Born c. 1966. Education: High school graduate. Hobbies and other interests: Formula One racing, fast cars.
Office—Sega Corporation, 1-2-12 Haneda, Ohta-ku, Tokyo, 144-8531, Japan.
Video game designer and developer. Sega Corporation, Ltd., Tokyo, Japan, 1984—. Programmer, designer, director, producer, president and CEO of Sonic Team (wholly owned subsidiary of Sega Corp.), Tokyo, Japan, 2001—. Worked on games Ghouls and Ghosts, F16 Fighting Falcon, Phantasy Star, Space Harrier, Black Belt, the Village of Spiritual World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic and Knuckles, Phantasy Star Online, Chu-Chu Rocket!, Samba de Amigo, NiGHTS, Sonic Battle, Sonic Heroes, Sonic Fever, and Puyo Puyo Fever.
Lifetime Achievement Award, International Game Developers Association, 2002; named Greatest Video Game of All Time, Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association, 2003, for Sonic the Hedgehog.
STORY DEVELOPER AND DESIGNER; VIDEO GAMES
Phantasy Star, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1988.
Phantasy Star II, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1989.
Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1991.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sega of America, 1992.
Phantasy Starr III: Generations of Doom, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1992.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1993.
Sonic and Knuckles, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.
Sonic 3D Blast, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1996.
Sonic R, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1997.
Sonic Adventure, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 1998.
Samba de Amigo, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2000.
Chu Chu Rocket!, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2000.
Phantasy Star Online, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
Sonic Adventure 2, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
Mina de Puyo Puyo, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
Sonic Advance, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2001.
Sonic Advance 2, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2002.
Sonic Adventure DX, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2003.
Sonic Battle, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2003.
Sonic Heroes, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2003.
Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2003.
Puyo Puyo Fever, Sega (Tokyo, Japan), 2004.
The "Sonic" series has been adapted for an animated television program in Japan, Sonic X, and for a comic book series.
Work in Progress
Online games; more Sonic Team productions.
Yuji Naka is, according to Alex Pham in the Los Angeles Times, "a cult figure in Japan, where video games are far more embedded in popular culture than in the rest of the world." A video game programmer, designer, and producer, Naka is best known for his 1991 creation, Sonic the Hedgehog, a game which features the blue, spiky-haired hedgehog of the title waging perpetual battle against the evil Dr. Robotnik, also known as Eggman. In 2003, this game was named the greatest video game of all time by the Entertainment and Leisure Software Association, beating out such classic competition as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarino of Time and Pac-Man, which came in second and third respectively in the survey of over a million users. As noted in Glasgow's Daily Record, Naka responded warmly to the award: "Sonic and I would dearly like to thank the wonderful game lovers that have voted for us. I hope to keep creating games that will be loved by everyone forever."
Associated with Japan's Sega Corporation for two decades, Naka has created or helped to create a score of such lovable video games. The "Sonic" series, originally produced to operate on Sega's own Master System console and later developed to operate on a wide variety of non-Sega consoles, encompasses numerous titles and updates and has sold over twenty million copies worldwide. Other popular titles from Naka and his Sonic Team of researchers and developers at Sega are NiGHTS, Samba de Amigo, Chu Chu Rocket!, and Phantasy Star Online, the first global online console RPG (role-playing game). When presenting Naka with the 2002 Game Developers Choice Award for Lifetime Achievement, Jason Dell Rocca noted on the IGDA Web site that "Yuji Naka is an inspiration in our industry for his originality and vision. . . . Our community and craft are better for his contribution."
Childhood Dream Becomes Reality
Growing up in Japan, Naka had dreams of becoming a games programmer. As a high school student he was already working part time programming video games. As he noted in an interview with Jennifer Olson for Game Developer, "I was in my third year of high school when I decided I wanted to work in the game development business. But honestly, at the time, I did not know that I would ever be able to develop games." Graduating from high school in 1984, he approached several video game firms, but was turned down because of his lack of a college degree. At Sega, however, he was taken on as a programmer, working initially on games for Sega's Master System platform. One of the first games he worked on was titled Girl's Garden, which is about a girl in a garden who has to overcome numerous challenges—such as avoiding a stinging bee—in order to pick a flower for a boy.
