As our review indicates, I’m a big fan of Sonic 4, the first Sonic game released on Windows Phone. SEGA is now gearing up to release Sonic CD, a new and improved version of the classic Sega CD game, for Windows Phone and other platforms. In the latest installment of our Xbox Live Developer Interview series, we grill Ken Balough, Brand Manager at SEGA, about the upcoming Sonic CD remake.
Hi, Ken. Please tell us about yourself, your many adventures, and your role at SEGA.
Ha, this is usually a question I get at job interviews!
Well, I was born in California, but I really grew up in South America—Chile to be exact—and pretty much stayed there until I graduated high school, and then came to the US to go to college.
I’m a huge Whitewater rafting fan; most weekends in the summer you can find me in Auburn, CA rafting down the American River. I’m also a huge nature fan. In fact I have a scar on my right left ankle from where I fell down a Volcano in Guatemala and broke my leg, although I got off lucky since a few weeks later the Volcano erupted in spectacular fashion.
My role at SEGA is Digital Brand Manager, where I oversee the Sonic Digital Games as well as some other unannounced projects.
What were your favorite console titles growing up? How about recent games?
Hmm, that’s tough right, so many great games! I think my favorite console titles growing up were Bump & Jump (Intellivision), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Intellivision), Wonder Boy III: Dragon’s Trap (Master System), Streets of Rage (Genesis), Super Street Fighter II (Genesis), X-men (SNES), Final Fantasy XII (PS2) recently. And I think most Sonic fans know that I am a HUGE Halo fan. Just can’t get enough of those games—I even have a “Cortana is my Co-Pilot” license plate frame. But I’m also a big fan of Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield: Bad Company. I like games that have great stories.
How did you become involved in the gaming industry?
Original design sketch for Metal Sonic
We’ll I’ve been wanting to get involved in games since I was a little kid playing Sierra’s King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory franchises. I loved games, and my Dad taught me that this was the entertainment of the future. So when I graduated college, I drove out to where LucasArts was located in San Rafael and started turning in my resume every other day. I was relentless; three times a week I’d drive out and try to get an interview. I would just not take “NO”, and kept coming back. Then I went to GDC that year and finally interviewed with them. They ultimately turned me down for the job. I made sure never to get discouraged, and just kept sending my resume. The HR person, probably realizing that I was never going to go away, finally helped me out and got me another interview, and I was hired as a Tester. :)
What titles have you worked on since joining SEGA?
I’ve worked on several SEGA games, including:
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Assistant Brand Manager)
Sonic Rush Adventure (Assistant Brand Manager)
Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity (Assistant Brand Manager)
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (Assistant Brand Manager)
NiGHTS: Journey into Dreams (Assistant Brand Manager)
Sonic Unleashed (Associate Brand Manager)
Sonic and the Black Knight (Associate Brand Manager)
Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics (Associate Brand Manager)
Sonic Colors (Associate Brand Manager)
Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode I (Brand Manager)
Sonic CD (Brand Manager)
Mystery Dungeon was my first product at SEGA and quite a trial by fire in my opinion. The game design was really challenging. Basically it was an RPG on the Nintendo DS, where if you die, you start from scratch basically. You de-level back to level 1 and lose all your gear that wasn’t stored in a warehouse. As an RPG player myself, I was like “Wow, that is harsh.” Can you imagine playing a Final Fantasy game that way? But the icing on the cake was that after hours of playing endless battles, and managing not to die, you make it to the final boss. And if you defeat him, you get to fly on a giant golden condor that retraces your steps. And as you look down and realize how far you’ve come, you are taken all the way back to the beginning village, where you lose all your gear and de-level to level 1, and start all over.
I figured if I could manage a game like that, I could manage ANYTHING!
Your next big game is a remake of Sonic CD, which first debuted on the 16-bit Sega CD platform. Since then, Sonic CD has seldom been released on other systems. What inspired you to bring it back after all these years?
I think it was just the right time. CD ties very heavily into Sonic the Hedgehog 4, so now is really the right time for fans to get reacquainted with this game. :)
Where does Sonic CD fit in the 2D Sonic series’ timeline? Will tying it in more concretely with established continuity produce any benefits down the line?
SEGA has never really made official when Sonic CD happens in the numerical Sonics. Our goal here was to give it some context, and allow the evens of this game to carry over. Sonic 2-3-Knuckles all build off each other. Our goal is to place Sonic CD before the events of 4, and allow elements to carry over into this next Sonic Saga.
Fan-favorite character Metal Sonic (and also Amy Rose) debuted in Sonic CD, but Sonic’s sidekick Tails was absent due to the concurrent development schedules of Sonic CD and Sonic 2. Does Tails appear in the remake?
He does. :) Once you beat the game, you can unlock the ability to play as Tails in Sonic CD.
Sonic CD was the first Sonic game to allow players to save their progress and resume later, but it was still a largely linear experience. Recent titles, including Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, have also allowed players to revisit past stages in the order of their choosing by default. Will this be possible in the new Sonic CD?
Not in the way Episode I did. We built Episode I so you could simply go back as we wanted it to be an open experience, but we didn’t want to fiddle too much with Sonic CD. We’d like fans to experience the way CD was intended to be played.
