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The Summer of Sonic may have taken place three weeks ago now but that’s not the end of my coverage of the event. Quite a lot happened on the day after the Stadium’s exclusive interview with Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka. If by some small chance you missed it click here and drink it in. if you’re already familiar with that then I suppose you should read on. A lot happened on the Summer of Sonic stage but few things could live up to Naka-sand and Iizuka-san appearing on stage for a rather lengthy chat with one Mr Joscelyne. Well if didn’t feel very long listening to it on the show floor but let me tell you it felt a hell of a long longer writing this up for you all! But enough of my moaning, here is the first stage interview transcribed in full.
Svend Joscelyne: Can you briefly describe how you both got into the games industry and what it was that really got you excited about working with video games?
Yuji Naka: I joined the games industry when I was 18 years old and the reason I joined was probably the same as everybody else; I really liked games! At the time I used to go to game centres (arcades) a lot and I really wanted to create the games I saw in them. I happened to take an interview with SEGA and they accepted my interview. I’ve now been in the industry 27 years and I’ve really enjoyed my time.
Takashi Iizuka: From a young age as a child I really enjoyed drawing and I used to draw Manga and staple the pages together and create my own little Manga book. So I really enjoyed coming up with new stories and the whole process of creating a Manga. I actually moved away from this for a time and during University I thought to myself I want to be in a job where I’m creating something and a story. That’s why I joined the games industry.
SJ: So Takashi Iizuka, how would you say it’s different to create games between modern and classic Sonic titles given that you’ve been involved in level design in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and also that you’ve been in charge of the modern games.
TI: Classic Sonic was first on Megadrive and we saw Sonic 1,2 and 3 in the Classic Sonic style. With that you just used the d-pad and a single button so it was very accessible and simple to pick up and play and get a taste of what Sonic is all about. With modern Sonic it’s all about the high speed action and the level design is created in such a way to allow the smooth and speedy sensation you are intended to get from the modern style Sonic. I think this is really Unique to Sonic, it’s the only game in the world where you can get that sort of sensation of speed in platform action. I think this is something we’ve built upon for the past 20 years.
SJ: So for Mr Yuji Naka, you worked closely with a US development team for Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Given that Sonic was designed for a western audience what was your experience working with SEGA Technical Institute as opposed to a domestic development team?
YN: In Sonic 1 we were a purely Japanese development team so all the staff were Japanese. In Sonic 2 we saw a mix of this, so we had some foreign staff and some Japanese staff working together. The difference I experienced was the overseas staff had a very different way in using colour and level design. So in Sonic 2 I think you see some very unique levels and these are really good levels. They tended to be created by the overseas staff. At the moment I’m here speaking in Japanese and I’m really sorry that I’m not speaking to you in English but as you may notice my English is not native! So we had some communication issues working with the overseas staff. In Sonic 3 we saw the arrival of Iizuka-san and the return of an all Japanese development team. This was due to the issues I mentioned earlier regarding communication. If the opportunity arises and if we have the time we would really like to work with overseas staff again on a Sonic title.
SJ: It’s a good thing you mentioned Sonic The Hedgehog 3 because I was just about to get onto that. Iizuka-san you were the level designer for Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and lot of kids remember that game for one specific thing; the Carnival Nights Zone Barrel (Queue laughter from Iizuka-san and the crowd) where the only way to proceed through the level was to press up, down, up, down many times to proceed through the stage. Were you involved in that part of the level design process and do you look back on that now and think “How many kids lives did I ruin by implementing that barrel?”.
TI: The short answer is no, that wasn’t me (The crowd laughs and applauds)! The person responsible for that level is the lead level designer for Sonic 1, 2 and 3. His name is Yasuhara.
YN: I presume people found that level quite difficult to understand and I would actually be the person responsible for programming it. I am so sorry! Thank you (The crowd laughs and applauds again)!
SJ: This next question really goes to the both of you. What was the feeling within the Sonic Team that made you decide to dramatically change Sonic’s appearance back in 1998. Was there a feeling that Sonic was becoming unpopular? What was the feeling there?
