In conversation with Yuji Naka

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The heart of Soho: An area of London that seems to consist mainly of narrow streets which, in turn, seem to consist mainly of buildings offering some form of pornography. Neil pops into the most reputable shop to hand in order to ask for directions, and that shop is Ann Summers. He, Anthony and I are soaked from the rain. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Neil, as a Londoner, has an umbrella taped to one ankle and a moderately large combat knife taped to the other at all times, so he’s okay. The weather’s still miserable nonetheless, but we don’t care; we’re about to meet Yuji Naka (who, I hasten to add, is giving the nearby porn merchants a wide berth).

Well, Anthony and I are about to meet him.

Neil waits at the PR office’s reception while we conduct the interview, because a) Mr Naka asked that he not be interviewed by groups, and b) it’s clear to everybody that what really happened is that Yuji Naka caught sight of us out the window. By allowing a maximum of two in, Mr Naka will avoid being confronted by the dopey looking guy in the soggy shirt and tie or the wet and offensively young one, or the dry one with duct tape hanging off one sock. Let two in, and they might rub their brain cells together to produce some questions.

Finally, we have an audience with the great man himself. The interview is conducted via a translator but, in the interests of a smoother article, I will present Yuji Naka’s answers in the first person.

“As you know this game is set in the world of a picture book.” he says, explaining his latest game Ivy the Kiwi?. “You as the player become the god, or the guardian if you like of the main character, which is called Ivy. She gets accidentally separated from her mother, and you the player help Ivy find her mother.”

The idea of being separated from your parent is a potentially emotional one, and the character of Ivy the Kiwi is cute and helpless in appearance. Does he want the player to connect emotionally with this game?Photobucket“As you move on to the upper stages, you the player become more emotional trying to save this little kiwi bird. It is quite intentional. Because I myself am a father now, and as a father you want to look after your baby. That was the feeling I wanted this game to give the players.

This particular game, Ivy the Kiwi, was very much influenced by my personal life. One of my dreams is to one day read my son the picture book. That was where I got the idea to combine the game together with the book. In Japan they are already selling the Ivy the Kiwi picture book, and I hope that I can do the same thing for the European market.”

The game is exclusive to both Nintendo consoles. Why is this, we asked? Does the appearance of PlayStation Move and Kinect tempt him to bring the game to PS3 or Xbox 360?

“For this particular game, I think the pointing device for the Wii and touchscreen for the DS are perfect; they work really well for this game. I’m not really sure about PlayStation Move or Kinect. That’s not my plan, to expand the game using this new technology.”

In 2006 Naka left Sonic Team to form his own development team, Prope.

“I found myself being a little bit distanced. Although my title was still ‘game creator’ at Sega, I was a bit distanced from the actual work, as a game creator. Mainly because of the success of Sonic my position at Sega became higher and higher. At the same time, I couldn’t spend much time on actual game making. That was the main reason I decided to leave Sega and form my own team; so I can spend more time on the game making.

I will continue to spend as much time as possible in Prope on the actual game making, and that is why I want to stick to a small team. I do not intend to expand Prope too much, because that would give me the same problem I had before at Sega; being distanced.”

Back in the days of the first Nintendo and Sega consoles, there was fierce rivalry between Mario and Sonic fans. Nowadays…

“I was the one who approached Nintendo to put the two characters together.” he says. “In my opinion this is an ideal development.”

Then he asks us a question! Do we like seeing the two characters doing things together?

Well of course we tell him. For my part, I simply can’t get over the fact that I grew up right in the middle of the ferocious rivalry between the two characters and their fans. As Ant points out however the games that they appear in together are competitive, which in a way keeps the spirit of the rivalry alive.

“It was interesting for me to see how the fans react, putting these two rival characters together. Very interesting.”

PhotobucketWhen asked about any lessons learned in creating the Sonic games that he’s carried to his most recent work, Naka reveals that he sees very little difference in his design philosophy.

The game creating style [of Sonic the Hedgehog] if you like is very similar to that of Ivy the Kiwi?. I always think that the best game is simple, but at the same time quite deep. I think I did that with Sonic the Hedgehog, and I hope I’ve been able to do that with Ivy the Kiwi?.”

Our time with Yuji Naka seems to have ended almost as soon as it has begun. With time for one final question, we ask about the changes he’s seen the industry undergo over the years.

Well the size of the market obviously, because games have become so huge. And you have to spend a lot of money on game making, games have become a very expensive business over the years. However, I think that the excitement when you first start playing a game is still there. Much game development spending focuses on how the game looks, rather than content. But some games I think still have that good, fun part that they used to have twenty years ago. Although the size of the market has increased dramatically, I think that the joy and the pleasure that games can offer remains the same.”

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you’ll find something he’s written in there.

Luke doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this interview with one of my personal favorite faces in the gaming scene. I’m pleased to see that Yuji Naka is getting a chance to give his games a creative touch again. Obviously Ivy the Kiwi? isn’t as revolutionary as Sonic the Hedgehog was back in the day, but the game looks charmingly simple and fun. Ah, the uncomplicated pleasures of video games… good to see!

  2. Rachel /

    I think its good to see Yuji Naka designing new video games again.Although Sonic the hedgehog has always been my inspiration over the years when ever i make my own original charecters.Now ill have to look back on Ivy the kiwi? and from what i saw so far i think kiwis one of those books that kids will be sharing with THIER kids in the future. 🙂

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