The Making of Sonic the Hedgehog and a Chat With World-Renown Video Game Designer Hirokazu Yasuhara
At the time of its release, critics praised Sonic the Hedgehog as one of the greatest games made to date. It was specifically designed to compete with Super Mario Bros. on the international market and give SEGA an edge over Nintendo, which had been the undisputed console leader since 1985. It worked. By 1992, SEGA controlled 65% of the 16-bit console market, an astounding accomplishment given the fact that Nintendo didn't even consider SEGA a worthy competitor just a few years prior.
The massive success of Sonic the Hedgehog sparked what is now referred to as the console wars, a time of turmoil for certain gaming superfans whose console allegiances were challenged in unprecedented ways. Somehow, an emblem of a mammal that in nature moves at a speed of four miles per hour was able to change the course of gaming history at what felt like a supersonic speed (sort of speak). And it was all thanks to a small team of rad video game designers that spent a good amount of time pondering about what makes something fun.
“Keep the basic experience simple, and allow players to explore it at their pace,” believes Hirokazu Yasuhara, one of the three main programmers of the history-making ensemble known as Team Sonic. Considering that he was instrumental to the game’s ultimate success, it’s fair to say that that is good advice, but its practical application is much harder than it sounds. Thinking about the elements that go into creating something fun and engaging is basically a crash course in gaming & human psychology, which is now something he academically lectures on.
Given that gaming as we know it today was just emerging during the early ‘90s, its relationship with human psychology wasn’t yet clear, and so they guessed. Hirokazu Yasuhara, who is also professionally credited as Carol Yas, began working on SEGA video games in 1988, when he was in his early 20s. Starting out as part of the company’s arcade division, he moved to software development for home consoles a year later. Using what he learned as well as relying on his then recent memories of adolescence, he faced the challenge with youthful enthusiasm.
Before Sonic burst onto the scene at a velocity estimated at anywhere between 767 and 3,840 mph, SEGA’s existing mascot character known as Alex Kidd seriously lacked the same draw and appeal as Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi. The company was looking to rebrand; it needed a new flagship icon, one that would be easily recognizable and popular around the world. But most importantly, the goal was to create a character made up of basic shapes and jagged lines that children could easily replicate. There were other conditions, too.
Team Sonic consisted of producer and self proclaimed “father of Sonic” Yuji Naka, game designer and the project’s character artist Naoto Ōshima, and Hirokazu Yasuhara, who — as the game’s director — was responsible for its gameplay as well as for mapping layouts and designs based on Naka’s technical demos for his super fast side-scrolling game engine. For those who may be unfamiliar, gameplay is a term used to define the way players interact with a digital game. In other words, it dictates how the game is played.
“Naka was really adamant about the idea that the game should be playable with one button, since Mario needed two — jump, and run or attack,'' explains Hirokazu Yasuhara. “My response to that was that if you have only one button, then all you can do is jump, so we need to find some way the player can attack at the same time. So our character needed some way to deal damage just by jumping.” The team was leaning towards an animal that would transcend gender and race and, as such, have a wider appeal. And so the search for the new mascot began.
Before finally settling on a hedgehog that would roll up into a ball, they went through a number of mascot options that included an armadillo, a porcupine, a dog, a rabbit, and a grumpy old man with a mustache, who would later become the villainous Doctor Robotnik. It took a business trip to New York and the solicited opinions of strangers hanging out in Central Park to get their icon just right. Among the presented options, people overwhelmingly chose the prickly mammal, with the grumpy old man being a close second, and the dog coming in third.
The team was also instructed to give their character a fictional history integrated with the real-life youth culture of the times. And so a blue-mohawked punk-inspired anti-establishment icon for Generation Y was born. Because the game revolved around animals, Yasuhara decided to use an ecological framework to drive conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. Inspired by Japan’s countryside where he spent a lot of his youth, the game designer incorporated features of its landscape into the design of his new game.
SEGA wanted Sonic to compete with other successful characters from established media giants, like Nintendo, Disney, Marvel and Hanna-Barbera. So the company employed a rather aggressive marketing strategy aimed at young adults. “The fact that it is not easy to determine which side is righteous was also an advantage,” as they couldn’t be easily grouped into categories like “good” and “evil” and resulted in a more interesting and complex character profile, which helped Genesis become the IT console for cool adolescents.
