For a kid, exclusivity meant conflict. For my part, I never involved myself in the arguments surrounding Mario and Sonic, but I was keenly aware of them as a seven year old. Over the lunch table lines were drawn and fierce debate swirled over which character, which game, and inherently but never mentioned, which company was better. Today on Origin of the Series, we are going to be focusing on the Genesis Era of Sonic, starting with a brief history of Sega and going through the release of the first game. Welcome Origin of the Series: Sonic in the Genesis Era, Part 1.
The origin story of Sega is rarely straight forward. There are many important dates to consider as an appropriate jumping off point, but for the purposes of brevity, we are going to go to the one that serves as the catalyst for modern day Sega, 1983. The video game market which by the early 80s encompassed both arcade games and home consoles turned into a bit of a dumpster fire in 1983. At least, in the United States. The market had become saturated, between limitless releases of Atari games, to the other consoles that were flooding the market, including Colecovision and Mattel’s Intellivision system. With too much supply and too little demand, the fall was gargantuan. Mattel suffered tremendous losses, and Atari would need to declare bankruptcy.
How did this effect Sega? Right around the time of the collapse, Sega had just entered the home console market with their SG-1000 console, auspiciously on the same day that Nintendo did with the Famicom. The SG-1000 was an underpowered unit compared to most of the systems, and weaker than the Famicom, but it would be on this that many Sega employees would cut their console programming teeth including Sonic programmer Yuji Naka with his first game titled Girl’s Garden.
Their home console launch notwithstanding, the crash of ’83 spooked Gulf and Western, the company that CEO David Rosen had sold Sega to in the 1970s. Their response was to sell off the American manufacturing divisions of the enterprise. Not willing to let the company completely fall apart, Rosen and Hayao Nakayama, an executive from a Sega acquisition in the late 70s, led a buyout of the rest of the company. Sega came out of the crash as a brand-new company, David Rosen remained Chairman, and Hayao Nakayama became the new CEO.
Sega would release a revision to the SG-1000, the Mark II, the following year. It made up a bit for the lackluster performance of the original SG-1000, but it wasn’t until the Mark III, otherwise known as the Sega Master System, that Sega took its first real steps into competing in the console market. Well, baby steps. Sega determined they would need a mascot to compete with Nintendo. Mario, the plumber, created as the protagonist of Donkey Kong when Nintendo had to pivot from making a Popeye game, had risen to immense popularity in both Japan and America. Sega’s first shot at a mascot was a spaceship named Opa-Opa from the game Fantasy World. Doesn’t that seem odd? Yes, it was odd – Sega realized it quickly and moved on to Alex Kidd.
It is silly to feel bad for a digital mascot that never truly existed. Regardless, Alex Kidd’s run as the mascot of Sega is a bit of a downer as the character seemed setup for failure. Maybe the red jumpsuit was too close to Mario’s red overalls, and it was moot, but the first game in the Alex Kidd series looked like a seriously fun experience. It was titled Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and the player guided Alex through his adventures on the planet Radaxian. The gameplay was varied and colorful featuring strange bosses and interesting level designs. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite perform as well as one would hope for the mascot to take on Mario.
The following game reflected the uncertainty Sega had in both the character and the design of the first game. Alex Kidd and the Lost Stars was a traditional platformer with all the elements of the original Alex Kidd that made it interesting stripped away. Following that they stuck Alex into a BMX game, and then a strange game that was a bit of a commercial or Sega. Honestly, this is not an atypical treatment for a mascot. Mario is in all sorts of games, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros, and even appeared as an NPC in games like Punch-Out. The problem was, without a single unifying success to tie the franchise together, Alex Kidd just seemed more and more scattered.
Alex Kidd was shelved, after a few more games, and with the launch of the new Genesis console. Hayao Nakayama still wanted a mascot, and he turned the development of one over to the employees of Sega at large by holding a companywide contest.
