He’s fast, he’s blue, he’s rude, and if you grew up during the 90’s, he’s probably just as iconic of a character as Mario or Batman: He’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and he just celebrated his 20th birthday this past week. While Sonic no longer maintains the legendary reputation he once had, he remains a popular character, and being able to remain in the public eye for over 20 years is certainly a substantial achievement: most videogame characters and franchises are forgotten within the span of one hardware generation, yet despite his ups and downs, Sonic seems like he’s here to stay. He’s starred in some great games, as well as some absolutely terrible ones, and now, on the occasion of his 20th Anniversary, it seems fitting to look back on Sonic’s history, as well as speculate his future.
Conception and Development
During the late eighties, Sega had established itself as one of the premiere developers of arcade games: arcade classics like Afterburner, Hang On, and Space Harrier had made the name “Sega” one of the most well regarded and acclaimed brands in the relatively young videogame industry, but despite their success in the arcades, Sega struggled to break in to the lucrative home console market: their attempt at producing a competitor to Nintendo’s incredible popular NES, the Sega Master System, failed to find a sizeable audience, garnering only a niche following at best, and Nintendo’s 8-bit monopoly of the videogames industry continued for years without any real opposition.
Not content to let Nintendo dominate the upcoming 16-bit generation as well, Sega sought to create a character that would do for their new Mega Drive console (called the Genesis in the US,) what Mario did for the NES: they wanted an iconic, marketable mascot that people would associate with their company and that would, just as Mario did for Nintendo, motivate people to buy their new system. While Sega already had a mascot in the form of the now mostly forgotten Alex Kidd, the hideously unmarketable monkey-man had proven to be a sales dud. In order to compete with Nintendo, Sega would have to create a mascot that could take on Mario, and for that, Sega would need to create a character that embodied the company as a whole. Sega tasked two of their most talented employees, artist Naoto Ohshima and programmer Yuji Naka, with creating what was envisioned as being the company’s new flagship product: a game that would single-handedly drive people to buy Sega’s new console and a character that would define the entire company’s identity. The two young designers, along with game designer/director Hirokazu Yasuhara (who was recruited while he was in-between projects as a temporary member of the staff, but would later stay on due to his enthusiasm for the project,) formed what would eventually become known as “Sonic Team,” a division within Sega that, in its prime, would later go on to develop some of the company’s best games.
Sonic co-creators Yuji Naka (left) and Naoto Ohshima (right)
The two went through many revisions while designing the character that would ultimately become Sonic: the new mascot was originally envisioned by Ohshima as a rabbit-like character who would attack enemies by throwing objects using his ears; however, Naka had created a game engine that was able to allow the character to run through the levels at incredible speed, and as the project consequently began to focus on the element of “speed” as a central theme, the idea of the bunny character and the gameplay mechanic of grabbing and throwing objects were dropped, and the character was then changed into an armadillo, and then as the concept was further fleshed out, evolved again into a hedgehog, who would dispatch enemies by rolling into them at high speed. Colored teal to match Sega’s blue logo (just like Mario’s red clothes match Nintendo’s logo,) the new character, initially referred to as “Mr. Needlemouse,” was renamed “Sonic” towards the end of the project.
Interestingly enough, the heads of Sega of America were initially dissatisfied with the results of the project: they considered the new character to be unmarketable, and predicted that if the new game was released in the US, it would be a flop. Nonetheless, the Japanese heads of the company released the game anyway, and ironically enough, it was a bigger hit in the United States than it was in Japan (an aspect about Sonic that remains to this day, where the character is still much, much more popular in the West than he is in his home territory.) The risk paid off, and Sonic was a hit: the game was released to unanimous praise and was both a critical and sales darling, and both Sonic and Sega’s place in videogame history were secured.
The Height of Popularity
Of course, Sonic didn’t become a gaming icon by virtue of being a cool looking character alone: as it turns out, the game that he starred in was pretty good too: the decision to focus on speed as the game’s defining element turned out to be a good one, as it turned Sonic into the complete antithesis of his rival, Mario: where as Mario games were about exploring large levels at your own pace, Sonic was focused on getting from the beginning of the level to the end as quickly as possible. The game remained a platformer, just like Mario, but the difference in design philosophy and the roller-coaster like level design made the game feel completely unique. Other companies had tried to beat Mario by cloning his gameplay vis-a-vis and had failed; Sonic instead successfully challenged Nintendo’s king of platformers by making a completely different interpretation of the genre.
