Interview: Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka

Meeting your heroes is a surreal thing indeed. It’s even more surreal if it’s at an event celebrating their main character’s 20th anniversary. And to think a few weeks ago I didn’t know any of this would happen at all…

Mid May I received an e-mail out of the blue from the head honcho of the ‘Stadium himself , Svend “Dreadknux” Joscelyne. He asked if I’d be free to come down and write about the biggest birthday party of the summer. Some regular readers may remember my fleeting stint posting news and other things on the front page of the site and while I couldn’t hold a candle to the tireless efforts of Shadzter it seems I was somehow remembered by the boss.

The plan was simple but purposely vague at the time; come down to London and write about the event as the regular staff would have their hands full running the thing. My reward was classified but Svend said it’d defiantly be worth my time. Not that I needed much persuading; I’d attended the first Summer of Sonic back in 2009 and wrote about it for a rather different Sonic based news website. I was eager to experience this latest event and the least I could do was help out however I could. If Svend wanted me to write then I’d jolly well write. I gladly accepted and waited for further orders.

Almost a month later and Svend dropped the bombshell on me. My reward would be to help him interview Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka. Giddy? Excited? I was all those things. I counted the days down until the 25th of June like an excited child waiting for Christmas. When the time finally came I drove the 175 miles from Leeds to London at Super Sonic speed (That’s a lie, I’m a good boy and I mostly stuck to the 70mph speed limit). All this at 4am to make it to the venue in time for our 8.40am interview.

Still in a delirious blur I stumbled passed the bouncers into the lobby towards an extremely busy looking Svend, the Camden Centre already a hive of activity. SEGA reps and Sonic Stadium members alike were hurrying to put together the finishing touches before the masses outside would be let in. Within minutes we were ushered upstairs to a small room featuring several fancy white chairs a 360 demo pod and a Sonic 20th Anniversery banner.  Oh and two of the men responsible for crafting games featuring the character I adore like no other.

Svend and I sat opposite Naka-san and Iizuka-san while their translator sat to the side. I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes questioning the reality of the scenario I’d found myself in. This was real alright and within no time at all the questions began. As the interview progressed it was striking to note the differences between the two. Naka-san had come dressed in an expensive suit and jacket, his voice booming and authoritative. Yet in-between questions he’d casually pull out his iPhone (with Ferrari themed case, presumably to match his actual Ferrari back home) and text, some of the contents of which you can see here.

Iizuka-san meanwhile had come dressed in a cool looking leather jacket and had a much more laid back demeanour. He’d occasionally chuckle at the questions before they were translated showing at least some understanding of what was being said. Both oozed confidence and charisma and both were obviously enthralled to be here.

The interview was the quickest half hour of my life and the best bit is both Naka-san and Iizuka-san had some very interesting things to say…

Svend Joscelyne: Thank you very much for your time. First of all, 20 years of Sonic! How does it feel to be part of a franchise that has endured for so long and to be sharing it with the fans today?

Yuji Naka: I’m just really happy to be here today. I’m honoured that the fans wanted me to be here and I’m really happy to be here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sonic and to see him still going after 20 years. I’m really grateful for the fans who have been supporting Sonic and have been watching us every time we release a new game. I was downstairs earlier watching people lining up for the event and I could see some old fans who have been supporting the franchise and the character for a long, long time. I’m just simply grateful for all the fans and their great support. He’s 20 years old right now but he’s still going and he’ll be still running at Sonic speed in the future.

Takashi Iizuka: Naka-san has said pretty much everything so there isn’t a lot for me to say. We were really grateful and we really wanted to show our appreciation to all the fans across the world at the time of Sonic’s 20th anniversary. I’ve been conscious of Summer of Sonic in the UK for a couple of years and it’s a really unique event. In the past we haven’t really done anything like this in the States or Japan so we tried to learn from the example of fans in the UK in celebrating all things Sonic. We recently did a big celebration event in the States and Japan this year to make it a big 20th anniversary celebration for Sonic. So we’re making this a global celebration to show our appreciation to the fans for their support.

Paul Street:  This question is for Naka-san. Back when the SEGA Saturn was released you went on to create NiGHTS and there ended up being no big Sonic game for that system. Were you worn out from making Sonic games and wanted to do something new or were there any technical limitations on the hardware preventing a Sonic game as he moves through the levels so quickly?

