Sunday, November 12, 2023

14 More Tweeted Anecdotes from Former Shenmue Developer Morio Ashizuka

"Morio Ashizuka" is the pseudonym used on Twitter/X by a former developer who was deeply involved with development of the first two Shenmue games, in particular character animations and motion capture. He tweets prolifically about video games, SEGA and other topics - along with occasional fascinating insights and anecdotes from the day.

Last time, we introduced a selection of Shenmue inside stories and anecdotes from this former developer.

This time we continue on with a whole new batch of Shenmue-related tweets we'll be translating, again touching on his many experiences during the game's development:
  • Revelation #15: A Stand-alone Forklift Racing Arcade Game Was Floated
  • Revelation #16: The Scrapped Alternative Forklift Racing Start Scene
  • Revelation #17: Actor Photos: Fujioka and Matsukaze Meet With Yu Suzuki
  • Revelation #18: Notebooks Were Used for Cut Scene Management
  • Revelation #19: Shenmue II's Motion Capture System
  • Revelation #20: There Was a Slider Tool For Ryo's Facial Expression
  • Revelation #21: Sleeping at the Office
  • Revelation #22: "Open-Door" Policy
  • Revelation #23: Ryo's Wooden Motorbike 
  • Revelation #24: Suzuki Wanted to Make a Shenmue Alarm Clock
  • Revelation #25: Questioning Why There's a Saturn at the Hazuki Residence
  • Revelation #26: Shenmue II's Distinctive Characters
  • Revelation #27: Yu Suzuki's Theme for Shenmue II
  • Revelation #28: Ashizuka's Most Satisfying Animation
  • Bonus Revelation: Fujioka at the Motion Capture Studio
Read on for details!

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!

Shenmue's Forklift Racing

Revelation #15: A Stand-alone Forklift Racing Arcade Game Was Floated

Source tweet

"Shenmue has a bunch of mini-games in it. Among them, the forklift racing game is incredibly well-made, and there were even discussions about making it into a standalone arcade game because back then, Sega had released job-themed games like Crazy Taxi, Emergency Call Ambulance, and Brave Firefighters. If it had come out, I wonder what your goal would have been? Certainly not saving money to go to Hong Kong, lol!"

Forklift racing is an iconic part of the Shenmue series, playing an important part in the second half of the first game when Ryo is struggling to earn enough money to afford a boat ticket in order to pursue Lan Di to Hong Kong. There is a brief glimpse of forklifts in Shenmue II's opening cut scene (although they are not seen again during gameplay) and of course they rear their head again in the third game when Ryo is again able to take a part time job at the harbor in Niaowu.

Shenmue's forklift racing: "incredibly well-made"

In Shenmue's last year of development before its release in Japan, 1999, Sega had been working on a number of vehicle-related arcade games where you assumed the role of driver going about your work. In "Emergency Call Ambulance", you are a paramedic and ambulance driver who must rush to deliver your patients to the nearest hospital.

One of Sega's other vehicle racing games of the time, Emergency Call Ambulance (1999)

"Brave Firefighters", released in the same year, was a light-gun shooter game where you take control of a fire hose and douse the raging flames inside a burning hotel to rescue the mayor and others trapped inside.
Brave Firefighters (1999)

Hence a forklift racing arcade game would have fitted right into the trend at the time. Unfortunately it didn't eventuate - perhaps it was considered too niche, even when compared to the ones above!

While the concept remained only an idea in 2019 when Ashizuka made his tweet, this idea has now been realized! Forklift Racer, by Team Wulinshu, is available now on Steam.

Forklift Racer, a free arcade forklift racing game by Team Wulinshu, is available now on Steam.

Revelation #16: The Scrapped Alternative Forklift Racing Start Scene

Source tweet

"For the famous 'Good morning, everyone!' opening scene of the forklift race in Shenmue Chapter 1, a different cut scene to the one now was made. All the characters had lines. They told us to get working on it right away because it had to be ready for a presentation the next day! But guess what? It got scrapped after half a day, haha. Typical for Shenmue!"

Mark's cheery greeting each morning before the forklift race at the harbor is something that sticks with every player long after the game has been completed, along with the way the drivers wave back at him before he strides over to the side to signal commencement.

