Sonic the Hedgehog: The Rise and Fall of Sega’s Blue Blur

Sonic the Hedgehog's early days brought the Blue Blur great success, but also a quick downfall.

Today is the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the most iconic characters in video game history. From new kid on the block to his later, less successful years, Sonic has in the very least remained the face of gaming nostalgia, a reminder of the simpler 16-bit days of home consoles.

Sonic’s earliest days saw him compete against perhaps the biggest video giant of them all, Mario, and although it does look like he lost in the end (as did Sega in general), there’s no denying the Blue Blur’s influence on the industry. The character’s face is still one of the most recognizable in the industry.

Sega’s blazing blue mascot has certainly seen some ups and downs over the years. Sonic has struggled over the last two decades to replicate the massive success of his early years and yet, there are many Sega fans who retain a nostalgic soft spot for the hedgehog with the spiked hair.

Today, Den of Geek takes a look back at Sonic’s conception, glory days, downfall, and legacy…

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Sonic the System Seller

Sega released Alex Kidd in Miracle World for the Sega Master System in 1987. The game was a platformer and a pretty transparent attempt by Sega at creating competition for the famous Italian plumber who was helping move tons of Nintendo Entertainment System units. But Alex never came close to approaching Mario’s success and so the company went back to the drawing board ahead of the 1988 release of the Sega Genesis. Sega of Japan held an internal competition and allowed its employees to submit their own ideas for a new mascot. The results varied greatly, and included a dog, a rabbit, and a Theodore Roosevelt look-alike in pajamas. But it was artist and designer Naoto Ohshima’s spiky teal hedgehog, originally named “Mr. Needlemouse,” that won over the suits.

Ohshima’s original drawing featured a hedgehog with a much harder edge than Sonic has today. The character had fangs and a human girlfriend named Madonna (pictured above). Sonic was also originally designed as a frontman for a rock band that featured a monkey on bass and an alligator on keyboard. This caused a bit of tension between Sega of Japan and their American counterparts. Sega of America wanted the character to be more accessible to gamers of all ages, like Mario was for Nintendo. The original Sonic design was deemed to be too aggressive and so he lost the fangs, the rock band, and his girlfriend.

With the character design finalized, now all Sega had to do was figure out how to fit their new mascot into a game. Luckily, a tech demo created by Yuji Naka—created prior to the character contest—was standing by, waiting for the roght character to come along. Naka had developed an algorithm that allowed a sprite to move smoothly along a curve, using a dot matrix to determine its position. In non-geek speak, Naka designed a platform game in which a fast-moving character could turn into a ball and roll through a curved, winding tube. Ohshima’s character design was combined with Naka’s prototype, along with levels created by Hirokazu Yasuhara, and Sonic the Hedgehog was born. The original game was fleshed out by a team of 15 people within Sega of Japan. The developers renamed themselves Sonic Team for the project.

Meanwhile, back in America, Sega’s marketers went to work. The company pulled out all the stops in an attempt to drum up excitement for their new mascot’s first game. Al Nilsen, who worked at Sega of America from 1989 to 1993, put together a series of mall tours and other press events across the States that allowed gamers to play Sonic the Hedgehog side by side with Nintendo’s new Mario title, Super Mario World. Players who participated were then asked to vote on which game was the superior platformer.

The plan worked. Sonic the Hedgehog quickly became synonymous with Sega and the Genesis system and received rave reviews. During the 1991 holiday season, the Genesis outsold the Super NES by a two-to-one ratio. At the system’s peak in January 1992, the Genesis owned 65 percent of the 16-bit console market. Nintendo would of course strike back with a vengeance throughout most of 1992 and Sega would need the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in November just to get back to 50-percent market share. But in the big picture, Sega had accomplished the goal they set out to achieve in 1988. Their new mascot was every bit as successful as Mario was for Nintendo. Sonic, in short, was a system seller that would carry Sega through the entire 16-bit era.

And then it all went to hell.

