Monday, February 19, 2018

Interview with Shenmue 2 Designer: Norikazu Hirai | Translation

Earlier in the week, SEGA Interactive published an online interview in Japanese with Norikazu Hirai, whose worked as a designer on Shenmue II early in his career.

We have translated into English some background introductory information, followed by the Shenmue-related part of the interview for Shenmue fans to enjoy. Of particular interest is hearing about Hirai's hand in the design of the famed Sword of Seven Stars that features at the end of Shenmue II.

Norikazu Hirai

Section Manager & Producer,
AM2 Multi-device Business Development Section

Producer of Soul Calibur Zero*
(also known as Soul Calibur: The Lost Story in Europe, or Soul Calibur: Resurrection in USA)

Norikazu Hirai
Norikazu Hirai


(This section is a summary of Hirai's responses to several introductory interview questions).

Hirai grew up in Yokohama. As a student at junior high school, some of his favorite games at his local arcade were Tehkan World Cup [1985 / Tehkan] and Wonder Boy in Monster Land [1987 / Sega]. He also played R-Type [1988 / Hudson] on a PC Engine console that he borrowed from a friend (and confesses he has yet to return).

Wonder Boy in Monster Land (arcade)
Wonder Boy in Monster Land (arcade)
A TV commercial at the time made a deep impression on him and this led to him considering a career in advertising, for which he applied for entry to an art university. However Hirai failed the entrance exam, and it took him a further three years of extra study before he successfully gained entrance.

At university he created a kind of three-dimensional art known as installation art, and through this came to the conviction that creative works gain their meaning through having an audience to view them. While at university, his ambitions changed slightly and he decided that he wanted to work in a creative field. His belief regarding creative works is something he has carried through to his attitude towards games production today.

(Interview excerpt starts here).

Starting Work as a Designer on Shenmue II

Q: Could you tell us how you came to start work at SEGA?

NH: When you get to around your 3rd year at university, getting a job is one of the options you think about from a practical standpoint. And so I decided to go for it and try sitting company entrance tests, and if I passed one then I’d steel myself for work.

Just around that time, there was a job fair being held at my university, and SEGA was there. So without further ado I sat the aptitude test and gave my reasons for applying and so on. And luckily I managed to make it through to the interview.

Q: Do you remember what was said at the interview?

NH: Although I say so myself, making jokes all the time is part of my personality, so I set myself the goal of making the interviewer laugh once before the interview was over.

Q: [laughs] That would make an impact on the interviewer, wouldn’t it.

NH: Thanks to my experience as a rōnin* for multiple years, I was really good at sketching. Since I had been polishing up my sketching skills for those 3 extra years, that may have been what convinced them in the end [laughs].
* rōnin: the Japanese word for a masterless samurai, colloquially used to describe someone who has graduated from high school but failed to enter a school at the next level, and thus is studying for entrance in a future year.
Q: What kind of work did you do when you first started at SEGA?

NH: I started at the company as a designer, and the first project I joined was Shenmue II (2001) for the Dreamcast. There were about 200 project members in total. Designers alone were about 60 in number, and at that time the Shenmue II team took up an entire floor of the building we were in.

The Design team consisted of four units: Characters, Stages, Motion and Authoring (meaning real-time movies).

Q: Which team were you assigned to?

NH: I joined the Stages team, which was in charge of the backgrounds. However, I hadn’t touched 3D software at all in university, so I didn’t know right from left.

Our development environment at the time was UNIX, so a command had to be entered even to start the software. I spent all my days taking notes and memorizing everything I was taught. I really didn’t understand what everyone was talking about. [laughs]

Q: Specifically what kind of work did you do on Shenmue II?

NH: I worked on the creation of the backgrounds through to various small items placed around the locations. Also the Sword of Seven Stars that appears in the final disc of the game was created by me.

The Sword of Seven Stars, which was designed by Hirai
The Sword of Seven Stars, which was designed by Hirai
Actually in the original design the Sword of Seven Stars was a dagger, but for some reason I made it a long sword. [laughs] To be safe, I asked a senior co-worker to run it past the director, Yu (Suzuki). I heard that he commented “I asked for a dagger! Oh well - never mind!” and decided to go with it, perhaps because it was well-made. [laughs]

Q: After that, you had the position of Lead Special Effects Designer for Virtua Cop 3 (2003). Was that taking into account your achievements on Shenmue II?

NH: Well, even though it was called “Lead”, there were only two Special Effects Designers. [laughs]

And the “special effects” were not particle effects like fireworks or smoke that everyone might imagine, but dynamic effects. A shooting game has a lot of small objects placed on the screen, right? We knew being able to blow them to smithereens is fun, so I created objects that would blow apart in various ways.

By the way, I also spent a long time studying how to best make models of objects with Shenmue II, so recognition of that aspect might have led to my being appointed as Lead Special Effects Designer.

Source Interview (Japanese): SEGA Interactive Co., Ltd.

Translated by Switch at Please include a reference back to this page when quoting. Thank you.
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