Ashizuka reveals that the team were instructed to build an entirely new opening scene for the race to present to management, at extremely short notice. What's more, it even included spoken lines for the forklift drivers, which are not a feature of the released version. However, all that hard work came to nothing as it was scrapped only hours later. The final comment of "Typical for Shenmue!" is readily understandable based on the amount of cut content we have become aware of over the years, most notably the chapter covering Ryo's boat voyage to Hong Kong and Miao Village.

We can only hope this cut scene was archived and may turn up one day...

Mark greets the racers every morning

Photos From The Day

Revelation #17: Actor Photos: Fujioka and Matsukaze Meet With Yu Suzuki

Source tweet

"Wow, I've dug up something amazing! These are of the conference room of the now-gone Sega Building No. 3. Can't show you much, so just a little peek... πŸ˜…

We have the privilege of peeking at some photos from Ashizuka's own album of photos from the time of Shenmue's development. On the front cover is written "Shenmue Chapter One, First-time Meeting". Who is meeting whom...?

"Shenmue Chapter One, First-time Meeting"

The photo shared in this tweet shows Hiroshi Fujioka, the voice and motion actor for Iwao Hazuki in the Japanese, stands facing what looks to be a meeting room full of project staff members. Near to him, a young man wearing a backwards-facing baseball cap is seated. We will see more of him in the next tweet.

Introducing himself to the staff: Hiroshi Fujioka (Iwao Hazuki)

Source tweet

"Matsukaze-san is looking sleek! And Yu-san is so young! It feels like it's the prelude to the Shenmue legend. (Even though it wasn't yet called Shenmue at that timeπŸ˜…)"

The identity of the second person is confirmed as being Masaya Matsukaze, who of course plays Ryo Hazuki. His concentration can be felt as Yu Suzuki, wearing a "Top Gun" style flight jacket, points at what is probably the script. Beverages and cups have been set out on the table, along with numerous ash trays - Suzuki was a heavy smoker at the time!

Masaya Matsukaze and Yu Suzuki

In a second photo (taken later on judging by the cups on the table having now been unstacked), Matsukaze stands while Fujioka is seated beside him. His eyes are focused downwards - trying out some lines, perhaps?

Hiroshi Fujioka, Masaya Matsukaze, Yu Suzuki

Trivia: Yu's jacket is the one he can be seen wearing on the motion capture stage in the NHK Making Of documentary.

Yu in his flight jacket (NHK Making Of documentary)

Development Tools

Revelation #18: Notebooks Were Used for Cut Scene Management

Source tweet

"Back in the day, Shenmue was all about incorporating the latest technology, but for some reason, we had almost no data management tools. Can you believe it? I managed the cut scenes using regular university notebooks, haha!

I would write down temporary scene titles (like 'Mark's Beatdown' and so on), motion  animation names, the name of the person in charge, and everything else in that notebook. I wonder if it's still around somewhere. Maybe I should go look for it!"

It is known from previous interviews that the bug-tracking system for Shenmue consisted of an Excel spreadsheet with thousands of entries - and here, we learn that the motion capture recordings were managed through the use of entries in a physical notebook!

The scene that comes to mind upon hearing the nickname of "Mark's Beatdown"

Source tweet

"So, I mentioned before that the management of Shenmue's movie scenes was done with university regular notebooks  right? Well, I found one, but only for Shenmue II. I'm sure the notebook for Chapter 1 is somewhere too, but let's leave it for another time...

I wonder if you can make any sense of it?
Even if you can, perhaps it's not that exciting.πŸ˜…"

This is amazing! Below are actual pages from the notebook used by Ashizuka for motion capture management of various cut scenes.

Pages from the actual notebook used to record details of Shenmue II's motion-capture data (photo 1)

Pages from the actual notebook used to record details of Shenmue II's motion-capture data (photo 2)

The first two pages contain information like the following:
"Wong - Bag Snatch - Before", "2/2 Chapter Data", "(Eguchi)
WHOM_WON_A_000100A0_TORARERU_A / 1_767

Each section starts with a short description identifying the cut scene for which the motion data was captured. For example, the section above has "Wong - Bag Snatch - Before" which can be recognized as relating to the early part of Shenmue II where Ryo's bag is stolen.

The date is noted - month and day ("2/2" in the example, i.e. Feb 2nd). Although the year is not specified, we can determine the year from a hint in the notes which states that this date falls on a Wednesday, which was the case in 1999. So these pages represent a fascinating record of motion capture for Shenmue II taken in February/March 1999.

