Times Interview with Yuji Naka

Interview Data:

  • Interview Date: 13 September 2001
  • Interview Topics: Inspiration, Japanese and American markets, Sonic's appeal
  • Interview Source: LA Times external.png

September 13, 2001
Super Sonic

Yuji Naka, although unknown in the United States, is a cult figure in Japan, where video games are far more embedded in popular culture than in the rest of the world.

For starters, Naka was just 25 years old in 1991 when he created "Sonic the Hedgehog," an adventure game featuring the eponymous spiky blue mascot of Sega Corp. His annual salary at the time was $30,000. The game sold 2 million copies the year it was released, which helped double his salary to $60,000 in 1992, when he released "Sonic 2," a game he produced and designed in the U.S. offices of Sega.

Naka won't reveal his current salary, but it's enough to let him indulge in his passion for fast cars. He owns three—a Ferrari, a Lotus and a Porsche. Not bad for an Osaka kid who joined Sega right out of high school in 1984 as a programmer. As head of Sega's Sonic Team of developers, Naka oversaw such titles as "Phantasy Star Online," "Chu-Chu Rocket" and "Samba de Amigo."

But Sonic has proved to be the most enduring of Naka's franchises. The cheeky, blue rodent had his own Japanese television show and comic book series, which continues to be published today. But Naka doesn't credit Sonic's personality with the success of the games. Instead, in a recent interview from Sega headquarters in Tokyo, Naka said it's all in the game play. The character is there only to serve the game. If the game isn't fun, the character might as well vanish.

Q: How did you create Sonic? What was the initial idea? Why is he a hedgehog?
I wanted to create a character that would compete with [Nintendo Co.'s] Mario. At first, I liked the idea of a rabbit because it's a speedy animal. I also considered the idea of having the character throw things with its ears. But I realized that in order to do that, the rabbit would need to stop running. So I started to think of a character that can defeat enemies while moving at the same time, rolling and clashing against them. I hit upon the hedgehog. A hedgehog has spines on its back, so it can roll and clash against the enemies. So, the reason I chose a hedgehog as the main character of the game was not because I like hedgehogs but because of the necessity of the game.

Q: How does one create enduring game characters like Sonic, Lara Croft, Mario or Crash Bandicoot? What attributes must they have?
I think it is more important that the game itself is fun because the characters are born from the essence of the game. Characters have to be made to complement the game play, not just to be cute.

Q: How is "Sonic Adventure 2" an improvement over previous "Sonic" games, particularly the original "Sonic Adventure"?
The new game is speedier, faster and has more action elements. The other big difference is that it's possible for two players to play the game at the same time in the split-screen mode. With "Sonic Adventure," we could not use the full potential that Dreamcast hardware had. But when we developed "Sonic Adventure 2," we learned how to use the full potential of the hardware. So two people are now able to play simultaneously.

Q: Do you find that the U.S. audience is different from the Japanese audience in terms of what they look for in a character adventure game?
I guess the Americans tend to prefer more challenging games. In contrast, it seems a large majority of Japanese enjoy the story itself. It is difficult for the developers to balance these two things. Really, there is no major difference between the Japanese and the Americans in the fact that they both pursue interesting games.

Q: How did you sort the roles of the various characters?
Sonic just keeps running. Tails shoots the machines and Knuckles seeks treasures.

Q: Why do you think Sonic has lasted so long as a franchise?
I guess it is because he has been loved by children. I also think kids have the impression that Sonic is a cool character.

Q: How do you learn to make an adventure game fun?
There is no clear answer. However, developers should experience as many things in the real world as possible and enjoy themselves. They should analyze what it is about things that they enjoy and try to incorporate those things in their games. Also, it's important to trust your first impression about what is or isn't fun and learn from that.

Q: Where do you get inspiration for your games?
Speed is important in the "Sonic" titles. I have three cars - a Ferrari 355, a Lotus Elise and a Porsche Turbo - and I participate in the rallies of Lotus Elise. So I have a personal interest in things that have to do with high speeds such as Formula One races.

Q: Now that Sega makes games for other platforms, is it odd for you to be making games for consoles that were once rivals to Sega's Dreamcast?
For me, it is interesting. The Japanese have a saying that the enemy of yesterday is the friend of today.

Q: Which platform do you prefer to work on?
It's fun for me to get involved in new platforms. I'm trying all of them. Right now, I am interested in the Gamecube. Nintendo tries to make it easy for developers. Also, the Gamecube's power and graphics capabilities are consistent.

Times staff writer Alex Pham covers the video game industry. Translation provided by Nana Ishizawa of Sega Corp.


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