Yuji Naka interview by Nintendo Power (May 4, 2009)
From Sonic Retro
Nintendo Power: How did you first become involved in the video game industry?
Yuji Naka: I started at Sega. When I was a high school student, I worked for the company part time. I was porting games from one platform to another. Going back further, the reason I first got interested in computers was because my favorite musician was using them to make music. From there, I started coding games.
I really enjoyed porting games to new systems because I learned a lot that way. For a programmer, it was really challenging to port a game from a high-quality arcade machine to a lower-quality home console. I worked on [the Genesis version] of Ghouls n Ghosts, for instance, and I feel that prepared me to make Sonic the Hedgehog. The skills I developed working on ports are what enabled me to create new games. Probably the most difficult port I ever did, by the way, was the Master System version of Space Harrier. I remember that one being really tough. [Laughs]
Back then I was working on about three games per year. Now, it takes a lot more time than that to make just one game. [Laughs] In the 8-bit era, a developer could create a game in three months. I wish it were still like that. It allowed us to tackle a lot of different challengers. But now it takes about a year and a half. That equates to a much greater investment from the publisher, so you can't try as many different things. They'd rather play it safe with lots of sequels. Even when new hardware is introduced, you still see the same games. That's kind of boring to me. These days, before I even open the package, I already know what to expect from a game. That's why I wanted to make something like Let's Tap. When I was a child, I was always so excited to get a new game because I never knew I would find. I wanted to give that kind of feeling to players today.
Nintendo Power: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Yuji Naka: Hmmm...I don't really remember! [Laughs] Probably an astronaut. I really wanted to go into space. I wish I had known back then that if I entered NASA, I could realize that dream. My parents should have told me! Had I known, I might have studied harder. [Laughs]
Nintendo Power: You addressed this a little bit already regarding the longer development cycles, but how whould you say the video game industry has changed during the time you've been involved with it?
Yuji Naka: Previously, games didn't need to be realistic. Now a big part of a game's marketing is how realistic it is. Think of it like the difference between a novel and a movie. Games used to be like novels in that there was a lot of room for the player's imagination. With current games, everything is laid out for the player.
The biggest change for me, personally, over the past 25 years is that I'm no longer involved in hardware development. I used to work on the hardware side, and in those days, I was battling Nintendo! [Laughs] That's no longer the case, obviously. But for me, I think those hardware battles were more fun. [Laughs]
Nintendo Power: Why did you originally choose to work at Sega rather than some other publisher?
Yuji Naka: I wanted to go to Namco. [Laughs] But I didn't get very good grades in high school. That's why I didn't go to university. Back then, Sega and Taito were the only companies that would hire people without a university degree. So I chose Sega. [Laughs]
Nintendo Power: How are things different now that you're running your own independent studio? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?
Yuji Naka: I don't really see any disadvantages. Initially, it was really hard putting together the team. That took a long time. But there are a lot of advantages. I feel a lot more freedom than I did recently at Sega. The way Prope is now feels really close to the old Sonic Team, when it was more independent. I really like that.
Yuji Naka: Yes. Back then we could develop those new intellectual properties with relatively small teams. But to create a Sonic game on the next-gen consoles, for instance, you need more and more developers. I wanted to get back to trying new ideas with smaller teams.
Nintendo Power: Quite a few developers in Japan have been setting up independent studios recently. Why do you think that is, and do you foresee that trend continuing?
Yuji Naka: I think a lot of famous creators have been doing it because they have had bad relationships with their previous company. But that wasn't my motivation. I still have a good relationship with Sega. I think what happens is that a lot of those famous creators get promoted until they can no longer actively work on whatever they want. I talked to Sega about this many times, and they offered me the opportunity to created a new company and work on new ideas independently. So I still have close ties with Sega. When I left the company, it was more like I graduated. The student received his diploma. [Laughs] The head of Sega told me that I could list "Sega Creative Fellow" on my business card.
Nintendo Power: What aspect of creating a video game do you enjoy the most?
Yuji Naka: After the concept stage, when you've actually solved the big problems and started working visually, that's the most exciting part for me. Also at that point, there's usually lots of really goofy-looking stuff in the game. I'd love to show it to players in that condition-it's usually really funny.
Nintendo Power: You've worked in many different roles in the game-development process over the course of your career-programmer, director, producer, etc. Which is your favorite?
Yuji Naka: I like programmer best. Even now, I would love to do more programming. But if I focused on that, people might think I'm neglecting the other aspects of my job. They'll ask, "What the heck are you doing?" [Laughs] But yeah, I definitely still get the itch to program. Actually, last year, Sega was working on porting Fist of the North Star from Master System to Virtual Console in Japan. The producer on the project came across a bug that he couldn't fix, so he asked me to help since I originally programmed that game. I was able to find the bug just by looking at the code onscreen. [Laughs] I really enjoyed that!
Nintendo: When you're stumped by a particularly difficult problem while developing a game, what's your process for working through it?
Yuji Naka: I'll try to do something different; maybe take a little time to enjoy one of my hobbies. My main hobby is circuit racing. I've been doing that for about 10 years. Most people play golf, but I like to race. [Laughs]
Nintendo: What kind of car do you race?
Yuji Naka: A Lotus Elise and a Ferrari 360 Spider. I've done about 20 Ferarri races this year. I think I'm the person who knows the most about cars in the games industry. [Laughs] When I look at a racing game, I usually have a lot of comments that I'd like to make. [Laughs] Most of the time, the way the cars handle isn't very realistic. I want developers who create racing games to spend a lot of time at the circuits.
Nintendo Power: Looking back at your career, which of your games are you most proud of?
Yuji Naka: Sonic the Hedgehog.
Nintendo Power: When you were working on the original Sonic, did you and your fellow team members have any idea that the character would go on to become such a huge phenomenon?
Yuji Naka: Actually, I did have a good feeling about it. But at the time, Sega of Japan wasn’t so confident. There was one important person at Sega of America who was really interested in the game, though, so SoA worked pretty hard on the marketing campaign. That helped the game a lot. After that, I moved to Sega of America for a while.
Nintendo Power: Why do you think Sonic has struck a chord with so many gamers for so long?
Yuji Naka: I don’t really know. That’s why I was able to keep making Sonic games for such a long time, though, so I really appreciate it. And even though I’m at Prope now, I still get letters from kids about Sonic. That really motivates me to create better and better games.
Nintendo Power: How do you feel about long time rivals Mario and Sonic finally teaming up in a couple of recent titles? And have you taken the opportunity to lay the smackdown on Mario with Sonic in Super Smash Bros. Brawl?
Yuji Naka: Actually, I was the person who asked Sakurai-san to include Sonic [in Super Smash Bros. Brawl]. I wanted to have Sonic in the previous Smash Bros., but there wasn’t enough time. But yeah, I’m really happy about having both of gaming’s leading characters together in one game. It’s kind of like a movie in which the villian and the hero finally team up at the end. In Japan, there’s a saying: “Yesterday’s enemy, today’s friend.”
Nintendo Power: What other game or game creators do you admire or respect?
Yuji Naka: Miyamoto-san. I think he's the best developer in the world. His imagination and his way of thinking are amazing. I've learned a lot from him.
Nintendo Power: Whose works in other forms of media, such as film or literature, do you most admire or enjoy?
Yuji Naka: I love movies and stage shows. I particularly like Cirque du Soleil. As for my favorite directors, I would probably say Steven Spielberg. George Lucas, and Hayao Miyazaki.
Nintendo Power: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
Yuji Naka: I would want to be a wizard. That way, I don't have to choose just one power! [Laughs] Sorry, I'm greedy.