YN: So at the time I’d been working on Sonic titles for some three to four years and in a way I wanted to take a little break and do something different. It was also around the time when I came back from the States so it felt like it was the right time for a change. We had the same guys who had been working on Sonic titles like Oshima who was the designer and Iizuka-san who was in the same team but we all wanted to do something new and that’s how NiGHTS came about. I still think it was a really good game and overall it was actually a really good thing for Sonic and us to do something different because when we came back to Sonic titles we were fresher and full of motivation. I was looking at the back catalogue of Sonic games yesterday and I realised there has been one Sonic title almost every year and that’s just incredible.

SJ: During your time as the leaders of Sonic Team were there any points during the development of Sonic games where you had to cut something out? For example, stages from Sonic 2 or other things from Sonic Heroes or Sonic Adventure that you really wanted to keep in?

YN: I’ve been pretty satisfied with the quality of the content of all the games I’ve created and I’ve done pretty much everything  in them I wanted to when I started a project. But there is one thing, we were planning to implement in Sonic 2 called the Hidden Palace. We announced the name when we created the title but after we announced we had to give up on that content because of the lack of time to the release date. But because it was called Hidden Palace many users were convinced that it was somewhere. 10 years after the game came out there were still people saying “I’m still looking for it, where is it?”. I feel really sorry about that. Besides that exceptional case I’m pretty much happy with everything we’ve created.

PS: This time for Iizuka-san. Some of the more recent Sonic games have been criticized for being rushed such as Sonic The Hedgehog for 360 and PS3 and more recently Sonic Unleashed. I was wondering what the internal pressure was like from within SEGA to release the games quickly?

TI: As you can imagine Sonic titles are really important for both SEGA and their dev teams and because Sonic is loved by very different demographics from small kids to adults it can be difficult to make a game to please both. We have quite a lot of pressure to finish the product on time so we can hit the release date which is usually in time for Christmas. Particularly since our main platforms have moved to Xbox 360 and PS3 it takes quite a lot of time to polish games on these Next Gen consoles. But like with Sonic Unleashed and now Sonic Generations there is a lot of pressure to release on time.  It’s usually around this time of year that we try to finalise the games and cram in time for the final checks so that the quality of the game is of a level that we can be happy with.

SJ: This one is also for Iizuka-san. I remember at E3 you mentioned that in the future you wanted to try and bring the gameplay style of Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic together; not like in Generations where they are in the game separately but instead as a single game play style. Do you think that there is still work to be done to achieve that? A lot of fans thought that Sonic Colours was a step in the right direction.

TI: In terms of the Modern Sonic 3D game mechanics Sonic Colours was a benchmark for us and we were really satisfied with how that game came out. It was pretty much at the level of what we imagined the new Modern Sonic action to be. So I think we will continue to make new 3D games in that direction. At the same time we understand we need to appeal to the classic 2D scrolling type of game so we will continue to experiment along that rout in Sonic 4 which we are still working on.

SJ: Unfortunately we’ve only time for one more question and it’s for Naka-san. You were involved so heavily with Iizuka-san on Sonic Adventure which was Sonic’s first true leap to 3D, barring Sonic Jam of course. How difficult has it been to translate Sonic from a 2D space into a 3D space, keeping in mind the speed and the exploration. What challenges did Iizuka-san and you face with that?

YN: Obviously the biggest challenge with Sonic was the change in dimension from 2D to 3D. In 3D we noticed it was really hard to get the grasp of the perspective and distance even if you used the same game play devices in 3D as the 2D game, for example spin jumping or spin dash. It was really hard to get the distance right so it was really challenging to create a smooth experience. But at the same time it was really fun and a good challenge for us.

At the time the only kind of 3D game that was around was Mario 64, where you have a free roaming world in 3D and you can go anywhere you want to.  The problem with that kind of game was it was really hard for the user to understand where they were supposed to go and what they were supposed to do in the big open world. It was really simple in the 2D scrolling games, you just keep pressing the direction pad right and you just eventually get somewhere. So we really wanted to include that sort of simplicity and sense of direction in the Sonic game. The result of the struggle was the 3D mechanics of the automatic camera switching that we had in Sonic Adventure as well as the modern Sonic games.

