It’s a big year for world’s most famous hedgehog. Sonic Mania is a critical success and has taken the series back to its 16-bit roots with the help of fan-game developer turned professional, Christian Whitehead. Meanwhile, Sonic Team in Tokyo is hard at work on Sonic Forces, which looks to be a semi-sequel-spin-off of Sonic Generation — arguably most popular Sonic game of the last decade.
I recently sat down with two SEGA legends, Shun Nakamura, producer of Sonic Forces, and Takashi Iizuka, the head of Sonic Team, and, through the aid of a translator, talked with them about why we’re getting two big Sonic games in one year, the addition of custom characters in Sonic Forces, and if there’s chance we’ll see ever see a Sonic Adventure 3.
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From a fan’s perspective, it feels like Classic Sonic’s inclusion in Sonic Forces is a direct response to how well received he was in Sonic Generations. Would you say that’s an accurate assumption?
Takashi Iizuka: Sonic Generations was born out of the desire to provide something really interesting for the 20th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog, that was the first time we brought the Classic Sonic into a game with Modern Sonic. We were surprised how much people enjoyed the gameplay and the character, and it is something we’re very aware of now that people really love Classic Sonic.
SONIC FORCES: Modern Sonic runs down the streets of Park Avenue, the first level of Sonic Forces shown to the public.
When I was playing Sonic Forces I felt it had an almost diorama-like look to it. Not quite real, but not cartoon-ish either. How do you go about creating worlds that are part of the Sonic universe for new games that take advantage of new technology, but also ensure they feel like they belong in the franchise?
Shun Nakamura: One of the really great aspects of Sonic The Hedgehog and the universe that has been created is we’re not trying to give you a photo-realistic world. It has a charming element to it. That goes all the way back to the art design, level design, the look, and feel of the world.
Reflections, lighting, all of the advancements let us do more and more with the look, but we get to keep the charming look of the world. It’s a testament to how long the series has been going and how much work has gone into establishing the look of the world.
SONIC FORCES: Classic Sonic returns to Green Hill Zone, which now features a semi-realistic look that also retains its iconic style.
When Sonic Mania was announced it was met with incredible enthusiasm by Sonic fans. It seems like such a logical move for the series, so I guess my question is why did it take so long to get a 16-bit style Sonic game?
Iizuka: [Laughs] When we began Sonic Mania [we had] Sonic Forces already fully in development, and as we were making that game we knew this was a Sonic game that a lot of people were going to like. A lot of people were waiting for this next iteration of the current Sonic The Hedgehog game series, but we also have this really hardcore group that really love classic 2D Sonic games and they want another 2D Sonic game. As we were working with Nakamura-san and his team to make Sonic Forces the best current generation game possible, we also had this opportunity to surprise our hardcore 2D fans by working with Christian Whitehead and making this interesting, new 2D Sonic game.
So really, from SEGA’s perspective they wanted a 2D Sonic experience, and up until now, we’ve released the older games on a variety of platforms. You can play them on your smartphone, or on consoles, there’s a lot of places you can get this content. [SEGA said] can you port the classic Sonic games to more new platforms, but as this was happening we had this very opportune moment where Christian Whitehead approached us and said ‘I want to make this new Sonic The Hedgehog game’, and we had already engaged him to get Sonic CD onto mobile phones. [He proved his] technology and his expertise with the classic games and how to make them feel just like they did back in the day.
Being able to work with and use some of the ideas from the past, then bring some of those ideas to a new market was something I began to have conversations with Christian about. This all happened at the same time. Christian wanting to make a new Sonic game with a classic feel and SEGA wanting a new classic Sonic game to come out. Being here in America I was able to engage Christian in talks about design for new content for a brand new 2D Sonic experience with the attention to detail he brings to the Sonic games he works on. It really was a culmination of things happening at the same time. And as Christian was working on the title, I was there to make sure it was still a classic experience. We were able to bring all this great new content to fruition.
SONIC MANIA: Sonic and Tails racing through Mirage Saloon Zone, a new stage in Sonic Mania that’s based on a scrapped level called Dust Hill Zone from Sonic The Hedgehog 2.
It’s no secret that Sonic didn’t make the smoothest transition into 3D, but it has been getting better and from what I’ve played Sonic Forces controls really well. How much work goes into refining the controls for each 3D Sonic game?
Nakamura: We’ve been working on Sonic games for a very long time. There are people on my team who have been working on high-speed Sonic games for over 10 years, and they’re constantly iterating on [not just the controls] but also how they make maps, and what new technology will allow them to do and let players feel as in control as possible.
It’s really the professionals behind the scenes that are constantly playing the game, and talking amongst themselves about how it feels and what little bit of polish does it need to feel better. To let you feel as in control as possible even when you’re flying through a level at really high-speed. It’s a constant action in the team, to play the game and make it feel as good as possible.
SONIC FORCES: Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic flank an unnamed hero who players will be able to customise. Custom heroes have their own levels and storyline in the game.
The Sonic fanbase is very passionate about the extended Sonic universe, and I’m sure you must get sent and have seen tons of fan art. Was that I big motivation to allow players to create custom heroes in Sonic Forces?
Iizuka: Yes, I think you picked up on exactly what we are going for. Even back in the day, I would see a lot of fan letters, and now, of course, it’s people on social media. But back then we would get proper letters with fan art. I’ve received a lot of characters created by the fans, and I noticed that the people who really enjoy Sonic enjoyed creating new characters for the Sonic world. When we were thinking about Sonic Forces we thought about what new things can we bring to a Sonic game.
That evolved into being able to choose from various character types of animals that already exist in the Sonic universe, so now you get to choose an animal and customize it. You can change how it looks right down to the facial features, and this lets the player create their own character to go on an adventure with Sonic The Hedgehog and experience the world through the eyes of their own character
Iizuka: That is right, Sonic Mania is a ‘what if’ game that shows what could have been if there was a 2D Sonic game on the SEGA Saturn. It has that look and feels to it. Hopefully, a lot of people enjoy and appreciate that.
There is a part of me that wishes there was a classic Sonic game on the SEGA Saturn, but for me back then in my career and in my life I was working at SEGA and got to make Nights into Dreams and I’m really glad I got to do that. It’s hard for me to look back and say what I wish I could have done because I made a good game, but I wish I could have also made a Sonic game for the SEGA Saturn.
SONIC ADVENTURE 2: The now iconic truck chase scene from City Escape, the opening level of Sonic Adventure 2.
Eventually, you did get to work on a much-loved Sonic game, Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. Originally there was going to be a lot more RPG elements in that game, do you think you’ll ever revisit that idea and make a Sonic RPG? You’ve got the perfect engine for it now.
Iizuka: [Laughs] No comment.
I think it’d be really cool to make Sonic Adventure 3 in this Sonic Forces engine. Maybe go fishing with Big the Cat again?
Iizuka: [Laughs] Really?
What can I say? I love how experimental SEGA often are with their games. I think that’s what fans love about the brand.
Translated answers were very lightly edited for clarity