After the smashing success of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis, it only made sense for Sonic Team to start working on a sequel. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would become the best-selling game on the Genesis and it almost was not even made.
1992: Sonic the Hedgehog Two-Thirds
Yuji Naka, chief programmer on Sonic the Hedgehog, loved speed but if there were two traits that dominated his love of speed, they were temper and perfectionism. Naka was unquestionably talented, but his fastidiousness made him miss deadlines. Indeed, Green Hill Zone alone took eight months to perfect! Upper management at Sega had only condemnatory mutterings for the length of time Naka dedicated to the project. Tired of working on such an exhausting project at breakneck speed, Naka chose to leave Sega and its politics. Had Naka’s involvement with Sega ended then, Sonic 2 might never have seen the light of day.
Luckily, American developer Mark Cerny invited Naka to work for him in California. Cerny and Naka had worked together before and Cerny was spearheading a new program that brought in experts and novices to work together under the umbrella of the Sega Technical Institute. Naka accepted and was joined by Hirokazu Yasuhara, who had originally been slated to go to the STI before he was brought on to Sonic Team as its supervisor. Thus, 2/3 of the Big 3 behind the creation of Sonic were in California, yet Sega initially hesitated on a sequel. Then, Sega green-lit the Sonic 2 project two months later, causing Sonic Team to lose 2 months in an 11-month development cycle. The influx of Japanese developers to the STI helped to offset the lost time.
Sonic Team was allowed to dream big in America. Because the developers were not collared by executives, they started cranking out dozens of ideas and explored many of them, the largest of which was time travel. Sonic Team did not lack for ambition but time constraints checked their dreams. Sonic 2 was meant to have 18 zones, including Hidden Palace Zone, Wood Zone, Winter Zone, Dust Hill Zone, and Genocide City Zone (later renamed Cyber City Zone when the Japanese were told what “genocide” means, and then even later reduced to the third act of Metropolis Zone). All of the above-named zones were cut due to time constraints, and all were in various stages of production when they got the axe. Though this was a disappointment for STI members, including future Spyro the Dragon creator Craig Stitt, they knew they were working on something massive. Japanese developer Yasushi Yamaguchi designed a two-tailed fox character as Sonic’s protege, named Miles Prower as a play on the phrase miles per hour (something a very young Caelestis did not know until he read it in a book decades later). Naka worked on AI coding for Miles for a long time, insisting that a two-player mode be implemented in this game. The Japanese were thrilled with their character concept. It comes as little surprise, then, that the Americans had a different reaction.
Madeline Schroeder was no stranger to objecting to the Japanese’s strange character ideas. She and Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske had squashed the idea of Sonic having a blonde, human girlfriend named Madonna. As a product manager, Schroeder and Al Nilsen, the Sega of America director of marketing, were unimpressed by Miles Prower. Schroeder and Nilsen pushed to change the name and the Japanese, particularly Naka and Yamaguchi, pushed right back. Nilsen met with Sonic Team and told a whimsical, emotional story of how Miles Monotail met Sonic and the two became friends. The heartwarming story was enough to persuade Naka, but other members of Sonic Team did not rally so easily. Shinobu Toyoda, executive vice president of Sega of America and liaison between the Japanese and American divisions of the company, proposed that Miles Prower be the character’s real name but he would adopt the nickname Tails. Yamaguchi was annoyed at this development and scribbled the name Miles in various places throughout the game in response, but the name stuck.
Nilsen and Schroeder then amped up their marketing campaign, organizing Sonic 2sday, the first time in history that a video game had a worldwide release date. They also contacted Nickelodeon and sped off prototypes of the new game to the massive children’s TV channel. The prototype was featured on the incredibly awesome video game show Nick Arcade…and then disappeared. It would resurface later on the Internet in 2006 as the Nick Arcade Prototype. A second prototype that was playable in New York was stolen. It resurfaced in 1999 after its discovery by Simon Wai and was named after him, uncovering much of what is known about the development of the game. Sonic 2 raced to the finish line with another soundtrack from Dreams Come True and so many elements changed at the last second that the credits were wrong in some places. Sonic 2 also featured the Death Egg, an homage to Star Wars, and Super Sonic, an homage to the Super Saiyans of Dragon Ball Z. Following its launch in November 1992, Sonic 2 sold an unprecedented half a million copies in 5 days just in North America, waving the ride of the fictional “Blast Processing” that was the by-word for the Sega Genesis. There would also be a Sonic 2 for Game Gear released in 1992 to compliment its 16-bit brother on the Genesis.
