Yuji Naka interview by GameSpy (September 2005)
From Sonic Retro
This is an interview conducted by Gamespy with Yuji Naka, the creator and mastermind behind Sonic. It has been reformatted for better readability.
GameSpy: All three of the major consoles were shown in some form at E3 and TGS this year. Can you tell us your thoughts on each one?
Yuji Naka: You want me to say something about each one, eh? Well, the X360 is pretty nice hardware. I like that they're really emphasizing the network aspect of it. It's kind of like what we wanted to do with the Dreamcast originally.
The PS3 ... hmm, how to say ... well, it's going to have some very high-end specs, it seems. It can supposedly render up to D5 Hi-Def. But really, what's the point of that? There's no consumer TV out there that can display in D5 yet! I suppose it's just Sony wanting to set their sights as high as possible. Still, it's very difficult for us as developers to do dual-platform development at the moment. We do have lots of plans for those two, however.
As for the Revolution ... well, Nintendo simply hasn't announced very much for it. We know it'll be small and stylish with a unique controller, but that's about it. It's pretty different from what we tend to think of as "typical Nintendo." I hear the console itself might actually get even smaller, if you can believe that.
GameSpy: The controller for the Revolution was revealed around the time of TGS, and reaction on the Internet has been mixed. Can you give us your thoughts on the controller and how it might be used in the future?
Yuji Naka: It's still pretty hard to say anything concrete in regards to it, but I can say that I find it to be very interesting. I like that fact that its use won't be restricted to just traditional-style games. It provides you with the materials you could use to make something very unique and special.
GameSpy: Besides the looming next-generation battle, the competition between the PSP and the DS is really starting to heat up. What are your thoughts on these two platforms?
Yuji Naka: Obviously, they both have their own distinct strengths. The PSP is very stylishly designed, while the DS has some very interesting means by which to play games. But you know, I don't get the feeling that they're battling each other. You tend to design a game specifically for one or the other platform in mind.
What really surprises me, though, is how well the PSP's UMD movies are currently doing in the West. I don't get it. How can you watch those big, spectacular Hollywood movies on such a tiny little screen? I thought everybody wanted BIGGER screens and BIGGER TVs. I suppose it is nice to have your favorite flicks with you on the go, but ... it's a Western mystery to me. (laughs)
GameSpy: Out of all the characters currently in the Sonic story, why did you choose to focus on Shadow for a new game?
Yuji Naka: When we took a look at which Sonic characters were popular among fans, Shadow was ranked right behind Sonic. We've also wanted to do a "gun action" game for a while now, and he seemed to be the best fit for that idea. He and Sonic have a very different identity, after all. Finally, as we've been building the Sonic brand, we've had ideas of doing a spin-off series, so perhaps that's what Shadow will lead to.
GameSpy: Shadow's always been portrayed as a character who can't be defined as wholly good or wholly evil. We've seen that during the game the player can do actions which affect which alignment he leans towards. How does this affect the progression of the story and gameplay?
Yuji Naka: In all the stages, Shadow can complete missions for either the dark or the light side. So depending on the player's actions, the story will change and new stages will open up. We've seen before that Shadow is looking for a reason for his existence, so Shadow the Hedgehog is all about giving you the opportunity to find that reason for him.
GameSpy: Many people were initially surprised to see Shadow with a weapon, which is unusual for the Sonic series. Why did you decide to give Shadow the ability to bear arms?
Yuji Naka: Well, there have been some shooting sequences in the Sonic Adventure games before, but they've been more "stand-and-shoot" style bits. We really wanted to challenge ourselves and do a high-speed gun action game. We decided that Shadow would be the perfect venue by which to try our hand at this genre.
GameSpy: Like Knuckles, it seems like over the course of the Sonic games that Shadow has gone from being Sonic's antagonist to being somewhat of a friendly rival to him. We can see that they work together several times during the course of the game. Do you think we'll be seeing them together more often?
Yuji Naka: We did see them together briefly in Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes. The thing about Shadow is that he has his own methods and ideas of doing things. It's very different from Sonic's mindset. There's animosity between the two that stems from them not really understanding each other.
