It was 1990, and Sega was on the ropes. Nintendo had a firm lead in almost every country in the world, Super Mario Bros. 3 had just been released, and the Super Nintendo was looming on the horizon. Hayao Nakayama, then president of Sega, issued the challenge to his company: Sega needed a new mascot, brand recognition and a game that could sell a million units. After a number of rejected ideas, Naoto Oshima (a character designer), Hirokazu Yasuhara (the original game and level designer) and Yuji Naka (the programmer) from research and development team AM8 brought their talents together to form a character and game that would become legend: Sonic The Hedgehog.
In one stroke, AM8 (who changed their name to Sonic Team after Sonic‘s launch) found the perfect blend of style, design and attitude adroitly capturing the image Sega was trying to spread about its new machine: It was cool, fun and, above all, it was fast. The game showed off the Genesis’ faster CPU – clocking in at a blazing 7.6 MHz, it left the slower, fatter, mustached Mario and his pitiful 3.58 MHz in the dust. And it wasn’t just that Sonic was a fast game – it was such a fast game, only the mighty Sega Genesis could handle it! It had “Blast Processing,” a phrase not many people really understood, but nobody cared, because “Genesis does it, Nintendon’t!”
Since his original launch in 1991, Sonic has appeared in a new title every year. Some are considered classics of gaming, some are considered sad attempts, and some just aren’t considered. But Sonic has weathered time and changes with the same determination, speedy red shoes and carefree smirk that endeared him to millions of gamers all those years ago. If only what he represented had weathered the change as well.
When he broke onto the scene, Sonic was a rotund, blue hedgehog with bright red sneakers. He was a heroic figure who sought to free his animal friends from the evil clutches of Dr. Robotnik (known as Dr. Eggman, now, to match how the Japanese have always known him).
Sonic was a fun, carefree character that wasn’t killing anyone – he merely broke the robotic devices enslaving the animals and freed them from their eggy overlord. It was a vastly different sort of gaming than we’d been used to: Instead of exploring levels, you focused on how fast you could burn through them. When Sonic curled into a ball and shot through the various pipes, ramps and loop-to-loops, you weren’t playing, you were holding on for dear life.
In 1992, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 launched for the Genesis and Game Gear. In the Genesis version, two-player action was introduced, along with the ability to play as Miles “Tails” Prower. Sonic picked up some new tricks, too: He now had the Spin Dash Attack, which allowed him to spin up to speed in place before charging forward. We also saw a new incarnation, the almighty Super Sonic, an invincible-but-difficult-to-control version of Sonic. Critics and gamers alike enjoyed Sonic 2, and Sonic became a household name.
In 1993, Sonic CD came out for the Sega CD and introduced another of Sonic’s friends, Amy Rose, as well as Sonic’s arch-rival, Metal Sonic. Sonic was a bit sluggish in this game – although he got the new Super Peel-Out, he was vulnerable to running into enemies when using it, and it slowed down the gameplay. On top of that, the overall feeling was a bit darker than the Sonic most people knew. The game was extremely enjoyable, but here we saw the first signs of Sonic leaning toward more “mature” themes and gameplay and again Sonic demonstrated his (and the Sega CD’s) speed. Unfortunately, the Sega CD lacked market penetration, so sales were nowhere near as strong as Sonic 2, although Sonic somehow still maintained his fame.
Such was his popularity at the time, he also starred in not one, but two animated series – Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog. Both series were produced by the same company, starring the same cast. Merchandising for the franchise took off, and Sonic could be seen in every conceivable market, from shampoo to a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Sonic – and Sega – was everywhere. From 1989 to 1993, Sega went from $800 million in annual sales to over $3.6 billion. Sonic wasn’t a mascot, he was a leviathan.
In 1994, Sonic The Hedgehog 3 came out for the Genesis, to be followed later that year with the “other half” of Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles. The two games made use of “Lock-On” technology – the ability to plug the Sonic 3 cartridge into the back of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, which then plugged into the Genesis. What did this do? Lock-on worked to fuse both games together, which allowed players to move through the two games seamlessly.
Adding a bit of dimension into Sonic’s usual adversaries, Knuckles went against Sonic because Dr. Robotnik had tricked him. In Sonic & Knuckles, Robotnik betrayed Knuckles, and now Knuckles joined forces with Sonic. It was a bit more depth than previous Sonic titles, and with fantastic gameplay to accompany it, the game was (and still is) held in very high regard as a pinnacle of 2-D gaming.
But soon, Sonic became a victim of his own success: Never mind shampoos and cartoons – because he was such an icon, it seemed developers felt they could slap his face on any game, and it would sell. From 1994 to 1999, a number of “Sonic” titles came out on a variety of platforms. From the truly horrible Sonic Drift for the GameGear to the downright blasphemous Sonic Schoolhouse for the PC, Sonic’s once-golden image was badly tarnished.
