Yu Suzuki is a Japanese game designer/director/producer who led the development for many of Sega's most important games at Sega AM2, revolutionizing the video game industry in various different ways. He was particularly instrumental in the video game industry's transition from 2D sprites to 3D polygons, first with pseudo-3D "Super Scaler" sprite-scaling hits in the arcade during the mid-late 80's (such as Hang-On, Space Harrier, OutRun, After Burner, and Power Drift), followed by true polygonal 3D arcade hits in the early-mid-90's (such as the Virtua franchise, Daytona USA, and Fighting Vipers). Other innovative contributions he pioneered range from the full-body motion controls of Hang-On (1985) and analog fight-stick controls of Space Harrier (1985), to new genres such as the street racing of OutRun (1986), kart racing of Power Drift (1988), and 3D fighting of Virtua Fighter (1993), to the QTE's and 3D urban open-world sandbox gameplay of Shenmue (1999).
Cited as one of the most influential game designers of all time, Suzuki is often regarded as Sega's answer to Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto. Regarding his game design philosophy, Suzuki stated that the "difference between Miyamoto-san and I is that he takes the same game and takes it deeper and deeper, like with the Mario series," while "I like to work on different games and concepts. I don't like doing the same thing. The same goes for the hardware. I like to change the hardware I work with."
When asked by 1UP to summarize his own influence on the game industry, he summarized his three most influential achievements as: firstly, starting the trend of "Taikan" games (motion-controlled cabinet games) in the mid-80's; secondly, the shift from 2D to 3D in the 80's and 90's; and thirdly, Shenmue's influence on modern games in the 2000's.
Yu Suzuki made his debut with Champion Boxing, an early boxing game he helped develop along with Rieko Kodama. The game was released for the Sega SG-1000 console in 1983 and then ported for the arcades in 1984.
Suzuki mostly programmed his games in more difficult assembly language, as opposed to the less difficult C language. According to Suzuki, "C was really slow back then. The fastest program that I used was 200 times faster than C."
Pseudo-3D "Super Scaler" Era (1985-1990)
His first breakthrough came in 1985, with the arcade motobike racing game Hang-On. It introduced the 16-bit, pseudo-3D, "Super Scaler" sprite-scaling graphics engine. This became the basis for the pseudo-3D sprite-scaling methods later developed for home systems, including the Neo Geo's sprite-scaling techniques, the SNES console's Mode 7, and the ray casting method used by various computer FPS games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Hang-On also featured a motion-controlled hydraulic motorbike cabinet, introducing full-body motion control. Suzuki's intention behind the motion controls was to make arcade games more accessible to casual users. This new emphasis on a motion-controlled experience revitalized the arcade game industry in the late 1980's, and would be what kept it alive decades later with dancing games like Konami's Bemani franchise. In turn, this laid the foundations for console gaming's much later motion control boom, led by Nintendo's Wii and then Microsoft's Xbox Kinect. Hang-On's chiptune music was also notable for introducing digitized drum sounds.
Suzuki followed Hang-On with more groundbreaking "Super Scaler" arcade hits, such as the third-person rail shooter Space Harrier (1985) and flight sim After Burner (1987) which introduced moving cockpit cabinets with true analog flight-stick controls (moving in all directions and measuring the degree of push, a precursor to the analog thumbsticks of the N64 and later consoles), the early street racing/driving game OutRun (1986) which introduced third-person road gradients, non-linear paths/routes, and soundtrack choices, the space flight sim Galaxy Force (1988) which introduced a 335-degree rotating cockpit cabinet, and the drift racer Power Drift (1988) which created the kart racer genre (setting the template for popular kart racers like Mario Kart). His work on motion cabinets eventually culminated in G-LOC: Air Battle (1990), which had featured gyroscope-like cabinet with full 360-degree rotation to simulate jet flight.
According to Suzuki in a later interview, the "Super Scaler" games were all initially designed as 3D games, and then simulated using pseudo-3D sprite-scaling (which at the time looked significantly more impressive than early 3D graphics), even as early as Hang-On (1985). He stated that his "designs were always 3D from the beginning. All the calculations in the system were 3D, even from Hang-On. I calculated the position, scale, and zoom rate in 3D and converted it backwards to 2D. So I was always thinking in 3D." He eventually made the move to true 3D polygons in 1991, when he began development on Virtua Racing.
