It’s 2016 and you know what that means: twenty-five years since the Blue Blur first raced onto TV screens all across the world and upset the balance of the Force. Sonic the Hedgehog has had an outstanding influence on video gaming since then, appearing in hundreds of video games, five television series, one animated film, several Thanksgiving Day parades, and the longest-running comic book series based on a video game character of all time. Of course, it’s easy to forget that when you hear the journalists and the critics opine now. Sonic has become iconic in a different way in the past fifteen years, becoming the punch line for jokes about has-beens, poor game design, and an all-around fall from grace. In this series of posts, I hope to chronicle the rise and fall of one of the most storied of all video game characters for his twenty-fifth anniversary. I use Blake Harris’s book Console Wars and Les Editions Pix’n Love’s book The History of Sonic the Hedgehog as my sources. The Sonic the Hedgehog 25th anniversary logo is copyrighted to Sega.
1983-1990: The Dark Ages and the Nintendo Renaissance
Let’s get one thing straight here: a lot of the run-up to Sonic had to do with forces way outside of Sega. As IP alluded to in her post about Atari, there was a massive crash in the Western video game market in 1983, punctuated by the failure of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a video game on the Atari 2600. At this time, Atari had been synonymous with the video games industry. The problem was that the Atari 2600 was already very old in 1983 and the console, having a virtual monopoly on the industry, was awash in very lousy titles. The S.S. Video Games Industry would have gone the way of the Titanic but for a corporation that was peddling some hypnotic arcade games. You may have heard of this corporation: in Japanese, it goes by the name “Leave Luck to Heaven,” but to the rest of the world, it is known as Nintendo, and it had shown up in North America in 1980 to drop arcade cabinets named Donkey Kong wherever it could find space. When Nintendo launched the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West in 1985, it was a tactical strike right at the lowest point of the video game crash. The NES jump-started the industry again, and Nintendo took steps to ensure it would not follow in Atari’s footsteps.
Down that way, however, was the path of the Dark Side.
Nintendo is known for being like the Disney of video games: cute, colorful, artistic, and child-friendly. These two corporations have also been their own fields’ Evil Empires. Nintendo’s distribution system was rigid, extortionate, and downright monopolistic. Plus, a chip was put in NES cartridges that made reverse-engineering and other trickery a devilish feat to accomplish, and by the time one successfully did that, Nintendo was already big enough to wield a massive cudgel called Cease And Desist. Next time you see Mario, remember that that plumber has spent decades perfecting how to stomp someone’s head in – yours could be next.
From 1985 to 1990, the NES spread like a fever across the West. The SNES was in development and ready to launch in 1990 in Japan, with plans for release in the Americas in 1991. Little did Nintendo know that there was some scrappy, young go-getter company scheming in the shadows…
1991: The Year of the Hedgehog
Sega had originated in the early Forties in Honolulu, Hawaii as Standard Games, an entrepreneurial enterprise between some men entertaining American troops with pinball machines and jukeboxes. Standard Games relocated to Tokyo in the Sixties and merged with Rosen Enterprises. David Rosen, an American, had commercial success with photo booths in post-war Japan, and under his direction, the company changed its name to Service Games, later shortened to Sega. For the next several years, Sega made several innovative arcade hits of its own, including Frogger in 1981, the same year of the release of Donkey Kong. Rosen handed the keys of Sega to Hayao Nakayama, a Japanese businessman with a reputation for being an ostentatious cutthroat, in 1983. Eager to jump into the console market, Sega released the Sega Master System in 1985, its own 8-bit console to rival the NES. Its flagship game, 1986’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World, did not have the same impact as the previous year’s Super Mario Brothers. Sega went internal, looking for “the Mario-killer.”
