The Alternative to Mario
Throughout the latter half of the 1980s, Nintendo dominated the video game market after bringing it back from the dead. Atari was more or less gone and forgotten and people didn’t even bother thinking anyone could dethrone Nintendo. During the 1980s, Sega silently released the Master System (or the Mark III in Japan), but could never put a dent in Nintendo (and most of the Master System’s success was in Brazil). Then in 1989, Sega debuted its 16-bit console, the Genesis, or the Mega Drive outside of North America. The console wouldn’t take off for another two years until it debuted its first hit home console franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog.
While Sonic has popularly been recognized as Sega’s mascot, he wasn’t their first. Prior to Sonic, Alex Kidd, a semi-knockoff of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West, was their mascot. The staff at Sega felt that he wasn’t too distinguishable from Nintendo’s Mario so they ordered to make a new mascot that was akin to Mickey Mouse and he had to be fast. Staff members and artists at Sega thought of many animals such as kangaroos, rabbits, bears, and squirrels but needed something with attitude and thought something with spikes could convey that. So it came down to an armadillo or a hedgehog, and artist Naoto Ohshima’s idea of a hedgehog came through (and an armadillo would be introduced in another game).
Conceptualizing Sonic for Non-Japanese Gamers
Wanting to appeal to international audiences, Ohshima created the character by combining the face of Felix the Cat and the body of Mickey Mouse. Sonic’s first was Mr. Needlemouse, a literal translation of what hedgehog is in Japanese, harinezumi (with hari meaning needle, and nezumi meaning mouse). As for why he is blue, it is so he could match the colors of Sega’s logo and stand out more as you play him at certain levels.
Feeling that his design was too Japanese, Ohshima purposely redesigned him to suit American audiences by giving him fangs, putting him in a rock band with other animals and giving him a human girlfriend named Madonna. When he pitched this to Madeline Schroeder, an executive of Sega of America, she rejected all of these ideas. She liked the original concept but just wanted the character re-drawn for American audiences and Sonic Team went with it.
The Development Process
At the time, Ohshima was collaborating with the often-credited Sonic creator, Yuji Naka of AM7 (later re-named Sonic Team), for the game and presented his ideas to him. Naka took the challenge and offered the name Sonic to emphasize that he is fast. As strange as it sounds, Sega has admitted much of Sonic’s character takes much from Michael Jackson’s fashion, Bill Clinton’s campaign of getting things done, and Santa Claus’ red shoes.
Yuji Naka was interested in making a game based around speed because he didn’t like how the Genesis port of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was slow and wanted to do something that could beat Mario, which ironically he was a fan of, and re-worked many of its elements to create Sonic. As opposed to collecting coins, Sonic would collect rings and like Mario, he would find other power-ups such as temporary invincibility, but Sonic would offer more with power up shoes to make him faster and air bubbles to make him breathe underwater.
The game introduced some novelty animations to show off its power such as if you don’t move Sonic for a certain amount of time, he will look at the screen and tap his foot up and down to convey to the player he is waiting, or if he was at an edge of a cliff, he would tip-toe for dear life. For some minor differences, as opposed to saving a princess from a dinosaur-like beast, Sonic is out to save forest animals from a mad scientist.
Just like how certain games are famous for its soundtracks, the initial Sonic games took it to a whole new level by emphasizing on the sound chip of the Genesis. While some game studios have in-house composers to make their soundtracks, Sega got Masato Nakamura, a songwriter for Dreams Come True, a famous 90s J-Pop group, to do Sonic’s (and as a result, the band owns the rights to much of the soundtrack).
Sonic Team pitched the game to Nakamura that it was going to be a Mario killer and that appealed to him. While many non-Japanese fans may be unfamiliar with Nakamura or Dreams Come True, getting him to compose for Sonic’s soundtrack at the time was a very big deal and we recommend you check out their songs on YouTube to see how great they are.
