There was a Sonic the Hedgehog game that came out a short while ago, you might have noticed. It was also a mighty fine Sonic the Hedgehog game, too, restoring a little swagger and glory to the series thanks to the efforts of Christian Whitehead and his team with the outstanding Sonic Mania.
And within the next few weeks, hot on the heels of a critical highpoint for Sega's mascot in the modern era, there's another Sonic the Hedgehog game due out. Sonic Forces is the next mainline entry, coming some six years after the fairly decent Generations, and four years after the not-so-great Lost World. Where exactly will this one land? I'm not entirely sure just yet, but I was interested to find what impact the success of Sonic Mania has had on the series - and whether any old Sonic Team series might be due a revival at any point in the future. Shun Nakamura, game designer and producer at Sonic Team, answered my questions in Tokyo late last month.
With Sonic Mania, did the appetite for a traditional 2D Sonic surprise you?
Shun Nakamura: I wasn't that surprised - I know the 2D games are easy to understand, easy to access as a game for a lot of people. And we've got a huge classic Sonic fanbase, that's always craving for that kind of content. Because it's an easy game to sit down and play, when you release it a lot of people are going to get excited about it, especially if it's going to be a Sega title with Sonic the Hedgehog coming back into this very familiar 2D action game. There are a lot of 2D titles out there - maybe because it was Sonic coming back into this classic world, that's what pushed its popularity.
It's one of the best received Sonic games, critically, for quite some time. Seeing that kind of reaction, has that made you take stock and rethink your approach with your own games?
Shun Nakamura: It was very interesting for me to see Sonic Mania come out, get very high scores and have people praise the game. From the team's perspective, we're still going to be making 3D games for the audience that likes that style of Sonic - when we see the reactions that Mania got, the entire team sat down and thought it was really interesting, and we should break down what people liked about Mania, and in the future - when we build our 3D games - see what essence we can take from Sonic Mania and put into a 3D world, to give people what they're looking for and that they've found in Sonic Mania.
One thing that Mania did really well was nailing that feel of Sonic, the feeling of speed and momentum, and it's something I think even Dimps struggled to capture with Sonic 4. Have you spoken to Christian Whitehead about what it is about that feel that really resonates with people - and is it something you want to emulate in your own games?
Shun Nakamura: It wasn't really direct contact with Christian and Sonic Team, but Iizuka-san [head of Sonic Team] is located in Los Angeles - he was managing the approvals for Sonic Mania, he worked on the classics games and working with the team to make sure they had that classic feel. He was working with them to make it true to what a classic Sonic game was - he was the one saying 'in Sonic Mania they're doing this, you might want to add something to Forces to tie it together in some way'. But the team was very aware of what Sonic Mania was - while they were making Forces which stared many years before Sonic Mania!
When it comes to building something like Sonic Forces, it's got such a wide fanbase - you've got people like me with greying beards, who played Sonic the Hedgehog when we were nine or ten, then you've got our kids and they want a very different thing - it must be difficult. What kind of audience are you going for with Forces? And do you sometimes see resistance from grumpy old men like me?
Shun Nakamura: Really the core audience the team was trying to get is the people who like those modern Sonic games - and even reaching beyond that core group of Sonic Fans, we created the create your own hero feature, and we're trying to get some of the younger kids who enjoy customising things. That's really the core main group we're targeting when we're making this game. From a strategic standpoint, what we really wanted to do was have two titles and not have them fight it out to see who wins. There's the classic game that classic Sonic fans will love and get excited for - and maybe they'll go onto Sonic to try a modern Sonic game. We wanted those fans to get what they wanted, but also maybe try something new. From a reverse standpoint, we wanted to reintroduce classic Sonic to fans of the modern games - and maybe bring our group of very divided fans together.
Having those two strands has worked quite well. Is that something you'd like to continue doing?
Shun Nakamura: That's maybe a question more for the US team! From our perspective what we've seen right now of these classic Sonic fans being really happy about getting classic Sonic content is going to make us think about how we can make sure they're happy in the future. There's nothing to present now - but we're all watching what's happening this year, and it's going to be a positive year, and we want to think about how we can do this again so that people can get what they want.
You're bringing back Shadow for the first time in a while. Some people love him, some people not so much. Why did you want to bring him back now?
Shun Nakamura: Sonic Mania's an expansion of the classic series - we released that for people who wanted to see what's next after Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic Forces continues from Unleashed, Colours, Generations - it's for that fanbase. Shadow, we wanted to bring in as he's an extremely popular character with another subgroup of our fans - the ones who grew up playing the Adventure series. Putting Shadow into the game gets our Adventure fans really excited. He does appear in Forces as an enemy, and the additional content we're making will dig into the story a bit more. It's about making sure all the groups and all the people of different ages are going to find something in all the games we're releasing.
Speaking of subsets of fans... When it comes to Sonic fans, there's a lot of artwork on the internet. Some of it is savoury, some of it less so. Was that a consideration when you were making the avatar feature?
Shun Nakamura: I don't get a lot of that fan art stuff.
So you have the safe search on at work?
Shun Nakamura: [laughs] Iizuka gets a lot more of that artwork, and he knows they love making their own characters over the past couple of decades. He wanted to make sure we could give those fans a tool to create a Sonic universe character. Maybe the people who live in the village that Sonic is running through - if we're going to allow characters to be created, what are the constraints we're going to put on it? And instead of having people make any strange character, we wanted to give them the tools to make something authentic to the universe.
You've got a Switch version - what have you had to do to get it running on that hardware?
Shun Nakamura: When we were doing concepts for the game, we really wanted to make it multiplatform. Regardless of what hardware you have, how you're playing the game - the base idea is for that experience to be the same on the machine. And this was back before anyone knew what the Nintendo Switch would be. Even when we were drawing the lines of having Xbox One, PS4, we were going to have Nintendo's new hardware - even though we didn't know anything about it, we got the budget and schedule sorted before we even knew what existed. It was a bit of a panic when we first got the Switch - it was a little bit different to what we were expecting, so it was a case of seeing how we could make that work. There were some challenges - but because we have our own engine, we were able to customise it very quickly in a way that could work for the Switch, and in a way that it could really be the same experience on the Switch without it having to feel or look different.
I played it a while ago - is it 30fps?
Shun Nakamura: Yes, it's a 30fps experience.
And it's 60fps on console?
Shun Nakamura: Yes.
Speaking of the Switch, I've got one in my bag. There are two controllers that come off, they've got motion control and HD rumble. You worked on Samba de Amigo. Have you ever thought that there might be the perfect match here? We could be playing Samba de Amigo right here and right now.
Shun Nakamura: I really want to make Samba de Amigo on the Switch.
It'd be amazing. I wouldn't have to pay quite as much money as I did for the Dreamcast version back in the day, too.
Shun Nakamura: I really, really want to make it! This is coming from someone who had to make physical items you had to buy and plug into your console in order to play Samba de Amigo at home. When the Wii came out, there was only one Wii Remote, and you had to buy another one. You could still do it, but it's a bit of a hurdle to get over. The first time I saw the Switch, I thought oh my god - this is it! You don't have to buy another peripheral, you don't need to buy another controller. I'm really, really interested in that.
Well, if there's anything we could do to help make it happen....