Ah the wonders of interviews via a translator. While we were indeed privileged to be invited to chat with Yuji Naka, the legendary creator of Sonic The Hedgehog, and chief of Sonic Team, we really wish the man spoke English, or that we could speak Japanese. You see, the journo collective asked several decent probing questions, but half the time the poor woman could barely understand what we were on about, and delivered us often inappropriate or overly concise answers that seemed to bear little relevance to the actual question.
The most exciting point of the interview was when Naka-san admitted that he would one day like to work on proprietary Sega hardware again, and would try hard to make that happen once the company was on a better financial footing. But, predictably the official Sega line on this is that there are no such plans in the works, and he was mistranslated. Hey, don't blame us - hire a better translator!
Anyway, given his status, we still feel duty bound to let you know what he 'said'. And if it doesn't make much sense, then don't kick us, OK? We'll add our sub comments to his answers to offer a running commentary.
Press Panel: Is Sonic Heroes a proper sequel, or is Sonic Adventure 3 coming at a later date?
Yuji Naka: The Adventure series is completed. Sonic Heroes is a new style of game.
We don't think we're wide of the mark to utterly disagree with this, although we're happy to be proven wrong further down the road. At the moment, Sonic Heroes looks like SA3 by any other name, and we were genuinely surprised to hear Naka-san trying to justify Heroes as a "new style of game". Ho hum.
Press Panel: How hands on in the creative process are you these days?
Yuji Naka: I'm one of the directors at Sega, so I'm involved with all the games. As president of Sonic Team I give basic direction in creating and producing them.
It seems to happen to a lot of creative geniuses, but we're still sad to see his talents being diluted somewhat. Get back to the keyboard!
Press Panel: What was your role on the original Sonic?
Yuji Naka: I was involved from the beginning of the creation of the game. I was responsible for designing the characters, and was the main programmer, while the mapping was done by the guy who left to join Naughty Dog to do Jak II. He was involved in until Sonic 3, and then he didn’t do anything at Sega. He was quite useless!
The 'Jak II' guy. Hirokazu Yasahara? Mark Cerny? Whoever it is, they obviously hate him now. Answers on a postcard...
Press Panel: Do you miss creating games for proprietary Sega hardware?
Yuji Naka: Yes, I miss that very much… when Sega is more vitalised I will definitely want to work on it. Will that happen? I will try very hard.
Understandably jumped on by other members of the press present, the truth is that Naka-san's comments were mis-translated, and Sega has moved quickly to dampen any speculation that it is plotting a return to hardware production. But you never know. If the firm really does turn its financial fortunes around, then it's feasible to imagine that it would give console manufacturing another try. After all, it has plenty of experience, and would be keen to make up for past mistakes. This is a proud company and it will want to prove itself as a force again. Maybe not for another five years, but don't ever rule out a comeback.
Press Panel: If that doesn't happen, who would you like to see Sega merge with?
Yuji Naka: ...
Sega Europe's PR boss intervenes at this point to stop Naka-san making any comments about this thorny issue. Damn. He looked like he was going to answer this one too! For the record, our money's still on Microsoft.
Press Panel: Why has Sonic endured so long as a brand?
Yuji Naka: The user has to be happy. I can't really tell if I will keep going until after the sales figures come in. I think children just really like Sonic.
A fairly impenetrably translated reply, but basically the last bit sums up why Sega continues to milk the spiky one's cash teat.
Press Panel: Why choose GameCube as the platform for Billy Hatcher?
Yuji Naka: The user [demographic] of GameCube is very close to the approach of the game.
Eh? Sounds very much like Sega is content for Billy Hatcher to be another cult success for kids and hardcore Sega fanboys, rather than launch a blockbusting new brand.
Press Panel: Any plans for conversions to other systems?
Yuji Naka: No.
Bizarre. Smells like a big money hat from Nintendo here. After all, why take Sonic multi-platform and then launch an exciting new brand on the lowest-selling system? Sounds very contradictory to us, but then what do we know?
Press Panel: What about an Xbox or PS2 exclusive?
Yuji Naka: We think multi-platform is the way to go.
Right, so why release Billy Hatcher exclusively on GameCube?
Press Panel: What is your priority? Commercial success or creative?
Yuji Naka: As a creator, my goal is to make games for the largest audience. I think we must make it easy for children to play.
[Bangs head against wall.]
Press Panel: How do you plan to use old Sega IP going forward?
Yuji Naka: We've already launched the Mega Collection, and the DX series...
The full answer was too confusingly translated to even bother writing in full here. Basically the translator didn't understand the question and seemed to assume it was referring to Sonic, rather than Sega IP generally. We're not sure if they even knew what 'IP' meant. Bah. It's safe to assume, given the recent updates of Shinobi, Panzer Dragoon and Altered Beast that there's plenty more old IP to be dusted down and revived yet.
Press Panel: Any plans for a Nights sequel?
Yuji Naka: Our team has 100 members and we have to allocate resources between Sonic, Phantasy Star, and Billy Hatcher. We get a lot of requests for sequels to Burning Rage, for example, but at the moment the answer is no.
Shame. Hire more staff! Sort it out!
Press Panel: How did it feel to force Nintendo to put the GameCube online with PSO?
Yuji Naka: Since we can't take control of GameCube online, we feel very comfortable.
Another neutered answer that makes you wonder if the translator even understood the intention of the question. Ah well. Well done Sonic Team, anyway. Someone needed to kick Nintendo about it.
Press Panel: What game or type of games do you admire most from your rivals?
Yuji Naka: I couldn't name a specific game. Genre wise, I like racing games. I like cars and participate in real racing - I have been for three years now. I own a Ferrari 360 Spider and a Lotus Exis. If I could make a game based on my experience it would be really nice.
After Yu Suzuki's sublime, but unbearably difficult Ferrari 355, we're not sure the world needs another simulation... It was slightly annoying for Naka-san to duck the question of what inspires him from rival developers; it would have been enlightening to know. Undeterred we re-worded the question.
Press Panel: What's your opinion of the quality of the games on show at this year's E3?
Yuji Naka: I can see too many sequels, and I'm sad I didn’t see many originals. I think our stand was the best.
Hmm. So Sonic Heroes is the beacon of gameplay originality, and not a sequel? He has a point; there were way too many sequels at E3, but people in glass houses...
Press Panel: Are you still passionate about games? Do you still find time to play games yourself?
Yuji Naka: I don't have the time to play others games. I only just have enough time to play my own games. If I do have time I like to play Mario. That kind of game appeals to me. I like portable games, especially.
Wooo! We finally got Naka-san to mention someone else's games! Triumph!
Press Panel: Any thoughts on Sony's PlayStation Portable?
Yuji Naka: I am very interested in portable stuff. In terms of cost and lead-time it's going to be very exciting.
More Sonic games, then.
Press Panel: Are you excited about Nokia's N-gage?
Yuji Naka: I'm kind of disappointed in the delay in [Nokia's] release date. Sonic N has been finished for ages. Is it too expensive? No, it's actually much cheaper than I thought it would be.
Call us poor, but Ł250 odd for a games platform is, to gamers, more than they normally want to pay.
And thus ended our brief chat with Naka-san. He was also asked various game specific questions about Billy Hatcher and Sonic Heroes, but in all honesty, the answers were so confusing and unrelated to the actual questions that they made little sense, or were just plain unenlightening. In the end we resorted to asking more basic, general, and obvious questions in the hope that they would actually understand them (hi Stef!), but hey, it was fun anyway.