This week marked the 25th Anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. As the face of Sega in 1991, the “Blue Blur” came with with the Mega Drive (known as the Genesis in the United States).
Since appearing on our screens, Sonic has become one of the most iconic characters today. Not only within the video game industry, but outside of it, too.
Becoming somewhat of a celebrity, he has not just appeared in his own games. During this time, Sonic has also appeared in TV shows, movies, and other media (even in other games!).
Sonic’s life is full of so much history, that it would take an ice age to write about the many games released. This edition of RETROspective focuses on the original 16-bit release, which changed gaming forever.
Sonic’s first encounter with Dr. Robotnik at Green Hill Zone remains an iconic boss battle
Concept and creation
Nintendo dominated console sales in the 1980s, reviving the industry after the 1983 crash. Sega, who specialised in arcade games, saw an excellent opportunity to break their monopoly.
To do this, Sega needed a mascot who could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s Mario. Whilst Sega were in the console market, the sales of the NES dwarfed their Master System by a rate of over 4:1.
By the late 1980s, the Master System and NES had reached their potential. It was time for companies to release new consoles; this was a chance for Sega to compete. Sega’s next console venture was the Mega Drive, up against the SNES.
They believed their mascot, Alex Kidd, lacked the mainstream appeal to compete. The Enchanted Castle was unsuccessful, in a way proving their beliefs to be correct. Thus, it was necessary to create a character from scratch, who would give Sega a new lease of life, and start a new era.
Designers created various characters, including a rabbit with could grab objects with its ears. After much deliberation, the final design was of a hedgehog named “Mr. Needlemouse”.
This name was only provisional, with Needlemouse later changed to “Sonic”. His colour matched Sega’s blue, and his design was simple, sleek, and more edgy than Alex Kidd.
After finalising Sonic’s design, a small group, now named Sonic Team, immediately began development.
Each level was unique in every way, from graphics and music, to objects and obstacles
Ready to roll
With the foundations laid for Sega’s new assault on Nintendo, what game did Sonic Team want to create? The desire was to produce a simple run-and-jump game, which everybody could enjoy. No clever gimmicks, no unbeatable levels, and no complicated controls.
In relation to hardware, Sonic the Hedgehog would display the Mega Drive’s technical ability. With a faster processor, it was able to process movement at a higher rate. This enabled developers to up the tempo of games, resulting in more exciting gameplay.
Furthermore, Sega tasked another developer, named Ancient, to release an 8-bit Sonic game. This made owners of the Master System and Game Gear (handheld) more aware of Sonic’s profile.
It was vital to ensure that Sonic was synonymous with the Sega brand as soon as possible. The game, included in a bundle with the Mega Drive, competed with the SNES and Super Mario World.
Special Stages challenged players to complete the game by collecting all six Chaos Emeralds
In the zone
Sonic the Hedgehog had a simple premise. You’re playing as the hero, your aim is to defeat Dr. Robotnik, and save the world. There’s no complex story, no plot twists, and nothing to overthink.
This game was different to any other. Players were able to reach speeds they had never reached before. See environments as vibrant they had never seen before. And listen to quality sounds and music tracks they had never heard before.
It wasn’t just the sound and visuals which won people over.
The rings Sonic collected doubled up as a health system. With Sonic losing rings when hit, it ensured players didn’t become frustrated. And if Sonic did lose a life, the player would only restart from a checkpoint, of which there are several.
To complete the game, it was vital to collect all six Chaos Emeralds via Special Stages. Those who had 50 rings or more at the end of each level could access them via a portal. The need to beat Special Stages provided more than good reason for players to avoid damage.
Unlike other platformers, players achieved higher scores by clearing stages as fast as possible. This was a contrast to slower games, which rewarded collecting items and/or defeating enemies.
As a product, to say Sonic the Hedgehog was well-received is an understatement. The game received rave reviews across the industry, and still impresses many today.
The health system based from rings ensured playing the game wasn’t a frustrating experience
The present day
Appealing to the masses, Sonic stood out from the rest in the early 1990s. Several games followed, including Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD and Sonic Adventure. Sonic’s debut resulted in the Genesis outselling the SNES by 2:1 in North America. This was a massive turnaround from being outsold 4:1 years earlier.
Sonic single-handedly changed not just the platform genre, but the industry as a whole. Without doubt, Sonic influenced other characters, such as Gex and Crash Bandicoot. It would not be outlandish to say the likes of Gex and Crash wouldn’t exist at all, had it not been for Sonic’s success.
Despite a less successful transition to 3D, Sonic is still a leader in the platform genre. Nowdays, he is starring in spin-off series Sonic Boom, and is playable in Super Smash Bros. This year, he will be appearing alongside Mario in this year’s game for the Olympics on Wii U.
It should go without saying that gaming has come a long way in the last quarter of a century, in more ways than one. But, one thing has remained consistent: Sonic’s ever-presence during this period.
And long may it continue for another 25 years.