When it was 1994-95, I was all into the Sonic fandom. I tuned in for the last 30 seconds of SatAM‘s second season, only to be bewildered by it. I had watched most of AoStH. I was picking up copies of the Archie Sonic comic from my local Hobby Shop (not to be confused with the Fleetway Sonic the Comic series that ran from 1993 to 2002 in the United Kingdom). I bought the Sonic-shaped popsicles from the ice cream man, even though they inexplicably tasted like bubble gum. I used to want to go to Sonic restaurants because I was under the mistaken impression it had something to do with the hedgehog. I was blown away the first time I saw a Sega CD and saw Sonic CD and Ecco the Dolphin in action. I lived and breathed the Blue Blur. Later, when I obtained a copy of Sonic CD in college for my PC, I was really taken with the Japanese soundtrack and found that the boss music sampled some musicians, including Hall and Oates. Just out of curiosity, I listened to “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” the song sampled in Sonic CD, and then I was suddenly listening to the entire corpus of Hall and Oates. Sonic the Hedgehog made me a Hall and Oates fan. I dreamt about Sonic. I talked about Sonic. I played Sonic. I bought a Sonic plushie that I took to bed every night.
And yet Sega was leaving Sonic and me in the dust.
1995: The Chaotic Year
If you were named Thomas Kalinske in 1995, you would feel like the world owed you something. After all, you had an illustrious career that was the envy of others of longer tenure in the business. You were well-traveled as a singer in a children’s chorus, a great track runner, an entrepreneur in college, a marketing wiz, had stared down a senator on Capitol Hill in defense of your new creation called Flintstones Chewable Vitamins, had revivified sales of Barbie, created and peddled He-Man, had been handpicked by the top man of Sega to lead the American branch of the company, had assembled a crack team to run with this crazy hedgehog idea and made it the Mario-killer, had put together a council that was now rating video games to ensure informed quality control, and had done just about everything in the past four years on a wing and a prayer. Despite all of this, it seemed like true success was ever so slightly out of your reach because of three words: Sega of Japan.
Sonic was a worldwide icon, appearing in children’s food, commercials, television programs, comics, and of course, video games of all kinds (like the bizarre Puyo Pop clone retooled as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine in 1993). Kalinske had done more than most would have been able to with a hedgehog whose red, buckled sneakers were inspired by the skater from the music video of Michael Jackson’s Bad. By the time 1995 was on the horizon, there was little doubt that the tension between Sega of America and Sega of Japan was creating red-hot friction. Sega of America had gone so far as to start developing games internally since 1992, and then Kalinske went to Sega of Japan to see the SOJ R&D department unveil a 32-bit system that left little more than a small smile on his face. He was significantly more interested in a smaller device called the Sega Pico, an “edutainment” device that used video games as a teaching tool. Much to Kalinske’s horror, tales would come back to him later that Nakayama, upon seeing the Pico, picked it up and smashed it to smithereens as an expression of his contempt for the thing. Truly, the front of the next battle in the console wars was going to be a very real arms race.
That race had already started. Now that Sony had sprinted out of the gate, talking about a PlayStation that could do one hundred percent 3D graphics, Sega, which was developing the Saturn with its Model 1 3D graphics engine, made an abrupt change of course at Nakayama’s command. Hideki Sato, in charge of the Saturn engineering team, had been designing the Saturn with an emphasis on 2D graphics enhanced by 3D rather than fully 3D. To Kalinske, this made little sense; for all its faults, the Sega CD had illustrated that the victor would be the one who had superior technology. When he pressed for more details, Kalinske was told that designing things in 3D was, perhaps to the astonishment of no one, pretty hard in the mid-90s. Sato added more processors to the Saturn, which only complicated matters since it meant development kits would not be ready timely for third-party developers to see what they could do with the new hardware, hardware that was rushing out at top speed to get the edge on the Sony PlayStation. As an added insult, Kalinske had tried to steer a new partnership with Silicon Graphics to help in engineering the Saturn, only for SOJ to reject the offer with barely any explanation as to why.
