So let’s start from the beginning.
The year was 1990. Nintendo was enjoying a protracted period of dominance in the video game market thanks to a combination of high quality games and a highly recognisable mascot in the form of Super Mario. With the release of Super Mario Bros. 3, the company had become seemingly unstoppable. But that didn’t stop Sega from wanting to try.
Sega needed a new mascot. The company’s earlier creation Alex Kidd just wasn’t cutting it any more, since, as a human character, he was perceived as, at best, too similar to Super Mario; at worst, something of a pale imitation. Sega’s CEO at the time, Hayao Nakayama, wanted a character as iconic as Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Oh, what to do?
Basic concepts for a game starring the then-undecided new mascot were already being floated around, and the team had decided that there should be an emphasis on speed. This would immediately make the new game stand out against the relatively sedate but precise platforming of the Super Mario series, and also provided some inspiration for what form the new character might take.
Initial concepts included a rabbit able to use its ears to grab objects, but actually implementing this in gameplay terms proved to be too challenging for the Mega Drive hardware. Meanwhile, team lead Yuji Naka had put together a tech demo in which his placeholder sprite for the player character was a featureless ball, so the team as a whole decided to focus on creatures that could roll into a ball — and subsequently creatures that could roll into a ball that also had spikes for added aggression.
Eventually, two possibilities remained: an armadillo (who would later actually make an appearance in the series as the occasionally seen Mighty the Armadillo) and a hedgehog initially called Mr Needlemouse — a character that artist Naoto Ohshima later admitted was born from an attempt to combine Felix the Cat’s head with Mickey Mouse’s body.
Since Mario had enjoyed worldwide popularity, Sega also wanted Sonic to have similarly universal appeal — particularly to players in the United States. Various elements of Sonic’s overall character design were specifically included to appeal to Westerners — most notably the buckles on his shoes, intended to bring to mind images of the clothing Michael Jackson sported on the cover of his phenomenally successful album Bad from 1987, and the red and white colour scheme used on those same shoes, an attempt to evoke images of Santa Claus in the viewer’s mind. If that latter aspect sounds like something of a strange choice, it’s because Ohshima regarded Santa as “the most famous character in the world” — someone who appealed to his native Japanese audience and overseas players alike, and exactly the sort of thing the team was looking for.
Seeking further approval to ensure the project’s success, Ohshima took some time during a holiday in New York to visit Central Park and ask a selection of locals and visitors what they thought of several different character sketches. His Sonic design ended up being the favourite, and the name Sonic was chosen specifically to emphasise the speed aspect the team was keen to emphasise with the game.
A hero was born.
Naka’s original tech demo for what would become Sonic the Hedgehog was based around an interesting core mechanic: the ability for a sprite to move smoothly on a curved surface. The initial designs incorporated a character rolling in a ball through a tube, and this was subsequently fleshed out into what we now know as Sonic the Hedgehog’s distinctive take on platformer gameplay.
One of the things designer Hirokazu Yasuhara wanted to achieve with the game was a blend of accessibility with challenging setpieces for more experienced gamers. Naka decided that a good means of retaining accessibility would be to minimise the number of different controls players would have to use, and thus the team began its efforts to make the game fully controllable using nothing more than a directional pad and a single button, with Sonic’s jumping and attacking combined into a single movement through his iconic spin-jumping. This also helped with Naka’s other vision for the series: that it should be more action-oriented than Mario, with an emphasis on clearing levels quickly and accurately.
A distinctive feature of Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay when compared to the Super Mario series stems from Naka’s original tech demo: there’s a very strong emphasis on physics. Sonic takes a lot longer to get up to speed than Mario does, and consequently to some players feels a little sluggish — particularly on the notoriously atrocious 50Hz PAL conversions of the Mega Drive games. This means, among other things, that Sonic is unable to run up steep hills from a standing start, and instead needs to get something of a run-up; conversely, however, this also means that if he is going fast enough, he is able to run or roll straight up vertical walls while he still has enough speed to keep him moving forwards.
This heavy emphasis on physics means that Sonic the Hedgehog was able to draw inspiration from a number of sources other than the conventions of contemporary platform games. Specifically, the early games in the series in particular always had a fascination with the mechanics and aesthetics of pinball, making heavy use of bumpers, springboards, flippers and other motion-related gimmicks to help — and sometimes hinder — the player around the levels. These gimmicks often play a key role in allowing the player to access and explore the numerous alternative routes to the finish line each stage offers, a tradition the series maintains to this day.
