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15 Features

History Lesson: Sonic The Hedgehog

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 1st Sep 2013 at 10:30 AM UTC

Talk about a Spinderella story.

Once upon a time Prince Charming, A.K.A. Sega pres Hayao Nakayama, eyed up the prince of his neighbouring kingdom, Nintendo, and decreed that he wanted a princess to match his rival's bride, Mario. All his one true mascot would have to do is fit into a chunky plastic loafer, commonly known as the Sega Mega Drive.

The task was put in the hands of AM8, an internal team with Master System ports and the Phantasy Star franchise under its belts.

Its prospective princesses? Not too hot. Potential designs Armadillos, dogs and, bizarrely, a bushy 'tached caricature of the 32nd president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt (later reused as Dr Robotnik).

One popular idea was a rabbit with item-grabbing ears. This was eventually abandoned on the grounds of technical complexity, but was later revived as Ristar, a star with item-grabbing, um, arms.


Then the prince's programming whizzkid Yuji Naka arrived. Sega's boy wonder headed up most of AM8's Master System porting, and in his spare he programmed a Famicom emulator for the Mega Drive (believed to be the first ever console-based emulator).

Naka pitched a speedy character, envisioning some kind of rolling ball attack. In chimed Naoto Oshima with one of those lines that has to be an anecdotal addition: "What, you mean like a hedgehog?" Lightbulbs flashed, Oshima cracked out the blue felt tips and proto-Sonic was born under the project name Mr Needlemouse.

Enter any game shop and you'll notice Mr Needlemouse Adventure, Mr Needlemouse Generations and Mr Needlemouse And The Secret Rings by their distinct absence. The Sonic moniker was adopted to show off the
character's speed, itself emphasising the Mega Drive's speed over the SNES (although released two years after Sega's machine, the SNES was supposedly half as fast). Moulding speed into game form introduced another of Sonic's many dads - the stage and gameplay designer Hirokazu Yasuhara.

Many credit the character solely to Naka, but it's important to recognise the multitude of minds that shaped him. Saying that, the actual speed of the game - the hook that has defined Sonic to this day - is Naka's doing, the programming genius cracking out his slickest coding to ensure the game felt just right when it launched on 23 June 1991.

Naysayers called it out for its near lack of gameplay ("you can just hold right" being a popular exaggeration), but lifetime sales of 4 million copies shrugged them off. And Sonic was a unit shifter. The Mega Drive had been pootling along for three years, but it's no mystery why hardware sales jumped to 2.3 million by the end of 1991.


It also began one of the more amusing feuds in gaming magazine history, the letters pages of Nintendo and Sega rags soon littered with sketches of the plumber and hedgehog committing the kind of violence on one another usually reserved for Itchy and Scratchy. Try as we might years later, we just couldn't get a similar Kameo vs Sly Raccoon feud to kick off.

So Prince Charming got his mascot and lived happily ever after, right? Not quite. The honeymoon period was sweet, certainly - Sonics 2 and 3 defined the golden years of the Mega Drive. Alas, Sonic's fate was too leashed to Sega's, and while he shifted the 16-bit machine, the Saturn was like a pair of concrete boots.

As the PlayStation and N64 ruled the market, Sonic found his home kicked in and the bottles of money-flavoured milk taken from his doorstep. Isometric dud Sonic 3D and forgettable racer Sonic R did the blue blur no favours, while Sonic Jam began Sega's filthy habit of compiling Mega Drive hits for new consoles - boo hiss, Sonic Mega Collection on GameCube.

Dreamcast saw him return in style - Sonic Adventure is a 3D corker - but goodwill was strained in a sequel that brought Sonic's godawful social circle to the fore. Is there anything more reprehensible than Tails? Vector, Shadow and Big The Cat come on down.

Last generation? Disaster-rama. But Sonic isn't denied a fairytale ending. Pairing up with long-term rival Mario saw Olympic sales of over 25 million between three titles, Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations were returns to form and he's rarely been better than in Super Smash Bros Brawl. So what if he doesn't have a console to call his own? Sonic's format freedom has never seen him happier.

Spin on this

There have been a grand total of 73 different Sonic The Hedgehog games to date, along with seven retro compilations released over the years. That's a lot of speedy blue shenanigans and, as has been widely reported over the years, not every Sonic game has been a classic.

There's one thing you can't deny though - at least Sega hasn't been afraid to take risks and place Sonic in a series of different genres. With that in mind, here are a few of the more interesting spin-offs Sonic has starred in over the years.