Takashi Iizuka interview by EGM (February 3, 2004)
From Sonic Retro
The Interview (part 1)
EGM: Sonic Heroes addresses many of the criticisms people had about the Sonic Adventure games, such as removing the slower-paced Knuckles stages. Did you listen to lots of feedback from users and critics when designing Heroes?
Takashi Iizuka: In the Sonic Adventure series, the whole concept was for the players to enjoy a wide variety of gameplay -- the treasure hunt, the high-speed action, and the shooting. But with Heroes, we wanted to concentrate on one style of gameplay: team action. That's how we came about choosing that type of gameplay.
EGM: Heroes also offers some really amazing stages, like the Casino Park and Haunted House levels…these stages seem much more creative and daring than most of the Sonic Adventure levels. Were they difficult to create?
Takashi Iizuka: The Sonic Adventure series was much more story-driven, so I was limited to the types of level designs that would make sense within the scope of the game. But with Heroes, I had much more freedom to explore more action-oriented levels, the type that used to be Sonic-only stages. I really wanted to put a 3D pinball stage into the Adventure series somewhere, but due to the limitations of the storyline I just couldn't do it.
EGM: Playing through the game with Team Sonic was much more challenging than we expected. Do you think the average player will have trouble?
Takashi Iizuka: Well, players who have experience with the Adventure series can just pick up and play with Team Sonic with no problem. New players, on the other hand, might want to start with the introductory team, Team Rose, to get used to the gameplay. I designed the game so that each team has different difficulty settings. Team Rose's motivations are fairly different from the rest -- for Team Sonic, it's all about defeating Eggman, but for the girls, it's more about having fun and exploring. Amy is looking for Sonic, Cream is after her Chao, and Big is looking for Froggy. The storyline itself is a driving element to keep playing with the teams.
EGM: We also lost count of how many times we plummeted to our doom… Do you think the game has too many deaths by falling? Would Sonic's gameplay be too easy if the stages had floors?
Takashi Iizuka: In areas where it is most likely for the players to fall, we've created other routes. If you try to make it over a cliff and you fall, there's usually another way to go. In some areas where you're supposed to make a certain jump and return to the save point if you die, we designed it that way on purpose. That way, you're always taken back to a point where you can try out something different.
Takashi Iizuka: Of course, as you know, the PS2 has the least favorable amount of memory... so, Sonic Team created a basic ideal of how Heroes should play and then arranged it so that it would work on GC, XB, and PS2. So, I had to sacrifice a certain amount of technical performance in order to offer the same experience on PS2.
EGM: Sonic Heroes has identical content between all three platforms. Did you consider doing exclusive content for certain consoles?
Takashi Iizuka: I had a conversation with Yuji Naka [head of Sonic Team] at the very beginning about whether to offer different content with each version. However, we came to the conclusion that they should all have identical gameplay because we wanted users to have the same experience, regardless of which console they had. Also, friends who have different versions should be able to compare their performance across platforms in Time Attack and such.
EGM: Our reviewers really enjoyed Sonic Heroes music, its style felt a little closer to the traditional Sonic tunes from the 16-bit days. Was this a specific decision or just a lucky coincidence?
Takashi Iizuka: Just as I was able to create fun, classic-style Sonic levels, I wanted the music to also return to the roots of the Sonic experience. The music should be exciting and fast-paced!
EGM: Team Chaotix's gameplay is quite different than the other three teams'. Why did you decide to bring back these characters and give them fun, silly goals like rounding up hermit crabs?
Takashi Iizuka: In my mind, I didn't bring back the Team Chaotix characters from the past -- instead, they're new characters who happen to fit into the game. I wanted to create at least one team that was totally different from how Team Sonic talks and acts. Those three characters, Charmy, Espio, and Vector... they're so unique in their actions, personalities, and goals. They add a lot of flavor and variety to the overall picture. There's also the fact that those characters have never been used by Sonic Team -- we weren't involved with Knuckles Chaotix; some other internal sega Development team did that. So it's not a matter of bringing up old characters... we recreated those characters from the ground up. We want Sonic to be Sonic, and for the others to be supporting characters. I'm very happy with the way Team Chaotix turned out, so I hope they'll be brought back to another title in the future. You'll see more of them!
EGM: We'd heard rumors that you wanted to include hidden Teams in addition to the four available. Was that ever planned, and if so, why was it scrapped?
Takashi Iizuka: Did Mr. Naka talk to you? If time had allowed, we wanted to bring out as many teams as possible. However, when you consider the amount of gameplay that you'd have to work on... Four teams was enough to balance the gameplay.
EGM: Why didn't you include Chao raising in the game?
Takashi Iizuka: Well, in Sonic Adventure, the game was more story-driven and full of variety, while Heroes is more team-focused. The Chao raising would have broken up the action too much. In Sonic Adventure, we created the Chao Garden so that new players would be forced to go out, explore the action sections, and find Flickies and things. In Heroes, even if you're completely new to Sonic, you can play Team Rose and learn how the game works. The level-up items are the new motivating factor in Heroes. Also, we removed the Flickies so that users who played Sonic Adventure wouldn't be confused into thinking that there was a Chao Garden somewhere. The Sonic Adventure series has not ended, though, so theoretically the Chao Garden could return sometime. Heroes is its own, new franchise.