With that our time was up and without missing a beat Svend had thanked them both for their time and positioned himself perfectly for a picture. With slightly less grace I ambled up to fill the slot and Svend snapped two shots; one of me looking bemused and the second looking ecstatic. There was a brief lull in the room an just as I thought things couldn’t get any better Naka-san started to question my t-shirt. He even took a picture and added it to his twitter feed. He questioned “Nom, nom, nom?” with his translator who made a “Chew, chew, chew” noise back which was met with understanding. The moment ended all too quickly as we were ushered back downstairs onto the show floor. (Note, at the time of writing I’ve been viewed 2500 times in Yuji Naka’s Twitter stream! Well, not me, more the t-shirt methinks.)

I never got chance to thank Svend on the day as he and the rest of the team were a whirling-dervish of activity. The interview started late which had a knock on effect with everything else so I could only imagine the stress he was going through. I only hope that this story and the others to come in the next few days make up for giving me the opportunity to meet my idols.

This isn’t the end though as I’ve so much more to write about. So stay tuned for the next part of the Summer of Sonic story coming soon to a computer near you. We have the transcript of the two part stage interview with the heads of Sonic Team and composer Jun Senoue, the Summer of Sonic experience as a fan,  a Sonic Generations preview and anything else I can think to write about. Read, comment below and most of all enjoy being a Sonic fan because we’ve got it better now than ever.

34 Comments

    1. Why would they ask about Sonic 4 Episode 2 when it’s so blatently obvious to anyone that nobody from Sega would talk about that game yet since the public focus that they want right now is on Generations and to a lesser extent Mario & Sonic?

    2. I know right? Didn’t think we’d have to wait this long.
      Was hoping they’d push out a new episode every 6 months or so while focusing more on the bigger titles.. but now that everyone’s complained, they have to scrap what they have and start over 🙁

      1. I think that Sega is really trying to work hard on this one. They claimed Sonic 4/2 would have new things we never seen so let’s see what these guys come up with.

  1. “At the time the only kind of 3D game that was around was Mario 64, where you have a free roaming world in 3D and you can go anywhere you want to. The problem with that kind of game was it was really hard for the user to understand where they were supposed to go and what they were supposed to do in the big open world.”

    He needs to sit down, play Mario Galaxy and get a clue on how to create a REAL Sonic 3D game. He’ll learn a lot from Mario, especially on how to create a good Sonic game.

    1. Yeah because Colours and Generations wasn’t/isn’t a real 3D sonic game thats any good… ….

      1. Nah, those were real. Trust me, Sonic Colours was a real game. It’s a main not and not a spin off thank goodness.

    2. Yes, but then that would make Sonic slowww. AND YOU KNOW IT TOO! 😉

      I think if Sonic were in a full 3D game, he would HAVE to go slow, so you can explore numerous things.(Sonic 06)

      I do believe one day, when SEGA has thought hard enough, they will make a good 3D Sonic. But then Sonic can’t get that burst of speed, and people will think he is too slow.

      Ughhh, my head hurts, but I don’t think Sonic belongs in the 3D world…

      1. Sonic is NOT just about speed. When we first played the original Sonic games was Marble zone fast? NO Was Labyrinth zone fast? NO Sonic Adventure wasn’t even ALL that fast. What made those games fun were the element of exploration and speed a long side it. Running in level stages where the tracks are designed as race tracks is just boring. So the fact that you just stated Sonic would be slow think back guy.

        One of the defining features of the original sonic the hedgehog was the use of trigonometry and physics in the engine. If you’re not going to do a good job with that, then you’re not making a sonic game.

        It’s like body without a soul. It may look the same, but there’s no substance to it.

        1. So True, Sonic wasn’t always about Speed, theres alot of platforming in the originals with some sense of speed, thats why there were loved so much because it had alot of Gameplay, while Modern Daytime stages (whatever you wanna call them) are fun , there fun to a point, sometimes it gets boring just holding forward/boosting and most of the time watching him running instead of platforming. because thats my one problem with Modern stages, you spend half of the level watching instead of Playing.

          1. I guess your right toddywoddy 🙂

            But for SEGA to make another 3D game with tons of exploration, platforming, speed, etc.(like mario galaxy) they would need to take a break from Sonic for a while…for SEGA to nail down 3D like Nintendo.

            I know this will never happen, but I wonder how Nintendo would make a 3D Sonic game, on their first try. They could probably do really good !

