Mr Suzuki has been waiting a long time to make his latest game – about 20 years, in fact.
"From the beginning, I had been readying plans for various contingencies should the chance to develop Shenmue 3 ever arise," he tells Red Bull in an exclusive interview. "After the Kickstarter announcement, I received a lot of messages and videos from people all over the world. I was very deeply moved that Shenmue still has so many loyal fans, even after 15 years."
There are very few developers who are household names, stars that shine as bright as the mascots they create. Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo, Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame, maybe Peter Molyneux at a push. You could probably count them all one one hand, even, but you'd have to reserve one digit for Yu Suzuki, AKA Mr Sega, head of its AM2 development team for almost two decades.
While American CEO Tom Kalinske is often credited with turning Sega into a powerhouse to rival Nintendo in the 1990s, it was Suzuki who turned in the games he sold. Responsible for arcade hits like Hang-On and Out Run, Suzuki was one of the first developers to pioneer polygonal 3D graphics, in games like Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop. Did you ever play in a Daytona USA cabinet in the arcade as a kid? Of course you did. That was him too. Ferrari F355 Challenge. Space Harrier. Dozens of classic games. But there's one game he's never been able to escape from, one he has never even tried to, that has cast a shadow over his career this century: Shenmue.
It's a little hard to describe Shenmue if you've never played it. It's a sweeping drama of family revenge set in 1980s suburban Japan and bustling Hong Kong that incorporates detective work, 3D fighting, a metric busload of voice acting and more of life's most mundane activities than you might expect. You can play darts or buy toy capsules from a vending machine. You can get a job lifting boxes for pocket money, and at one point you literally have to spend an entire in-game week carrying books out of a library.
It was banal and it was beautiful. It was the culmination of Yu Suzuki's work pushing Sega's hardware to the absolute limit, and cost a fortune to make – a rumoured $70 million, though part of that cost went into Shenmue 2.
It did not sell.
It would be tempting to say that audiences were not ready for such a game. But Shenmue and its sequel were only failures by the same metric that Dreamcast was, in that they happened to exist at the same time as the mighty PlayStation 2, and therefore did not make their costs back. Both games were adored by fans, who spent more than a decade clamouring for a resolution to the cliffhanger at the end of part two. Suzuki for his part continued to spend the 2000s returning to his older arcade hits while dropping hints that he'd love to return to the story of brave, blundering teenager Ryo Hazuki, if only Sega would give him the budget.
Then E3 2015 happened and everything changed. Suzuki decided to tweet a photo of a forklift truck, Ryo's preferred ride, and then turned up on stage at the Sony keynote to announce Shenmue 3 would be coming to PC and PS4 – so long as fans were prepared to back the game on Kickstarter to the tune of $2 million. Predictably, the project broke the Kickstarter record for funds raised for a game when 69,320 backers pledged a total of $6,333,295 to help bring Ryo back.
The return of Ryo
As we enter 2016, it's clear we're entering a new phase in Suzuki's career. Sega has granted his new studio, Ys Net, permission to use the Shenmue IP, but otherwise does not appear to be involved, while inexpensive and powerful game engine software now makes the game feasible on a much smaller budget. In some ways though, Suzuki admits he's picking up where he left off all those years ago.
"Shenmue 3 will be based on the original 11 chapter story I planned during the [Sega] Saturn era," he tells Red Bull. "Using that story, we put the game together in such a way that people new to Shenmue, as well as fans of Shenmue 1 and 2, will be able to enjoy the game."
For those new to the saga, Suzuki has a quick primer: "It is the story of a boy who travels to China on his quest to avenge his father's death, but it is also a story of love and friendship, and the bonds he shares with the people he meets as he matures to manhood through his martial arts training."
This description sounds a tad like the blurb you might find on the back of a Sega Saturn game box, and does not quite capture the story's allure: Shenmue 2 ends on a decidedly magical note in a rural village in China, with Ryo discovering that two mysterious Macguffins may cause the resurrection of an even more evil Macguffin. We push for a few more details, and while Suzuki is keeping tight-lipped on plot, he says Ryo will grown on his journey. He's still angry, but his encounters with others may help to temper that rage.
"In terms of the story, a year has not yet passed from the conclusion of Shenmue 2, so Ryo's feelings of revenge have remained unchanged," Suzuki says. "As Ryo did in Hong Kong in Shenmue 2, he will travel to Guilin in Shenmue III, maturing as he encounters different people through his martial arts training."
Little time has passed for Ryo, but gamers have certainly grown up in his absence. Entire console generations have come and gone. You can still play Shenmue 2 on an HDTV with an Xbox 360, but the frustrating controls – you move with the D-pad, not a thumbstick – only serve as a reminder of just how much conventions have changed.