GameSpy: At TGS, you showed us Sonic Riders for all the current platforms. Now, we've seen racing games with Sonic and friends before. They've raced both on foot and in vehicles. Why are they using boards in Sonic Riders?
Yuji Naka: We chose boards because we thought they were the coolest. No, really, we think boards convey a sense of speed -- this IS Sonic, after all -- but they are also able to give you a sensation of gliding and cutting through the wind. We have actually wanted to do something with boards for a very long time now, and we've finally been able to implement it in Sonic Riders.
GameSpy: So what differences in gameplay will we see in Sonic Riders as compared to Sonic Drift and Sonic R?
Yuji Naka: The big difference is something called the "Air System." By utilizing the way the air flows in the game, you can do special tricks, gain a burst of speed, and other things. We think it adds a lot of variety and excitement to the game.
GameSpy: We also got some brief glimpses of the next-gen Sonic game. It appears to be an extension of the demo movie we saw at E3. The other movies shown (Virtua Fighter, After Burner) turned out to be arcade games running on Lindbergh hardware. Was the Sonic demo running on Lindbergh as well?
Yuji Naka: It wasn't running on Lindbergh, actually -- what you saw at E3 was our in-house next-gen development system.
GameSpy: Hmm, interesting! So how far along is development on the next-gen Sonic?
Yuji Naka: I'm afraid that I can only say that ... "we're working really hard on it right now!" But we do hope you'll be excited for the next time we are able to show more of it.
GameSpy: From the demo movies, the game appears to utilize the Havok physics engine you first used in PS2 Astro Boy. What sort of uses might we see for it in-game?
Yuji Naka: Yes, it does. The engine is used for the physics of various objects in the game to give the player a heightened sense of nvolvement. In the TGS demo, we showed a bridge falling to reveal a new route for Sonic to run through. You'll be seeing the engine used for more stuff like that.
GameSpy: Most of the recent Sonic titles have featured Sonic with a large cast of supporting characters. Is there any chance that, in the future, you might want to do a game starring Sonic alone again?
Yuji Naka: We have given it some thought, yes. But you see, "volume" seems to be a big thing in games these days. The media's always going on and on asking about every single little thing about a game. "Who's in it? How many stages are there? What are the play modes?" It's practically all I ever hear! And the Sonic world has a bunch of established characters, so if we did a game with just Sonic ... I can already hear people saying, "But where's Tails? Where's Knuckles? Where's Shadow? How does he do this by himself?" And then I'd have to explain, "No no, see, it's just SONIC this time." But yes, it is a challenge I'd like to do. After all, the games in the series since the first have been constantly introducing and adding new characters, so maybe Sonic deserves some "alone time" again.
GameSpy: Let's talk about the recent Sonic Gems Collection. Sonic the Fighters was actually developed primarily by AM2, but you oversaw large parts of the project. What was it like working with Kataoka-san and the AM2 staff? I recall Kataoka saying that Sonic the Fighters was one of the projects he enjoyed the most.
Yuji Naka: I've definitely heard that, too. But it really was a product of AM2. The gameplay design was entirely theirs, and I more or less just oversaw the implementation of the characters and setting. We treated it like a licensed product, and it turned out great. I'm still very fond of it, which is why we took the time to finally give it a proper console port.
GameSpy: What about the very rare Sega Sonic the Hedgehog arcade game? Did you consider including that? Also, did you do any work on that game yourself?
Yuji Naka: That's another one that was developed outside of my control. It was done by part of the Sega arcade division at the time. We did think about adding it to Gems Collection, though, but we couldn't implement it in the end because the game used a trackball control scheme that is very, very difficult to replicate with a standard controller. It is a pretty fun and unique little game, though.
GameSpy: Sonic CD is thought of as the most "mysterious" game in the Sonic series, mainly because you can see that many ideas the staff had either weren't fully implemented or were cut altogether (for example, there is an entire stage gone from the stage select). People are very curious about ideas the Sonic Team staff had for the game but weren't able to implement. Can you tell us anything about those?
