Celebrating 30 years of Sonic the Hedgehog

Xbox One

A lightning quick hedgehog is the perfect oxymoron for a video game character, and it is one that has served Sonic the Hedgehog well for a whopping 30 years now. And the blue blur has been through almost as much as a regular 30-year-old during that time: girlfriends, betrayals, facelifts and reinventions, Thanksgiving parades, cloning, cartoons, feature films, brand crossovers, peaks, troughs and everything in between. 

Sonic the Hedgehog

Our story doesn’t start quite at the very beginning on 23rd June 1991; instead we fast forward a few years.

It is Christmas Day 1994. My sister and I are three and five years old respectively, and of an age where waking up pre-5am is a completely acceptable time to see what Santa has brought. My sister’s main present was a toddler’s drum kit, which she regularly reminds me that I broke not long after Christmas. Underneath the TV though, for me, was my first ever games console: the SEGA Mega Drive II. And along with it, The Lion King and Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Now, the problem here is that my sister wanted to play The Lion King, whilst I wanted to play Sonic 2. In hindsight then, breaking her drum kit wasn’t the best idea, as that meant she wanted to play The Lion King more and more. When I did get a moment however, it was the game that helped birth in me a love for not only Sonic himself, but also videogames as a whole.

Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on 23rd June 1991 on the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis in the US, and a month later in PAL and Asia regions. This wasn’t, however, his first videogame appearance. This came five months earlier in the Japanese/Arcade exclusive Rad Mobile, a driving game where Sonic appeared as an ornament hanging off the car’s rear-view mirror.

Everyone knows that he was created as a response to Mario, showing just how effective a mascot for a games company could be, but he went through various iterations before SEGA settled on his hedgehog form. It was a tossup between an armadillo and a hedgehog; both animals that could roll up into a ball and had spikes. Those were the two main criteria, but then the character had to be designed.

Sonic

Take Sonic’s shoes for example, an iconic piece of gaming attire. These were based on two famous faces that need no introduction, Michael Jackson and Santa Claus. The buckle on the shoes was inspired by the album Bad and the colour scheme is red and white; I shouldn’t need to tell you which of the aforementioned duo was responsible for which design choice of the shoes.

Michael Jackson would also allegedly have a hand in composing some of the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, after enjoying his time helping create Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker game. Nothing has ever been confirmed regarding his involvement though, but it is usually the excuse given when Sonic 3 is omitted from SEGA compilations.

The initial trilogy of Sonic games all launched between 1991 and 1994, with Sonic CD and Sonic Spinball sandwiched in between in 1993. Even in these early years Sonic had firmly established himself as the mascot of SEGA, as Sonic CD was designed to be the “killer app” for the SEGA CD addition.

Unlike Sonic CD, Sonic Spinball launched on a traditional cartridge. It married 2D platforming with pinball gameplay into an unlikely, yet enjoyable, game. Despite being released to fill the empty 1993 holiday season gap for Sonic, it still managed to go through a torrid development time; a new theme tune for Sonic Spinball needed to be written within two hours after the team realised they didn’t own the rights to the traditional Sonic the Hedgehog theme tune literally hours before the deadline.

The Mega Drive wasn’t forgotten about though, as a sequel to Sonic 3 also released in 1994: Sonic & Knuckles. What made Sonic & Knuckles stand out was the unusual cartridge design. As well as slotting into the console itself at the bottom like a standard cartridge, it also contained an adapter slot in the top too. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are essentially part one and two of the same adventure; this adapter allowed them to be played as part of the same package.

This adapter also meant that Knuckles could be a playable character in Sonic 2 if that cartridge was inserted. SEGA also knew that gamers would try other cartridges in the adapter slot. A screen would pop-up stating that wasn’t possible, but it did allow access to a minigame based on the iconic Special Stages.

Sonic Minigames

There was one more Sonic release for the Mega Drive II; a game that launched on both this console and the soon to be ill-fated SEGA Saturn – Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island in 1996. Having only ever seen one Saturn out in the wild in all my 30+ years on this earth, it wasn’t until one of the many compilations that I was able to play this Sonic title.

Immediately noticeable was the change of perspective from a standard 2D to an isometric view. I won’t say this was where the franchise started losing its way a bit, but it is one of the lowest selling Sonic games; not least helped by the under-performing Saturn console.

Then, in 1999, came Sonic Adventure, and the modernisation of Sonic the Hedgehog we know today. Not just from a 3D perspective, but also the major overhaul of Sonic himself. Gone was this little chubby hedgehog and replaced by this taller, slimmer and more mature character. Essentially, Sonic had hit puberty, but this redesign would form the basis for one of the strongest Sonic games since the move to 3D.

As good as Sonic Adventure was at the time, it represented a change of momentum for Sonic games. For better or worse, this transition from 2D to 3D would be the standard for Sonic games for many years to come following the release of Adventure.

But this presented a major difference in gameplay. In the 2D games, Sonic only needed to jump on an enemy to defeat it; in 3D this was obviously a bit trickier to do with the extra plane. To make things a bit easier, a lock-on mechanic was introduced for Sonic, that is still used to this day.

The thing is, it wasn’t exactly good in Sonic Adventure, and it was still just as clunky in Sonic Forces, the latest major Sonic title to release. The original Sonic games were all about momentum from speeding through these levels as quick as possible, and for many the muscle memory is still there 30 years later on in classic, 2D levels. This lock-on mechanic has always disrupted that momentum and is one of the main reasons the 3D games have never quite reached the same heights – or speed – for Sonic.

A sequel followed in 2001 to celebrate the blue hedgehog’s tenth anniversary. But Sonic Adventure 2 was the last mascot game to release on a SEGA console. In large parts SEGA and Sonic shared the same downward trajectory in the eyes of the fans for the many years following the demise of the Dreamcast.

Sonic Adventure

Sonic Adventure 2 also did the unthinkable and released on the Nintendo GameCube as an enhanced version a year later in 2002. Considering that Sonic was conceived as a direct competitor to Mario, the concept that Sonic would then release on a Nintendo branded console seemed almost sacrilegious to those that had been there since the beginning. Simply put though, it needed to be done to keep SEGA relevant.

But maybe SEGA also saw this as an opportunity to introduce a new generation of gamers to Sonic on a variety of consoles. Between 2002 and 2004, depending on your geographical location and which console you owned, two major turning points in the story of Sonic were released. First, the Sonic Mega Collection, that successfully ported many of the early games – Sonic 1-3 and Knuckles, Spinball, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, plus many more – to their at-one-point-in-time rival’s consoles. Not only did it introduce new gamers, it kept SEGA’s legacy alive.

Also released was Sonic Heroes, one of the most polarising games to ever feature Sonic himself. On one hand, it reverted back to a more traditional Sonic game – albeit still in 3D – with some truly brilliant levels that many would make any ‘Top X Sonic levels of all-time lists’. But on the other hand, it was a large cast of additional characters that no one has ever given a toss about.

I’m not just talking about Tails and Knuckles, well-established Sonic characters. I’m referring to the likes of Big the Cat, Vector the Crocodile and Cream the Rabbit. That’s the character’s name, not a directive.

Many of these are returning characters from various forms of Sonic lore ie. games, comics or cartoons. But in Sonic Heroes they are put front and centre as playable characters. Heroes had you control teams of three – for example Sonic, Tails and Knuckles were known as Team Sonic – and each member had a unique type: speed, flight or power. Levels were traversed by having the correct character type at the front of the party at the right time.

Sonic Xbox

And then the series took a serious downturn. So much so that this self-confessed massive Sonic fan has never even attempted the likes of Shadow the Hedgehog and the 2006 reboot. Tales of unnecessarily mature themes, princesses, werewolves and beastiality undertones ensured I stayed away from the franchise for these awkward teenage years.

Things finally started to look positive again when Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced. SEGA had finally learned what fans were looking for in a Sonic and listened.

What we received was a promising throwback to the 2D era. It was the slimmer, modern Sonic side-scrolling his way through a couple of levels. It wasn’t the longest adventure of Sonic’s life; initially planned as an episodic game, a sequel followed in 2012 but the planned third game never surfaced.

But readers, it still contained the infernal homing attack. And one of the biggest criticisms of Sonic 4? Poor physics and lack of momentum, both issues associated with this homing attack. With the release of Sonic 4 it has been 12 years since the first iteration of the attack, and it was still causing frustrations.

Sandwiched in between Sonic 4 Episode I and II was the blue blur’s 20th anniversary. SEGA, unsure how to appease fans of both old Sonic and new Sonic, came up with a stroke of genius that perhaps showed there was life in the old hedgehog yet. They created a game for both.

Utilising the character’s makeover as a plot point, Sonic Generations fused Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic into the same time-travelling game. The personalities of both versions were given time to flourish in Generations; each level was still split into two Acts but now one was a classically designed level, and the other was a 3D modern setting as they worked together to take down Eggman.

Despite getting so many things right that had been wronged over the years, it was the last major Sonic title to release on Xbox consoles for six years.

Sonic dabbled in other forms of keeping the franchise alive during that time. Several older titles were re-released across all platforms, as well as a few arcade racers that incorporated the wider SEGA pool of characters as well as cameos popping up all over the place. I am fairly confident he will have also appeared on at least half a dozen other Sonic/SEGA compilations. And he was even able to put his ‘bitter’ rivalry with an Italian plumber to one side. To an extent at least.

Sonic Racing

Ever since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 Mario and Sonic have let their actions do the talking by competing at the Olympic Games with their respective roster of characters. They even met up at a couple of Winter Olympics for good measure. Games like these would have been nothing more than a pipe dream when Sonic first materialised but are now major sellers on Nintendo consoles. The latest in the series, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – which released prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the real Olympics out a year – has helped the series sell over 26 million copies worldwide.

