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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". Among the most influential of these were Shinobu Toyoda, head of the group; Hirokazu Yasuhara, the game planner; Yuji Naka, the lead programmer; and Naoto Ohshima, the character designer.

   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. 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. Hirokazu Yasuhara was also in the US as part of an internal Sega talent exchange and the newly formed Sega Technical Institue thus began work on a couple of Sonic sequels. Following the completion of Sonic & Knuckles in 1994, a few well-deserved promotions were handed out to key figures: Shinobu Toyoda moved up to executive management while Yuji Naka returned to Sega of Japan when offered a position as producer. 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 considered by many even today to be Sonic Team's masterpiece. 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. Sonic Team USA's first project was Sonic Adventure 2, which enjoyed significant commercial popularity but received 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, Artoon. Among the defectors was the father of Sonic, Naoto Ohshima. Despite the talent under its roof, the new company has consistently disappointed with mediocre efforts such as Pinobee no Dai Bouken and Blinx: the Time Sweeper.

   With the failure of Dreamcast, Sega's last bid for console superiority, the company dropped out of the hardware race to concentrate on software and game development. During this transitional phase, all of its AM divisions were separated from the main 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 break-off 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 clean-up 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 is merged back into Sega. The "Sonic Team" name is retained, at least for the time being. Sonic Team USA, meanwhile, is transformed into Sega Studios USA, still headed by Sonic Adventure director Takashi Iizuka.

   In light of Sega's recent restructuring, it's unclear how much longer the distinct entity known as "Sonic Team" will continue to exist. Most of the original members have moved on, and game quality has steadily deteriorated since the early 2000's. Though the name is still in use, the "Sonic Team" that once was 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
He's the head honcho and was one of the original 15 members of Sonic Team. 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. Since the creation of Sonic, Naka has masterminded a number of major Sega series, and, in name at least, has become the company's most important developer save perhaps Yu Suzuki. His ego is fairly notorious.

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 such flops as Pinobee and Blinx.

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 where, according to Naka, he had become "useless," and joined friends from the former Sega Technical Institute at Naughty Dog. Yasuhara has since been involved with the Jak and Daxter series.

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 headed to the states to head Sonic Team USA (now called Sega Studios USA), where he continues to churn out blue-branded mediocrity such as Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes.

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.

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.

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 Mega Drive 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.

Written content and original graphics copyright 1997-2005 Jared Matte. 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. Webhosting provided by Emulation Zone and Emulation World.