He Dreams in 3D: Tracking Yu Suzuki’s Gameography From Hang-On to Shenmue

Of all entertainment forms, videogames have an unparalleled ability to simulate real activities, simplifying them into versions that are often more accessible to players than the original. Yu Suzuki successfully defined many of videogame’s most important genres by translating action sports into personal games. Suzuki realized that the key to making a game personal is in how physical, how true to real life, you can make it for the player. Over decades of legendary titles, Suzuki grew Sega’s arcade reputation by giving players tactile game experiences in three-dimensional worlds to become one of the medium’s most influential designers.

Videogames are virtual machines created by mechanical ones, and a controller is connected to the internal world through a printed circuit board that uses electricity to give hundreds of components different instructions that ultimately displays a picture on a screen. Since a game is an ever changing digital environment, the program must be able to process information hundreds, thousands, or millions of times a second, then project it on the monitor fast enough to keep up with the new images the machine constantly spits out. Because a game’s software is limited by the hardware that powers it, videogames have had to evolve step by step. Unsurprisingly, the engineers and designers that develop games have to change just as much.

Simulating an activity in a videogame relies not only on the technology running it but on how every part is designed. When Nintendo released Excite Bike in 1984, they implemented the sidescrolling techniques they learned from Super Mario Bros. to create an obstacle course of hazards and ramps appropriate for a Motocross track. While up and down changed lanes to avoid danger, forward and back changed the bike’s tilt, which was necessary for launching off ramps and smoothly landing. Yu Suzuki brought those controls to the street level.

HANG-ON1985’s Hang-On changed racers by dropping the player view directly behind a super bike speeding towards the horizon. In contrast to a side or top-down view that can leave the player feeling disconnected from the game world, being close to your racer’s back in Hang-On as it moves forward makes it feel personal, like you are actually the one speeding down the track, a sensation magnified by its ridable motorcycle controller. Hang-On used the tilt control from Excite Bike but for turning rather landing, letting players match the twisting road onscreen by leaning their bike to the sides. The structure from there is similar- get through the course within the time limit by avoiding road hazards.

In order to give the impression that you’re moving into the distance, the game does the opposite; hitting the gas brings the background elements to you while your bike stays on the same plane. Since animation is a sequence of flashing still images on the screen to show motion, the courses were drawn frame-by-frame so elements move closer to you, the time each frame stays on screen changing based on how fast the game determines you’re moving through the area.

Because of HO’s animation emphasis, much of its success comes down to how well its hardware scales and shifts all of its sprite layers. Sega’s 16-bit Super Scaler board not only allowed the game to quickly animate the course’s curves but change the relative size of each of the other racers, making them bigger or smaller depending on how close they are to you. While the game’s single long track moves towards you only in the bottom half of the screen, the distant background at the top half slides to the left and right as the course twists and changes directions, highlighting how well the board handles parallax scrolling.

Hang-On’s structure would define vehicle-based games forever, whether in land, sea, or air, and inspire branching subgenres. Only a few months after HO, Suzuki would take the idea to the skies with Space Harrier, this time offering a new view on Space Invaders’ classic shooting so that instead of firing up the screen at enemy UFOs you’re firing into the screen at them.

SPACE HARRIERWhere Hang-On only animated the course at the bottom of the screen, Space Harrier’s jet pack can freely move about the entire frame to fire on the approaching aliens or dodge incoming missiles. Space Harrier ramped up the sprite scaling too, bringing more complex elements into the frame including environmental obstacles and long flying dragons some dozen frames deep. Basic Space Harrier machines came with a flight stick controller, but the sit-down cabinets resembled a fighter jet cockpit. This went a long way to sell the game as a frenetic dogfight experience that keeps you on your toes every second.

Iteration is a fundamental part of design, and developers often build upon an idea over the course of their career, gradually adding new systems to increase their complexity. Over the course of only a couple years, Suzuki would take his design in new directions thanks to improved hardware architecture. With the Ferrari racer Out Run and crotch rocket sequel Super Hang-On, he would add hills and valleys to the courses to give them much needed texture, as well as branching paths that increased their replay value.

AFTER BURNERSoon after, he would combine Space Harrier and Hang-On to make the literal dogfighting game Afterburner, placing you in the middle of the screen where you can lean and maneuver your F-14 Tomcat for firing angles and perform evasive barrel rolls that spin the screen around you to dodge missiles coming head on and shake bogeys riding your tail.

Suzuki’s work cemented Sega’s popularity in arcades, and within a few years they had put him charge of their AM2 research and development division to put them at the forefront of the next leap in videogame design. Within a few years, he launched Sega’s Model 1 board that could render fully polygonal games and introduced Virtua Racing, which finally took his acclaimed racer formula into three dimensions.

