Sonic the Hedgehog: gaming icon
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Sonic the Hedgehog epitomises the 1990s and is synonymous with the Sega brand - you can’t think of one without the other.
This bright-blue bolt of energy was created in 1991 as a new mascot for Japanese video game developer Sega. The brand’s previous one, a fictional 14-year-old boy called Alex Kidd who had his own line of games, didn’t get the same amount of brand recognition Nintendo had with Mario (you might have heard of him).
Sega needed something - someone - who could compete with the moustachioed plumber and his friends, and help it gain more of the burgeoning home video console market of the late 80s and early 90s.
Sega vs Nintendo
Previously an arcade game developer (and before that, a slot-machine maker and distributor), Sega had already been in a gaming war with Nintendo for most of the 1980s.
The 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the must-have console when it was first released in 1983 (it was the Famicom in Japan), and it’s popularity didn’t wane until the end of the decade. Sega’s 8-bit Master System had a better specification than the NES, but it wasn't as popular.
So, to get ahead of the game (ahem), Sega introduced its advanced 16-bit Mega Drive in Japan in 1988. The company hoped this was the system that would help it increase Sega’s market share against the all-dominant Nintendo.
The Mega Drive (or Genesis as it was in the US) was then the first mainstream 16-bit console to go on sale in the key north American market in 1989. But despite the Mega Drive’s faster processing speed, the NES was still the king of the consoles because of the popular Super Mario franchise.
Sega needed something new.
Birth of the blue hedgehog
Sega came up with a plan to create its own Mario. The company had used four mascots of some kind since 1983: Professor Asobin, Dr Games, Opa-Opa and then Alex Kidd (although only the latter two have ever been seen as ‘official’ ones).
Sega of Japan’s President, Hayao Nakayama, set some simple requirements for the brand’s new mascot: create something that could star in a game to showcase the Mega Drive’s processing power.
Sega’s AM8 team - which later became ‘Sonic Team’ - spent months coming up with concepts. The team included programmer Yuji Naka, character designer Naoto Oshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara: all of whom were important in Sonic’s early success and his enduring popularity.
One of the team, Oshima-san, had a trip to New York planned during this character concept period, so took the opportunity when in Central Park one day to sketch some of the ideas and get the opinions of passers-by. Of the mostly animal-based characters the team had come up with by that point, the hedgehog called Mr Needlemouse won.
Oshima-san wanted to make Mr Needlemouse a striking character that was easy for children to draw. The character had large eyes, anthropomorphic features and was a bright-blue colour (to match Sega’s company colour). Rather helpfully, hedgehogs can curl up, roll around and defeat potential enemies - quickness could easily be incorporated into this idea.
And the character’s new speedy moniker stuck: ‘Sonic’ matched the sense of speed Sega wanted to demonstrate with its new platform gaming series.
Sonic on the world stage
By now it was summer 1991: the Mega Drive had been out for nearly three years in Japan, almost two years in north America (as the Genesis), and just a few months in Europe. Nintendo had recently released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in Japan, too - and it was due in north America later that summer.
Timing was everything. And it turned out perfectly for Sega.
The Sonic the Hedgehog game went on sale in north America on 21 June 1991 - a whole month before it was available in Japan or Europe, highlighting how important Sonic’s success was in this key market area.
What helped kick-start Sonic’s popularity in the US was a marketing strategy devised by Sega of America’s then CEO, Tom Kalinske. With the backing of Nakayama-san, Kalinske not only lowered the console’s price to make it more affordable to more people, but he also made Sonic the Hedgehog the Genesis ‘pack-in’ game (the one that comes with a console when you first buy it).
This first Sonic game had more fancy-looking graphics in comparison to some other popular titles at the time, and emphasised how quick the Mega Drive system was.
Sonic the Hedgehog soon became a must-have game. By the end of 1993 - four years after the Genesis first went on sale in the US - Sega had a 60% share of the 16-bit home video game market in north America.
Sonic the Hedgehog went on to become the most popular Mega Drive/Genesis game by volume globally, with more than 22 million units.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 followed in late 1992 with more than 6 million copies sold worldwide, making it the second best-selling game on the console. It also introduced the world to Miles ‘Tails’ Prowler, a young fox with two tails that also introduced a two-player option to the game.
(In case you were wondering, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was beaten to third spot in the all-time Mega Drive sales list by Disney’s Aladdin - a tie-in with the animation film of the same name - that sold 4 million units.)
More characters were added to the Sonic line-up, including Knuckles and Amy Rose. Knuckles even got the joint lead in 1994’s Sonic and Knuckles, which had a cartridge you could dock either Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3 to play those levels as the bright-pink echidna.
Each of the growing range of characters made cameos in later Sonic games, or even got their own series. Knuckles got Chaotix, Tails had his own platform, and ever-present baddie Dr Robotnik (now know globally as Eggman) became the headline act with his Mean Bean Machine.
Sonic’s games weren’t restricted to the Mega Drive console at the time, either: versions were created for the Game Gear (Sega’s hand-held rival to Nintendo’s Game Boy), the 8-bit Master System, and arcade machines.
The blue hedgehog’s profile was also on the rise outside of the gaming world. Sonic had his own cartoon series, advertised cereal, and became Sega’s global sponsorship ambassador - the most famous collaboration was when Sega sponsored the all-conquering Williams Formula 1 team in 1993, and the European Grand Prix in the same season.
Although Sega now concentrates on software development - production of its last console, the Dreamcast, stopped in early 2001 - Sonic is still one of its most famous assets. He stars in his ongoing game series, with titles developed and released with Sega’s former hardware rivals Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. The hedgehog hero has also joined forces with Mario in the Sonic and Mario at the Olympic Games series.
Sonic is an instantly recognisable figure in both gaming groups and wider popular culture. He adorns kids’ and adult clothing lines, and is referred to in numerous games, TV shows and films. Anything close in shade to his brightly-coloured spikes is called ‘Sonic blue’. The distinctive music from the early titles still bring back fond memories for many 90s gamers. Even the iconic Green Hill zone and course loops are recognised by people who haven’t even played Sonic games.
Not bad for a humble hedgehog.