This is a four-page interview conducted by Mike Jackson for Nintendo Official Magazine. In this interview, Yuji Naka discusses the possibility of a Sonic & Mario crossover game, the Nintendo DS, Project Rub and his concerns about a NiGHTS sequel.
We caught up with the President of Sonic Team, Yuji Naka, to chat about his latest masterpiece, Project Rub and all things blue and spiny. If knowledge was money, we came away from the interview richer than Sonic after a bonus level. Naka-san speaks about not one but TWO totally new Sonic games on the way this year, as well as his phone conversations with Shigeru Miyamoto and President of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata. Prepare to absorb the knowledge of kings.
Nintendo Official Magazine: The way Project Rub looks and plays is really distinctive. How did it all come about?
Yuji Naka: The Nintendo DS is very new in concept, with touch-screen functions, a microphone and so on. Also, Nintendo was asking us to make a game for a broader audience. Not just for hardcore gamers, but to include people who don’t play often and girls, too. So we started thinking about what kind of game would be nice and we came up with a love story (and rub story) because love stories are tales that everyone likes.
Within Rub, the characters are silhouettes – you don’t see their actual faces. This is so when you experience the love story you can imagine the faces for yourself – your dream girl, rather than a girl we create that we think is beautiful. That’s why we used silhouettes.
NOM: Rub’s abstract style is something not typical of Sonic Team. What’s it like working with the guys from United Game Artists, who are known for their abstract style with games like Rez?
Naka: Project Rub has basically been made half by Sonic Team and half by UGA. The main designer was from Sonic Team, the director from UGA. It is a really different sort of game, but I think it worked very well. With the two development teams working together, we are finding it very stimulating. Working with them is a good thing because the games we produce will be fresh.
NOM: We love the mini-game where you ‘pop’ the stampeding bulls. Do you have a favorite Project Rub mini-game?
Naka: The one where you blow the candles, definitely. When you show that game to people and you say “Blow it. Go on, blow it”, they blow and their reaction is sheer amazement. Until now, when you play with games only push buttons – you’re never left wondering how it works. When I show the candle game to people I always say it’s magic. I never actually reveal the technical side of it – how it works – so it’s totally amazing to them.
We purposefully developed this game to make you want to show others. We wanted to create an exciting “look, look!” sort of feeling in gamers.
NOM: And Project Rub really demonstrates the innovative capabilities of the DS…
Naka: Yeah, it’s a launch title, so we intended to create something you want to show people. If we had made a Sonic game it would have been nice, but you wouldn’t have said “Look, look – it’s Sonic running!”. With Rub you just want to shout about what it can do. That is what we wanted to achieve.
NOM: So can we expect to see Sonic on DS any time soon?
Naka: yes. We are at this moment working on a Sonic title for the DS. But because there are lots of things you can do with the DS like 3D, two-screen games and so on, it will take a bit of time.
NOM: Cool! Can you tell us a little more about the game? Does it have a name? When’s it going to be released?
Naka: Maybe you’ll find out at E3 [laughs]. We’d like to show it at E3.
NOM: In playable form?
NOM: Awesome. So, we’ve spoken a little about the new capabilities of the DS. What does the DS bring to gaming that nothing ever has before – the most exciting thing it does for games now?
Naka: For 20 years we have always had the D-Pad and buttons. Now, for basic functions, we have a touch-sensitive screen. That step that Nintendo took was very courageous and truly amazing. I think it’s a really good thing for the gaming industry. We should do more of this kind of stuff. I want to fully support Nintendo’s innovation.
NOM: We all have lots of praise for the DS, but is there anything about it that you would change?
Naka: You don’t need the GBA port. Maybe I would take that out because without that, the DS would be much more slimline.
NOM: So you think the Nintendo DS needs to be a bit smaller?
Naka: At the moment it’s fine as it is, with the GBA port included. But, like the GBA has been remade into the smaller GBA SP, I think that maybe in two years ago, it would be cool to see a thinner version of the DS released. That would be good.
NOM: So has Nintendo mentioned that to you at all?
Naka: [Laughs] No, no, no. I just hope that will happen. Besides, if I knew that Nintendo had those plans, I wouldn’t have been able to mention it to anyone.
NOM: Going back to the Sonic game you spoke of earlier, is it related to the Sonic touch screen demo we saw at E3 in May last year? Or is that demo a separate project that we may see more of soon?
Naka: Yes, they are related.
NOM: So it expands on what we saw at E3 last year…
Naka: It doesn’t expand from the demo. More like the demo is just one aspect of it.
NOM: Nintendo has had Mario racing go-karts, playing tennis and golf, and now baseball. Sonic keeps quite a straight profile. Is it possible that we’ll see Sonic broadening his horizons on Nintendo in the near future?
Naka: Sonic mostly runs, but it’s not intentional that he has not done many different types of games. That’s just the way it has happened. But there are mobile phone games with Sonic playing tennis and soccer and stuff, so it is possible that we’ll do more games like that.