Gambling and casinos also clearly had a strong influence on numerous design aspects of Sonic the Hedgehog. The series’ core “Rings” mechanic, whereby Sonic collects rings as a means of protecting himself but drops them all after a single hit can be seen as a “gamble” for example. Holding on to fifty rings until the end of a stage allows Sonic to access a Special Stage, and acquiring a hundred nets him an extra life… but achieving these two things becomes increasingly challenging as you progress through the game. And the infuriating rotating Special Stages themselves can sometimes feel more like luck than skill if you’re out of practice.
An important piece of context to remember at this point in time was that Sega as a company was still very much in the arcade game market, with many early Mega Drive titles taking the form of distinctly arcade-style experiences, intended to be played through in a single session. Sonic the Hedgehog actually ended up being no exception to this, which made it contrast further from Nintendo’s Super Mario series; by this point, Super Mario games had become more hefty, lengthy affairs with save systems, intended to be tackled over a longer period.
What this meant for Sonic the Hedgehog’s overall structure was that it was, in relative terms, shorter and more linear than Super Mario Bros. 3 and its 16-bit follow-up from 1990, Super Mario World, but you were by no means guaranteed the ability to beat it with enough persistence. Indeed, unlike the Super Mario games from 3 onwards, Sonic the Hedgehog features a hard Game Over that forces you right back to the beginning of the game if you fail, and continue credits can only be acquired through skillful play in the Special Stages — easier said than done.
All this had the side-effect of meaning that Sonic’s distinctly “Sega” arcade hangovers like score and lives systems — which were still present in Super Mario World despite being fundamentally pointless in that game — remained relevant to the experience as a whole, both as a means of adding tension to the game and helping the player to measure their progression and skill.
When combined with the requirement to win all the Chaos Emeralds from the Special Stages in order to view the “best” ending (still rather unsatisfying, it has to be said, though early Sonic games are more about the journey than the destination), and the numerous alternative routes through each level, it becomes clear that Sonic the Hedgehog is a highly replayable game you can blaze through in a single enjoyable sitting rather than having to make a commitment to. Just like an arcade game.
With the positive reception Sonic the Hedgehog received worldwide, a sequel for Sega’s flagship platform was inevitable* and development began in November of 1991 after a bit of corporate drama involving Naka. Unhappy with Sega’s corporate policies — particularly those that, like many other gaming companies in the ’80s and early ’90s, prevented developers from having individual credits in games — Naka left Sega, but was subsequently coaxed back by Mark Cerny (today most famous for his work with Sony’s PlayStation brand), who had recently founded the Sega Technical Institute in the United States. Naka agreed and joined STI alongside Yasuhara, and thus Sonic the Hedgehog 2 became a project developed by both Eastern and Western staff working alongside one another.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 didn’t fundamentally alter the formula of the original game too much, though it did incorporate considerably larger, more graphically impressive levels as well as making things noticeably faster — even for the sluggish PAL version, which now ran somewhat closer to its NTSC counterpart. The game also introduced a “spin-dash” move, allowing Sonic to quickly accelerate to full velocity from a standing start, new 3D-style Special Stages created from very low resolution video of polygonal half-pipe courses rather than being rendered in real time, and the ability to turn into the powerful Super Sonic after collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds. The Special Stages were a big improvement over the first game’s frustrating rotating challenges, as the new half-pipe affairs were much easier to learn and felt like they relied less on “luck” than in their predecessor. Unless you’d brought AI-controlled Tails along with you, of course.
Tails came about as the result of an internal competition at Sega to design a sidekick for Sonic, and was the winning submission by Sonic Team artist Yasushi Yamaguchi. Inspired by the kitsune, a creature from Japanese folklore capable of growing multiple tails, Tails sparked some disagreement between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. The former was dead set on the cringeworthy pun “Miles Prower” for the fox’s real name, while the latter found it so objectionable that they went so far as to come up with an extensive backstory for the character to justify his new name. Ultimately Yamaguchi agreed to a compromise; while the character is typically referred to simply as Tails these days, his full official name is still credited as “Miles ‘Tails’ Prower”.
Tails was implemented in a few ways throughout Sonic the Hedgehog 2 besides his inclusion in the plot as Sonic’s technically minded sidekick. Firstly, the player was able to choose whether they played through the game’s main adventure as Sonic, Tails or both. There were no mechanical differences between the two characters; they just looked different, though if both were selected, a second player could control Tails rather than the limited (and notoriously stupid) AI. The camera still focused exclusively on Sonic however, meaning Tails could very easily get left behind even when being controlled by a second player, and thus this aspect of the game was more of a fun little feature than anything intended to be taken too seriously. In fact, as previously noted, AI-controlled Tails was an outright liability in the game’s Special Stages, since he would often run into obstacles and drop rings, frequently leaving the player short of the targets required to pass each checkpoint through little to no fault of their own.
