Full credit goes to Shadzter over on the Sonic Stadium Forum for alerting me to the attention of this particular piece of news. Credit where credit is due.
Hirokazu Yasuhara, the former lead level designer for the original Sonic The Hedgehog games recently completed an interview with ‘Game Developer Magazine’. The website Gamasutra have been able to post the interview in full for your reading pleasure. Hirokazu Yasuhara answers many questions about game design in general but the more interesting ones are about his time at Sega and how Sonic came to be.
So…this may be a question you answered long ago, but when Sonic was created, Sega, as I understand, wanted a mascot. So how were the three of you chosen, or were you just coming up with this yourselves? Like, Ohshima, Naka and yourself.
HY: Like, how we wound up choosing between an armadillo and a hedgehog?
Did they tell you three to do it, or did they say “OK, everybody at Sega, come up with an idea”?
HY: No, it was just us three, and the mission statement was just “You guys have to make a mascot for Sega.”
How many design iterations and ideas did you go through before you came up with this?
HY: Well, in the very beginning, the project staff consisted entirely of Naka and Ohshima, back before I joined them. The main thing Naka had thought up at that time was a game engine that scrolled really, really fast — the problem after that was to figure out what kind of game we could make with that.
We didn’t have any game at that time, so we had to think about that first. I thought it’d be enough to have a game where you ran really fast, but we couldn’t get anything to work. 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.
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, and from there, we came up with the idea that he should roll himself up into a ball while in the air. I think that was how we first started off.
Did Sega want the mascot to be specifically popular in the US?
HY: Yes, that’s true.
Is that why he’s red, white and blue?
HY: Well, he’s blue because that’s the color of Sega [the Sega logo].
Oh! But then, the red and white shoes…
HY: Well, that…hmm, that I’m not sure about; you may want to ask Ohshima about that.
Okay. Someday, I’d love to.
HY: Maybe there was that sort of meaning, since we definitely were trying to make this popular in America.
I also heard that originally, when Sonic would get hit, the rings would not come out. Is that true? And then that was later implemented to make it more interesting.
HY: Well, I think the way rings shot out of you when you got hit was there from the beginning. But the Genesis’s power means that you can only show so many rings at once, so we experimented a lot at first with having the rings flash and not overlap with each other and so on.
After a while, though, we realized that having a ton of rings onscreen would be a selling point — it’d show how cool the Genesis was, and it was visually interesting. So we tried our hardest to make that happen.
Actually, what games did you work on before Sonic? I actually don’t know.
HY: Before Sonic, I worked on things like the arcade version of Altered Beast. After that, I worked on downloadable games [for the Mega Drive’s Game Toshokan system in Japan] with Mark Cerny.
Really? Which one?
HY: Pyramid Magic and so on.
And then you worked with him again on Sonic 2?
HY: Yeah. He was the president of STI [Sega Technical Institute], so he wasn’t involved with the day-to-day process; he was more of a producer.
I was about to ask you all the rest of the games you worked on, but I don’t know if that’s too much… Oh, you have them?
HY: These are some of my old game designs. Boy, I have a lot.
Oh! Why do you have that here?
HY: (laughs) These are the games I was working on apart from Sonic the Hedgehog. Some of these didn’t come out. There was Sonic & Knuckles…I worked on Sonic 1, 2, and 3, then I went to London for Sonic R with Sega Europe.
After that, I got some money from Sega of Japan to work on games and ride technology projects for Disney, and after that, Sega had bought Visual Concepts around that time, though they’re called 2K now, so I worked with them on Floigan Bros. for the Dreamcast for a bit. After that, Sega dropped out of hardware, so I moved on to Naughty Dog and worked on Jak 2, Jak 3, Jak X, and then Uncharted.
More of the interview can be found here. I like the sketches he’s done too. They appear to feature small cartoon people shooting at each other but it’s interesting to note the Green Hill Zone style trees!