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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Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing: An opinion

Before I begin this entry, let me first say that I love Sonic, and love Sega. What I don’t like, are games that do their best to go out of their way to emulate another game. I think Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (quite a mouthful, no?) is an example of this. Let me also say now that I’m basing all of the opinions here on the game’s demo. For all I know, the demo could be a dumbed-down version of an absolutely epic game. What’s I’ve seen, though, leads me to believe otherwise.

Mario Kart has been around for as long as I can remember, and has established itself as (arguably) one of the best multiplayer racing experiences around. I believe, like most titles under the ‘Mario’ banner, that this is because the series keeps it simple, like I’ve already expressed in a previous blog entry. You instantly know where everything is, what all the powerups do, how the majority of the characters play, and it all makes you feel wonderfully right at home. Because of this continuity, tactics are transferable, to a great extent, between games in the series. In short, Mario Kart is awesome.

Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is a shot at the Mario Kart crown, and in my opinion at least, falls far short of it. Don’t get me wrong, the game is very pretty, and the characters seem faithfully recreated, but I just didn’t enjoy playing it.

Samba the monkey, and one of the Super Monkey Ball crew battle it out.

The game instantly hurls confusing design choices at you, right from the start. The opening trailer showcases the majority of the racers available to play as, but I was left wondering if some of the characters on the roster are Sega all-stars, or even all-stars at all. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Shadow make appearances, as would be expected, but they’re joined by a somewhat eclectic and questionable bunch of characters, from throughout Sega’s history. You’ve got Beat, from Jet Set Radio (later Jet Set Radio Future, on the Xbox), Billy Hatcher, from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, which enjoyed fleeting success from a single Gamecube release. You’ve also got Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, who are hardly Sega all-stars, and Amigo the monkey, from Samba de Amigo, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast which involved shaking maraca peripherals that were supplied with the game. Great fun, but it still enjoyed only a single Dreamcast release. Not what you’d call an all-star, then.

The one thing that got me most excited about this game is the inclusion of Ryo Hazuki, from the Shenmue series, as a playable character. For me, this is huge news, as the Shenmue games, whilst not commercially successful, gained a huge cult following. Unfortunately, the series was cut short after the release of Shenmue II on the Xbox, but that hasn’t stopped gamers speculating when, and if the final game in the series will ever appear. Hit up the link, and you’ll see the furore created by Ryo’s inclusion in S&SASR.

It’s a terrible thought, but I think it’s probable that the eclectic character roster is nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick. Hardcore fans, like me, willing to do anything to see characters from their most beloved games again, will most likely buy a game in which said characters are included. I know that Shenmue fans everywhere are wondering if Ryo’s appearance means the possibility of Shenmue III appearing soon, and in some cases, I’d guess, are launching campaigns to mass-buy the game to show Sega they’re still faithful to the Shenmue series. I’d imagine this is the same for hardcore followers of Jet Set Radio, Samba de Amigo, et. al.

My only complaint is that Ryo is not driving a forklift truck.

Back to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, which certainly is an intriguing name. It appears that Sega are trying to boost the worth of the title with the inclusion of the Sonic moniker in the title. Call it co-branding, brand-dilution, or whatever you want, but it seems as if Sega are trying to boost the title through its association with the Sonic brand. This is not right, and I’d imagine is partly why Sonic the Hedgehog has fallen on tough times recently. You can’t expect one character to sell an entire game, and the fact that the game has been heavily discounted since release leads me to believe there’s some truth in this.

The game itself seems like an ordinary racer, with an emphasis on ‘drifting’ around corners, which gives you intermittent boosts when you do so successfully. The full game incorporates courses from many Sega titles such as Sonic, Samba de Amigo, Jet Set Radio Future, and House of the Dead, interestingly enough. The demo is restricted to one level: ‘Lost Palace’, which is from some Sonic game I haven’t played. I hate to say it’s uninspiring, but it felt a little unfulfilling. You drift around corners, boosting into corners that follow shortly after, you hit boost pads, and that’s about it. The most exciting part of the level was the choppers (remember the mechanised piranhas from just about every Sonic game ever?) that jump out at you as you hop over various jumps. The ironic thing is that you’ve got to avoid them, and the inherent nature of a racing game means that you can’t time your jumps. Clever.

The power-ups are confusing, too. You get some familiar Sonic staples, like his Speed Shoes to speed you up, but everything else is a bit of a mystery at first, including a cone-shaped proximity mine, a flying boxing glove, and a rainbow. In Sonic’s words (straight from the loading screens), “The Pocket Rainbow can be dropped to block a racer’s view with colorful [sic] goo.” If running into one results in a goo explosion across your screen, then why call it a rainbow? Surely something like ‘goo bomb’ or ‘gank mine’ would be more appropriate. Sort it out, Sega.

SONIC, LOOK OUT!

There are also ‘special attacks’ that when used, do something character-specific. Sonic’s transforms him in Super Sonic (which is admittedly very awesome) and Banjo-Kazooie’s (the other playable character on the demo, go figure) grants Kazooie the ability to wave around her voodoo wand from Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and make giant jigsaw pieces, or ‘jiggies’ fall from the sky. This does seem a bit gimmicky, and I would have liked to see something more innovative than, say, Amigo’s ability to make GIANT MARACAS appear above his car, which don’t really seem to have any logical use, but seem to work nonetheless.

