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.
Rosen and Nakayama’s Gamble
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. 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.
The Sad Story of 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.
Creation of Sonic
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.
Pivoting to the Hedgehog
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. 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.
Game Design of Sonic 1
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.
Inspiration for Green Hill Zone
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.
Finishing the Game
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.
The Marketing of Sonic 1
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 of the first Sonic game
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.
That does it for today’s episode of Origin of the Series. I hope you enjoy the new format, which will feature deeper dives on individual games. The next episode of Origin of the Series will be Part Two of Sonic in the 16-Bit Era. If you enjoyed this video, consider leaving a like and a comment down below. Additionally, if you spot any inaccuracies in the video, please leave a comment on the pinned fact check comment. My sources for this video can be found down below. Thanks for watching everyone! Please remember to subscribe and I will see you in the next video.