There aren’t many game characters as immediately recognisable as Sonic the Hedgehog. Rocking sleek azure quills, rad 90s sneakers and, more recently, a whole lotta sports tape, the Blue Blur has an utterly unique look which has cemented his place in popular culture. Even the most technophobic individual could pick him out of a crowd without too much trouble. He’s an icon, beloved by many across the globe and a key player in gaming history.
It’s only fitting, then, that Sonic’s history is as wonderfully bizarre and intriguing as the ‘hog himself. Following a road peppered with highs, lows and in-betweens, SEGA has taken the poor guy on a heck of a ride getting him to where he is today, and with the recent announcement of his latest adventure, Sonic Forces, the time is right to look back at how one unassuming little rodent changed the face of gaming for an entire generation. Grab a chili dog, folks. We’re delving into the backstory of the fastest thing alive.
The year is 1991. The console market is pretty much dominated by Nintendo and a certain red-capped plumber, but that doesn’t mean other companies aren’t trying to play catch-up. Essentially every hardware manufacturer under the sun throws their hat into the ring; Atari, Panasonic, and perhaps most infamously, Philips with their doomed CDi system. But it was all to no avail, as these fledgling consoles largely met with poor sales and a critical thrashing. Indeed, at the time it seemed the Big N was king of the hill, a stronghold of power that none could topple.
And then, on the horizon, a challenger appeared. Enter SEGA. Although their previous effort, the Master System, had produced less-than-impressive returns, they were still confident they could push the new Genesis to success if they took the right angle with the marketing. This angle, as it turned out, proved to be a rather abrasive and on-the-nose one: they simply opted to bash Nintendo, their direct competitor, by claiming the Genesis did what ‘Nintendon’t’ and airing commercials that depicted the SNES being tossed in the bin (a tactic the failing Panasonic 3DO would later replicate in its adverts.) It was perhaps a tad reliant on brute-force, but it worked. The Genesis began selling like hotcakes, even more so than the SNES in some regions, and thus did the Nintendo/SEGA war that would divide school playgrounds for years to come begin to develop.
However, SEGA felt this alone wasn’t enough. In order to complement their shiny new marketing approach, they needed a likable character. Someone to act as their mascot, to represent the Genesis and show what they could offer players. After all, Nintendo had Mario, so logic naturally followed that they needed someone of comparable heft if they were to stay afloat. The answer came at last in the form of employee Naoto Ohshima and his tentative design for a fanged hedgehog character he dubbed ‘Mr. Needlemouse’.
Yuji Naka, a chief developer at SEGA, saw great potential in Needlemouse’s charming, rounded shape and cheeky grin, and so he and a group of programmers – who would later come to be known as Sonic Team – set about sprucing up Ohshima’s concept for a Western audience. Needlemouse’s quills were lengthened, his eyes were enlarged, and the fangs present in the initial designs were removed so as to ‘soften’ the character and increase his appeal to children. Finally, he was given gloves and shoes and was coloured a darker shade of blue. When all was said and done, Naka and Ohshima stepped back, admired their handiwork and knew they’d hit on a winner. Sonic the Hedgehog was born.
With Sonic’s design finalized and development on his debut game well underway, SEGA’s marketing went into overdrive. The anti-Nintendo commercials were ramped up to full throttle (one notable example showed the SNES struggling to power an old hatchback while the Genesis zipped by in a racecar) and a series of TV spots endeavoured to make Sonic 1 look like the greatest thing since sliced bread, throwing around buzzwords like ‘blast processing’ that really didn’t mean anything technically speaking, but sounded cool regardless.
As the game’s release date drew near, work on the stages – which emphasised style and speed over the slower, methodical platforming offered by Mario – wrapped up. Great care was taken to ensure the game was well-optimized for the Genesis. The iconic soundtrack, composed by Masato Nakamura, was also complete and of stellar quality. All the pieces were falling into place, and SEGA executives were convinced they had a major hit on their hands.
They couldn’t have been more right. Sonic the Hedgehog released to outstanding sales that vastly exceeded even the most optimistic analysts’ expectations, moving over 3 million units in the US alone, thanks in no small part to SEGA’s aggressive marketing. Of course, the game itself was great fun as well, a fact critics at the time attested to. Boasting delightfully colourful visuals, catchy tunes and a cocky protagonist, it hit all the right beats at exactly the right time, and it didn’t take long for the world to fall in love with the Blue Blur. In a matter of months, Sonic’s face began appearing on merchandise, and soon after production deals, including cartoons and comics, were struck.
