Yuji Naka is a legendary video game maker who’s efforts with Sonic the Hedgehog stopped Nintendo in its tracks in the 90’s.
Naka is largely credited for creating Sonic the Hedgehog – the video game icon that not only put Sega on the map, but made the word “hedgehog” a household one. But what if I told you that, by and large, Naka had really nothing to do with the concept of The Blue Blur?
Sonic’s origins is much more than one man’s desire to change the world; it’s a story of a passionate team with a clear goal, a whimsical vision and a keen focus on collaboration.
With Sega’s Alex Kidd becomming a laughable excuse as a mascot in the face of more popular options like Link and Mario from the Nintendo universe in the 1980’s, the publisher sent out an internal memo stating that it was time to come up with a new mascot to launch their next generation console, and asked everyone to submit ideas.
The entire company was involved with this project. Ideas flooded in; a dog, an armadillo, a rabbit, a Theodore Roosevelt doppelgänger in pyjamas, and even a bear. Eventually, an illustrator named Naoto Ōshima submitted an idea of a spiky hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse who could roll up into a ball to kill enemies. Ōshima also had a vision of this character running through Sonic’s now famous loops.
Mr. Needlemouse was blue and white – a colour scheme inspired by Sega’s memorable logo and had bright red shoes with a strap. The design for Mr. Needlemouse’s slippers comes from a Michael Jackson CD album (‘Bad’) where Jackson wore black boots with belts, but since black is a boring colour, Ōshima borrowed the colour red from Santa Claus’ suit. For all his talents, Ōshima had a vision that he could not physically program himself, so he was teamed up with developer Yuji Naka to actually develop the game.
Naka had a vision of his own. Obsessed with playing through Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., Naka knew as a fan the thrill of realising that the faster you play through the game, the better you got. The problem, though, was that Super Mario Bros. was not really designed with speed runs as part of the core of the game, so Naka wanted to bake in a better sense of accomplishment into his game.
Naka already had the game’s programming ready to go and was now looking for graphics, story and more importantly a main character. The program itself was a thing of beauty; silky smooth and lightning fast – something that really wasn’t possible for computers at the business end of the 1980’s. Ōshima’s vision for a character with Bill Clinton’s attitude was the perfect match, and the character was renamed to “Sonic the Hedgehog”.
With the idea and a concept ready to go, it came time to present the title to the board of executives in the United States. The reaction was far from positive, in fact, the entire board were up in arms.
“What the hell is a hedgehog?!” an un-named (probably with good reason) executive demanded. It’s hard to imagine a time where hedgehogs weren’t in the public mind, but before Sonic came along, no one knew or cared about the animals.
Sonic is supposed to topple Mario! How can an anime styled rat with cute eyes and a spiky head possibly do that?
The team were given the benefit of the doubt, and a more structured development crew was put together under the name “Sonic Team”. Hirokazu Yasuhara was brought in as Level Designer to help the team develop the game’s overall universe. His main challenge was to make the game appeal to both the Japanese and US markets; a brick wall that still exists to this day has long separated the two tastes in video games.
Yasuhara saw that the American audience were focused on the challenge element in video games, whereas Japanese players wanted something more simple and easy to play (dare I say “casual”). Yasuhara came up with the springs, the rings and designed levels with all kinds of gimmicks like loops, spikes and pitfalls.
Ōshima’s Sonic was a very Japanese kind of Sonic. He had fangs, sang in a rock band and had a human girlfriend named Madonna. Sega of America were worried and scrapped all these elements and redesigned the look of Sonic, changing him from a scruffy looking character to the cute little blue guy we all know today as “Classic Sonic”.
This change didn’t go over well with the team, however. Sonic now had Mickey Mouse style gloves, huge bug eyes, and a round tummy. In fact, Ōshima’s vision was so brutally tossed in the trash by the executives, that Sonic Team hated the new design.
A huge rift broke out between the American executives and Sonic Team, who threatened to shut down production. It took some time to convince them, but something must’ve changed their minds at some point, because production moved forward with the game’s new look and feel; colourful, fun and cute.
The main hallmark of Sonic the Hedgehog is the speed. Sonic is fast, and this was drilled into the public’s mind with edgy marketing campaigns that stacked up Super Mario World next to Sonic the Hedgehog. But before release, it was a little too fast.
In fact, the game was so fast that it gave Yuji Naka motion sickness. The game’s program ran at three times the speed of what the final version did, and since the lead designer lost his lunch every time he played it, the team actually slowed the game down.
In June 1991, Sega launched Sonic the Hedgehog to instant success. These were the days when Nintendo owned the video game market, but the video game industry was pretty young. There were no 100 million sellers, and a game making $1 Billion was a pipe dream. The main gauge of success was a game that hits the 1 million sales mark, and Sonic the Hedgehog was well on its way.
Towards the end of the year, Sega’s executive wanted to really hit this thing out of the ballpark. This was the new Sega, with a new 16-bit console (Megadrive – a.k.a “Genesis”) – it was time to do what Nintendon’t.
The two presidents from the Sega US and American HQ’s headed to the head honcho in Japan with an edgy idea: to package Sonic the Hedgehog in with the Megadrive for free to meet the Christmas sales season head on. The idea was not popular.
Then president Hayao Nakayama was furious when he heard the idea. He slammed his fists on his desk, yelled about how software sales is how the company makes money. “How dare you give away the best title we have for free!” He even kicked his chair and stormed out of the room. Before he left, though, he turned around angrily and said, “If you believe that this is the way to beat Nintendo, do it.”
They did, and it payed off. Over 15 million consoles were sold with the packaged game which toppled Nintendo’s stronghold on the console market. Sonic was at the height of his popularity, and the now famous Sonic Team moved to America – where the game was most popular – to build Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Why Yuji Naka’s leadership and programming expertise undoubtedly made Sonic the Hedgehog the classic video game it was, it’s clear that the birth of Sonic was a passionate team effort that spanned countries and employees from all walks of life.
Compromise, understanding under pressure, embracing the collaborative works of many and a clear goal to topple the largest video game company of the time was what really created Sonic the Hedgehog, and that’s an important lesson video game makers – and indeed all of us should seriously heed.