Indeed, there is little that appears to make sense to us in the present day with the proposed order of business from Nakayama. We are accustomed to seeing only one console come out of a company to represent that company’s platform for an entire generation. Nakayama wanted to put forth Project Saturn and Project Mars, the latter of which was a cartridge-based 32-bit-like system; one might analogize Project Mars to the Genesis as the Wii U is to the Wii. Kalinske had his doubts. If this pushed through as planned, Sega would have the Sega Genesis, the Sega Game Gear, the Sega CD, the Sega Pico, the Sega Saturn, and the Sega Mars all jockeying for space at the same time. Nakayama’s position was that the Mars would bridge the Genesis to the Saturn. To make matters worse, Steve Race, a former marketing ally for Sega, apparently defaced a lot of Sega property at the 1995 Consumer Electronics Show, and then declared in his speech for Sony (with which he was now working), “Two hundred ninety-nine,” signifying the price point of the new Sony PlayStation. The Nintendo heavyweights hit with illustrations and descriptions of the forthcoming Nintendo 64. All Sega had was Virtua Fighter, which was a big seller really only in Japan.
But what about Sonic? In 1995, his brand appeared in the Game Gear titles Sonic Drift 2, Sonic Labyrinth, Tails Adventures, and Tails’ Skypatrol. All in all, this was a bad year to be a fan of Sonic. Sega had lost a great deal of momentum due to the SOA/SOJ clashes and the inscrutable decisions coming from Japan. The only big “Sonic” title of 1995 was Knuckles’ Chaotix, a spin-off game featuring Knuckles and some old (Vector the Crocodile, Mighty the Armadillo) and new (Charmy the Bee, Espio the Chameleon) friends. Knuckles’ Chaotix was released for the Sega Mars, by then renamed the Sega 32X. For all of the madness around him, Tom Kalinske may well as have felt he were on some other planet like Mars, and yet the worst was yet to come.
1996: Game Over
At the very end of the life cycle of the Sega Genesis, Sega released Sonic 3D Blast (aka Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island). Done in an isometric rather than side-scrolling style, Sonic 3D Blast was a technical marvel on the Genesis hardware, but the Genesis was showing its age. Despite the title, Sonic 3D Blast was not really in 3D. Instead, it was using the optical trickery of pre-rendered sprites on an isometric plane to give the illusion of 3D. It was time to go to the next level.
Back as far as 1993, there was talk about modeling a game on the SatAM television series. Peter Morawiec, a developer at the Sega Technical Institute in the United States, had prepared a demo of his idea with co-developer John Duggan. Yuji Naka rejected the concept, ostensibly because it was too deviant from his concepts and designs. Still, this demo, known as Sonic-16, resurfaced in 1994 under the name Sonic Mars, in anticipation of the new console. Sonic Mars, meant to be the flagship Sonic game for the 32X that Knuckles’ Chaotix ultimately became, can justifiably be deemed a victim of its times. A demo of the game shows that the game suffered from severe 3D design limitations, which are mitigated only by the fact that this was the earliest germ of an idea for a game. The idea, pitched by Michael Kosaka, floundered when Kosaka left Sega. Up-and-coming designer Christian Senn was thrust into the position of leading Sonic Mars, but SatAM wrapped up on a cliffhanger and Naka, upon seeing Sonic Mars, simply said, “Good luck.” Never did such well-wishing sound so ominous!
