The Story of Sonic Team – 1997 Developer Interview

The Story of Sonic Team – 1997 Developer Interview

This interview with Naoto Oshima and Yuji Naka was originally featured in the January 1997 issue of Sega Magazine, and is an account of Naka and Oshima’s early days and the first Sonic the Hedgehog development. I’ve also included a selection of design commentaries on all three MD Sonic games, which was included in the July edition of Sega Magazine to promote Sonic Jam.

—Oshima, I don’t think I’ve actually ever heard the story of your early days at Sega. What made you decide to join Sega?

Oshima: I joined Sega in the middle of the hiring season, in 1987. Before that I was at a design company, but I originally had wanted to be a manga artist, and was only working there because I thought it would be good experience for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get along there. If I worked at game company, I thought, I could make people happy just by coming to work and doing my best… and with that spirit, I joined Sega.

—Did you have any interest in video games themselves?

Oshima: Almost none. (laughs) But I had always wanted to do some kind of work where I was creating something for children—I deeply admired the character of Santa Claus. And when I joined Sega, I told people “I joined this company because I want to be Santa Claus” (laughs).

—When people ask what your defining work is, I imagine most of them are hoping to hear “Sonic the Hedgehog”, but could you say a few words about the other games you worked on in those early days at Sega?

Oshima: The first work I did upon joining Sega was for Phantasy Star. I helped out on the monster design. Then, when Phantasy Star II was being developed, I noticed Naka was sitting next to me, and he looked really stressed out. I asked him casually if I could help out, and suddenly a ton of work was thrown my way. (laughs)

Naka: In those days it wasn’t uncommon to get work assigned to you like that. (laughs)

Oshima: Back then I also really disliked having nothing to do, so if someone looked busy, I’d ask if I could lend a hand. That informal system went on for awhile, and then about a year later, I got assigned my first project for myself, the overseas version of Rambo III. After that I did the graphics for Altered Beast for the Master System, and Hokuto no Ken for the Megadrive. Then came Sonic.

—Naka, before we get into Sonic, there’s some things I’d like to ask you about too. I understand your early days at Sega involved a lot of porting.

Naka: Yeah, I’ve made 16 games so far, and six of them were ports.

Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima, founding members of Sonic Team.

—Did you request that work?

Naka: For Outrun and Space Harrier in particular, yes, I did. They were games I loved, but I also had the feeling, from the experience I’d gained up to that point, that I could do them justice in a port. It was a kind of challenge I issued to myself.

It was similar with Spy vs. Spy and F16 Fighting Falcon… I had played them on the Commodore and thought they were interesting, so I opted to port them. So yeah, I guess for a lot of those ports, my request to do them was a big part of it.

—Hokuto no Ken is widely considered a masterpiece for the Mark II. Was that also one you asked to do?

Naka: No, I didn’t. (laughs) To tell the truth, Hokuto no Ken wasn’t really my thing. The reason why is really stupid, but in high school I had good friend who I had a falling out with, and this friend loved Hokuto no Ken… so after that experience, I just couldn’t get into it.

I joined Sega when I was 18, and before long they asked me to make Hokuto no Ken… I was like, “seriously?” But I did the programming all the same, and I also created the bosses and henchmen too. The planner gave me a rough outline of what kind of characters they were, and when I got really lost, I would read the relevant parts of the comic. “Oh, I see now… he’s like this.” (laughs)

So I understand why people think I must love Hokuto no Ken, but that wasn’t the case. (looks over at Oshima) Huh? Oshima, what is it?

Oshima: Ah, nothing. I’d just never heard that story before. It made me think, “ah hah, so that’s why he wouldn’t let me do the musclemen type characters I’ve wanted to draw for so long.” (laughs)

—When you first met, what were your first impressions of each other?

Naka: I remember it really well. I looked up one day and noticed Oshima was sitting next to me. (laughs) Even though he had joined late into the hiring season, there he was using the digitizer sprite tool like an expert, drawing a sprite of Superman. Back then the sprites were limited to only 16 colors, but his Superman was so well drawn, you didn’t notice that limitation at all. Everyone had gathered around him to look at it… “you drew this?!” In any event, I remember thinking this was someone really special.

Oshima: When I first joined Sega, there was no work for me right away. Being left alone, I started to get really anxious, so I drew that Superman sprite to pass the time. I remember that incident very clearly too. (laughs)

—The first time you both worked together was the Phantasy Star development, right?

Naka: There was a designer at Sega then whom I greatly admired.1 They loved RPGs, and so we got assigned to work together on Phantasy Star. Oshima sat next to this designer, and to help out, Oshima drew a ton of monsters for us. There were a lot of rejections, but where Oshima really stood out was in the monster animations.

