Sunday, June 27, 2021

The End of Yu's China Journey & Creation of Virtua Fighter 2 | Yu Suzuki's 1994 China Research Trip, Final Part

A continuation of our series on Yu Suzuki's 1994 Research Trip to China. This topic was selected by the Phantom River Stone blog patrons via our monthly poll on the Phantom River Stone Patreon and was available for early access.

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 of blog posts:
  • In Part One, we translated blog entries about the trip by Kazunari Uchida, the person who accompanied Yu Suzuki.
  • Part Two is a magazine article in which Yu Suzuki gives own comments about his trip, and how his findings would be useful for the development of the Virtua Fighter series.
  • In Part Three, Yu's traveling companion, Kazunari Uchida, talks about how he first met Yu Suzuki and his curiosity to learn about the genius behind the man during the upcoming trip.
  • Part Four is Kazunari Uchida's journal entry for the start of the trip itself: Day One - Beijing.
  • Part Five is Days Two and Three of the trip in which Yu travels to Luoyang, Xi'an and Dengfeng, and arrives at Shaolin Temple.
  • In Part Six (Days Four through Six) Yu observes fighting demonstrations at Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng county.
  • In Part Seven (Day Seven), nursing a fractured rib, Yu spends some time sight-seeing in Luoyang then travels on to Cangzhou.
  • In Part Eight, Yu spars with Bajiquan grandmaster Wu Lianzhi in Mengcun, and is accidentally knocked to the floor.
Today's post, Part Nine, is the final part of the series! In it, Yu enjoys a final meal in China before returning to Japan to fold his new-found experiences into the development of Virtua Fighter 2.

About the Diary Author

Born on January 15, 1961 (age 33), Kazunari Uchida is a writer and photographer who writes about a wide range of topics including outdoor activities, motor sports, and travelogues. He is currently active in such publications as Monthly Motorcycle (Motor Magazine), Yu-Ben (Kodansha), and Outdoor Guide (JTB). He accompanied Yu Suzuki, the developer of "Virtua Fighter," on a research trip to China.


"It's all about the people. The people are so interesting..."

Yu murmured this to himself as he gazed down at the yellow earth just after our airplane had taken off.

I too have traveled a lot in my life, and no matter what kind of trip I've taken, it's the people that leave a lasting impression. I think the degree of fulfillment you get from a trip is determined by how many rich encounters you have had.

On this trip, we had encounters with Master De Li of Shaolin Temple, Mr. Wu Liangzhi of Cangzhou, and many other people - too numerous to list here.

China is a country with a very complicated history, and it has been subjected to many upheavals, including the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square incident, just to name a few. However, despite that fact that everyone here has been through such rough times, everyone was frank, friendly, and very big-hearted.

Yu lost in thought at the Great Wall of China, reflecting on his two-week trip...

As we would be leaving Beijing early the next morning, we had our last meal with Ms. Zhang, our guide who had been most helpful to us during this trip. As we ate, the topic of conversation turned to what our favorite word was.

Yu wrote the word "ENERGY" on a paper napkin close at hand and held it up.

"Ever since my career began, my favorite word has been the thing I want the most at that particular moment. Game creation involves a lot of trial and error, and a lot ends up coming to nothing. That's why I want the power to make something that's hard work not feel like hard work - both mentally and physically".

My own favorite phrase is "infinite bounds". "It doesn't really have any deep meaning, though," I explained. "It's just that ever since I can remember, I've had a strong longing for vastness. I want to stand in a place where I feel as tiny as a grain of sand, and make my mind vast and empty".

After each of us had spoken in turn, Ms. Zhang spoke softly with a shy smile on her face.

"I haven't found a word like that yet. I hope I'll travel to different places and meet different people, and find a word I like".

Yu at the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (north-west of Beijing). On the left is our guide, Ms. Zhang. On the right is Mr. "Bravo" Zhang, our guide in Beijing.

On hearing her words, we felt somewhat embarrassed. Her grandfather and mother had been persecuted for cooperating with the Japanese army, and her sister had sacrificed her youth as a Red Guards soldier during the Cultural Revolution. She herself had witnessed the trampling of freedom at Tiananmen Square and lost many of her schoolmates... Her past was one that Yu and I could never have imagined, yet she remained humble, and it was then that we realized that we didn't understand anything. However, it is precisely because we don't understand anything that we had come across to China, and continued to look for something that could not be clearly defined.

Perhaps what Yu was looking for on this trip was not moves for a character to be included in Virtua Fighter 2, or specific scenery to use as a background image. If it had been merely something as superficial as that, it could have been gleaned from looking at photo books or guides while in Japan.

And yet, he went all the way over to China to meet with people, and the reason for this is that he wanted to reach out with his own heart and touch the spirit hidden behind. Yu went to China in order to breathe that spirit into his game.

Some time after returning to Japan, Yu said that he wanted to create a character named "Hong Yu" in the image of Ms. Zhang for Virtua Fighter 3 or 4. I can't wait to discover what kind of reality Zhang Hong Yu, a girl who exists in the real world, will present when she appears in Yu's game*.
* [Comment from Switch] Might Ms. Zhang have been the inspiration for the mysterious character of Xiuying in Yu's subsequent creation of Shenmue II (as suggested by Nathan24 on the Shenmue Dojo forums)? There is in fact an indication that adds weight to this hypothesis: her surname, Hong, uses the same written character (紅) as the one in Ms. Zhang's first name of Hong Yu (紅玉). 