Yuji Naka: Well, it's the same thing as with Sonic the Fighters. I didn't do very much with Sonic CD, since I was working on Sonic 2 during most of that time, so I can't really say too much about it. But the Sonic games are pretty famous for having things left on the cutting room floor. I mean, 1, 2, and 3 ALL had stages cut from them! I think the most famous loss was the Hidden Palace Zone in Sonic 2. We simply ran out of time to fully implement that into the game. The same thing happened with Sonic 3. See, we had all kinds of ideas for those games, things above and beyond even the Hidden Palace. But the Hidden Palace is pretty well known because it was all over the media before we eventually had to cut it. All the players were just left wondering where it went! So ... I'm guessing the stuff cut out of Sonic CD was probably done for similar reasons -- either we were running out of time or things just weren't working out. Making games is a business, after all, and sometimes it simply has to be done.
GameSpy: Actually, can I ask a question about the Hidden Palace? It's something a lot of fans have always been very curious about. Have you ever thought about including the stage as some sort of "bonus" on the compilation disks?
Yuji Naka: No, we haven't. We looked all over for some sort of source for it, since EVERYONE seems to want to play it, but we just don't have the original code for the stage anymore. It was lost quite some time ago. Seriously, though, the most we ever had finished and playable was the first part of the level. You could run around on floors, maybe even cross a bridge or two! And then you'd wind up in a portion that wasn't complete yet and had nothing there ... and then you'd DIE. Exciting stuff, huh? I'm not sure why people would want to play that.
GameSpy: People really like the idea of time travel as implemented in Sonic CD, with stages changing throughout time. Is there any chance we might see the concept used again in future Sonic titles?
Yuji Naka: It's definitely an interesting idea, but I don't see it being used again in the near future. I mean, it's pretty tough designing just ONE Sonic stage, but having to worry about the past and future versions as well ... I think, wouldn't it just be better if we gave the player a whole new stage instead?
GameSpy: Many people are unfamiliar with the Tails Game Gear games (Tails' Sky Patrol, Tails Adventure). Can you tell us a little about them and what sets them apart from the "regular" Sonic GG games?
Yuji Naka: The Tails GG games are nice. They're kind of like little self-contained stories expanding Tails' role in the world of Sonic. Sort of like Shadow the Hedgehog is doing now.
GameSpy: The first showing of the Nintendo DS at E3 had a Sonic tech demo. We now know that Sonic Rush is coming for the DS, but it's nothing like the demo we originally saw. What made you decide to take it in a different direction?
Yuji Naka: Well, there are many different ways we could represent so when we decided to do a full Sonic DS title, we had to think, "what would be the best way to do this?" We thought that 3D would have the biggest impact, so that is why Sonic and the bosses are made of 3D polygons. But we had the dual screens, too. What were we going to do with those? We eventually devised the dual-screen level display. So, you've got a 3D Sonic with the appeal of classic 2D games.
GameSpy: There's a new character in Sonic Rush named Blaze. Can you tell us a little bit about her? Is she a friend or foe to Sonic?
Yuji Naka: Blaze is a playable character. Both Sonic and Blaze are important to the game's storyline, and by playing one or the other character, you see the events from a different viewpoint. Some people are wondering if Blaze is an enemy, so I'll just say ... play and find out!
GameSpy: What other characters make appearances in Sonic Rush? What role do they play in the game?
Yuji Naka: There are a few support characters. Sonic has Tails, and Blaze has Cream. You'll see them in some boss fights. Knuckles and Amy will make brief appearances as well.
GameSpy: Will Sonic Rush use any of the DS's wireless capabilities for racing opponents, Internet ranking, etc.?
Yuji Naka: It will use it a little. We will provide the ability to have other players download a competition game via WiFi.
GameSpy: You guys announced Where Do Babies Come From not too long ago. Seriously, what is with that title?
Yuji Naka: Well, let me ask you ... where DO babies come from?
