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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Eurogamer Expo: Deus Ex: Human Revolution Developer’s Conference

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending all three days of the Eurogamer Expo, the event which kick started this year’s London Games Festival. Because of prior engagements, my time at the expo on Friday was mainly consumed by a talk given by Deus Ex: Human Revolution art director, Jean Jacques-Belletete, from Eidos Montreal. Well, actually, I’d say my time was divided equally between said talk, and queueing up for said talk, but it was well worth it!

The talk was mainly a showing of the game’s E3 2010 demo, where protagonist Adam Jensen visits the island of Heng Sha, off the coast of Shanghai, looking for hacker Arie van Bruggen. To get to him, Jensen needs to find his way into a bar called ‘The Hive’, and find a man named Tong who knows the whereabouts of Mr van Bruggen. Anyone with any interest in Deus Ex will have devoured its E3 coverage, so I’ll try to skip over everything that’s common knowledge, and focus on what really set this game apart from others.

Before the demo began proper, Jean talked us through Eidos Montreal’s vision for the game, and reassured the room that his team had ‘played the hell’ out of the original Deus Ex, and Deus Ex 2. The prequel, Human Revolutions, a cyberpunk saga set in 2027, is promised to bring as much freedom, and be as open-ended as the original Deus Ex. Human Revolutions is to be based on four ‘pillars’, which are combat, stealth, hacking, and social. Apparently, whichever path you take, or whichever combination of tools you use to get through the game will leave you with a distinctly unique experience. Sounds thrilling so far.

The demo booted up (interesting to note is the fact that it was played on a PS3, whatever you want to infer from that), and we saw Heng Sha for the first time. Jean interjected that his team had gone on a fabulous scouting trip on Google Earth, in order to ensure that Heng Sha was the right place for this level. How right he was. The first thing that struck me was the cut-scene in which Jensen jumps out of a helicopter type device, and is told to call in if he needs any help. The first Deus Ex was a game that relied heavily on a story that was relayed not only through cut-scenes, but mostly through memos, hacked e-mails, and public access terminals. This cut-scene, lovely as it was, suggested not a departure from these origins, but a suggestion that the story might play out more through cut-scenes, this time around. I’m sure Square Enix would have it no other way.

This is kind of, exactly what I saw. Note: this is concept art!

As we leave the cut-scene, and the player gains control of Adam, he belts down a flight of stairs until he reaches a bustling street filled with dozens of NPCs. Jean assures us that Eidos Montreal approached the game’s cities with the intention of creating a ‘living, breathing world’. I’m reminded of Hong Kong from the original Deus Ex. The original doesn’t look like much now, but back when I first played the game, it just seemed so real. Comparatively, this definitely has the same feel. There are window shoppers plodding around, glaring into neon lit shop windows; there are clubbers grouped together, traipsing up and down the road; there are even homeless people begging. This feels so Deus Ex. Jean also assures us that we can talk to everyone, which is something that added insane amounts of realism to the original, which was released in 2000.

Jensen navigates his way to the doors of ‘The Hive’, and his path is blocked by a bouncer asking for a membership card. At this point, Jean reminds us that there are many ways to get Adam into the club, whether he kills the bouncers, sneaks in through the sewers, or finds an open window on the roof. Sadly, for me, the gentleman playing the demo took the considerably hassle-free way out, and bribed the bouncer to gain entry. One thing that particularly struck me, however, was the booming, muffled sound of bassy club music from outside. I was getting more and more excited as the demo went on.

Inside the club, where the music was gladly not as atrocious as it would have appeared, Adam hops up some stairs, approaches a bartender, and a dialogue ensues. There are a series of options which can be selected (insist, pinpoint, provoke) to influence the flow of conversation, as opposed to selecting set dialogue options. What really impressed me were the facial expressions of this bartender. Of particular note were the eyes that screamed, “I’m lying!”, when his mouth was busy telling Jensen he had no idea who Arie van Bruggen is. Eventually, Jensen angered the bartender to such a degree that he halted the conversation, prompting the player to find a way into the club’s VIP area, where he’d hopefully find Tong. A quick spot of eavesdropping (another fall-back to the original Deus Ex) next to some bouncers informs us that one of them lost his PDA somewhere. A quick visit to the men’s room, and we’ve secured a door code for the VIP area. Shiny.

This is Tong.

"So, I hear you know Arie van Bruggen?"

In the VIP area, Jensen sneaks into some vents (another fall-back) and spies a meeting between the bartender, who is revealed to actually be Tong himself, and another menacing looking guy who is hassling him about your questioning into the whereabouts of Arie van Bruggen.

All of a sudden, the scene changes to some docks, where Jean informs us we’re going in gung-ho, macho style. This is the first time we see Adam’s augmentations being used, where his strength augmentation is used to lob away a crate obstructing a convenient hole in the perimeter fence. He switches to a crossbow, by way of a quick inventory (far removed from the RPG-style inventory of the first game) and pins some guards to walls, and other objects. There’s also quite a bit of third-person cover action, which flips from first to third-person with considerable smoothness. The third-person viewpoint also lets you get the most out of Adam’s takedown attacks, which include puncturing the heads of guards with some arm-mounted blades, and punching through walls to annihilate guards standing on the other side. They add a cinematic feel to the game, which is admittedly very cool, despite initially behaving like a purist who was against the idea of third-person segments to the game. However, Jean did inform us all that it’s possible to get through the entire game without killing a single person. I was unsure of whether this means you can simply avoid all combat altogether, or find some way to non-lethally pacify your assailants. The way Jean was talking about non-lethal takedowns, however, led me to believe it’s the latter.

The demo ends as Jensen drops into a warehouse, and takes out a rather menacing looking boss with a rocket launcher. We’re shown another cut-scene where a heavily augmented fellow with guns for arms enters, and looks ready to shoot Jensen’s head off. The lights go up, and the room bursts into applause, even though we’ve already seen this all before. It’s only testament to how heavily anticipated this game is. People are yearning for it, and more than that, they’re yearning that Eidos Montreal don’t screw things up.

Robots love rockets.

Eat my boomstick!

You know what? Having seen it first-hand, I’m sure they won’t screw it up. It’s going to be a very different game than the original Deus Ex, but it’s going to be very familiar game at the same time. Whatever it turns out to be, I’m sure we’ll all enjoy it. I honestly can’t wait.