How A Zoom Drinking Party Led To Sonic Superstars
In 2017, Sonic Mania brought the series back to its 2D roots in a way not seen in decades. While handheld titles, the poorly received Sonic the Hedgehog 4, and other games like Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors contained 2D gameplay, Sonic Mania felt like the true successor to the beloved titles that appeared on Genesis and Sega CD throughout the 1990s. A sequel felt all but inevitable, but when Sega and Sonic Mania mastermind Christian Whitehead decided to amicably go in creatively different directions (read the full story here), Sonic Team creative officer Takashi Iizuka still wanted to build on the success experienced with Sonic Mania.
"During Sonic Mania's development, I didn't expect this level of fan reaction or success," Iizuka says. "That success created the opportunity to think about the next generation of Classic Sonic and led to Sonic Superstars. Sonic Mania helped us realize that fans still wanted and enjoyed the Classic series."
The road to Sonic Superstars began during the COVID-19 lockdown. Iizuka received a message from Sonic the Hedgehog co-creator and president of Japanese development studio Arzest Naoto Ohshima. Ohshima, who had worked for Sega from 1987 to 1999 and created the original character designs for both Sonic and Dr. Eggman, wanted to have a call with Iizuka. But this wasn't a business pitch or some kind of meeting request. Instead, it was an invitation to do what many of us did during the locked-down months.
"Ohshima-san said, 'Hey, Iizuka-san, we should get on Zoom and have a drinking party together," Iizuka recalls. "We did, and we started drinking and chatting and had the conversation of, 'Hey, we want to bring back a Classic Sonic game,' and in that drinking party, Ohshima-san said, 'I really, really want to get involved. Let's get together and make this happen,' and that's how it all kicked off."
Ohshima had been keeping up with the Sonic franchise, even though his last involvement with the series was prior to the turn of the century with Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. He has a strong appreciation for games like Sonic Colors, Sonic Mania, and Sonic Frontiers. However, his favorite is Sonic Generations, thanks to its beautiful visuals and the intersection of Modern and Classic Sonic – an intersection that perhaps made the pitch of Sonic Superstars, a Classic Sonic game with modernized visuals and mechanics, more appealing to him.
Though Ohshima has worked on many games in the 24 years since leaving Sega to found his own studio, unsurprisingly, his reputation as the man who designed one of the most iconic characters on the planet has followed him nearly two and a half decades later.
"A lot of people who follow me on social networks support Sonic," Ohshima says. "I've been thinking for a while that I wanted to show how much I appreciate them, so I really wanted to take part in developing the game."
Iizuka knew that Ohshima was the right choice to collaborate with on Sonic Superstars thanks to his long history of working on the Classic Sonic games. In addition to his work on character design for games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles Chaotix, Ohshima also directed Sonic CD, one of the most beloved entries in the series. Meanwhile, Iizuka has been at Sega since 1992, working on nearly every Sonic title since 1994's Sonic the Hedgehog 3. In addition to heading up Sonic Team's development efforts for much of his time there, many view him as the man responsible for ushering the Sonic franchise into the Modern era as the director of the Sonic Adventure games.
"Ohshima-san's knowledge is kind of, I wouldn't say 'stuck,' but it's kind of preserved in that Classic Sonic mindset, so his way of thinking about things, the way of designing things, the way of having things look... all that design and creative ability are in the Classic mindset," Iizuka says. "But all of his technology and the way he's building things are now in the current processes, so he can make these current games using modern technology but still apply all of the Classic design sensibilities to it."
Though Arzest and Ohshima led development efforts on Sonic Superstars, Sonic Team collaborated frequently, with Iizuka and Ohshima constantly sharing ideas and production duties. Once the direction of the title was determined, much of the development fell to Arzest, but Sonic Team was far from hands-off. Members of Sonic Team, including Iizuka, even traveled from Burbank, California, to Yokohama, Japan, to work together on developing Sonic Superstars.
With both Ohshima and Iizuka filling the role of producer, they could divvy up the duties in a more effective manner than when they had worked together in the '90s. "When I was part of Sonic Team, I was a game director while also working on player specifications and model animations," Ohshima says. "I also did a range of producer-like work, like character product rollouts and negotiations with the marketing department. Iizuka-san took care of that part this time, so I could focus on game development."
From the sounds of it, things have gone well. Though Ohshima hints in a couple of instances that the development cycle was shorter than expected, Sonic Team – and in particular, Iizuka – has impressed him. "I claim to be an idea person, but Iizuka-san is an idea person who always wows me," Ohshima says. "Sonic Team was just as impressive as expected. People I knew long ago have become super capable, and it was great working with them."
Likewise, Iizuka enjoyed the reunion as well. "He's a great creative mind, and he's really just fun to talk to," he says. "And he always has lots of ideas to improve the game, and it brings a lot of inspiration. He's very different to work with than a lot of other developers."
With both Iizuka and Ohshima seemingly satisfied with the collaborative arrangement, the two were able to focus wholly on their primary objective of creating a game not only for fans of the most beloved 2D Sonic games but also a game for an entirely new generation of players. Sonic Superstars arrives on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC this fall. For more exclusive coverage, including hands-on with never-before-seen zones and a rundown of all the Emerald Powers, click on the banner below.