EGM: The grading system seems pretty tough... do you think average players will be able to score As? What is the secret to getting As?
Takashi Iizuka: I designed this grading system to be very, very challenging to get an A grade with. I made it difficult so that players would challenge the same level over and over again to get the highest grade. Getting As isn't impossible, exactly, but you must practice. The secret is to not die on the levels, collect certain items, and get lots and lots of rings. In Heroes, if you get all As in all the stages with all the teams, you unlock a really cool, surprising feature that will please players looking for even more challenge. Players who just want to play through the game won't have to worry about that, but the hardcore players will want to try for it!
The Interview (part 2)
EGM: Yuji Naka famously declared 2003 to be "Sonic Year" for Sega. Do you think this has turned out to be the best year ever for Sonic and Sonic Team?
Takashi Iizuka: Yes. I truly believe that this has been a Sonic Year, thanks to the McDonald's Happy Meals, the Sonic X anime, and Sonic Heroes. I'm not calling it that just because of Sonic Heroes, but because Sonic was exposed a new generation of players -- not just the fans we've had for a while.
EGM: We've heard rumor of another Sonic GBA game coming out next year... any word on it yet?
Takashi Iizuka: I can't make an official announcement today, unfortunately, but Sonic Team is constantly working on new Sonic titles. You'll see it very soon.
EGM: Sonic Heroes teases players with a CG scene of Metal Sonic, but you have to finish the game with all four teams to face him! Do you think that'll be too much challenge for most players?
Takashi Iizuka: Well, if you know who that character is the moment you see it in the CG, you're a very hardcore, old-school player, and you should be good enough to get to him. A regular player wouldn't even know who that is. I don't see it as torturing them.
Takashi Iizuka: It's not just that I liked it; I brought it back because it also serves the purpose well. The Special Stages help to refresh players' minds with a change of pace after each level. Also, it's helpful to get bonus items there, just as they acted back in Sonic 2.
EGM: The boss battles in Sonic Heroes are really unique -- you're usually fighting a boss while traveling through a stage or arena at the same time. Why the change from the norm?
Takashi Iizuka: The boss stage designer had a new concept in mind with this game, because he didn't want the game to lose the momentum built in the normal stages. In many action games, you're moving quickly through the regular stages, but the momentum completely stops at the boss. Here, we keep the momentum on the move while you fight the boss.
EGM: Now that you've brought back some neglected characters (like Big the Cat and Vector the Crocodile), do you plan to bring back even more obscure Sonic characters in the future? Like maybe… Mighty the Armadillo?
Takashi Iizuka: Those old-school characters are all somewhat similar to the way that Sonic is: they're fast-action cool characters. Even Charmy and Espio used to be like Sonic…for this title, though, we brought them back in a very different way.
EGM: Which of the Mega Drive Sonic games is your favorite, and why?
Takashi Iizuka: I was the designer of Sonic 3 and Knuckles, but my favorite is still Sonic 2.
EGM: We can't interview you without confessing our love for Nights into Dreams. After recently appearing in PSO Episode II and Sonic Pinball Party, do you think that the character might show up again soon?
Takashi Iizuka: I was the main designer on Nights, and it's funny how that question pops up in every interview I've ever been to, even though the game's eight years old now. I have some very strong, loyal fans out there, and I promise that as long as I'm with Sega I will create Nights again... I just don't know when. There are no plans as of now. The more I hear from the fans about their love for the game, the more reasons I have to consider it as my next project.
EGM: You've obviously had a very busy year…have you had time to play any games? Do you have a favorite besides Sonic Heroes?
Takashi Iizuka: This year has been hellish for me. Normally I find the time to check out the big titles, but this year... I had no time. Now that Sonic Heroes is done, I want to check out some of the really good American-developed games like Jak II and Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando.
EGM: The current generation of systems is just now hitting its peak. Do you feel that you're ready to think about games for the next generation already, or would you still like to explore current consoles?
Takashi Iizuka: I'm very interested in new technology, but I just released my first multiplatform game, and I still want to develop new games for this generation.
EGM: The Japanese gaming market is perceived as being in decline, while U.S. and European game sales remain strong. Do you develop your games with a global audience in mind? Do you think Japanese game sales will rebound to their former glory?
Takashi Iizuka: I'm definitely aware of the situation in Japan. Sonic Team is based here in America so that we can focus on the global market. We've always tried to create our games based on an international marketplace. The culture in Japan is very unique, so only a small handful of titles can really sell well there. Japanese people are very influenced by what others are buying and playing, so only the hottest games really sell.
EGM: Satoru Iwata famously declared at last year's E3 that "Mario will never start shooting hookers". Would you ever make a game where Sonic does that?
Takashi Iizuka: (Laughs) I have no plans for that! And I have a good reason: It's been 12 years since Sonic first game out, and everyone who experienced it back then are now old enough to have their own children. It's a chain of Sonic fans that's forming, and I'd like to keep this chain going. If I changed Sonic to appeal to adults, it would cut the chain right off.