After hundreds of submissions, there were a few finalists chosen for the new Sega mascot. And of those, one became the ultimate winner. A rabbit. Not the hedgehog you were expecting, the original winner of the mascot competition was a rabbit submitted by eventual Sonic character designer and Naoto Oshima. With the mascot settled, for now, Oshima paired with programmer Yuji Naka to develop a demo for the new mascot. Oshima had worked with Naka previously on the Phantasy Star games, some of my personal favorites, and recently Naka had completed work on Ghouls n’ Ghosts, demonstrating that he had the platforming chops needed. Fortuitously, Naka’s most recent project had been cancelled, giving him the bandwidth to work on the new tech demo. Around this time Hirokazu Yasuhara would join the team as the director of the project. He had been en route to joining the Sega Technical Institute in in 1990, however his trip was delayed, and in the meantime, he joined Sega’s AM8 division, now known as Sonic Team.
The rabbit didn’t seem to be working for Naka, Oshima, and Yasuhara. Naka’s technical demo prioritized speed above all else. His inspiration for this was Super Mario Bros. in that there was a definite cap in the speed at which you could clear the level. Naka said in an interview with Retro Gamer Magazine: “Every time I played the first stage, I wondered why I couldn’t clear it faster the better I got playing it.” The rabbit however was envisioned to be able to pick items up with his ears, but the action took too long. In an interview with Sega Visions, Naka mentioned that because speed was important, that they thought a character that could turn itself into a ball would work. After toying around with an Armadillo character, the other Oshima and Naka settled on a hedgehog, named Sonic. Oshima had doodled with the idea of the character before, then named Mr. Needlemouse, but it was not submitted to the contest. A possibly anecdotal story of the design of the character is that Oshima combined Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat for the basic sketch. This early version of Sonic had fangs, a human girlfriend named Madonna, and a rock band.
Meanwhile across the Pacific, Sega of America had a new president and CEO. Tom Kalinske, the former CEO of Mattel. Kalinske’s history was primarily in the toy business however his knack for running projects that appealed to kids was unparalleled. Before Mattel Kalinske was responsible for turning a vitamin chewable into Flintstones Vitamins – a product so ubiquitous with its jingles that I am hearing them in my head as a read this. Kalinske was recruited by Mattel after a particularly bright showing while testifying before a Senate subcommittee and became a shining star for the company. In the 1980s, he took over Mattel as CEO.
Internal politics forced him out from Mattel in 1987, and after a brief stint as the chief executive officer of Matchbox, Tom found himself vacationing on a beach. Where Hayao Nakayama, who knew him from Tom’s days at Mattel, found him. After a brief courting period, Hayao successfully recruited Tom.
Tom’s mission at Sega of America was evident – sell the Genesis to the American market. He didn’t have a lot to work with, unfortunately. Until word that Sonic was ready to be shared with SOA by Sega of Japan. When Tom and team received the proposed design, Sega of America had concerns. Primarily that his look wouldn’t appeal to a western audience. Madeline Schroeder, a product manager, was tasked by Kalinske and Marketing Director Al Nilsen to take SOA’s suggestions to the SOJ headquarters. The suggestions: lose the fangs, the girlfriend, and the band. Naka and team hated the idea of losing these features, but after a brief impasse, Nakayama informed Kalinske that the design changes for Sonic were approved.
While the debate over the look was happening, Naka, Oshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara got to work. Using Naka’s tech demo as a basis, Yasuhara began developing levels that took advantage of the speed of the engine and reached back into an older style of game for inspiration. Pinball. It’s obvious when you think of it, but much of Sonic’s level design was inspired by the way pinball machines would play. This inspiration struck a balance that Yuji Naka was seeking to appeal to both Japanese and American audiences.
Despite the game containing six zones, it was the Green Hill Zone that got probably the most attention of them all – with good reason. Green Hill Zone was the first stage and the one that was needed to convince players to keep playing. First levels of games are fascinating, and there is a lot of good discussions to be had about them. Most importantly they should teach the player how to play and what to expect. Green Hill Zone does this by introducing many of the game’s mechanics, including enemies, traps, and alternate routes. Naka mentions that the iconic design of the level drew its inspiration from the artwork of Eizin Suzuki, as well as the natural beauty of California.
