Wednesday, January 25, 2023

12 Riveting Shenmue Development Revelations | Morio Ashizuka

Morio Ashizuka is the Twitter handle of a former senior developer who was deeply involved with development of the first two Shenmue games, in particular character animations and motion design. He tweets prolifically about video games, SEGA and other topics - along with occasional fascinating insights and anecdotes from the day.

Some of the amazing details from Morio Ashizuka's tweets that we have highlighted in the past here on the blog include:

Cover of one of the "The Legend of Akira" script books (Chapter Four: Guilin) tweeted by Ashizuka. Source tweet
In this post we have selected 12 tweets that give revelations into Shenmue's development, which were tweeted by Morio Ashizuka between 2017 and 2019 (plus a final bonus entry!).

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. Thank you for your support!

Revelation #1: Dyeing Yuan's Hair for Muecas

The first tweet is about Muecas (a word formed through the abbreviation of "Shenmue Cast Fans"), which portrayed itself as a "secret society" for those who love Shenmue. Muecas had its own page on the official Shenmue website which ran from late 2001 through to March 2004 on which was published Shenmue-related fan art, photos and other submissions, on a bi-weekly schedule.

It included several members of the actual Japanese voice cast and development staff - their true identities were ostensibly hidden using aliases, but among them were people such as Masaya Matsukaze, Hiroshi Noguchi and Kenji Miyawaki - and fans.
"Speaking of Shenmue, the Muecas group seemed to disappear before I knew it... πŸ˜… I remember that we had a lot of fun at the end, making alterations to pictures taken by the cameraman, and getting people from other departments involved, doing whatever we wanted. I was the one who dyed the hair of the person acting as Yuan blonde.πŸ˜€"

In reality, the Muecas group's website activities ran for a not insignificant two-and-a-half years, but this comment speaks to the passion Ashizuka felt for Shenmue and the disappointment at its disbanding. 

The mention of dying Yuan's hair refers to a humorous multi-part story published in the last few issues of Muecas. Set loosely in the world of Shenmue II, it was accompanied by photos of various staff members cos-playing as Shenmue characters. The blonde-dyed Yuan can be seen in the sample photos below!

Yuan and Dou Niu from the Muecas pages

Revelation #2:  NPC Recyling in Shenmue II's Opening Scene

"In Shenmue II's opening cut scene, the same one person always appears [in each of the camera cuts]. I wonder how many people have noticed? There's no special meaning to it - it's just the creators having some fun".

Taking a careful look at the opening of Shenmue II confirms that it's true - as the camera switches between scenes, the same character in a blue tracksuit can be seen walking or interacting as if magically teleporting around the world. Strictly speaking, several characters are reused throughout this sequence. Let us know in the comments if this is was something you had already picked up on.

Update: the guy in the tracksuit is named Kuang Lu and he can be spotted at various points in the game where a generic NPC character was needed - he is even the front passenger on Ryo's bus-ride to Kowloon. Many thanks to Miles Prower / Stuart, creator of the authoritative Shenmue II Character Database which can be downloaded from the Shenmusings site, for providing this information!

Shenmue II opening: this chap in the blue tracksuit shows up constantly. He's here, he's there, he's everywhere!

Watch the full Shenmue II opening [video credit: Shenmue Dojo]:

Revelation #3: Ryo Hazuki The Walking Legend

"Ryo, Shenmue's main character, isn't all that powerful. But he is destined to become a master, so Yu-san said we have to show a hint of that in his movements from his youth. When he walks, his central bisecting line must remain steady! And he must walk without bending his knees! Lastly, he told me to create movements that convey a sense of legend... Shenmue isn't easy. πŸ˜€"

While Ryo's knees may bend while walking, his balanced and purposeful stride certainly gives the impression of someone who is destined to become a great practitioner of martial arts.

Ryo's walking posture was prescribed by Yu Suzuki

Revelation #4: Shenmue I's Opening Scene Polish

"Shenmue went on sale 19 years ago today. The part for which we reworked the motions right up until they very last minute, just before mastering, is actually the opening (with Ryo, Lan Di and Iwao). It was created early on, but improving its quality was the last thing to be done. It has a lot of characters and interactions, so it was left until later.πŸ˜€"

Despite being the first in-game cut scene, it was one that was polished up at the very end of development. Given the importance of the scene in establishing Ryo's motivation to avenge the death of his father, it makes sense that it was revisited and revised prior to the release.

