This collection of interviews chronicles the conception and development of the original and wildly successful Sonic the Hedgehog game, with comments from core team members Yuji Naka (programmer & team leader), Naoto Ōshima (designer & art director) and Hirokazu Yasuhara (planner) as well as the art director for the game’s sequel, Yasushi Yamaguchi.

Of particular note is the team’s rigorous analysis of their competitors, both in the videogame space and the wider character brand sphere, and their dedication to presenting an original and immediately appealing experience in a market already saturated with half-hearted copycats.

Miyamoto x Naka (2001)
NiGHTS Developer Interview (1996)

 

Sonic the Hedgehog – Developer Interview Collection

originally featured in Nintendo Dream, BEEP, and Famicom Tsuushin

Yuji Naka – Programmer

—Congratulations on completing the 10-year anniversary worldwide Sonic tour.

Naka: Thank you very much.

—I understand that Sonic was originally concieved as a character who could challenge the dominance of Mario.

Naka: Actually, at the time I wanted to make a racing game. I presented that and a number of different design plans to Sega, including a puzzle game.

—I’ve heard that you submitted over 10 different ideas to Sega?

Naka: That’s right. I wrote up a memo that was basically a “next game I want to make” list, and showed it to my boss. But the one that caught his attention was the very last entry on the list, which said “an action game to challenge Mario”. (laughs) I tried to object, saying “Actually, I wrote them in order of which ones I want to do…” but he didn’t listen to me at all. (laughs) So we got started on the Sonic the Hedgehog development, with 3 or 4 members. In the beginning it was just a program where you moved a ball-like object around, then at some point it was a rabbit…

—So the character was a rabbit first?

Naka: Yes, but something felt very off about it. And ultimately we decided to give the character a somersault attack. That idea actually came from a notebook I had in high school, scribbled there on the very last page. I figured I would use it when I quit Sega and went independent, but as we were making Sonic it was like, “well, I’ve got no choice, I guess I’ll have to use it now.”

However, if a rabbit does a somersault attack, it’s just going to hurt itself, right? We thought it would be better to have some animal with a hard shell or spines. Two possibilities came up: an armadillo or a hedgehog, but the hedgehog won out because it was faster.

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Yuji Naka (2001)

—And how about the name “Sonic”, where did that come from?

Naka: We wanted something that would convey an image of speed. We liked the idea of “kousoku” (light speed in Japanese), but we couldn’t find a good nickname with the words “light speed”. We thought about “raisupi” (a Japanese shortening of “raito supiido”) and “LS”, but they just didn’t have any ring to them. Finally someone came up with the idea of the speed of sound, and that led us to Sonic.

—Why did you focus on “speed” as your development theme?

Naka: I think Super Mario Bros. is a wonderful game, but if you play it everyday, you always have to start from stage 1-1, right? Once you get good and memorize the levels, you can just hold down the B button and run through the stage. But even then it just takes too long. With Sonic, I wanted to shorten that time if I could. My idea was that you’d progress slowly and carefully through the stages on your first playthroughs as you learned the enemy locations, but after you got used to it, you could really zoom straight through the levels. Unfortunately, everyone who playtested it just went full-speed from the very beginning. (laughs)

—(laughs)

Naka: I was like, “You’re doing it wrong!” (laughs) But seeing everyone play that way led me to develop the ring system, where as long as you had even one ring, you could still play recklessly and get through ok.

—This may open an old wound for you, but… (laughs) You quit Sega right after you made Sonic, correct?

Naka: Yeah.

—And I heard that you actually approached Nintendo after you quit…?

Naka: When I was driving back to my home in Osaka from Tokyo, I decided to stop by Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto. I actually wanted to see how long it would take for me to commute from Osaka to Nintendo’s offices. (laughs) However, when I stopped my car in their parking lot, a security guard came out and started eyeing me suspiciously. I got scared and decided to just go home. (laughs) If that security guard hadn’t been there, who knows how different my future might have been…! (laughs)

—But why did you quit Sega in the first place?

