Sonic CD – Developer Interview Collection
This collection of interviews—two conducted immediately prior to the game’s initial release in 1993, and another in commemoration of the series’ 20th anniversary in 2011—offer some insight into the conception of Sonic CD from many of the game’s staff, including composer Naofumi Hataya, character designer Kazuyuki Hoshino and director and original Sonic designer Naoto Ohshima.
Kazuyuki Hoshino – Designer
In terms of the graphics, our biggest theme for Sonic CD was “CG”. When I joined Sega, it was my first chance to work with a Mac. “whoa…! amazing, so this is a computer?!”—yeah, I was pretty green, and I had stars in my eyes for anything “high tech”. There was a strategic side to it, too: this game would be for the brand new Mega CD, so we wanted to include new ideas distinct from the previous Sonic games. We needed to stand out somehow.
Of course, the computing power and hardware of that era was pretty paltry compared with today, so we were never going to be able to create something that matched those ambitions, nor was anyone expecting that from us. At the time, “CG” meant sparkling, sheen metallic surfaces that immediately jumped out at you and yelled, “THIS IS CG!”, and frankly, I thought that aesthetic was the height of cool.
As Ohshima and I gathered up more and more CG reference materials, our excitement grew, manifesting in that title screen for Sonic CD—our first foray. To create that image of Sonic turning to face you, we used a polaroid camera to take pictures of a Sonic figurine, scanned them, and used that as our base to create the animation.
To provide contrast and highlight Sonic himself, we made the emblem behind him look metallic, to provide an overall impression of “CG”. I think it was a success, in the way it clearly felt different from the previous Sonic games.
About Metal Sonic
When I first heard the words “Sonic’s Arch-rival” and “Sonic’s Doppelganger” in the design notes, an image for that character’s design immediately came to me, in almost complete form. Metal naturally fit into our key visual concept for Sonic CD as well, and from the first moment that I imagined his red iris set against the darkness of his black eyes, I knew he would become a character with real, lasting appeal.
As a result, Metal Sonic continues to appear in the newer Sonic games, and many people in Europe and America enjoy drawing fan art of him, for which I’m very grateful.
This was something I thought about later when I designed Shadow the Hedgehog, too, but seeing as Metal Sonic was a rival character to Sonic, I knew the best way to show that off would be with an in-game scene where Sonic and Metal Sonic directly compete with each other—and I designed Metal Sonic with that scene in mind.
I thought it would be a little boring if they just raced against each other with the same exact abilities, so I searched and searched for some kind of alternative movement for Metal Sonic, drawing lots of sketches in the process. Metal Sonic is a robot, so there were a lot of possibilities, but if it’s pure speed we’re talking about… yes—a jet engine! That has to be it, I thought. The way a drag racer emits a huge cloud of smoke when it dashes off the starting line—with that picture in my mind, I created this huge booster engine for Metal Sonic’s back. I imagined it having so much force, that only a super high-tech computer would be able to properly control it. In any event, it became a big part of Metal Sonic’s overall design.
Naofumi Hataya – Composer
Well, my memories are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to do my best to remember those days.
At the time, the Mega Drive sound chip only allowed for six FM channels (one of which could be switched to PCM), one PSG3 channel, and one noise channel, so switching from that to the Mega CD, which could use CD-DA, really broadened the horizons of what was possible for us as sound creators. Sega was keen to capitalize on this new functionality, and allocated generous budgets for the sound on these Mega CD games, aiming for CD-level quality far beyond “normal” game music.
As you all know, the music for Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 were written by Masato Nakamura of Dream Come True, so in that sense there was already a precedent. For Sonic CD’s opening and ending themes, Sega enlisted the help of music production company Being, who were at the time the biggest name in the music industry (it’s the same company that B’z and other major artists are attached to).
With Being’s help, we got Keiko Utoku to do the vocals. For the lyrics, we were able to call on Casey Rankin from the rock band SHOGUN. Casey was a good-natured guy, I remember how much I really liked him. For the recording, he brought these two black guys who were friends of his. It was a lot of fun recording the demo takes and scratch tracks with them, and for us personally, getting the chance to work with these music industry pros left us feeling starstruck. We actually did all the music recording (not just the op/ed themes) at Being’s professional studio, so it was a great chance to learn how things are done in the industry, too.
