From Sega, Sonic Superstars, a high-speed action game, is set to be released on October 17, 2023. During the gaming event GamesCom 2023 held in Cologne, Germany, I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with the developers, Mr. Takashi Iizuka and Mr. Naoto Ohshima.
Mr. Takashi Iizuka and Mr. Naoto Ohshima are indispensable figures when it comes to discussing Sonic. They have not only been integral to the Sonic franchise but have also played key roles as developers in this game. In our conversation, they shared development stories and provided valuable insights about the game.
- The Story is Entirely Handled by Mr. Iizuka! These Two Legends Are Closely Involved in the Development of Sonic Superstars.
- The Unexpected Journey from Creating the Rabbit that was Sonic’s Original Character Design to Its Transformation into a Character Skin
- Exploring the Distinctive Features of Sonic Superstars
- The new character “Trip” is a collaborative creation by Mr. Iizuka and Mr. Ohshima. I also asked them about their aspirations for future Sonic games.
The Story is Entirely Handled by Mr. Iizuka! These Two Legends Are Closely Involved in the Development of Sonic Superstars.
――Firstly, may I ask about the areas you both were in charge of during the development of Sonic Superstars?
Iizuka: Alongside Mr. Ohshima and others, I’ve been heavily involved in the development of Superstars, aiming to create a new work in the classic style.
Ohshima: Since I usually handle the management side of the development company, I’m more in a producing role. However, this time I had the chance to work closely with Iizuka-san. I personally participated as a game designer and in various other aspects.
――You participated yourself, Mr. Ohshima?
Ohshima: Yes. I pulled Iizuka-san in and said things like “Iizuka-san, you’re handling the story,” and got him involved in the development scene, having him work on game design and level design, too (laughs).
While both of us hold our respective positions, we entered the development scene and collaborated with the Sonic Team staff, creating it in a way that’s more like the Old Sonic Team rather than solely working with Arzest (※).
※ Arzest: The development company headed by Mr. Ohshima. They are also involved in the development of Sonic Superstars.
Iizuka: We worked on the game design together while reminiscing about the past. Even though I’ve been involved in considering the broad specifications closely related to the field, being responsible for level design, as in Superstars, is quite rare these days. So, I truly joined as part of the development team.
Ohshima: I left all the story work to Iizuka-san (laughs). This is Iizuka-san’s responsibility.
――Fans would probably be delighted that Iizuka-san is in charge.
Iizuka: If that’s the case, I’m grateful. As a developer, it was enjoyable to work on.
――You mentioned that Classic Sonic should also undergo significant evolution and that you started the project for this game. Could you elaborate on this aspect of evolution?
Iizuka: To start with evolution, we had to create a base from scratch. Creating that base for evolution was extremely challenging. Recreating the behavior of the old Mega Drive version in the latest 3D engine was quite difficult. Once that was achieved, we added elements like the Emerald Powers and enhanced the graphics to make them clean and in 3D.
Ohshima: It was genuinely challenging. Initially, we tried doing it with eye-copying, but it didn’t work out well. We asked programmers to replicate what the old Sonic did and then overlaid it with a semi-transparent object in movies to confirm if the behavior was the same. To be honest, I felt like I was losing my mind (laughs).
Iizuka: After all, since the original was a pixel-based game on the Mega Drive, creating the base was difficult (laughs).
――Just imagining it seems quite challenging… The title of this game is “Sonic Superstars.” May I ask about the origin of this name?
Iizuka: Classic Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy are the main characters, and one of the main features is the 4-player cooperative play. There haven’t been many opportunities to play Sonic with multiple players. We wanted to showcase the aspect of playing Sonic with multiple players in the title, so we named it “Superstars.”
――Mr. Ohshima, the original designer of the first Sonic the Hedgehog, is also participating. What was the reason for Mr. Ohshima’s involvement?
Iizuka: Recently, in the Classic series, Sonic Mania received a lot of support from fans. Sonic Mania is a game that’s created by hardcore fans and made for hardcore fans. Because we wanted to evolve the Classic series this time, we thought that it would be great if someone who had been involved in the Classic series participated. Since I have a friendly relationship with Mr. Ohshima, I asked him, and he graciously accepted.
――When you asked Mr. Ohshima, how did he feel?
Oshima: It’s a bit embarrassing to say it in front of him, but when I was at SEGA, I thought Iizuka-san was an excellent person. Iizuka-san was a planner, but he could also draw. Not many planners could draw, so I thought that was amazing.
Also, I wanted to work with Iizuka-san again, just like the old times, and he continued to protect Sonic even after I left SEGA, and he even made movies for it. So, when I heard something from Iizuka-san, I felt like I absolutely had to do something; there was a sense of mission (laughs).
There are many Sonic fans among my social media followers, and I wanted to show my gratitude to those people as well.
The Unexpected Journey from Creating the Rabbit that was Sonic’s Original Character Design to Its Transformation into a Character Skin
――The announcement of this game was made at Summer Game Fest. How long was the development period?
