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The player character plays a boxing arcade game in early screenshots from Shenmue 3.
Ryo Hazuki in Shenmue 3
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The voice of Shenmue reflects on 20 years of Ryo Hazuki

And teases his work on Shenmue 3

Corey Marshall loves Shenmue. Get him talking about it and it’s almost like he can’t stop himself.

The actor behind main character Ryo Hazuki originally got into voice acting after spending years as a stage actor. It was video games, though — particularly Shenmue — that changed the course of his career. Nearly 20 years since the first game came out, Marshall still adores the series and the character he’s played. Take a look at his Twitter feed; it’s full of Shenmue-related tweets and retweets.

With the first two Shenmue games now out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and a high-profile third entry scheduled to release this year, I caught up with Marshall to ask about the impact Hazuki has had on his life and career, as well as what it’s like to reprise his role nearly two decades later.

Polygon: I guess it’s almost a dichotomy, or a paradox, maybe, but Shenmue at the time was one of the most expensive games ever made, and now 20 years on it’s almost developed this B-movie type charm.

CM: Yeah, you know, it’s one of those [games] that is like, I don’t know, a Rocky Horror Picture Show, or maybe if I can go as far as Princess Bride. [...] [People] still go and watch that thing on a Saturday night at a midnight showing or whatever. It’s just one of those weird things. It’s really, really grabbed on to people. [...]

[The development team] put so much into research and to background and giving personalities and blood types to all these different minor characters you might speak to once on the street, maybe. They really had just a deep depth of character — even when they went on tour of different places in China or Japan to get the feeling just right of particular towns. I remember they showed me pictures of places that they had gone [because] they wanted a very specific look to a bridge or something like that, or housing, or [a] skyline or that kind of thing. That kind of stuff takes time and money, and all that kind of stuff. That’s what they kind of chose to do.

You know, people have told me things, like, “Oh this game inspired me to go travel China, and I took the same route.” One guy even told me, “Hey, I decided to stay there and start teaching children in the rural village. I started out teaching English and then I started teaching other things as well.” Now that’s what he does. He teaches kids in China who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn at a certain level, and that’s what he’s decided to do with his life. That kind of stuff is really kind of interesting, right? Where people, speaking of how they decided to go about researching — it drove people to really have that deep feeling and connection to those locations.

Marshall in the recording booth at a younger age
Provided by Corey Marshall

Polygon: What was it like working with Yu Suzuki? At the time, he was one of the top developers in the world and this was more or less his magnum opus.

CM: It was humbling. What can I say? “Thank you for letting me be part of this project.” Because ultimately it was up to him when they listened to my voice and he just liked the sound of my voice. I told him I could do different things or make different sounds. “Do you want me to do this or that?” And they’d say “No, no, no. We want someone to have their speaking voice.” He wanted to look at the character and think, “If he speaks English what is he going to sound like?” He mainly just liked my voice, the way I said things, and how I did it.

Polygon: You’ve done quite a bit of work over the years, but Shenmue seems to be the one you’re most proud of, or the one you put front and center. Talking to you now I can hear how excited you still get about this game. What do you think this game has meant to your career?

CM: Let me tell you what. If I died and this is the only thing I’m known for, I’d call it a win. You know what I mean? I just like to do good work. I like to just make people happy. Gazillions of dollars is great, but in the end I’m one of those guys who wants to make good work for people to enjoy. [I’ve] done a lot of theater and one of the reasons why I like that is because you kind of get a weird sort of instant gratification of people on stage because people laugh, people cry, people clap, that kind of thing. I really love that. I love giving a piece of myself to other people. When people tell me their stories about Shenmue — see, because when you do voice over you go in, you do your work, it gets processed, it comes out in the game and you’re slightly detached from that. But when people tell me their stories I’m like, “Aw man, that is amazing,” and people are like “Dude, I got into making games or whatever” and they work at like Blizzard now or EA Games. “I got into games because of Shenmue, and now I make games for a living because I played Shenmue when I was a kid.” […]

I think about Shenmue a lot, and I think about the people I met on Shenmue — the cool people. I think about that project and I care about where it’s going. I feel like if I do a movie and there’s a part two, OK great, I get another paycheck. Or if I’m doing — I used to do stunt shows — I do another live stunt show, great. It’s kind of a paycheck for me sometimes, you know? Like I said, I’m always that person that wants to make something good for other people, and that’s what I strive for all the time, but I find that I care [about] Shenmue more than other things.

