Yuji Naka interview by Nintendo Power (May 4, 2009)

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This is a interview conducted by Nintendo Power, with Yuji Naka. The scans of the interview can be found here.

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


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 (16-bit)|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.


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.


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


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.

Nintendo Power: So it's sort of

comparable to when Sonic Team was

working on a lot of original

properties like [[NiGHTS into

Dreams|NiGHTS]], [[Burning

Rangers]], etc.?

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


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.