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Takashi Iizuka is on the other side of the world, and yet his smile is infectious even through Skype. He's up early, beaming widely from an office at SEGA of America's Burbank HQ, to speak with journalists who are playing the latest game he's leant his talents to, the incoming co-op kart 'em up Team Sonic Racing. He's producer on the project, mostly working remotely from where the game's been developed, Britain's Sumo Digital.
"Being able to provide games like the racing titles, like Team Sonic Racing, means that we can deliver a different type of gaming experience to a different audience," he tells me, "and actually introduce our character to a lot of different people around the world."
The very idea that a character as famous in gaming as Sonic the Hedgehog, a SEGA icon since 1991, might be an unknown quantity to some players out there is sort of baffling to an old-timer like me. But then I remember how my son only knows Spyro through Skylanders (and even then through the cartoon series, not the game), and it makes sense.
To keep a character, a mascot, evergreen, they have to be across a multitude of experiences and platforms. And Iizuka-san, as head of SEGA CS Research and Development No.2, aka Sonic Team, realises this all too well. It's a fact reinforced whenever he attends events based on or around the blue blur.
"At all the fan events I attend, I always ask people what their first Sonic title was. And you get a wide variety of answers. A lot of people have told me Sonic Adventure, for the Dreamcast, was their first; others, like me, are all about the old Mega Drive and Genesis games. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was my first Sonic title. For others it's Sonic Colors, and I've heard that Generations is a lot of people's first game, too. We can see, every year, that 'first Sonic title' changing based on the ages of the people we meet."
Should Team Sonic Racing be your first-ever Sonic title, well, that's a bit weird given the character's platforming heritage, but sure. And it's not like you won't be rewarded with a game that's a lot of fun, and even more so played locally with friends.
A classic kart racer in the vein of the Mario Kart franchise and Crash Team Racing, Team Sonic Racing places an unusual emphasis on teamwork - you can share offensive and defensive items between your team of three, and assist colleagues by skim-boosting them back into contention, or slingshotting yourself forward from the wake of their slipstream. It's a game where communication between teammates is a recipe for success, so playing on the same sofa, split screen, is an ideal set-up. Yes, you can play solo, but even then your AI teammates will both help you and expect the favours to be returned.
A lot of ideas are being added, and they're making everything better across the whole Sonic franchise...
"We've had games like Overwatch and Splatoon for a while now," says Iizuka-san, commenting on what inspired him to pursue a collaborative approach for Team Sonic Racing, "where it's really more of a team versus a team, more than everybody for themselves. It's that team versus team essence that I wanted to inject into a racing title, because really, racing games up until now have been about the individual, quite single-player focused. And by adding teamwork, you can advance what a racing title is, and advance the genre."
Team Sonic Racing comes out for the expected platforms on 21 May, and might not be the only Sonic game we see in 2019. Perhaps it's a quirk of translation - Iizuka-san speaks Japanese, I don't, so we converse through a very helpful middleman - but he makes a reference to there being Sonic titles, plural, in development right now.
Speaking about being able to take something of a more advisory role on Sonic games development, after directing a multitude of titles in the early 21st century including Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Rivals, he says:
"Now I can take a bit of a step back, and look at all the different titles that are coming out. I can work with all of these different teams, who all bring their own original ideas to the table. So a lot of ideas are being added, and they're making everything better across the whole Sonic franchise."
Of course, "all of these different teams" can be a reference to the likes of Sumo (Team Sonic Racing is the studio's third racer for the series, and it's also worked on games in SEGA's OutRun and Virtua Tennis franchises), and the makers of 2017's superlative side-on platformer, Sonic Mania - namely PagodaWest Games and Headcannon - rather than any that are active right this minute. But, it's something worth highlighting, in case there's a surprise in store for the coming months. 2019 is a big year for SEGA's most famous son, after all, with the Sonic the Hedgehog movie scheduled for a December release - and what odds on a tie-in game?
Post-'Sonic Mania', I feel the character, and the games, have really turned a corner...
Iizuka-san feels that Mania was a vital turning point for the Sonic series, after a string of less-than-satisfactory releases that rather peaked, in terms of wretchedness, with 2014's Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.
"That was made for a TV show first and foremost, and a lot of the show's own animation team took the lead on the look of that game," he tells me. "I didn't really have a lot of control of that project. [But] post-Mania, I feel the character, and the games, have really turned a corner, towards where we want it all to go."
And on the movie - which will star Jim Carrey as the Hedgehog's long-time nemesis Dr Robotnik, and Parks and Recreation's Ben Schwartz as the voice of a CGI'ed Sonic - Iizuka-san is clear that he's across fan feedback, and is relaying what he hears to its director, Jeff Fowler, and producers. (We've seen the trailer now, and we have thoughts.)
"It's not a SEGA movie - we're not making it, or anything - and I'm only an advisor, really. But I do get shown things, and the [movie team] ask for my opinion. I'm also listening to what the fans are saying, and I'll feed that back to the director - he, and the producers, are very interested in receiving that feedback. At the end of the day, it's up to the team at Paramount to make something successful, but we're all looking forward to seeing the finished movie."
Before our time's up and I get back to the multiplayer mayhem of your average Team Sonic Racing event - the collaborative edge it has over its competitors really does feel refreshing - I have to ask about Nights Into Dreams.
SEGA's ill-fated Saturn console of the mid-1990s never received a mainline Sonic game; instead, Sonic Team produced Nights, with Iizuka-san acting as its designer. Widely acclaimed, the game - that swapped Sonic's speedy platforming for elegant flight - is regularly regarded as one of the best of its 32-bit era; and while it's available on Steam right now, and received a Japan-only PS2 remake in 2008, it's the sort of title that'd fit right in with the contemporary trend for ground-up remakes of older classics.
Iizuka-san cracks his widest smile of our entire conversation: "So right now, Sonic is my main focus," he begins. "But at some point, I'd love to return to Nights, as that was such a big part of my career. Sonic is very important to me, but Nights is very important to me, too. I really enjoy the game, so maybe in the future I can bring Nights back to people."
Team Sonic Racing is released for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on 21 May.
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