On the right is a surname representing the name of a staff member, who can be identified as one of the Motion Camera & Animations Designers team members listed in the Shenmue II credits:

  • "Noguchi" (Hiroshi Noguchi)
  • "Eguchi" (Hiroya Eguchi)
  • "Uchida" (Yuichi Uchida)
  • "Sekiguchi" (Takeya Sekiguchi)
  • "Ishikawa" (Makiko Ishikawa)
Each section contains the name of each recorded animation, which appears to be formed from identifying information such as character IDs and a descriptive verb (e.g. in the example, "WON" represents the character of Wong, and "TORARERU" which means "gets stolen" in Japanese).

Revelation #19: Shenmue II's Motion Capture System

Source tweet

"Let's talk technology. The capture system in Shenmue II was the only one of its kind in the world. It was called the Combination System, lol. It aimed to combine the best of both worlds by using both magnetic and optical technologies. The results weren't as impressive as we expected, but the concept was very Sega-like. As was the name itself!"

This tweet gives insight into the motion capture set-up that was used in the Sega studio at the time, with its name "Combination System" referring to the use of magnetic and optical tracking to improve the accuracy of capture.

Below are some screen grabs from Making Of Shenmue Documentary that give an idea of how cumbersome the gear was that had to be worn by the mocap actors.

Sensors attached to the mocap actor

On the mocap stage.

Revelation #20: There Was a Slider Tool For Ryo's Facial Expression

Source tweet

"Looking back, the development environment for Shenmue had some incredible features. One was a dedicated system for creating Ryo's facial expressions, and I was surprised at how we could adjust the "volume" like an equalizer and create various patterns. While the rest of the world was like a propeller plane, the Shenmue world was a jet plane!"

Compared to the animations in other games of the time, Shenmue was far further advanced in its use of facial expressions for Ryo, and these were highly customizable to allow the designers to adjust them to each scene and situation.

Yu Suzuki had a particular fondness for Ryo's expression after finishing drinking a can of soda.

Shenhua's expression after being rescued from the river in Guilin

Nowadays, a modern version of this facial expression adjustment tool has been developed by LemonHaze, as shown in the screenshot below:

Ryo feeling blue after facial expression adjustments made using a fan-developed tool (Image credit: LemonHaze)

Studio environment

Revelation #21: Sleeping at the Office

Source tweet

"Shenmue development felt like the night before a School Festival, every day. That's why the attendance situation at our workplace was pretty bad. The motion team that I was part of would all be there by 10 in the morning, but no one would show up at the capture stage until the afternoon. The only exception was 'T', who was always there from the morning. Once it hit 10 o'clock, he would emerge from his sleeping bag under his desk and start working right after waking up.

It was tough, but it was also a lot of fun."

Ashizuka's tweet here conjures up a picture of the intensity of the working environment, with employees getting little sleep and even sleeping at the office in order to get the work done. At the same time, he likens the feeling of working together on such a project as being like "the night before a School Festival" - a mixture of excitement and anticipation of preparations before the main event of the game's eventual release.

Regarding the overnight colleague referred to as "T", it is difficult to determine who this may have been from a single letter but among the Motion Camera & Animations Designers team who may have been present at the capture stage, there is one surname that fits: Koji Tsuchida. 

Shenmue development offices

Revelation #22: "Open-Door" Policy

Source tweet

"Game development in general has strict security measures, and even within Sega, it wasn't easy to enter other departments without a good reason. However, perhaps due to the large number of people in Shenmue's development room, the department doors were always wide open. Security was nonexistent, and people could freely come and go. Although everyone was given security cards, we never used them. It's something unimaginable nowadays."

It would be reasonable to assume that, with a project as large as Shenmue's with hundreds of developers at its peak, access to the development studio would have been strictly controlled. Indeed, in the "Making Of" documentary, an employee is shown swiping her card to enter the development area:

Card-key entry to the development area

While employees were provided with security cards, Ashizuka recalls that, in practice, the doors were simply left open for ease of access. The footage seen in the documentary may primarily have been for the sake of the cameras!

Revelation #23: Ryo's Wooden Motorbike 

Source tweet

"Almost all the on-site staff at Shenmue's motion capture studio were professionals from the film and television production industry. Since the capture system used magnetic technology that wouldn't work with metal, they would create set pieces and props on the spot using wood, and it was amazing. They made not only doors and staircases but even motorbikes out of wood, lol."

