Yuji Naka is famous for being the lead programmer on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which in videogame terms is a bit like a musician being famous for inventing percussion. How many platform game developers would be poor and destitute if they hadn't had this man's work to riff on for two decades?
Quite a lot is the answer. Naka hasn't sat around doing nothing for the last 20 years either - he's worked on cult classic Nights into Dreams, Burning Rangers and Phantasy Star Online. A few years ago he set up his own studio, Prope, and created the ingenious Let's Tap for Wii - a game you control by drumming on a cardboard box to transmit vibrations.
Most recently Naka could be found working on Ivy the Kiwi?, due out for DS and Wii this year from Rising Star. We're thrilled to have him at the Eurogamer Expo and can't wait to shake his hand and show him our chaos emerald tattoos. In the meantime, we fired off some questions by email so those of you who aren't around for his session can get a sense of it.
Eurogamer: Ivy the Kiwi is out now in the US and will be released in Europe soon. Could you explain it for our readers?
Yuji Naka: "Ivy the Kiwi?" is an action game set in a world of picture book. Its main character Ivy, a little female kiwi bird, who accidentally got separated from her mother, cannot do much on her own, apart from keep running. She cannot even climb small gaps by herself, so the player for this game is a god or guardian who helps Ivy to reach her goals by drawing ivy on the picture book, which Ivy can run on.
It is a new type of action game, which involves a quite new game control. The player should enjoy its intuitive feelings of freely drawing ivy on the screen. It's a simple game to control, but is never an easy one to play. You may find yourself struggling a little when you first play it. You will gradually gain control of Ivy when you keep playing. You will be controlling the character in various ways you want, mastering some very delicate moves eventually.
The number of skills players can improve is great. For example, when you start playing the game for the first time you will barely be completing each stage. But once you start building up your skills, you will want to start going for all the red feathers in each stage. When you get even better, you want to try the time attack, then challenge for the medal, and so on. My ideal game is always "simple but deep", and I think I managed to come out with such a game with Ivy the Kiwi?
Eurogamer: Where did the idea for the game come from?
Yuji Naka: It was some young staff in the company who came up with the initial idea of Ivy the Kiwi? The game was for a testing purpose only, but I somehow felt a strong potential in this particular game at its very early stage. We then decided to expand the idea, and it eventually became Ivy the Kiwi?
Before making it I always thought that Wii's pointing device was rather stressful for players, and not suitable for delicate game controls. But with Ivy the Kiwi? we managed to allow players to control the character with the device very well. You can see how freely you can move the character when you see the gameplay videos. It was a positive surprise for us.
Eurogamer: Your last game was Let's Tap on Wii. What did you learn from that experience that has helped you with Ivy the Kiwi?
Yuji Naka: I didn't necessarily convert any of my experience with Let's Tap onto Ivy the Kiwi?, but my motto for both titles was exactly the same: "a game that anyone can easily learn how to play".
With the touch pen of DS and pointing of Wii it is easy to play Ivy the Kiwi? Its simple control would make you want to join in when you watch your friends playing it. "Let me play that game too!" This is the way I felt when I first saw an action game a long time ago, and the way I want people to feel today when they meet Ivy the Kiwi?
With regard to the unique game control of Ivy the Kiwi?, I did not particularly intend to create a new type of game control. It happened rather naturally, as we tried to make a new, fun game to play. It is a job for game creators after all to always come up with something new and surprise people, and I enjoy doing so. I would like to carry on creating new things.
Eurogamer: You told us last year that you don't follow the fortunes of Sonic the Hedgehog very closely because you trust Sonic Team and SEGA, but are you excited that Sonic is coming back in 2D on PS3 and Xbox 360?
Yuji Naka: I assume that it is about Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Yes, I believe that there are many more things that Sonic can do in 2D, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing the new Sonic. I could not help watching kids playing the new Sonic at the recent E3 because I wanted to know if they liked it.
Eurogamer: What was the last game you played for fun and what did you think of it?
Yuji Naka: Unfortunately I haven't had much time to play new games recently, apart from some games on mobile phone. It's a while ago, but I played the Professor Layton series quite a lot.
Eurogamer: Does it ever feel strange developing for Nintendo platforms after working at SEGA for many years? Did you feel competitive with Nintendo in the past?
Yuji Naka: While Nintendo was obviously a big competitor when I was in SEGA, I also wanted to work on their hardware some day, so I didn't feel strange to develop for Nintendo platforms at all. I like trying on new things, so I don't mind working on new platform by any manufacturers. I hope that SEGA will some day come up with a new hardware again.
Eurogamer: Do you enjoy meeting the gaming public? Does anyone ever ask you to do anything strange with them like autographing a live hedgehog?
Yuji Naka: I do enjoy meeting the gaming public, because I learn a lot from them. I haven't had too many strange requests from my fans before, but I remember one lady asked me to sign her t-shirt she was wearing. It was a little embarrassing.
Yuji Naka is the head of Prope, developer of Let's Tap for Wii and Ivy the Kiwi? for DS and Wii.