YN: This change came about when the game moved on from 2D to 3D. At this time the intention was for Sonic to be a loved character for many years like Micky Mouse. Micky Mouse has been loved over the many years he’s been in existence and he’s been completely redesigned around five times. So when we regarded it like that we wanted to change Sonic to continue his appeal. I think being here after 20 years of Sonic being around makes me extremely happy that people have continued to love and support Sonic.
TI: Those are the reasons that Naka-san mentioned earlier but from a technical point of view classic Sonic’s design was created so that he’d be seen from the side in 2D. So when we created the game in 3D we had to have the camera angle from behind Sonic. If we carried along with the old design his arms and legs would have been very difficult to see because the old design was only created to be seen from the side in 2D. So that is a technical reason why we decided to change the design.
SJ: and for Naka-san, when Sonic The Hedgehog 1 was released for the SEGA Megadrive, SEGA Japan and SEGA America and even SEGA Europe had their own different back-story for the reason for Sonic The Hedgehogs existence. Do you know much about the western storyline that SEGA created and what do you think about it?
YN: To be honest I’m quite surprised to hear this. I didn’t know there was such a big gap in the storyline between the Japanese Sonic The Hedgehog and the Western Sonic The Hedgehog. Were they that different?
SJ: There was a whole storyline that SEGA created on the American side that involved how Sonic went from a brown hedgehog to a blue hedgehog and involved a scientist called Dr Ovi Kintobor transforming into what we know as Dr Robotnik using the power of the chaos emeralds to turn him into a negative character. I believe it was slightly different to the Japanese back-story.
YN: I’m very surprised to hear this story, where is this written?
(The crowd laughs)
SJ: SEGA of America and SEGA Europe wrote it back in 1991! It’s not in game, it’s within comics, marketing, press and PR materials.
(Svend addresses the crowd)
SJ: You guys have heard the back story, right?
(The crowd replies with a unified “Yeah!”)
SJ: It exists, I didn’t make it up.
YN: Aaaaah! Back in the early days we didn’t have the internet or e-mail so communicating globally was extremely difficult. we were having to communicate over the telephone and with faxes so it was really hard to control what was going on globally and to keep a unified direction. Looking back now hearing this after 20 years I can laugh about it and think it’s great that this has happened. I think if I’d heard about it at the time I would have been very angry!
(The crowd laughs and applauds)
SJ: I’m glad I brought it up now and not back then! So Iizuka-san, it’s the 20th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog but it’s also the 10th anniversary of Shadow The Hedgehog (Queue cheering from the crowd!). We have some fans here! Clearly when you directed Sonic Adventure 2 he was only intended for that one game but were you surprised as to how popular he’d become?
TI: The Shadow character idea was something that we all had in our minds in the dev team when we were creating the first Sonic Adventure. When creating that game we had the intention of creating a rival character for Sonic Adventure 2 and we didn’t really talk about it that much but we were all thinking about it. When we were working on Sonic Adventure 2 we all did a bit of brainstorming and we brought this to the table and prepared the storyline for the Dark side and the Hero side. As you know in the story Shadow was only meant to appear in that single title. But because of the reaction of the fans we decided to bring him back in Sonic Heroes and eventually you saw him in his own title.
(The crowd responds with a mix of cheers and boos)
SJ: Don’t boo Shadow, he deserves some love too! That’s why he’s so angry. In some ways, well actually in many ways, Sonic has inspired a generation of, shall we say copycat animal mascots; Bubsy the Bobcat, Crash Bandicoot, Aero the Acrobat. Have you guys ever played any of those games and what do you think of them?
(As the translator repeats the question in Japanese Yuji Naka looks confused and asks for the names of the characters a second time. The crowd is amused).
YN: Of the those games I’ve only actually played Crash Bandicoot. When I was creating Sonic 2, my boss was called Mark Cerny and this person moved on from the team half way into development. He’s actually the guy responsible for creating Crash Bandicoot. As he worked really closely with us he could see the flow of how we created Sonic and what Sonic was all about so you may draw some similarities between these games. For example as he saw us placing rings and really putting a lot of effort and creativity in placing them in their locations I heard from him that he was putting a lot of effort into placing apples all over his levels as well.
And with that both Naka-san and Iizuka-san would exit the stage to a round of applause. Come back later though for the second stage interview where they would both field questions submitted by the fans, with the added bonus of Jun Senoue joining them.