The History of Sonic the Hedgehog: Beloved Mascot or Best Forgotten?
Sonic the Hedgehog is undoubtedly one of the most beloved video game franchises. In 2016, the series celebrated its 25th anniversary, but the Sonic era is far from over. The blue hedgehog is more relevant than ever with not one, but two new games on the horizon. Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces are scheduled for release in late 2017, and the fandom is buzzing.
To date, the franchise has collectively sold over 140 million copies, with some of its games considered the best of all time and others… the worst. In its quarter-century-long existence, Sonic has had many ups and downs, which made many fans turn on the franchise.
Still on the edge about the cute little speedster of the gaming world? Dive into Sonic history with us and revisit all the important milestones in the hedgehog’s career to decide whether, after all, you love or hate the Blue Blur.
Where It All Began
The infamous console wars defined the 80s and early 90s in the gaming world. Of course, the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System emerged from the third console generation as an unquestionable leader. Although “the Mario machine” had plenty of competition , it still pretty much owned the market, having spent the decade launching one ground-breaking game after another .
A slight shift was caused by Sega in 1989, with the launch of the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive outside of the U.S.). It was the first true 16-bit console released outside of Japan. The Genesis came with some of the most advanced graphics ever seen in a console game at the time and a new strategy. Sega’s new lineup of games appealed to an older demographic than that of Nintendo, with arcade pack-in title Altered Beast becoming an early hit.
While Genesis sold well, by the end of the 80s it still hadn’t won its market share from Nintendo. The latter still dominated the market in North America, thanks to the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1988. On top of that, it became known that Nintendo would release its own 16-bit system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).
It was time for Sega to strike back. In the end, Sega taking action against its direct competitor is what led to the birth of one of the most popular video game characters of all time.
The Original Look
Sega’s first mascot , Alex Kidd, was originally featured on the Sega Master System. But he didn’t become the backbone the company needed to compete with Nintendo, and many felt it was time to start over. Looking for a new mascot, Sega of Japan held an internal competition, allowing its employees to submit ideas for character designs.
Designer Naoto Ohshima came up with an idea of a blue hedgehog that had fangs and a human girlfriend. Ohshima’s character also fronted a rock band, together with a monkey and an alligator. At Sega’s American branch, Ohshima’s hedgehog was seen as too aggressive and hence had to become more universally appealing. To gain a more inviting look, the hedgehog’s fangs had to go, as did his girlfriend. He left the band, too.
Although a hedgehog isn’t the fastest animal on the planet, Sega’s hedgehog was granted super speed — something largely unseen at the time. The gameplay was designed as a side-scrolling platformer that would keep him moving. To underline the concept of speed, the character was named Sonic — an adjective to describe reaching the speed of sound. Thus, the classic Sonic the Hedgehog was born.
Sonic vs. Super Mario
Born to directly rival Mario, Sonic had to match if not raise the platform game standards set by the Super Mario Bros. series. But what made the Mario franchise so great that it defined the platforming genre for decades?
First of all, the game is family-friendly. The short goofy-looking Italian plumber appealed to people of all ages, as did the simple and lighthearted plot. Mario’s positive side characters — Luigi and Princess Peach — added to the charm as well. It was a story that was constantly moving forward, told through the game’s graphics. It was engaging, relaxed, and frankly, just a lot of fun .
When I first discovered Super Mario Bros., the absence of competition or any sort of pressure in the game was what made me come back for more. It was the perfect game to play when you just wanted to relax and feel comfortable playing at your own pace and following your own rules. Back then, it seemed like the levels were huge, with space for different routes to take and secrets to unlock. Needless to say, as a kid I enjoyed the upbeat soundtrack and graphics that shaped the mood of the game.
Sega Strikes Back
And that’s what Sega was up against. If Sega was ever to truly compete with Nintendo, it had to overthrow the king that was Mario, Nintendo’s beloved mascot. And Sonic was Sega’s last hope.