Yes, those opening and endings themes for Sonic CD… while they reached a very high level of quality, the road was a rocky one. As you can imagine, creating the music for one of Sega’s flagship titles was nothing to take lightly.
The director for Sonic CD was Naoto Ohshima, the man who created Sonic. A passionate person, he could also be a huge stickler when it came to conceptual integrity and his vision. The first thing we set out to create for the Sonic CD music was this theme song, but… at first, co-composer Masafumi Ogata and I submitted a demo tape with several songs on it, but it was a miserable failure—it didn’t match Ohshima’s vision. Exactly what he had told us to do, I don’t remember anymore, but I guess we got the wrong impression. In pursuit of music that matched his concept for the game, Ohshima was merciless in the revisions he requested.
Now that I think of it, it probably was Sonic CD that really marked the beginning of my appreciation for how important it is that game music be tightly woven into the underlying concept of the game. It was a lesson I never forgot afterwards.
Ogata and I started holding strategy meetings. Our flash of inspiration came from the unique way Sonic was being handled by people in the UK. At clubs, DJs were using images of Sonic for their turntable slipmats, and stylish, fashionable magazines were using Sonic for their front covers. It was the early 90s, when club music was just beginning to infiltrate the Japanese music scene. That music felt very welcoming and familiar to those of us who had spent time making music on computers. With their extensive use of sampling, “techno” and house music seemed to be brimming with new possibilities. And so Ogata and I decided that Sonic CD would feature techno and house.
Naturally, of course, the music needed to tie into the gameplay as well. One of the keywords for Sonic CD’s development was “time warp”. By changing the past, you would change the future. There could therefore be both a good future (one unconquered by Eggman, where nature has been preserved—”ecology” was a popular buzzword in Japan then) and a bad future (a mechanical future ruled over by Eggman). Those two concepts provided us with ample inspiration for our approach to the sampling.
Our second try at presenting our demo for the theme songs began with the ending theme, which I had been responsible for writing. It was supposed to be a vocal track, so I tried adding some vocal samples to represent that in the demo. I also wanted there to be a lot of vocal glissando, to bring out that funk feel. Those vocal samples played a key part in capturing the atmosphere of the song. As we listened, and I explained the overarching concept to Ohshima, I could finally see that he approved. At last—progress!
Unlike nowadays, where you can get instant feedback from twitter and online messageboards, back then you usually had no idea how people felt about the music after the game was released. With Sonic CD, though, I received a lot of nice praise, both within Sega and without. Along with surprise, I felt how strong the production was for the first time. The bonus I got at Sega that year was great too. (laughs) While I wouldn’t call it a “passion project” for me, I did become completely engrossed in the work, writing new songs in the morning, then going over to the studio to record them at night… despite literally working night and day like that, it didn’t bother me at all. We filled our sampler’s memory up to the max, and throughout the writing, I was always working out new ideas in my head.
I’m all too familiar with the debates about CD-ROMs and whether CD music is ultimately a suitable medium for game music; what I can say, as a creator, is that with the limitations removed, one could no longer rely on excuses a
bout sound quality, and everything came down to the strength of your ideas. It was an experience that taught me, again, just how important the conceptual planning is.
And on that note…! (?)
Undoubtedly, Sonic CD was an important landmark in my development as a musician. If you can put your mindset back 20 years and imagine those early 90s days while you listen, I think it might all make sense!
the bubble economy…
…ah, those were the days.
(gazes longingly into the distance)
Sonic CD – 1993 Developer Interview
originally featured in the 10/93 issue of BEEP Mega Drive
Naoto Ohshima – Director
Kenichi Ono – Planner
Hiroaki Chino – Planner
Yukifumi Makino – Sound Director/Effects
Hiroyuki Kawaguchi – Art Director
Yasushi Yamaguchi – Designer
Ohshima: Sonic CD is Sonic’s debut on the Mega CD, but now that the character of Sonic has become something of a company-wide mascot for Sega, it was decided that every new iteration of Sega hardware must have a Sonic game. For Sonic CD, our ideas were to make the world and setting larger, and to add more replayability, so it would be something you could enjoy playing for a long time. We don’t consider it a sequel to Sonic 1 and 2—it really exudes a feeling of “this is Sonic… on CD!” instead.
