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Yu Suzuki Interview
Shenmue: From Prototypes to Today

While I was staying in Japan I had the pleasure to meet with Yu Suzuki, known as Shenmue creator and of course, many other games such as Hang On, Space Harrier, OutRun, etc.

On September 18th 2014, I met and interviewed Yu Suzuki-san. The interview lasted for one hour and Shenmue was it's main topic.

What you will read below are details regarding how difficult Shenmue's development was at first, never reveled Chiyoumen boss names and some shorts stories!

(Yu Suzuki and myself during the interview)

Interview :

Q: At first, Shenmue was supposed to be released on the Saturn. But it has been ported to the Dreamcast. Is there somewhere a playable version of the Sega Saturn version?

Yu Suzuki : Yes, indeed. At first, Shenmue development started on the Sega Saturn. Regarding a playable version, since archives are stored at Sega, I guess if we look for it, we should be able to find one.

Now about prototypes. Everything started with "The Old Man and the Peach Tree" where players were controlling Taro as main character. He was looking for a Kung Fu master named Ryu. You had no access to most of the areas but by going through the story and clearing quests, you had access to those areas.

To get back to the Saturn's development discussion, we mostly worked on the open world and checked characters movements.

We also worked on rendering quality, polygons and number of polygons etc.

Q: Have you ever imagined what kind of result you'd have gotten if Shenmue and Shenmue II had been completely developed on Sega Saturn?

Yu Suzuki : Dreamcast hardware was way more powerful than what Sega Saturn could provide. In fact, the game had a better quality on it. And I really think that moving the project to the Dreamcast was a great idea because the Sega Saturn, at that time, had reached its limits.

(Details shared about the prototype "The old man and the peach tree" by Yu Suzuki at the GDC postmortem conference)

Q: Regarding your previous project "The old man and the Peach Tree", if you had the opportunity, with the actual technology, to release it as a game, would you consider releasing it to the public?

Yu Suzuki : It was in fact, a prototype. It was also a short story so I do not think about making a game out of it. It was only meant to be a prototype and will remain as is.

Q: Beside the bicycle, are there other elements that you wanted to add to the game but sadly, never had the chance to?

Yu Suzuki : Instead of seeing all of this as elements that did not make it, I'd rather see it as abandoned elements and that's the case for the bicycle. Many things never made it to the final product and I have an example : ramens.

I'm getting off topic real quick to explain how it would have worked. My ambition was to create Shenmue based on real world standards and not as a video game. In real life, when you cook, ramens size change, they get larger. When the player ordered, ramens were quite small, but they'd get larger and as time goes by. As you can see, that is how far I wanted details to be, however, this part of gameplay never made it.

Q:) What were the reasons that made it not possible to add such gameplay to Shenmue?

Yu Suzuki : It was not possible due to the amount of various things we had to add. We had to choose and pick up what gameplay we would add or not the final game. And to be honest, technically, it was very difficult.

(Hazuki Ryo riding the bicycle while it was still in development)

Q: Is there anything related to the gameplay or content that made it to the game but just in time?

Yu Suzuki : Not really. That being said, I will talk about NPC. Having control over NPC's daily life was not something we were supposed to add during the first stages of the development. It was decided afterwards and adding such feature was a difficult task for the development team.

Adding up all Shenmue and Shenmue II NPC, we reached a number of 450, maybe more. For each NPC, we created a background : name, how old the NPC is, weight, how tall, its partner, its location etc.

Let's see how it worked for one character. A shop owner or someone working at the post office. In Japan, during the 80's, we had our day off on sunday. We used to work from monday to friday and on saturday, work was usually done during the morning. That said, we had companies where you'd have to work on weekends too!

This is how everything has been programmed. At what time the character is going to wake up, leave its home, go to work, stop at a conbini convenience store to buy some food, goes outside again to catch a bus etc.

At noon, there was a lunch break and the NPC usually brought its lunch and ate it at the park. Also, the NPC's behavior would change depending if it was a week day or weekend.