The first Sonic game, titled Sonic the Hedgehog and released on June 23, 1991, was an instant hit. In the game, you assume the role of Sonic as he runs and jumps through a variety of zones. His quest is to save a bunch of cute animals from being turned into heartless robots by the villain, Dr. Robotnik. Sonic 1 was bright and colorful, had a simple plot, and featured some of the most detailed visuals ever seen in a console game. But what really made it stand out was the emphasis on speed.
The Initial Success
Before games saved your progress, remember the frustration of turning on a console and having to play through the first levels of the game to get to the good parts? You do it so many times that eventually, you memorize the levels and try to speed through them as fast as you can. Well, Sonic’s mechanics and design were based on that concept. Rather than gaining speed by pressing the run button, Sonic did it simply by running forward and gradually gaining momentum over time.
On top of this, most levels had multiple pathways you could take. Each stage was designed in a special way to reward those taking the high, speedy paths and punishing those opting for lower routes, filled with enemies and various obstacles.
It was this innovative speed-based game style, Sonic’s mischievous character, and the advanced console’s design that drove the system’s sales to a new level, leaving Nintendo behind.
Introducing New Characters
Over the course of the early 90s, Sonic Team released a number of sequels. All of them introduced new game mechanics and new characters to the series.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
The first sequel, Sonic 2, added Sonic’s trusted sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower. A flying two-tailed fox came as both an alternate protagonist and a co-operative character for two players to enjoy the game together. This game also introduced the spin dash attack, which allowed Sonic to quickly speed up and turn into a blue ball that would destroy any enemies in his path.
Sonic CD (1993)
In Sonic CD you meet even more characters: Metal Sonic and Amy Rose. The game is also set in the present, past, and future simultaneously, creating multiple versions of each play zone. Sonic CD is notable as it was one of the few successful games released for the Sega CD add-on, which suffered from several problems.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (1994)
In 1994, Sonic Team went even further, releasing two more games. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles made the new character playable. Originally, the two games were planned as one release. But due to financial difficulties, the company split it up into two games. In the end, both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were stand-alone games.
However, the real magic happened due to Sega’s unique lock-on cartridge. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge had a slot on top to which you could attach the Sonic 3 cartridge. This allowed users to play Sonic 3‘s levels with Knuckles the Echidna, taking advantage of his unique abilities. Placing Sonic 2 on the lock-on cartridge had a similar effect for that game.
The Beginning of a New 3D Era
In the next five years, the world saw plenty of Sonic spin-offs made for every existing console. But by 1996, the 16-bit era that took Sonic to the top was on the way out. It was the beginning of a new era of 3D polygons, which meant a significant change in the gaming landscape.
Mario had already made the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64 and the flailing Sega Saturn had been out for a year. It was time for Sonic Team to make its next move. Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R were among the first attempts to bring Sonic into the third dimension. Unfortunately, both of them failed due to problems like slippery controls and maze-like level design that didn’t impress the fans.
A Brand New Sonic Adventure (1999)
The first game that really brought the Sonic the Hedgehog formula into 3D was Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast. This was an action platformer in which you assumed the roles of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy. Two new characters joined the team as well: Big the Cat and E-102 Gamma. Each character had their own gameplay setup and played their part in uncovering the game’s final chapter.
Sonic Adventure has received many positive reviews for its gameplay, graphics, and soundtrack. It became the best-selling Dreamcast game a year after its release.
Sonic Adventure 2 or Welcome to the Dark Side (2001)
The successful release of Sonic Adventure meant that Sonic Team was finally (or again?) on the right path. This path led to the creation of Sonic Adventure 2, the fan-favorite 3D Sonic game.
In early 2001, Sega announced that it was discontinuing the Dreamcast . This meant that the Sega’s glory days were over and Adventure 2 would be the last Sonic game to come out for a Sega system. But Sonic Adventure 2 was special in more than just one way — it was scheduled for release on the Sonic’s 10th anniversary, and the fans expected Sonic Team to go all out.