Props and structures made of wood were utilized to create a simulated environment for Shenmue's motion capture. This was done to ensure that they wouldn't interfere with the mocap system.

I gathered some images of Shenmue's motion capture in action in which some of these wooden structures can be observed:

The next photo shows a mocap actor stepping onto a low platform - I wonder what situation was being captured here...

Game content

Revelation #24: Suzuki Wanted to Make a Shenmue Alarm Clock

Source tweet

"In Shenmue, we collaborated with various manufacturers, and some, like Zippo, even created collaboration products. Interestingly, Yu-san had a strong desire to collaborate with TIMEX for an alarm clock, the same one Ryo uses in the game. I wonder if it would have gained popularity if it had been developed as a commercial product?"

Adding to the realism of Shenmue was the incorporation of real-world brand names. In the game, you can find familiar brands such as "FujiFilm" on the back of photos and Coca-Cola branding on drink vending machines (in the Japanese version). The end credits of the original games on Dreamcast and Xbox also showcase a long list of tie-up companies. However, when the games were re-released as Shenmue I & II, much of the branding had to be removed, likely due to expired licensing agreements.

Players of the original releases will likely recognize Ryo's wristwatch, a Timex Expedition model. A special boxed version of the watch, featuring the Shenmue logo inscribed on the watch face and straps, was even released alongside the first game as a collector's item.

Ashizuka reveals that Suzuki had also considered a merchandise tie-up for Shenmue based on the alarm clock in Ryo's room.

Regarding the potential merchandising plan for a Shenmue clock, there is evidence that supports this idea. A list of Shenmue merchandise published in a Japanese games magazine around the game's release includes an entry for a "Bath clock" priced at 1500 yen. (Image courtesy of SkillJim).

Merchandise list from a magazine at the time

In Japanese, a bath clock refers to a compact waterproof clock, similar to the example shown below. However, it is uncertain if the bath clock listed in the magazine is the same item as the alarm clock mentioned by Ashizuka.

Example of a "bath clock"

Unfortunately, no Shenmue clock was ever produced, which is disappointing as it would have been a welcomed addition to the merchandise line-up.

Revelation #25: Questioning Why There's a Saturn at the Hazuki Residence

Source tweet

"Why is there a Sega Saturn console at the Hazuki residence? Shenmue's story takes place in 1986, a time of the Sega Mark III. The creators of the game's environments were well aware of this, but it appears that it was Yu-san's decision to include the Saturn. My guess is that Yu-san might not have been familiar with the Mark III since he didn't develop any games for it. πŸ˜„"

The inclusion of a Sega Saturn console in Ryo's home is a charming addition, even though it is anachronistic since the Saturn was actually released in 1994.

Ashizuka highlights that a Sega Mark III console, released in 1985, would have been more suitable for the time period in which Shenmue is set. The Mark III was Sega's third iteration following the SG-1000 and SG-1000 Mark II. Yu Suzuki, the game's creator, even wrote his first console title, Champion Boxing, for the SG-1000.

While the Mark III was released only in Asia, it was later redesigned for the global market and became known as the Sega Master System.

Despite Ashizuka's tongue-in-cheek teasing, Yu Suzuki did include a nod to the Mark III in Shenmue II. Although not easily found, a Mark III console can be discovered in one of the rooms within the buildings of Kowloon.

If Ryo's house had featured a Mark III instead of the Saturn, certain backstories may have needed to be altered. Perhaps Fukuhara would have been distracted from his studies by Champion Boxing rather than Virtua Fighter.

Champion Boxing

Revelation #26: Shenmue II's Distinctive Characters

Source tweet

"Yu-san had a preference for eccentric characters, as evident from his fondness for Chai. This led the character team to enthusiastically create a variety of distinctive characters. It wasn't limited to muscular, overweight, bald, or bearded characters. Chest hair and sideburns were considered normal. And just when we thought they had pushed the boundaries with nose hair, they even introduced a character with ear hair. That's why Shenmue II boasts a multitude of unique characters, all thanks to these creative choices. Pretty wild, huh?"

Shenmue's character rendering was exceptional, showcasing high-resolution "talking head" tutorials on the Shenmue Passport with stunning effects and detailed high-polygon models. These graphical demonstrations were also presented at the Digitaliland event before the game's release.