Naka and team worked doggedly to finish the game, most days upwards of 19 hours trying to finish the game. Despite the effort there were several things that needed to be cut from the game, including a two-player mode which would be later found in Sonic 2. and as the approached the finish line, they needed to find the right music. That music came from Masato Nakamura, the leader of the J-pop band Dreams Come True. The limitations of the Genesis sound chip, which could only produce four simultaneous notes, forced Nakamura into creating some of his most memorable work.
During the development of the game SOA worked on creating a marketing plan to use Sonic as a way to gain market share in the US. Following the mantra “the name of the game is the game” originally said by Nintendo’s Peter Main, SOA did what they could to showcase the blazing fast gameplay. Character teases were used at various industry events before the releases. As the game reached completion Al Nilsen orchestrated a tour with the game where he had players compare Sonic to the later Mario Bros game. It was Sega’s version of the Pepsi challenge.
Reception and Legacy
The game was released in June of 1991 and sold well after Sega of America’s marketing campaigns proved fruitful. The edgy marketing attitude that was created for Sonic would carry over to Sega’s marketing strategy because after the release, Sega and Sonic were no doubt synonymous. The game garnered high praise among the gaming press as well. In a review from Gamepro, Sonic scored four screaming heads in four of the five categories, with only sound getting a happy face. Yeah, I know. Reviewer Boogie Man (not this Boogie) wrote that: “[Sonic] shows what programmers, artists, and game designers can do when they set out to produce a winner.”. EGMs review crew gave the game straight 9s out of 10 and one said “if you don’t buy it, it’s because you don’t have a Genesis yet.” What is strange is most reviews are harder on the music of the game with Raze magazine rating the sound an 82 out of 100 in their three-page review. Today the games standing on metacritic which considers all reviews past and present a very promising blank. Soon after the game’s release, Sega of America got the go-ahead to replace Altered Beast as the Pack-In game for the Genesis. The move, though a gamble, allowed Sega to gain ground on Nintendo in the fabled console wars of the early 1990s.
My personal view of the game. Sonic The Hedgehog is a fun platformer with a simple, well executed concept that has let it age with grace. The graphical fidelity of the game remains as sharp as ever, fitting in perfectly with the current renaissance that pixel art is enjoying. As far as the game’s legacy: Sonic The Hedgehog is considered one of the greatest games of all time. The debate becomes, what is the legacy when you consider all that followed? While I can attest of the value of the 16-bit generation of games, the following eras of Sonic were met with rising and falling levels of consistency. The character remains a fan favorite that hangs like a specter of past successes over Sega.
Sonic 2: Historical Context
Despite the game’s massive success, Yuji Naka was not happy. Known by some as a bit of a hot head, Naka did not like the fact that Sega of Japan prevented the development team from putting their credits on the game. Hiding developer identities was an old practice of game companies dating back to the days of Atari. In fact, the first Easter egg in a video game was in the Atari game Adventure and was a credit of the game’s programmer, Warren Robinett. The use of this was designed to prevent poaching by other companies. However, for Naka, it was beyond the pale for the company to celebrate such a success without giving credit. He would quit Sega, but his absence wasn’t long.
There are two versions of the story of Naka’s recruitment over to Sega of America. One version, as told by the Blake Harris book Console Wars unfolded like this: Shinobu Toyoda, Tom Kalinske’s right hand at Sega of America, and the acting liaison to the Sega of Japan, immediately traveled to Japan after he discovered Naka’s departure. Kalinske knew that Naka was an important part of the team, and gave Toyoda a lot of leeway in his efforts to re-recruit Naka. After a promise of better pay, recognition, and the ability to choose his team, Naka agreed to work at the Sega Technical Institute, headed by an old colleague, Mark Cerny of Marble Madness fame. Yasuhara, who was supposed to join the Sega Technical Institute a few years prior, joined Naka.
In the other version of the story, it wasn’t Toyoda who convinced Naka to join the Sega Technical institute, but rather Cerny himself, given that the two of them had worked together previously. As always, the truth in these accounts usually tends to fall somewhere in the middle, with Toyoda and Cerny working together to convince Yuji Naka to join.
