In person, Yu Suzuki is less the legendary video game developer of my mind’s eye, a man who’s spearheaded countless classic releases since the mid-1980s, and rather more like a geography teacher or something. He’s entirely unassuming – and yet, later in the day at a nearby expo, he’ll practically be mobbed by fans. He might not seem especially rock and roll on the surface, but if you know, you know.
Suzuki began his career with SEGA, and that famous logo has popped up on the start screen of so many of his best-known games. Whether you played them in the arcade or via a home version, the likes of Hang-On, Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner, Power Drift, Daytona USA, Virtua Cop, Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter are all SEGA landmarks that have benefitted, in some major or minor way, from Suzuki’s involvement.
And then there’s Shenmue. Released in 1999 for the SEGA Dreamcast, the Suzuki-directed adventure game was a watershed moment for the industry. It presented the player with a mission, a narrative path, but also an open world to do with as they pleased, all set to a simulated day-night cycle and the ticking-down of days left on the calendar to get things done. It was a role-player that was also a life simulator, that was also a mini-game collection, that was also an experience of virtual tourism, as the player became immersed in the streets, shops and residents of Yokosuka, Japan.
A sequel followed in 2001, and then, in 2015, a long-requested third entry in the series was revealed at E3, during the PlayStation press conference. After a couple of delays, Shenmue III will release on 19 November 2019 for PlayStation 4 and PC. And the game wouldn’t be happening at all, Suzuki says, without the enthusiasm of the series’ fans.
“It’s because of them that I’m still developing games like Shenmue III,” he tells me. “Without them, without their calls, there wouldn’t be Shenmue III. So I’m still developing games today because of their love.”
Which isn’t to say that every beat of the Shenmue III pre-release press cycle has gone down brilliantly with everyone. The game’s visual style – somewhere between the Dreamcast era’s chunky designs and today’s more realistic approach – has definitely proved divisive, neither truly reminiscent of the older titles and comprehensively compromised in comparison to the triple-A sphere. But then, Shenmue III really isn’t a triple-A game, and shouldn’t be mistaken for one.
Yu Suzuki on stage at Japan Expo, Paris
“I’ve never tried to equal the graphics of triple-A games, never,” Suzuki explains. “It’s absolutely not the same budget – we don’t have the budget of a GTA, or one of those games. Of course, we could have similar graphics, better graphics, but that would take all of the budget we have. We decided not to put too much money on the graphics because we wanted to develop a really deep and fun game. We have enough in terms of graphics, so we have put our money and time into other parts of the game.”
Which makes some sense – one of the main appeals of the Shenmue series is its immersive world, and the visuals didn’t have to be super realistic in 1999, so why should they be 20 years later? It’s better to have a complete package than put something out that’s clearly all show and no substance – that’d truly represent a disaster for the third proper Shenmue game.
“Whatever I create, it’s Shenmue,” Suzuki continues. “At first, we only have the pen sketches, and then from there, we translated them to the Dreamcast graphics. We’re still working from those sketches for Shenmue III, it all comes from the same concept art.”
Shenmue III / Credit: Ys Net, Deep Silver
I move onto the recent headlines concerning Shenmue III’s Epic store exclusivity – how backers of the game’s record-breaking Kickstarter were given the option of receiving their game via Steam only for it to switch to another storefront. Initially, backers asking for a refund were refused, but now the trio of developer Ys Net, publisher Deep Silver and the Epic store itself has confirmed that refunds will be available. I ask a simple enough question: was the team taken aback by just how many people were upset by the Epic exclusivity? A yes or a no would suffice, really.
After some long exchanges between Yu, his translator, his daughter and a French Deep Silver representative – we’re meeting in Paris, hence the French – I’m told to move on. I explain my question again, just in case something got lost in translation (which happens): was the team surprised, at all, by the sheer volume of disappointment? Move on.
So I move on. Just how special was that E3 reveal? “I never could have imagined such reactions,” Suzuki says. “There were so many huge games announced that day. The Last Guardian. Final Fantasy VII Remake. Each time people announced these, there was a huge reaction, people shouting. I was worried – what will be the reaction to our game? But then, after just a few cherry blossoms falling on the screen, and just a little music, I heard people shouting – a good way of shouting. So I realised it was different. I was still backstage with Sony people, and when the shouting started, a Sony guy looked at me and just said, ‘Congratulations’.”
Shenmue HD / Credit: SEGA
Shenmue innovated in several areas, so is that something that Shenmue III is looking to do, too? “Before, all of my games had the keyword of ‘innovation’,” Suzuki says, “but this time, for Shenmue III, I don’t think innovation was a major point. I’ve tried to take some risks, but my first goal was to make Shenmue fans happy, and I wanted to deliver them my message. They wanted a new episode, so I give them a new episode. That was my first ambition. And you know, innovation is not the most important part of Shenmue, for me. What’s more important is the world, and I wanted to make fans very happy with a new episode inside this Shenmue world.”
Is it cool that game developers are still using mechanics that were introduced by Shenmue, like quick-time events? “At the time, I was trying to find a way to make cinematics, movie scenes, interactive, so I work out this idea of QTEs,” he tells me. “And now I see I’ve contributed to the evolution of the video game industry, and that makes me happy, and very proud. I did something for the industry.”
I’d argue Suzuki has done much more than something for the games industry, but again, he’s a delightfully modest man – so much so that I almost feel bad for pressing on the Epic store question. (Almost because, come on, I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask these things.) I move onto those classic games of his past – does it surprise him that people are playing them for the first time today, be that via in-game situations like the Yakuza series, or the SEGA Ages line?
“I’m very happy with that situation,” he replies. “And it’s also, for me, a very big surprise. Old movies are still good because of the stories. So time flies, but you can still see and enjoy old movies. But at the time, when I was younger, making those games, I was really convinced that the old games I’d created wouldn’t be interesting anymore in the future. So it was a surprise to discover that people still enjoy old games, with new gaming systems. It’s a real pleasure to have a game like Virtua Racing on Nintendo Switch.”
I leave Suzuki-san to his pre-expo preparation – he has a masterclass at the event, too, which you can watch online – and shuffle away feeling pretty great for meeting someone who made several games of my childhood. The first SEGA game I ever played was Hang-On, albeit the Master System version, and I’ll always make space on my (virtual) shelf for whatever update of Out Run has most recently come out.
And as for Shenmue, well, its place in gaming history is assured forever. Whether the third game can come close to matching the majesty of the original, however, is something that nobody can really predict. It sure looks like a Shenmue game, but until we’re all in that world again, fans and newcomers alike, precisely how successful a comeback it is will remain a mystery.