Sonic 2 was clearly a runaway hit…but what about the last man among Sonic’s Big 3?
1993: You’ve Created a Time Paradox!
Naoto Ohshima, the man who designed Sonic, was keeping busy in Japan between ’92 and ’93. When Sega was ready to push a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog, the original intent was to release a game first on the Sega CD and then on the Genesis. The Sega CD, known as the Mega CD in Japan, was one of the first video game consoles to use compact discs instead of cartridges. This cutting edge technology came at a price: $300 retail in America. The Sega CD was actually a CD-based peripheral/add-on to the Genesis but the hybrid machine was doomed by its steep price tag. The Sega CD had nothing to boast of as far as software. Indeed, the Sega CD game Night Trap generated significant controversy for depicting “excessive” violence and sexually suggestive material. Of course, this was the early ’90s, with all of the conservative trappings of that era. This was the age in which Madonna was considered a threat to decency. Nevertheless, there was so much outrage over the game that Kalinske partnered with a leading authority on child psychological development to create the Videogame Rating Council, the video game equivalent of the MPAA rating system. Much of the Sega CD’s library was full-motion video garbage in the vein of Night Trap, mindlessly experimenting with the possibilities of recording real actors and incorporating that into video games. Most of it was awful, but fortunately for Sega, Ohshima was busy on the next Sonic the Hedgehog title.
Ohshima was made director of the project. He had little intent of copying Sonic 2 and was in contact with the STI about its work to ensure that there were clear differences between the two projects. One idea that Ohshima ran with from the STI team was the time travel feature. Once that became the central concept, Ohshima also worked on introducing a new protagonist and a new antagonist. The new protagonist was a female name Amy Rose, actually taken from an obscure manga based on Sonic. The new antagonist was a robotic doppelganger of Sonic called Metal Sonic. Interestingly, the STI also used this idea as the penultimate boss of Sonic 2, naming it Mecha Sonic. In its Sonic 2 iteration, it is also known as Silver Sonic. Ohshima’s project, ultimately titled Sonic the Hedgehog CD, focused more on exploration and platforming than speed, perhaps due to Naka’s absence. Ohshima really wanted to have instantaneous time travel, but the programmers insisted they could not pull this off on the hardware; Ohshima would later say that, if Naka had been programming, he would have figured out how to do it. Instead, there is a cut scene as Sonic warps into different time periods, inspired by Back to the Future. The game would take longer to develop than its cousin on the Genesis because of the new medium.
Sonic CD has its own interesting development history. Rather than zones, Sonic CD had rounds. The second round never made it into the final product, but the game’s code indicates that there is a missing “R2” (no D2). This missing Round 2 has been the subject of considerable speculation. It vanished from the game before the 510 beta, the game’s earliest-known build. Virtually nothing is known about R2 to this day. What is known is that Sega of America was hoping to cash in on the launch of a comic book series and not one but two animated TV series launched around this time. Sally Acorn, the princess of the Freedom Fighters resistance movement, was a pink (later brown) chipmunk. Sega of America decided to rename the new female character Sally Acorn instead of using the name Amy Rose. Anyone with two working eyes could see they were not the same character. More profoundly, Sega of America thought that the funky house/hip-hop beats that composed a large part of Sega CD‘s soundtrack would not be well-received in the West, so it commissioned a new soundtrack for the game. This divide in soundtracks would be so objectionable that the video game magazine GameFan lowered its final opinion of the game simply for this reason. Nevertheless, Sonic CD hit stores in 1993 and went on to be the best-selling game for the Sega CD.
