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Sonic returns to his 2D roots…again. But Sega gives him and his friends some new ideas to play with.
I had the chance to play through some of Sonic Superstars’ levels and interview Series Head Takashi Iizuka during Summer Game Fest Play Days. This new installment in the series combines Sonic’s classic 2D gameplay with a few new twists, including new powers that you unlock when you collect a Chaos Emerald. In the demo, I got an ability that turned me into a blob of water, which I could use to go up a waterfall.
Superstars will be released this fall for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. I talked to Iizuka about Sonic Team’s new approach to a 2D in my interview (done through a translator).
GamesBeat: We’ve seen a number of different approaches to making 2D Sonic games over the years. What was the motivation for the familiar yet new style?
Takashi Iizuka: Last year we released Sonic Frontiers, and that was really the big advancement, the new and innovative way we took the modern series and made something new with it. In a similar way, the classic series, everyone has considered it retro. It was always about old, old, old.
I wanted to do something new with that classic series. Yes, it’s the same 2D side-scrolling game format, but we wanted to challenge ourselves and say, how can we take this to the next level? How can we create something new, interesting and innovative in that classic series format? That’s Sonic Superstars.
GamesBeat: I played the Game Gear Sonic games, so I was excited to see Fang return. I was curious about that decision. We’ve seen cameos from him recently, but this is his first time back in a bigger role in a long time.
Iizuka: When we released Mania, or rather Mania Plus, we added Mighty and Ray. Two characters that most people didn’t really know. But the fans loved them so much. We did not expect such a reaction. Because they had that reaction when we made Superstars, the team really wanted to think about bringing classic characters back and putting them in the game. And how can we bring back a character like Mighty or Ray who may not be well known? What would be a character that could get the fans excited?
That was Fang. It’s been many decades since Fang was there, but we wanted to put him in there. He’s on Eggman’s side, but we’re bringing him back for Superstars.
GamesBeat: You mentioned Frontiers that came out last year. This is a pretty ambitious schedule for new Sonic games. Is that part of a strategy, to make sure there’s a set amount, maybe not exactly once a year, but something close to it?
Iizuka: The Sonic franchise has always been about bringing something new. All games must contain a new element. We’ve been doing that for 30 years, innovating and adding and creating these new experiences. Even from a franchise standpoint, the Sonic brand, the Sonic series, the team always wants to have new things in development, new experiences for people to engage with. One of the ideas was that we had Sonic Origins come out. That was the classic format, the original original, where everything started with Sonic games. After that came out, after people played the original, we now wanted to deliver something new in that same classic 2D format.
GamesBeat: Speaking of new mechanics, the Chaos Emerald powers stand out as something new to the franchise. How did that idea come about?
Iizuka: You’re a classic fan, so you know that if you get all seven Chaos Emeralds, you’ll get something special for collecting them. We understood that players are motivated to get all seven, but when they hit this wall and can’t collect them all, they lose motivation. They get stuck. You have to have them all to get anything.
We thought that since the challenge is getting them all, and that’s really hard, if people can’t stay motivated to get them all, what if we gave a power every time you collect one? You get something with every emerald, so maybe that will motivate people to keep collecting if we reward them for every time they collect one.
GamesBeat: Do you still unlock that super form when you get all the chaos emeralds?
Iizuka: You have to collect all seven to find out!
GamesBeat: What if you don’t get them all? Are you still able to complete the game? Are any of these skills required to progress?
Iizuka: That was actually a big, important point that we wanted to work on early in the design. We wanted to add the powers and have these new actions and abilities in the game, but we realized that if we started doing that, the classic gameplay that we wanted people to experience – running, jumping, attacking the enemies – all of that changes when the game is now about using the powers all the time. We wanted to make sure that fans who love the classic series, who want to get in and have that classic experience, can still have that experience.
We thought about this for a long time in-game, but we finally said that the emerald green powers will be extra things you can do on top of the core, the classic gameplay. If you don’t do any of these extra things, you can still beat the game.
GamesBeat: I played two levels in the demo. One was very familiar with a tropical island vibe, and the other was a jungle that felt newer. Was it important to have some of those archetypes that Sonic fans recognize, like Green Hill Zone or Casino Night, but also mix in something more unexpected?
Iizuka: In the game, all the stages and all the places we go to are new places. But I think you understand what was important for the team. We wanted that Sonic feel in all the content we made. Yes, there will be a jungle different from the other places. There’s the digital world you saw in the trailer. There are all these new places. But we still create and design the levels with that Sonic feel. It still feels very familiar, even though it’s new. We wanted to make sure we put that newness into the game alongside the familiarity.
GamesBeat: You’ve been involved with Sonic for so long. How does it feel to be with the franchise right now? Sonic Frontiers was well received. The movies were clearly a hit. The character is currently at a peak that he hasn’t seen in a while.
Iizuka: It’s been seven years since I came to America. At the time, Sonic was really in this predicament. But everyone in the Burbank office was on the same page. We all wanted to bring Sonic back to where he was before, really make him something that people were talking about. Seven years later, I’m at a point where this is a “wow” moment. This is what we all worked so hard for.
It’s really down to the fans, all the support we’ve gotten from the fans. The games are supported. The movie, everyone liked it. The TV shows are popular. It’s the fan support that got us here, and we want to keep creating better content to give back to not only the fans, but new audiences as well. We want to bring them in and grow the audience and support Sonic.
GamesBeat: I have younger nieces and nephews now, and they’re all attracted to Sonic, just like I did when I was a kid. However, people my age who grew up with it are still interested. They still love Sonic. How do you balance attractiveness to both younger fans and older fans like me? How do you create content that makes all those people happy?
Iizuka: You touch on an important point. Sonic Frontiers and Sonic Superstars are probably good examples of how we think about it and how we execute it. Sonic Frontiers is really a game for gamers. People are in the game, clearing the game. Our fans also love it because you can step into it and feel like you’re with the characters. It really is a game for that audience. But Superstars is really going to be a game for two different people. Our core, core fans who love that 2D classic Sonic gameplay, but also the kids and parents who want to come in and have some casual fun. Just jump in and play Sonic. It’s fast and it’s a lot of fun.
Those are the people we’re trying to entertain with Sonic Superstars. By creating these different types of games and making sure we know who we’re trying to entertain with that content, we can start making games that appeal to a wider audience. Or put Sonic into games that will appeal to different people, and provide them with really fun gameplay with Sonic.
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