This intelligent process contained a lot of data. This is explained by the fact that even if you were not even close the NPC, it was still leading its own life, like working.

During NPC's daily life development, on regular basis, I often checked how NPC were reacting. I was waiting in front of a door to see if it would come out, where it would go, what it planned to do etc.

But we had many other things to focus on. Let's say an NPC is walking while holding a bag and it starts raining and he had to use its umbrella. We had to think about which hand was going to hold the umbrella and which hand holds the bag.

To compare with games of the current generation, most NPC are standing and do not move. With a system like that, players don't get an immersive experience and to avoid that, I wanted to detail the game so much that gamers would feel like being in a real world while playing.

To summarize, working on the daily life of each NPC was definitely one of the most difficult process during Shenmue's development.

Q: Speaking of it, there was a problem with NPC that occured during the development. They were all stuck in the same spot and couldn't get out, is this right ?

Yu Suzuki : Yes, that's right. We had to widen the area's entrance, extend automatic doors space and set a limit to the number of characters that were allowed to enter the said area. When the number was reached, left characters were waiting outside for their turn. Sometimes, some characters that waited too long often arrived late at work. (laughs)

Something else we had to work on was the streets space. Two characters going into each other was a real problem so we had to make them move and make sure that they wouldn't stomp on each other again. Without doing such tests over and over, it wouldn't have been possible to fix such issues.

Q: While you were working on Shenmue, you never have thought that there were too many NPC in the game?

Yu Suzuki : If you count how many people are walking around Dobuita, you can easily reach 100 people. As I've already said, I've built Shenmue based on real world standards, meaning if 500 people would have walked around Dobuita, I would probably have added 500 characters.

What I did not want players to experience while having a conversation with an NPC is repetition. Getting the same answer to your question over and over is boring. And that is what happens in some games. In Shenmue, the conversation system has been adjusted accordingly. To be specific, if an NPC was replying with long sentences, the amount of data we had to use was excessive. We optimized our system in order to lower the amount of data being used.

(My personnal comment to Yu Suzuki while doing the interview) :

Even today's games do not provide such deep conversations with NPC, atleast, that is what I think.

Yu Suzuki : That is true, conversations tend to not be so deep. To get back to the data part, while we were working on the Sega Saturn, CD-ROM were used. From our estimation, around 50 CD-ROM were needed for the full version. But since we ported everything to the Dreamcast and its GD-ROM, we had no other choice but to release on 3, 4 GD-ROM maximum.

Q: Let's talk about Shenmue's Story. In the opening scene, when Iwao is facing Lan Di in the Dojo, he says : It can't be... you?!
Is there any meaning behind this sentence? Like Iwao was already aware of Lan Di's existence, he already knew who he was?

(Iwao Hazuki fighting Lan Di during Shenmue's opening scene)

Yu Suzuki :      Iwao was a friend of Lan Di's father (Zhao Sunming) since they both trained together in China in their youth. However, Iwao never met Lan Di before, even when he was a child.

(I had to comment and asked him a second time if Iwao really never met Lan Di before and this is what Yu Suzuki san said)

I think that Iwao's reaction comes from the fact that a son often looks like his father. Like : "That face... could he be Zhao's son?!", that kind of reaction.

Q: Since we're still talking about the introduction of the game. I guess you won't be able to answer my next question but I will still ask : Did Iwao really killed Zhao Sunming?

Yu Suzuki : That's right, I cannot tell you if he did or not (laughs). It would be like revealing a movie's ending before you even saw it. That's why i cannot answer.

(Yu Suzuki wants to talk about Lan Di and Iwao again. He told me that Iwao might have met Lan Di while he was a young boy, but he is not entirely sure mainly because he hasn't read the story in details for a while, but he's not sure at all).

(Iwao Hazuki on the left, as for the character on the right, even though his identity remains a mystery, we can pretty much say that he's Zhao Sunming)

Q: Let's get back to Zhao Sunming. There is something fans would like to know : Is he really dead?

Yu Suzuki : Yes he is.

