Shenmue II GAME JAM (Apr 11,2001 Dreamcast prototype)

Spring 1995, Yu Suzuki takes advantage of a moment of respite to continue developing his prototype. The originator of SEGA's greatest arcade hits has an idea in mind. Virtua Fighter has become a strong license of the brand and the Japanese knows that he can use this universe to develop a revolutionary role-playing game. Steeped in ambition, the man and his team attempt a first: The Old Man and the Peach Tree. The program, built with a few algorithms, tells the story of Taro, who is looking for a certain Ryu , a kung-fu master capable of teaching him his art. The title, expected to be for Saturn, offers the exploration of an open world with the solving of puzzles. At 37, Yu Suzuki has nothing left to prove and yet he is about give rise to a work that will crystallize the video game industry for nearly two decades.

The beginning of a long epic, Shenmue!

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Since the early 90s (and from his trip to China), Yu Suzuki has aimed to make an RPG that goes beyond Japanese clichés. More freedom, interaction with an organic world, an optimized dialogue system... the creator stopped at nothing. He imagined a story that took place in the 1950s in Luoyang , the ancient Chinese capital. Inspired by a trip to China dating back to 93, the story The Old Man and the Peach Tree contrasted what was usually done in video games at the time.

«A man, who appears to be a martial arts master, is basking in the sun. Taro , who is the player character, asks the man if he knows Master Ryu . The old man then tells him that he only has to bring back a peach to get the answer. So the first part of the quest is to find a peach tree. There is an apple tree not far from them. Taro can't reach the apple, so he borrows a stick from one of the guards and picks the apple which he immediately gives to the man. But the latter explains to him again that he wants to eat a peach, and he gets angry. At the end, children gather around the man and encourage him. Taro quietly approaches and an in-game cutscene begins. The old man skimps on a lake. Each time the stone hits the surface of the water, it stuns a fish. The fish literally float to the surface of the water. The children are very happy to have fish for dinner. The man managed to hit two or three fish with a single stone. After witnessing such a spectacle, Taro is certain that it is in fact Master Ryu. That's the kind of story that we found in the game. This became the basis of the game.»

The Old Man and the Peach Tree has a script and a staging (nothing has been shown but we can guess the scene) totally out of step with its time. However, this prototype allowed the whole team to gauge the capabilities of the Saturn and to push it to its ultimate limits: fully 3D graphics, management of collisions and clipping (late display of scenery), control of characters and the camera, monitoring and consistency of events and puzzles, dialogues in other words, the 32-bit has seen all the colors.

The idea of an RPG on the model of Virtua Figther

After The Old Man and the Peach Tree, the AM2 team decided to turn to a more concrete universe that is, above all, well known to fans of the brand: Virtua Fighter. We move to 1996. The idea is to create an RPG using the characters of the famous fighting game, whose hero is Akira.

Fully 3D and with a cinematic approach, it adds (compared to The Old Man and the Peach Tree prototype) the ability to fight multiple individuals at once; but also, recorded voices give more sense of life and realism to the protagonists of the story. By doing so, Yu Suzuki saved considerable time: he used all the character moves of the famous fighting game (Akira, Pai, Lau, Jacky, etc.), but with the 3D engine. At this point, the developers had a very precise idea of what they want.

That trip to China would have the effect of clarifying many of his desires. For Virtua Fighter RPG, Yu Suzuki designed a document based on his memories, where it is particularly about the story and its guideline. The hero, Akira (funny thing is that in Shenmue, the game code reveals that the character ID remained "AKIR", diminished form of Akira) must face a destiny that jostles his emotions.

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Official Shenmue 1+2 script

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First, the grief over the loss of his father; then, the departure for China and the feeling of revenge that animated him (the main antagonist then bears the name of Randi and not Lan Di); then, the fight against the murderer of his father and finally, victory and a new journey with his friends. From this document, Yu Suzuki draws an orchestral suite in four repeating movements. To give more volume to the story, the creator called on a scriptwriter to whom he made listen to the famous piece in order to give him more inspiration. It is from this precise moment that Yu Suzuki began the real writing of the 11 different chapters of the game.

