Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Mar 2021 Yu Suzuki Interview: SEGA Hard Historia | Part 1/2

A new interview with Yu Suzuki was published in the recently-released SEGA Hard Historia book, featuring retrospectives with various key developers and staff members over the years. In this first part of the interview, Yu-san talks about his early game development days at Sega. The interview took place in March this year (2021).

Special thanks to James Brown for supplying the source material. James also has a superb unboxing video introducing the complete SEGA Hard Historia package, linked at the end of the article.

The interview translation (Part One) starts below.

AM2's Yu Suzuki gained immense popularity with his series of legendary hits in Sega's arcades, as well as ports such as Virtua Racer, in the Mega Drive's later years, and Virtua Fighter for the Sega Saturn. Sega's legendary creator reveals story upon story from those days...

Anecdotes on arcade hits and what Sega was like at that time

Q: What was Sega like when you joined the company (1983)?

YS: SEGA was originally a foreign company, so at that time, all the documents were in English. Issue sheets and all sorts of other things were all in English. It struck me as a somewhat peculiar company. I was in the development section - at the start I was asked if I wanted to be in Software, Design (which is what art was called) or Sound. I was interested in all three, but my boss, Mr. Yoshii, told me that software was the way to go, so I joined Software. I still remember that the Software and Hardware sections were in the same general area. Later, Sega would be divided into the Hardware section, Software section, Console section, and Amusements section, but at that time, Software and Hardware were huddled together in the same place.

Q: Without (desk) partitions?

YS: I remember that, looking around me, there were about 40 to 50 people in the one place. I joined the company as a software engineer, but my first job was "wrapping", which was not really a software job. It was doing things like wiring hardware or disassembling a TV and taking out the cathode ray tube. The work itself was a muddle, neither purely hardware nor software.

The development equipment for games wasn't workstations or PCs. At the time, PCs were not very powerful, so there was a kind of dedicated game development machine. It looked like a wooden pipe organ, and when you lifted it up, there was a keyboard and a monitor inside. I think they probably bought it from the U.S. or Europe, but we were developing games in-house using that kind of development equipment. Before I joined the company, they had been selling jukeboxes purchased overseas and selling imported games, so not much effort had been put into in-house game development. However, just around that time, an appetite developed for increasing the number of games developed in-house. Back then, there weren't enough development machines for everyone, so newcomers were only allowed to use them for a few minutes a day. But if you stayed overnight at the office, you could use them as much as you wanted once the senior staff weren't around.

Q: What made you choose Sega in the first place?

YS: It was because Sega had a full two-days off each work week (laughs). At that time, that was a rare thing for a company. I went to university in Okayama, so I wanted somewhere that would pay for travel expenses and accommodation for the interview. And Sega fitted that. It's a funny thing, but I wasn't originally into making games. I applied to several large computer companies - the downside was that this would mean an extra night's stay for each additional company. It was with such dubious motivations that I applied, first of all, to Sega. The person who interviewed me turned out to be quite a convincing talker, and I found Sega to be really interesting. Duly impressed, I made up my mind to work for them. I later found out that my interviewer was known as "Mr. Endo, the human trafficker," but he had his recruiting spiel down to a fine art.

After people have spent about five years in the workforce, at class reunions they'll often grumble about their company or their boss. But for me, while my work was tough, it turned into something more like a hobby. I was lucky enough to be one of those few people who enjoy their work as well as enjoying being at the company.

Q: The first game you made was "Champion Boxing" for the SG-1000 console. Why was the reason for this choice?

YS: I didn't think too much about it. I just thought of a game that I could make, and I guess boxing was it. I thought I could make a game by moving two characters.

Champion Boxing on the SG-1000

Q: Then you moved on to arcades?

YS: At that time, arcade machines by far had the more powerful hardware, and consoles were low-spec. However, Champion Boxing performed well for a console game, so it was put into the arcades, with an SG-1000 sitting inside an arcade cabinet and wired up to the control panel. We carried out a bit of location testing, and found it to be very well received. So that gave me a bit of experience with arcade games. I think that's what led to the idea of letting me try an arcade game next.