Naka: My salary was really low, and I didn’t think I could go on like that, so I quit. I had worked really hard on Sonic and had a great deal of confidence in it, but Sega had predicted it wouldn’t sell very well, so when my employment evaluation came up they didn’t give me a very good review. I fought with my boss over that and decided to quit. So I bought a couple books on “Starting Your Own Company” and got to reading. (laughs)

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An early print advertisement for “the
fastest action in gaming history!!”

—(laughs)

Naka: While I was reading those books, I got a call from a third-party developer asking if I would come work for them. But the truth is, I was holding out for a call from Nintendo.

—Oh, really?! (laughs)

Naka: The reason I thought that is, a few months before I quit Sega, I heard a story about another programmer from a big gaming company who had quit his job, and was then called by Nintendo. I was like, “Wow, that could happen to me too!” (laughs) So when I quit Sega I had this faint hope that I’d be getting a call… but it never came. (laughs) It was sad.

—But if you had been called by Sega, we might never have seen any sequels to Sonic the Hedgehog.

Naka: Well, I think someone would have carried it on, probably. Anyway, after that I was contacted by Mark Cerny, the maker of Crash Bandicoot. He was with Atari before, but was working for Sega now. He said “If you’ve got some free time, why don’t you come visit me in America.” Sega Technical Institute had just been formed in Silicon Valley. So I visited, and I was really impressed with how cool the company was. The office had an automatic gate for your car, and the staff all had their own separate cubicles, it just seemed like a really cool place to work.

—Had Sonic the Hedgehog already been released then?

Naka: Not yet. This was right before it got released. I was really smitten with the Silicon Valley area, and three days after I arrived, they asked me if I would work there. When I got back I thought about it a bit, and decided, “Yeah, I’ve got to go.” That’s how I joined Sega of America. One of my conditions for joining was not having to make a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog. But once I got there, Sonic became this huge breakout hit, and the circumstances changed entirely.

—The response to Sonic in America was really amazing.

Naka: It was. Then Sega told me “We want you to get started on a sequel right away.”, and I shot back “That wasn’t our agreement. Forget this, I’m going back to Japan.” (laughs)

—I don’t imagine they’d let you go so easily. (laughs)

Naka: Well, the truth is I had wanted the original Sonic to be two players. It was a very challenging problem, technically speaking, because of the speed the game ran at. But after many, many experiments we figured out a way to make it work, and the following year, in November 1992, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was released. It was also a big hit, and I ended up spending the next 3 years in America.

—Do you have any interesting stories about the Sonic sequels for the Megadrive?

Naka: At the beginning of the Sonic 2 development, Tails was actually a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog). He was modeled after a UFO catcher plushie, but it just looked clumsy. (laughs) We tried to come up with something cuter, and Yasushi Yamaguchi created a fox design that became the basis for Tails. To give him more personality we added two tails.

It’s well known now, but Sonic 3 began as our first attempt to use the SVP chip in the Megadrive, which was later used in Virtua Racing. We spent 6 months in development trying to create something for Sonic 3 with it, but due to a variety of circumstances we eventually gave up on the idea. You can still see a remnant of that work in the glossy CG-style image of Sonic for the title screen.

The ball-shaped 3D special stage from Sonic 3/S&K was actually inspired by King Kai’s little planet from Dragon Ball Z, which I am a fan of.

—What does Sonic mean to you personally?

Naka: My child? I might call him that. A very good one: I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

—I noticed that the Dreamcast version of Sonic has a slightly different atmosphere/feeling compared to the earlier illustrations.

Naka: Sonic was originally supposed to be this impertinent, cheeky character. However, once he blew up in popularity, his image gradually morphed into something more cutesy. Sonic has now appeared in 29 games across different platforms, and Sonic merchandise and goods have proliferated around the world. Because of that, we (his creators) kind of lost some control over his image. So when it came time to do Sonic Adventure in 1998, we were worried that if he became too cutesy, he would end up just like every other cute, cloying character mascot. So for the Dreamcast, we deliberately tried to strengthen his original “bad boy” image.

—There definitely is that phenomenon with characters where once the merchandise starts pumping out, their image starts to become more cutesy.

Naka: Right, once the plushies and stuff start coming out. It’s all a big dilemma for the character designer. When someone says “What’s wrong with cuteness…”, I point to Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty already owns the market in cuteness, and if Sonic heads too far down that path, I don’t think he will last very long as a character. We were thinking about the lifespan of the character over 10 or even 20 years… and we didn’t want to do anything that would kill him off in the long-term.