Oshima also helped create the battle and spell effects for Phantasy Star II

The whole reason the Phantasy Star project got started was because this specific team was really fired up about making an RPG, so we rolled that momentum into Phantasy Star II, but the pace we were working at was extraordinary. We made Phantasy Star in 4 months, then did Super Thunder Blade in 2 months, and then completed Phantasy Star II in only 2.5 months! After that we did the Daimakaimura (Ghouls and Ghosts) MD port in about 5 months, too. (laughs) I’ve never worked so hard before or since.

—Sonic was released in July 1991, but it was announced much earlier. It seems to have had a long development.

Naka: We first showed it at a 1990 toy expo. I believe we had a promotion showing Alisa from PSI, Nei from PSII, and then Madonna, a human heroine, standing beside Sonic there. The demo we showed had rotation effects and 6-layer parallax scrolling—and this was all before the Super Famicom had come out. That was the demo that ended with “COMING SOON”.

—Was it decided from the start that you and Oshima would be working together on Sonic?

Naka: While I was working on Daimakaimura, Oshima was already planning a new game. It was called “Twinkle Star”, and featured twin siblings… those plans could be called the genesis of Sonic. After Daimakaimura wrapped up, I joined the planning with Oshima, but as soon as I got on board, they wiped the slate clean on their previous ideas. One of the ideas Oshima had in those original plans, to travel into the past and future, would end up getting used later in Sonic CD.

Oshima: For my part, I told my supervisor how I had been wanting to work with Naka for such a long time. Naka was unique among my colleagues in his ability to answer any difficult questions I had. I knew this was a person I wanted to work together with.

—How was the Sonic character born?

Naka: Sonic, for us at least, took shape from functional and programming considerations, and in that sense he was a revolutionary character for his time. His character design came after. What we had first, was smooth, rolling terrain and a character who could do 360 loops in that terrain.

Oshima: In the beginning, it was actually a rabbit skipping around. (laughs)

Naka: When you think of fast characters, rabbits are a natural match. We’d conceptualized it that far. But more than his image, I placed a higher emphasis on the controls themselves, and had decided the game would use just one button for his controls. Having only one button, I thought that button should probably be used for an attack.

Some kind of spinning / rolling attack would be interesting, but since rolling alone seemed kind of weak, I thought having spines on the character’s back would do the trick—so why not a hedgehog, then? That was our basic thought process, so once we were satisfied with the functional aspects, Oshima took off with the character design and expanded it further.

As this interview came out not long after NiGHTS’ release, the team also shared some design trivia about it. Above, a replica Kewpie doll from Oshima’s desk, which was rumored to be the visual inspiration for the Nightopians…

To tell the truth, the idea of a somersault attack was something I’d come up with in high school, and I’d kept it hidden from everyone since then. I had intended to use it for some future independent game of my own. (laughs) One of the ideas for Sonic’s attack when he was still a rabbit, was that he’d use his rabbit ears to pick things up. But I thought that was too boring and asked if they had any other ideas—because I still didn’t want to use mine if I didn’t have to! (laughs) No one could come up with anything better though, so I said, alright, looks like I’ll have to play my hand, and the somersault attack was what we ended up using.

Oshima: Naka was real sneaky about it. Before relenting he had been adamantly telling everyone, “All your ideas, anything you’ve been hiding, cough it up now!” (laughs)

Naka: One unique thing about Sonic, though, was that we started the project with 5 people (eventually expanding to 7), and it really was a combined effort of those people. That was my first time planning a game like that, as a team. Before that, typically a single person drafted the plans for the game. Sonic was made in joint consultation with Oshima all the way, and we got into a really good groove.

—Finally, please tell us about your future plans.

Oshima: We’re continuing to work on games that we think will delight you, so please look forward to hearing from us in Sega Magazine in the near future.

Naka: There’s a lot of different things we’ve been wanting to challenge ourselves with recently, and the NiGHTS picture book that will be released soon is a good example of that. Be sure to check it out, and please look forward to more from Sonic Team!

Early NiGHTS character designs for Claris and Elliot. The later designs incorporate a greater awareness of the eventual 3D polygon rendering.

Design Secrets and Memories: Sonic the Hedgehog

Naka: The “Sonic Band” was supposed to actually be used in a sound test screen we had planned. The sprites had been created and everything. You’d chose a song, and the band would perform it while Sonic breakdanced. Oshima had drawn up a lot of different poses, and the graphics were all done, but… at the very last minute we ran out of time to include it.