And oh, how they did. The intention with the Adventure sequel was to bring Sonic back to his roots, and focus more on action like the classic games did. Adventure 2 blended something so familiar with aspects completely different and fresh.
For one, the new game was nothing like the upbeat and colorful Sonic Adventure. Instead, Adventure 2 was dark and intriguing. In the game’s somewhat gloomy storyline we see Sonic like we’ve never seen him before: he’s frustrated and easily-provoked. We see other characters in a new light as well, as they interact with their counterparts (like Sonic vs. Shadow, or Knuckles vs. Rouge the Bat). The sequel also managed to actually turn the game into one big adventure, which some might say the first game failed to do. You even get an adventure map to follow the characters’ progress.
And don’t forget about the music! You’ll hear an eclectic mix of tunes, from arena rock, to jazz hits, to even cheesy rap. With a brilliant soundtrack like that, Adventure 2 manages to maintain the fast pace and energetic feeling throughout the entire game.
The Crazy Experiments of the 2000s
Shortly after the release of Sonic Adventure 2, Sega decided to step out of the console market and focus on third-party development. And its first project was rather surprising. The team re-released expanded versions of Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 — on the Nintendo GameCube of all consoles. And that was both the end of the Sonic 3D era and a beginning of Sonic… sort of being all over the place. If the original Adventure 2 was dark in a fun way, now the real “dark age” of Sonic had begun.
In the early 2000s, it seemed like Sonic Team decided to ditch the whole “bring Sonic back to its roots” concept and spice it up with some fresh experiments on the gameplay instead.
The 2004 release of Sonic Heroes revolved around team-based gameplay. It was majorly criticized for its camera control system and game’s voice acting, among other problems. And then there was 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog that attempted to add some tension into Sonic by equipping Shadow with guns and swear words. It’s almost like they were trying to resurrect Ohshima’s Sonic, the rock band hero hedgehog. You know, with fangs.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. In celebration of Sonic’s 15th anniversary, Sonic Team once again decided to go all in. Only this time it wasn’t quite as successful. This landmark anniversary gave the world Sonic the Hedgehog 2006.
Sonic ’06 fell flat on its back due to numerous glitches, unpolished gameplay, and generally being an unfinished game that is now regarded as one of the worst video games of all time. Between the game’s atrocious design problems and the bizarre Sonic/Princess Elise kiss that made everyone cringe, ’06 didn’t just fail as a franchise reboot — it almost killed it.
Sonic Unleashed (2008)
While you might think that the natural course of action for Sonic Team would be to take a step back and reflect on what they’d done wrong, they did the complete opposite. Sonic Team chose to keep pursuing the dream of creating a brand-new Sonic experience. After Sonic ’06, the series continued to see new releases every year, none of them even significant enough to mention here. Except maybe Sonic Unleashed.
Unleashed was a mixed bag, with a game divided into two parts: the first was a standard fast-paced 3D platformer where you assume the role of Sonic and the second was action-oriented levels which you play through as… Sonic the Werehog. Still, the first part appealed to the classic Sonic fans and looked promising as it brought back a lot of the original Sonic charm.
The Glorious Comeback
Some people believe that Sonic should have been left alone well before all these sequels saw the light of day. And they have good reasons to think so — some of them we’ve brought up in this article. However, the Sonic franchise is all about ups and downs. Almost every failure led to another success story. The same was bound to happen after Sonic’s “dark age” was over.
Sonic Colors (2010)
The main Sonic event of 2010 was the release of Sonic Colors. A multiple award-winner, this game truly put Sonic back in business. Combining the back-to-basics approach with some novelty like the Wisps, a new gameplay-altering mechanic, Sonic Colorssucceeded where so many other Sonic games failed.
