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Happy birthday to Yu(ji)! Sonic creator turns 50 today

Everyone here at SEGA Nerds would like to wish a big “Happy 50th Birthday” to SEGA legend, Yuji Naka.

One of the industry’s longest serving and influential figures, Yuji Naka is best known for creating SEGA’s long-running mascot and one of the gaming industry’s most iconic characters, Sonic the Hedgehog – as well as heading up the Sonic Team development studio.

In celebration of this momentous occasion, we’d like to take a look back at his amazing career in and out of SEGA.

Living the SEGA Nerds’ dream

Yuji Naka's first game, Girl's Garden, had you collecting flowers, while avoiding bears, to impress your boyfriend - so you don't lose him to another lass.
Yuji Naka’s first game, Girl’s Garden, had you collecting flowers, while avoiding bears, to impress your boyfriend – so you don’t lose him to another lass.

Born September 17, 1965, Yuji Naka’s career reads a bit like a Hollywood movie-style rise to the top of his game. Naka is said to have learned his programming skills from code in magazines – where he would replicate the printed code and debug it. After graduating high school, he decided to skip university and instead work in menial jobs, while practising his programming skills.

In 1983 Naka’s professional career in the gaming industry officially began, when he applied for a job role as a programming assistant at SEGA (woo!) and was hired.

Part of his training process was said to involve the creation of a game with a colleague. Their boss was said to be so impressed with their work that he chose to publish it and the game ended up becoming Naka’s first official gaming release, Girl’s Garden.

Naka later gained recognition for his programming abilities among his peers when he worked on the original Phantasy Star title for the Master System – he was responsible for creating the impressive quasi-3D animation effects in the first-person dungeon segments.

Hedgehogs aren’t blue dammit!

That classic Sonic look - before the series started to go downhill. Ahh the good old days...
That classic Sonic look – before the series started to go downhill. Ahh the good old days…

As mentioned (and you all should know), Yuji Naka is probably most famous for creating Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991. As with many famous gaming characters, several other people can be created for the final development of the character and the game’s success (namely Naoto Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara), however it was Yuji Naka who created the original concept for the game.

Originally designed as a tech demo, Naka created an algorithm that allowed a sprite to move smoothly on a curve, by determining its position with a dot matrix. The original prototype was a platform game that involved a fast-moving character, able to roll into a ball and move through a long winding tube. Sound familiar?

This concept was subsequently fleshed out with Oshima’s character design and levels conceived by Yasuhara.

Overseeing some of the greats

NiGHTS into Dreams, one of the Saturn's and SEGA's most cherished titles. Available now on XBLA, PSN and Steam. If you don't own it, buy it now!
NiGHTS into Dreams, one of the Saturn’s and SEGA’s most cherished titles. Available now on XBLA, PSN and Steam. If you don’t own it, buy it now!

After the release of Sonic & Knuckles, Naka moved up to the role of producer at Sega of Japan.

During his tenure in that position, he oversaw some of SEGA’s most beloved titles, including: Nights into Dreams, Burning Rangers, Sonic Adventure, Chu Chu Rocket!, Phantasy Star Online, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg and Phantasy Star Universe.

‘Prope’-lling into the future

In 2006, Naka announced his plans to leave SEGA in order to create his own gaming studio, Prope. With Naoto Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara’s departure from SEGA in 1999 and 2002 (respectively), Yuji Naka was the final member of the core trio to have worked on the original Sonic the Hedgehog game to leave the company.

Showing some support for Naka’s decision, Prope’s first release, Let’s Tap, was published by SEGA in 2008 exclusively for the Nintendo Wii. Featuring five party-style mini games, the title was boasted as being a game that ‘anyone can play’, as it literally used the Wiimote’s sensor to detect the vibrations from taps made near the controller (no button presses or use of the analogue stick). The game was received with a warm reception upon its release – generally gaining favourable scores.

To date, Yuji Naka is yet to recreate his successes he saw at SEGA, such as he did with Sonic, NiGHTS and the Phantasy Star series. But, fingers crossed, we all hope that fortune will change when Prope’s next title, Rodeo the Sky Soldier, releases later this year on Wii-U.

Fingers crossed, we'll see awesome things from Rodeo Sky Soldier!
Fingers crossed, we’ll see awesome things from Rodeo Sky Soldier!

Graham Cookson

I'm the European Editor of SEGA Nerds and co-founder of the original SEGA Nerds website with Chris back in 2004 or 2005 (genuinely can't remember which year it was now!). I've been a SEGA fan pretty much all my gaming life - though I am also SEGA Nerds' resident Microsoft fanboy (well, every site needs one) and since SEGA went third party, I guess it's now ok to admit that I like Nintendo and Sony too :0) I'm also the Content Manager of the big data company, Digital Contact Ltd, in the UK: http://digitalcontact.co.uk/company/team/

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