            I just hope they never make a 3D game like 06, it had basically no speed, which made it really boring…

        2. I 100% Agree with you i just want to smack Naka and Iizuka in the head right now.WHAT WERE THEY THINKING! Sonic was about gaining momentum with your own skills and even the 2D Games had an open world feel to it since there was alot of Exploration.Goddamit if Yasuhara didn’t work in the Classics they WOULD SUCK 100% ASS im pretty sure of that.And why the hell didn’t they let Yasuhara work on SA1 and SA2 the games would be way better if he did work on them there’d be lots more to explore and lots of more platforming in them.And you fuckers sayingf “They didnt want a Mario Game” HELLO Sonic is just basically a Faster Mario Sonic is not a Racer he is a PLATFORMER! The New Games might as well be titled “Sonic the Hedgehog:F-Zero Edition”

    3. I think you missed the point of the design philosophy they took. They don’t want Sonic to be Mario – they don’t want Sonic games to be an open world experience (or not exclusively, that is.) They wanted to take a different angle from what Mario was doing, and that different angle has been largely what Sonic has been for the last decade – get from point A to point B in a fast and fun way.

      They’re right to say that Colors was a benchmark – they’ve achieved a formula that works, and it’s the design that they, as it seems, have always set out to achieve. It’s cool to learn that this was their initial intention.

      1. I didn’t miss a point. I read it. All in all it doesn’t even matter to me. Mario will always a better 3D platformer than Sonic no matter what.

        1. Wow, you must have a lot of faith in SEGA! Just like the rest of the fanbase… Don’t speak for rest of the internet, I respect the plumber as well but it doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions. I personally found SA1 to be more fun then 64 and Sunshine. There, you gonna shoot me now?

          1. Lol, Sunshine was my all-time fav Mario game! I hope they make a 2nd one though, due to the mysterious ending.

          2. Honestly I don’t care about this game. I’m not a “dedicated” Sonic fan. After SONIC THE HEDGEHOG I lost hope. and not only but When it came to Mario 3D games those don’t suck and they NEVER will. I admit I have a lot of faith in Nintendo, yes I do.

            Then Sonic Unleashed came. That game is a JOKE compared to Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. Be serious, what was the inspiration behind that game? A Scooby-Doo episode? Be serious with yourself. :/

          3. How many times have people went through this? Most people don’t like the Werhog but any decent Sonic fan would notice that the day stages had some potiential to be a great new gameplay formula for the 3D series, like with Colors but of course you were too busy playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 to notice that right? Which brings me to say, I don’t really care if you like Sonic or not but why comment on things like this if your supposedly “Not intersted” in the franchise anymore?

          4. “you were too busy playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 to notice that right?”

            HELL YEAH I Was playin’ this shit. The first time in YEARS TWO Mario 3D games on the same console? That’s a breakthrough for the series and I loved EVERY minute of it.

  2. So SEGA figured out how to make Sonic games with both 2D platforming and 3D boosting… Now they just need to add 3D platforming with an ever-constant hint of speed. That’s what’s missing.

    The only other possible missing element is the “momentum” based 2D gameplay seen in classics and Sonic Generations.

    PS: Mario did not trademark 3D platforming. It’s a gaming element that’s fun for a reason… Sonic is just faster in his open worlds with different mechanics. Which CAN be more fun than Mario.

      1. Well to be honest from what I been reading since SONIC THE HEDGEHOG This guy Takashi Iizuka doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Remember that NIGHTS game back in 2007? An obscure franchise brought back and that didn’t suck.

        We just need someone who knows what they’re doing. This guy is the reason we had SONIC THE HEDGEHOG.

        1. LIZUKA WAS DOING SHADOW! Naka was doing 06 and he left. I BLAME HIM FOR ITS WASTED POTENTIAL!

          1. You know i bet if Mr. Naka would have stayed for SONIC 06, it would have been another sonic game that used or followed the Adventure formula. It HAD some potential but…they rushed it.

  3. Wow, now that I look at it, one of the questions should have been this:

    Any chance we will be seeing another 3D Sonic game anytime soon?

    1. There’s bound to be one eventually, but asking about any unannounced games is a waste of a question, since they wouldn’t be able to talk about it.

  4. “My reward was classified but Svend said it’d defiantly be worth my time.”

    That should be “definitely”, not “defiantly.

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