Speed Bumps

The Sega Saturn released in Japan on November 22, 1994. Its initial shipment of 200,000 units sold out on the first day and the Saturn continued to sell well in Japan once Sony released its original PlayStation worldwide on December 3. But Sony had beaten Sega to market in North America. As a stop gap, Sega released an add-on for the Genesis called the 32X, but it failed to take off. Consumers were simply not willing to spend extra money on an add-on for an aging system. Sega’s redemption, most thought, would be the North American release of the Sega Saturn in the fall of 1995. The company even had a name for the release date of Saturday, September 2: “Saturnday” But then Sega President Tom Kalinske took the stage during E3 in May 1995 and committed one of the worst blunders in video game history.

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Kalinske proclaimed that “Saturnday” had just been a marketing ploy and Sega had decided to go with a surprise release instead. The Saturn was immediately available for sale, that very day. Gamers were indeed shocked but not nearly as surprised as Sega’s retail partners and third-party developers. The company did not give anyone a heads up about the release moving up from September to May. When some diehard Sega fans went to stores to try and get their hands on a Saturn, most of them came up empty because most stores did not have it in stock yet. Those who did pick up a system found that very few quality games were available. But perhaps most unbelievable of all was the fact that Sega didn’t even have a Sonic game ready for the launch.

The company had been working on a game called Sonic X-treme. It was supposed to be developed for the Saturn as the first 3D Sonic game after originally starting development for the Genesis. After several delays, Sega announced a 1996 holiday release and there were some in the industry who thought that Sonic could once again rescue Sega, even after all of the mistakes they made with the Saturn’s launch. But in a sign of things to come, the developers struggled to come up with a concrete 3D design for their fast and furry friend. When Sega of Japan visited the development team to view their progress, they were unimpressed and ordered everything to be reworked. Internal politics continued to make development a struggle and the game was ultimately canceled. Sega never did ship an original, major Sonic game for the Saturn and this is often cited as one of the leading reasons behind the company’s fall from grace.

Sega finally got out a 3D Sonic with Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast in 1998, but as most longtime gamers know, the damage was already done, and Sega’s days as a hardware developer were numbered. Sega’s image, and Sonic’s by association, were badly tarnished by the Saturn and not even a new console with a decent Sonic game ready at launch could save them.

And while Sonic Adventure received mostly positive reviews, the game did suffer from a few different problems that have continued to diminish Sega’s once proud mascot in the 21st century. Whether it was the introduction of way too many side characters, the convoluted storylines, or the wonky camera, it’s pretty clear that Sonic’s transition to 3D has not gone smoothly. It’s telling that the best reviewed major Sonic games since the 3D transition are Sonic Generations and Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Both games feature a Sonic that is playable in 2D, like the glory days of the early 90s.

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Legacy and Future

Sonic the Hedgehog will likely never be a system seller again, or at least not like he was before. Even if Sega were to release nothing but top notch Sonic games from now on, the ability to play the games on all of the major consoles takes away some of the hype. But there’s no question that the blue hedgehog is still up there with Mario, Link, Master Chief, and the other top gaming icons of the last 25 years. Sonic the Hedgehog is still regularly ranked as one of the top gaming franchises of all-time, even with all of the 3D missteps. The Blue Blur and the rest of his friends also continue to be a commercial success for Sega outside of video games, with everything from plushies to cartoons to a long-running comic book series available for consumption. A live-action/CGI hybrid movie is in production for 2018.

The company has clearly not lost hope in its greatest creation. As recently as 2014, Sega launched a brand new multimedia initiative called Sonic Boom to revive the character. Two new games, Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal were released that year, alongside a new animated series (which is getting a second season in Fall 2016) and a comic published from Archie Comics. The Sonic Boom era is best known for giving Sonic a brown scarf. And although the first two Sonic Boom games were poorly received, a new one, Fire & Ice, is scheduled for release in September 2016. 

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Sega hasn’t made any major announcements for the 25th anniversary, although recent rumors suggested that the company might be planning to release another Sonic game to commemorate the milestone. Those looking to get a sampling of Sonic from the last 25 years should check out the 25th anniversary Humble Bundle that went live this week, as it features more than a dozen titles from throughout the franchise’s history.