VIRTUA RACINGThanks to polygon’s multi-sided shapes that could be rotated and stretched, every part of the game could change even when the basic ideas were the same. Polygons were a different material to make a game with. Virtua Racing’s formula-1 car model had visual density which gave it a greater sense of weight and added sloping curves to the hills that had appeared in the tracks before, all while simulating light internal physics systems that slightly change car handling to create oversteer.

Since polygonal games let the camera itself become an object in the world that could move with the player, the gameplay evolved too. Players could shift between classic behind-the-car view, pulled far back, or cockpit view, every one of which changes how you see the track and add immersion to the gameplay. V.R. got a presentation bonus too, as courses end with the camera swooping around the car for dramatic effect. But as great as Virtua Racing was as a game, it was the logical next step for a design Suzuki had already mastered. What he needed was a way to exhibit the benefits of new modeling tech.

VIRTUA FIGHTERPolygons were able to add new dimensions to fighting games with Virtua Fighter, and Suzuki’s first foray into the genre added unseen technical layers to Street Fighter II’s defining martial arts foundation. Like Suzuki’s debut Championship Boxing, brawls were viewed from the side, but the multi-jointed models could now move around each other laterally. They could sidestep attacks in addition to jumping over them or blocking; they execute 360 degree roundhouses and knock their opponent to the sides. In order to keep the action framed properly, the camera repositions with the fighters, even making 90 degree turns to view the fight squarely from the side again.

The game’s eight characters had sophisticated models that came with increased states and stances. Knocked down players could be quickly stomped for more damage before they could roll aside for new positions. Because opponents could now be facing different directions, contextual moves change up the effects of pressing punch or kick, multiplying the number of moves for every character without adding any buttons.

Now that a fight could move around the arena, letting it end in a very different place than it began, the designers tried to contain them within open air rings much like the sort that had been used in real life bouts for hundreds of years. This added new strategic depth to fighting games, as ring outs meant automatic defeat even for those on the verge of victory. Polygonal scalability also allowed players to create more space between each other than is possible in a 2D game, and moves the camera closer or further to keep them both onscreen.

By 1994, the Virtua franchise had become AM2’s playground to translate different game genres into 3D, and Suzuki turned his sights on shooting gallery light gun games to highlight Sega’s Model 2 board. Virtua Cop used the powers of polygons to turn Duck Hunt into a tightly-choreographed shooter that moved players through scenes filled with aggressive enemies. The result made players feel like they were acting out an intense action movie.

VIRTUA COPGames like Operation Wolf and Snatcher had cinematic shootouts before Virtua Cop, but their sprite-based gameplay was limiting. Since polygonal character models are built of individual parts, players are able to interact with them in new ways. For Virtua Cop, that meant players could target different body parts for more damage. Skilled players could take stronger enemies down with a single headshot where their chest could take more to balance out the fact it’s a larger target. This also allowed locations to be filled with breakable crates to expose enemies behind cover and detonate explosive barrels.

If you really drill down, Virtua Cop’s gameplay isn’t that different from Space Harrier’s. Both games move players through scripted levels and their gameplay involves moving a cursor across the screen to fire on enemies. But the combination of physical light-gun and first person view, essentially Virtua Racing’s cockpit cam, allowed Cop’s design to close the gap between your brain and the game world.

A decade of arcade hits inspired new developers to progress Suzuki’s design. Hang-On and Virtua Racing led to Cruisin’ USA and Gran Turismo, and titles like Road Rash and Mario Kart added combat to the driving mechanics. Space Harrier directly defined rail shooters and games like Star Fox, Rez, and Ace Combat would rework the ideas into new forms. Even fighting games like Tekken, Dead or Alive, and Soul Calibur simply wouldn’t exist if Virtua Fighter hadn’t knocked down so many barriers first. And while light gun games became niche outside arcades after Time Crisis and The House of the Dead, games with aiming modes like Sin & Punishment and Resident Evil 4 would find creative ways to pin Virtua Cop’s badge to their vests, even after its location-based damage radically changed first person shooters forever when GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, and Halo adopted them.

Where Yu Suzuki’s long, acclaimed career resulted in high octane simulations of real activities, his final original franchise would dramatically change gears. The story of Ryo Hazuki searching for his father’s murderer is the most in-depth narrative the director had created, and Shenmue is a slower burn than anything he’d done before it. Set in a small Japanese town in the 1980’s, it tells a personal story on an extremely personal scale, where you can open every drawer and work a job to support your investigation. It’s a methodically built adventure game with Virtua Fighter-inspired brawling. If Yu Suzuki’s career has been about recreating real-life, then Shenmue simulates life at the speed of life. And in Ryo’s 3D living room, you can play Hang-On and Space Harrier, and relive the 2D games that changed history in the time when they were new.


Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.

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