Polygon: Before the announcement, did you ever expect to get to do the third game?

CM: I think that was one of those things I held out hopes for, sure. Because of the fan base, because of how people did not let it go. Because of all of that, I thought “Hey, you know, is it ever coming up?” I talked about this with my wife, too. “If I’m ever doing anything, if I have an agent or whatever, and they’re telling me, ‘Oh this company wants you to do part three of the game, but it’s a little part; I don’t know if it’s enough money; I don’t know if we can do it,’ I’d have to put a stipulation on it like, ‘Look, we’re gonna do this because, first of all, I owe it to the fans. This is part of my legacy, part of [my] career.’ I will have to put other projects aside or not do projects, even if they’re great, good projects. If Shenmue pops up I have to do it.”

Polygon: Hype in the video game industry, it can be kind of insidious when people start to build up expectations for what they think something will be. I think the most obvious example is No Man’s Sky. Does that ever cross your mind at all? Like how you’re gonna meet the expectations?

CM: Absolutely. I think about it all the time. It’s one of my fears. Just because everything is different this time. Everything’s just different. Yu Suzuki is behind the project, and that’s number one. That’s the man. He has a long track record of proven great games. So I think we’re in good hands, but yeah, I totally fear that. I hope we’re able to get that feeling again. [...]

I hope [the developers] are able to tap into what the fans want because I don’t have those answers. What exactly do they want? Do they want something new and beautiful and different and awesome in a completely different way? Maybe. Or do they want just, “Hey, let’s just keep going with Shenmue 1 and 2, with this story. Let’s have it how it was. Let’s play kind of a retro game.”

A more current look at Marshall, holding various Shenmue magazine covers
Provided by Corey Marshall

Polygon: How many times, if at all, have you played through the Shenmue games?

CM: I’ve actually played through them several times. But you know what? I have not played through the new HD set yet. A guy online that I was talking to actually [said], “Hey, I have an extra copy. Do you want me to send you one?” And I was like “Uhh, sure.” You know what I mean? Like, why not? And he’s like, “Yeah, I just happen to have an extra copy.” For him, he wants to have me sign a couple things, so I’m like, “Yeah man, of course. Are you kidding me? I’ll sign whatever you want.” Cause he just is happy to give me a copy of the game. So I’m actually getting that in the mail and I actually cannot wait to play it again. [...]

And, you know, my daughter has seen several, of course, videos online; we played the movie version of it with all the cinematic sequences put together and all that stuff. But we’re actually going to play — we’re going to play Shenmue HD so she can get the experience. We’ll see if she can handle some of the quicktime QTE events and all that kind of stuff.

Polygon: I’m surprised Sega didn’t send you a copy of it.

CM: Yeah. You know, when I was working for Sega itself, yeah, they did give me copies, of course. Particularly when I was there they gave me copies so that I would be able to play through it and all that kind of stuff. Maybe just because it’s a re-release — or whatever, you know what I mean — I guess they just didn’t send me a copy of something that I’ve already done.

Polygon: I don’t know what you can say, but where are you in the process on Shenmue 3?

CM: Yeah. Um, well, that’s a good question. We are — I think probably most people know, because I’m not too quiet about it, that for sure we are recording right now. Yeah, I can’t tell you [more than that].

Let me put it this way — Yu Suzuki did mention himself that the [game’s scope is very large] this time. It’s not a budget, cut down version of Shenmue. Which I think is great. We have a lot of characters, and we have a lot of really great people. Really great people, who also I can’t mention because we haven’t really gotten permission to really talk about that yet. But we have some really great people working on this project. I mean, people who have been in the business forever, people that you will recognize that are voices, and people that work on other games, animation, films. You know, that’s one thing that I’m really excited about is that we have got all kinds of people. I mean, people who do — like I said — a little bit of everything, right? I mean, people that you hear on Netflix, people that you hear on the movies, that kind of stuff.

Let me just say we are deep in it.

Special thanks: Kenneth Shepard