2008, my trip to Guilin

Guilin Road Trip (Shenmue)

Shenmue Saturn (Shenmue 2)

2008, my trip to Guilin

Chine Road Trip (Shenmue)

To give a dramatic feel to his title, Yu Suzuki opted for a romantic approach, in order to make the player feel all the emotions of the hero. And each of the 11 chapters takes place in different locations in China. Suffice to say that Virtua Fighter RPG has created a real base for the future Project Berkley. It is Akira Yuki (when younger), and not Ryo Hazuki, that one finds in the Saturn prototypes. Again, even though these prototypes, by Yu Suzuki's admission, are playable and slumbering somewhere at SEGA in Japan, they are just prototypes, short and intended to gauge the performance of the Saturn. Hence the fight sequence between Ryu and Guizhang or the doe scene from Shenmue II. There is no full Project Berkley or Shenmue game on the Saturn. These are just tests.

The Beginning of the Berkley Project

In 1997, Yu Suzuki was involved in the development of SEGA's future console. The Dreamcast, which would succeed the Saturn, is much more powerful and better aimed at game designers. Logically, the whole team decided to abandon 32-bit support to focus on the future machine which was then called "Next-gen Saturn". Virtua Fighter RPG had been abandoned in turn, resulting in the birth of a new title but which had no name yet, except for the code name Guppy. Built in 45 hours, the gameplay mixed a large number of approaches: cinematics, fights, research and exploration, learning new techniques, interaction between the different chapters and even the presence of "underground dungeons".

In 1998, Yu Suzuki changed the name of the game to Berkley and aimed to introduce the first two chapters in the first adventure. Only then was the ambition of the AM2 limitless and the game growing visibly. Project Berkley became Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka and each game contained only one single chapter, all materializing in the form of a gigantic killer app for the Dreamcast. Given the scale of development (which required about 30% of the total workforce of AM2), Yu Suzuki was forced to redefine the basics of game design. It was at this time that he imagined the concepts of FREE for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment, and Quick Time Events (QTE) from which he drew inspiration from the game of our childhood, SIMON.

Sega Dreamcast Console
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That same year, the SEGA teams were working at full speed to produce Shenmue. At that time, the number of employees working on Yu Suzuki's game exceeded 200. Among those who toiled the most, there are the programmers who set up multiple compression algorithms in order to fit the game on 3 GD-ROMs (without that, it would have taken 50 or 60 CD ROMs to store Shenmue) but also the developers who have been called to the rescue for "NPC life control". Yu Suzuki reveals that this concept was added later, because it was not part of the development stages.

«Each character led their own life. All this was not planned and it has been done and integrated in the meantime. This was quite a heavy task for the staff working on the game. If I add up the NPCs (or NPCs) from Shenmue and Shenmue II , I think there are over 450. We created a background for each character: name, age, weight, height, his/her partner, place of residence, etc.»

Shenmue contains over 300 characters (700 including Shenmue 2). To save time, the team used a formidable technique: it used the names of employees and high authorities of SEGA to personalize this little world. One of the employees absolutely wanted to be an F1 driver. He finally found himself as a simple onlooker near the construction site.

An incredible development

To fully understand how Shenmue was ahead of its time, we are going to make a presentation of the techniques put in place to push realism to its maximum. Unlike other games, the creation of the game did not start with dozens and dozens of artwork. While there were some during the making of Virtua Fighter RPG, the team's real inspiration came from the music.

«The development of the game first started with its music. Then, once I finally had a theme that I liked and corresponded to my desire, I had all my staff listen to it, the project directors, the screenwriters, without telling them anything. They knew the general concept of the project but nothing had really been decided yet. I then asked them to freely follow their inspiration only with this music. Finally, we all exchanged many ideas, in addition to mine. The world of Shenmue was therefore built on his music, without starting with artwork as is usually the case in video games»

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Yuzo Koshiro, who participated in the musical composition of Shenmue, visited SEGA studios about once a week. The game was entirely designed through his music, that is to say that the musicians composed the themes by focusing on sketches and models. When you hear the final result, there is something to be amazed about.

All the animations are made in motion capture and the team even went so far as to use an electronic glove in order to faithfully reproduce the movement of the hands and fingers.

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Official sculpture (photo by SkillJim)

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For the fights, the choreographies were strongly enforced, and Yu Suzuki's perfectionism became almost sickly. The instructions given to the actors were ultra-precise and it was not easy to comply with the demands of the creator, who did not hesitate to lend his hand by showing all the gestures to be performed one by one.

