There is perhaps nobody more eager or proud to be wishing Sonic the Hedgehog a happy 30th birthday than Takashi Iizuka. Having been deeply involved with the franchise since Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the Sonic Team leader’s hands have touched every single era of the blue blur’s legacy. From designing stages for the Mega Drive classics, to directing fan favourites like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, to producing the fine-tuned boost-era titles Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations – he’s seen it all.
And yet, for someone who has brought so many positive experiences to fans over the years, Iizuka isn’t done with Sonic yet. Not by a long shot. With each mainline title, he goes to great lengths to exploring interesting ideas that aim to take our hedgehog hero to fantastical new worlds. And outside of the development world, he has taken the time to meet and greet with fans from around the world – at E3, SEGA’s official community events and even at the Summer of Sonic convention.
In recent years, he has had time not just for the fans, but for a much longer game development cycle. Whereas in the past there was a new Sonic game releasing every year or two, this time around Sonic Team has been working patiently on another new concept for SEGA’s mascot. Not just one that introduces a new way of play, but one that Iizuka hopes can introduce a seismic shift in the series’ gameplay itself, which could lay the groundwork for the next generation of Sonic games.
As we enter Sonic’s fourth decade dashing through Green Hill Zone, we caught up with Iizuka-san to see if we can learn more about recently-announced 30th anniversary titles, what the future for Sonic could hold and what blue blur’s legacy has meant to him over the years.
The Sonic Stadium: First of all, I hope that you and all at Sonic Team and SEGA are well and have been staying safe throughout the last year. 2020 was a trying year for game development around the world; how has Sonic Team been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how difficult has it been to continue working against that landscape?
Takashi Iizuka: SOA shifted to a work-from-home structure in March of last year, with SOJ also adopting the same work-from-home system a few months after SOA. I think it was an extremely difficult year for many businesses, but for us in Development the first obstacle was to get all the specialized hardware we use at work set up in our homes.
Our development team at SOJ has over 100 people, so it took many days just to get all the hardware shipped out to everyone. However, once we all got our development environments set up and working from home, I think we were less impacted than a lot of other people and a lot of other businesses.
The Sonic Stadium: I wanted to congratulate you on the announcement of Sonic Colours Ultimate. I remember sitting down with you ten years ago to talk about the original Wii release, and you spoke about how the game was an attempt to go back to a more creative and light-hearted Sonic experience. Looking back on the game today, what are some of your thoughts about its reception and legacy over the last decade?
Takashi Iizuka: Looking back on the past 10 years I am very pleased we have been able to release titles that our fans have really enjoyed, like Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania. Unfortunately we also had the Sonic Boom brand, started by the development and production team in America, come to an end after an unfortunate title release. To prevent that sort of thing from happening again, I made up my mind to move to America. Sonic Colors is a great title that no longer runs on current generation hardware, so I am glad we can deliver Sonic Colors: Ultimate to everyone.
The Sonic Stadium: It’s great to see the Mega Drive/Genesis games return in Sonic Origins. The trailer for the collection showed Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD in widescreen; are these games being remastered with the Christian Whitehead engine found in the iOS releases? And if so, will Sonic 3 & Knuckles also use this engine? Or is development being handled by another partner, such as M2/SEGA AGES?
Takashi Iizuka: I am pleased to see the positive reaction to Sonic Origins – it exceeded my expectation. I wanted to bring back Sonic 3 & Knuckles since I personally worked on that title, so we planned to announce this title around the timing of the 30th Anniversary. I’m not able to speak to the product details yet, but I can tell you that this will not be a compilation title running off emulation. We are planning on supporting a 16:9 full screen game for ease of play. For anyone that hasn’t played any of those original games, Sonic Origins will be perfect for you.
The Sonic Stadium: You’ve credited Sonic Mania as one game that has helped grow the Sonic fanbase over the years. Are you interested in making more 2D Sonic games in this style in the future? And also, who is your first choice of character when playing Mania? …. Is it Mighty?
Takashi Iizuka: Thank you very much. To be honest, when we were planning Sonic Mania, we started the project only focused on content that the core fans would enjoy, so we were a bit surprised to find out that a lot of the younger generation that never played the Genesis-era Sonic games enjoyed Sonic Mania. While we always respected that Classic 2D Sonic experience, we feel a certain conviction through the success of Sonic Mania. Looking to the future I would like to grow both the 2D Sonic and 3D Sonic game experiences.
When I play Sonic Mania, of course I select Sonic, but when I play Sonic Mania Plus, I really like being able to swap characters mid-game, so I end up playing with everyone.
The Sonic Stadium: With Sonic Colours Ultimate and Sonic Origins offering fans modern ways to play classic games in Sonic’s history, are you interested in remaking or remastering more titles? Do you think you would explore re-releases of more esoteric classics, such as the Sonic Advance series, a Game Gear collection, Knuckles’ Chaotix or maybe the SEGASonic trackball arcade game?