NOM: In the days of the Super NES and Mega Drive, Sonic and Mario were huge rivals. Could they ever be in a game together?
Naka: There is a possibility because when I speak to Shigeru Miyamoto, we often toy with the idea. We always say it would be cool, but because of development timing it’s never actually happened. But yeah, it’s very possible. When the time comes…
NOM: Wow! C’mon, tell us… have you had any early ideas on how it might be done? Maybe in a racing game, or Sonic being in the next Super Smash Bros.?
Naka: Imagine Sonic in Mario Kart. Obviously Sonic wouldn’t need a kart because he’s so fast he could just run [laughs]. In that sense, you can imagine how hard it would be to fit them in a game together.
NOM: Yeah, they are vastly different…
Naka: Exactly. We’d have to REALLY think about how we’d put them together otherwise these two characters would completely destroy the game. So when Miyamoto-san and I speak about it, we usually decide that separate games are better. And that’s mainly why we’ve never gone ahead and made the game.
It wouldn’t be that difficult to make Sonic show up briefly in a Mario game. But if Mario and Sonic were to be in a game together they should really have starring roles, like a Mario vs Sonic sort of thing.
NOM: So they would never appear as allies, for that sense of irony?
Naka: That would be alright, but I’ve always imagined a game of rivalry… like Alien vs Predator [laughs]. Anything’s possible…
NOM: What are Sonic Team’s plans for the GameCube in the future? Will you continue to develop for the GameCube?
Naka: We’re currently working on a new Sonic game.
NOM: So we can expect a sequel to Sonic Heroes or something with a totally new spin?
Naka: It’s a totally new Sonic game. You’ll have to wait until E3 to find out more.
NOM: Will it be playable?
NOM: Fantastic! How far is it in development? How soon can we hope to see the game in the shops?
Naka: Within 2005. We’ll reveal more at E3.
NOM: It’s a long time since the last NiGHTS game. Will we see any more of NiGHTS?
Naka: Y’know, everyone I speak to asks me that question, so I’m basically feeling a lot of pressure to make a NiGHTS game. The more people who ask the more I feel the pressure. If I make another NiGHTS game I can’t afford to mess it up. It makes me nervous.
Many games get sequel after sequel – it drains the life out of all of the original ideas. We have to be careful with NiGHTS – its sequel will have to be perfect. If we make it, it will take a bit of time to get it right.
NOM: So maybe we’ll see NiGHTS for the next generation of consoles?
NOM: Nintendo often lets outside developers make games based on its key characters. Would Sonic Team consider letting a Sonic or NiGHTS game be developed out of house?
Naka: We have used outside developers before, but not with NiGHTS. Outside companies have approached us with proposals for new NiGHTS games. But obviously, because of the pressures to make it good, we have refused them. If a new NiGHTS game did happen, it’d be developed internally.
It will be very hard. With the first NiGHTS, we had to think about every detail in the game to make it perfect. If we were to make another one, it would take a long time.
NOM: You guys were one of the first to get info on the DS. Has Nintendo told you anything about the Revolution?
Naka: Three weeks ago I contacted Iwata-san and tried to get information, but he insisted that he couldn’t tell me anything. But he did promise that as soon as there was anything he could tell me, he would give me a call.
NOM: So nothing yet?
NOM: It was worth a try. Phantasy Star Online is a major title in online games. With the first Dreamcast game, Sonic Team embraced the possibilities of online play. What’s happening with the PSO series now?
Naka: I want to keep the Phantasy Star Online series going. We’ve got Blue Burst (a remake of PSO: Episode 1 & 2 coming out on another format later this year. There’s nothing in the pipeline yet, but there will be more of PSO in the future.
NOM: After Billy Hatcher, do you have any more original game ideas in the pipeline?
Naka: We are always thinking about completely new games. At the moment there’s nothing in development, but we do have lots of ideas and designs. It’s up to me to decide which ones become a game. Everyone wants a sequel to Sonic, a sequel to this and that, and then are new ideas to think about. We can’t do it all!
NOM: If you could make a game based on a non-Sonic Team property, what would it be?
Naka: I love the arcade games that Yu Suzuki has done like After Burner, Out Run and so on. I think it would interesting to work on an arcade machine like those. I like the interaction in arcade machines. Making peripherals for the home is cool, like Samba de Amigo, although it can be expensive.
NOM: Might we see some interesting new peripherals from Sonic Team in the future?
Naka: I’m always searching for something new to do. If I have an idea that calls for a new peripheral then it will happen.
Naka: NiGHTS as well as Burning Rangers, are games I really put my heart into, so there’s a real possibility that we’ll do more with them. But because they’re so special, I have to make sure that they’re perfect and not rush into anything.
NOM: Sega and Nintendo were major rivals for so long. Is it strange to be working with them and how have you benefited from it?
Naka: I am very close to Nintendo, including Miyamoto-san. I am having a really nice time working with them. And because we have a past as a hardware developer, we know exactly what Nintendo is thinking and what they are going through so we have a really good relationship. The past is the past.