One thing that really bothered me is that instead of letting you win most of the time and making you feel awesome (indeed, I believe that the point of a demo is to sell a game), the demo’s default difficulty is set to ‘Expert’, which is extremely difficult! I didn’t finish above fourth place, before I gave up. I’ve also failed to mention, up until this point, the annoying announcer who insists on narrating everything as irritatingly as possible; especially the fact that you’re losing. I do hope there’s an option to turn him off (ala Burnout) in the full game.

Overall, I’m unimpressed, but I think the game itself raises some good questions about Sega and its franchises, and suggests plenty of improvements to this end. Such as not including all your most beloved characters in mediocre racing titles. Boom.


Why I love Super Mario.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was the first game I ever owned. I was four, and failing to know what else to buy a hyperactive four year old, my parents bought me a NES for my birthday which had the game bundled with it. This seemingly random event spawned a life-long love affair with the cheeky Italian plumber, and the eclectic world of the Mushroom Kingdom in which he resides. Since then, times have changed, and computer games have progressed in leaps and bounds, but Mario seems to be a mainstay that never tires, or becomes boring.

I can happily say that I’ve never played a bad Mario game to date (that being said, I never did play the ’92/’93 ‘edutainment’ title, Mario is Missing). Mario games are generally awesome, and reek of the high quality Nintendo magic that we’ve come to expect from the developer. Indeed, where others have tried, and failed in the past, Super Mario has stayed strong, innovated, to keep with the times, and has throughout the years won over our hearts, and developed into a much cherished part of the gaming canon.

Courtesy of Gamestop.

Super Mario, circa 1985.

I’ve very recently turned 22, and briefly before this event , when asked by a friend what my favourite games were, I started reeling off the names of titles I enjoy. When I hit ‘Super Mario’, I was met with surprise. Why? I assume it has something to do with the fact that I’m no longer a child (which I most often do regret), have long hair, and maybe, to some, look like I should be riding the icy Nordic seas aboard the longship of true metal. I don’t think I give off the impression of someone who’d get a kick out of again, what to some, might seem like a childish series of games. I love it, though, and love them. I’m sure that many others, of similar ages and dispositions, agree with me.

Why do I love Super Mario, then? Simple. Because Super Mario games are great, and consistently deliver an enjoyable and expected experience. I feel this is a very important part of the Mario proposition. Where other major titles and series’ have been destroyed by over-complication, and what I think is a bastardisation of the original formula that made these games such a success (I am, of course, referring to Sonic the Hedgehog here), Mario has stayed true to his roots. While Sonic games have ‘evolved’ (for lack of a better word) to the point where the origins of the series can hardly be glimpsed, Mario is still doing the same old song and dance. Sega’s most recent addition to the Sonic catalogue, Sonic Unleashed, has the speedy rascal transforming into a were-hog, at times. There have also been numerous other additions to the series’ character roster, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what is, and has recently been taking place on planet Sonic. On the other hand, I can tell you exactly what Mario is up to at this point in time. Saving the Princess.

Courtesy of 1UP.

Were-Sonic? No thank you.

I think Mario’s success lies in the fact that all Super Mario games are vastly similar, yet all very different at the same time. They all follow the same format. Bowser, king of the Koopas, steals Princess Peach. Mario then needs to recover her from his clutches by jumping on things, to a great degree. Since Super Mario 64, the element of ‘power stars’ has been introduced, where to progress, Mario has to collect said stars by completing ‘missions’, as it were, but his focus is still the same. Mario games never overburden you with a complex plot, which makes the games ideal for jumping in and out of the action, even months apart. As a result, our expectations are controlled, which is really quite vital in producing and maintaining a winning series of games. We know exactly what to expect (perhaps, however, not how to expect it), and for this reason, I’d wager the majority of people are supremely satisfied with each iteration of the Super Mario saga. Each Super Mario title involves, amongst other things, a great deal of jumping. You pick up different caps, which each endow you with a different ability. You stomp on a generally well-established cast of enemies. You also know exactly where you are, all the time. I mean this in more senses than one. All of the enemies, and indeed, most of the characters in the games are instantly recognisable. This also applies to the power-ups (you know what a 1UP mushroom looks like and does, or even what a 1UP mushroom is), and to a large extent, the music. True, the signature title theme has been pushed off the title screen, into other areas of the most recent games, but generally it’s a delight to hear new, revamped versions of the tunes that accompanied our goomba stomping right from the start.

Courtesy of 1UP.

Luigi returns, along with Yoshi, in Super Mario Galaxy 2. How awesome does this look?

That’s not to say that the series has gone stale, which is nonsense. Every successive Super Mario game seems to develop the wonderful Mario formula in some way, most recently sending him into space. The thing I’m actually most excited about in the impending Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the return of Yoshi, who we haven’t properly seen in years, not counting the strange, juice-vomiting yoshis of Super Mario Sunshine. Even with rampant innovation, the core elements that made the series a success still remain, however, and this is something that Nintendo realised very early on. It’s also something that all developers could learn from. If you’ve got something good going for you, stick with it, please.

That’s why I love Super Mario.

If you haven’t seen Nintendo’s awesome YouTube channel already, which is updated regularly with mini-trailers for Super Mario Galaxy 2, in anticipation of its release, then take a look!