 It was a brief trip, but a lot was gained. However the real hardship came after returning to Tokyo...

Back in Tokyo

With all of these thoughts and feelings in his mind, Yu and the rest of the AM2 team got to work on Virtua Fighter 2.

Yu talks about the new game:

"The concept of a realistic 3D game using polygons is unchanged, but the content has really undergone a huge upgrade. In fact, before Virtua Fighter 1, the idea of representing a person with polygons had been thought to be a pipe dream. 

Screenshots have finally been released for the long-awaited Virtua Fighter 2. This is the fruit of the countless hours of hard work and innumerable ideas born from the many encounters and partings in China. 

"What the first game presented was revolutionary in the gaming world, yet the new game has brought so many advances in such a short time as to make the first seem almost childish. It's amazing how quickly technology evolves.

"With the new game, the CPU board has been upgraded from MODEL 1 to MODEL 2. The character s' movements, which were still jerky and mechanical in the first version, are much more human-like. We've also doubled the number of frames per second from 30 to 60. When we were gathering footage in China, the movements in real life were much faster than what I had imagined so I didn't think that 30 frames would be enough to portray them, but this will address that problem. So the movement should look much smoother than in the first game.

"In addition, now polygon texture mapping is possible, so things like facial expressions and the background scenery have considerably more realism. The Guilin scenery was created using elements from actual photos I took in China, such as paving stones from the Imperial Palace, the Pagoda Forest at Shaolin Temple, as well as the flowing river at Longmen. I feel really positive about how it has turned out. There are still new stages being worked on, but I think they'll all feel very real, even to people who are familiar with the real-life locations.

Yu giving instructions to a team member at the development office. Each member of his team pours their heart and soul into the game.

"To be honest, the games I make aren't just for people who are experienced gamers and who can easily get emotionally involved in them, but also for those people who have never played a game before. My aim is to make a game that will naturally draw the player into the game world. That's why I try to get as close as possible to reality".

On hearing this, I had the feeling that what Yu was aiming for was not a game, but a parallel world, another world whose reality is the same as that of the real world. Perhaps by working on this Virtua Fighter series he has found a way to create a parallel world.

Always Aiming Higher

One of the things that had been bothering Yu throughout his journey was how to incorporate Drunken Boxing into Virtua Fighter 2.

Yu related:

"The original plan was to add four more characters, bringing the total to twelve. However, since we were planning to upgrade the eight characters we already had, it became difficult to work on that and the creation of four characters at the same time due to time constraints. So I decided to reduce the number of new characters to two and have four developers work on them. We had gathered so much rich material that I wanted to make that I didn't have to sacrifice any part of the characters."

One of the new characters is Shun-Di, a master of Drunken Boxing. He is 89 years old with the appearance of a hermit, and his skills have become increasingly refined with age. The other is Lion Rafale, a compact and agile youth who uses the Northern Praying Mantis style.

Yu continued:

"The most difficult part would have to have been the Drunken Boxing. I had formed an image of it in my mind while I was traveling, but when it came to putting it into the actual software, the right balance was needed with the other characters. I liked the idea of using the Guard button to perform a boxing-like sway, but if I incorporated the Drunken Boxing drinking motion in the middle of a move, it would give the opponent an opening to attack. I struggled with how to deal with that, and in the end I decided to make use of the time when the opponent was down. But that would prevent the player from performing a down attack (air drop), which would be frustrating.

"After solving one problem, another would appear. Then, on solving that, you'd get another problem. It's like a game of cat-and-mouse. In the end, this problem was solved by performing a rapid sequence of moves when knocking down the opponent, so that the player doesn't feel the need for a down attack. Another thing was to incorporate motions into the Drunken Boxing moves to help draw attention from the downward attack. We also made it such that the more you drink, the stronger your attack becomes.

"However, the Northern Praying Mantis style also gave us a heap of problems. The problem is that it's too strong. It's a complex martial art to begin with, so it's difficult for opponents to fight, and since I gave Lion agile movement, the synergy that resulted made him too strong.

"To adjust for overall balance, it's very easy to downgrade something that stands out, and that's what a lot of game programmers do, but now that I've seen the real thing in China, I don't want to do anything that would detract from it. If anything, I still think it's still not quite as impressive as the real thing. So we ended up doing the extremely laborious task of raising the level across the whole game.

The Drunken Boxing and Northern Praying Mantis styles used by the new characters were the result of a number of inspired ideas.

"Just recently, I incorporated a small counterattack technique into Akira, and he suddenly became invincible. The program as a whole maintains a delicate balance, so a small change in one factor can make a big difference to the overall balance. Normally, you'd probably try to undo the change, but now that I've seen the real thing, it would be a shame to reverse the progress that Akira has made by learning a new technique and I couldn't bring myself to do it. That's how training for both the character and programmers begins again (laughs)."

Listening to Yu speak, it is clear that he doesn't feel like he is making a game, but that he enjoys creating real people and a real world. He said his favorite word is "energy", but from where did he absorb the tremendous energy to create such a world?

"I feel like that trip gave me the power to overcome any difficulty. Breathing the air of China, feeling martial arts with my body, and encountering real wonders and real people naturally recharged my energy".

Virtua Fighter 2, into which Yu has poured his soul and energy, is finally ready for release.

(End of Series)

I hope you enjoyed the translation of this series, it has been a lot of fun to discover such in-depth coverage of his trip that has been little known until now, and it's clear to see how this journey provided Yu Suzuki with a rich base for his subsequent development of Shenmue.

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