Before discussing what SEGA did for Sonic’s 25th anniversary, it is worth looking at the wider fandom of Sonic. Having spawned a successful animated series, a line of comics and the early machinations of a live-action film franchise, the love for Sonic is still very much there, even when the quality in the games perhaps wasn’t.

And it hasn’t just been in other mediums the love has been recreated. Unbeknownst to SEGA at the time, but a man named Christian Whitehead was creating fangames based on various Sonic games, and even ported Sonic CD to an iPhone. Now, depending on which videogame developer you try and emulate, this will usually invoke a different response from either praising the work and promoting this level of fandom, or issuing a cease and desist. SEGA, impressed by the work, contracted Christian to port over several other Sonic titles such as Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 to mobile devices too.

And the love didn’t stop there. Whitehead had secretly been working on his own version of classic Sonic in what was to become Sonic Mania. Once he presented to members of Sonic Team and SEGA, Whitehead was commissioned to create a brand-new Sonic game for the 25th anniversary.

It was announced alongside Sonic Forces and they released within a few months of each other back in 2017. Sonic Mania was true to the origins of Sonic, being a 2D side-scrolling platform that upped the difficulty severely. Players didn’t mind too much though as it was one of the best Sonic games ever and praised as a return to the series roots. Unfortunately though, a sequel is very unlikely to materialise as Christian Whitehead and the rest of the team have since moved on.

Sonic Forces on the other hand was very much in keeping with modern Sonic games. It took inspiration from Sonic Generations in that once again Classic and Modern Sonic were both playable characters, and each had their own respective gameplay elements. Shadow the Hedgehog was also playable, as was a fourth character that the player could create themselves. There was a much darker plot than previous Sonic games once again, but it was still plagued by issues that have prevented Sonic being the force it once was for the best 20 or so years.

Sonic Forces

Forces also suffered by being released after Sonic Mania, which had once again piqued everyone’s attention in the brand.

As for platforming games, Sonic has been quiet over the past few years. In 2019 came Team Sonic Racing, another kart racer but this time focussed purely on Sonic characters. It employed a similar team dynamic that Sonic Heroes did – which did once again mean several pointless characters – but it was a good kart racer in its own right – so much so that it is right up there with the very best kart racers of all-time.

New games are on the horizon though; a remaster of Sonic Colours which was previously only available on the Nintendo DS and Wii, an as yet unofficially titled new Sonic game – though reports are suggesting Sonic Rangers – and of course, a new compilation. This time around the collection will be called Sonic Origins and will focus on some of the earliest titles in the franchise. Confirmed titles include Sonic the Hedgehog 1-3 & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. I’m also quietly hoping for Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.

It goes without saying though that whatever else is included in this latest compilation, the first title I will play will be Sonic the Hedgehog 2 regardless. Every time I play it in the years that have passed I am taken back to those childhood memories: the muscle memory that kicks in every time I start Emerald Hill Zone, reaching Hill Top Zone for the very first time after struggling for months with the Casino Night boss, the oil slides and octopuses in Oil Ocean, the local multiplayer mode that was anything but bolted on, and so much more. The one memory that sticks out more than most is discovering that Metropolis Zone had three acts; I still feel cheated to this day when I first discovered this. Running low on lives after being decimated by the wall-crawling starfish, I hobbled along through Act 2, preserving as many rings and lives for the inevitable boss. Only it wasn’t where I expected it to be. I may have only been a child at the time, but I am pretty sure this was the moment I uttered my first swear word, such was the anger I felt when I first learned about Act 3.

Few games can really stand the test of time, but it is these initial Sonic titles that have helped cement the hedgehog’s legacy in the annals of gaming for 30 years, and for hopefully a lot longer. His path to 30 years old may not be as squeaky clean as other franchises, but perhaps this chequered history works in SEGA’s favour. When Sonic games aren’t as well-received for a couple of years, chuck out another compilation and remind fans that Sonic games once were very good.

That’s me being maybe a tad too cynical, but I feel an affiliation with Sonic as a gaming mascot more than the likes of Super Mario, Crash Bandicoot or even Master Chief. The SEGA Mega Drive II was my first real console, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 still holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve enjoyed many Sonic titles that have been released since, whilst disliking almost an equal amount. But – and I speak for many others here as well – it is a series and a franchise I will never turn my back on. I was there in the cinema to watch the live-action film, I’ve read a fair amount of the comics, and I own several of the different compilations. I’m a Sonic fan; not quite since 1991, but definitely since Christmas Day 1994.

So, cheers to Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Eggman/Robotnik and the rest of the crew for providing so many memories over the past 30 years. Whatever you have in store for us next, I and many others will be excited and intrigued to see what it is. 

Feel free to leave us a comment with your memories of the blue hedgehog.

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