Tails played a more significant role in the game’s split-screen competitive two-player mode, where Sonic and his friend could compete against one another to beat several of the zones from the game as quickly and with as many rings as possible. This two-player mode was actually originally intended for inclusion in the first Sonic the Hedgehog, though Naka’s programming experience at the time wasn’t up to the task, so it was saved for the sequel. While by no means the focal point of the well-received sequel, the competitive mode was praised for its inclusion, added further to the game’s “arcade” feel and was deemed successful enough to warrant another appearance in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. It was also something of a thumbed nose at Nintendo’s flagship series, which had not incorporated simultaneous two-player gameplay of any form since the original Mario Bros. in 1983.
Before we get to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, however, it’s important to stop off and take a look at the Mega CD installment Sonic CD, a game that many fans of Sonic’s 2D adventures consider to be a particular high point of the series.
Originally intended to be an enhanced port of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 featuring an orchestrated soundtrack, sprite scaling effects using the additional capabilities of the Mega CD hardware and animated cutscenes, a combination of disappointing Sonic 2 sales in Japan as well as the team having their own distinct vision for what the game “should” be led it to being developed into its own distinct thing.
The game began development while Naka was moving to join STI in the United States, and was directed by Sonic’s original designer Naoto Ohshima with the remaining members of Sonic Team in Japan. It was intended as a showcase title for the Mega CD to show off the add-on’s enhanced capabilities such as digital Red Book audio, hardware scaling and rotation similar to the Super NES’ “Mode 7” feature and, of course, the considerably increased storage capacity that CDs offered over cartridges.
While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 opted to increase the overall speed of the game through tight level design, Ohshima and his team opted to focus on the platforming and exploration aspects of the game, giving the game a noticeably different feel to its contemporary as well as lacking features from Sonic 2 such as the spin-dash and the presence of Tails. Indeed, the game’s most distinctive feature — its “time travel” aspect — gives players a very different focus than simply attempting to get to the goal as quickly as possible. Instead, attaining the game’s best ending is dependent on finding a post that can send Sonic back in time, then finding a suitable area of clear ground for him to accelerate to full speed and remain there for several seconds, and finally, once successfully in the past, to track down and locate special items required to turn the default “bad future” into a “good future”.
Or, as in other Sonic games, you can just clear all the Special Stages, of course, which in this case took the form of graphically impressive free-roaming 3D-ish affairs making use of the Mega CD’s hardware scaling and rotation. In these sequences, Sonic is tasked with knocking down a series of UFOs against the clock, with various on-track gimmicks to bounce him around or accelerate him in various directions, and stepping in any water resulting in the timer being drained incredibly rapidly. These are among some of the most enjoyable Special Stages in Sonic’s 2D era, requiring a pleasing blend of level memorisation and simple skill to pass successfully.
Sonic CD is noteworthy in terms of overall series canon for introducing Amy Rose (albeit in a somewhat different form to how she is typically depicted in more modern installments) and Metal Sonic, both of whom went on to make numerous other appearances, particularly once the franchise placed a stronger focus on narrative and characterisation in its 3D era.
It’s also noteworthy for being an interesting example of localisation at work; while the game completely lacked dialogue and thus didn’t require any actual “translation” as such, Sega of America decided against including the Japanese version’s electronic soundtrack (inspired by composer Naofumi Hataya’s enjoyment of artists like C+C Music Factory and The KLF) and instead commissioned a new score on the grounds that they felt it needed more “rich and complex” music.
Your mileage may vary on which version you prefer (or what you grew up with) but, as a side note, Christian Whitehead’s absolutely fantastic remaster of the game from 2011 (available for Xbox 360, PS3, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Windows PC and Apple TV) offers the option for both as well as re-adding mechanics from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 such as the spin-dash and the unlockable ability to play as Tails.
And so we come to the last two games of the 16-bit era: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Both of these began development shortly after Sonic 2’s release in 1992, and were originally intended to be a single game. A combination of time constraints and the cost of producing high-capacity cartridges forced the team to split the game in half, however, with Sonic 3 releasing in early 1994 and Sonic & Knuckles following later in the year. This “split” is also the primary reason Sonic & Knuckles featured its unusual “lock-on” system, allowing another cartridge to be plugged into the top of it; plugging Sonic 3 into Sonic & Knuckles created what was originally intended to be the complete Sonic 3, though both can be played independently.