Oishi-san serves as a prime example of the intricate detail given to facial hair rendering:

Rendering of facial hair in Oishi-san's model (this fine example was suggested by Shenmue character expert Stuart Peacock!)

As for the character with ear hair mentioned by Ashizuka, Yan Ren, the streetfighter from Shenmue II, comes to mind. However, it is difficult to determine as he has more of a mane than distinct ear hair.

Yan Ren is potentially one character with ear hair, but it's a challenge to discern...

Revelation #27: Yu Suzuki's Theme for Shenmue II

Source tweet

"Here's an interesting fact that contrasts with the distinctive characters. At the studio during the development of Shenmue II, there was a theme that was summed up in the word 'stylish.' Yu-san used that word like a catchphrase, and he expected it for the graphics, story, and gameplay. It was emphasized so much that he even had 'stylish' posted on the walls. So, was Shenmue II stylish?"

Previous interviews and documentaries have touched on his goal of creating a realistic world, but Ashizuka's revelation sheds light on the aim of infusing Shenmue II with a stylish atmosphere.

In response to Ashizuka's question, I believe all fans would agree that this objective was successfully achieved. The scene creation in Shenmue II was exceptional, unfolding in a cinematic fashion with masterful utilization of camera angles, close-ups, and other filmmaking techniques.

One such unforgettable moment is watching Xiuying practice in the courtyard of Man Mo Temple.

Revelation #28: Ashizuka's Most Satisfying Animation

Source tweet

"I edited the motion at the start of Shenmue II for the scene where Ryo says farewell to the mother and child he met on the ship. The part I was most pleased with was how his action of waving then lowering his hand turned out. I aimed to convey Ryo's uneasiness and loneliness through that movement. I wonder if anyone noticed. πŸ˜…"

As a lead designer in the Motion Design team, Ashizuka played a crucial role in the design and editing of the motion capture and animations for the Shenmue games.

This particular tweet showcases the meticulous care and attention given to every interaction, specifically in a cutscene that takes place shortly after Ryo disembarks from the ship in Hong Kong. In this scene, Ryo waves goodbye to a little girl named Xiaomei and her mother.

Shenmue II: after arriving in Hong Kong, Ryo bids Xiaomei farewell

Although it may appear as a simple wave, this scene holds deeper significance for Ryo than meets the eye. In one of the Shenmue Side Story comics published by the AM2 team, it is revealed that Ryo encounters Chai on the ship the night before their arrival and saves Xiaomei from his clutches.
As they bid farewell on the pier, Ryo prepares to leave behind his newfound friends and embark on his journey to explore this unknown land on his own. The animation captures his mixed feelings perfectly.

Bonus Revelation: Fujioka at the Motion Capture Studio

Let's squeeze in another bonus tweet translation!

Source tweet
"Here is a photo of Mr. Fujioka at the motion capture studio. It looks to be during a rehearsal, maybe. It's quite a well-known story, but Mr. Fujioka actually intended to retire from the entertainment industry after Shenmue. Fortunately, he didn't retire and continued to have a fantastic career which I think is great. And Shenmue isn't finished yet either, so who knows what the future holds!"

Ashizuka shares two photos from his personal album featuring Hiroshi Fujioka practicing his sword swings at the Sega motion capture studio. In these photos, Fujioka is seen holding a realistic-looking sword, and not just a simple wooden prop.

These photos recall the cut scene where Ryo meditates at the dojo, recalling his father's sword techniques.

Behind-the-scenes images like these provide an incredible glimpse into the production of Shenmue and showcase the effective utilization of motion capture technology.

Final Comment

These translated tweets from Morio Ashizuka, a Japanese developer who worked on Shenmue, offer fascinating insights into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the game's development. Each revelation sheds light on the intricate details and creative decisions that went into crafting the world of Shenmue. 

Ashizuka's anecdotes also highlight the dedication and passion of the development team, as well as the lasting impact of the game and its characters. These glimpses into the making of Shenmue serve as a treasure trove for fans and add another layer of appreciation for this beloved and groundbreaking title.

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  1. Good day Switch, thank you again for this excellent write-up, translation, and overall article!

    It's very cool to see the tweet, examples from the game, and historic images from documentaries or other real life media that was created during the development of Shenmue. Your hard work is really appreciated!

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the write-up.