Takashi Iizuka Discusses Sonic The Hedgehog’s Legacy Ahead Of Sonic Frontiers

Takashi Iizuka Discusses Sonic The Hedgehog’s Legacy Ahead Of Sonic Frontiers

There are few people who know Sonic The Hedgehog better than Takashi Iizuka. He first started working on the franchise 30 years ago, serving as Game Designer on Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. 30 years is longer than the average life expectancy of someone in 1770, let alone most marriages, careers and time between major recessions. I recently had the chance to talk to him about his relationship with Sonic, and the brand new Sonic Frontiers game, which is out soon.

“I joined Sega a long time ago, I’ve been working on Sonic longer than I’ve had kids or been married,” Iizuka-San said. “All of these things have become a core part of my life. Not only working with Sonic on Sonic games, and developing content for his character, but he’s been like a companion through my life.”

Takashi Iizuka Discusses Sonic The Hedgehog’s Legacy Ahead Of Sonic Frontiers
Image: Sega

When I interviewed Iizuka-San, he was comfortably wearing a navy open shirt over a black t-shirt in the hot Hawaiian sun with the beach in the background.  Austin Keys, Director of Game Production at Sega, was translating his answers into English. All three of us were sweating an unspeakable amount, but Iizuka-San never lost the twinkle in his eye that could best be described as mischievous. He spoke with passion and measured enthusiasm, clearly showing great affection for the character he’s dedicated most of his life to.

So, while to most people Sonic is just a beacon of 90s nostalgia, he’s a fully formed character to Iizuka. “To a lot of people, Sonic is just a very fast character, and yeah, he is, but he’s more than just being fast or having some quick ability. Sonic is always a positive character. No matter what the challenges are, no matter what pinch he is in, Sonic is always going to look at it, smile, and face that challenge. To me that’s really the core and the essence of who Sonic is.”

sonic frontiers cheap copies australia
Image: Sega

As well as being a beacon of positivity, Sonic has done almost everything. He’s competed at the Olympics, participated in several racing events that didn’t seem entirely on the up and up, and gone on adventures with his friends on Netflix. “Sonic has existed in comic form, in movie form, TV form and game form. So, there’s lots of different things, lots of media that he’s been in, but we haven’t gone everywhere.” One of the elements that Iizuka-San brought up is a networked environment, similar to multiplayer or perhaps the metaverse. “Being online, being connected. You know, a lot of people talk about all metaverse. There is this online connected world that we haven’t brought Sonic into. Maybe it isn’t the best fit for Sonic, but there is still lots of new media that is popping up, lots of new media experiences that people are creating, and I would like to bring Sonic into these new and emerging media experiences.”

What surprised me most to hear was that, despite all those evolutions and professions, Iizuka-San believes character continuity is still important with a character like Sonic. “When we talk about mainline titles; Sonic Colours, Sonic Frontiers, Sonic Generations – I want to preserve the world, lore and history within those games. It is really something I think about and care about for those titles.”

“But when we are talking about things like the Olympics games or other game collaborations, when Sonic is put inside some another world for some other reason, I also want the freedom to have Sonic engage in this other game content and people to experience Sonic as a character. So, being able to remove Sonic from the lore and the history and what is actually happening in Sonic’s world, and to be able to present sonic just as a character inside other content, is also something that I allow and give permission to do. So, some of those games, maybe yes it is Sonic, but no it is not the actual lore and history of Sonic being there and doing those things for real.”

Some of Sonic’s evolutions have been tied to the evolution of technology. “When I joined the games industry, it was the Megadrive Genesis era. It was all about 8-bit going to 16-bit. Everything was pixels; you painted the world with pixels. The creators found it very challenging and difficult, but also very fun. Then after a while it became 3D graphics and using polygons to create something that pixels couldn’t represent, then we also get into different technological advances. Now we have CD technology, now we have cutscenes, now we have mouth animations. Now we have all these other things, and because they can tell stories with cutscenes and they can use voice, the characters are coming to life more.”

Screenshot from Sonic Frontiers
Image: Sega

But Sonic’s latest evolution in Sonic Frontiers is to cater to a new audience, as well as old audiences who want to see something new. “We excelled at creating this high-speed platform action game back with Sonic Adventure, but we didn’t really feel like it had taken that next step. It hadn’t incorporated the sense of freedom that everyone was liking in the role-playing game format. So, one of the things we wanted to do is expand our 3D platform action games and make something that more people are going to like, or that’s going to be suited towards what we know people are saying they want – and that was really that freedom.”

While playing Sonic Frontiers, I was sceptical about whether the difficulty level would be too much for kids. When I asked about whether it was too hard for children, Iizuka-San started laughing. It turned out he had been watching me play, and I was just bad at Sonic Frontiers. Kids are supposedly significantly better at things than jetlagged 30-somethings. “We had a similar kind of concern earlier in development before the game was done. One thing that we found through play testing is the kids are actually really good at combat. At most places they’ll do, like two, maybe three play tests. We did multiple times more play tests than what other companies do for their product. But we really wanted to make sure can they play through the game? Can they defeat the Titans and all this new game experience that they were creating? Is it going to be suited for the kids that we want to play the game and have a lot of fun? And we found out that they’re actually really good they can defeat the bosses, but it is challenging.”

Sonic Frontiers screenshot
Image: Sega

Part of that playtesting was also trying to solve the most difficult part of building Sonic Frontiers: finding a balance between having enough stuff, but not too much stuff. Open zones can feel empty (boring) or overstuffed (and thus cheapening everything). The team believes they have found that balance, but it took a lot of tweaking.

When I played through the preview, the big overwhelming feeling I had was that I wished it was couch co-op, because it seems like an experience that would be more fun shared (and also I just really like couch co-op). However, Iizuka-San thinks that would defeat the point of the game. “The focus for Sonic frontiers was really on having you the player have this experience with Sonic and go on this adventure with Sonic. So, the whole idea and the concept originally was for a single player experience, because we did want the focus to be on Sonic and the person playing. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not doing any co-op games in the future.”

Big the Cat with a fish

One of the things he’s most looking forward to seeing players discover is all the Easter eggs the designers have included. “Something that I haven’t really spoken too much about is that in Frontiers, the story is created in a way that fans will pick up on the historical threads that tie all of the 30 years of Sonic storytelling together.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means for how those three decades will be incorporated into the story, but you can find out when Sonic Frontiers becomes available in stores from November 8.

Alice Clarke travelled to Hawaii as a guest of Sega.


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