Takashi Iizuka: With the huge success of the movie last year, we have an opportunity to get more people interested in Sonic who didn’t know him before. That opportunity was the reason why we planned for Sonic Colors Ultimate and Sonic Origins, to present some legacy content to this new audience. While we haven’t locked down all our plans yet, there are so many great Sonic games from the past 30 years that can’t be played on modern hardware, so we would love to explore bringing more of those legacy titles out to entertain a new audience.
The Sonic Stadium: Sonic Forces stood out as a visually darker and serious game compared to past Sonic titles. With Sonic Colours getting remastered, would you say that this more light-hearted and humorous style is something you’re looking to continue with Sonic games going forward?
Takashi Iizuka: While thematically and stylistically different, both Sonic Colors and Sonic Forces take place in the same Sonic Universe. Personally, I enjoy the serious story telling in Sonic Forces and Sonic Adventure, and I also enjoy the vivid pop style of the Sonic Colors and Classic Sonic games – Sonic is a great match for both serious storytelling as well as vibrant pop games. As we continue developing Sonic games, we will choose the story and game design that best match the style and atmosphere of the content we are working to make.
The Sonic Stadium: I know you probably can’t say much about the just-announced 2022 Sonic game, but can you share anything about the general creative direction/process, or overall goals that you wanted to tackle with this new game? What kind of fan feedback from past games, for example, stuck with you as something you might want to address? Any hints you can give us about the glyph in the trailer?
Takashi Iizuka: Ever since Sonic Forces released, fans have been worried that there has not been an announcement about the next Sonic Team title. So, in the recent Sonic Central, we wanted to let the fans know not to worry because the team is working on a title for 2022.
Since this title is still mid-development there is nothing I can speak to, but I did want to say that the development team has been spending their time to do something new and challenging. Through a lot of trial and error the team is looking to present to everyone a new Sonic game, and I hope your warm support of their work can motivate them to really deliver against that challenge.
The Sonic Stadium: The Sonic series has had its fair share of landmark anniversary games. Sonic Adventure 2 marked Sonic’s 10th Anniversary, Sonic Generations was the 20th. Are you formally treating the new 2022 Sonic title as Sonic’s 30th Anniversary game? And if so, will that anniversary element form a basis of the game’s approach in a similar way to Generations, or will it be its own standalone title?
Takashi Iizuka: The new title in development is progressing towards a 2022 release, so I can’t really call it an Anniversary title. However, Sonic Adventure laid the foundation for 20 years of Sonic titles after its release, so in the same way I really hope that this new title releasing in 2022 lays the foundation for the following future Sonic titles – that is the idea behind the challenge for the team.
The Sonic Stadium: Iizuka-san, you’ve been involved with Sonic since the Mega Drive era, and a driving force of the franchise ever since. Thinking on Sonic’s 30th anniversary, how do you feel about what you and your teams have accomplished over the years? What have been your fondest memories working on the series, and has anything changed in your development and directing ethos over the years?
Takashi Iizuka: I’ve been involved with Sonic development for 28 years, and a lot has changed in the development style and the gaming environment in that time. When I started in game development, video games were only considered as a “children’s toy” product, but since then video games have developed into mainstream entertainment, and we now even have Sonic successful as a Hollywood movie for audiences around the world – that is amazing growth and development in a very short amount of time!
Development has also changed drastically… from being a team of ten or so developers in one room quietly building a game, to now much larger development teams getting feedback from American and European counterparts, working with external artists, having game playtest sessions, and involving so many more people in the creation of one single title.
The Sonic Stadium: Today, Sonic the Hedgehog is enjoying a multimedia renaissance – licensed comic books, a Hollywood movie series, an upcoming Netflix TV show – in a way that reminds us of the original ‘Sonic Mania’ back in the early 1990s. What are your thoughts about Sonic’s enduring success as a worldwide icon outside of video games?
Takashi Iizuka: It’s not just me, but the original Sonic Team had a dream to create something that exceeded just a video game and to make something that would succeed as a character in the larger entertainment space. In the early 90s that sort of thinking was thought to be some unrealistic fantasy, but here we are 30 years later realizing many of those dreams and aspirations. And we are not done yet! We look forward to dreaming up many new “unrealistic fantasies” for Sonic and bringing them to life.
The Sonic Stadium: Finally, is there anything special you’d like to say to the fans as we approach Sonic the Hedgehog’s 30th Anniversary?
Takashi Iizuka: Thank you everyone for helping us grow the Sonic brand for the past 30 years! I really appreciate all the support our fans have given us – our success is because of them. I fondly remember getting to interact with so many fans in person at all the events I attended. Due to the global pandemic, I haven’t had a chance to meet everyone in person for quite some time but am hopeful that we will be able to share some time with everyone again in the near future. We have three titles releasing from here until 2022, as well as the Sonic movie sequel, and a brand-new animated series coming to Netflix, so there should be a lot of great content for everyone to enjoy until then. Thank you for all the support up until now and looking forward to delivering more great content to everyone moving forward!
The Sonic Stadium would like to thank SEGA and Takashi Iizuka for taking the time to speak with us, and the Sonic the Hedgehog community, on Sonic’s 30th Anniversary.