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SEGA Superstars: Hirokazu Yasuhara

When you think of the team behind the original Sonic the Hedgehog title, two names immediately spring to mind.

First, there’s Yuji Naka. The self proclaimed “father of Sonic”, Naka started with the company as a humble programmer on Girls Garden and Phantasy Star. Eventually working his way up, Naka became lead programmer on the Sonic project. Despite credited as programmer, a lot of his ideas were implemented into the design and they helped shape the game into the super fast platforming title it became.

Secondly, we have Naoto Ōshima. Ōshima served as a character artist on the project, coming up with several designs for SEGA’s new mascot character along with his arch nemesis. Among them was Mr. Needlemouse, who was later to be revised and eventually become Sonic. Ōshima’s unique style and creative mind both helped create the iconic look of SEGA’s spiky blue mascot, but also gave the game world the unique art direction it needed to stand up against the competition.

Hirokazu Yasuhara [2008]
Hirokazu Yasuhara: A profile photo taken as part of an interview with Gamasutra in 2008

Both Naka and Ōshima are often referred to as the original fathers of Sonic the hedgehog; but despite him joining Sonic Team a little later, there is another.

Hirokazu Yasuhara (often credited as Carol Yas) was born in October 1965 and began working on SEGA video games in 1988, with Altered Beast for the Arcade. Yasuhara was no doubt one of the most important people in Sonic Team during the early nineties. He worked alongside Naka and Ōshima on the Sonic project as a game planner and director. Not only was he the front man for coming up with the gameplay for Sonic, but he was also responsible for the map layouts and designs. Of course, Yasuhara worked with many other team members to produce SEGA’s “killer app”, which also included taking into account the heavy gameplay design input from Naka.

Let’s take a look back at the career of arguably the most important founding father of Sonic the Hedgehog and catch up to speed with where he has ended up after all of these years…

SUPER STARS CAREER

Yasuhara began his career working as part of SEGA’s arcade division. While there, Yasuhara contributed towards the development of Makoto Uchida’s Altered Beast. For a first project, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that. The side-scrolling beat-em-up action title was released in 1998 and it took arcades by storm. Altered Beast allowed players to transform into deadly “were-animals” as they set out on a quest to save Zeus’ daughter from the evil demon god. The large sprites and colourful graphics helped make SEGA a recognisable brand and the game was soon ported to several of their home consoles.

Hirokazu Yasuhara
Master planner: Yasuhara sat working on Sonic 3

Unfortunately, it is unclear what Yasuhara’s role on the project was exactly. The credits for the game are rather cryptic including no job titles, listing only small pixelated faces of the development team along with their initials. Later in 1989, Makoto Uchida went on to create the equally as popular Golden Axe for the arcade. Yasuhara decided to go down a different route, moving on to software development for home consoles.

Starting his career on the SEGA Genesis, Yasuhara began working on several SEGA download titles for the SEGA Game Toshokan (SEGA Game Library) cartridge. This cartridge came bundled with select SEGA Mega Modem systems, hardware which was exclusive to Japan. The Mega Modem system allowed users to connect their Genesis consoles to the internet via a dial-up connection.

Pyramid Magic
Magic moments: A gameplay capture from Pyramid Magic

Once connected, gamers could then use the SEGA Game Toshokan cartridge to allow them to purchase several downloadable titles (via a SEGA Meganet subscription.) It was there he helped develop two puzzle-platform titles for the 16-bit Genesis system, Pyramid Magic and Pyramid Magic Special. Both titles were released as downloads in 1991 and were exclusive to Japan. The SEGA Game Toshokan system continued to produce download titles much after Yasuhara’s involvement, with more familiar titles such as Columns, Flicky, Fatal Labyrinth and Sonic Eraser all becoming available on the service.

Despite his first titles not releasing abroad, Yasuhara’s time at SEGA Japan was perhaps to be some of the most important of his career. It was there Yasuhara met Mark Cerny, who at the time was also working with SEGA Japan as a programmer and designer. Cerny had previously worked on many popular titles, including Major Havoc, Marble Madness and the 8-bit Master System port of California Games.

Cerny was to become a very important and valuable connection for Yasuhara, who’s talents were certainly not going unnoticed. This is however something we will have to revisit later, as now Yasuhara was about to take part in no doubt one of the biggest challenges of his career; to create a mascot character title that would rival that of Nintendo’s own Super Mario.

SUPER STARS RELATIONS

Yasuhara played an equally as important role as Naka and Ōshima in Sonic the Hedgehog history. Joining the team as a game planner, Yasuhara’s main focus while working on Sonic was gameplay and level design. Work was already well underway by the time Yasuhara had joined and the team already had some bright ideas.

Naka had come up with his super fast side-scrolling game engine that would allow players to whizz through stages at incredible speeds. Ōshima, on the other hand, was hard at work designing many different potential mascot characters. Taking their creative ideas into account and building up the gameplay and level design around Naka’s speedy game engine, the three along with the rest of Sonic Team worked incredibly hard to make Sonic the success it was to become.

The Original Sonic Team
Triple threat: Naka, Oshima and Yasuhara reunite at Sonic Boom 2011

Work on the Sonic series didn’t stop there, as the success of the first title saw many sequels. Yasuhara remained with the team, working on many follow up titles, including Sonic 2, Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic 3D Blast. Familiar faces also returned, with Mark Cerny once again working alongside the team as a producer on the 1993 released Genesis title, Sonic 2.

The character of Sonic was certainly seeing worldwide appeal and software production for his games, like the hedgehog himself, showed no sign of slowing down. Yasuhara was soon to work his way up the ranks, eventually taking the title of lead game designer and game director from Sonic 3 onwards.