—Do you also oversee the direction of Sonic as a character, then?

Naka: Sonic Team checks any new Sonic thing, yeah. It’s a bit like Disney and Mickey Mouse. You’ve probably noticed that Disney hasn’t put out a movie starring Mickey for awhile. I think it’s because they’re afraid of damaging his image, and thereby ending the life of the character. Mickey is a very important character to Disney, and they hope to protect his image so that he can continue to live on for decades more. And that kind of thing has been very hard to for us with Sonic, if I’m honest. I mean, there was a Sonic cartoon broadcast in America where he has siblings. (laughs)

—Whoa, I want to see that. (laughs) I think Shigeru Miyamoto may be experiencing something similar right now with Mario. The Gamecube version of Mario seems to portray him in a less “cute” way…

Naka: I bet Miyamoto has not seen the Mario cartoon.

—Mario cartoon…?

Naka: The one shown in America. I was shocked when I saw Peach and Luigi get married in it. 1 (laughs)

—Whatttt? Really?

Naka: Well this is all in my memory, so I could be wrong. (laughs) Nintendo might see this article and get mad at me. (laughs) I would watch the Mario cartoon in the morning when I was living in San Francisco. That was almost 10 years ago.

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Sonic Underground’s family rock band/guerrilla vigilante squad comes off as a little incongrous when compared to to Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3’s entirely canonical tribute to Milli Vanilli.

Sonic the Hedgehog – 1990 Developer Interview

with character designer Naoto Ōshima and planner Hirokazu Yasuhara

—To begin, please introduce yourselves for our readers.

Yasuhara: I did the planning for Sonic. I was in charge of the overall design, maps, traps, and other mechanics.

Oshima: I did the character design for Sonic and other characters.

—So, I understand you worked through Golden Week and have just finished the Sonic master ROM today…!

Yasuhara: Right now, the overall feeling is that we’ve all done a really good job. Creating a character to rival Mario is how this work began, but the Sonic Team we assembled for this project ended up gathering the best and brightest of Sega to it. It took a lot of time, but in exchange, we were able to create the game we had envisioned. It’s a Megadrive game, but we spent the appropriate time on it to ensure it would be a fun video game first and foremost.

Oshima: There were a lot of re-dos. We’d get to a certain point in the design, then scratch everything and start over. That happened multiple times. It was a lot of trial and error until we found the right way. I can laugh about it now, but during that time our boss constantly had this sad look on his face. (laughs)

In the beginning, the one and only idea we had for Sonic was “speed.” But as the development went on, we came up with the idea of his somersault attack, and added in the pinball-style movement to the game you see today.

—I can definitely see the emphasis on speed.

Yasuhara: That was important, but the most important thing was finding a difficulty level that anyone could enjoy. That gave us a ton of trouble. We re-did the Zone 1 maps four or five times. If you look at platformers before Sonic, they mostly involve a character carefully progressing through a stage by waiting for enemies to come, then killing them, then moving forward, rinse and repeat. But with Sonic, if you’re moving at light-speed you’ll surely collide with the enemies and die. Getting the right recipe and balancing all that took a huge amount of time.

—The rotation effects in the special stages have really impressed our readers. You managed to achieve Super Famicom level of rotation in software!

Yasuhara: Actually, the rotation subprogram had been completed before we started Sonic, and we knew we definitely wanted to use it. It really is nice and smooth. I think it rivals the Super Famicom in terms of speed, too.

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Sonic’s special stages utilize clever
programming to mimic the rotation effects
commonly seen in Super Nintendo games.

Oshima: The one problem people might have in the special stage is if they try to control it like Cameltry.

—Where did the idea for the bonus stage come from?

Oshima: The Super Famicom only allows for a single background layer to be rotated. So for Sonic, we wanted to show off something where everything was being rotated.

—There are also so many animations for Sonic. Do you know how many sprites were used, roughly?

Oshima: Somewhere around 100. He has two different kinds of running patterns, then you have to create sprites for 360 degrees of rotation… that alone required a huge amount.

—Can you say a word about the different stages?