What can you tell us about the remake’s soundtrack offerings?
Currently we are offering the Japanese soundtrack as the default soundtrack. (The same soundtrack can now be purchased on iTunes! - ed.)
The new version of Sonic CD is based on Christian Whitehead’s Retro Engine homebrew project that recreated Sonic CD for iOS. Many large companies would shut down a project like that upon learning of it. But you guys brought Christian in and turned the project into an official SEGA release, which is incredibly forward-thinking. Please expand on the motivations behind that decision.
I agree; it’s a really positive message that SEGA is sending. Social Networking has changed the world in ways we are just grasping, and it’s allowing people to show off talent in ways previously not possible. And if you want to stay competitive, you have to go outside your comfort zone and seek talent where it lies. While we discourage the unauthorized use of company property, SEGA is always interested in terrific tech that makes the best games. Christian demonstrated he had AAA skills that we could put to amazing use, and I think the fans will reap the benefit of our partnership.
Not at the moment. But SEGA is always looking at talent and that’s why we attend GDC and similar events to see what great tools people have developed.
Getting back to Sonic CD, the new version expands the field of view to widescreen without distorting the sprites’ proportions. How did you accomplish this?
Original sketch for Amy Rose
That’s a trade secret. :)
Speaking of visual changes, can you reveal anything about the visual filters you’re adding? Will you use the same one as Guardian Heroes HD or something different?
It will be similar. I personally like playing with the [unfiltered] 16-bit sprites, but the filters will be available just like in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection.
Did the option to switch between Sonic CD-style physics and Sonic 2 and 3 physics make the cut?
The game runs on the CD style physics. (In other words, no. But a recent leaked video does show the option to switch between spin dash styles, and Christian Whitehead also confirmed the two physics styles are intact. This appears to be an issue with how I worded the question. – ed.)
Will Sonic CD support any form of downloadable content? What about Avatar Awards on Xbox 360 and Windows Phone?
That’s currently being discussed now, actually. :) “Maybe” would be the best answer I can give.
How does the difficulty of Sonic CD’s Achievements compare to past Sonic games? Beating the final boss without getting hit in Sonic 4 was tough!
Hahaha yeah, Sonic Team does like to make a few crazy ones; I remember Sonic Unleashed had a few notoriously difficult ones. ‘Hard Boiled’ was one of the rarest ones people unlocked. Even I didn’t do it.
For CD we have one called ‘Statue Saviour,’ where you have to find the angel statue in Wacky Workbench… that may be the hardest.
Sonic CD is coming to all three mobile platforms, including our favorite, Windows Phone. Does the smartphone version utilize the same great touch-screen controls as Sonic 4?
I think Sonic CD’s controls are a bit more precise than those of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, but yes they are touch screen controls.
Which (if any) of the console versions’ bonus features/enhancements won’t appear in the mobile version of Sonic CD?
I’m happy to say that the mobile versions will have all of the console enhancements. :)
Will the mobile versions launch on the same date as the console versions?
Stardust Speedway in Sonic CD
Well, due to the release schedules for each device, we can never have a simultaneous launch on all platforms. That said, mobile usually releases the week prior. I would expect to see Sonic CD to be released on all platforms towards the end of 2011.
On a side note, SEGA has partnered with GameStop, and currently, if you buy a Tablet (Samsung Galaxy, Acer A100, ASUS Transformer) at GameStop, Sonic CD is pre-loaded. So you can actually get the tablet version now. :)
Let’s talk about Windows Phone for a moment. We loved the WP7 version of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. Has it met sales expectations?
Absolutely! It’s been performing terrifically on the device.
The iPhone got ports of Sonic 1 and 2. Could these games (or any other Sega Genesis ports) make it to Windows Phone as well?
It could happen! :) If people request it, we’re happy to look into it.
Clearly fans enjoy the ability to play classic Sonic titles on modern consoles and smartphones. But there are two arcade Sonic games that have never seen a console release: SegaSonic the Hedgehog (AKA Sonic Arcade) and Sonic the Fighters. Do you have an opinion on why they’ve never been brought home? Since you’re breaking down barriers with the Sonic CD remake, is there any possibility of either arcade game getting the digital download treatment some day?
There hasn’t been a lot of demand for these games, and that may be in part because these were not the most popular Sonic games SEGA has released. There may be a vocal minority that likes them, but I played Sonic the Fighters, and to be perfectly honest, it didn’t appeal to me. My feeling is that if you are going to re-issue games, you should do the ones that really stand out, and Sonic CD really hits the mark there. (The lack of requests from fans could be because the arcade games were never released outside of Japan. On the other hand, I forgot about Sonic the Fighters being included in the Sonic Gems Collection. –ed.)
On a similar note, which Sonic games do fans most often request for rerelease?
Finally, Sonic CD and especially the latest retail console title, Sonic Generations, have met with incredibly positive reaction from critics and fans alike. Does this year mark the beginning of a new era for the beloved hedgehog?
Sonic Generations' reimagining of Stardust Speedway
Sonic 4 costs $6.99 on the Windows Phone Marketplace. Sonic CD will likely cost the same price when it debuts later this month.
Images courtesy of SEGA.