After working with Knutsford based studio Traveller’s Tales on the Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast as a playfield designer, Yasuhara began work on his first fully three dimensional title, Sonic Xtreme. The project was ambitious and Yasuhara had an important job title: head designer. Many revisions of this game were created over the years, with early pitches produced for the Genesis and the 32X being scrapped before they even had the chance of making it off the ground. Developed in collaboration between Sonic Team and the United States SEGA Technical Institute, the final revision and the 32-bit Saturn’s “killer app” eventually fell through due to complications during development and disagreements between the two studios.

“I was opposed to [SEGA’s] decision to create games that use ‘Sonic-something’ so that they can sell it easily. I wanted to make good games, not any games that used the Sonic character in a haphazard way.” [1]

Shortly after the unfortunate cancellation of Sonic Xtreme, Yasuhara returned to his work with Traveller’s Tales and helped produce two key Saturn game titles; Sonic 3D Blast (a remastered port of the Genesis original) and Sonic R. The latter of the two saw Yasuhara as a map design director. Despite the criticism the game often receives, the map and level design is certainly the area in which it shines the most.

XtremeZoneX
Extreme disappointment: Artwork created by Yasuhara for the fantastic looking cancelled Sonic title

Floigan Bros. Episode I for the Dreamcast was to be Yasuhara’s final project with the company. Developed by Visual Concepts and released in 2001, the family friendly action title saw players take the roles of two colourful main characters, Moigle and Hoigle. Although the game was far from a success, voice talents such as Jason Marsden and Frank Welker make it worth replaying.

It wasn’t long before the strong release of the Playstation 2 caught the eye of Yasuhara. With SEGA announcing that it was to be taking its leave from the hardware manufacturing business, it was perhaps time to jump ship.

SUPER STARS WHERE NOW

The Playstation 2 had an incredibly strong launch worldwide. It wasn’t long before Sony’s latest hardware was captivating the masses, allowing for huge open-world titles such as Jak and Daxter. Due to his love of mascot character titles, Yasuhara was fascinated by the game and expressed his interest in joining the development studio, Naughty Dog, to an old friend.

Mark Cerny was working with Naughty Dog at the time on a sequel to the first Jak and Daxter title. Now friends by this point, Cerny offered Yasuhara a promising position on the development team for Jak II as a designer. The invitation was soon accepted and it was at Naughty Dog that Yasuhara remained until the completion of Uncharted 3 in 2011.

Uncharted 3
New horizons: Yasuhara left Naughty Dog to pursue his desire to create cartoon character driven games

While working with Naughty Dog on Uncharted 3, Yasuhara decided to take a short break from “realistic” looking gameworlds and aided Namco Networks in the production of Pac-Man Party for the Nintendo Wii. A Pac-Man themed cross between Monopoly and Mario Party, this colourful title celebrated the 30th anniversary of the iconic video game mascot.

As lead game designer on the project, Yasuhara helped push the game out of the door where it was unfortunately greeted with rather lacklustre reviews. The brief time spent working alongside Namco Networks reignited his love for cartoon mascot characters and eventually in 2012 the now veteran game developer decided it was time to leave Naughty Dog behind.

Today, Yasuhara is working as a game designer at Nintendo Software Technology, the team behind Metroid Prime Hunters for the Nintendo DS and Mario VS Donkey Kong for the GBA. It’s strange to think that all these years later, one of the founding fathers of SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog would be working on Super Mario titles. Yasuhara’s first and most recent game with the company is Mario and Donkey Kong: Mini’s on the Move, a fun little downloadable puzzle title for the Nintendo 3DS.

SUPER STARS CREDITS

  • Altered Beast (Arcade Version) (1988)
  • Pyramid Magic (1991) — Special Thanks
  • Pyramid Magic Special (1991) — Special Thanks
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis Version) (1991) — Game Planner
  • Fatal Labyrinth (1991) — Game Planner
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis Version) (1992) — Game Planner, Object Placement
  • Sonic Spinball (Genesis Version) (1993) — Special Thanks
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994) — Game Director, Lead Game Designer
  • Sonic & Knuckles (1994) — Game Director, Lead Game Designer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (1994) — Game Director, Lead Game Designer
  • Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island (Genesis Version) (1996) — Playfield Design (SEGA Japan)
  • Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island (Saturn / PC Version) (1996/1997) — Playfield Design (SEGA Japan)
  • Sonic X-treme (Canceled Project) — Head Designer
  • Sonic R (Saturn Version) (1997) — Map Design Director (Sega of America)
  • Sonic R (PC Version) (1998) — Map design director (Sega of America)
  • Sega Smash Pack 2 (2000) — Special Thanks
  • Floigan Brothers: Episode 1 (2001) — Game Designer (Visual Concepts)
  • Jak II (2003) — Game Designer
  • Jak 3 (2004) — Game Designer
  • Jak X: Combat Racing (2005) — Game Designer
  • Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) — Game Designer (Naughty Dog)
  • Afro Samurai (2009) — Special Thanks (Namco Bandai Games America Inc.)
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) — Game Designer
  • Pac-Man Party (2010) — Lead Game Design
  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) — Game Designer
  • Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move (2013) — Game Designer

[1] Yasuhara on his work on the Traveller’s Tales-developed Sonic titles.

[2] Credits list compiled from information given at SEGA Retro and Wikipedia.

Further reading:

Gamasutra interview with Yasuhara on game design psychology [2008]

Lee Sparkes

Lee is a huge retro SEGA nerd and currently resides in bonnie Scotland. Starting out with a SEGA Master System, some of his favourite SEGA titles include Monster World IV, NiGHTS Into Dreams, OutRun 2, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. When he's not playing old SEGA games, he's probably sat watching Lupin III.
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