Yasuhara: There are 6 zones, with three stages per zone. Each stage features a lot of unique little features to interact with. Coming up with all of them took a lot of effort—we had to make more than 100. In any event, we wanted it to feel like you were playing in a big amusement park, so we aimed for a playstyle that wouldn’t be too stressful.

The features for each zone all have a different concept, too, of course. In the first zone, Green Hill, you’re shown the basics of Sonic: running, spinning, zooming through narrow paths and passages. That zone equips you with the skills you need for the later stages. Marble Zone is a lava stage, with lava eruptions, fireballs, and stuff like that. It places a higher emphasis on your timing game. Spring Yard features a pinball-style action. It’s an energetic stage where we want players to enjoy bouncing around everywhere. Zone 4, Labyrinth, is an underwater area. Sonic is unable to swim, actually. The out-of-breath timer is very important for this zone. It’s also a showpiece for the graphics of Sonic the Hedgehog, which we put a lot of effort into for this zone in particular.

Oshima: For the underwater scenes, we use a subprogram that allows us to rival the color capabilities of the Super Famicom.

Yasuhara: Moving on, zone 5, Starlight, is a rollercoaster-esque stage. We wanted it to give players the full sense of Sonic’s speed. Finally, there is Dr. Eggman’s base, and it’s a very difficult one, as befits a final stage. In any event, we hope you enjoy trying them all.

Sonic the Hedgehog – 1993 Developer Interview

with Naoto Oshima and Yasushi Yamaguchi

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The designers of Sonic and Tails: Naoto Ohshima
& “Judy Totoya” a.k.a Yasushi Yamaguchi

—How did you end up joining Sega?

Oshima: I have always admired Santa Claus. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve loved making things that would surprise or delight other people. Then when I was in college, I saw Space Harrier at an amusement center, and that got me thinking that I’d like to make games which could be enjoyed by people of all ages, so I joined Sega. Also, there was no clear leader in the game industry at the time, and I harbored the ambition to become number one myself.

—Did you also love video games?

Oshima: No, actually, before I joined Sega I had never really played games.

—That’s very surprising. I guess you don’t necessarily need to love games to get involved in developing them! Yamaguchi, how about you? Why did you join Sega?

Yamaguchi: When I was in college, I wanted to work in the film industry. But it turned out to be very difficult, and I wasn’t able to. Like Oshima, I also wanted to become a master craftsman at something. When I saw the video games of that time, it looked to me like something I could make, so I joined Sega.

—Is there an origin story to the development of Sonic the Hedgehog?

Yamaguchi: The goal, to put it simply, was to beat you-know-who.

Oshima: All the Super Famicom character games were our rivals, and our targets. We were especially cognizant of the big games that came out during the Sonic development. We actually read Famicom Tsuushin every month and closely monitored the games there for gimmicks and ideas. It was very useful. (laughs)

—The stages of Sonic feature so many nice little touches and design ideas. Where did those ideas come from?

Oshima: We looked at all the action games that had come before and tried to add something conceptually new. The truth is, I’m actually pretty bad at games, and it’s hard for me to make progress even on easier games. For example, if there’s a platforming section with a series of jumps, well, with my skills that’s almost a certain game over. So for Sonic, we really tried to take the opposite starting point for our ideas, in terms of difficulty and design. Just re-using design ideas from other games was a non-starter, so we’d try to approach it from a different angle, or take an old idea and give it a new image visually. We kept playing around until we found things that worked.

—Was the sense of speed in Sonic something you created to distinguish yourself from the Mario games, then?

Oshima: That’s ultimately how it ended up, but the way the idea was concieved was different. In Mario, the fun and satisfaction comes from executing jumps with good timing as you progress through each stage. For Sonic, the selling point is the thrill of racing full-speed-ahead through the terrain. The flashy visuals are at the heart of the experience.

—How was the Sonic character created?

Oshima: Early in the development, we had the gameplay idea down, but we didn’t have a character yet who fit it. Yamaguchi created a hedgehog character, though it was completely different from the Sonic we know today. I combined a character idea I had with Yamaguchi’s hedgehog, and it seemed like it could work. We had also decided at the beginning that it would be an animal character. There was already a famous rabbit character though, and a cat wouldn’t be able to compete with Hello Kitty. “How about a hedgehog, then?”—no one could think of a famous hedgehog, so we went with that!