But that left us with about 500kb free space on the ROM (1/8 of our 4Mbit cart), and to use that we came up with the idea to have that “Se~ga~” voice clip play, like a commercial. I think it was the first console video game in Japan to have the company name spoken like that. I mean, the very idea of using 1/8 of your precious memory just for a single vocal sample was kind of crazy. (laughs) Normally you’d have to allocate all that memory beforehand, you see. I made the decision to go through with it a mere 3-4 days before the deadline, but now I’m sure glad we did it!

The story of how we got Dreams Come True to do the music for Sonic is also an interesting one. Our company director at the time, Fujio Minegishi, had strong connections to the record industry, and he asked around for us, if anyone was interested in writing the music for our game. His first suggestion was Yuzo Kayama. “How about Kayama? I’m friends with him and we can ride around on his yacht too.” Honestly for a moment there I was seriously tempted. (laughs) But his music was completely different from the image we had for Sonic, so we ended up going with Dreams Come True.

I remember going to a Dreams Come True concert at the end of 1990. Even though the game was not released yet, the band had a huge emblem of Sonic emblazoned on their backstage trailer. At the second concert, during one of their audience talks, they spoke about Sonic and revealed they were going to do the music for it. I had just brought them the latest version of the sample roms, and I was really happy.

At that time, Sega also happened to be taking submissions for a new corporate mascot character. I submitted Sonic. Although Sonic was still in development, Yu Suzuki included the Sonic character in his 32-bit arcade game Rad Mobile, as a little decoration hanging from the rearview mirror. I loved that, and did the same thing with my own car for awhile.

Sonic 2

Naka: After the Sonic development ended, I started catching wind of rumors (from Sega of America staff) that Sonic had become a big hit in America. On this occasion, I was invited to come to America. They said the development offices were a sight to behold, plus they’d pay for the airfare. (laughs) Silicon Valley was something of a mecca for we programmers, and I wanted to see for myself how Sonic was faring in America, so right around the time Sonic released in Japan, I headed to America.2

Indeed, the development offices were incredibly cool, like something out of a movie! (laughs) We drove to the offices, and after entering a security code we drove down to the underground garage where these cool lights automatically came on to illuminate our path. Then we took the elevator up to this truly humongous office.

I had really only intended to get a quick peek at America on this trip, but Silicon Valley really was something else. “I’ve got to find a way to work here!”, I thought. “I won’t have another chance like this again!” And so it happened that I ended up working for Sega of America. (laughs)

A very early pop display promotional image of Sonic.

For about 2 months, I passed the time working on a variety of different projects. Then the request came from Sega to make Sonic 2. I thought if I could figure out a way to include two-player head-to-head gameplay, then I’d be interested. After about 10 months of research and development, I had something working, and gave the GO sign. I then returned to Japan briefly to gather up a capable team. Unfortunately, Oshima had already begun the development of Sonic CD, so I couldn’t bring him back with me.

Although I couldn’t bring Oshima, I had Hirokazu Yasuhara there with me in America. He was a planner who I trusted immensely, on the same level as Oshima, so I was confident we could make a new Sonic game. Our designers were also handpicked, and included a woman who had worked on Sonic 1,3 as well as Yasushi Yamaguchi, an amazing designer in his own right. The first thing we got down to was the two-player functionality, experimenting with a variety of approaches. By the end of the year, we had something that looked promising.

Ultimately we ended up utilizing the Megadrive’s Interlace Mode 2 display (320×448) for the versus gameplay, but originally we were using just the standard (320×244) display mode. When you jumped you couldn’t tell where you character was at all though. It was really bad, and I was worried… how are we going to make this work?! But I was fixated on getting a 2P mode in there no matter what it took. I have a real fondness, you could say, for two-player games… and something I realized when I played Sonic 1 was that, as I had thought, it’s always more fun to play with two-players, like with your brother or sister, than by yourself.

We ended up going with a more “1.5 player” support role for Tails, but considering that Sonic 2 needed to feel faster, and we also had to include 2P simultaneous play, Sonic 2 needed to be almost twice as powerful as the first game. This meant the programming needed a huge overhaul. I guess that’s the kind of challenge programmers live for though. (laughs)

As for our new additions to Sonic 2, they began and grew out of our dissatisfactions from the first game. The idea for the super spin dash, for instance, came directly from one of those complaints—namely that beginners couldn’t do the loop-de-loops very well, and if they made a mistake they couldn’t get the momentum back to loop through it. That was annoying. So what if he could dash from a stopped position…? Then we had the image of him spinning in a ball to accelerate, and rendering it graphically helped the idea take further shape.

By the way, originally the design for the second player wasn’t a fox—it was a tanuki who spun his tail around horizontally. (laughs) It was a character Yasushi had made for a different action game he had been planning.