Both Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are significantly more challenging than the previous games in the series. To that end, Sonic 3 abandoned the previous titles’ arcade game-esque structure and incorporated a save system — though, oddly, Sonic & Knuckles played by itself did not, only allowing the player to save when combining it with Sonic 3. There are still consequences for failure even if you have access to the save system, mind; running out of lives and continues sends you back to the start of the zone you are on rather than the beginning of the game. Still a punishment, just not quite as harsh.
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles follow the same basic formula as their predecessors, but with a much stronger feeling of context, progression and narrative thanks to occasional hands-off, wordless cutscenes. Each new zone also often begins with some sense of Sonic “emerging” from his previous challenge; when entering the final zone in Sonic 3, for example, Sonic is depicted as bursting out of the snow and ice he had to negotiate in the previous Ice Cap Zone.
Both games also incorporate an even wider variety of movement-based gimmicks than previous installments. Sonic can now swing from bars and ropes, shimmy across ceiling-mounted handholds, manipulate large pieces of machinery and even get stuck in vines, requiring a quick spin-dash to break free. Despite this wider variety of possible moves, both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles maintain the “one-button” accessibility of their predecessors, though; if you can play Sonic the Hedgehog, you can play Sonic & Knuckles, though, of course, with the latter’s significantly increased difficulty factor, how far you can get may vary somewhat!
Sonic 3 is also noteworthy for a rather odd reason: a notorious trap in the Carnival Night Zone referred to by some as the “Barrel of Doom”. Throughout the stage, you often encounter rotating red and white barrels, some of which move on predefined paths and others of which bounce up and down when Sonic steps on them using the game’s physics model. At one stage in the zone’s extremely long second act (one of the few places in any of the 2D games where the ten-minute time limit for each stage actually becomes an issue), you are locked in a room with one of the latter types of these barrels with seemingly no way out; jumping on the barrel causes it to drop down, and timing further jumps suggests you might be able to cause it to either drop down far enough to let you into a passageway, or spring you up high enough to reach a platform. But it’s seemingly impossible to pull this off accurately.
Because that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to start the barrel bouncing by jumping on it, then extend the range of said bounce by pushing up and down on the directional pad rhythmically until you can find a safe route to escape. Trouble is, at no point anywhere in the game or manual are you informed that this is something you are able to do — and even worse, the manual actually makes excuses for the few bugs that allow Sonic to get into unwinnable situations by suggesting they are “diabolical traps” from which there is no escape save for waiting out the aforementioned time limit, leading some to believe that this was one such instance.
The trap became so notorious that Naka actually publicly apologised for it in 2011, and unverified urban legend has it that Sega had an automated message on its phone lines at the time telling frustrated players how to pass the “red and white swirly things”.
Doom-laden barrels aside, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were also noteworthy for incorporating characters with varied abilities for the first time in the series. Sonic is able to jump slightly higher and run faster, while Knuckles is able to glide, break things and climb walls, making for quite a different experience. Sonic 3 also allows Tails to both fly and swim, giving him distinctive abilities to Sonic for the first time. The implementation of both Knuckles and Tails here formed the basis of how these characters were handled in many of the subsequent 3D games, particularly the two Sonic Adventure games and Sonic Heroes.
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles also introduced a distinction between “Bonus Stages” and “Special Stages”. Bonus Stages could be accessed from the checkpoint lampposts similarly to Sonic 2’s Special Stages, but only allowed the ability to earn powerups, extra lives and continues. Special Stages, meanwhile, were accessed via out of the way secret areas, and continued to be the means through which both the ability to become Super Sonic and the game’s “true ending” would be unlocked. This time around, they required the player to collect all the blue spheres from a spherical playfield without touching any red spheres. Rather than the freedom of movement of Sonic CD’s scaling and rotating Special Stages, the quasi-3D effect here only allowed the player to turn through 90 degrees on the corner of a floor tile, requiring careful timing, especially as the speed gradually increased.
As you can see, the classic, 2D, 16-bit era of Sonic games mostly represented a gradual process of evolution rather than radical reinvention with each new installment — and some may disagree as to whether changes made later in this part of the series were for the better or not. But they’re definitely all distinctive, individual games in their own right — and they all remain well worth playing today, so long as you have easy access to the NTSC versions rather than the terrible PAL ports. Thankfully, the numerous rereleases from the years after the PS2 era are all based on the former versions and, in some cases, even provide superior experiences to the Mega Drive originals. (If you see Christian Whitehead’s name on a Sonic port… play it!)
There’s plenty more to explore with this series, however, even before we make the much-maligned jump into 3D. There’s all the 8-bit games and the spin-off games to explore for starters… but we’ll save those for another day!
* Yes, I know about the Game Gear and Master System versions. We’re nowhere near done yet!
More about Sonic the Hedgehog
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