As most of you hardcore Sonic fans already know, Michael Jackson did contribute a portion to Sonic 3’s soundtrack, but his contract was terminated and was not officially credited due to dealing with false accusations of sexual misbehavior in 1993. Even beyond the Genesis days, much of the soundtrack of numerous Sonic installments such as the Japanese version of Sonic CD, Sonic R, and Sonic Adventure would be highly praised and show that music is always a part of Sonic’s identity.
The Marketing Genius of Tom Kalinske
If anyone can be credited for Sonic and the Genesis’ success in North America, it would be the then president of Sega of America, Tom Kalinske, who also helped make the Barbie brand a success again for Mattel in the 1980s. When he came to Sega, his first order of business was dropping the Genesis price from $199 to $149. In order to emphasize that Sonic is the new mascot, as opposed to having Altered Beast as the free game included with the Genesis, he replaced it with Sonic.
It took time to convince Sega of Japan to get his idea over but by the holiday season of 1992, Sega had 52% of the US gaming market. While in Japan, the Mega Drive was a distant third between the Super Famicom and the PC Engine but Sonic would still find success in Japan as time went on. In addition to lowering the price and including Sonic, Kalinske was the man behind the "Sega Does what Nintendon’t" and the blast processing ad campaigns. With a feature of such as superior processing speed combined with Sonic, you have a formula for success.
A New Franchise
As planned, Sonic managed to find success and expanding it as a brand was naturally inevitable, and Sonic 2 would be one of the first games where its domestic and international releases would be close to each other. While most US releases tend to be months to even over a year after a Japanese release, Sonic 2 had a worldwide release towards the end of 1992. It introduced 3D graphics with its bonus stages but it famously brought in co-op two-player with Sonic’s sidekick, Tails, a two-tailed fox who is based on the kitsune, the nine-tail fox from Japanese folklore (which you may have been exposed to in Naruto). While he isn’t emphasized for his speed, he could fly and he could help lift Sonic to get to certain places.
Sonic 2 was also the first game to introduce the Super Sonic bonus feature, who would turn yellow when he had 100 rings and collect all the Chaos Emeralds (and Naka has admitted to being a fan of Dragon Ball, so it’s easy for fans to conclude that Super Sonic is a homage to Super Saiyans). Although the hunt for Chaos Emeralds was in the first game, it was just a bonus with no reward, and Naka thought it would be a good idea to give Sonic a power up and to give the Chaos Emeralds more purpose.
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles then took the series to new creative heights. Sonic 3 was the introduction of Knuckles, a new rival for Sonic. They were initially intended to be a single game but due to numerous restraints, it was decided that two separate teams would simultaneously develop them. Thanks to Sonic & Knuckles’ having a lock-on feature on the top of its cartridge, players can put a cartridge of either Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 on top of Sonic & Knuckles and can use Knuckles as a selectable character in those games.
As for why it’s not compatible with the first Sonic game, it is due to differences in graphics and colors. Just like how Tails has the ability to fly, Knuckles can punch through obstacles, glide, and climb up ledges. Thanks to these abilities and how he compares and contrasts with Sonic, he instantly gained popularity.
Though Sonic defined the Genesis console and became Sega’s mascot, he, unfortunately, didn’t get a definitive game for their 32-bit follow up, the Saturn. While there was a Saturn game in development, the game was canceled due to the Saturn’s failure outside of Japan, but it would be re-tooled for the company’s following console, the Dreamcast, and that game would become Sonic Adventure. While the stages of the original Sonic games took influence from pop art, Sonic Adventure would take influence from the jungles and ruins of South America, and it loosely mixes in some urban environments where you can commute by train.
The game was met with positive reception of being an excellently balanced mix of the original gameplay (you could play as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, Big the Cat, and Gamma who each have their own distinct stories and abilities) and new visual novelties such as Sonic running from the killer whale in the first stage.
Beyond that, Sonic has numerous spin-off games either starring the Sonic character or with some of his friends or foes. He has a pinball game, a racing game, a party game, and a fighting game. Dr. Robotnik would have his own puzzle game that was pretty much Puyo Puyo since they were made by that game’s parent company, Compile. Knuckles would also have his own game on the infamous 32X add-on, and Shadow, a clone of Sonic, would have his own game for the GameCube, Xbox, and PS2.
