Why Did Daddy Leave on Sonic’s 15th?
The 2006 reinvention of Sonic the Hedgehog, though widely panned, was important for two reasons: It was the first step in what has now become a new direction for the franchise–the subject of which is continually debated throughout the community as each new game is released–and it was the last major Sonic title that Yuji Naka had a role in.
Though Mr. Naka is considered by many in Sonic fandom to be the hedgehog’s father, he was in fact one of many fathers. While Mr. Naka served as programmer for the original 1991 Genesis edition of Sonic, other Sega team members assisted in the hedgehog’s creation; Naoto Ohshima conceptualized the character’s design, while Hirokazu Yasuhara created the environments Sonic would speed through. But it is Mr. Naka that became lead programmer of Sonic Team, and it was he who became most famous in the video game industry for Sonic’s creation.
The Sonic Retro wiki notes that, in the wake of Sonic’s blockbuster success, Mr. Naka would have a role in nearly every subsequent Sonic title forward, from major first-party endeavors to third-party prjects to compilation. He would act as both producer and lead programmer for Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic and Knuckles, and the resulting lock-on from Sonic 3 and Knuckles. He advised Travellers Tales on the 1996 Sonic 3D Blast, and supervised them again while doubling up as general producer in 1997 TT effort Sonic R. In between, he produced a compilation of Sonic classics for the Sega Saturn, Sonic Jam. When Sonic made his full dive into 3D, Mr. Naka was right there to ensure it wasn’t off the deep end, producing Sonic Adventure 1, 2, 2: Battle, SA Director’s Cut, Sonic Heroes, and Sonic Riders. He also produced all three Sonic Advance
But in between so much Sonic, Mr. Naka and some factionf of Sonic Team had time for other projects. In the Saturn era, he produced and was lead programmer on NiGHTS into Dreams as well as Christmas NiGHTS. His producing duties would extend to another Sonic Team original, Burning Rangers. In 2000 he both produced and directed ChuChu Rocket! for the Sega Dreamcast, which eventually saw release on the Game Boy Advance. In 2001, Mr. Naka worked on Phantasy Star Online, and would produce subsequent versions through 2003. That was the same year he would produce Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg.
Indeed, Mr. Naka did have varying interests in gaming before the blue hedgehog. He was the lead programmer for the original Sega arcade classic Outrun, and held the same title for the first two Phantasy Star games. So, it shouldn’t be surprising during his time with Sonic Team, he wished to broaden his horizons and create original IPs. Most of the ones he made under Sonic Team were hits. NiGHTS was almost universally praised upon its release and temporarily quelled a thirst for a next-generation Sonic. The GameRanking average for Burning Rangers sits as a healthy 75.4%. ChuChu Rocket!’s GR average sits in the mid 80s. Billy Hatcher is the low point of the main IPs, though it stills with an average in the low 70s.
All this considered, the desire for Mr. Naka to branch beyond Sonic’s blue quills have been too great, and he pulled the trigger at the move inconvenient time possible–the once considered return of Sega’s flagship franchise for Sonic’s 15th anniversary, dubbed simply Sonic the Hedgehog. TSSZ News editor Ryan Bloom best explained 2006′s chain of events in his review of the 2006 Sonic:
The game’s initially secret behind-closed-doors technology demonstration was perhaps the most exciting thing to come out of the Sonic Franchise in nearly five years; not since Perfect Chaos leveled Station Square had there been something so impressive related to the franchise. The demo a showed huge, massive forest that seemed to go on for miles. There was intricately detailed ruins, beautiful graphics and animation, and plenty of character and style to go around – and throughout it all, Sonic never, ever said a word; no dated “That was tight!” skater-lingo here, just Sonic doing what Sonic does best: make robots explode. When said robots numbered in the hundreds (possibly even thousands) to surround Sonic and gun him down – presumably killing him, I audibly let out a “Whoa”. When Super Sonic rose and stormed that same army of robots, it was incredible. This was going to be a new beginning for Sonic, or so they said – when the game was announced, the President of SonicTeam Yuji Naka got up on stage and declared that they would be treating this title as if it was the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis; they would be rethinking and redesigning the entire concept for this title.
He resigned from the company halfway through the game’s development.
