quite have the same surprise factor as illegal duck racing.
From the regular screenshot updates on Kickstarter and social media, we’ve also learned of some returning elements which, while endearing in some ways, also make me wonder if it’s all a bit too much fanservice-y. Sure, it was thanks to vocal fans that saved Shenmue, and this sequel is also a crowdfunded game on Kickstarter. But has that caused any tension between realising the vision for the original story and putting things in for the sake of nostalgia, like the forklift?
To this, Suzuki simply smiles: “No, there was no friction at all. Because we made this especially for fans.”
Maybe I’m overthinking things. After all, for all the authenticity the original games had, you could still buy Sonic and Virtua Fighter figurines in the 1980s - but then I also think how Ryo’s journey has been about travelling to new places and meeting new characters. Naturally, we’re still after Lan Di, but I find it a little too convenient that characters like Chai or Ren of Heavens are also suddenly back along for the ride.
At this point, I try to move on from Shenmue III and to the rest of Suzuki’s body of work. Yet Shenmue casts a long shadow over his career, with the last game he directed after Shenmue II being Virtua Fighter 4 the same year. Aside from a diminished role in his later years at SEGA before eventually leaving to found YsNet, it feels like Shenmue has become a life’s work that may end up taking the rest of his career to finish.
It makes you wonder if there had been other ideas the man had that he had to sacrifice, and whether he’ll ever get the chance to realise them, or if he's at the old rock musician phase where he’s quite happy going on tours playing the hits, so to speak.
“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” he tells me, but won’t elaborate. I see.
I try to change tack. After all, we’d just been graced with a spectacular Switch port of Virtua Racing, which makes me think that, besides Shenmue, Suzuki’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly his arcade racers. If money or licensing wasn’t an issue, does he have another arcade racer in him he’d like to make?
“Yes, if I get the chance.”
OK. Aaand? I give his translator another prompt to elaborate. Perhaps a new kind of racer, or revisiting another one? Come on, Suzuki-san, throw me a bone.
I’m told that he still wants to make a unique racing game but he also loves to experience the real thing first. “So the first thing I would do is go on a circuit myself.”
That sounds cool. But what circuit are we talking about? F1?
“Not F1 per se - just to drive by myself on a circuit.”
No dice. I’m spitballing here, but Suzuki won't humour me.
It’s during these points where I consider the amount of words Suzuki says to me and how much I get back from the translator. I’m sure he’s doing his job just fine, and yet it’s hard not to feel like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, sitting there a little haplessly as you listen to someone talk for a minute only for the translator to give you back a sentence.
I decide to go for my final question anyway. Since I’m speaking to the creator of Virtua Fighter 2, still one of the finest 3D fighting games ever made, I wondered what his thoughts might be on the one that went wrong. I’m referring to the Mega Drive port of Virtua Fighter 2, not so much a port as it is a 2D demake that just horrendously missed the point of the game. Worse still, it’s actually included among the line-up of the Mega Drive Mini, which SEGA seems proud to mention without a shred of irony.
Did Virtua Fighter 2 introduce you to fighting games? Have you won any tournaments?
— SEGA Europe (@SEGA_Europe) August 10, 2019
“I haven’t touched the product,” comes Suzuki's reply.
But has he seen it? After all, the game’s playable on the Mega Drive Mini, which is just being demoed a few doors down from us.
“I haven’t seen it, though the console looks kind of cute.”
I wonder if there had been another mistranslation where perhaps he thought I was asking about his opinion on the Mega Drive Mini. But our time is up, and perhaps it was for the best: I mean, there are probably better ways to finish an interview than the equivalent of showing someone how they massacred your boy.
It was a rare honour to be in the same room with an industry legend, and I’m still excited about finally continuing Ryo’s quest for revenge when Shenmue III finally releases in November. But as it turned out, speaking with Suzuki was by turns surreal, awkward, and not quite what I was expecting. Which to be fair sounds a bit like playing Shenmue.
If nothing else, I think I finally understand what it’s like to be Ryo. I see.