Initially Sega began developing video games for use on arcade consoles built by other hardware companies. Then, not long after Naka joined the corporation, the company decided it was time to develop their own console. This began with the Sega Master System, which basically rivaled the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Though popular in Europe and Japan, it did not do well in the United States. However, it did generate enough revenue to inspire development on the Sega Genesis, which at the time of release was the fastest system on the market. The Genesis was enormously popular with games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, developed by Naka and his team. When Nintendo outpaced the Genesis with the Super NES and with titles such as Donkey Kong (32-bit style graphics on a 16-bit console), Nintendo once again took top spot in the hardware race. Sega then launched Sega CD, the first game console to run from a CD, but it could not compete with the Super NES system. Sega also created Game Gear to compete with the Nintendo GameBoy, but again, this was no competition for Nintendo. Further consoles from Sega included Saturn and Dreamcast, but ultimately the company decided that its strengths were not in the hardware, leaving that to companies such as Nintendo and Sony. Company strategy focused instead on its software development, and that is where Naka came in. Since 1984, he has developed video game software for all Sega systems; since 2001, he has been working on games playable on a wide variety of platforms, including the Internet.
Naka's first prominent early title for Sega was Phantasy Star in 1988. In this futuristic RPG, the story line follows the young girl, Alis, whose brother, Nero, has been killed by the mystery man, Lassic. Dying, Nero tells his sister to find the warrior named Odin to help defeat the villain, Lassic, and stop him from controlling the world. This adventuresome sci-fi game proved popular with gamers, and launched a series that has continued on various consoles and even to an online generation in 2001. A contributor for Green Hill Zone noted that, while the original Phantasy Star did not succeed in making Sega's console more competitive vis-a-vis Nintendo's NES system, it did "change the face of console RPGs and attract a cult following of fans."
Enter Sonic the Hedgehog
Soon Naka transferred to Sega's Consumer Department #3, also known as AM8, and it was to this department that the corporate heads turned when they proposed in early 1990 a game that could sell over a million units and that would establish the main character as something of a company icon, as Mario, the character in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., had done for Nintendo. Lead programmer on what became known as the Sonic Team was Naka, and working with Hirokazu Yashura, Naoto Ohshima, and Shinobu Toyoda, he came up with the idea of a hedgehog as the superhero for their new game—and not just any hedgehog, but a supersonic one. "It was difficult to create a character that can please children from all over the world, because we had an idea of the worldwide evolution for Sonic," Naka told a contributor for Sonic HQ. "We concentrated on creating simplicity and the impact of colors."
In the beginning however, the hedgehog was a rabbit, a very speedy animal. Naka, who owns a Ferrari, a Porsche, and a Lotus, loves speed, and loves characters who are fast. His rabbit hero was intended to throw things with his ears. However, in order to do that, Naka figured that the rabbit would have to stop first; he wanted an animal that can "defeat enemies while moving at the same time, rolling and clashing against them," as the designer told Pham. He hit on a hedgehog, because as he further explained to Pham, "a hedgehog has spines on its back, so it can roll and clash against the enemies." For Naka, characters must grow out of the necessities of the game itself. They have to "complement the game play," he told Pham, "not just . . . be cute." With Sonic, however, Naka got both attributes. The little blue hedgehog quickly won the hearts of young video game players as it fought the evil machinations of egg-shaped Dr. Robotnik, who was such a great character that Naka and his development team decided to make him the chief bad guy.
The story line for this debut "Sonic" series title was straightforward: Dr. Robotnik captures many of Sonic's animal buddies and traps them inside robots. Sonic must save them by destroying said robots with his blazingly fast spin attack. At the same time, Dr. Robotnik is trying to gain control over the immensely powerful Chaos Emeralds, and Sonic has to get them before Robotnik does. Within months this game had sold in the hundreds of thousands and established a definite mascot for Sega. Naka attributed the success of Sonic the Hedgehog, as he noted on Sonic HQ, to the main character's "speed, style and attitude." In the second installment, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic was given an ally, Tails, a fox with two tails, who helps to stop the plans of Dr. Robotnik to take over the world. This second installment was designed by the Sonic Team working out of its new technical center in Palo Alto, California. Back at the Japan headquarters, Naka came out with the 1993 version of the game, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which introduces yet another character, Knuckles the Echidna, who is an inhabitant of the Floating Island where Dr. Robotnik has crash landed. He has a vested interest in gathering the Chaos Emeralds for himself. Each game added more levels of difficulty, more hedgehog characters and villainous helpers, and faster speeds, built for Sega's Genesis platform. The action continues on Sonic and Knuckles, also designed for the Genesis console.
