Eurogamer Expo: Yuji Naka Developer Conference

This is the one about that one time I met Yuji Naka. Well, when I say ‘met’, I really mean I shouted, “You’re amazing!” as I backed out of the room at the Eurogamer Expo conference he was speaking at. I was still a little in over my head, and a little nervous of approaching him and trying to complement him on how fantastic he truly is.

Yuji Naka is a great man, and a designer extraordinaire, who is credited with inventing Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog; fastest thing alive, with great amounts of attitude, to boot. Mr Naka now runs his own development studio, Prope (pronounced Propé), which is behind the great Wii tap-a-thon, ‘Let’s Tap’. Naka-san came to the Eurogamer Expo to promote Prope’s latest game, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, and also to answer all our questions about who’d win in a fight between Sonic, Mario, and Chuck Norris (clearly Norris).

First off, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ looks absolutely stunning. Being in charge of a little bird named Ivy, who’s been separated from her mummy, it’s the player’s responsibility to guide Ivy through the game’s 2D levels by drawing vines on the screen using either the Wiimote, or DS stylus, to guide Ivy to safety. You’ve got to avoid various traps and spikes by creating ramps, platforms, and catapults to help slingshot the AI-controlled Ivy through each level. It’s a novel concept, presented with beautiful hand-drawn graphics, to resemble a children’s storybook, in Naka-san’s own words. This makes sense, seeing as he was inspired to make the game by his protective instincts over his newborn son. In a way, in ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, the player assumes the role of a guardian, and is responsible for essentially shepherding Ivy through the game, just like any good parent shepherds their own children through life.

From ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’, Mr Naka moved on to his own history. He got into the industry through a graduate placement with Sega, which is good news to all of my fellow unemployed graduate brethren. From there on, he went to work on such titles as ‘Phantasy Star I’, ‘Phantasy Star II’, ‘Space Harrier’, and ‘Outrun’, before discovering Sonic from the result of a test program he distributed. Naka-san wanted to capture a real feeling of speed with Sonic, creating a platform game where the player moves as quickly as possible, and is able to plough through enemies without any obstruction. Indeed, Mr Naka confessed that Sonic 1 is actually his favourite, out of all of the games he’s created. It’s easy to see why. Even though Naka admits he was influenced by Super Mario when he created Sonic, the game was completely unique when it was released, allowing the player a sense of speed, and freedom, which was unrivalled by anything else on sale at the time.

Since leaving Sega in 2006, Naka admits he hasn’t really kept up to date with the Sonic franchise (probably better for his health), but that he trusts Sega and Sonic Team with what is essentially his baby, and looks forward to how they will develop Sonic in the future. When asked about his opinions on Sonic 4, released on the App Store today, Naka said it looked exciting, and would like to get his hands on it. He actually confessed that he does prefer 2D to 3D in some ways. Just as well, then, that Sonic 4 is a return to the franchise’s 2D roots. Apparently, ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ is also a message to the gaming industry that 2D can work, which is certainly telling.

Yuji Naka is an inspiring man. While he admits that it was very hard leaving Sega, he did feel distanced from game making in his later years spent working for them, prompting him to found Prope. He said that Prope gives him complete creative freedom to make the kind of games that he wants, and allows him to work on original properties, something which has already prompted an admittedly innovative portfolio of titles.

The session concluded with an immense tournament of rock-paper-scissors, in which the entire room stood up and played against Mr Naka, with the eventual winners scoring some very pretty ‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ memorabilia. Supposedly this kind of thing is all the rage in Japan.

Oh, but what does Yuji Naka think of recent Sonic/Mario partnerships, which has seen them kicking each other’s butts in ‘Super Smash Bros. Brawl’, as well as other, less violent titles? Apparently the whole thing was his idea, which he pitched to Nintendo himself. Sneaky.

Even though several days have elapsed since ‘meeting’ Mr Naka, I’m still a little giddy writing about him now. Whatever type of games you’re into, no one can deny the phenomenal effect that Yuji Naka has had on the computer gaming industry. My childhood certainly would not have been the same without him, and without Sonic. Yuji Naka, I salute you.

‘Ivy the Kiwi?’ will be released on Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS in the UK on October 29th, while both games are currently on general release in the US. Lucky them. Apparently you’ll have to complete the game to find out what warrants the question-mark.

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