When the secret history of video games is finally written, a special chapter will have to be devoted to Naoto Ohshima. He played a crucial role in exploring the creative possibilities of new console technology by working on some of the most innovative titles of the 1990s.
After contributing to early installments of Wizardry and Phantasy Star, Ohshima created the iconic character designs for Sonic the Hedgehog. The blue mascot's success paved the way for Ohshima's directing turn on Sonic CD, a game brimming over with fresh ideas that few had an opportunity to experience due to the Sega CD's unpopularity.
His next major project, Nights Into Dreams for the Sega Saturn, was an audacious and beautiful attempt to claim the high ground during the early days of 3D console gaming. He followed Nights with Burning Rangers, another game for the ill-fated Saturn that was radically different from its violence-oriented 3D contemporaries.
As the 90s came to an end he weathered the shifting fortunes of Sega by forming Artoon, developers of Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Blue Dragon, and Yoshi's Island DS, and now heads the sometimes brilliant, occasionally aggravating, always interesting Cavia -- recently responsible for Capcom's Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles, and currently working on Square Enix's upcoming Nier.
You recently became the CEO of Cavia, moving over from Artoon -- or is it more complex than that?
Naoto Ohshima: Well, the head of the company here quit because of... family issues. (laughs) Since they then lacked a president, I sort of wound up taking over that role, since we're all technically part of the same outfit. (Ed. note: Artoon, Cavia, and Feelplus are all under AQ Interactive.)
I do like a lot of Cavia's games. Though they often seem unpolished -- the games seem to get "almost there," do you know what I mean? Bullet Witch and Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex both have something to them, but these certainly don't feel like Ohshima-style games.
NO: Well, certainly, I do a lot of management-type work these days. I definitely want to make something again! I really do.
Your first major console game with Artoon was Blinx. You might say it was ahead of its time... games like Prince of Persia used a time mechanic long afterward and saw great success with it. Where did that idea come from?
NO: It was purely a product of the hard drive included with every Xbox -- the original one, not the 360. We wanted to build a console game from the ground up that used the drive effectively.
That's where the play mechanic came from?
NO: That's right. There wouldn't be any other way to do it. The PS2 wouldn't have been able to do it.
Do you think it would be possible to make another mascot-style platforming game in the current era?
NO: Ah, well, I'm making a game like that right now. (laughs) I can't quite talk about that yet, though. In more general terms, the game needs to be something that anyone is able to play, and it needs to have one thing or element that is brand new, that hasn't been done before.
Nights Into Dreams
Nights Into Dreams on the Saturn was the first really 3D game I played, long ago. As the Nights character you had a certain path you followed in 2D, but if you went back to human form, you could walk around anywhere you liked. I found a lot of things that way that I couldn't see as Nights, and it was a sort of turning point for me; it felt like a real-life world to me, making these discoveries. You don't get that pure feeling of discovery much in games anymore. Was that something you were purposefully aiming for with Nights?
NO: Well, with people my age, we didn't really have video games as children. When we came up with concepts for games, we couldn't say "It's some of this game and some of that other game." As a result, especially around that era, you had a lot of games that did not become truly evaluated by the public until long after their release. There just weren't a lot of 3D games back then.
Of course, with Nights, if you keep going and going along the ground you eventually run into an invisible wall, so... we had to think about ways to keep players from going that far off; that's where the Alarm Egg came from (Ed. note: a wandering alarm clock that follows the human player and wakes them from the dreamland, thereby ending the level).
BS: What made you want to put features like that into the non-Nights section of the game?
NO: Well, the original inspiration for the game was to create a Peter Pan-like character. Nights and Peter Pan share that character trait; they're both capable of things that regular people can only do in their dreams. So I wanted two games here, in a way; one where you were human, and one where you combined with Nights to accomplish extraordinary things.
Nobody had really played a full-on, free-running 3D game at that time, so we were concerned that people would have trouble comprehending the game if it gave you complete control freedom. As a result, as a human, you have freedom, but only in a small, confined space. Combine with Nights, and the game switches to a side-scrolling type, as gamers would've been readily familiar with at that time.
In a way, having a vulnerable human character able to do things Nights couldn't is somewhat empowering to the player.
NO: I agree.