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Rez retrospective: A look back at Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s early days

Liam Wong @liamwon9

Sega’s seminal musical shooter Rez turns 15 this year. Its creator, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and his company Enhance Games are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Dreamcast original with a modern remake, Rez Infinite, and a deluxe remastered release of the game’s soundtrack.

As part of the vinyl release of Rez Infinite’s soundtrack, iam8bit is releasing a 64-page retrospective of the game’s development and the Mizuguchi’s career at Sega. We’re publishing an excerpt of that book — written by Nick Hurwitch and designed by Cory Schmitz — for a look back at the genesis of Rez and developer United Game Artists.

Enhance Games is also giving away Rez Infinite’s dynamic theme based on the game’s new level, Area X, for free as part of Rez’s 15th anniversary. You can download it from the PlayStation Store.

Rez Infinite is available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR. Check out the full Rez Infinite collection at iam8bit.

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Tetsuya Mizuguchi — or “Miz,” as he’s known by his contemporaries — didn’t always aspire to make games. But his interest in synesthesia can be traced back to his childhood, before he had ever heard the word.

His first aspiration was to become a music video director. Growing up in the ‘80s and the era of MTV, music videos were an exciting new artistic form, and an early example of the audio-video melding Miz would spend his career attempting to define. At Nihon University College of Art, he studied media aesthetics — the very concept of exploring how ideas and emotions can be conveyed through entertainment. But when he graduated in 1990, Miz already sensed that music videos had passed him by.

“I was starting to feel it might not be as new and fresh a media form for me to pursue,” he recalls. There were so many quality music videos being produced, the mine felt excavated. “At that time, games felt more shiny than music videos. We still had an opportunity to let that game diamond shine.”

It wasn’t clear to him then that games were his future, but they kept finding ways to call to him. That year, he flew himself from Tokyo to Austin, Texas, for the first ever International Virtual Reality Conference, long before the actualization of VR as we know it, or the VR that Rez would attempt to emulate.

“I arrived to find out there were only twenty people,” he laughs. Still, it was another breadcrumb on the trail. “There were a lot of connecting pieces, connecting dots. A natural flow that lead me to games.”

Later that year, Mizuguchi had an interview at Sega for a job in “Research Aesthetics,” a rather practical application of his college degree. At the time, Sega was still predominantly an arcade developer. The company had only recently released its second entrant into the home console market, the SEGA Genesis (a follow-up to its floundering predecessor, the Sega Master System), and was another year away from the introduction of its iconic mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. And yet even then, employed at one of the largest and most influential video game companies in history, on the precipice of its heyday, Miz did not consider himself a game developer.

“It’s not a game,” he says of his first Sega release.

Megalopolis
Megalopolis
Sega

The “non-game” was an arcade ride experience called Megalopolis. It utilized Sega’s own AS-1 hydraulic system to simulate movement. Inside the hydraulic car, 3D graphics took users on a high speed police chase through a futuristic Tokyo skyline. The product was not a success — perhaps due to the size of the hydraulic car, or the lack of playability — but it was the start of something for Mizuguchi. Even this failed “attraction” reflected his sensibilities, with more than one layer of sensory stimulation at play: A video screen, inside a moving car, synced with sound.

Perhaps more importantly, Miz had found a team. Several members of the Megalopolis development team moved on together to work on something new. This time, it would be a game.

Sega had recently finished development on a new 3D graphics processing unit (GPU) called the Sega Model 2. The key advancement over the Model 1 and other 3D GPUs at the time was that it enabled programmers to paint individual polygons with bitmap images, rather than single monotone colors. This, along with other texturing capabilities, meant that 3D graphics could start to look 3D, rather than like clunky blocks. The Model 2 would lead to games like Virtua Fighter 2, The House of the Dead, and Dead or Alive. Arcade games were changing in a big way.

For Mizuguchi, it lead to racing games. This first project with his new team was Sega Rally Championship.

“At the time, all of our programmers, all our engineers, all our artists, we only had the know-how to work in 2D,” he says. “Transitioning from 2D to 3D basically meant we had to do a major overhaul with all aspects of work. We didn’t have any mentors or guidance, really. There was no one there who would come in and tell us what to do. We just had to learn it on our own.”

They learned quickly. It took the 12-man team only a year to finish Sega Rally.

“In that year, we learned how to make a game,” Miz says. “We also learned how to make a fun game.”

With that first game under their belts, Miz and his team got faster — and better. Over the next few years, they would produce several more racing games, iterating and innovating. Attempting to keep up with the increasingly competitive arcade market.

