Originally published in July of 2021
Earlier this summer, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise turned 30 years old. Sega marked the occasion by holding a Sonic Central stream that teased three new projects (Sonic Colors: Ultimate, Sonic Origins, and an untitled mainline Sonic game) in May, followed by a special 30th-anniversary concert featuring an orchestra playing classic Sonic music.
With the bulk of the celebrations in the rear-view mirror, we caught up with five longtime developers from Sonic Team. Ranging from directors and producers to composers and artists, we covered the spectrum to learn about each individual's unique experiences with the franchise, as well as what 30 years of Sonic means to them.
What is your first memory of working on the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise?
Takashi Iizuka, creative officer, head of Sonic Team: Moving to America and living there for a year and a half to develop Sonic 3 is my first memory. For someone like me who had never experienced being in a foreign country before, it was an exciting and fresh experience.
Hiroshi Nishiyama, art director: Being responsible for creating the 3D Sonic World in Sonic Jam. It was really hard doing texture design with the new shapes and models, but because of that I was able to really make things shine in Sonic Adventure, so that is a great memory.
Kazuyuki Hoshino, creative director: I joined Sega in 1991 and my first memory was going to a game show with [co-creator of Sonic the Hedgehog Naoto] Ohshima-san and at the show getting introduced to [co-creator Yuji] Naka-san who had just gotten back from America. It all started from there.
Yuji Uekawa, character designer: Sonic Jam was the first Sonic title I worked on, and was the first game in the series that used 3D polygons for the characters and environments, so everything felt fresh and it seemed like anything was possible.
Jun Senoue, sound director, guitarist of Crush 40: My first memory was about the process for selecting music on Sonic 3 when development was happening over in America. On the Japan side we would create a demo tape of all the tracks we created, then send that tape to America via boat, and the comments we would get back after the team in America reviewed the tape all came by fax!
Do you have a specific moment you remember when you realized just how big the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and character had become?
Iizuka: There have been many moments over the years where I have felt just how big the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has become. The first time was in 1993 with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, then again in 1998 when we had over 10,000 people show up for the big event where Sonic Adventure was first announced, and even just last year in 2020 when the Hollywood movie was released.
Nishiyama: For me it was the big Sonic Adventure title reveal event in 1998 and the release of the Hollywood movie in 2020. Even to this day, I will never forget seeing just how excited the fans were.
Hoshino: Hmm, every time I meet up with all of our fans I get that feeling, but if I exclude that I would say a couple of years ago when some characters that looked a lot like Sonic and Knuckles took over the internet as a viral meme, maybe?
Uekawa: It's not too surprising when it happens in the the game industry, but once we started having collaboration with other strong IPs from comics and movies and moving across different media was definitely a moment, also the reality of where we stand now that we have tons of licensed Sonic product being sold all over the world would be another moment for me.
Senoue: The fact that he is widely recognized by so many people is what gets me. Whenever you say the name "Sonic" it doesn't matter if the person is young or old or male or female, they always say "Oh, yeah, I know Sonic!" and a blue hedgehog pops to their mind. And, of course, having a major Hollywood movie come out in 2020 really expanding the franchise is another great reason why so many people know him.
What was your favorite Sonic game to work on?
Iizuka: It was Sonic Adventure 2, and we had all of the development team move out to America to make it there. It was a small development team so we were able to condense all the good elements from the previous game, and deliver a story and game that was satisfying to players everywhere.
Nishiyama: It was when we moved out to America to develop Sonic Adventure 2. I had a lot of new ideas for the game because of all the new stimulus and experiences I got by living in America and was able to make a game with a lot of great moments together with the other members.
Hoshino: On Shadow the Hedgehog I had a lot of fun as a character designer. It wasn't only the robots that Eggman created, but also human soldiers, and weapons and vehicles from an alien civilization – I really threw myself into making a game that was totally different from what the normal conventions of what a game was thought to be was back in the day. Did everyone enjoy it?
Uekawa: It was Sonic Adventure, where I was the character designer and also had to make the models and animations for the characters. I also made all of the artwork used for publicity for the title, so it is a game that has a lot of meaning for me personally.
Senoue: It was making Sonic Adventure 2 in America with the small development team there locally. This new environment everyone from the team was in creating a very stimulating experience, so we had a lot of fun while also stoically developing the game.
What is your favorite Sonic the Hedgehog game to play?