We also received a lot of criticism for the relatively plain endings to Sonic 1 and 2, so we’ve added two different endings to this game, along with anime scenes that will be quite impressive, I think. Combined with the new gameplay ideas like the time warping and time attack mode, I think it’s got a lot more depth than before. It’s an all-around more user-friendly experience.
Ono: For the Sonic CD animations, Toei Animation created the OP and ED. We made a lot of crazy demands on them, like “you have to use the Dragon Ball team!!!”
I’m not trying to shill for Dragon Ball here or anything (laughs), but apparently it’s extremely popular over in Europe too. Even though the two scenes together are only 4-5 minutes worth of animation, they’re fully animated (30fps) and required over 5000 cel images to create. They really gave us something amazing.
By the way, if you don’t touch the controls for 3 minutes, Sonic will get bored and jump off the screen. We added a lot of little touches like that, which I’m excited for players to see. Also, if you keep practicing the time attack you can get some crazy times, so I hope players try that out.
Chino: For the special stage, our first idea was to do something similar to Sonic 1, with two layers of rotating backgrounds. But when we actually tried it out, we weren’t satisfied with the speed, so we decided to instead make something that would demonstrate the full power of the Mega CD. In my head, I imagined it being kind of like a race game, something fitting for Sonic’s speed.
Makino: Unlike Sonic 1 and 2, the basic direction we went in for Sonic CD was house music. Every stage has its own BGM and I’m excited for people to hear that, but also, for the “past” portions of the stages, it being the past and all, we used cheaper sounds and tried to evoke the music of a prehistoric religion… in contrast, the “future” portion of the stage is more techno.
Yamaguchi: I was a character and graphic designer in Sonic 2. If you play Sonic CD through the end, I’m sure you’ll pick up on this, but the ending may make players think that Sonic CD falls in between Sonic 1 and 2, in terms of chronology.1 That’s why Tails doesn’t show up, nor can you transform into Super Sonic, since that’s a power granted to Sonic only after he collects all the chaos emeralds. Tails, however, does show up in Sonic CD for a cameo! (laughs) It’s just a little thing but try and find him!
Kawaguchi: Finding all the time stones does make something good happen, so I hope players do their best and get them all. Isn’t it nice to be able to save your game now? Anyway, not one person phoned it in, and we’re all really proud of how Sonic CD turned out. Please buy it!
Sonic CD – 1993 Developer Interview
originally featured in issue no. 7 of Marukatsu Mega Drive
Hiroaki Chino – Planner
Yukifumi Makino – Sound Director/Effects
Masahiro Sanpei – Designer/Animation Director
Kazuyuki Hoshino – Character Designer
Kenichi Ono – Planner
Masato Nishimura – Designer
—What do you feel some of biggest changes have been, now that Sonic has made the jump from cartridge to CD?
Chino: One place in particular where you feel the difference is the special stage. We used the Mega CD’s sprite rotation abilities for that. Also, a single regular stage will have past, present, and future to contend with… we could only bring that volume to life with the CD format—if you do a simple comparison with Sonic 2, it’s 3x the volume. But when you add in the secrets and other things, overall, I think it’s safe to say it has about 4x the volume.
—There are new characters too.
Hoshino: True, but… in this one, it’s really all about enjoying Sonic himself, and the other characters are mostly just there to help facilitate that.
Ono: Yeah, for those who don’t want to watch the story, they can skip past the scenes with Amy, whereas those who want to enjoy flirting with her can stop and play lovey-dovey to their heart’s content. We wanted to leave that aspect up to the players to decide. After all, if you lock the screen and prevent the player from doing anything, it becomes less like a game and more like a movie or something you passively watch. So yeah, these extra characters are just that, something extra.
—Sonic himself strikes me as someone who wouldn’t get too tied up in any “story”—as a character he’s too cool for that.
Ono: You’re quite right. That’s why we avoided including forced cutscenes. These days its become customary for games, once you begin them, to make you sit through some opening story, you know? We treat it more like a little demo or commercial that you can skip through.
—That “take it or leave it, idgaf” attitude is very Sonic. The music in Sonic CD also feels very fitting to his character.
Makino: In making the music, step one was deciding on a solid conceptual theme, which the sound team worked out together in person. When we asked ourselves, what kind of music fits the image of character like Sonic?, house and techno house were the closest, we thought—house, techno, electronic music of that ilk. That’s the path we set out on, but we soon realized that if every track is that stereotypical pumping house music, it would get a little fatiguing, so we broadened our horizons a bit and there should be some nice variety in there too.
—I’ve heard there are musicians in the indie scene in Europe today who are writing music inspired by the Sonic game music.
Makino: I believe there are movements like that overseas, yeah. Especially in England, I’ve heard that in the club scene, Sonic merchandise and goods are really popular… Sonic t-shirts and hats, things like that.
Ono: Actually, we talked about including some of those people in the Special Thanks section of the ending credits. Jesus Jones, Denki Groove, Cool Spoon…
Hoshino: And Scha Dara Parr, YMO, and i-D Japan (a Japanese version of an English magazine), too. People operating in other cultural mediums who have helped spread the Sonic name. I’d like to say thank you to all of them.
—The traps and other stage gimmicks in Sonic CD are brimming with new and interesting ideas. Where do the inspiration for these ideas come from?
Chino: Everyone on the team contributes them, in a variety of different ways. I think the inspiration depends on the individual. Some ideas have come while riding on the train. Others while walking around the city…
Nishimura: And movies, and other media.
Ono: Another example would be commercials where the cinematography or action is really cool. Even in animation, action is composed of various cuts and edited together, but when you’re thinking of how to actually block it all out, sometimes inspiration from a particular series of scenes or cuts will be the key that helps you put it all together in your head.
—How does your staff on Sonic CD feel about the previous Sonic games?
Nishimura: Hmm, I’d say they’re our rivals. As a creator we don’t see them as allies, but as something to overcome. To be honest though, we feel that sense of rivalry with every game out there today. (everyone nods)
—The Sonic series has fans all over the world now. Was that sense of an international fellowship something you were aware of during the development of Sonic CD?
Makino: Of course—it’s a fact we took care never to forget. Sonic is for the world, he’s not for Japan only. (everyone nods)
—With fan’s expectations running so high, I imagine the pressure must be immense. In light of that, what were some of the biggest challenges? Also, if there’s anything in particular you’d like players to notice, please mention it here too.
Sanpei: The work of translating the animation cels into Mega Drive graphics took a lot of time because there so many. We didn’t want to do it slapdash… if we’re going to put something out there into the world, we wanted it to look good. I think it looks just as good as normal animation… I’m very satisfied. That’s why I hope players will persevere to the end and watch the ending movie, I really want everyone to see it!
Hoshino: Working on a Sonic game is a bit like working on PR for Sega; he’s that important to the company. My big goal with this development was to help firmly establish what I call “Sonic Style”.
Ono: I did all the planning for the maps, special rounds, and time attacks… there’s some special surprises hidden in there (sorry, I can’t tell you about them now!). Actually, some of our staff think the time attack mode is more interesting than the main game. I was involved in making it, so that made me happy to hear…
Nishimura: This was a very long development. When I think about it though, the game is packed with content. On a personal level, I think it came out rather well…! The time attack mode is indeed very awesome. I want everyone to play it.
Makino: On the sound side, we had to create a lot of tracks because it was a Mega CD game, and finding the balance between them was challenging. I hope players stop and appreciate the sound effects too.
Chino: The Special Stage really shows off the Mega CD’s power, and I hope players will give them their best shot. We’ve included a heap of secrets in Sonic CD too… be sure to find them all!
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Apparently my original translation of this line elicited some controversy about how definitive / affirmative Yamaguchi was being about his own claims on the chronology here; I’ve added the “may make players think” to more fully capture the nuance.↩