But, like the fifth lap on a familiar course, Mizuguchi could sense the road ahead for racing games — and for him and his team.

“Basically the future I saw at that time was Gran Turismo,” Miz says. “It was going to be much more engineering focused.” Racing games, like many games at that time, were striving for realism and technical prowess.

“My interest just wasn’t there.”

While researching cars in Europe for Sega Rally Championship 2, Mizuguchi took some time off. He and some friends traveled to Zurich, Switzerland for Street Parade, the largest “techno-parade” of its kind, dedicated to electronic music, DJs, and massive crowds of people taking in the vibrations through their ears, skin, and teeth.

“It was in this massive arena with over 100,000 people, and just this one DJ in this booth,” Mizuguchi says. “And I guess you could call what they were doing dancing? But it wasn’t really, to me, people dancing. It was this massive movement of human bodies.”

And as those 100,000 bodies swayed and throbbed to the beat, Mizuguchi realized: This is it. This is the kind of feeling I want to create in games.

It was time for a change.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi
Tetsuya Mizuguchi
Jonathan Castillo/Polygon

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From the outside, Sega Headquarters is unremarkable. A steel and glass office building surrounded by other steel and glass office buildings and a few warehouses. If not for the telltale blue-lettered logo at its entrance, it wouldn’t warrant a second glance. The same could be said for any of the buildings in Haneda, the industrial neighborhood in Ota, Tokyo, where it stands.

“There’s a ramen shop, a mini mart, one family restaurant. It’s kind of soul-crushing,” says Jake Kazdal, founder of indie developer 17-Bit, who worked as an artist on Rez. “It’s kind of amazing that all that cool stuff came out of Sega in that environment.”

That environment was where Mizuguchi had worked for over a half decade. And inside, something new was brewing: Sega’s next (and last) flagship console, Dreamcast.

In 1998, Shoichiro Irimajiri, Sega’s first new president in 15 years, came to Mizuguchi with a request. He wanted Mizuguchi to lead a new consumer software division for Dreamcast games that would reach gamers outside of their traditional audience. Teenage girls, musicians, non-gamers, artists — anybody they and the rest of the gaming industry had yet to reach.

“The Dreamcast had its own agenda,” Mizuguchi says. “They told me that we needed to hit the reset button. Start from scratch.”

It was an exciting, but daunting, proposition. It was a chance to make the games that had always been floating in the back of his mind — a chance to explore the role of music and synesthesia in games. But it also meant leaving racing games and his old team behind. He didn’t have much choice about that. The formation of a new consumer software division was a company order straight from the top. But as for the what, the whom, the how and the where, Mizuguchi would have complete control. And it was over “the where” that he had concerns.

“Geographically and environmentally that area does not scream, or even whisper, creative. It’s just not that type of neighborhood,” Mizuguchi says of Haneda. “So I felt that environmentally this was not an area that we could come to and have a team and feel like building something that was very creative.”

At the time, Dreamcast preparations were at full throttle. Regular meetings on business, console development, and marketing were being held in an otherwise unoccupied building in Shibuya, Tokyo. The ward of Shibuya stands in stark contrast to Haneda and Ota. Towering buildings, neon lights, businesses and businesspeople — but also artists, galleries and diversity. It’s Times Square by way of Brooklyn.

The meetings were held in this empty Shibuya office building because it was owned by CSK Holdings, Sega’s parent company. Mizuguchi sensed an opportunity.

“It naturally provided me with ammo to say, ‘If we are going to come up with games that are unique, original, and unexpected, this is the better place for us to be,” he says. “If the mission was really to form something brand new, surrounding yourself with a brand new environment only made sense.”

Halfway through development on Sega Rally Championship 2, Mizuguchi would leave Haneda and his former team for good. After a quick trip stateside for Burning Man, Mizuguchi would return home, and make the move.

Rez Infinite

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When Mizuguchi returned to work, he took a different train. He traveled to a different neighborhood, in a different ward. He arrived at an empty building, rose to an empty floor, and arrived at an empty office.

No one from his previous teams had come with him.

No one from Sega was around to greet him.

Building Rez would begin as he first envisioned it out there in the desert: with nothing.

“I was very worried. Very nervous,” Mizuguchi says of that first day. “But I did it.”

He credits this opportunity, and this move, with nearly every challenge and opportunity he would face the rest of his career.

And he wasn’t alone for long.