In 1996, Naka and his team developed an arcade version of the game, Sonic 3D Blast, and along with Sonic R, these presented more three-dimensional possibilities. Full three dimensions came with the 1998 Sonic Adventure, developed for Sega's powerful new Dreamcast platform. In the 2001 version, Sonic Adventure 2, another new character is added, the mysterious hedgehog, Shadow, who teams up with Dr. Robotnik. That year also saw the tenth anniversary of the feisty hedgehog. Speaking with Shahed Ahmed on GameSpot, Naka commented that "I would like to see Sonic trying new and different things [in the future]. So, it may be possible to see him doing something completely different." That something different appeared in 2002, when Sonic appeared in a format playable on a Nintendo GameCube console; Sega decided to get out of the hardware business and return to developing video games that can be played on other platforms. Further characters came on board, as well, including Cream and her sidekick, Chao, from the 2003 Sonic Advance 2.
Life after Sonic
Naka has also been responsible for other innovative video games, including the coin-operated interactive musical rhythm game Samba de Amigo and the puzzle game Chu Chu Rocket! In the new millennium, with the breakup of Sega into many wholly owned subsidiaries, Naka became the president and CEO of Sonic Team, a member of the Sega Group. He returned to his early title Phantasy Star in several updates, including the 2001 Phantasy Star Online, the first original title for the "Phantasy Star" series in six years, and the first ever network RPG for console gaming. Built for Nintendo's GameCube specifically is the 2003 Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, which, like the "Sonic" titles, is a blend of fast action, intriguing characters, and engrossing gameplay.
If you enjoy the works of Yuji Naka
If you enjoy the works of Yuji Naka, you might want to check out the following:
Sega's Mortal Combat.
Sega's Ren and Stimpy.
Naka has become an inspiration for other video game designers for his vision and insights into video game creation. Speaking with Pham, he noted the difficulties of designing games for both Japanese and Americans. While Americans "tend to prefer more challenging games," Naka observed, "Japanese enjoy the story itself. It is difficult for the developers to balance these two things." Yet Naka has seemed to find such a formula. Part of his secret is, he has often noted, to follow his instincts and to be sure that the game is fun. "I want to make interesting games," he noted in an interview conducted by Sega Visions and reproduced on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Web site. "I want to show my dreams and visions to kids. But most important, I want to create something that will make the player happy. I want the player to be surprised and have fun."
Biographical and Critical Sources
AB Europe, September, 2000, Christophe Kagotani, "Sega is Dead. Long Live Sega," p. 41.
Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), December 6, 2003, Natalie Walker, "Super Sonic Hogs Top Spot in Games League," p. 30.
Game Developer, March, 2002, Jennifer Olsen, "Sonic Success," p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2001, Alex Pham, "Game Design; Super Sonic," p. T6.
Mirror (London, England), December 6, 2003, Damien Lane, "Sonic Hedgehog Voted Greatest Game Ever," p. 28; December 6, 2003, Graham Diggines, "Spinning Sonic is Greatest," p. 30.
Sunday Mail (Adelaide, Australia), March 2, 1997, John Marr, "The Sonic Boom," p. 116.
Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2002, Robert A. Guth, "Sega Seeks Acquisitions in the U.S.," p. B6.
futuregamez.net,http://www.futuregamez.net/ (November 30, 1999), "Yuji Naka Talks Sonic Team."
GameSpot,http://www.gamespot.com/ (February 2, 2001), Shahed Ahmed, "Yuji Naka Interview."
Green Hill Zone,http://ghz.emulationzone.org/ (March 2, 2004), review of "Phantasy Star Online."
IGDA Web Site,http://www.igda.org/ (March 12, 2002), Legendary Game Developer to Be Honored.
ign.com, Dreamcast,http://dreamcast.ign.com/ "IGNDC Interviews Sonic Team's Yuji Naka".
ign.com, GameCube,http://cube.ign.com/ (May 31, 2001), interview with Yuji Naka.
Moby Games,http://www.mobygames.com/ (March 2, 2004).
Planet GameCube,http://www.planetgamecube.com/ (May 25, 2001), Justin Wood, "PGC Yuji Naka E3 Interview."
Sega Corp. Web Site,http://www.segaoa.com/ (March 3, 2004).
Sonic Heroes Official Web Site,http://score.sega.com/games/heroes/content.html/ (March 2, 2004), "Yuji Naka and Takashi Lizuka Speak on Sonic Heroes."
Sonic HQ,http://www.sonichq.org/ (June 14, 2003), interview with Yuji Naka.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Web Site,http://user.tninet.se/ (October, 1992), "Interview with Yuji Naka."
Videogamecity,http://www.vgcity.com/ (April 14, 2003), Thomas Craig, "Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, GameCube-based Platforming from Yuji Naka, a. k. a. Mr. Sonic the Hedgehog."*