Interview: Takashi Iizuka and Shun Nakamura on the state of Sonic in 2017

It's 2017, and one of the most popular booths at E3 was devoted to not one, but two new Sonic the Hedgehog games. This is a remarkable fact, given the first Sonic the Hedgehog game released in 1991. While we've seen plenty of classic game franchises return reborn in the modern era, Sonic is the very rare case of a game series that has never really stopped

The two new Sonic titles we'll be seeing in 2017 are two of the most exciting entries in the franchise we've seen in a long time. Sonic Forces is a game which features both modern Sonic gameplay and 2D levels and gives players the chance to design their own characters, while Sonic Mania looks and plays like the classic Sonic titles, and has been developed by teams known for their work in the Sonic fan community. Clearly, 2017 is a very big year for Sonic. 

At E3 I had a chance to talk to two of the people guiding Sonic in the modern era: Shun Nakamura, producer of Sonic Forces and a designer who has previously worked on 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog and games including Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and Takashi Iizuka, who has been working on Sonic games since Sonic 3 and Knuckles and is the current head of Sonic Team. Through an interpreter, I asked about the development choices underlying Sonic Forces and Mania, and what inspired Sonic Team to finally bring some long-requested features into the world of Sonic. 

GameCrate: So two Sonic games are coming out within a very short window of each other this year. How will that work? 

Takashi Iizuka: Sonic Forces was in development first, and Nakamura's team was focused on bringing a really great, 3D, modern Sonic game with lots of high-speed action to consumers. It will be for all the people who have been loving Sonic games from Sonic Adventure up through ColorsGenerations, and the current Sonic fans. It's all about getting them excited for this new Sonic game. 

As we were developing the game, fully aware that we were making this great game for people who have been loving the 3D Sonic high-speed action titles, we also know we have this really hardcore group who grew up playing it on the Megadrive and the Genesis that want that pixel-based classic Sonic game that are always like, "Where's my 2D game?!" So this was really a good opportunity for us to provide both titles to both sets of fans. Something for those hardcore retro gamers who want that classic experience, we can get them excited with Mania, while also delivering Sonic Forces to a broader audience who like that high-speed action. So we're able to offer two separate experiences at the same time. 

GC: About Sonic Forces, what was the motivation behind allowing players to create their own original custom characters in the game? 

TI: I've been working on Sonic games for over 20 years, and ever since the very beginning I've been getting fan letters, I think primarily from Americans but really people all over the world, saying "Here's a character I drew that's just like Sonic the Hedgehog!" or "I made a character, what do you think?" And so even 20 years ago I was getting this input, and to this day on social mediaI still get people sending me characters. And we realized we can't just take everyone's characters they created separately and put them in a game, that doesn't really work.

But I do understand that a lot of the audience out there does enjoy customizing and creating, so we took this as a good opportunity to deliver to the fans a system where they can choose what animal type they want, choose what facial structure they want, choose what color they want their character to be, then customize that character and take that character on an adventure with Sonic the Hedgehog. Which as far as I'm concerned is what people have been wanting to do for 20 years, and we're finally giving them the tools within the Sonic Universe, that adhere to the design that the team is working on, to make their own characters. 

GC: In Sonic Forces we will see different kinds of gameplay, with modern-style levels, 2D levels, and custom character levels. How do those different levels fit together? 

Shun Nakamura: As you're playing as classic Sonic or modern Sonic or the customizable hero avatar character, the unifying trend through all this gameplay and the reason we are having you play all these different types of games, it sort of goes all the way back to Sonic Adventure 2, and having the story being told from different perspectives. So as you're playing as modern Sonic you're going to hear part of this bigger story from the perspective of modern Sonic. Then you'll play as classic Sonic and you'll get classic Sonic's part of the story. And when you put it all together it's going to tell this epic tale of what's been going on.

And that goes for the customizable character too and how your avatar character starts off as a regular person and then goes on this amazing adventure with the two Sonics, and takes the world back from Doctor Eggman.

GC: About Sonic Mania, are you surprised that people still want that classic 2D gameplay and look? 

TI: I was a little bit surprised, and a little bit nervous, with Sonic Mania. Because we were going back to this really classic, nostalgic feel, but I was a little bit worried as we were going to announce it. How are fans going to react to this? Are they going to say, "Seriously, Sega? You're releasing a pixel game in 2017? What world am I living in? Are you sure this is what you want to do?" 

But I was really pleased that we got such a positive reaction from the fanbase, and even from non-fans who saw it and realized, oh wow, this looks really authentic. It was really good to know that we weren't thought of as crazy and going off the deep end. 

GC: Do you think you're going to still be making Sonic games in another ten or twenty years? 

TI: Definitely. Ten years from now, definitely. 20 years from now...maybe I'll be retired. I'm not sure. 

Sonic Mania releases on August 15, while Sonic Forces is targeting a holiday release. Both games will be coming out on PC, XBox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. 

Check Out Our Full E3 2017 Coverage