Poor Nintendo likely had no idea what hit them. At the start of the year, they were ruling the videogame roost, but by the end Mario suddenly had to scooch over to share his spot with a blue hedgehog. Very few people could have seen that coming.
With his debut a roaring success, Sonic’s next adventure was all but guaranteed. SEGA was seeing green, and it wasn’t just the green of money – it was green for ‘GO.’ And go they did. Armed with a much bigger budget and more development time, Sonic Team got to work on a sequel, the aptly named Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which hit shelves in late 1992 to even greater acclaim. Building on the strengths of the original, it polished and refined the core gameplay and expanded the roster of stages, creating a genuine classic which many still consider one of the greatest games of all time. The sequel also introduced Sonic’s inseparable buddy Tails, starting a decades-long trend of adding a new character in almost every game. Opinions are… divided on this practice.
By the end of 1993 (which saw the release of Sonic CD) Sonic had three hit games in the can, a new cartoon series on the air, and even a balloon in the annual Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. 1994 continued his admirable winning streak, with a game so ambitious it had to be split in two halves: Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, respectively. Its soundtrack was even composed, at least in part, by Michael Jackson. Yes, that Michael Jackson. By all accounts, the ‘hog seemed completely unstoppable.
But that balloon… let’s talk about that balloon real quick. During the parade, it snagged on a lamppost, puncturing it and deflating Sonic into a sad, crumpled heap which had to be pushed to the side of the street. Nothing could have been more prophetic.
In the late 90s, the gaming landscape was undergoing great change. With the advent of the PlayStation, 2D games were out and 3D games were in. Overnight, Sonic and his 2D bedfellows like Mario and Link became yesterday’s news, and so began a hasty race to adapt to the rapid advancements happening all around them. For some franchises, the trip through the polygon ceiling was a relatively smooth one – Super Mario 64 being a prime example – but for Sonic, his inaugural 3D outing, while not an unmitigated disaster, left a lot to be desired.
1999’s Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast deserves credit for finding a way to translate the Sonic formula into three dimensions, with its high-adrenaline speed sections and hub worlds, as well as for its typically grand soundtrack. However, the inclusion of no less than six playable characters was a bit much, especially given the fact that one of the gameplay modes – fishing with fan “favourite” Big the Cat – was a downright bore. The cutscenes and voice acting were also not of a particularly high calibre, but as this was the first time the characters had been voiced outside of spinoffs, it can perhaps be forgiven. Either way, the game was a far cry from Sonic’s Genesis glory days, and planted a few seeds of doubt as to the series’ viability in the modern era.
If Adventure was rough around the edges, though, its 2001 followup Adventure 2 smoothed them out significantly; axing the 7 campaigns in favour of 2 was a smart move. The story was a step-up too, with improved voice acting and a more coherent plotline involving Eggman’s family lineage and the mysterious newcomer Shadow, an artificial hedgehog who would go on to become a staple character. As before, Sonic’s stages played great, and the music was fantastic – however, SEGA’s insistence on including weird and gimmicky mechanics, such as areas where you control Tails in a mech, bogged down the experience somewhat. The result was a game that many look back on fondly, even if it is clearly a product of its time.
The following few years after Adventure 2 marked what is often referred to as Sonic’s ‘Dark Age.’ To put it in less harsh terms, SEGA entered a period of experimentation with the Blue Blur, shoving him in a variety of games with wildly different playstyles, evidently in the hopes that one would stick. Sonic Heroes, the first title from this era, was quite enjoyable, featuring an interesting team mechanic… which also necessitated playing through the entire game four times just to reach the final boss.
It was the 2005-2007 period, however, where the series really started to go off the rails and made fans question how Sonic could possibly recover. After an attempt to give Shadow his own spinoff series fizzled out following one mediocre game, SEGA promised that the 2006 Sonic release would be ‘the big one.’ They assured everyone they were going ‘back to basics’ and teased E3 audiences with gorgeous footage of Sonic running through fields and smashing robots, all running on the then-new Xbox 360 hardware. Unfortunately, behind the scenes a deal with Microsoft required that the game be out in time for Christmas, and as a result Sonic 06, as it’s now known, was rushed to market by a team half the normal size. Consequently, it’s riddled with bugs, long load times and horribly jerky animation, and continues to be mocked to this day. If you’re any internet user worth your salt, odds are you’ve seen videos and/or memes of it.