(Something that could interest Shenmue fans. I asked him a second time if he was really dead and his answer was a bit different. If I had to translate,  you could read it as follow) :

- For now, he's dead

- In fact, he's dead

He laughed a bit when I've asked him the second time. Is Zhao Sunming really dead? No one really knows but Suzuki-san. He could be dead, or not.

Q: There are 4 Chiyoumen bosses. Among them, fans are aware of 3 characters : Lan Di, Niao Sun and Hong Xiuying's brother : Ziming. Could you provide some details about the last one?

(Artwork of the 4 Chiyoumen Boss)

(Commentary : I was not even done asking the question that Yu Suzuki wanted to answer, here is what he said) :

Yu Suzuki : Lan Di (Rantei-Souryu/藍帝(蒼龍)) is the east leader. His name also means Blue Dragon. About Niao Sun, she also has another name : 炎帝 (Entei), and rules over the South part and is represented by a Phoenix.

Now, regarding the last 2 bosses, no one has seen them yet. One of them is Koutei (昊帝) and leads the West part and is represented by a Tiger. The last one is Gentei (玄帝), covers the North part and is represented by a Turtle.

Oh and, Ziming Hong is not one of the 4th leaders.

(Commentary : Here is the world exclusivity of this interview. You finally get to know that Ziming is not one of the bosses and you get to know the last 2 boss names! I saw them and know how they look like and Yu Suzuki has done a fantastic work. Please keep supporting Shenmue, it's really worth it!)

Q: Earlier this year at the GDC, during the Shenmue postmortem conference, people got the chance to see artworks of your previous RPG based on the character of Akira from Virtua Fighter. One of those artworks got Shenmue fans curious, here is the artwork :

(Artwork shown during the postmortem conference, including fans theories)

Since then, fans brought up theories about who those characters could be. Could you tell us if they are right or wrong?

Yu Suzuki : I cannot say too much about this artwork because this is quite far from where Shenmue II stopped. All I can say is that those characters are not Chiyoumen, they are Grand Masters.

Q: Shenmue III has yet to be developed but could you tell us how you would like it to begin from? Are we going to start playing from the where we left or... ?

Yu Suzuki : I haven't decided yet how Shenmue III will begin, but if that's possible, I would like players to start from Shenhua's house.

Q: Fans keep providing their support on the internet and even after a decade, they are still here. However, they would like to know what they could do to help you start Shenmue III's development?

Yu Suzuki : Fans from all around the world have kept providing me support and I can't thank them enough. About Shenmue, Sega is not a problem at all. For Shenmue III, we need to define a specific budget and if I can gather enough for it, Sega will allow me to do it.

I am pretty sure that Sega doesn't want to take any financial risks regarding Shenmue. That's why I have to gather the necessary budget for it. Anyway, even if I would like to work on other projects beside Shenmue, if I ever get the opportunity to work on the 3rd part, I will do it. And to be honest, I do not think that anyone else can properly accomplish Shenmue III the way I'd like to do it.

If Shenmue III's budget isn't sufficent, quality will suffer from it.

Q: Budget and money are the main problems... If you ever reach your goal and gather enough money to create Shenmue III, do you think that you will be able to conclude the story? Knowing that Shenmue's story is very deep and seems to be far away from its conclusion.

Yu Suzuki : Yes indeed, the story is far away from being completed and to be honest, I do not think that it's possible to end it during Shenmue III. If I had to do it my way, players would experience the ending during Shenmue V. But that seems to be a lot so I'm going to try to finish it within the next 2 games.

(Yu Suzuki once the interview was done)

This last question ends Yu Suzuki's interview and I would like to thank him for providing enough time, even though he's busy, to answer my questions. It was a great pleasure to discuss Shenmue with him. I really appreciated his kindness and his love for his own work, even more than 10 years later it's still something amazing.

As you can see, Shenmue's development wasn't an easy task. It has been developed on the Sega Saturn, ported to the Dreamcast and was an ambitious project. Even today, it still remains one of the most beautiful game ever created and its deep story has yet to to be finished.

Until then... "The Story goes on..."


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