Yuji Naka is an industry legend. Known colloquially as 'SEGA's Miyamoto,' he was responsible for creating Sonic the Hedgehog as well as numerous classic SEGA franchises. After myriad hits and promotion to the head of Sonic Team, he made the decision to form his own company in 2006... and Prope studios are on the cusp of releasing their latest game. Ivy the Kiwi? is an imaginative puzzler that stars a vulnerable hatchling who needs to be reunited with her mother... and I was delighted that Naka could take some time out of his busy schedule to have a cordial chat about Ivy, his influences and the state of the Sonic franchise.
Note that this interview was conducted via interpreter, and the tense has been adjusted from third to first person with permission.
Lester: Ivy is a very unique character, both amongst your own creations and gaming in general. What were your main influences behind Ivy and the game itself?
Naka: The key was to create a new game based on a picture book. Ivy herself is based on the world inside a picture book. Our aim was to let you control the world of picture books. It's something quite special to me, and I wanted to create a game around it.
Lester: Gameplay revolves around using vines to guide Ivy through the levels. Can you tell us some of the cool things you can use them for?
Naka: When you first start playing, you can only use vines in a simple way to guide Ivy to other areas. At the start of the game, it's only this. When you advance, however, you can speed up [Ivy's] movement using the vines and launch her at high speed. When you play time attack, you'll be mainly using this technique that you weren't aware of before. There are loads of cool moves in the game.
Lester: You're probably bored of us journalists asking this- but I've got to know. Why the question mark at the end of Ivy the Kiwi? ?
Naka: *Sighs* When you complete most games, you'll start to see the ending movie or a list of the developers scrolling down the screen. But when you finish Ivy, you get a picture book to read and find out. You'll need to complete the game!
Lester: Fair play! Moving on, you made the brave and successful move to leave Sonic Team and form Prope studios a few years ago. What prompted you to make the change?
Naka: Of course it was a difficult decision to leave after 20 years working for Sonic Team. I liked working there. However, my position went higher and higher and I started to find myself distanced from the gameplay. The company's big, the team's big and I wanted to work closer with the games themselves. Therefore I wanted to leave and start my own studio.
Lester: Have you enjoyed the experience- and did you run into any problems along the way?
Naka: I'm really enjoying working in a smaller team. I haven't really run into any major problems! My team is fine, and I'm confident with them.
Lester: So what's next for Prope? What can we expect?
Naka: We're actually working on two projects at the moment. The first is a reality game. Not virtual reality, it actually deals with reality itself. I can't tell you any more at the moment. The second is a new type of action game that's based in the sky. That's all I can say!
Lester: And can we expect these games to remain on Nintendo consoles, or are you looking into branching out onto the PS3 or Xbox 360?
Naka: Sorry, but my publishers have told me not to discuss it.
Lester: On a slightly different tangent, how did you become interested in gaming in the first place? What made you get into the industry?
Naka (after a long pause): You know, I've got to think back. It was music, actually. When I was in high school, I really got into a band called Yellow Magic Orchestra. You know, the one Ryuichi Sakamoto was in. I was really into the music ad I bought myself a personal computer to write it myself. From that, I became interested in games and learned on the PC.
Lester: Wow, I honestly wouldn't have guessed that! Right, I understand if you don't want to answer this... but as you know, SEGA have continued to produce Sonic games these last few years. What do you feel about the state of the franchise- and do you feel that your creation is in good hands?
Naka (shocked, followed by laughter): I'm quite happy about where Sonic's going without me. However, I try not to play Sonic myself any more, as I know that I will find lots of points that would tell [Sonic Team] to fix! I distance myself from sonic as much as I can. I'm still pleased with Sonic, though.
Lester: Finally,what would you consider to be your finest creation- and why? Apart from Ivy, of course.
Naka: Well, Sonic...
Lester: Actually, let's take Sonic out of the equation as well!
Naka: Wow, okay! Of course, I think Sonic was my favourite creation... but otherwise, it's Samba de Amigo. I'm very proud that, using technology, I produced something quite silly. Many of my fans say it's nice, so I must be doing something right.
So there you have it, folks. Ivy The Kiwi? will be released on 29th October- and we'll be bringing you the full review. Naturally, we'll keep an eye on Prope's latest developments!