The break-neck pace of the game was awe-inspiring back in 1991, so much so that Sega chose to market the game as the product of (in reality, non-existant) “Blast Processing” hardware only available in the Sega Genesis, and it worked: the game was a hit, and first the time ever, Sega hardware outsold Nintendo’s 2-to-1 during the holiday season in which Sonic was released.
Sonic’s popularity exploded: he soon made appearances in almost every form of media, with multiple cartoon shows, comics, and even soundtrack CD’s; the character that Sega execs had predicted would be a flop was now a pop-culture icon, whose influence extended beyond the medium of video games. He was on clothes, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, and there was even a Sonic float during the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. Sonic had achieved a level of mass market recognition that was, at the time, unheard of for a videogame character, and it was a level of media saturation that no other videogame would achieve until the arrival of Pokemon almost half a decade later.
Sonic managed to exceed Sega’s expectations in every way, and Sega was quick to begin work on a sequel. Key staff from the original Sonic game, including Yuji Naka, were flown over from Japan to aid the American based Sega Technical Institute in quickly cranking out a sequel, and despite the short development schedule, Sonic 2 was a hit: The game was granted the first world-wide simultaneous release of a videogame ever on November 24, 1992, dubbed “Sonic 2-Tuesday” by Sega’s marketing team and the press, and the game managed to sell a-then-astounding 400,000 copies within its first week. The game introduced a new sidekick character, the two-tailed fox named Tails, and featured new levels, improved graphics, 2-player co-op play, and also added Sonic’s now trademark “Spin Dash,” a move that allowed him to quickly charge up and then shoot forward at top speed. The game’s tight controls, thoughtful level design, and incredibly balanced difficulty curve have made it a favorite among fans, and to this day it is regarded by many (including myself,) to be the pinnacle of the series.
The next Sonic game– or rather, part of the next Sonic game– would be released 2 years later, predictably titled “Sonic 3.” As expected, the game made the usual graphical improvements and added the requisite new levels, but something about Sonic 3 as a standalone release at the time just felt off; the game had fewer levels than its predecessor, and despite introducing a new character, the red echidna named Knuckles, into the game’s story, he wasn’t actually playable. The music, usually a high point of the series up until this point, also took a noticeable dive in quality, as the iconic chiptunes of the original two games were replaced in some levels with very annoying, very low-quality vocal samples that lacked the charm of the previous soundtracks from the series. Sonic 3’s short length made it feel like half the game Sonic 2 was, and that’s because it was basically just half of a game.
Essentially, you had to buy two games to get the “full” sequel to Sonic 2.
Sonic 3 was quickly followed by Sonic and Knuckles, an add-on cartridge based-expansion pack (or, as Sega advertised it at the time, “Lock-On Technology”) that basically added Knuckles as a playable character and also added a slew of new levels that extends the original Sonic 3 into the lengthy adventure it should have always been; originally the two releases were envisioned as one game, however, cartridge size and budget limitations forced Yuji Naka and his development team to split the game into two seperate releases. While fans on a budget may have initially guffawed at the prospect of basically having to buy 2 games in order to get the full, “proper” sequel to Sonic 2, the quality of the game more than makes up for the doubled-up expense: when Sonic 3 is “locked on” with Sonic and Knuckles, it easily becomes one of the most expansive and ambitious platformers of the 16 bit generation, with larger, more intricate levels than any of it’s predecessors, as well as some genuinely impressive scripted events and cinematics. “Epic” usually isn’t a word that comes to mind when talking about 2D platformers, but despite not having a single line of text or a snippet of dialogue, Sonic 3 manages to impart a genuine sense of adventure and epic scale in its short, pantomimed cut-scenes that the series has never managed to recapture.
Sonic and Sega were riding high throughout the 16-bit era: Naka and Ohshima’s blue hedgehog had managed to propel the company to the forefront of the games industry, and the success of Sonic and the Genesis put an end to Nintendo’s sole monopoly of the home console market. With Sega’s market share quickly gaining on Nintendo’s, the home console market quickly became crowded with new competitors spurred on by Sega’s success: Sega had proved that Nintendo wasn’t infallible, and that there was room in the market for more than just the NES. However, despite their success during the 16-bit era, Sega would soon embark on a series of fruitless ventures that, combined with increasingly fierce competition from their rivals at Nintendo and newcomer Sony, would eventually lead to the company’s downfall and exit from the console hardware industry.
Coming up in part 2 of Igxpro.net’s 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Sonic takes a break during Sega’s troubled Saturn years, reinvents himself in 3d for the Dreamcast, and then completely jumps the shark. Check back soon for the second part.