We wonder if Suzuki, who openly admits he began planning this game in the '90s, believes he will struggle to update Shenmue 3 to 2016 expectations. "We are planning to use Unreal Engine 4 for Shenmue 3, utilising the most cutting edge production techniques so we can exploit the engine's maximum potential," he says. "The design concept of UE4 matches perfectly with how I make games, which is why I went in that direction."
Genre shifting Shenmue
It's not just games that have changed in the interim however, but how we talk about them too. Shenmue was far ahead of its time in this regard, at least. The game's open cities, with operating bus routes and shops that opened and closed with the days of the week, predated even Grand Theft Auto 3 by several years, and were a predecessor of the sandbox games we play today. Suzuki even came up with his own acronym for the genre at the time, 'FREE' (Full Reactive Eyes Environment). But if he had to pigeonhole his life's work now?
"The genre that is the closest to describing Shenmue is what nowadays is called an open world game," he says. "The concept of Shenmue was to maximize the level of game play freedom by offering the highest potential number of different ways one could enjoy the game."
For better or worse, Suzuki also originated the concept of the Quick Time Event (QTE): you would perform set actions and survive certain scenes – like someone trying to stove Ryo's head in with a metal pipe – by pressing a button on time with the screen. Succeed and the story continues. Fail and you might have to go the long way round, find another lead in your detective hunt, or have your face smashed in by a Triad member. It was a novel concept at the time, but it's fair to say it's been overused since, especially in Japanese action games. A good developer, so the theory goes, will provide the tools and the engine to let you pull off cool stunts, not just bang out a cut scene set to a rhythm game.
Suzuki says QTEs will be making a return in Shenmue 3 however. "While QTEs may feel a little wanting to some action gamers, I believe that it is a fundamental technique that allows a broad range of players to actively participate in the dramatic performances of a game.
"That said, I would like to take up the challenge of creating the next evolution of the QTE," he adds, cryptically.
How Ys Net balance that need for secrecy and surprise with the transparent communication required of a successful Kickstarter project will prove interesting. "This is my first experience with developing a game in this manner and it has been a very valuable one," Suzuki says.
"For the Kickstarter, the architecture of the game was based on a scalable structure that could be adapted to the changes in budget. I can continually receive feedback from the backers through the entire process, which in turns helps to focus the development."
The team will have to focus. Despite the availability of powerful, multi-platform game engines and middleware, the Japanese gaming industry has turned away from open world games, and console games altogether, Suzuki points out. That makes finding a team to tackle a game with such a heritage on a comparatively small scale more challenging still.
"Smartphones have become the mainstream in the Japanese gaming market today, creating an environment where the technology developed for consoles is often underused," he says. "Also, it is becoming difficult to secure the talent necessary to make such games, but thankfully, we have managed to gather a very promising team for Shenmue III."
I would like to take up the challenge of creating the next evolution of the QTE.
Suzuki says that he cannot reveal the size of the team – or the budget – for "confidentiality reasons", but he is happy to talk about one recent and remarkable hire: a fan. 'Kid Nocon', a South Korean graphics designer, wowed gamers recently with his incredible high definition makeovers of scenes from the first Shenmue ("I have wanted to make a Shenmue HD for a long time," Nocon tells us). He must have made an impact on Suzuki too, because he then hired Nocon for Shemue 3.
"Kid Nocon is one of the people who has never stopped supporting Shenmue through all this time," Suzuki says. "Even when I first met him, I could really tell he felt strongly towards Shenmue. I hope he will continue to be an active part in the Shenmue team."
At the time of the Kickstarter, Ys Net had little more to show prospective backers than a scene with Ryo and Shenhua hopping over some stepping stones. Suzuki says the team are currently, "working on the prototype for the game. Using that prototype, we are experimenting with the various features of UE4 and testing out the systems we want to implement."
Suzuki is avoiding making any benchmarks to break his own back with and steering clear of promises on visual fidelity and specs, so 1080p/60fps purists will have to hang tight for now. "We have just recently decided upon the graphical benchmark quality. As to frame rate, we are still running tests," he reveals.
I’m afraid that the story will not be concluded with Shenmue 3.
Suzuki's reticence to talk specifics up until this point is understandable – who would want to ruin a game fans have waited patiently for, for more than 15 years? It does, however, make the answer to our next question all the more surprising. Will Shenmue 3 hasten to conclude what was originally conceived as a sprawling, 11 chapter epic?
“I’m afraid that the story will not be concluded with Shenmue 3,” Suzuki says, frankly. “After thinking it through, we decided that forcing a conclusion in Shenmue 3 would only make the story feel rushed and compromise the game as a whole. I hope we can make Shenmue 3 a success so fans will be excited for a further installment.”
In other words, Suzuki is back to that grand, original vision for the series once more. All it took was a bit of a patience for publishers, the industry and software to catch up with him.
We just hope we won't be waiting quite so long again for Shenmue 4. Suzuki, for his part, seems optimistic: "In five years’ time, I think I will [still] be making games," he says. "As for Ryo? I am anxious to hear where the fans think he will end up."