This Monday was the 23rd anniversary of the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, so let’s take a slightly belated look back at the blue streak’s birth, shall we?
Sonic the Hedgehog was specifically designed to be a Mario killer, and damned if it didn’t succeed for a few years. Sonic was rude, crude, jacked up on Blast Processing and so popular he still has a large cult of dedicated fans nearly 25-years (and more than a few lousy games) later. Here are a few things you might not know about the game that pretty much defined gaming in the mid-90s…
1) Sonic could have been a rabbit, armadillo or overalls-wearing chicken. Things weren’t going well for Sega in 1990. Their 8-bit Master System had failed to inflict even a scratch on Nintendo’s then-impervious armor, and so far their 16-bit Genesis/Mega Drive wasn’t making any great waves either. They had a mascot (sort of) in Alex Kidd, a dorky rock-paper-scissors obsessed hobbity creature, but clearly something better would be required to take on Nintendo and its stable of memorable characters.
Two character designs Sega thankfully didn’t go with.
Sega decided to hold a contest. All Sega employees were encouraged to submit new character concepts and countless ideas poured in, ranging from overall wearing chickens, to wolves in American flag outfits. Eventually it became clear one designer, Naoto Oshima, was working on a different level from the rest. The higher ups at Sega whittled down the options to handful of designs created by Oshima, which included an armadillo, rabbit and a hedgehog character.
One of Oshima’s ideas was a grey rabbit that grabbed things with a pair of elastic ears. This concept would later be recycled for Ristar.
2) Robotnik was almost the star of the game. Ding, ding, ding! Hedgehog character! They chose that one right off the bat, right?
Nope. Initially Sega thought Oshima’s best design was a caricature of Teddy Roosevelt wearing pyjamas. Sega wanted their new character to appeal to Americans, and what better way to do that than to base him on one of America’s most beloved presidents? Eventually Sega realized maybe kids from the 90s wouldn’t be terribly interested in playing as a portly cartoon version of a president from the 1910s, so the notion of a game starring Robotnik was dropped. Sega still loved the character though, so when it came time to create a memorable villain for Sonic, Sega knew who they were going with.
Kids’ll love it!
3) Sonic was originally named “Mr. Needlemouse”. Eventually Sega honed in on Oshima’s hedgehog as the most promising of the bunch, but it took a while to nail down a personality or halfway decent name for the character. For much of development Sonic was saddled with the less-than-tubular name Mr. Needlemouse. Thankfully that was eventually replaced, because you can’t write a rockin’ Saturday morning cartoon theme about a guy called Mr. Needlemouse.
4) Sonic was influenced by his bitter rival, Mario. So, Sega now had their basic hedgehog character, but where’d Sonic being the fastest thing alive come from? Real hedgehogs are fairly pokey little dudes. Well, turns out Sonic was directly inspired by his greatest rival, Mario.
Ace programmer Yuji Naka got the idea for a speedy platformer when playing World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. over and over. The first warp zone in Mario Bros. appears in World 1-2, so you can skip most of the game, but not all of it. A Game Over screen is always going to mean replaying World 1-1. Because of this most players, including Yuji Naka, get very good at dashing through that first level as quickly as possible. It was while blasting through World 1-1 that Naka got the idea for a platformer that was all about reckless speed.
Even before Oshima’s hedgehog was born, Yuji Naka was tinkering with an engine that allowed characters to move incredibly quickly and run around loops. Sega higher ups thought the speedy prototype would be a good fit for the new hedgehog character, so they introduced Ohshima to Naka, and history was made.
Even the anti-Mario started here.