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A Brief History of Sonic Team

   In April 1990, Sega challenged its employees to come up with a game that would break one million in sales along with a character who could become the company's official mascot. A tall order, but the challenge was answered by Sega Consumer Department #3, aka AM8. The game they came up with was Sonic the Hedgehog, a little blue gem which turned out to be everything Sega had hoped for and then some. Rightfully proud of their creation, the 15-man group responsible for Sega's spiny new miracle worker dubbed themselves "Sonic Team".

   While sales of Sonic were strong and Sega's luck was taking a turn for the better thanks to the game, not all were happy within Sonic Team. Lead programmer Yuji Naka was dissatisfied with Sega's seniority-based pay policy, and left the company. His friend Mark Cerny, who was the head of Sega's newly established US development division, convinced Naka to fly over and join the Western branch. Sonic 1 director Hirokazu Yasuhara was also in the US as part of an internal Sega talent exchange, and the newly formed Sega Technical Institute thus began work on a couple of Sonic sequels. Following the completion of Sonic & Knuckles in 1994, defector Yuji Naka returned to Sega of Japan when offered a lofty promotion. For the first time since Sonic 1, the Sonic Team name was revived.

   With a new sense of identity, Sonic Team left their namesake mascot sitting pretty and began working on some new creative ventures. The first of these was NiGHTS into Dreams..., a fantastic action game that established the Team's penchant for innovation. While not as big a commercial success as Sonic, NiGHTS earned critical acclaim and is widely considered to be Sonic Team's signature work. Shortly following this success came a series of inspired original creations: Burning Rangers, Chu-chu Rocket!, Samba de Amigo, and the immensely popular Phantasy Star Online which has earned over 15 different awards.

   In 1999, shortly following the completion of Sonic Adventure, 12 members of Sonic Team moved from Tokyo to San Francisco to establish Sonic Team USA, the company's Western development branch. Headed by Sonic Adventure director Takashi Iizuka, Sonic Team USA would go on to develop several 3D Sonic sequels, all of which achieved commercial success while receiving mixed reactions from fans and critics. At about the same time, a band of defectors lead by Youji Ishii left Sonic Team and Sega to form their own company. Among the apostates was Naoto Ohshima, the original designer of Sonic and Eggman. The offshoot company - Artoon - has remained fairly low-key over the years, but is most well-known for Microsoft's Blinx series.

   With the failure of Dreamcast, Sega's last cannon in the console war, the company dropped out of the hardware business to concentrate on game development. During this transitional phase, all of its AM divisions were separated from the parent company and established as semi-autonomous subsidiaries. As of April 2000, Sonic Team officially became SONICTEAM Ltd, annex of Sega Corporation. As Sega's financial woes continued, a number of the breakaway companies were forced to fold and integrate themselves into other divisions. United Game Artists, creators of Space Channel 5 and the stunning Rez, were at this time devoured by the much more financially secure Sonic Team.

   In early 2004, Sega Corporation and Sammy Corporation announced the establishment of a common holding company, Sega Sammy Holdings. In light of the impending joint venture, Sega initiated a cleanup of its side of the operation, beginning with the migration of its development subsidiaries back into the parent company. As of July 2004, SONICTEAM Ltd was merged back into Sega. Sonic Team USA, meanwhile, was transformed into Sega Studios USA, still headed by Takashi Iizuka.

   Amidst all the turmoil on the corporate end in the early 2000's, the quality of Sonic Team's games began a marked decline. Ongoing sequels to the Sonic franchise and even new original efforts such as Giant Egg lacked the creative spark that fueled older works in the Sonic Team pedigree. In May of 2006, longtime Sonic Team president Yuji Naka announced his departure from the company. Though Naka's new endeavor, Prope, is partially funded by Sega, its operations are independent, effectively ending the saga of Sega AM8.

   Though the "Sonic Team" name is still in use, its existence beyond an ambiguous brand name and logo is in question. Most (if not all) of the original members have moved on, and Sega's present structure doesn't seem to be as fractal as it was in times past. The company itself continues to thrive almost exclusively on a continuing stream of uninspired Sonic sequels (largely due to their success in Western markets), but the distinct entity known as "Sonic Team" has, for all intents and purposes, dissipated.

Who's Who

   The list below isn't even remotely complete, it's just a rundown of the most important people, old and new, in regards to the Sonic series. These are some names you might want to remember:

Yuji Naka
One of the original 15 members of Sonic Team and president of the group between 1994 and 2006. Naka joined Sega in the mid 80's (Namco wouldn't hire him because he didn't have a college degree). His first project was Girl's Garden, a simple action game for the SG-1000. After that, he worked on a number of Mark III titles, including the first two Phantasy Star games. After the creation of Sonic, Naka masterminded a number of major Sega series, and was, in name at least, the company's most important developer save perhaps Yu Suzuki. In May of 2006, Naka left Sonic Team to form his own company, Prope, with a small grant from Sega. (As of this writing, Prope has not yet announced any game titles.)
  • Girl's Garden (Sega SG-1000) -- Designer
  • Phantasy Star II (Sega Mark III) -- Producer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive) -- Lead Programmer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Mega Drive) -- Lead Programmer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Mega Drive) -- Producer
  • NiGHTS into Dreams... (Sega Saturn) -- Producer
  • Burning Rangers (Sega Saturn) -- Producer
  • Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) -- Producer
  • Chu-chu Rocket! (Sega Dreamcast) -- Producer, Director
  • Samba de Amigo (arcade) -- Producer
  • Phantasy Star Online (Sega Dreamcast) -- Producer
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega Dreamcast) -- Producer
  • Giant Egg: Billy Hatcher no Daibouken (Nintendo GameCube) -- Producer
  • Sonic Heroes (multi) -- Producer
  • Shadow the Hedgehog (multi) -- Producer