What it found was shocking: rabbits who threw things with their ears (whose basic game mechanic went on to be the foundation of Ristar), Teddy Roosevelt in pajamas (soon the inspiration for Dr. Robotnik), and hundreds of other bizarre offerings. Sega went with the rabbit idea, a submission by twenty-six-year-old Naoto Ohshima. At the same time, twenty-five-year-old Yuji Naka, a self-taught programming ace, had been expanding his resume and his horizons with his work at Sega. Naka, a speed freak, hated how slowly Super Mario Bros. played and wanted to create his next work with an eye to speed. Ohshima sought out Naka, as the two had worked together before, and they were supervised by Hirokazu Yasuhara. Each man brought a different idea to the table: Ohshima was into dreamy aesthetics, Naka craved celerity, and Yasuhara wanted simplicity in the controls. It was Yasuhara who insisted on having one button for all actions for the Mario-killer mascot, so the three men went back to the drawing board. Hilariously, they conceived of Sonic as an armadillo before Ohshima recalled a scribble of a hedgehog he did a while back. Thinking of how one button for all of the actions meant that the Mario-killer had to be able to attack, jump, and transition between these two seamlessly, Ohshima pitched the idea to Sega of Mr. Needlemouse, his little hedgehog design. Sega green-lit the idea and thus was born Sonic the Hedgehog.
Development went at sonic speed. Yasuhara latched onto the idea of pinball as a physics dynamic and designed the levels around this concept. Naka programmed levels to have eye-watering speed and used a number of optical tricks in the design to give the game a 3D feel with 2D artwork. It was up to Ohshima to write the story. Ohshima came up with the idea of Sonic as a rock and roll singer whose blonde, human girlfriend named Madonna was kidnapped and Sonic had to rescue her. If none of that sounds familiar and yet incredibly familiar at the same time, it’s because this whole idea was dropped for sounding too much like Super Mario Brothers, rock icon status notwithstanding. Sega’s American branch, led by CEO Tom Kalinske and product manager Madeleine Schroeder, objected to Ohshima’s original vision immediately, a move that provoked Naka. Nevertheless, Nakayama in Japan relented and let Kalinkse and the Americans retool the character to be more Western-friendly. At the same time, Sega reached out to popular band Dreams Come True to write the score for the game, coincidentally on an Atari microphone.
Sonic the Hedgehog was unveiled in America at the Consumer Electronics Show of 1991. The game was blindingly fast and running on the MegaDrive, Sega’s 16-bit system. Known in America as the Genesis, the console had been released in 1988 and had done poorly in its first venture on the world stage. Sonic rushed in to give the console its second wind; despite Nintendo literally dominating the CES by having a massive display that Kalinske and his comrades called “The Death Star,” 80% of the public that got to see Sonic preferred him to Mario. Kalinske went on a whirlwind tour, aggressively promoting Sonic through Blockbuster, radio stations, TV ads, gaming magazines, and finally going so far as to sell Genesis consoles by bundling them with Sonic the Hedgehog for a nominal price. He even set up an incredibly obnoxious Segaville just down the highway from Wal-Mart headquarters to put the screws to the big-box corporation that had rebuffed all of his earlier pleas to carry Sega merchandise. Target, finally fed up with Nintendo’s obnoxious practices, severed business ties with Nintendo. By the time the SNES launched in 1991, price slashes were immediately on the table for the console in America due to Sonic’s way past cool influence. In Europe, the SNES had an even later launch, effectively allowing Sega to corner the European market. The game even had a cameo in the movie Wayne’s World.
The Sonic Boom was happening. Genesis consoles were selling out across the Americas and Sonic was a runaway success. Though Sonic fared less impressively in Japan, the numbers did not lie: Sega had sold about 1.6 million systems by Christmas 1991, compared to Nintendo’s 1.4 million. Sonic captured the spirit of the early 90s in a big way, followed up with a release on Sega’s handheld console, the Game Gear, that same year. Few could doubt Kalinske’s magnificent sales strategy or the Big 3’s enchanting and captivating creation. Good as these glory days were, they would be the only time this perfect storm of such brilliant men and women would share together in a common cause. 1.4 million Super Nintendo sales were achieved in months, as opposed to the years Sega had to gain its slight edge. Sega needed to rally quickly and follow up on its success. Was Sega up 2 it?
To be continued…