Sonic Adventure came out for the Dreamcast in 1999 and successfully transitioned Sonic to 3-D. The game played differently than other Sonic games; it featured a mix of platform gameplay, puzzle solving and even exploring. It was a triumph, not only in restoring Sonic’s good name but also in restoring him to the status of loved and trusted mascot. Once again, Sonic demonstrated the capabilities of a game system, this time proving the Dreamcast’s power. Although Adventure suffered from difficult camera control and some troublesome control schemes, its sum was greater than its parts, and the world loved it.
But just as the Sonic brand was making a successful comeback, Sonic Shuffle arrived for the Dreamcast, in 2000. It was a disaster. Abandoning any pretense of original gameplay, it was a clone of the hugely successful Mario Party on the Nintendo. With ear-shattering music, terrible gameplay and horrific load-times, it accomplished the exact opposite of Sonic Adventure: Where Adventure demonstrated the advanced capabilities of the Dreamcast, Shuffle made it look like a technical disaster.
While Dreamcast fans were still staggering from this brutal treatment, Sonic Adventure 2 arrived in 2001 and promptly delivered a swift kick to the Chaos Emeralds. Although, in design, it wasn’t a bad game, the Sonic gamers had grown to love was suddenly no longer a fun, carefree hedgehog. With the introduction of Shadow The Hedgehog, Sonic’s villainous rival, the series seemed to be trying to shed the fun image that made it such a favorite. In its stead was a new game with a darker, grittier hedgehog. A hedgehog so gritty, he grinds like a rollerblader. Sonic and Shadow ground so hard, they had their own model of SOAP shoes and inspired kids to get their own and grind along with them.
As a result, Sonic ended up looking less like a cool, hip re-imagination of himself, and more like a joke – a mockery of “cool,” brought about by boardroom executives and a PR department. All the game lacked was an “X-treme” athlete with his baseball hat cantered sideways, screaming, “To the max!”
With the arrival of the high-performance gaming platforms like the PS2 and Xbox, gamers were expecting new Sonic titles to really shine. In 2004, what gamers got instead was Sonic Heroes for the GameCube (then ported to the PS2, Xbox and PC).
The Sonic Team was trying to do the right thing, visually: Heroes harkened back to the original Sonic series in its look, but little else. Terrible control schemes haunted the game, and again poor camera control and numerous bugs plagued its release. Instead of focusing on Sonic and his speed, attention was split between a dozen characters with much more focus on combat.
But if combat was more of the focus in Heroes, it was all the focus in Shadow The Hedgehog, released in November 2005. Although the game focused on Shadow instead of Sonic, Sonic was a character in the game and was featured extensively. The game earned an ESRB rating of 10+ (the first Sonic title to do so), and it bombed commercially.
Ironically enough, it would be Sega’s old rival and their superb handheld platform that managed to save some of Sonic’s dignity. That same November, Developer Dimps avoided the mistakes that Sonic Team made. When they released Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS in 2005, it paid homage back to the speedy rush of blazing through levels that made the original Sonic games such fun. It was what gamers expected in a Sonic title.
Sonic Riders was released in celebration of Sonic’s 15th anniversary on the GameCube, PS2, Xbox and PC, in 2006. The game was supposed to be about speed – only this time utilizing “Extreme Gear” (though we still have no one shouting “To the max!”). It was another tough turn for Sonic fans, as the game was “Extreme”-ly difficult and frustrating. This time, the attitude was right, but the gameplay was wrong. Most fans liked Sonic better before he started slumming with Tony Hawk.
Then came Sonic The Hedgehog for the Xbox 360 (and soon the PS3). Instead of re-imagining Sonic, as the title seemed to imply, the game followed right along with much of what had come before: poor control, buggy code, and horrific camera control .
Sonic is no longer the mascot gamers grew up loving. His image is completely muddied and iconic of nothing. He can’t be counted on for fun gameplay, he isn’t symbolic of a powerful and fast system – you can’t even associate him with family-friendly titles. Perhaps it was because Sega no longer focused on a sole platform, or perhaps it was because of too many incarnations to keep straight, but Sonic himself is no longer focused on a central message. Sonic, is no longer Sonic.
Sonic may never regain the market significance he once had, but few other mascots ever single-handedly played such a pivotal role in the world of videogames. No matter what came after his first appearance, no matter what is still to come, Sonic was an incredible influence on the world of gaming and will always have a place in our hearts. And maybe some day he’ll be fast again. Maybe someday, once more, he’ll scream. We can only hope.
Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMOG and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.