GameSpy: Um...? What do you mean?
Yuji Naka: Different cultures seem to have different concepts about this. Like, some places say the stork brings them, and others say they come from the cabbage patch. In Japan they supposedly come from under a bridge. *laugh* But we still haven't decided on what title the game's going to have in the West ... whether it'll be the translation of the Japanese title or just Feel the Magic 2.
Anyway, the key concept in this one is "multiples." Imagine an ad tagline: Twice the excitement! Triple the affection! Like that. Also, the first game was only a 1-player affair, but this time we have added a competition mode. Basically, a lot of stuff from the original has been improved and expanded upon.
GameSpy: But really, that title sounds more appropriate for an adult-oriented game.
Yuji Naka: It does, doesn't it? You're saying that like it's a BAD thing. I guess you could say that the underlying themes behind the game -- being attracted to and trying to win over the girl -- are adult-oriented, but it's not technically an adult game. Younger players can enjoy it too. Maybe some of those poor, lovelorn gamers out there might even be able to use it as a guide.
GameSpy: Puyo Puyo Fever has been quite a success. What are your plans for the future of the series?
Yuji Naka: Actually, the game didn't do so well in the West, which is quite a shame. It was a hit here in Japan, though, so we've got a sequel in the works. It's called Puyo Puyo Fever Chu. Not "two," but "chu." It's the Japanese onomatopoeia for a kissing sound, so that might give you a hint about what sort of ways the gameplay will be expanded. There are two main characters, Amitie from the first game, and a male, Aphina. There are various improvements to the game, but most notable is that items can be used to help clear the playfield.
GameSpy: We noticed that Sega has become personal sponsor of Hayanari Shimoda who had a great victory in Francorchamps with the Zytek racing team in the Le Mans endurance series. We also know you are into racing cars yourself. Have you ever raced against Shimoda? Also, have you ever considered making a racing game?
Yuji Naka: I've seen him on TV, but I really don't know much about him, except that Sega is one of his sponsors. As for doing a racing game, I've given some thought from time to time, but I've never committed myself to it. At this rate, I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. But I have been finding endurance racing interesting lately. I hope that sometime in the near future I'll have a chance to participate in one of the 24-hour races. Sprint racing is nice, too, but endurance. It's really a test of one's strength ... ah, it'd be wonderful if I could participate. I just love racing so much.
GameSpy: Nowadays we're seeing more and more games that aren't really "games" in the traditional sense sell in huge numbers. Recent examples are the Sims 2 and Nintendogs. Do you think the market's tastes are shifting in this direction, and if so, why?
Yuji Naka: I think it's just another market shift that comes from time to time. That's the sort of thing a lot of people are interested in playing nowadays. I've seen the market change a lot in this fashion throughout the industry's history. Back in the mid- to late-eighties, horizontal shooters were extremely popular, and now they're pretty much dead. After that came the rise of "mascot platformers." Today, about the only big ones still out there are Mario and Sonic.
Whenever you have a new genre or subgenre come along, everyone likes to hop on the bandwagon. So I guess those sort of titles are just what's "in" right now. I think of Feel the Magic and its sequel as being a bit of an ambiguous genre title as well. I can understand why people are jumping on this new stuff. I mean, a lot of people have been playing RPGs, shooters, etcetera for almost twenty years now! When those sort of games start to become stale, they'll naturally turn towards the fresh and interesting new stuff.
GameSpy: You participated in Mario's 20th birthday celebration. Sega and Nintendo haven't always been so friendly, in fact, many people once perceived Sonic and Mario as enemies. How did you and the staff at Sega perceive the Mario games when Nintendo was a direct competitor: as something to admire, as something to beat, as inspiration, or something else entirely?
Yuji Naka: I will go on the record here and state that we at Sega have always had nothing but the utmost respect for Nintendo and the Mario games. Even when they were our direct competitor in the hardware arena, we have viewed the games as a watermark of quality for us to strive towards. It is a pleasure and an honor for us to work with Nintendo as a third party today.