Q: And so you went straight on to "Hang On"?

Hang On

YS: Hang On, at first, was a proposal that had been brought to Sega. There was a thing called a torsion bar, which was like an iron bar. When twisted, it returns back to its original position. The idea was to see if this could be used to create some kind of motorcycle simulation. I participated in the project as a software developer.

I looked into the possibility, but it was difficult to hold an angle when it came to cornering on the motorbike - full banking, partial banking and so on - with the torsion bars. In the end, we decided that we couldn't do it with torsion bars, and that it would be easier to maintain the angle if there was an axle and a spring underneath. In the end, we changed to a spring type, and so it turned out to be a game that was nothing like the original proposal.

At the time, I also liked motorcycles and commuted to work on my bike, and I also did off-road riding. I wanted to do the Paris-Dakar [Rally], but off-road bikes were not very popular and that wouldn't have suited the market, so I decided to go with on-road bikes. The GP500 [Grand Prix Championship motorcycle race, 500cc class] was popular at the time, and I was inspired by Freddie Spencer, who was constantly winning. I researched Freddie Spencer's riding style and bikes. A real bike is very thick, but I had to make it much thinner to fit in an arcade, so I did a lot of tweaking. I added a monitor, and made the cabinet body look like a motorcycle. Actually, the other day I found a copy of my original Hang On proposal. It was just a sheet of paper. Although I wrote a lot on that one sheet of paper. One thing that made me laugh was that in the target user section, I had "16-year-old male". There can't have been any other game with such a narrow age group target! [laughs]. At that time, 16 was the age when boys wanted to ride cars and motorcycles, but weren't able to get a license. I think I wanted those boys to be able to go for a ride.

Hang On arcade cabinet

Q: Had you planned to have a motorcycle-shaped body since the start?

YS: Yes, I had. I think the company that approached us with the torsion bar proposal probably thought that if they brought it to Sega, it would be accepted. But it was a time when there was no such thing as a Taikan (ride-on style) game, and I wanted to include a gyroscope, you see. When you accelerate on a motorcycle, it's nose rises, right? The gyroscopic system would make the bike lean over and rise up again, like a spinning top. But that idea was rejected because it would have been too costly. As for the sound, we wanted it to sound just like the real thing, so I thought I'd put in a 50cc engine. But the problem was what to do about the exhaust gas in an arcade. I wanted the player to feel the wind just like riding a motorcycle, so I thought of adding a fan that linked to the gas pedal. [laughs] In the end, we decided to put a slightly larger speaker in the middle of the body so the player could feel a slight vibration. That idea was adopted since it was inexpensive. As well as that, we used real bike cables and levers. For durability reasons, we thought it would be better to use real bike parts.

Q: Amazing.

YS: But even when we used real wires, they kept breaking. If you think about it, an arcade operates for around 12 hours a day, so it's longer than with a real bike. So, when we first started selling them, we sold them complete with extra wire.

Q: Your next project, "Space Harrier," has a completely different theme. How did that come about?

Space Harrier

YS: Space Harrier ended up having a moving cabinet. The initial proposal was quite disjointed. First,  for the cabinet, when I went to CES, a computer trade show, with Hisashi Suzuki, I saw some kind of moving metal frame. My first reaction was to think "This is interesting, I want to make a game with this." He suggested that I tell Sega's Mechatronics (development) group about it, while I was told to try to come up with a game to go with it. 

We each worked separately, and the parts were fitted together at the end. The game itself started out with a plane. The idea was for a fighter plane to fire at the ground. But for an airplane, you'd need a lot of image variations. Due to a lack of memory, it would have ended up looking jerky. Back then, sprites were used, and ideally 64 patterns were needed for it to look good. And the left and right sides were asymmetrical, which doubles that number. To get the plane moving smoothly, it would have been very small. It would lack impact. It would have been a complete mismatch to have a small fighter plane for such a flashy moving cabinet, and I knew that wouldn't do.