Iizuka: It started about two and a half years ago, around the beginning of 2021. By the time we announced it at Summer Game Fest, the product was about 70-80% complete.
Ohshima: Development was really enjoyable until the very end. But towards the end, I kept wanting to add more and more new things, which made debugging quite challenging (laughs).
――It’s difficult when you want to include so many things. Were you able to witness the announcement at Opening Night Live during GamesCom 2023, where the game was revealed?
Iizuka: I’m glad it got everyone excited. Along with announcing the release date, we also revealed information about the Digital Deluxe version, which includes a rabbit skin. The rabbit is the character that Sonic originated from, and I’m glad to have seen the delighted reactions from fans who noticed this connection.
Ohshima: I was too busy taking photos, so I didn’t pay much attention to the excitement around me (laughs). I’m planning to ask my colleagues about the online reactions.
――Please do check them. Since Mr. Ohshima is here, could you tell us about the background of the creation of the rabbit character and its transformation into a skin?
Ohshima: When Sonic was still in the prototype stage, we needed a character to fill in the game, as the development wasn’t as exciting without one. The first character to run through the game was the rabbit.
Iizuka: Mr. Ohshima wanted to include that rabbit character in Sonic Superstars, and since there were only two remaining images of the rabbit, we found out that these two images were slightly different from each other (laughs).
While this character may seem that way, when it appeared in the game as a skin, it wasn’t Sonic anymore. So, we had to create new animations and poses specifically for the rabbit, even down to the motions. It would be great if people could pay attention to these details.
――It’s remarkable how you paid attention to such fine details. From those two original images, what was the journey like to create the final rabbit skin?
Iizuka: Those two images were the only existing materials of the rabbit character, and since these two images had slightly different designs, we had to make compromises while deciding which parts from which image looked better. This process led to the creation of the rabbit skin in Sonic Superstars.
Ohshima: When I received the order, I was told that since I’m the one who created the character, I could do it in any way I liked. So, I started creating a third version of the rabbit, which was then promptly corrected (laughs).
――It seems even the creator, Mr. Ohshima, can’t have his way (laughs).
Iizuka: We wanted to use the original rabbit, not an updated version, as a skin (laughs).
――Speaking of skins, a collaboration with LEGO was revealed during the Nintendo Direct. Sonic, Dr. Eggman, Tails, Amy, and Knuckles will be turned into LEGO-style skins. How did the collaboration with LEGO come about?
Iizuka: The reason for LEGO is actually because Sonic LEGO merchandise has been available since August. You can find Sonic LEGO figures in LEGO stores. So, with this connection in mind, we proposed the idea of having LEGO skins in the game, and they agreed.
In addition to Sonic and Eggman, there are also skins for Tails, Amy, and Knuckles, each with different methods to obtain them within the game.
Exploring the Distinctive Features of Sonic Superstars
――In the previous game released in 2022, Sonic Frontiers, there were elements reminiscent of side-scrolling. Were there any aspects from that game that you were able to utilize in the development of this game?
Iizuka: In Sonic Frontiers and Sonic Colors, we merged the side-scrolling style with the 3D action of modern Sonic, creating a gameplay style that was based on 3D controls but presented in a side view. However, this approach differed significantly from the classic Sonic gameplay. In this game, we felt a strong desire to provide the traditional side-scrolling experience with the original controls of that era, and that’s how it came to be realized.
――This game, in contrast to many Sonic titles, features multiplayer mode. Could you explain the reasoning behind introducing multiplayer?
Iizuka: Sonic games have traditionally been oriented towards single-player experiences. Even if played in a group, it was often considered a 1.5-player experience. There’s always been a focus on single-player gameplay. On the other hand, side-scrolling games have a more cheerful and fun vibe when played with friends or family. So, we thought about introducing multiplayer capabilities, and I discussed this idea with Mr. Ohshima. Initially, we thought having 4 players simultaneously might be tough, but SEGA of America was really supportive and urged us to give it a try.
Ohshima: There were many challenges. The high speed of Sonic’s gameplay means that if players go in different directions, the camera might struggle to accommodate everyone on the screen. For instance, if one player is running ahead while another player stays behind to prevent the camera from leaving the first player behind, it wouldn’t feel like a true Sonic experience. It was quite challenging to make sure everyone could stay on the screen without cutting corners. In terms of gameplay, competitive modes seemed to be enjoyable. Players could compete to see who reaches the goal first or cooperate to reach the goal together. I think both styles of play would be enjoyable.
Iizuka: When players actually try it, they’ll see that the cooperative play elicits a natural urge to shout things like “That’s not the way!” or “Hurry up!” It creates a dynamic of cooperative play where players communicate with each other, which is quite enjoyable. Unlike the usual 4-player cooperative gameplay, where players move through a level at a leisurely pace together, Sonic is so fast. I hope players will experience the joy of communication with friends through this cooperative play.
――As a key feature of the game, players can unlock new abilities called “Emerald Powers” by obtaining Chaos Emeralds. This seems to add a lot of variety to the gameplay.
