It's hard to get time alone with Yuji Naka. So we discovered at a recent SEGA event to promote Let's Tap, the Wii game you play by tapping a cardboard box. (Read our recent review for a fuller explanation.)
But journalists weren't queuing up to ask him about his new game, or whether he thinks playing videogames by tapping a cardboard box is the new playing videogames by standing on bathroom scales. Naka is still best-known for his much earlier creation - Sonic the hedgehog. More than 15 years after Naka helped give birth to his big blue furry baby, there are still lots of people who want to ask him about it.
Which is why we ended up sharing our interview slot with a gentleman from an unspecified European publication, and why the following article includes his questions as well as our own. Read on to find out if Naka thinks the hardcore has been abandoned, why he feels there should be more smoking in games and whether he's ever done experiments on a penguin.
Eurogamer: It's okay, you go first. I'm very polite.
Another Journalist: Why is Sonic a blue hedgehog?
Yuji Naka: At the time Sonic was developed there was talk of developing a corporate character for SEGA, so the SEGA corporate colour blue was used. He's a hedgehog because of the ideas in the game, the speed element and the rolling. I wanted something which could still act as a weapon while rolling, with spikes - like a hedgehog. So that's why. As for the hairstyle, it just seemed natural for a hedgehog.
Eurogamer: What's the demographic you're going for with Let's Tap? Is it a different audience to the one Sonic was aimed at?
Yuji Naka: The idea was to create a game with a very broad demographic - from a one year-old to a hundred year-old. With a lot of games, as the controls become more and more complex and the movements are more complex, there are hardcore gamers who will go with it - but there are a lot of people who can't really relate. So the idea was to create something really simple that everyone can play.
Another Journalist: What does Sonic mean to you? What do you think of the current Sonic games?
Yuji Naka: Sonic is like a son to me. He's a little bit rough around the edges, but he's done well for himself, so he's a good son. I'm proud of Sonic.
In terms of current Sonic games, I'm not following them too closely because I feel they're in the capable hands of Sonic Team and SEGA.
Eurogamer: Going back to the idea of making a game for everyone - what about gamers who grew up with Sonic, and are now classified as hardcore? Some people feel they've been abandoned by the likes of Nintendo, that games aren't as challenging as they used to be. Do you think the hardcore has been abandoned?
Yuji Naka: I understand that a lot of the pleasure in playing games comes from resolving that challenge. I am aware that games these days are made child-friendly and not too hard to play. That's because when you're developing games now, there's a demand to create something for a broader audience - which means you have to have these simple interfaces.
People do miss out on that challenging aspect, but it's really to do with having to appeal to a wider audience. If there's a demand for more of these challenging games, it would be great to be able to make them.
Another Journalist: How easy was it to develop Let's Tap, and what are your plans for the series?
Yuji Naka: Let's Tap came about when my development team and I discovered this new way of interacting with the Wii remote. So that was an inspiration and driving force for developing the game. It would be great to be able to come up with ways to interact with games, and for the audience to be able to appreciate this.
Eurogamer: I don't know if you're familiar, but there's a website over here called UK Resistance. It's sort of a funny website, and they're big fans of Sonic and SEGA. They run a campaign called Blue Sky in Games which is all about having more happy, fun things in games and less guns and drug dealers. Does that sound like something you could give your backing to?
Yuji Naka: I totally agree with that perspective. I feel that games these days are really quite violent, unlike the games I've always been involved in. So if there is a way that I could help, in any capacity, I would be happy to do so. They could contact me via SEGA.
Eurogamer: I'll let them know.
Yuji Naka: UK Resistance, you say? So it's run by gamers?
Eurogamer: It's run by someone who grew up with Sonic and is obsessed with SEGA, ah, in an amusing way. There are lots of jokes about SEGA and photos of the Dreamcast logo on carpets. Um, it's a bit hard to explain.
Yuji Naka: I find it difficult to understand, this whole notion of killing people and shedding blood, and that being fun. I don't really agree with it.
Another Journalist: What is your current vision for gaming? Is it fun or is it developing skills, which you needed for the Sonic games? And does age have anything to do with it?
Yuji Naka: I think it's okay that there are some really violent games, if there are people who want to play them. But I think 18 is still too young - the age rating should be higher.
There are too many different distinctions between age groups. The ideal would be to have just two categories. Most games would fit into the category of titles that can be played by people of all ages. They might include maybe slightly sexual content, but just things that might insinuate sex - which isn't really going to harm children. Then you would just have these super-violent games as the exception.
At present, having all these age ratings really limits games developers in terms of what they can do, and makes them quite timid. It does put a brake on games development. Things like cigarettes, alcohol, maybe a little bit of wind and a girl's dress fluttering up - these kind of things, in the right context, I don't feel are really that bad.
Say you have a scene in a pub and there's alcohol, or there's a villain smoking a cigarette - I feel that's totally acceptable, because people's parents might smoke and I'm sure they've seen alcohol being drunk. So in the right context, showing these things should not be a problem.
Eurogamer: You've previously been quoted as saying Let's Tap is the first game even a penguin can play. How do you know this? Have you tested it out under laboratory conditions?
Yuji Naka: There's a mini-game in Let's Tap called Gem Game, and I'm convinced a penguin could play it. I'd love to do laboratory tests with a penguin, but I haven't had the opportunity. However, there have been tests done with pets - dogs and cats. I'm sure everyone can get their pets to join in with Let's Tap.
Yuji Naka is the head of Prope Ltd. Let's Tap is out in Europe this summer.