1991 – Sega needs a mascot to stand up to the rampant popularity of Nintendo’s Super Mario like nobody’s business. 20 years ago today, with the release of Sonic 1 for the SEGA Genesis (Megadrive), into the gaming arena stepped a character that would become one of the most iconic video game characters of all time.
A blue hedgehog?
Outlandish as the thought might have seemed back then, Sega realized that in order to compete with Nintendo in terms of providing an iconic mascot, they needed to think outside the box. Their previous poster boy, Alex Kidd, had gained a measure of popularity, but was simply too ordinary and nondescript to really fire the imagination of Sega’s target consumer.
Well, you can’t get much more different to a kid with oversized hands than a speedy hedgehog who is blue, wears gloves and sneakers and has an unholy appetite to collect golden rings.
However, it might surprise you to learn that the Sega Japan team who designed Sonic was actually toned down in terms of being outlandish. Originally he came with a pair of fangs and a human girlfriend called Madonna
The fangs were dropped to put the focus more on Sonic being cool rather than menacing and Madonna was ditched too, presumably to avoid awkward questions about the forbidden fruit that is human-on-hedgehog love.
Sega were still very keen to keep the “attitude factor” inherent in the character of Sonic. Where Mario was lovable in a way that only chubby jumping plumbers can manage, Sega wanted their flagship mascot to have a little more edgy coolness.
In the early days of Sonic, this attitude was displayed in a variety of ways. Sonic was all about speed, and he didn’t have time for your crap so God help you if you wanted to take a break from the action because he would call you out on it! He stood, arms folded, foot tapping, frowning disapprovingly at you should you stop him from running, jumping and spinning for more than a few seconds.
Sonic was helped in this edgy attitude by the fact that he remained mute in his games, keeping him cool and enhancing his mystique (the Gordon Freeman effect, if you will). Unfortunately, this would all be undermined when Sonic eventually found a voice, first in his abominable animated adventures and later in his video games.
For me, Sonic stopped being cool when he opened his mouth and a bunch of surfer culture “narlyisms” came spewing out. In my humble view, Sonic should have stayed mute for all of his games, even if a reedy, vastly irritating nasal whine was deemed necessary for the cartoons and movies.
But this article isn’t supposed to be a pop at how Sonic has fallen from Sega supremacy to teeter on the brink of irrelevance (there’s plenty of room for that in Sonic game reviews). So I’ll stop being mean to the blue ball of speedy sass right there.
Instead, let’s remember how Sonic came out, spikes shiny and bristling, to bound onto our consoles and show us the meaning of speed platforming.
The early Sonic games (from Sonic 1 to Sonic & Knuckles) were masterpieces of fast, challenging but ultimately accessible fun. They shook up the platformer genre with innovative level design, exciting power ups and a variety of colorful enemies and environments.