Honestly, it took us forever to figure that piece out, but once we did, the rest of the development went swimmingly. (laughs) That was the real make-or-break moment, and from there it was just down to putting in the work.

Yamaguchi: Yeah, I remember that. Whittling it down to that choice in the first part of the development was a real slog.

—And everything went smoothly once you knew the character’s identity.

Oshima: It’s like Edison said: 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. But, I would say that while there are many games that have that 99%, there are also many that lack the 1% spark of inspiration. And the reverse is often true too—that’s always a shame.

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Some of the many, many main character
designs considered during pre-production.

—By the way, where did the idea for a two-player mode come from, for Sonic 2?

Yamaguchi: The development of Sonic 2 was informed by two factors: the things we couldn’t do in the first game, and the response/feedback from players. The idea of controlling Tails came from programmer Yuji Naka, who wanted a kind of “1.5 player” game—something where it would be ok if the second player died. He wanted to allow for a tandem experience where both skilled and unskilled players could enjoy the game together.

—Finally, what are your three favorite games?

Oshima: 1. Tetris, 2. Populous, 3. Space Harrier.

Yamaguchi: 1. Assault Suits Valken, 2. Langrisser, 3. Thunder Force III.

Sonic the Hedgehog – 2009 Developer Interview

originally featured in Gameside magazine

—To begin with, please tell us how you became interested in video games.

Oshima: My first exposure to video games was one of Nintendo’s early home consoles. I believe it was one where you could swap to 6 different games by pressing a button… but it was so long ago, I can’t remember anything about the games themselves. After that there was the Space Invaders boom and the Famicom, but I played very little games during that period. Then, in college I encountered Yu Suzuki’s Space Harrier, and that blew my mind. I remember I was obsessed with it for awhile.

—Is that why you applied to Sega then, because of your love for Space Harrier?

Oshima: No, that wasn’t why. I had majored in design in college, and after graduating I did advertising design work for a short while. I originally had no particular desire to join the game industry.

—How did you get hired at Sega, then?

Oshima: I’ve always been the type of person who loves new things, and the game industry looked to me like a far more fresh, exciting world than the advertising industry, and gradually I became very interested and curious about it. Fortuitously, right at that time I learned that Sega was taking applications for mid-year hirings. “Forget advertising design, I’m going to try game design! Time for a new challenge!” And so I resolved on applying to Sega.

—Once you were hired, what was the first game you worked on?

Oshima: I designed enemy graphics for Phantasy Star for the Sega Mark III. The development of Phantasy Star was already underway when I got hired, so I was only able to help a little bit, and of the many enemies in Phantasy Star, only a small number were my designs.

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The party from the original
Phantasy Star; Ohshima contributed
the design of Tyrone (Odin, far right).

—When you say “graphics”, you also mean that you did the pixel/sprite art, right?

Oshima: Yeah. My process was to first draw a sketch on paper, then use that as a visual reference while I translated it into pixel form.

I was originally hired by Sega as a “designer”, and at the time I thought that meant that my job wasn’t only character design, but included designing the game as a whole, top to bottom. I was very surprised when I first realized that wasn’t the case. “Designer” means two different things in the advertising and game industries. Game designers, you see, are also expected to do their own pixel/sprite drawing, a fact I first learned upon joining Sega. (laughs) Until then, I had thought that translating everything over to pixel art was the programmer’s job…

—What other projects did you contribute your graphic designs to at Sega?

Oshima: In my case, I worked exclusively on console developments, so there were a lot of Megadrive titles. I did the pixel art for Phantasy Star II, Rambo III, Golden Axe, and many others.

—You must have also had a lot of experience with arcade ports, then.

Oshima: I did. However, the development environment that we used for the console hardware didn’t really allow shrinking/expanding sprites, so with arcade ports we would have to re-do all the graphics from the ground up.

—Oshima, you were the one who came up with the original plan for Sega’s hit of hits, Sonic the Hedgehog, right?

