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Yuji Naka responds to rumors he was responsible for Sonic X-treme’s cancellation

Yuji Naka, the co-creator and programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog, has responded to long-standing rumors he was in someway responsible for the cancellation of Sonic X-treme.

Sonic X-treme is an unreleased Sonic the Hedgehog title. It would have been the first true 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game on the SEGA Saturn. It was in development by the California-based SEGA Technical Institute and planned for release in time for Christmas 1996.

Unfortunately, the project would see several delays and development issues that gave SEGA justification to pull the plug. In 1997, Sonic X-treme was officially cancelled, much to the disappointment of Sonic fans and Saturn owners throughout the world. As disappointing as it was at the time, it’s even worse in hindsight. The Saturn never received an official 3D Sonic game.

Sonic X-treme gameplay screen

Yuji Naka blamed Sonic X-treme’s cancellation?

Sonic X-treme gameplay screen

Roughly a decade after Sonic X-treme’s cancellation, rumors started popping up that the game’s cancellation was due, at least in part, to Naka refusing to let STI use the NiGHT’s Into Dreams engine for portions of Sonic X-treme. Being able to utilize the engine Naka created would have have saved the team valuable development time.

The story goes that when Naka learned STI was using the NiGHTS engine without his approval, he threatened to resign. This ultimatum forced SEGA of Japan executives to take the engine away from STI. This, according to the rumors, was a contributing factor in STI being unable to meet development deadlines, leading to the project’s cancellation.

Recently, Naka was asked about these rumors on Twitter, and for the first time, he gave his version of the story.

“The NiGHTS I programmed was coded in full scratch assembly, so there is no way I could share that engine with people who are making it in C because they don’t understand it and the documentation doesn’t exist,” Naka explained in the tweet. “All these people who tell these stories are liars.”

He continued,“NiGHTS program was so special that it’s impossible to use it for anything, and I have never even heard of anyone wanting to use it. Saturn was designed to be the most powerful 2D hardware, so 3D was very difficult. I really have a problem with people telling lies.”

Naka finished with, “They made a Sonic game without my knowledge and without my permission, and when they couldn’t make it themselves, the project was terminated. I guess I feel like they are lying to make it my fault, as I have never seen it and had nothing to do with it. It’s a terrible story.”

A former STI developer’s take on the Sonic-Xtreme rumors

For their part, Chris Senn, who became the lead developer for Sonic X-treme, acknowledged hearing about the rumors. He dismissed them as speculation in a recent interview with PopRewind.

“I only heard that Naka-san was adament about keeping the NiGHTS engine private. I also recall a rumor that the NiGHTS engine was shared with the STI crew,” Senn said. “I’m not sure if Naka-san was asked, but if this rumor were true and he said, “no,” and then the engine was shared anyway … I would completely understand being angry. But all this is speculation only.”

It’s important to note that another apparent reason for Sonic X-treme’s cancellation is due to Senn and programmer Chris Coffin become sick during “crunch” time during the game’s development. This has been what many consider as the primary reason the game was canceled.

Yuji Naka exits Square Enix and announces retirement

Saturday, June 5, 2021 was likely a normal day for most people. For fans of Yuji Naka, it was a very bad day. You see, this was the day Naka announced via a tweet that after three years of working with Square Enix, he had retired from the company. 

The departure followed the disappointing critical and commercial reception of his latest work, Balan Wonderworld, which had only released a few months prior. The possibility of Naka’s storied career ending with a critical and commercial failure was incredibly disappointing to fans.

“I can’t talk about the reason now, but I hope I can talk about it when the time comes,” said the 55-year-old developer, who confirmed he left Square Enix at the end of April. Naka added that, considering his age, “I may retire.”

Naka’s back with Shot2048

Fortunately, Naka wouldn’t be “retired” for long as he tweeted in September that he wasn’t done just yet. A couple of months later, in December, he released a free-to-play, casual puzzle game called Shot2048 for (via the App Store) and Android (via the Google Play Store) under his independent studio, Prope.

The game was marketed as a “hyper casual” puzzle game and Naka’s first solo game in 37 years, created by himself in Unity. While it’s a rather simplistic puzzle game, we played it for awhile and enjoyed its addictive gameplay.

More bad blood between Yuji Naka and Square Enix

Nearly a year after Naka first announced his departure from Square Enix in April 2022, he shared his side of the story over a lawsuit against Square Enix and Naoto Ohshima.