With one project already in development (Space Channel 5) and another on the horizon, Mizuguchi began building a new team. It would be small at first — just him and a few others. Eventually, he would add young artists, like Kazdal, a young American who worked for Boss Game Studios near Redmond, Washington at the time. Programmers, like Osamu Kodera, who would become a collaborator of Mizuguchi’s for years to come. Game designers, like Katsuhiko Yamada, and art director, Katsumi Yokota, who came to Rez internally after working on the Panzer Dragoon series.

But Mizuguchi was resolved to look for employees outside of the traditional channels as well.

“Based on our mission to create brand new, never-seen-and-done-before unique experiences, I knew we needed people with different sensibilities and backgrounds — they needed to be not too far away, but not too close to games,” Mizuguchi says.

Before the project had even begun, Shibuya proved to be the ideal incubator for such collaborators.

Liam Wong @liamwon9 (on Instagram)

“If you walk around Shibuya, it’s a cross section for all kinds of art, culture, fashion — everything,” Mizuguchi says. Knowing music would be the soul of the game, Miz and his first several employees approached their new home as an opportunity for research, regularly going out to exhibitions, clubs, and DJ sets.

Eventually this research lead him to a music video collective — a group of “VJs” who called themselves Mommy’s Endorphin Machine. Their live melding of visuals and music shared an obvious philosophical link with what Mizuguchi envisioned for Rez. Moreover, the embers of his first passion — music videos — were stoked. He hired several of the VJs to join him (including Rez director Jun Kobayashi), despite not having any game development experience.

“They didn’t have any game experience,” Mizuguchi says. “But as VJs they had talent. I’d like to think that this was sort of a rare audition process. Thinking about what each person can bring to the team, how they can contribute, personalities, the synergy between the guys — I spent a lot of time on that.”

Within a year, what began as Mizuguchi sitting alone in an office grew to a team of 40. Within two years, they were nearly 60. The burgeoning consumer division became its own company, with an appropriate name: United Game Artists, or UGA.

United Game Artists logo United Game Artists/Sega

But before the team ballooned and began building Rez in earnest, Mizuguchi had an important question to answer: What is this thing?

“It was one of those things where because it’s so new, like when you have your own idea and it’s forming in your own mind, when you have to explain that to new members or a team, who we have no work history or work experience or team experience, it’s like you want to get across your point and communicate to them what you’re trying to do, but it takes a long time for them to understand it at the same level and... interpret it in the way that I want them to interpret it,” Mizuguchi says.

Mizuguchi takes full responsibility for this. Back then, Rez was known as “K Project.” And the idea behind K Project was less of an idea, and more of a feeling.

“What we wanted to make was a game where the more you play, the more it gave you this ‘good feeling.’ And it just kind of escalated that feeling the longer you played,” Mizuguchi explains. “And that’s something very easy to say in words, but if you really think about it, it’s a very deep concept, but at the same time, a very primitive concept, too.”

As Mizuguchi handpicked his team, the first year was spent experimenting.

What would a game built at the altar of synesthesia play like?

How could that “good feeling” be achieved?

What did it look like?

How did it sound?

Early visual iterations had a heavy hip hop pastiche. Others had a more organic vibe, envisioning life as it bubbled up from the ocean and walked ashore. But before any single take could get too far, Mizuguchi reined his team back in. He was worried that, at least in the beginning, a distinct visual or audio style — too many “decorations,” as he puts it — would have too strong an influence, and pull the team away from the underlying concept. Without that “good feeling” he described to each new team member, the rest of the game was moot.

Rez sketchbook illustrations
Rez sketchbook
Rez sketchbook iam8bit/Enhance Games/Sega

“I wanted them to give me something that was very pure and primitive,” Mizuguchi says. “Now that I think about it, I think our designers were probably very confused about what I wanted them to do. I restricted them from doing a lot of work.”

“The very first time I came in contact with the project it was literally just a square cube that you would shoot and it would destroy,” Kodera recalls. “At the moment of that contact, it was synchronized with sound. And that was it. There was no other element.

“In a way, the impression that I had was, ‘Oh wow, so if this is all we have we can go in any direction that we’d like.’”

Which is exactly as Mizuguchi had intended. Except for one small problem.

“There were other rhythm action games, whether it was tapping to the rhythm or pressing the button to the rhythm or the buttons that were coming to you on screen, those types of rhythm action games existed,” Mizuguchi says. “But in the way that we were wanting to, really, really wanting to make that happen, it wasn’t really happening, no matter how hard we tried.

“Basically, we were kind of stuck.”

Just when it seemed K Project was headed nowhere, and their great year of experimentation would be for naught, sound designer Ebizo Tanuma returned from a personal vacation to Africa... and he had something to show the team.

Rez Infinite Enhance Games/Sega