  • Naoto Ohshima
    Ohshima was a pivotal creative force in Sonic's early years. The original cast of characters, including Sonic the Hedgehog himself and series villain Dr. Eggman, was a product of Ohshima's fertile imagination. He also directed Sonic CD and designed the character for Sonic Team's second big hit, NiGHTS. After Sonic Adventure, the one-hit-wonder Ohshima left Sonic Team to join Artoon, where he has gone on to direct Pinobee and Blinx, among others.
  • Phantasy Star (Sega Mark III) -- Staff Designer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive) -- Character Designer
  • Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sega Mega-CD) -- Director
  • NiGHTS into Dreams... (Sega Saturn) -- Director
  • Burning Rangers (Sega Saturn) -- Director
  • Pinobee no Daibouken (Nintendo Game Boy Advance) -- Director
  • Blinx: The Time Sweeper (Microsoft Xbox) -- Director
  • Blinx 2: Battle of Time & Space (Microsoft Xbox) -- Director

  • Hirokazu Yasuhara
    Another pivotal name in the early years of Sonic, Yasuhara was the original game and level designer. He was probably the most actively involved in the early development of the series, but left Sonic Team after the completion of Sonic & Knuckles due to disagreements with Naka. He remained at Sega of America and continued working on Western-developed Sonic games, including Sonic R and even the shelved Sonic X-Treme. In 2002, Yasuhara left Sega and joined friends from the former Sega Technical Institute at Naughty Dog.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive) -- Director
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Mega Drive) -- Director
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Mega Drive) -- Director
  • Sonic R (Sega Saturn) -- Map Design
  • Floigan Bros (Sega Dreamcast) -- Designer
  • Jak II (Sony PlayStation 2) -- Staff Designer

  • Takashi Iizuka
    Where Yasuhara left off, Iizuka picked up. He worked directly under Yasuhara in the design of Sonic 3, and has since taken the reigns of the series. Sonic Adventure, the 3D rebirth of the little blue hedgehog that started it all, was the product of Iizuka's idea for a Sonic RPG. After the successful completion of that project, Iizuka moved to the states to head Sonic Team USA (now called Sega Studios USA), where he continues to churn out sequels such as Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Mega Drive) -- Senior Game Designer
  • NiGHTS into Dreams... (Sega Saturn) -- Lead Game Designer
  • Sonic R (Sega Saturn) -- Game Design Director
  • Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) -- Director
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega Dreamcast) -- Director
  • Sonic Heroes (multi) -- Director
  • Shadow the Hedgehog (multi) -- Director

  • Yuji Uekawa
    Uekawa's first major project was cult favorite Ristar, a character of his own design. His first Sonic title was the Saturn version of Flickies' Island, where he was a Special Stage artist. Since Sonic R, he's been the main series character designer. His hip, stylized drawings gave Sonic an entirely new visual personality in Sonic Adventure, and he's since loaned his talents to a number of Sonic Team titles, including Samba de Amigo and Giant Egg.
  • Ristar the Shooting Star (Sega Mega Drive) -- Character Designer
  • Choukyuukai Miracle Nine (Sega Mega Drive) -- Character Designer
  • Sonic R (Sega Saturn) -- Character Designer
  • Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) -- Character Designer
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega Dreamcast) -- Character Designer
  • Samba de Amigo (arcade) -- Character Designer
  • Giant Egg: Billy Hatcher no Daibouken (Nintendo GameCube) -- Character Designer

  • Kazuyuki Hoshino
    Hoshino's first gig with Sonic Team was as the character designer for Sonic CD, in which he introduced such fan favorites as Amy Rose and the ever badass Metal Sonic. He was also one of the main character designers in NiGHTS, and since Sonic Adventure has been the series art director. He hangs out with Iizuka at Sega Studios USA, where the two continue to play the most pivotal roles in determing the direction of the series.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sega Mega-CD) -- Character Designer
  • NiGHTS into Dreams... (Sega Saturn) -- Character Designer
  • Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) -- Art Director
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega Dreamcast) -- Art Director
  • Sonic Heroes (multi) -- Art Director
  • Shadow the Hedgehog (multi) -- Art Director

  • Jun Senoue
    As Hoshino and Uekawa determine the look of Sonic's world, Senoue is the man who decides how the accompanying music will sound. He was originally on the sound team of Sonic 3, and also worked on the soundtrack for the MD version of Flickies' Island. He was really able to cut loose with Sonic Adventure, where his retro rock stylings played a big part in defining Sonic's new image. He and vocalist Johnny Gioeli collaborate under the name Crush 40.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Mega Drive) -- SEGA Sound Team
  • Metal Head (Sega Super 32X) -- Sound Designer
  • Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island (Sega Mega Drive) -- Music & SFX
  • Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast) -- Sound Director
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega Dreamcast) -- Sound Director
  • Sonic Heroes (multi) -- Sound Director
  • Shadow the Hedgehog (multi) -- Sound Director

  • Written content and original graphics copyright 1997-2006 Jared Matte. Hosting and administration thanks to Nathan Tsui. Sonic the Hedgehog characters, logos, and images are trademarks of SEGA Corporation. The GHZ is an independent fansite and is not affiliated with SEGA Corporation.