Revelation #5: Character Skeleton Changes from Shenmue I to II

"The year of Shenmue's revival has come to an end (so here's something special for you all πŸ˜€). In fact, the bone structure of the characters changed between Shenmue I and Shenmue II. The neck and chin were made so that they could be pulled back. 'So what?' you might say. πŸ˜…  What pleased me more was that the number of base model shapes was increased. Happy New Year everyone!"
The "year of Shenmue's revival" here refers to the release of Shenmue I & II, first globally and then in Japan, in the preceding months of August 2018. It's interesting to learn there was a change made to the range of movement to the neck and chin between the two games (perhaps there's a particular cut scene that required it?).

The tweet was accompanied by scans of the original documentation from the Shenmue project relating to character model skeletons, showing how various parts of a character's body model interconnect:

"Motion Model Names" - the naming includes parts of the body such as "waist", "thigh", "knee", "foot", "arm", "shoulder" and "elbow".

A line-up of characters gives a sample of various character model shapes and sizes. Beneath each model is some key information: their model ID, name, sex, scale (small/medium/large), height in cm, and build - "obsese" in the case of Dou Niu!

Low-poly Shenmue II character line-up (creation date indicated as Feb 2000).

Revelation #6: Round-the-Clock Debugging

"Something I remember very clearly about working on Shenmue I is the debugging. We had about 200 developers debugging 8 hours each a day in 3 shifts, 24 hours a day. Endlessly stalking the characters on schedules (the townsfolk) was such fun... wasn't it.πŸ˜… With Shenmue II, it was done tucked away inside a separate room, ceaselessly playing arm wrestling or Lucky Hit. What kind of mind-body training was that!πŸ˜€"

The infrequency of bugs in the Shenmue games is a testament to how thoroughly they must have been tested. No matter how enjoyable Lucky Hit is as a way to earn some money or pass time in Shenmue II, playing it endlessly would be quite a different story (not to mention the muscle-aching trial of having to play non-stop arm wrestling...)

Revelation #7: Reuse of Ryo Hazuki's Bowing Motion

"The motion for the bowing in Hazuki Jujutsu, one of the hallmarks of Shenmue, is the same motion reused across all scenes. The Motions leader at the time pointed out issues with it as I created it, one frame at a time. I spent a week making and adjusting just this bowing motion... The motion capture scenes were each done as separate takes, but as far as the bowing part went, the same motion was in fact reused. πŸ˜…"

That's a neat insight into the effort that went into perfecting even short actions in the game. Having perfected the action, it would make sense to reuse it elsewhere. 

Ryo bows to Master Chen and Guizhang at the end of Shenmue I.

Revelation #8: Shenmue I's Bad Ending Created In One Night

"The bad ending of Shenmue One was created in a hurry. I was on my way to the station to catch the last train when I realized I had left my wallet at the office, so I went back to the office and started creating the motions for the bad ending, which took through to morning. I was up all night working on it, so if you haven't seen it, now is a great chance to watch it. πŸ˜€"

The bad ending isn't something most players of the game will see during play (it is not easy to achieve unless you deliberately fill in time to advance the in-game calendar until mid-April) and although short, the scene is full of menace as Lan Di suddenly appears once more at the Hazuki Dojo.

The character animations are as convincing and natural as any others in the game, and I certainly would never have picked that this ending had been put together over a single night [video credit: Shenmue Dojo]:


Revelation #9: Ryo's "Cola Face"

"In Shenmue, you can buy soda from vending machines, and for some reason, Yu-san really liked the refreshed expression on Ryo's face after he had finished drinking one, which he called his 'Cola Face'. It was the kind of expression that caught Yu-san's attention so much that if we inserted Ryo's Cola Face during a change of his facial expression, Yu-san would stop the video. πŸ˜„"

It's amusing to imagine Yu Suzuki bringing a presentation to a halt if he spotted this particular expression on Ryo's face!