After the success of Sonic 1, Yasuhara remained on the team and worked on many follow up titles, including Sonic 2, Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic 3D Blast. The success of these titles made him SEGA’s lead game designer and director. But, by the early 2000’s, he wanted to move on. It wasn’t long before the strong release of the Playstation 2 caught Yasuhara’s attention, and with SEGA announcing that it was to be taking its leave from the hardware manufacturing business, he decided it was time to move on to something new.
Sony was working on huge open-world titles such as Jak and Daxter. “I thought the first Jak and Daxter was just an incredible project. [I was] really, really impressed by it. I was amazed by what they were doing with the PS2.” Due to his love of mascot character titles, Yasuhara expressed his interest in joining the development studio, Naughty Dog. He was offered a promising position on the development team as a designer shortly thereafter. The invitation was soon accepted and he remained with Naughty Dog until the completion of Uncharted 3 in 2011.
In a weird twist of events, while working on Uncharted 3, Yasuhara aided Namco Networks in the production of Pac-Man Party — a Pac-Man themed cross between Monopoly and Mario Party — for the Nintendo Wii. The colorful title celebrated the 30th anniversary of the iconic video game mascot. Inspired by the experience, he decided to leave Naughty Dog and officially join Nintendo the following year, where he first worked on Mario and Donkey Kong: Mini’s on the Move, a fun little downloadable puzzle title for the Nintendo 3DS.
In a way, it’s ironic that one of the founding fathers of SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog would be working on Super Mario titles. But it also isn’t considering that the console wars came to an end when, in 2005, Sonic became one of the first game characters to be inducted into the Walk of Game alongside Mario, Link, and Master Chief. As of 2016, Yasuhara has worked with the Education team of Unity Technologies Japan to create game-design educational materials, where he celebrates the “democratization” of this once exclusive, gated community.
ARTpublika Magazine caught up with the celebrated game designer for a brief chat about his youth, favorite projects, and current interests.
Did your parents encourage any particular hobbies or did you have your own?
[My parents didn't encourage any particular hobbies.] I would ride my bike to my friends' houses or, as Japanese children often do, I would catch beetles and race them against my friends' beetles.
My father was an engineer, so I really liked looking at the blueprints that he brought. [One of his hobbies was building railroad models,] and I made my own electrical wiring for the track switching devices.
What kind of books, movies, and music did you like? What types of books, movies, and music do you like nowadays?
But my favorite genre has always been traditional Irish music. Yes, the kind of music that is often played in pubs. A long, long time ago, after the Samurai era, Japan learned music from Ireland and Scotland. Therefore, we grew up listening to [Irish-inspired] melodies. I guess that's why I like these tunes. As for movies, I just watch all movies — whatever is popular. Yes, all.
What has been the most challenging project of your professional career? What was the most rewarding? Which was the most creatively liberating?
Most difficult project: I can't choose because they were all difficult.
Most rewarding project: Sonic 1
Most creatively liberating: Jak and Daxter 2
What do you think is the least surprising thing about your profession?
That game design is difficult. [ Many tend to think] a game is about making the player shoot bullets, but that's not a "game." Game design is like a business model, there are not that many of them. Therefore, it is very difficult to create.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a game designer (strategic, logical, artistic, etc.)?
I think the biggest difficulties are getting funding for production and organizing good team members. Even if you have the design, you can't make it if you don't have the people to make it.
What skills do you need to acquire to enter your profession?
The ability to create prototypes in Unity, etc., communication skills, and the ability to [cooperate] with others.
What skills are likely to be needed in the future, say ten years from now?
It is important to know mathematics and physics. Also, liberal arts, [obtaining] a general education, and [an understanding of] cultural morals are [and will be] necessary, even in ten years.
Is there anything you’d like to share about your profession that was not addressed?
Game design is closely related to design for human communication. Interactivity is all about designing for [engagement] between people and machines. You can excite people, or you can heal them with your design, or accompany them [on an adventure]. I am very happy to be able to do this work.
Note* All images — except the photo of Hirokazu Yasuhara, which was provided by him— are sourced from https://sonic.fandom.com/wiki/Sonic_the_Hedgehog/Gallery, and available under CC-BY-SA. Images are not the intellectual or creative property of this publication.