Like Mario, Sonic would later become a multimedia franchise. The series had three cartoon series in the West. In the mid-1990s, there were actually two Sonic animated series that concurrently aired. One series was aired on network TV and was presented as a slapstick comedy. Sonic had an obsession with chili dogs and Dr. Robotnik was portrayed as a bumbling buffoon that Sonic would constantly make a fool of. Another series was aired on the USA Network and had a gritty feel like Blade Runner but had some magical/natural elements like the Ewoks movies such as The Battle for Endor. It was dark since Dr. Robotnik had pretty much taken over the world, and Sonic was a member of a rebellion group that was out to overthrow him.
In both of these cartoon series, Sonic’s voice actor was Jaleel White, who is most famous for playing 1990s icon Steve Urkel on TGIFs legendary family comedy series, Family Matters. He would later reprise the role of Sonic (and his siblings) in the cartoon musical adaptation, Sonic Underground.
After the release of the Dreamcast games, Japan would premiere Sonic X, an anime series, and 4Kids Entertainment would license and broadcast it for the US television. The Japanese cast would retain the voice actors from the Dreamcast games but 4Kids supplied new voice actors, which naturally created controversy. In the first two English releases of Sonic Adventure, Ryan Drummond was the voice of Sonic while Jason Griffith took over the role not only for the dub of Sonic X but for the games as well, which would be a long source of controversy in the fanbase.
Post-Dreamcast Dark Days
Despite having a successful launch, Sega decided to discontinue the Dreamcast in 2001 and develop for other hardware, meaning that Sonic would continue on its rival consoles. At the time, it was a tough pill to swallow since Sonic was intended to be a rival to Sony and Nintendo. While previous Sonic games would get re-released on the GameCube, it found its first post-Sega hardware release on the Game Boy Advance with Sonic Advance, which plays like its early Genesis games. Its debut on Xbox, GameCube and the PlayStation 2 would be Sonic Heroes in 2003, where players could use teams of three. However, it was subjected to mediocre reviews.
When the industry moved onto the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2006 with that year’s Sonic the Hedgehog, a good number of Sonic games for the rest of the 2000s were subjected to negative reviews. For the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, many were frustrated with its camera system, loading times, designs, its numerous glitches and that it had a terrible plot. For the 2007 Wii game, Secret of the Rings was also subjected to much of the same criticisms. Many fans were split with the direction of the series but 2010s Sonic Colors was one of the first games to gain positive reviews in almost five years.
With Sonic coming onto other consoles such as Nintendo’s, it was only natural to do a couple of Mario and Sonic crossovers. Sonic has been featured not only in Smash Bros. but every time there has been an Olympic event—Mario and Sonic would face each other in an Olympic video game. However, we have yet to see them team up in a platform game. Nobody can deny it will be hard to pull off, but considering how they’ve already done many Olympic events together, fans need to somehow convince Sega and Nintendo that there needs to be an actual platform game that combines the elements of both franchises to make the ultimate crossover. Capcom and SNK have proven it in fighting games, it’s time to do it for platforms!
Without Sonic, the industry probably wouldn’t suddenly make cartoony animals as their mascots. Off the coattails of Sonic, there was Rocket Adventure Knight, Crash Bandicoot, Gekko, Bubsy, Earthworm Jim and many others. He was the first video game character to be featured as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1993! Heck, there’s even a gene named after him, sonic hedgehog. If you don’t know what it is, the sonic hedgehog gene serves as a signal pathway for embryonic cells to send out information for cell formation.
Despite Sonic achieving some bigger milestones than Mario, it was sad to see the latter half of the 2000’s subjected to such negativity. However, it is nice to see he is on the comeback trail and some of his new installments not only try to take it to new heights with present-day technology, but there are other games on present consoles and mobile devices that still pay homage to his 2D roots.