Running Spikes: The Origins of Sonic the Hedgehog

(Written as of 2014)

During the latter years of the third generation of gaming, when Sega’s Master System console was competing against Nintendo’s NES, Sega were at that time looking to create a flagship series in order to compete with Nintendo’s Super Mario series, which was quickly becoming a global phenomenon. They also wanted to create their own mascot to replace their then-unofficial mascot, Alex Kidd. Sega’s AM8 Research and Development Department came up with numerous character designs; mostly in the form of anthropomorphic animals, such as a dog, a rabbit and an armadillo, which would later inspire the creation of the character Mighty the Armadillo. They also considered a Theodore Roosevelt look-alike, which would also become the inspiration behind the inception of Sonic’s primary antagonist, Dr Eggman.

Eventually, Sega employee, Naoto Oshima, created a spiky teal hedgehog, which initially was codenamed Mr. Needlemouse; but later renamed Sonic, and subsequently chosen as Sega’s mascot. Sonic was coloured blue to match the colour of Sega’s logo, and the design of his shoes was inspired by a combination of both Santa Clause and a design inspired by a pair of boots worn by prominent pop artist at the time, Michael Jackson; who interestingly, would go on to be the initial composer for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. And finally, Sonic’s personality was also inspired by Bill Clinton’s “get it done” attitude. Ironically, Sonic’s first video game appearance was not as a playable character. He first appeared in an arcade racing game called Rad Mobile, as the air freshener of one of the cars.

However, the origins of the character can be traced even further back than that. Another long-running Sega employee, Yuji Naka, had created a tech demo, containing a gaming algorithm, which allowed an in-game character to move smoothly on curves around a video game level. Naka’s tech demo would then evolve into a game requiring the character to move fast and roll into a ball in order to traverse long winding tubes. It was then that both Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima decided to put both their creations together, and thus the concept of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game was born, with Hirokazu Yasuhara brought on board to head level design.

Sonic was also given the inability to swim based on Yuji Naka’s assumption that not all hedgehogs could do this; although Sonic would be able to traverse through water in later games in the series. The development of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game consisted of a mere fifteen people, who renamed themselves as Sonic Team, and Masato Nakamura of the band Dreams Come True was brought on board to compose the game’s soundtrack. As thanks, Sega then subsequently sponsored the band’s Wonder 3 tour, and even painted Sonic the Hedgehog on their tour bus. Dreams Come True also advertised the game by giving out pamphlets, and showed footage of the game at their live shows.

Sonic’s original conceptual design included the character having fangs, as well as his inclusion in a band featuring his human girlfriend named Madonna. Unhappy with this, Madeleine Schroeder, self-proclaimed as “Sonic’s mother”, led a team from Sega of America in a bid to remove these elements, and thus soften the character up, making him more marketable to kids upon the game’s American release. At the time, it sparked a heated debate between both Sega of America and Sonic Team, but Yuji Naka would later go on to admit that these changes were for the best.

But ever since, Sonic the Hedgehog has gone to appear in 33 major titles, as well as a library of spin-off games, and still remains Sega’s mascot character to this day. Although many consider the series to have been long phased out and be much less artistically credible than many other video game series’ of comparable longevity, the franchise has garnished a cult following over the last 30 years.

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