Iizuka: The first title I would recommend is Sonic Mania because it condenses all the fun of the classic Sonic titles into one experience. For those that like the 3D Sonic games I would recommend Sonic Colors: Ultimate because of the variety of play styles.
Nishiyama: Sonic Heroes was a title I worked on that had a lot of variety in the world, needing to strategically use the unique skills of each character to play the game with a high level of teamwork, so I really like that.
Hoshino: Sonic Heroes is a game I had a lot of fun playing with my friends because we would be strategizing as a team while we played. Each team has its own finishing move, so it was always so fun matching up each member’s unique abilities.
Uekawa: I would say the original Sonic the Hedgehog. It has simple controls, vivid graphics, and very pure gameplay.
Senoue: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Genesis. I enjoyed playing the first Sonic the Hedgehog, but in such a short amount of time we got this new title that was powered up and had a variety of new things added to it, and it was such a fun game to experience. As a fan, this was one of those titles I really got into and was impressed by.
Who is your favorite Sonic the Hedgehog character other than Sonic?
Iizuka: It would have to be Shadow. One reason why I have this affinity is probably because I helped create and form the character, but I also really like his backstory as a dark hero.
Nishiyama: Back before I joined Sega and was playing Sonic games I would have to say Knuckles from Sonic 3. I liked the mysterious background, how he was all alone guarding the Master Emerald. When I joined the team I helped create Shadow, so he is another character I really like.
Hoshino: I think the passion Dr. Eggman has for constantly creating things no matter what challenged he faces is amazing. I really wonder how many hours he works every day to make all that stuff?
Uekawa: I am one of those people who really like Big the Cat. I appreciate his casual and relaxed attitude towards a slow life, which is in contrast to Sonic who is always so busy.
Senoue: Shadow. Part of the reason why is because I was a part of the team that created him, but I also like his dialogue (especially in Japanese), as well as the color combination of black and red.
When you started working on the series, did you ever think it would reach the 30th anniversary and still be going strong?
Iizuka: I first started working on the series when I was 21, so I had never even thought about 30 years into the future. But at the time I did have that desire to want to keep making Sonic games forever.
Nishiyama: I was just focused on giving my best effort on what I had to do right in the moment, so I wasn't really thinking about the future. I do remember having a really strong impression that Sonic was cool and the gameplay was really fun as we were developing things.
Hoshino: After the world really expanded for the Sonic characters with Sonic Adventure, I really felt there were still a lot of stories to tell and a lot of challenges to face with the series. As long as that stays true, Sonic will continue.
Uekawa: To be honest, I didn't even think of what the next couple of years would be like. Part of that was because we just continued making games and doing more licensing and the Sonic IP just never seemed to stop. It feels like, because we kept moving forward, as a result, we are here now 30 years later.
Senoue: When I was in my early 20s there was no way I could even imagine myself in my 50s, so in a similar way I was unable to even imagine what Sonic would be 30 years in the future. From the beginning, Sonic started us on this amazing adventure and here we are now 30 years later getting to celebrate this milestone.
What does the franchise reaching the 30th anniversary mean to you?
Iizuka: I am so happy to have been able to bring fun and excitement to people around the world through the 30 years of our team's efforts at work. I am also very happy Sonic has gotten so much support from our fans over the past 30 years.
Nishiyama: I am happy to know that after 30 years of fun Sonic has left an indelible mark on the lives of our fans. I am also looking forward to delivering some more fun games to people in the near future.
Hoshino: My career in this industry is also hitting 30 years. Turning around and looking back at things makes me realize just how far we have come. I look forward to thinking of new ways to entertain our fans for the next 30 years to come!
Uekaya: 30 years is a long time, but I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the support for Sonic is a testament to all of the members of the team. I look forward to sharing the NOW with our fans, and together with the fans sharing the fun times in the future.
Senoue: I believe the past 30 years have been built alongside our fans, so I would really like to celebrate with everyone for making this happen. Happy 30th Anniversary Sonic!!
For more on the 30th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, check out our interview with Takashi Iizuka about all of the announcements the team made during the Sonic Central presentation in May here. You can also watch the full Sonic Symphony performance (at the end of which Jun Senoue and Crush 40 performed) here. Finally, if you'd like more historical looks at the Sonic series, including why the series experienced such a downturn, why Sonic 2 was Sega's great hope, and how Sonic made the leap to Nintendo platforms after the Dreamcast was discontinued, check out the articles listed below: