No one would have believed that the great battle of the 90s would narrow down to a plumber pitted against a hedgehog. Nintendo confidently dominated the 80s with the NES and still holds the retro crown. However, as the following decade dawned, Sega was planning a new wave to level the playing field with the Japanese titan and compete with its new SNES. Nintendo may have retained its MVP title in today’s market, but Sega’s change of strategy 30 years ago put it on the 16-bit map by unveiling a mascot, a franchise, and ultimately, a legacy.
In 1991, Sega revealed its new mascot—a blue, lightning fast, anthropomorphic hedgehog—to carry the beacon for the Megadrive (Genesis for our American friends), Sega’s third console after the SG-1000 and Master System failed to compete with the NES (Famicom in Japan). Sonic was an exciting new character with ka-ching appeal in the gaming industry and a worthy opponent to duke it out with Mario by offering turbo-speed, addictive gameplay. The speed-based platformer was a unique style for its time, and the Megadrive’s Motorola 68000 processor supported faster gameplay—called “blast processing”—which was significantly more powerful than the Master System.
Sonic was heavily marketed for teenagers and designed to represent the fast-paced gameplay that Sega (now dubbed “Sonic Team”) was bringing to video games. Originally a rabbit with multi-purpose ears, the hedgehog with celebrity status exploited the need for fast reflexes through his signature ball roll, giving gamers a new skill to master which, in turn, introduced a whole new level of competition.
South Island was home to Sonic the Hedgehog’s first athletic adventure, where he noticed his furry friends had been going AWOL. His courageous investigation soon uncovered that the fur-nappings were orchestrated by the evil Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik, who had been modifying Sonic’s fellow islanders into Badniks (robots) as part of his strategy to possess the six, fabled Chaos Emeralds. Obtaining these Emeralds would allow Eggman to manipulate and control the world in the name of evil—in true megalomaniac fashion—and Sonic wasn’t having any of it.
Sonic’s ring-based health system—where collecting golden rings at top speed replenished your lifeforce—was an exhilarating mechanic. Sonic is an athlete, and these rings have always been symbolic of the Olympics, where rapid gameplay would make you feel like you were chasing a gold medal instead of a villain. In addition to Eggman being in the crosshairs, Sonic also had to obtain the Chaos Emeralds before he did. These Emeralds held ultimate power, such as warping space and time and using thoughts as fuel, with the ability to create nuclear weapons—everything that a megalomaniac like Eggman desired.
Before Sonic’s canon was established, the character had roots that took the game’s premise in other directions. There is a myth circling within the community that tells of a “Sonic bible” located within Sega’s chambers containing the original concepts of his design and story. These entries include a family of hedgehogs that join a track team, a pilot nicknamed “Hedgehog” who wore an animal logo on his uniform, and how Doctor Eggman was created through an accident with a rotten egg. These speculations have remained non-canon; however, they are very handy to have in your trivia bank.
Additionally, the style of Sonic’s red boots were inspired by Michael Jackson’s kicks from the music video for “Bad,” coloured red and white so children would subliminally think of Santa Claus, and his personality was based on Bill Clinton’s “can do” attitude—three influential role models who Sega thought were important enough to include in its creation. Two of these figures may have been questionable influences in the minds of today’s society, but at least Santa Claus remains pure.
Sonic had a strong start and an equally resilient sequel the following year, introducing Sonic’s sidekick Miles “Tails” Prower and paving the way for Sonic 3 in 1994. Sega originally planned the third release to be isometric but, ultimately, the team decided to stick to the formula that worked. In his third outing, Sonic was introduced to his rival Knuckles, guardian of the Master Emerald—a relic created by the Gods of great power from the forgotten past—that is able to control and nullify the power of all the Chaos Emeralds. Eggman instinctively eyed the Master Emerald and coerced Knuckles into thinking that Sonic wanted to steal it—what a jerk.
The hard-boiled villain is still a popular foe to annoy retro gamers, and who recently got a live-action role portrayed by Jim Carrey in the 2020 film based on the games. His adversary, the lightning fast devil, has always been and always will be a strong representation of the 90s, as well as supplying a coming-of-age period for young gamers.
Sega’s marketing strategy, acting as the cool, big brother of the gaming industry, was a crucial part of video games history, and the grinning, spike-haried character’s legacy won’t be chased off the gaming scene any time soon.