"Cola Face"

Revelation #10: Joy's Original Costume Design & Motorcycle Branding

"Joy is one of the heroines of Shenmue II. Originally, she was to wear shorts. However, a complaint was received from the motorcycle manufacturer that shorts, as well as not wearing a helmet, could not be allowed. However, it turned out to be technically impossible to put a helmet on her, so the motorcycle's actual brand was not able to be used. The long pants were kept in, for some reason. πŸ˜…"

The motorcycle manufacturer in question was Honda, with Joy's motorbike being a replica of their CBR1100XX model. In the Game Jam prototype of Shenmue II prior to release, the bike still has Honda branding, which was replaced for the release version.

The Honda logo can be seen on Joy's motorbike in the Game Jam prototype

As outlined in the tweet, the early storyboard illustrating Joy's first encounter with Ryo shows her removing her helmet:

Frames from the storyboard of Joy's first encounter with Ryo (displayed at the Honey Bee restaurant during the Shenmue the Animation promotion in 2022)

A model of Joy wearing shorts can also be found among the Shenmue II files in the release version, although it is unused:

Unused model of Joy in shorts, present in the Shenmue II files (model ID = JOY_M).

Revelation #11: Fuku-san Avoided a Kidnapping

"This is something that was revealed during a Shenmue livestream, but it was planned that Fuku-san, in casual clothing, was going to be kidnapped. That scene was actually created. When Yu-san saw it, he said, 'No one would want to save this guy!' and everyone agreed. And it was changed to [Nozomi] Harasaki being kidnapped.πŸ˜€ Incidentally, the song that was provisionally used for the motorcycle [rescue] was First Love by Hikaru Utada."

The "casual Fuku-san" model and mention of his kidnapping was revealed during SEGA's Shenmue I & II talk panel held on stage with Shenmue developers and journalists in 2018:

Model of Fuku-san in casual clothes

In fact, this model has been long known about ever since its discovery by fans among the What's Shenmue demo files. Furthermore, the plain-clothes Fuku-san model found on the disc appears to have bruises on his face, no doubt inflicted by the merciless kidnappers.

We'd all have rescued Fuku-san... wouldn't we?

Here is the song mentioned as having been a fill-in for the motorcycle rescue song, First Love by Hikaru Utada, which was released in April 1999. I think it shares a similar vibe with the song used in the release ("Wish..."). But with less saxophones.

The cut scene with the finalized music, for comparison:

Revelation #12: A Comedic Version of What's Shenmue

"About What's Shenmue - which we simply called the demo version during development - there was actually another version. It had a lot more comedic moments throughout, but Yu-san rejected it as it differed from the world of Shenmue he was picturing. The [final] demo version had to be amended in a rush, which was really tough. Almost all the scenes created disappeared.πŸ˜…"
While the main Shenmue games are not lacking in moments of humor, I think it was probably for the best that these were not overdone in the demo, as it might have misled potential purchasers as to the game's nature (which brings to mind some of Shenmue's TV commercials of the day!). Although I hope one day the rejected version with comedic scenes may turn up on a dev kit to see what might have been included before Yu Suzuki's intervention. 

Bonus Revelation: Yu's Favorite Character in Shenmue I

"In Shenmue One, Yu-san's favorite character, believe it or not, is Chai. He used to assure us that his character would gain popularity among females as well. πŸ˜€ He liked him so much that he even named the AM Plus* conference room 'Chai'."

This is something I hadn't known before, but Yu Suzuki has always emphasized his preference for characters that have distinct personalities that make them stand out, and Chai certainly has that. (His declaration that this character would become popular with female players is rather more perplexing!).

"AM Plus" was a division of Sega that was formed in 2004 and headed by Yu Suzuki.


Final Comment

These anecdotes and details that Morio Ashizuka has shared have been a delight to learn about. As fans we're fortunate to have access to information from former developers which provide insight into the behind-the-scenes development of the first Shenmue games. 

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  1. Amazing article, thanks a lot! "'No one would want to save this guy!'" xD And Chai popular with females... WAIT WHAT!? xD

    1. I wonder if there's a modder out there who can produce a version of Ryo's motorcycle rescue cut scene with casually-dressed Fuku-san riding home on the back!

  2. At least make casually dressed Fuku-san rescue Ryo from Arcade. In Dragon&Phoenix edition maybe hmm?

    1. Great suggestion! It makes more sense than for him to be in his gi.

  3. awesome article!!! major LOL at fuku-san commentary!!