Sonic Generations (2011)
Following the success of Sonic Colors, the franchise was coming up on its 20th anniversary. This time, Sonic Team played it safe, presenting to the world Sonic Generations. It was later proclaimed as one of Sonic’s greatest games in years.
Indeed, Generations was a full celebration of Sonic’s entire history. Every level was lifted from the most notable Sonic editions and given a new life with a complete HD makeover. More than that, each level was split in two: one part was a classic Genesis-style 2D act and the other was a modern Colors-inspired 3D act. Sonic Generations allowed you to play the beloved 2D levels in 3D and vice versa.
The game was met with positive reviews and sold even better than its predecessor, Colors. By this point, Sonic had finally crawled out of the hole it fell into five years ago with the release of Sonic ’06.
Keep Him Running!
But of course, with such a significant move up, Sonic Team couldn’t help but follow it with a somewhat weird but ultimately still a negative release.
Sonic Lost World
After a deal between Sega and Nintendo formulated to develop a few Sonic games exclusively for Nintendo Systems, the first one came to light: Sonic Lost World. The game left a good chunk of fans confused. It seemed like it was heavily influenced by the likes of Super Mario Galaxy, and was all-around one of the most divisive entries in the entire Sonic series.
Big Promises for the 25th Anniversary
On the series’ 25th anniversary, a big celebration show was held, featuring some pretty weird music performances and a lot of awkward dancing on stage. But those bits aside, Sonic Team made some crucial announcements that got Sonic fans all over the world thrilled again.
The most exciting is a classically-styled 2D platform game called Sonic Mania. And it looks like it might be the most amazing throwback Sonic game yet. The interface looks like it came straight from the early 1990s, down to the pixelated character design.
In addition to Sonic Mania, during the celebration, we saw another debut: a teaser trailer of Sonic Forces, the next 3D Sonic title. And from the looks of it, Sonic Forces is going to be a follow-up to Sonic Generations. Both of the games are scheduled to come out in 2017. It’s a pretty exciting time for Sonic fans!
Other Sonic Media
Sonic was born in the early 90s and thus has been around for decades. Being a cultural phenomenon and gaming icon, Sonic inspired many different entertainment pieces besides video games.
On TV, there are numerous shows and cartoon series dedicated to the character like Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Underground, an anime series Sonic X, and the recent animation Sonic Boom. Speaking of TV, back in his days of glory Sonic starred in a number of commercials. He probably convinced someone out there to buy some of those sweet Honey Nut Cheerios.
In 2014, Sony Pictures and Marza Animation Planet took on a project that will take Sonic straight to the big screen, with his first theatrical film to premiere in 2018.
The Blue Blur has also been featured in printed media on multiple occasions. Comic books and manga about him were written and published in Japan, America, and all over Europe.
The Ultimate Battle for the Love of the Fans
With the dozens of times Sonic surprised its fans with fantastic new titles and disappointed them with underwhelming and weird games, it’s almost impossible to stay indifferent toward the franchise and the character himself. You either still love the speedster or have turned on him years ago.
However, one thing about Sonic is an ironic constant — the change. The Sonic series practically never stays the same. From the first release on Sega Genesis to his jump to the third dimension in Sonic Adventure, then to a shift toward team-based action and his complete makeover for the Sonic Boom series, Sonic has regularly changed over the past two decades. And with two new games scheduled for release later in 2017, Sonic’s future, once again, seems bright.
Nonetheless, it’s up to you to decide whether Sonic is worth your time and attention today. We can only hope that this short trip down the Sonic memory lane has helped you make the right decision. Now we invite you to replay some of Sonic’s best games, or just add some of the iconic music and sound effects to your phone’s ringtone .
Do you love or hate the Sonic series? Who is your favorite Sonic side character? Which Sonic game would you choose to forget and replay all over again and which would you rather just forget? Please, share your thoughts (and warm Sonic memories) with us in the comments below!
Image Credit: Tamara Kulikova via Shutterstock.com