Iizuka: While the core of this game is about reproducing classic Sonic, we wanted to provide a slightly different gameplay experience by adding these new Emerald Powers. However, we didn’t want to make it obligatory, as this could potentially overshadow the desire of players who wanted to experience classic Sonic. So, we designed the Emerald Powers in such a way that players can complete the game without using them. We actually conducted playtests with a small group of players before the release, and what we observed was that veteran players of classic Sonic enjoyed playing the game without utilizing the Emerald Powers, while younger players had fun using them. The Emerald Powers are not a mandatory element but rather an enjoyable addition. We have prepared some surprises for players who want to fully experience the potential of the Emerald Powers, although I can’t reveal details at the moment.
The new character “Trip” is a collaborative creation by Mr. Iizuka and Mr. Ohshima. I also asked them about their aspirations for future Sonic games.
――It’s been quite a while since the enemy character Fang appeared. This is a delightful surprise for classic Sonic fans. Could you share the reason behind bringing him back?
Iizuka: In Sonic Mania as well, we revived characters like Mighty and Ray who hadn’t seen much daylight, aiming to enrich the classic world. In this game, Fang was chosen for a similar reason. If the heroes form the Superstars, we thought of forming a villain side as well, so we added Fang and the new character, Trip, to Eggman’s side.
――The new character Trip is clumsy and has an unseen face, giving them a cute and distinctive design.
Iizuka: The design is by Ohshima-san.
Ohshima: I’m often credited for character design, but the truth is Iizuka-san also works on character design quite often. So, this time, we thought, “Let’s do it together.” We started by sending back and forth what I had drawn and what Iizuka-san had drawn, and that’s how Trip came into being. It’s a character where our designs interweaved. Even though my name is usually mentioned, Iizuka-san is actually quite skilled at character design… and it’s not just a one-way process.
Iizuka: But the main designer is still Ohshima-san. I’m primarily a game designer, so I capture the character’s personality, traits, and features in drawings and pass them to Ohshima-san for visual realization. Creating a character isn’t just about the appearance; it’s about their personality, traits, and character. So, in that sense, it’s a collaboration.
Ohshima: And I use these kinds of words (laughs). I might say Iizuka-san is the creator, but he is the one who finishes it…! And he’s really good at drawing!
(Iizuka is persuaded to accept the collaboration)
――With Iizuka-san’s approval, Trip is indeed a collaborative effort.
Iizuka: Y-yes… Trip doesn’t seem like a typical villain, but as you play the game, you’ll see their charm. We can’t reveal much in trailers because there are parts that could spoil the experience. I hope players will look forward to Trip’s role in the game.
――Certainly, the new character is drawing attention. During the development, were there any memorable experiences?
Ohshima: Well, I once told our team during development that they are Eggman. We, the development team, set up enemies and traps to block Sonic’s progress.
A Sonic game has expansive maps, and you can often go where you wouldn’t expect. However, level designers would try to eliminate such options. I told them that instead of trying to block Sonic’s way as a developer, try making it so he can’t go, which means the different abilities could yield unexpected results.
Some of the traps we carefully designed can sometimes be bypassed with a single jump, which is the essence of Sonic. Even if players discover different strategies, we should never erase those possibilities. Developers wish players would get stuck and think, “We put so much effort into this!” (laughs).
It’s not about making the trap such that you can’t clear it without a certain strategy; it’s about freedom in how to clear it. You can get hit, lose rings, but still break through.
――Sonic games indeed accommodate various playstyles.
Iizuka: Indeed. Players explore how to run faster, and they find different strategies we hadn’t even considered. This doesn’t just apply to this game but also to the modern series.
Ohshima: As development progresses, developers get better and better, achieving better times. It’s surprising that, after the release, players can achieve times exceeding what we thought possible. We wonder, “How did they do that?” (laughs).
――That’s truly amazing. It’s always a surprise to discover the possibilities in the game. With titles ranging from classic, modern, racing, and even “Mario & Sonic,” there have been various releases. Are there any specific genres or titles within Sonic that you would like to explore in the future?
Iizuka: For now, I consider the Classic series and the Modern series like Sonic Colors as Sonic’s pillars. While maintaining these two action game types, I’d also like to explore different genres that utilize Sonic’s characters and speed. For instance, something like Team Sonic Racing, while focusing on the characters and their speed in a different genre.
Currently, Sonic has comic books in America, there’s the Netflix show Sonic Prime, and we’ve released movies. We are also expanding through various media, and I’d like to continue promoting Sonic while following these initiatives.
――We’re looking forward to it. Lastly, could you share a message for the players eagerly waiting for the release?
Iizuka: The release date of Sonic Superstars has been announced, and the deluxe edition’s lavish content is also revealed, with pre-orders now open. We are really in the final stages of development, and we hope you and your family and friends can look forward to it.
Ohshima: I don’t know how many more games I can make, but I tried to pack in everything I wanted to do. It’s like we turned the toy box upside down. I hope everyone enjoys it.
Sonic is a game character made by Japanese creators, and we’re proud to showcase him globally. We hope people in Japan will also support Sonic! Thank you very much.