Over the following months, we slowly learned that “rethinking” and “redesigning” translated in to “making another Sonic Adventure game”. The free-roaming “Adventure” portions of the game would be coming back, allowing Sonic to wander around the Italian-inspired city of Soleanna and talk to its citizens. As work on the title progressed, we learned that Shadow the Hedgehog would join Sonic on this quest, as would a new character – Silver the Hedgehog, who’s bizarre hair style and addiction to shiny chrome bits meant he had to be from the future (as required by law, stated in “Awful Character Design Rules & Regulations“, page 85). Though a disappointment, I remained optimistic – most people considered the original Sonic Adventure to be the best of the 3D Sonic games, and borrowing elements from that was something I could get behind. That’s not to say everything was borrowed, though – Sonic could now do sub-quests around town to make some extra money – money that could be used to purchase and equip new skills and items. Early gameplay footage sung the praise of a real-time day/night cycle, suggesting a seamless world; as you played, the sun would realistically rise and set, levels changing between day and night dynamically. Though the feature was an early focal point, after the initial gameplay demonstration, it was never mentioned again.
Sonic the Hedgehog would be released to awful reviews.
Yuji Naka, meanwhile, began to build Prope, his own independent development house. It first opened up shop in June of 2006–mind, you, Mr. Naka left Sonic Team in March of 2006, taking several Sonic Team employees with him–and the rumor mill began. What was next? Would he revive any of his key IPs for Sega (as Prope is in part funded by them?) Could NiGHTS, long thought to never be revived, return to the gaming landscape? Or could development on Sonic be transferred?
Sonic never was back in Mr. Naka’s hands, though Sega has retained him as an occasional supervisor of Sonic titles since his departure. NiGHTS would be revived, but not from Prope, and it received mixed reviews. Instead, more than two years of establishment would bear two Wii exlcusives, Let’s Tap and Let’s Catch. Though has cleared the titles for a domestic launch, the titles did not sell well in Japan, though what few reviews that exist of the former have been positive thus far.
What’s next for Prope? It may not be Sonic but something similar to Sonic that’s up his sleeve. Quoting a story we ran earlier this year, Mr. Naka told Kikizo Games that two Prope titles had been in development, and neither may see the light of day:
…before Let’s Tap came about, there had been two action-adventure games in development – one of which was originally due to be released last year, but in the end that title was cancelled. And there was another one, which was in development for a couple of months. Meanwhile, Let’s Tap was in development, and that’s been released in Japan now. So this kind of character-based action game is always something that’s on my mind, but this is an ongoing negotiation with Sega, so I don’t know when it might be released, and there’s no guarantee that it will actually be approved. So I can’t really comment further on that.
There is debate on the state of Sonic and of Sonic Team in the post-Naka era, and that is one of the key elements of existing conflict within the Sonic community today. Did Yuji Naka stop caring during the 2006 Sonic? Has Yoshihisa Hashimoto done any better? Between hopes of a new Sonic in line with some elements of Sonic Unleashed and what appears to be an ongoing Sonic Storybook Series, it appears that without one of Sonic’s key contributors, the franchise has lost direction…and much of Sonic fandom, as a result, have lost their minds. All things considered, nearly fifteen years of relatively consistent, good gameplay across 2D and 3D platforming, racing, even pinball and a party game–is good by any standard. But the Sonic Team, in its current state, is more of less on its own, and after the debacle meant to celebrate Sonic’s 15th anniversary, the upcoming 20th will need to make up for it and more.
Mr. Naka’s strength during the late 1990s and early 2000s has clearly been his attempts to steer away from Sonic–why shouldn’t he develop that to the best of his abilities? The unique qualities Mr. Naka gives to those IPs are exactly where they should be–out of the core Sonic gameplay. Could you imagine if Sonic were controlled by tapping next to your Wiimote? What if Sonic rolled around a giant egg, or put out fires in the future? While some may approach the concept with cautious optimism–about as much as the idea of Sonic holding a sword–others would immediately abhor it. Yuji Naka allowed his creativity to flow toward other IPs, typically with success. It will be up to the Sonic Team–now, for the most part, without him–to learn the same concept, and let Sonic be Sonic.
The Ten is a multi-part series examining the 10 events of the past decade that have shaped Sonic fandom and community affairs today. It is part of a series meant to complement the 10th anniversary of TSSZ News.