Game Development: Sonic 2 and Sonic CD
Mark Cerny wanted to get moving on Sonic 2, with his biggest assets on his new team being two of the three creators of Sonic. However, when he pitched this idea to marketing he was told to hold off. In an interview with a fan site, Sega-16, Cerny said, “Bizarrely their response was…’no, it’s much too soon.” While they were waiting they began work on another game, only to have that development interrupted when SOA came back to the Technical Institute, telling them they indeed had to get to work on Sonic 2.
Sonic co-creator Naoto Oshima remained behind at Sega of Japan and in charge of Sonic Team. While the Sega Technical Institute produced Sonic 2, Sonic Team Japan’s responsibility was to create a “revamped” version of Sonic 1 for the Sega CD add-on system. Sonic 2 would see the addition of the longtime sidekick, “Tails.” The development of the two-tailed fox was one of the sore points between the American marketing teams and Japanese developers of Sonic Team. While the character’s design was universally accepted, his name was not. Miles Prower, a pun on Miles Per Hour. Al Nilsen hated the name and wrote a short story, as a method of proposing a new name, Miles “Tails” Monotail. The story warmed everyone’s heart, and eventually, there was a compromise. The official name of the fox would be Miles Prower, and Tails would be the nickname.
During the development of the game, the two sides of the studio found it difficult to work together. Cultural and language barriers prevented the Japanese and Americans from working together fluidly, except for Cerny himself who was fluent in Japanese. Craig Stitt, one of the American artists on the game felt that many of the American contributions to the game were either dropped or reworked simply because it came from the American side.
In Japan, development continued for Sonic CD. During the early meetings between Sega of Japan and the Sega Technical Institute, some of the ideas that were floated back and forth were considered for both projects, however as development truly got underway dramatic differences began to emerge. The most noticeable were the supporting characters. Where Tails was introduced in Sonic 2, a female character named Amy Rose would be added, as well as an additional antagonist in the form of Metal Sonic. Another idea that was discussed for Sonic 2 that would only be used in Sonic CD was time travel. This element gave Sonic CD its most defining feature, extremely unique level design, allowing for Sonic to travel to the same levels in different timelines. Past, Present, Bad Future and Good Future.
Another key difference between Sonic CD and Sonic 2 was the pressure. Oshima has been quoted as saying that because they were not making a “numbered sequel” the pressure was not as high as he felt it probably was on Naka, Cerny, and the rest of the Technical Institute. During the final days of development, the Sonic 2 team needed to fly out a large complementary group of programmers to finish the game. The reason of the pressure to finish on time, was because of the marketing of the game.
While Sonic 2 was in development, Al Nilsen, who had orchestrated some of the more effective marketing campaigns for the first game, and Madeline Schroeder, the “mother of Sonic” came up with an idea that was revolutionary at the time: A street date for the release of Sonic 2. Named Sonic 2s Day, the goal was to have the game released on the same day around the globe. Ultimately the game was released a few days earlier in Japan, but the rest of the world saw the game come out on Tuesday, November 24th.
As with Sonic 1, the music of Sonic 2 was created by Masato Nakamura, leader of the Band Dreams Come True. However Sonic CD decided to go a different route using music composed by Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata. At least, that was the case in the Japanese and European versions. To much dismay, the US Version was completely rescored with a different sound than the Japanese version, eschewing the electronica-dance sound in favor of a jazz fusion approach. The original Japanese soundtrack would be available in the 2011 re-release of the game.
Reception and Legacy: Sonic 2 and Sonic CD
The game was another smashing success for Sega, Naka, and company. Despite the short production schedule, they managed to create a sequel which managed to not just rehash the ideas of the original, but enhanced gameplay mechanics. Most magazines would give high praise to Sonic 2 as well, except for one, UK Based magazine GamesMaster which rated Sonic 2 a 65 out of 100. Perhaps harshness was because it was the first issue of the magazine and they were looking to make a name for themselves. Or perhaps the criticism of the game being too easy and being too derivative of the first one were their honest assessment. In editor Jim Douglas’s final assessment, he states: “Technical excellence alone, which Sonic has in spades, does not a good game make.” Despite this outlier, the game received mostly good marks.