After awhile we realized a tanuki was too weird, and Yasushi refined the design into something a little more cute. To give him more personality, we added two tails, and the nickname “Tails” as well.

Only ten of these large Sonic plushies were made; seven were sent to America, and Naka kept one for the dev room.

People often tell me that Sonic 2 is the best Sonic game. Of all the games, it was the most carefree, generous development in terms of our schedule and work environment. I believe that had a big influence on the final quality of Sonic 2.

Sonic 3 / Sonic and Knuckles

Naka: Sonic 2 was a much bigger hit than the first game. When 2 shipped, there was a ton of media coverage, from newspapers and TV stations. When I saw the newspapers the next day, Sonic 2 had bigger coverage than the presidential election! In color, no less! I was running around elated, “Haha! We beat the President! Sonic beat the President!” (laughs) Soon after that, as you would expect, we began the Sonic 3 development, but Sega wanted to make sure it didn’t lose its employees, so they brought me back to Japan. Tails’ designer Yasushi Yamaguchi also came back, and so we needed to assemble a new staff once again. Iizuka was also one of the people who came back from Sega of America.

Iizuka: Ah, I remember feeling so insecure and embarrassed—everyone around me had nothing but hits under their belts!

Naka: At the end of the Sonic 2 development, we had a hell of a time coordinating with the American staff, and for that reason, for Sonic 3 we decided to make Sonic 3 with an all-japanese team.

With Sonic 2 we had pushed the Megadrive close to its limit, so I knew it would be difficult, from a hardware perspective, to surpass that for Sonic 3. Right around that time, I heard talk of a new virtual processing chip, the SVP, to be used in Virtua Racing. Then we started talking about using that in Sonic 3. Up till about June of 1993, the Sonic 3 development included the SVP. It featured isometric 3D graphics, and you could rotate and turn the game field. There was a bunch of stuff we were planning for it.

Iizuka: It was 3D, so we called it “Sonic 3D”. In turn we often joked about Sonic 2, calling it “Sonic 2D”. (laughs)

Naka: The development began in late January of 1993, and up to June, we were doing tons of programming for the SVP. The SVP chip itself was still, at that time, being developed in parallel with Virtua Racing, so our team got to go to technical meetings in Chicago, which was really fun. Unfortunately, in June we realized that development of the SVP chip probably wouldn’t be finished by the end of the year. So we abandoned all the programming and work we’d done up to then. In the remaining 6 months we had for Sonic 3, we had to start entirely from zero and re-do everything. So while it might seem like it took us a long time between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, the reality is that we really had no time at all to spare.

The thing was, we had planned a big promotional tie-in campaign with McDonald’s the following year in February—and we had spent 2 billion yen (approx 20 million USD) on it!—so we absolutely had to meet that release deadline for Sonic 3 in February. Unfortunately, having to restart everything in June, we only had time to create about half the stages we’d envisioned.

The McDonald’s ad campaign that, among other things, forced Sonic Team’s hand in releasing Sonic 3 separate from S&K.

Then, at the very end of the Sonic 3 development, we were talking about needing to do something, and someone asked if it would be technically possible to combine two cartridges. We figured out the way to do that at the very, very last minute before the deadline, and then we revised all the programming in Sonic 3 to account for a future Lock-On cart.

Iizuka: I would say that, when the SVP development was finally determined to be a no-go, we weren’t plunged into despair. Each time the SVP development got delayed, it helped narrow the scope of what we were doing with Sonic 3, which was helpful.

Naka: We had all these different ideas. Screen rotation, globe-shaped levels, hidden areas…

For the character of Knuckles, we relied a lot on market research about American kids’ taste. There were actually eight different candidates, but the most popular one was Knuckles with his dreadlocks. He was the most popular among middle school and high school kids, but early on, his image was more “reptilian”, like a dinosaur. He almost stood out too much even. His image is much more refined now, but that long tail of his is a remnant from his early, more dinosaur-looking design.

Iizuka: We made a polygon Sonic too, didn’t we?

Naka: Ah, yeah, we did. The original special stage featured a 3D-polygon Sonic running around in a figure-eight shaped stage. In any event, ultimately for Sonic and Knuckles, we weren’t rushed and had lots of free time, and we were able to fully implement most of our ideas.

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  1. It isn’t clear who this is, and the generic term “designer” could refer to a number of people: Rieko Kodama, Kotaro Hayashida, or Miki Morimoto are probably the most likely candidates.

  2. Sonic came out first in the US in 6/91, and was released in JP in 7/91).

  3. Probably Rieko Kodama, based on the names in the credits.

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