It’s hard to imagine a time without Sonic. The speedy blue blur has been a part of the video game industry since 1991, and while there have been some undeniable low points in his career, every gamer knows Sonic the Hedgehog when they see him. He’s nearly as iconic as Mario, and for a long time he was essentially Sega’s answer to the Mushroom Kingdom’s most prodigious plumber. If Nintendo sold Super Nintendos thanks to Mario and Luigi, Sega was certain to sell Mega Drives courtesy of Sonic and Tails.
But let’s go back to a time before Tails. A time before Knuckles, Amy, Robotnik and the rest. Indeed, today we’ll take a trip all the way to 1990, when even Sonic himself was little more than a pixel in the vision of Naoto Ohshima.
The Kidd Ain’t Cutting It
Sega needed a hit, and it needed one badly. Their mascot, Alex the Kidd, just wasn’t serving the suits up a sizable slice of the market share pie. He wasn’t “cool” enough, as the execs themselves are known to have said at the time. Naoto Ohshima and his colleagues were soon thrown to the wild — or rather, New York City! — where the designer unveiled sketches of all sorts of prospective hero characters and asked public passersby which one they liked best. The armadillo wasn’t a winner; nor, perhaps thankfully, was the idea of resurrecting the legacy of former president Teddy Roosevelt into a side-scrolling action star.
As you might have guessed, a sapphire-shaded hedgehog was on the list. New Yorkers responded positively, and while this humble writer was two years old at the time, I was in fact living in the city and would experience Sonic the Hedgehog as my first ever video game the following year. I like to pretend I played a role, even if I didn’t!
Sonic was slated to redefine “cool.” In Ohshima’s mind, there was nothing about an Italian guy in overalls that was anywhere near as hip as this blue speed demon with an attitude. In fact, Sonic might have gone from cool straight into “too edgy” territory had series creator Yuji Naka had his way; he wanted the wise-talking teen to have big, flashy fangs and a girlfriend named after a pop star.
Naka on Heaven’s Door
But don’t get the wrong idea. Yuji Naka’s biggest ambitions may have been a little much for Sega’s suits, but he’s responsible for everything that did pan out. Naka wanted to make Sega a mascot that focused on speed above all else, whilst maintaining the platforming perfection of prior efforts and contemporary rivals. He envisioned sprawling stages that tested players’ control of momentum more so than simple jumping skills and wanted to imbue the game’s soundtrack with Japanese pop vibes and Western rock beats. Swift animations and swifter slides dominated Yuji Naka’s mind.
And the legendary creator got a lot of what he wanted, too. Sonic the Hedgehog‘s OST was composed by a prolific musician named Masato Nakamura, of the famous J-Pop band “Dreams Come True.” Sega’s dream of a competitive animal mascot was inching closer and closer, but there was no way of knowing if Sonic would pay the significant bills that the corporation was piling up on the project.
Game Almost Over
With Nintendo’s fantastic SNES console arriving in Europe and North America, it was increasingly apparent that gaming culture would continue to revolve around Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and the gang. Sonic needed to do what he’d ultimately prove to do best. He needed to arrive fast.
Back in the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for video game development staff to only consist of a few key people rather than the hundreds we see today. But for a project as ambitious as this one, having two programmers, two sound engineers, and three designers was far from optimal. Ideally, Naka and Ohshima would have had dozens of talented developers on board. Each member of the team working on Sonic the Hedgehog would need to work triple duty if this game was going to launch in a decent state, let alone an excellent one.
With so few people in the office, Yuji Naka needed to come up with prototypes rapidly. Thankfully, the man was chock full of ideas. At the center of them all was the notion of his star hedgehog spinning into a ball so rapidly that players wouldn’t be able to see anything but the blur.
Among the trio of designers, Hirokazu Yasuhara was the most experienced. He put his level creation expertise to the test, joining Naka and Ohshima in 19-hour workdays to make up for their relative lack of resources. One of Yasuhara’s strokes of brilliance, which legend has it sparked entirely from a lack of sleep, was making Sonic fully playable with only the directional pad and a single face button. The Sega Mega Drive had A, B, and C buttons, but all three effectively operate identically. To be sure, the game is technical and requires real skill, but simplifying the controls so much was sure to turn heads.
On June 23rd, 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog launched on the Mega Drive (or Genesis, as it was known in some territories) to rave reviews. Naka, Ohshima, Yasuhara and their friends’ lost sleep paid off in dividends. GamePro called the backgrounds “gorgeous” and “eye-popping.” Writing for Raze, Julian Boardman praised the game’s “colorful and highly detailed” visuals. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the game’s excess speed that made players happy. Sega’s “Sonic Team,” as they styled themselves, had created one of the prettiest video games ever made.
Graphics sell games. Especially in the 90s. Super Mario World was bright, poppy, and beautiful. But Sonic the Hedgehog was all that and more in the eyes of millions of Westerners and more than a few native Japanese fans. It felt like a platformer and a racing game combined.
Within the next few years, several Sonic sequels would be made. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced Tails. Sonic 3 & Knuckles brought forth the red echidna. Both games would go on to sell even better, and earn even more praise, than the original. In those same mid-90s years, Sonic cartoons would air on TV sets, Sonic comic books would be all the rage, and every kid who didn’t own a Sega would do whatever it took to change that sad fate.
Sega never dethroned Mario as the platforming king of the world. But as it turns out, they didn’t need to. Sonic has stood alongside the Mushroom Kingdom’s repeat savior for decades and counting. In more recent times, they’ve even co-starred in Olympics-based sports games and brawled in multiple Super Smash Bros entries. Their bitterest days are far behind them, but there’s no denying it — when it comes to speed, Mario is now and forever will be outclassed.