Sonic CD would also be well received with its unique time traveling level design, however, given that the Sega CD was an add-on, it naturally had a smaller install base leading to lower sales of Sonic CD to Sonic 2. Sonic CD still managed relatively impressive sales.
Game Development: Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles
The Sega Technical Institute would see some changes after the release of Sonic 2 with Mark Cerny departing and Roger Hector, a veteran of Atari, stepping in to lead the division. Yuji Naka, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and the Sonic Team that had taken residency at the Technical Institute would stay on to begin work on Sonic 3. However this would come with a caveat – Naka wanted to only work with the Japanese developers at the Technical Institute, to avoid the conflicts that occurred during the development of Sonic 2.
With each Sonic game, Naka and team were growing more ambitious. Initial concepts of Sonic 3 involved using an isometric point of view, which would end up shelved and used instead for Sonic 3D blast. As with previous Sonic games, Sonic 3 would see the introduction of a new character to the roster, Knuckles the Echidna. However, Knuckles would not be a playable character in the base version of Sonic 3. The problem was as they were developing the game, it was growing prohibitively too large, and it would be too expensive to manufacture the cartridge. Roger Hector the new head of the Technical Institute knew that there would be issues when he saw the list of ideas that were proposed.
Not only was the game too big, but it was also going to take much longer than anticipated. Sega had tremendous success with their holiday release of Sonic 2 and wanted to replicate that success. Sonic 3 would not be ready however but Christmas of 1993 though, so it fell to the American half of the Sega Technical Institute to create something to tide Sonic fans over. The result would be Sonic Spinball, a game that took the pinball elements of the previous Sonic games, and, well made them the entire game. Spinball is not a bad game, it has some fun features, but it wasn’t the true Sonic experience despite the best efforts of the developers.
The decision was made during the alpha stages of the game to split Sonic 3 into two parts. The second part was called Sonic and Knuckles and allowed Knuckles to be a playable character. Each game could be played as a standalone, or together. Playing them together gave the gamer the original experience that the team envisioned when designing the game. In a fun twist, attaching Sonic 2 to the Sonic and Knuckles, cartridge allowed the player to play as Knuckles in Sonic 2.
Aside from the lock-on cartridges, the most interesting piece about the development of Sonic 3 was the potential inclusion of Michael Jackson onto the team to provide the musical score. Dreams Come True had become relatively popular in the time between Sonic 2 and 3, and their cost had gone up significantly. Michael Jackson however, a fan of the game, was interested in taking on the job. However, he is not credited in the final game. There are multiple accounts as to what happened. In one version of the story, Jackson’s involvement in the project was terminated by Sega after the news of pedophilia charges came out. Another version of the same story posits that Jackson left the project when he became frustrated with the methods of creating the music, much like Nakamura was with Sonic 1.s
Unfortunately, it would take nearly eight months to deliver the two halves of the game in the United States and Europe. In Japan, there was a delay in delivering the first half as the team attempted to jam both halves onto one cart. This plan was ultimately abandoned and the game was released with the “lock-on” technology that the other regions received.
Reception and Legacy: Sonic 3 And Knuckles
While Sonic 3 was, well-received sales were noticeably down from the successes of the first two games. Each “part” of the game so to speak sold over a million copies, down from the multi-million sales of the previous games. There could have been several reasons for this to happen; perhaps marketing had run out of the magic juice to get people interested. Or perhaps simply it was a case of Sonic fatigue setting in as there were five Sonic releases between 1991 and 1994. Whatever the case the downturn marked a perfect timing for a break. When the next big Sonic game would arrive, it would be at a markedly different Sega.
Sonic and Knuckles would be the last “main” Sonic game to be released for the 16-bit generation. In the next video, we will start with the discussion of the 32-bit era for Sonic, or lack thereof, and continue to present day. If you enjoyed the video, please let me know in the comments below. If I missed anything, please let me know on the pinned fact check comment. One of the difficult things with this project has been the number of sources that have slightly different versions of the same information. However, if you have another source for me to check out, let me know! If you enjoy this content, please consider subscribing with notifications. My name is Spoiler Kevin, and I will see you in the next video.