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.
5) The game could have been even faster. Sonic the Hedgehog was the fastest game on the market in 1991, but it turns out Sonic was kind of dogging it. Yuji Naka’s engine was so speedy that he found he was getting motion sickness while playing the game, so he actually turned the speed down a few notches.
6) Sonic was inspired by some, uh, interesting people. According to Naoto Oshima, some interesting, very 90s-ish, public figures inspired Sonic. Sonic’s buckled shoes were taken from Michael Jackson’s boots on the cover of Bad, Santa Claus inspired the shoes’ color-scheme and Sonic’s sassy attitude was modelled on Bill Clinton. So, I’m not exactly sure what happens when Michael Jackson, Santa Claus and Bill Clinton walk into a bar, but apparently it ends in the birth of a superpowered blue hedgehog.
This’ll make more sense once we get to the part about Sonic’s girlfriend.
7) Sonic’s first appearance wasn’t in Sonic the Hedgehog. The creation of Sonic was a big deal behind the scenes at Sega, so much so that the character snuck into another Sega game months before Sonic the Hedgehog hit shelves. In the relatively obscure arcade game Rad Mobile, you can see a Sonic shaped air freshener dangling from your car’s rear view mirror.
8) Sonic the Hedgehog owes some of its success to Saddam Hussein. No, really! Follow my, uh, slightly convoluted logic trail if you can…
Naoto Oshima created the Sonic character, and Yuji Naka provided the engine, but Sonic had a third father. Hirokazu Yasuhara is the least famous of Sonic’s creators, but he’s probably the most important. Yasuhara was the lead designer and director for all of Sonic’s 16-bit adventures and the guy who actually made Sonic fun. Not so coincidentally, the quality of the Sonic franchise dropped off right around the time Yasuhara left Sega — when Sega was churning out crap like Shadow the Hedgehog, Yasuhara was off designing the Jak & Daxter games. He even worked on the first couple Uncharted titles. Any doubt about who the real brains of the Sonic operation was?
In 1990 Yasuhara was a rookie, having only been with Sega for a couple months. Yasuhara was saddled with the thankless task of establishing a new development team in America, but just as he was about to leave, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The outbreak of the first Gulf War postponed Yasuhara’s trip, leaving him with nothing to do back in Japan. Ohshima and Naka noticed Yasuhara moping around and since they needed all the help they could get, they asked Yasuhara to join their team on a temporary basis until he went to America. Yasuhara became engrossed in designing Sonic stages and never ended up going to America. So, if it weren’t for Saddam Hussein, there’s a very good chance Green Hills Zone and all your other favorite 16-bit Sonic stages wouldn’t exist.
Could this article be any more 90s?
9) Madonna was going to be Sonic’s love interest. Remember when Sonic kissed a human girl in the 2006 Sonic reboot and everyone, rightfully, got all grossed out? Well, turns out interspecies love was on Sega’s mind right from the start.
Originally Sonic had a girlfriend named Madonna who, well, looked just like 80s Madonna (with bigger breasts of course). Apparently she was going to chase Sonic around in a love struck daze, but Sonic would have been just too damn cool to reciprocate her feelings. Basically it’s the role Amy Rose fills in later Sonic games, except played by a caricature of the most famous sex symbol on the planet at the time.
The fact that Sonic needs to stand on a table to even reach her shoulder makes it all the worse.
10) Sonic was supposed to have a band. Oh, and Sonic wasn’t just boning Madonna, he also was the leader of a super rad band! Sonic the Hedgehog was initially going to have a very elaborate sound test that would have featured Sonic breakdancing to the wailing sounds of a band made up of rockin’ chickens, monkeys and crocodiles.
Shitty Sonic spin-off characters were with us right from the beginning.
So yeah, if you ever find yourself a bit nauseated by 90s Sonic’s ‘tude level, just remember, it could have been even worse.
11) The famous SE-GA sound clip at the beginning of the game ate a huge amount of cart space. So why did Sega cut the sound test band? Because the trademark Seee-ga sound clip at the beginning of the game took up a whopping 1/8th of Sonic the Hedgehog’s cart space, leaving no room for any Sonic breakdancing. Darn.
12) There were two subtly different versions of the game on the Genesis. Depending on when you bought your copy of Sonic the Hedgehog, you may have got a slightly different version of the game. Some time after the game’s original release a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog featuring more advanced background scrolling, new animations and bug patches was snuck out. This version was most common in Japan and Korea, but American copies have been found as well.
13) Sonic Team hated the game’s box art. Sonic the Hedgehog’s western cover art, designed by the great Greg Martin, is one of the most iconic of all time. That said, Sonic’s creators absolutely hated it. Oshima didn’t like the airbrushed, Americanized style, and didn’t understand why Sega of America couldn’t just use his original artwork. Sonic Team and Sega of America almost had a major falling out over it, but eventually SoA got their way, and Sonic’s Japanese box art pose actually ended up closely resembling the American art.
How could not want to buy this?
14) Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most ported games of all time. Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t the most ported game of all time (that record is held by Dragon’s Lair) but it’s definitely in the top three. Sonic has been released on at least 24 different platforms, and that number balloons to well over 30 if you count all the different mobile phone platforms the game’s been on. Hell, there was even a version of Sonic released for Palm PDAs back in the early 2000s…
15) Sonic can’t swim because Sega believed hedgehogs couldn’t swim in real life.
Do your damn research, Sega.
So there you have it, a few fast and furious facts about gaming’s favorite insectivore. What are some of your memories of the classic 16-bit Sonic games? Know any interesting facts I missed? Hit the comments and let me know!
Thanks, as always to Joel Stice for lending me the Fascinating Facts format!