“Approximately half a year before the launch of Balan Wonderworld, a business order was issued to be removed from the director of Balan Wonderworld, so I filed a lawsuit against Square Enix in court,” Naka wrote. “I would like to talk about the fact that the trial is over and the business order is no longer in effect at this time.”

Naka would go on to explain the reason behind his removal from Balan Wonderland stemmed from multiple disagreements between he and people at Square Enix. Primarily, Naka wanted the developers to further polish the game’s quality but was unable to do so. Another reason was over promotional work with a YouTuber who Square hired to perform and release sheet music of a piano arrangement for Balan Wonderworld’s soundtrack.

“I thought it strange that we would only release an arrangement of the game’s music, and furthermore use a ghostwriter to produce that arrangement,” Naka wrote. “I got in trouble for arguing that we release the original score.”

Earlier in July, Naka celebrated the 25th anniversary of NiGHTS into Dreams by posting a photo of the games development team with co-creator Naoto Oshima crudely removed from the picture with a black sharpie.

Naka tweeted this photo with Sonic the Hedgehog co-creator Naoto Oshima marked out.

When asked why he removed Oshima from the picture, Naka responded, “How would you feel if you were suddenly removed from a game that you had worked hard on for over two years, and when you went to court, you found out that they had been talking about me behind my back in court documents and that is why I was removed from the game?”

Naka also revealed that before he was removed from the project, he had to take time off due to illness. The implication is that Square Enix used Naka’s time away from work to separate Naka from the project.

“What would you do if you were to be ill for a long time and unable to do anything because of it?” Naka asked. “And how would you feel if you were the director of an unfinished game and it was heavily criticized?”

While some might consider it a strange coincidence that illness during development time was a factor in Balan Wonderworld’s quality and the outright cancellation of Sonic X-treme, it’s actually not the first time Naka has been required to crunch during a game’s development.

Resigning from SEGA and joining STI

After the release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, Naka was fed up with SEGA and decided to leave the company he had been with since 1983.

There were many reasons that led to his departure. The most pertinent reason for this article was that Sonic Team exceeded the allotted development time for Sonic the Hedgehog. Reportedly, they were given 10 months, and it took his team 14 months to complete development on the original game.

Going by what Naka revealed regarding the Balan Wonderworld lawsuit, Sonic’s mechanic of collecting rings to stay alive wasn’t even added until the final two weeks of the game’s development. That means had they not had the extra development time, Sonic may have never collected rings at all.

Marc Cerny, who was also employed by SEGA at the time, convinced Naka to not only return to SEGA, but join SEGA Technical Institute in California. The studio sought to combine top Japanese talent with emerging American talent. Shortly before the competition of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Cerny earned an opportunity to work for Sony and exited STI.

Naka continued his work on the Sonic franchise within a studio that no longer had the same leadership. Thus, after the completion of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Naka moved back to Japan, where he started development on NiGHTS into Dreams. In time, Naka would program a custom engine for NiGHTS that would go on to become a source of internet controversy that we hope can finally come to an end.

NiGHTS into Dreams was Yuji Naka’s first project after developing the Sonic the Hedgehog series.

Last word on Yuji Naka and Sonic X-treme controversy?

Sonic X-treme gameplay

For his part, Naka has typically remained silent in regards to rumors associated with him. It’s only when the aforementioned Balan Wonderworld lawsuit became public that he publicly expressed his side of the story. Along with the lawsuit tweets, Naka vowed to have clear, transparent communication with his fans, and that appears to be the case so far.

While it’s easy to point fingers at who’s ultimately to blame for Sonic X-Treme’s cancellation, the reality of “development crunch” is the likeliest contributor for the game’s demise.

Sonic X-treme was conceived within a studio that was undergoing tumultuous times with losing key leaders and staff members, along with having to change platforms several times. A case could be made that Sonic X-treme fell victim to unfair working conditions in an unregulated industry.

It just goes to show that sometimes when publishers remove the lead developers on a project, the results can be very bad. It’s impossible to say for certain that if Naka was given the extra development time he requested that he could have turned Balan Wonderland into something as special as the original Sonic the Hedgehog. We know it would have been better than the final retail release.

As it stands today, Sonic X-treme has the distinction of being that official 3D Sonic game for the Saturn that never came to be. If STI was able to complete the game’s development, we’re not sure if it’d have been of any higher caliber than Sonic 06 or even Balan Wonderland, but we wish things had worked out differently.

Now, we hope the notion that Yuji Naka was involved in Sonic X-treme’s cancellation can be put to rest.

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