Yuji Naka interview by Nintendo Power (May 4, 2009)
From Sonic Retro
Nintendo Power: How did you
first become involved in the video
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
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
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
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
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.