3D Revolution (1991-1996)
In the early 1990's, he kick-started the 3D revolution with the Virtua franchise, which ran on the Sega Model series of arcade systems. Virtua Racing, which he began developing in 1991 and released in 1992, popularized polygonal 3D gaming, setting the template for 3D arcade racers (including innovations like multiple 3D perspectives and a human NPC team rendered in polygons). Virtua Fighter (1993) introduced relatively detailed, recognizably human, 3D player characters, and a gameplay format that would become the template for 3D fighting games (in much the same way Street Fighter II was for 2D fighters). Sony later credited the major success of Virtua Fighter in the arcades as the biggest inspiration behind the PlayStation's 3D-focused console design and subsequent mainstream success.
Yu Suzuki continued making significant advances in 3D gaming. Daytona USA (1993) introduced 3D texture filtering, which was then followed by Virtua Fighter 2 (1994) introducing texture-filtered 3D characters. Virtua Cop (1994) revolutionized the light-gun shooter genre with a new 3D first-person rail shooter format (including new mechanics like positional body targeting and headshots), revitalizing the genre in the arcades. Virtua Cop eventually inspired the seminal N64 first-person shooter GoldenEye 007 (1997), which in turn laid the foundations for console FPS games.
Suzuki continued making advances in 3D gaming with more arcade hits. The fighting game Fighting Vipers (1995) introduced destructible environments and destructible clothing. The fighting sequel Virtua Fighter 3 (1996) featured a groundbreaking graphics engine, which introduced advances like specular shading, T&L lighting, cloth physics, particle effects, inverse kinematics, facial animation, eye movement, and multi-sample anti-aliasing.
In 1998, the Virtua Fighter series was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution for contributions in the field of Art and Entertainment, and became a part of the Smithsonian Institution's Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology Innovation.
Shenmue Era (1996-2001)
In 1995, Suzuki began work on his first console project, The Old Man and The Peach Tree, which was intended to be the first 3D, third-person, open-world game, a role-playing game set in China, for the Sega Saturn. By 1996, this eventually project had evolved into Virtua Fighter RPG, a cinematic demo of which was produced for the Saturn. This project then moved to the Dreamcast and eventually developed into his magnum opus, Shenmue, a cinematic,third-person, open-world adventure game. Its budget of $70 million (about $100 million in 2014 dollars) was the largest development budget the gaming industry had ever seen at the time.
With the game's 1998 demo, he described the game's open-world gameplay as FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Environment). Based on the interactivity and freedom he wanted to give to the player. Suzuki intended to achieve this by simulating aspects of real life through the game, such as the day and night system, real-time variable weather effects (unheard of at the time), fully-voiced non-player characters with their own daily schedules, quick-time events, and various other interactive elements such as vending machines, mini-games at arcades, and convenience stores.
When it released in 1999, Shenmue had unparalleled realism for its time, high production values and cinematics rendered in-engine, and introduced true 3D urban open-world sandbox gameplay, with the most believable game world seen at the time. This paved the way for later open-world games, such as Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Fallout 3 (2008), Deadly Premonition (2010), and Sega's own Yakuza series. Shenmue also popularized QTE's, which have since appeared in many popular games, such as Resident Evil 4 (2005), God of War (2005), Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), Uncharted (2007), Heavy Rain (2010), and The Last of Us (2013). Suzuki also stated that Shenmue influenced later Final Fantasy games.
Despite earning critical acclaim, Shenmue was unable to recoup its high budget. The commercial failure of Shenmue and its even larger sequel Shenmue II (2001), eventually led to Suzuki slowly fading away from the limelight of the video game industry.
Another notable project during this time was the simulation racer Ferrari F355 Challenge (1999), which was the most realistic Ferrari simulator of its time. It was reportedly so realistic that Rubens Barrichello installed a cabinet for practice.
Post-Shenmue Era (2001-Present)
After the commercial failure of the Shenmue games, Suzuki returned to developing arcade games, including Virtua Fighter 4 (2001), Virtua Cop 3 (2003), and OutRun 2 (2003). As sequels to classics, these games were well-received.
He also worked on innovative projects that were eventually pulled. The Dreamcast game Propeller Arena was a multiplayer deathmatch based flight sim due for release in September 2001, but was cancelled following the 9/11 attacks. Another project was Psy-Phi, the first touch-controlled arcade fighting game. After some location testing in 2005, Sega eventually pulled Psy-Phi from arcades and never gave it a wide release. The MMO title Shenmue Online was reportedly cancelled in 2007.
Since then, Suzuki has been mostly inactive. His only credits since then have been the arcade racing game Sega Race TV (2008) and several mobile games.