GameSpy: You drive Ferraris, so does Nago-san and a few others here. Why do you think so many people at Sega have Ferraris?
Yuji Naka: Ferraris are the best cars out there, period! They're so special that not even everyone who wants one can get one. The design is amazing, the styling is amazing... it's all amazing.
GameSpy: OK, off topic, but this came to mind when we were talking about the Hidden Palace Zone ... there are entire fansites out there devoted to hacking Sonic games and finding all the things Sonic Team was working on, but never used in the finished product. What do you think of this?
Yuji Naka: Wow, people do that? I didn't know. I guess I am pretty surprised at the level of dedication of fans on the Internet. But how do I say this ... there is a bit of a problem. I mean, I am glad that people really, really like the games, but if it gets to the point where they are engaging in activities that can hurt us or Sega in some way, that's not good at all. Like, way back when we had a beta ROM of Sonic 2 that was stolen by someone. That one even had the Hidden Palace in it.
GameSpy: There's actually a beta ROM with the Hidden Palace code that's been floating around the Internet for a while.
Yuji Naka: What? You're kidding! Tell me more. I'd really like to get that back. *laugh* I guess we know what happened to that now... You see, back in mid-1992 we had taken a demonstration cartridge to a toy show in New York. It wound up being stolen, and although we searched and searched all over, it was never found. So that's probably where the data comes from. What's the Hidden Palace in this one like?
GameSpy: There's stuff in the stage, but it's impossible to play past a certain point.
Yuji Naka: Yep, that sounds exactly like what we lost!
GameSpy: Was the Hidden Palace meant to be "hidden," then?
Yuji Naka: Actually, no, the basic idea was about the same as it was in Sonic and Knuckles. You'd encounter the stage through normal play by collecting the emeralds. The idea behind the stage was, "Where do the Chaos Emeralds come from?" That's where Sonic was originally supposed to be granted his Super Sonic powers. We finally were able to use it in S&K, though it wound up being quite different from what we had planned in Sonic 2. But even from Sonic 1 we'd been throwing around those sorts of ideas. Still, when we were running out of time, we looked over things quickly trying to figure out what to dump ... and CHOP went the Hidden Palace. There's simply no way we could have thrown that in by the deadline at the rate we were going.
It's the same deal with Sonic 3... Sonic 3 is literally half a game. Sega management back then wanted the game out at a certain time and we only had half the stages done, so we had to put the leftovers into Sonic and Knuckles. So when you bought S&K and attached it to Sonic 3, you got the whole of what Sonic 3 was planned to have been.
GameSpy: You can find some interesting stuff by screwing around with the debug codes, too. Like in Sonic 1, if you put Sonic outside the walls of the special stage and just have him roll around in space, you encounter a weird background with some unused panels.
Yuji Naka: Ah, yes, those. I'm not surprised. See, we left the debug codes in the games because we thought people would have fun playing around with them. *laugh* But yeah, there was a lot of leftovers and unused stuff in Sonic 1 as well. I remember we made a rabbit enemy. It was lik e... "Rabbit-bus." Or "Rabbit-taxi." You know, sort of like Catbus (from My Neighbor Totoro).
But the biggest thing I remember we had that we didn't use in Sonic 1 was the break-dancing. We had this idea for the sound test. The composer for the game was one of the members of Dreams Come True, a famous Japanese band, so we wanted to do something special for the game's music. See, we wanted to have a separate sound-test screen with an animation of Sonic break-dancing while a "Sonic Band" played the game music. We were working on the images, and had enough space left on the cartridge memory for it, but once again time constraints prevented us from putting it in the program.
So what should we do with that leftover space? I suddenly had an epiphany! It said to me ... "SE-GA!" It came from our TV commercials, and that became the game's startup sound. I thought it made a good impression when you heard it, right? Though to fit it in, we had to delete all the break-dancing picture data we had made up to that point. Oshima was heartbroken, since we didn't need his pictures anymore. But seriously, that sound alone took up 1/8 of the 4 megabit ROM! Ah, those were the days...
- Original Interview at Gamespy.