About those two TV series: one was a serious, sci-fi action-thriller show known simply as Sonic the Hedgehog. Known popularly as “SatAM” because it aired on Saturday mornings on ABC, this show and the comic book followed the same story: Sonic and Tails are part of a resistance squad fighting Doctor Robotnik, who has dominated the world with his technological terrorism. Robotnik overthrew King Maximilian of the Acorn Kingdom and enslaved most of the citizens by roboticizing them – that is, putting them into machines that made the animal populace into robot slaves. SatAM was canceled after its second season after ending on a massive cliffhanger that still enrages fans to this day. The other TV series was called Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. AoStH, as it is known, is a wacky, zany, and utterly goofy take on the old Looney Tunes, only with Sonic characters. Because of its sheer silliness, it has also lent itself to aggressive parody on YouTube, such as this:
In both cartoons, Sonic was voiced by Jaleel White. Oh yes, Steve Urkel himself was the official voice of Sonic the Hedgehog in the early 90s. SatAM in particular had a highly accredited team of voice actors: Tahj Mowry (TJ Henderson from Smart Guy and younger brother to Tia and Tamara Mowry from Sister, Sister); Kath Soucie (Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Fifi from Tiny Toon Adventures, Dexter’s Mom in Dexter’s Laboratory, and Phil and Lil DeVille from Rugrats); Christine Cavanaugh (Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, Chuckie Finster from Rugrats, and Babe from the movie of the same name); Rob Paulsen (Yakko from Animaniacs along with a thousand other credits); Cree Summers (Penny from Inspector Gadget, Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures, and Numbuh 5 from Codename: Kids Next Door); Jim Cummings (Fuzzy Lumpkins from The Powerpuff Girls and Darkwing Duck); Charlie Adler (Buster Bunny from Tiny Toon Adventures and Cow, Chicken, and the Red Guy from Cow and Chicken); and, no lie, Tim Curry as King Acorn.
Sega was dissatisfied with the idea of no new Sonic game for the Genesis in 1993. Sega commissioned a second sequel shortly after the release of Sonic 2. However, delays meant it would never be ready for release by Christmas 1993. Sega hastily outsourced a project to be supervised by the STI. Originally called “Sonic Pinball,” this pinball-based platformer would be renamed Sonic Spinball just before its holiday release in 1993. Some of its earliest builds used artwork from an arcade game that Sega had released months earlier, called SegaSonic the Hedgehog. That game introduced Ray the Flying Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo, characters who have since faded into obscurity, along with this odd, little title. It was, however, the first time there was considerable voice acting for Sonic in a game (he had just a couple of lines in Sonic CD too).
Just for good measure, Sega also outsourced another 8-bit Sonic project in 1993 for the Game Gear and Master System. It was called Sonic and Tails in Japan and Sonic Chaos in the West. There was no shortage of Sonic content washing up on both sides of the Pacific by 1993 and Sega was leading a technological revolution. The Sega CD was just one example of Sega’s dedication to newer gizmos and gadgets at the time. A lesser-known illustration was the Sega Meganet, a modem add-on to the Genesis that allowed consumers to download digital titles from the Internet that were not available on cartridges. The Sega Meganet never went anywhere because, at the time of its launch in 1990, it offered few games and was prohibitively costly. However, the Sega Meganet pioneered digital downloads at a time when “the Internet” was still not even in common parlance. In 1993, Sega took a second swing at the idea with the Sega Channel, a comparable service that used cable channel broadcasting to deliver content. Cable channels had to clean their signals in order to deliver the content, debatably leading to the innovations that made broadband Internet possible. This primitive version of something akin to the modern XBLA or PSN has largely been forgotten by history, yet it is worth noting that Microsoft and Sony both would have been unlikely to enter the console wars but for Sega chipping away at Nintendo’s dominance in the video game market. Thus, to Sega much is owed for the existence of real competition in the video game market, as opposed to the Nintendo monopoly of the ’80s.
Sonic was riding high by 1993. However, his biggest adventure for the Sega Genesis was still in the works. Tune in next week for the next thrilling installment of the Sonic 25th anniversary retrospective!
To be continued…