The new Sonic game continued to wander. There was a brief moment when it looked to be put on an American Sega system engineered by nVidia, but when that fell through, the project was switched over to the Saturn under the name Sonic Saturn. Sega of Japan expected a Sonic game by Christmas 1996 as the counterpunch to the N64’s summer blockbuster Super Mario 64. The clock started ticking. Senn and programmer Ofer Alon were heading a team designing the worlds while Chris Coffin headed a team that was designing a boss engine. This game, now known as Sonic X-Treme (only in the 90s could you get away with a name like that), was being shot in its Achilles’ heel again and again. Although Alon’s programming ran smoothly on the computer, framerates tanked on the Saturn hardware. Sega of America, worrying about running the clock, consulted with third-party developer Point of View, ostensibly to speed up the process of porting Alon’s work from the computer to the Saturn. When shown the results, Senn was shocked: Point of View had started designing its own version of Sonic X-Treme! When Nakayama showed up at the STI in March 1996, hoping to see progress on Sonic X-Treme, he only happened to see the shoddy design of the Point of View project. Senn showed up late, just in time to be greeted icily by the Sega of Japan executives. Nakayama apparently never saw the work that the STI had done on its version of Sonic X-Treme and simply ordered the Point of View Sonic X-Treme to be finished as soon as possible. All of the bickering between SOA and SOJ reached a glum breaking point that April, when Tom Kalinske tendered his resignation as CEO of SOA.
The rest of Sonic X-Treme was a masterful disaster, like a piano gracefully falling down a staircase. Naka had returned to Japan to partner up with Ohshima once more. The two went on to design NiGHTS into Dreams… that year. Meanwhile, STI dropped Ofer Alon’s programming, pursuant to Nakayama’s orders. STI made Chris Coffin the new lead programmer, and Sonic X-Treme moved into what is called the Project Condor phase. Mike Wallis, who had been supervising both Coffin’s team and Senn and Alon’s team, pleaded with new SOA CEO Bernie Stolar for help. Stolar acquired the code for the NiGHTS engine and passed it on to STI. Naturally, this was a boon for the STI, direly in need of something to speed up production. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have asked for Naka’s permission; once Naka found out, he became irate and threatened to quit. Sega executives acquiesced and all of the work that the STI made via the NiGHTS engine was trashed. Hirokazu Yasuhara was brought in to help design the levels at the last minute. Coffin began working around the clock, living in the project headquarters, until she contracted a case of pneumonia in August that threatened to kill her. Coffin was knocked out of commission and Wallis said Sonic X-Treme would never make a Christmas 1996 release date. Sega rushed out an enhanced port of Sonic 3D Blast on the Saturn to fill the gap.
The last chapter of Sonic X-Treme is fairly disappointing. Sega aggressively pushed Sonic in other places, including Sonic the Fighters as an arcade game and Sonic Blast on the Game Gear to keep the name brand going. Senn, also quite ill from pushing himself, and Alon continued to work on their version of Sonic X-Treme. They presented their work to the PC division of Sega, which rejected the proposal. Alon quit and Senn would leave soon after, but not before taking the overwhelming majority of his work on Sonic X-Treme and warehousing it online. Sonic Team was already focused on other fronts, such as the small screen.
Ohshima had talked up Sonic becoming an anime for some time, and this came to fruition in 1996 when Sega released a two-part OVA simply called Sonic the Hedgehog. A retelling of the events of Sonic CD, this OVA featured the first time that Sonic had extensive voice acting by someone other than Jaleel White in an English dub. The OVA was an eccentric movie, highly influenced by Japanese culture and showed Sonic’s interaction with humans other than Robotnik for the first time. Anime was not yet quite so mainstream (or even remotely making inroads) outside of Japan and so this movie did not make it to the West immediately. As it failed to catch momentum, it never was picked up for a full, animated series and remains as a quirky 60-minute OVA. In short, 1995 and 1996 were as quick to pitch Sonic down to the depths from which he had risen only a few short years earlier at supersonic speed. What a way to celebrate a fifth anniversary!
I hope you enjoyed this special Hedgehog Day walk down memory lane with me. A majority of the information regarding Sonic X-Treme is derived from Sonic Retro, a leading Internet community on the Sonic franchise. Look for Part 5 of my Sonic 25 year retrospective, coming soon!
To be continued…