Sunday, October 13, 2019

Yu Suzuki's Research Trip to China Part 3: An Invitation from Yu | Translation

This topic was selected by Phantom River Stone patrons in our monthly poll for a topic choice.

In the early 1990s, Yu Suzuki made a seminal trip to China. His objective was to research and gather material for his upcoming Virtua Fighter 2, and this research also influenced his concept for a "Virtua Fighter RPG" which eventually came to be known as Shenmue.

Previous posts in this series:
  • In Part One, we translated blog posts about the trip by Kazunari Uchida, the person who accompanied Yu Suzuki.
  • In Part Two, we translated Yu Suzuki's own comments about his trip, and how his findings would be useful for the development of the Virtua Fighter series.
This post is a translation of the first of a set of articles documenting the China trip, again written by Kazunari Uchida. They were published in 1994 as a series in the Japanese Beep! MegaDrive Magazine.

The translation begins here.

Yu Suzuki: China Research Trip Journal by Kazunari Uchida

The Genius That is Yu Suzuki

When talking about Yu Suzuki, he is often described as a "programming genius". But wherein does his genius lie?

Is he called a genius due to his creation of hit title after hit title in the 10 years since distinguishing himself with Hang On? Or because the ideas themselves are remarkable? Or is it due to his thorough pursuit of reality that characterize his games, together with the programming methods used in its implementation?

On the other hand, someone who has been called a genius gets unconditionally placed upon a pedestal, and others may have the impression that they are not very approachable. But, in that sense, I feel uncomfortable in labeling the Yu Suzuki I know as a "genius".

The image I have of him is someone who is never without an amiable smile on his face, who is self-effacing and has a somewhat non-mainstream sense of humor, but is very sure of his own mind: in short, someone who is good-natured and free-spirited. There's not the slightest hint of the unapproachability associated with the word "genius". When he was developing Hang On, I spent a day with him in order to gather article material for a motorbike magazine, taking photos and speaking with him; that was the start of our acquaintance.

For around the last 5 years, partly due to our both becoming busy in our respective work, the extent of our interaction dwindled to the occasional exchanging of letters from places to which we traveled.

However, when I met him again for the first time in a long while, what a surprise: he had his own office with an expansive view of the city on the top floor of a building; managed a staff of 100; was hailed as a programming genius; and had become a role model for young people aiming to become game programmers,

I sat down with a sun-tanned Yu, just back from Florida, in his bright office which was decorated with snapshots from locations around the world. When I first visited him at SEGA for an interview, his work area was like the corner of a small workshop; he wore drab gray work clothes and had a drowsy expression from working throughout the night - but now that all seemed a mere vision from a faraway past. But when I started talking with him again like in the old days, he was still that same good-natured and free-spirited person.

The Aim for Virtua Fighter II

"How about going to China?"

Right after this past New Year, he called me early in the morning and burst out with it - just like that, without so much as a New Year's greeting. No doubt he would have given it the utmost consideration before choosing me as his traveling companion, but when the time came to express it there was no beating about the bush; just those simple words. That's one of the traits that, once you get to know him, makes him such a friendly person.

"China? Sure, let's go."

I'm not one to talk though: without properly engaging my hung-over brain, I agreed in an instant.

And that was how the trip was finalized.

However, it wasn't until much later that I learned that this trip was to carry out research for the sequel to a game announced late last year, Virtua Fighter: the 3D fighting game Virtua Fighter II.

With Virtua Fighter, Yu Suzuki introduced two main concepts.

The first of these was making use of digital graphics, not creating pictures with an animated cartoon. This is a technology that allows creation of 3D images by melding together small triangles called polygons, something also used for Gulf War simulations. With an animated cartoon, varying 2D pictures are prepared, with flat figures moving on top of them, but with this technology the computer produces a 3D image in real-time according to the player's inputs. The point of view can also be set to any direction, so the image's movement and immersiveness are improved dramatically. This technology is something he had already made use of in Virtua Racing, but in order to apply it to the complex movement of human figures, there were a heap of factors that had to be surmounted, starting with a huge amount of programming.

The second concept was trying to faithfully reproduce the movements of actual martial arts, rather than setting up killer moves. While other fighting games boast absurd killer moves not able to be performed by humans as selling points, he has tried determinedly to make the characters fight like flesh-and-blood humans.

The reality he aims to achieve is to minimize the barrier between the game character and the player; to overcome that barrier and create the illusion that you yourself are playing. That's the direction he wants to take things in.

For that, he starts off by placing himself for a moment in the shoes of the game character.

For example, with Hang On and the series of racing games that followed, he actually drives the motorbikes and super cars at a circuit: he first of all tastes the real thing experientially.

Then, in addition, he carefully collects data from pro drivers and matched the data against the sensations he experienced to create a near-perfect simulation. From there, it goes through a process to refine it down to a game that "even a 10-year old can fully enjoy for 3 minutes" and his game is complete.

For Virtua Fighter, he watched over 50 martial arts videos and movies, and furthermore met with several martial artists. On top of that, he devoted himself to kung fu to such an extent that he suffered a complex wrist fracture. With that forming the foundation, he made the game following the concepts outlined above.

With the upcoming Virtua Fighter II, he is pursuing an even higher level of reality. At our last meeting before our trip, Yu spoke with a boyish smile and a twinkle in his eye:

"In Virtua Fighter II, I'm using a system called Model 2, and plan to apply textures. At the moment, the outlines of the figures are jagged, but in this next game they'll become much more human-like. The movements should also look much smoother, so clumsy deceptions won't fly. There are 8 characters in the current Virtua Fighter, but I'd like to give them more detailed moves and polish up their movement. Just as if the 8 of them have made progress after undergoing training.

"Of them, I particularly want to focus on Akira, who is like Virtua Fighter's lead character. He employs Bajiquan, so I definitely want to meat a Bajiquan master. And, if possible, I'd like him to show me even just one of the Ba Da Zhao (Eight Great Methods) of Bajiquan.

"As well as that, I'm planning to add four more characters in VF2. I'm thinking of having one of them use Drunken Boxing. It's a style unique to Chinese martial arts, and its complicated movements will be a perfect fit for the new game. But the problem is that Drunken Boxing is defensive and doesn't involve active attacks, so it doesn't match the characteristics of a competitive combat game. How to overcome that is something I'll need to consider. Also, although it's still just a vague idea, I'd like to have one of them use a style that mimics an animal's movements: Praying Mantis, Crane, Monkey... China has a lot of wonderful martial art styles. I'd like to see as many styles as possible".

For me, to actually observing Chinese martial arts certainly sounded interesting, but above all, I was looking forward to getting to see a side of Yu Suzuki that I previously hadn't known. I secretly planned to get to the bottom of why in his industry he was called a genius while during the research trip; and so, I set off with him to China.

Continue to Part 4: Day One - Beijing
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