Takashi Iizuka interview by SPOnG (September 14, 2010)

From Sonic Retro

This is an interview conducted by SPOnG with Takashi Iizuka. It covers Sonic Colours.

The Interview

After nearly a decade of splintered fanbases and below-average titles, the future of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is looking extremely bright. And Sonic Team boss Takashi Iizuka is leading that charge.

Some may say that fact is rather surprising, given his hit-and-miss track record – the excellent Sonic Adventure series followed by the rather weak Shadow the Hedgehog spinoff.

Since then he's taken a very hands-off approach to running the house of Sonic, particularly following Yuji Naka's departure in 2006. But it's safe to say that he's learned a lot from his time away from the development helm.

Taking a producer role on Sonic Colours, the Sonic Team head demonstrated two new Wisp powers that the blue blur can take advantage of – the Red Spikes and the Green Hover. Like the other abilities, these work as optional gameplay gimmicks that can help Sonic overcome otherwise challenging platforming segments, but they can also be used to open up new routes and explore the stages in their full glory.

Spikes will let Sonic stick to any given surface and roll along it, making him invincible at the same time. Pressing the B trigger on the Wii Remote will let Sonic perform a traditional spindash move and zip along the surface he's on.

Using the Hover ability turns Sonic into a giant green Sonic head and gives you the power to hover, of course – which is very handy in levels where you might need to take advantage of any platforms sitting in the sky. If there's a trail of rings, pressing B will make Sonic automatically follow it until its end. A bit like the Light Speed Dash in Sonic Adventure games, only without the potential death.

These new Wisps were being demonstrated on a brand new level, called Starlight Carnival – a beautifully bright, colourful stage set in space that reminds me a hell of a lot like a combination of Sonic CD's Stardust Speedway and Mario Kart's Rainbow Road.

Platforming, dodging and floating was all going on against a backdrop featuring a fleet of Dr. Eggman's starships. Iizuka is keen to stress that the presence of starships “is not as serious as it sounds,” pointing out the light-hearted Disneyland-inspired level design and the infectiously happy soundtrack.

I already had a good chat with the producer just over a month ago – today, I wanted to learn more about what Sonic Colours' design means for the Sonic franchise as a whole, why the change from post-apocalyptic settings and 'epic' storylines, and what he actually means when he said this game was intended for a 'younger audience.'

SPOnG: Where do the inspirations come from for each of the Wisp powers?

Takashi Iizuka: The basics for all the colour powers come from the desire to let Sonic go to places that he normally can't access on his own. When we sit down to think of new Wisps and their functions, we look at the kind of areas that Sonic cannot reach, despite his speed and platforming powers.

SPOnG: You've said that you looked back at Sonic Unleashed when designing the gameplay elements of Sonic Colours. Did you look further back into the series for other inspirations?

Takashi Iizuka: Sonic Unleashed was actually more specialised in the high-speed action of the series, and we certainly took something from that. But if you look at many of the other Sonic titles, such as Sonic Adventure and the classic games, you'll find that the series has always been about speed and platforming in equal measure.

Sonic Colours is going back to the origins by focusing on that balance. You can speed through each stage as fast as you like, without using Wisps, but what those colour powers actually do is give players a chance to explore and replay all of those stages too. Collecting the hidden red rings is one reward for doing so, and the world map shows how many you have found in each level. Without using the Wisps, you won't always be able to get those red rings.

SPOnG: It's fair to say that Sonic Team gets a lot of help from Dimps these days, but do you agree with the argument that Dimps is propping you up? How involved are those guys in the game's development?

Takashi Iizuka: I would say that both Sonic Team and Dimps have their own strengths, and that comes from our working experience. Our internal team at Sega has made all of the 3D titles, so we have a good knowledge of that, whereas Dimps has always done the 2D side-scrolling games – between us we have the experience and knowledge to do both 3D and 2D products.

For Sonic Colours, our two teams worked quite well together on the concept, but we developed the 2D Nintendo DS and 3D Wii versions rather independently. The Wii version is fully developed internally, because we know a lot more about 3D Sonic development than some other developers. Dimps has the experience to make a 2D Sonic game as best as they can, and so they have exclusively worked on the Nintendo DS version – they had no real input in terms of the Wii development.

SPOnG: Another title you're involved with is Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which you have said is aiming for a different, older Sonic audience – but it appears that many people in that target audience is actually more interested in Sonic Colours than Sonic 4. Is that surprising to you? What's your reaction to that?

Takashi Iizuka: It's not so much a feeling of surprise, but the team and I really appreciate that a lot of classic fans are looking forward to Sonic Colours as well. I mean, Sonic Colours was created largely as a 3D title for the people who have become fans of the Sonic franchise most recently, but it's good to hear that the game has been received so well from the older fans too.

It doesn't mean that Sonic 4 has lost its purpose, however. Sonic 4 was created for a different kind of fan audience – people that might have recently entered the franchise through the classic downloadable titles that we have released on digital platforms like XBLA, iPhone and Wii. I believe that there are new Sonic fans whose first experiences are playing one of these re-releases, so to play new games in that style would be more natural for them. That's one reason why we have Sonic 4 as a digital download, 2D game in the same vein as the classics.