The other feat comes from the modeling of the main character. Akira gave way to a certain Ryo Hazuki and the first sketches were drawn by Yu Suzuki himself:

«To get a story that suited me, I needed a hero that matched my expectations. So I first drew sketches of what I expected from the ideal main character. I got what I wanted, both from the front and from the side. But the problem is that the 3D rendering did not correspond to the model at all! I felt like I had another person!»

To counter the problem, the devs would then hatch a genius idea: to use clay to reconstruct the faces of the main characters of the story. These sculptures, made by professionals, were then scanned in 3D to obtain a rendering close to perfection. With such a technique, the faces reached the trifle of 50,000 animations, so the number of polygons had to be shifted down.

For architecture, the AM2 had developed a program that made it possible to structure the layout of the various buildings and rooms. It was enough to input objects such as tables, chairs and others for the software to organize and reposition everything, making sure that the character could cross the area without hindrance. Crazy!

Finally, the change in weather had taken a lot of resources from Yu Suzuki's team:

«Today, everyone knows how to do it, but at the time it was a real challenge. The Magic Weather system allows for programmatic weather and weather control. The brightness evolves correctly according to the time of day. Wind and snow algorithms are also generated. We used Yokosuka's historical weather data for a three-year period starting in 1986, to recreate the game's in-game weather.»

In 1999, Yu Suzuki began his worst nightmare (he hates this part of development): debugging. This phase consisted of playing the game and testing it in every corner to eradicate any form of bug. The cycle took two full weeks, which were grueling. Every day, more than 300 bugs were listed to be then corrected. According to the creator, a team took turns working around the clock, recording videos to target any bugs. At the end of the development, more than 300 people had to be coordinated, which was a real ordeal, because no one had the experience of such a project. Nowadays, developers use project management software, which makes it possible to coordinate all the stages of the creation of a game but also the interaction with the different people and teams. At the end of the 90s, this was far from being the case.

«At that time, there were no project management tools, such as Redmine . So instead we used a command sheet which was just a simple list of measurements in Excel. Because we were developing or testing the game, the number of bars to correct never decreased. And for information, there were more than 10,000! It's scary to think that we managed this project essentially by distributing sheets of paper»

Shenmue Cover Pal
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To make Shenmue, the developers didn't get much sleep or rest. If they managed to take turns, each Friday was called "Shenmue Weekend". The team would travel to SEGA's lodge in Zushi (a town of about 55,000 people located 65 km from Tokyo) and work all weekend.

This is what Shenmue was all about. Programmers who fought for months to get the best game in the world. The team of programmers was also split in two: on one side, the employees who worked on the game system, on the other those who officiated on the programming routines due to the countless events. Shenmue is also the dropping of ideas. Originally, Ryo was to start his journey in China (yes!) and the bike came naturally at the start of development. The test was even carried out with Ryo pedaling while speeding through a meadow. At the end of development, a programmer took over the concept to flesh it out and improve it, but the concept of riding a bicycle in Yokosuka did not bring anything significant. The team preferred to remove this element. Tak Hirai even admits that they had fun using different new "features" (and which he wanted to keep as Easter Eggs), such as fast forward and rewind of the day/night cycle or the possibility of carrying an object like a house and swing it.

The presentation of Shenmue 2 at Game Jam

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Yu Suzuki had made an appearance at Sega's Game Jam show, in April 2001,  to show off the latest Shenmue II goodies, gadgets, and gameplay systems. Suzuki had launched a demo with crowd noise on a busy street in Hong Kong and then showed off the all-new automatic map, which appears and rotates based on the location of  Ryo  and his direction.

Next, Suzuki opened the options menu, where he checked Ryo's current collection of Gatcha (small Japanese toys). The game had informed him that if he had one more figure, it would complete his Virtua Fighter toy collection, and he could sell the set, at the pawn shop for 500 HKD. Suzuki had  taken Ryo Hazuki's character to an alley, where he had played several rounds of a game of chance. Ryo quickly won the mini-game. He then took his new collection to a pawn shop to sell it and collect as much money as possible.

Exposing his twisted fascination with minigames, Suzuki had moved Ryo to a seedy bar, where our hero struck up a conversation with an Italian darts player. The crowd watched in silence as Suzuki played a thrilling game of dart throwing!

Suzuki  had also demonstrated Shenmue II's dynamic loading system. When R