The original plan was for a vertical takeoff and landing fighter plane called the Harrier, but I decided to create a fantastic world in which a human being flies. Since the original project was for the Harrier fighter jet, I just kept the name and added "Space" to it, making it "Space Harrier".

Space Harrier promo flyer

Q: Space Harrier is still popular today, isn't it.

YS: I think it's the most popular game in Sega's history. There is probably no other game that has been ported over such a long period. Recently it was also put into the Astro City Mini, and it's quite fun to play on it. At the time, I wanted to see how quickly I could make a game, so with two weeks spent for the creation of each "boss", it was done in six months overall. So at that time, I made both Out Run and Space Harrier in a single year.

Q: That's amazing. You joined Sega because they had two days off per work week, but you never took a day off.

YS: I stayed overnight at the office all the time [laughs]. The reason I originally wanted a work week with two days off was because I thought it would be hard to work in a company. And there would be horrible bosses. If we got into a falling-out, I would have to quit the company. I thought that it would be about enduring it all, on a day-to-day basis. So, I thought I would use the weekends to completely eliminate that kind of stress. I thought I would devote myself to my hobbies on the weekends.

But the company life at Sega was so much fun that there was no need. I was working more and more, even on weekends. In fact, I didn't even think of it as work. It was fun. When I first brought a sleeping bag into the office, and slept on a piece of cardboard, the company found out about it and even built a shower room.

Everyone commented on how hard it must be, but I was always an outdoorsy kid. Even when I was sleeping on Sega's concrete floor, it never rained and the floor was flat, right? Then I bought the very best sleeping bag, one that was too expensive to buy when I had been a student. It was a superb sleeping bag that could stand -30°C (-22F) temperatures, so on the downside, it was far too hot [laughs]. Those days were really fun.

Q: The next game you worked on was "Out Run". Is that because you wanted to make a car game?

YS: Well, I was trying to see if I could make two games in one year, Space Harrier and one more. That had been the first time I had made a shooting game, and I thought that if I continued on to do something else completely new to me for the next game too, I wouldn't be able to finish within a year. That's why the motorcycle [in Hang On] and the car are a bit similar. By using the motorbike [game] engine as a base in Out Run and changing the theme, there was a certain amount that could be reused. That's why I decided to go with a car.

Out Run

Q: Out Run had great music, too.

YS: Hang On was the first game to include music. In the game industry, there had been games with short tunes and beeps, but I think Hang On was the first game to have a solid composition with a bass and drums. That's what I was aiming for at the time. Following that, FM sound technology advanced a bit, and it became possible to select songs. Prior to Out Run, racing games were all a rather unemotional style of racing, where any slight impact would result in the car exploding. I didn't want something that was so unrealistic, so I made a car where you could recover from mistakes. Rather than winning first place by a hair, it would be cooler to win by a mile. What could be cooler than taking first place in a convertible - one that's expensive - with a beautiful woman at your side, driving with just one hand on the wheel. I thought it would be fun to turn the movie "Cannonball Run" into a game, so I wrote up a proposal. At first, my plan was to drive from the east coast of the United States to Los Angeles, about 5000 kilometers. I chose what I thought would be the same route as in the movie, but when I looked into it, I found that it was actually a lot of desert [laughs]. The desert just went on, and there was no change in scenery. 

So we decided to go over to Europe. That was probably the first time that the concept of "location hunting" was carried out for a game. I went with Mr. Yoji Ishii (*known for "Fantasy Zone").

A Ferrari was too expensive, so I tried to get a Porsche, but our luggage wouldn't fit in. In the end, we went with a BMW. It was on the autobahn and there was no speed limit. But even if we stepped on the gas, we couldn't go more than 200km/h, and we were passed by an old lady in a Mercedes Benz. That made us realize that things are different in Germany! [laughs]. 

Video: SEGA Hard Historia - Unboxing + DVD Showcase by SkillJim

Visit SkillJim's YouTube channel for more Shenmue and SEGA content!

-- End of Part One. Part Two to follow --

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