So the approach in designing both Sonic 4 and Sonic Colours is more about how new fans are introduced to the franchise, and what older fans are used to and would like to see. There are so many different Sonic fans out there with different tastes and experiences, so I want to give them to different products to cater to one category or all categories of fans.

SPOnG: The reason I asked is because you're quoted most recently as saying that Sonic Colours is specifically intended for a 'younger audience' compared to Sonic 4. I guess the argument I could put forward is that the point of Sonic is for both adults and children to enjoy all of the games. It's a series for all ages, so why limit it by making that distinction? Was that something of a mistranslation, or do you stand by that quote?

Takashi Iizuka: It wasn't really a misquote or a mistranslation. The reason why I said 'younger audiences' is because the team and I wanted to capitalise on the new audience that we gained through the success of the Mario & Sonic games. Those titles in particular really worked well for Sonic as a character because it made our potential audience much broader than existing Sonic fans.

That created an opportunity for us to build a bigger fanbase, but we noticed that there weren't that many mainstream Sonic titles available for the Wii and DS post-Mario & Sonic. That's why Sonic Colours is a proper platforming mainstream game, so that those new fans can discover and learn more about the franchise beyond those spinoff titles. In that way, it's not really focused on young audiences in terms of age, but more as in maintaining that broader market.

Even though this is the case, if you look at the core gameplay elements of Sonic Colours, you'll notice that this is a true platforming action game that the core fans can also enjoy. The ultimate goal for Sonic Colours has always been to make the best Sonic title we can for the widest possible target audience. The market nature that the Wii and DS have is the reason why I used the term 'younger audiences'.

SPOnG: As a fan, it's great to see Sonic Colours satisfy what a lot of people are looking for in a Sonic game, particularly as the franchise has been in a downward spiral for several years. I guess a lot of people can pinpoint the start of those problems with Yuji Naka's leave to form Prope. What did the Sonic Team and yourself feel about his departure?

Takashi Iizuka: I really miss Naka-san and was sad to see him leave when he decided to form his own company. But even at that time, he wasn't the only person making decisions for the games. Concepts and gameplay elements were all discussed as a team, for example. So while it was very sad to see him go, Sonic Team is always Sonic Team and it didn't necessarily mean that Sonic was destined to head in a different direction post-Naka-san. At least, not as different as some people may think.

SPOnG: You're credited with being involved in fan favourites like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, but you're also credited with creating Shadow the Hedgehog, which wasn't so well received. Given that Sonic Colours looks closer to the 1990s-era Sonic than the post-2005 Sonic, did you have to do a lot of soul searching and rediscover Sonic yourself before coming up with the design for Sonic Colours?

Takashi Iizuka: Well, one of the examples of the series' success was Sonic Adventure 2. For Sonic Adventure 1 we tried a lot of hit-and-miss things because it was our first 3D title of the franchise, but for Sonic Adventure 2 the focus was back to the tempo of the game. That's probably why it was received so well by the fans as well as the critics. In terms of that, I think the mentality we have towards Sonic Colours is quite similar.

Previous Sonic titles have tried to do a lot of things, like different characters and different types of gameplay, whereas in Sonic Colours I just wanted to keep the focus on the tempo and high-speed action. It's not really a case of me revisiting myself, but it's more like coming back to the same mentality that brought us success with fans and critics for the Sonic Adventure series.

SPOnG: Sonic Adventure 2 was a great game to play, but it seemed to curse Sonic Team into focusing on storyline above all else in the years that followed. Particularly in Sonic Heroes, Sonic Battle and Shadow the Hedgehog – all titles that tried to extend the backstory of that game.

It became a bit too serious really. Was that something you found – that the stories in, say, Sonic 2006 and Sonic Unleashed to a lesser extent, were elements that Sonic Team was focusing on a bit too much?

Takashi Iizuka: I actually feel the same way as you do, in terms of Sonic getting too serious. As for Sonic 2006 and Sonic Unleashed, I was still based in Sega's American studios at the time and wasn't directly involved in those titles. That was actually a good time for me, because it allowed me to see the Sonic games from a similar perspective as a fan's point of view.

What I felt was the same as you – that the franchise had become too serious, the story had become very deep, whereas I see Sonic as more of a laid-back, enjoyable and fun experience. I kind of rediscovered that through Mario & Sonic in a way, because that game was very much a 'pick up and play' affair that everyone can jump in and enjoy. I think that's a better direction for the Sonic brand, and that's why Sonic Colours has a much more fun, enjoyable kind of setting.

SPOnG: So it's basically Papa Iizuka, taking his series back, is it?

Takashi Iizuka: (Laughs, nods)

SPOnG: Is it safe to say then, that future Sonic titles will have the same kind of colourful, simple, laid-back feel that Sonic Colours has?

Takashi Iizuka: Yes, that's the vision that I have.

SPOnG: It's a good vision. I like it. Thank you very much for your time.

Takashi Iizuka: Thank you very much.

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