Oshima: Yes. I had been with Sega for exactly three years, when the President announced a company-wide petition for new ideas for “a product that will be a big hit in America!” I brought him my plans for Sonic and they were accepted. Persistence is key, as they say, and I had always thought that after three years of training at Sega, I would like to try designing my own game.

—So you worked up the presentation for the Sonic project all on your own, then.

Oshima: Yeah. I had previously worked in promotions/advertising, so I prepared a variety of different documents to present. I also asked Yuji Naka to prepare a working game sample to show, and I even had our toy guy create some plushies and stationary sample goods. I bombarded them with all that in my presentation: “with this game, Sega can take over the world!” (laughs) I had worked with Naka on the Phantasy Star planning, and we continued to work closely together after that.

—Did you already have the idea for a hedgehog character at that point in the planning stage?

Oshima: No, when I first imagined the plans for this game, the character wasn’t yet decided. The idea for Sonic came out in the course of various discussions with Naka.

When we asked ourselves what the sales point for this game was, the first thing we thought of was a sense of Speed. We were determined to make a game where the character dashed at incredible speed with the terrain scrolling smoothly by you—an experience so intense that if you played it once, all other games would feel unplayably slow and clunky by comparison!

—How did you settle on the design for Sonic, then?

Oshima: In my original draft, the character was a human, not an animal. However, the most famous character in gaming at that time was, of course, Mario. And we also figured that an animal protagonist would sell better than a human one in America. At first, we thought a rabbit might work, but later Naka pointed out that he wanted to add a gameplay element with a round protagonist who could roll. That got us asking how we could depict that speediness in a manga-like way, and what kind of animal would match that. The hedgehog won out as the best of our ideas.

—And yet, a hedgehog isn’t exactly a popular animal. I get the feeling not many people could imagine what one looks like off the top of their head…

Oshima: It definitely isn’t a well-known animal in Japan, but overseas you often see it in children’s books and the like, so it’s relatively popular. And our main priority was the western market, after all. As far as Japan goes, we wanted Sonic the Hedgehog to be so good that it would effectively introduce the foreign word “hedgehog” to the Japanese language!

—This is a slight diversion, but when you defeat enemies in Sonic, a small little bird sprite comes up, which I can only see as Flicky. Am I right—was this a direct reference to Flicky?

Oshima: It was. I went to the designer of Flicky and asked his permission myself. After he said yes, we added him in.

—Sonic the Hedgehog went on to sell an amazing 4 million copies.

Oshima: Yes, it did… although in Japan, to be honest, it didn’t really feel like it had sold that much. (laughs)

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Official pantone color guides for Tails and Knuckles, characters designed by Yasushi Yamaguchi and Takashi Yuda. In a different interview Oshima mentions that audiences in Japan were apparently confused about Tails’ gender when he first came out, with many people calling him “Sonic’s little sister.”

—In the sequels we are introduced to more characters, including Sonic’s friend Tails and his rival Knuckles. Were these also your designs?

Oshima: No, none of them were. Other than Sonic, the only characters I directly designed were Dr. Eggman and Amy Rose. The others characters were thought up by different staff.

—Wait, really?! I had always thought they were all done by you…

Oshima: For the first Sonic, I was involved in all aspects of their design, including drawing the actual sprites. But I was not involved in the developments for Sonic 2 or 3. Of the sequels, the one I was most heavily involved in was Sonic CD.

—What’s the story behind these other characters, then? How did they come about?

Oshima: Well, for Tails… the first Sonic game had been made with the American market in mind, trying to create a character in Sonic that would be popular with Americans. For Tails, they were trying to come up with a character design that would be more friendly to Japanese audiences. I believe they actually did a bunch of market research on that question before creating him.

—Oshima, what does “Sonic” mean to you?

Oshima: In a sense, he’s like a child to me. However, I’m not saying that I was a single, over-protective parent to him; without the contributions of Yuji Naka and the President of Sega, Sonic would surely not exist in this world. And since his debut, so many other people have contributed energy and vitality to make him the character he is today.

Like Mario, he is a character whose wide appeal is tied into the fact that he was raised by so many different people—and I bet Sonic himself would be happy to receive all that attention! For my part, I think keeping him too close to me and never letting him get his “independence” would actually have been a much sadder situation.