At this stage, many people who had defended the series up to 06’s release jumped ship, finding themselves unable to associate with Sonic anymore. Critics were in agreement, lambasting the game not only for its technical issues, but also for its absurdly complex plot and bizarre romantic sequences between Sonic and a human girl. 2007’s Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Wii did little to repair the series’ image, offering up a stiff motion-controlled adventure set in a storybook.
Indeed, it was clear by this point that vast improvement would be required in order to get most gamers to even look at a Sonic title again; a true testament to how far the hedgehog’s stock had fallen.
In other words, SEGA needed to put out a game which wasn’t a half-finished masterclass in jank, and to their credit, 2008’s Sonic Unleashed just about accomplished this. Despite a middling critical response, its production values were sky-high, boasting a simply gorgeous action-packed CGI opening which I have yet to see matched in any other game. Moreover, the game’s central theme of day VS night was an intriguing one. The day stages, which see you blasting across the globe in environments rendered by way of the incredible Hedgehog Engine (built specifically for Unleashed) received almost universal praise, and rightly so. They’re utterly intoxicating and empowering, and represent the pinnacle of Sonic in 3D, rewarding skill with cinematic vistas and a blistering sense of speed. As such, even though the night-time ‘Werehog’ stages drew ire for committing the cardinal sin of slowing down Sonic to allow for more acrobatic platforming, overall Unleashed is retroactively seen as a positive turning point for the series – an apology for 06, if you will. Sonic was (mostly) back in business.
This upward streak continued with 2010’s Sonic Colors and 2011’s Sonic Generations, two more games running on the Hedgehog Engine, which even notoriously anti-Sonic critics happily branded two of his best games in years. It’s easy to see why; both titles show off stunning graphics, fast gameplay sans Werehog, and soundtracks analogous to audible chocolate. Fans gradually returned to the Blue Blur’s side, coaxed back by this sudden surge in quality, and SEGA enjoyed high Metacritic scores and award nominations. A collective sigh of relief was breathed. Sonic was in the clear, and 06 was nothing more than a bad dream…right?
Well, let’s cut to 2017. What’s Sonic been up to of late? Not a great deal. 2013’s Lost World, which inexplicably deviated from the proven Unleashed formula, wasn’t terrible but put some off with its complicated parkour controls. In 2014, we saw the introduction of the Sonic Boom subfranchise, and to put it bluntly, the games therein stank – but the CGI cartoon series remains on the air, is in its second season and attracts high ratings, so it’s not all bad. In short, at present Sonic is hardly in another Dark Age, but he’s got a ways to go before the Colors/Generations miracle can repeat itself.
Which brings us to the future of the series, and the horizon is looking pretty rosy. It’s been remarkably silent on the games front for nearly 3 years now, a definite change from the early noughties when a new Sonic adventure would be reliably cranked out per annum. Does this mean SEGA is more concerned with quality? Most definitely. Sonic Mania, an upcoming homage to the Genesis era, is an absolute joy to behold and is basically what many fans have been clamouring for since 1994. And then, of course, there’s Sonic Forces. Set in a reality where Eggman has won, it looks to be returning to the successful Unleashed formula of boosting like a maniac through anything in your path, and looks all the better for it. If these two titles prove anything, it’s that sometimes going back really is the way forward.
Thus ends a potted history of gaming’s most beloved blue hedgehog. Well, gaming’s only blue hedgehog, to my knowledge. Like all the best franchises, Sonic’s had it rough from time to time, but he’s almost always been a victim of circumstance. Development issues, downsized teams, rushing to meet deadlines – none of these things that have sunk his worst adventures are anything to do with the character himself. He’s perfectly capable of appearing in another truly enjoyable, grade-A romp again. That much has been proven over the years. He just needs someone to put him there. And that someone is Sonic Team. Hopefully it’ll be the case soon.
But until then: Sonic may be getting on a bit, but in the hearts of many gamers he’s forever young. And we’ll keep on holding out hope for the one masterful outing that restores him to the glory he deserves.
Chin up, Sonic. Gotta go fast.