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History of the Sonic The Hedgehog - Speeding Genesis To The Top

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When the Sega Genesis launched in 1989 it was off to a rough start. While the Genesis may have been the first true 16-bit console, its direct competitor, the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, was beating it in the console wars thanks to Nintendo's mega-hit Super Mario Bros. 3.

Once the news came that Nintendo would be coming out with their own 16-bt system, it was time for Sega to take drastic measures, leading to the birth of one of the most popular video game characters of all time...

The Game:

  • Title: Sonic The Hedgehog
  • Platform: Sega Genesis
  • Publisher: SEGA
  • Developer: Sonic Team
  • Release Date: June 1991

A Sad Pre-Sonic Sega:

By 1990 things were less than stellar for the arcade giant Sega's second foray into the home video game market. Sure the Sega Genesis was the number one console in Brazil, but in Japan it took a backseat to the Turbografx-16, and in North America the industry was still dominated by the NES. While the launch of the Genesis had started the console wars, it was not making nearly enough strides to dominate the industry.

Then Nintendo announced plans for their own 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo, with a North American release date of August 23, 1991. Even though Sega had a head start in this 4th generation of video games, they needed to make some drastic changes if they were to compete with the Nintendo powerhouse.

Sega Changes Their Game Plan:

The first step Sega took was to replace the CEO of their North American division with the former head of Mattel, Tom Kalinske. Until then Sega's marketing focus had been on celebrity themed games as Nintendo had much of the major arcade ports tied up in exclusive deals. Kalinske sought to change this direction by focusing on brand awareness, and to do this they not only needed a hit video game, but a flagship character that was so popular it would constantly be associated with the Sega name.

Sega turned to their internal 5-person development team Sega AM8 to create a major hit video game that would give Mario a run for his money.

Easy task...no?

A Hedgehog...Really?:

AM8 started pitching all sorts of ideas from funny animals to goofy old men. Finally a concept stuck. A sketch of a hedgehog by team member Naoto Ōshima, who had previously designed Phantasy Star and Phantasy Star 2, stood out from the crowed. Originally referred to as Mr. Needlemouse.

The gameplay itself was designed to be a side-scrolling platformer with an innovative twist - speed. While a hedgehog wasn't the fastest animal on earth, AM8's hedgehog would be the fastest video game character ever, with the gameplay designed to keep him moving.

To make the name better fit the character and the concept of speed, he was renamed "Sonic" - an adjective to describe reaching the speed of sound. Sonic the Hedgehog was born.

Knowing they would have a hit on their hands, Sonic became infamous throughout the Sega offices long before the game was ever released, with the AM8 development team becoming affectionately known as Sonic Team, a moniker they still go by today.

In addition to Naoto Ōshima, Sonic Team consisted of programmer Yuji Naka, game director Hirokazu Yasuhara, designers Jinya Itoh and Rieko Kodama.

What Makes Sonic So Special:

While the industry had seen plenty of side-scrolling platformers, most modeling themselves after the core stricture of Super Mario Bros., with paced jumping, ladder climbing, chasm leaping and enemy head bopping, but Sonic expanded the concept, taking the genre in a whole new direction.

The levels in Sonic were designed with speed in mind. They weren't so easy that players could run though non-stop from beginning to end, but with a balance of both fast and paced movement to keep things intense and challenging.

As Sonic could pick up fast speeds, several of the platforms were curved to allow him to run up walls, speed though loop-d-loops, and in some cases repel off a spring and go flying up or back in the direction he came from.

While many of the levels moved the player along in a single path, there were several designed for Sonic to complete in any number of combinations. From staying at ground level, or speeding though vertically raised platforms into the sky, to underground cavers. With so many variations, no two replays of these levels ever felt the same.

The Day Sonic Saved Sega:

Sonic released on June 23rd, 1991 and was an instant hit. The game was so popular that it became the Genesis console's first "killer app", with gamers buying the system just for the chance to play Sonic. Tom Kalinske took the opportunity to switch out the current in-pack game that came with the Genesis, Altered Beast, and replaced it with Sonic the Hedgehog, driving sales of the system even further.

Not only was it Sonic's innovative gameplay that made him popular, but his edgy, yet friendly personality was a refreshing change for many young gamers, making him a hero they could better relate to.

Genesis sales shot to the top as fast as Sonic's feet could carry them, and over the subsequent years they overtook 60% of the video game market.

The Sonic Legacy:

Sonic The Hedgehog remained the best selling Sega Genesis game thought the life of the console. To feed the public demands, Sega also released an 8-bit version for the Sega Master System and quickly put Sonic Team into production on a sequel.

The monumental success of Sonic spun out into a major franchise that not only outlived the Sega Genesis, but all Sega consoles.

While Sega did eventually lose the console war and existed the console hardware business after their final system, the Sega Dreamcast, they found new life as third party developers, creating games for the same companies they once competed with, Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation. Today with a library of over 75 titles, with games on nearly every gaming platform, plus toys, cartoons, comic-books and a live-action fan film in development by Blue Core Studios. Sonic has even starred along-side his former business rival Mario in a series of Olympics themed video games.

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