Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
When it comes to video game companies, they would always have a face or mascot to visually represent the company. Whenever someone thinks of Namco, Pac-Man comes to mind. Whenever someone thinks of Nintendo, Mario is always the first that pops in their heads. Whenever Capcom is mentioned, people would go either with Mega Man, Street Fighter, or Resident Evil. However, one video game company, in particular, has one video game character that distinguished itself as one of the most influential for high-speed gameplay in the industry. His name is Sonic the Hedgehog.
For this retrospective, I am going to discuss the history of one of my favorite video game franchises, Sonic the Hedgehog. For over 30 years, this blue hedgehog has impacted the world with his fast-paced gameplay, unique mechanics, colorful & musical presentation, and a large cast of characters. His history has been characterized as a rollercoaster. Sonic revolutionized the platforming genre from Sega's early years to declining quality in recent years among certain titles. Regardless of quality, Sonic has always managed to reach top speed into becoming one of the best-selling video game franchises, along with spawning other media and a growing devoted fanbase. It is a fascinating tale full of ups and downs, and it is a subject worth talking about. Plus, it may be fun to learn something from your favorite Sonic game.
Before I begin, I have to clarify something important. I will not be covering all the Sonic games, excluding the Japanese-exclusive arcade games and app games, though they will be briefly mentioned to an extent. The same applies to other media, such as animated television shows and anime, with a couple of exceptions. Many of the games will be the mainline 2D and 3D titles, along with some spin-off games in-between. With that said, let's dash into Sonic's history.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. Please do not harass anyone associated with Sega mentioned in this article, and please respect their privacy, especially if anything mentioned here is something they do not wish to talk about.
The Birth of Sega and Sonic
Our tale begins with an evolving company called Sega. In 1940, the company originated as a slot-machine game company known as "Standard Games," where they were initially made to entertain military bases during WWII. But, after the war and U.S. outlawing slot machines, the company moved to Japan as "Service Games" in 1952. Around that same decade, another company known as "Rosen Enterprises Ltd" imported photo booths and coin-operated machines to Japan. In 1960, Service Games was dissolved due to criminal business practices and repurposed as "Nihon Goraku Bussan.” A few years later, the company acquired Rosen Enterprises and became "Sega Enterprises, Ltd." The name "Sega" is an abbreviation of its former name "Service Games." Over time, Sega transitioned to arcade video games in the late-70s/early 80s where they created Head-On and published Frogger worldwide, which both became commercially successful for the company.
However, when video game consoles hit the markets, Sega was having rough competition. Their consoles SG-1000 and the Master System couldn't live up to the success against the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) while the company went through a management buyout. In 1988, Sega developed the 16-bit Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive) system yet Nintendo still dominated sales with their own Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The company decided that a mascot would be needed to compete against Nintendo's Mario franchise. After a failed attempt to making a character named Alex Kidd as their mascot, Sega's in-house development team began brainstorming various characters, an engine, and gameplay mechanics. They thought up of animal characters that would emphasize speed and experimented designs narrowing from a rabbit to an armadillo to finally a hedgehog. The latter character design was proposed by artist Naoto Ohshima. Originally, his name was "Mr. Needlemouse (Mr. Hedgehog)", but after suggesting a name that will recall the speed of sound, his name was changed to: Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
The story is about a super-fast hedgehog named Sonic who must stop an evil scientist named Dr. Robotnik from turning animals into robots called Badniks while searching for mystical gems called Chaos Emeralds.
Going back to Sonic's character design, Ohshima based him on classic cartoon characters, such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. His original color scheme was teal, but later changed to dark blue in order to visually stand out from the backgrounds and match Sega's logo color. In addition, Sonic's shoes were made as a combination between the style of Michael Jackson and the red/white colors of Santa Claus.
During a vacation in New York, Ohshima shared his sketches with locals at Central Park where they enjoyed his sketch of Sonic the most, along with a picture of an egg-shaped mustached man wearing pajamas. It was one of the rejected candidates as the company's mascot before Sonic took the cake. However, when the game's development proceeded, the character was retooled as the main antagonist. Many believe this character was inspired by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, though Naoto stated the resemblance was inadvertent and was said to be modeled after Humpty Dumpty and Mario. As the villain, the character was designed to represent the "machinery" and "development" to play on the conflict between nature and industrialization, which is the theme of the story. While his name stayed as Dr. Eggman in Japan, Sega's American division changed it to "Dr. Ivo Robotnik" during localization. Thankfully, in the English version of Sonic Adventure, it was established that he was called "Eggman" as his nickname while "Robotnik" is his real name.
Other characters that would flesh out Sonic were conceived but got scrapped during the concept stage. For instance, Sonic originally had a human girlfriend named Madonna, but got removed for having the "hero saving damsel-in-distress" scenario clichéd and keeping the story simple. Another proposed idea involved Sonic being a lead singer of a band whose each member he had to rescue from Eggman. But again, the plan was mostly abolished due to time constraints. I say "mostly" because one of the band members was a crocodile named Vector who later became the basis character for the 32X spin-off game Knuckles' Chaotix. On a side note, the rejected armadillo character was also later revamped as Mighty the Armadillo who eventually appeared in the arcade game SegaSonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles' Chaotix.
While Ohshima designed the character, the core of the gameplay concept came from a young programmer named Yuji Naka. Having an impressive portfolio for his contribution to Phantasy Star and the Genesis port of Ghosts n' Goblins, Naka was tasked to create an action game. His idea for a fast-paced game, ironically enough, came from one of his favorite games, Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. on the NES.
In an interview, Naka said:
“I like fast things and I thought that it would be nice to create a game where the more skilled you become, the faster you can complete a stage. Games back then had no backup or saving system, which meant that you had to play right from the beginning every time...As a result, the very first stage would be played time and time again, making the player very skilled at it. So we thought it would be nice if this would enable the player to complete those stages faster and that's the basis of Sonic's speed. We also thought this feature would help differentiate Sonic from Mario."
— Yuji Naka, Programmer and Project Manager of Sonic the Hedgehog
After going through the contending characters and adjusting them into the gameplay mechanics, like rolling into a ball and jumping on enemies, the production officially began in 1990 with a team called "Sonic Team" consisting of two programmers, two sound engineers, and three designers. At first, they had trouble testing Sonic's speed with animation problems, such as flickering and slow framerates. Fortunately, Naka created an algorithm that stabilized the fluidity of the movements. Another challenge that Yuji faced was the level design. The maps were made wider than normal in hopes that players wouldn't get lost, along with adding looping structures to ensure Sonic goes through them instead of "breaking through them.” Naka and his team ensured that players would have the experience feel like a "roller-coaster ride."
For the look of the game, the team was heavily influenced by Western culture and wanted that art style to appeal to American audiences, especially those living on the West Coast. The first level Green Hill Zone, for example, was inspired by California for its rolling hills and blue skies. Though aimed for the West, the company still wanted the game to entertain its Japanese audiences as well. In fact, Green Hill Zone was extensively tested and redesigned for eight months straight, in order to make it correct.
Finding a composer wasn't easy since the company had no connections to the music industry. They originally suggested Japanese musician Yuzo Kayama, but his style of music didn't fit the score they were looking for. Soon after, Masato Nakamura, bassist and songwriter for the band Dreams Come True, was commissioned as the composer. Nakamura was intrigued by Sega's plan to surpass Nintendo yet he had a hard time composing because of the hardware's sound limitations and lack of computer skills. Nonetheless, he managed to record the music and was digitized under both an Atari ST computer and the Notator program. Nakamura made the music to be as "cinematic" as possible and was inspired by 80s film soundtracks, including Top Gun, Flashdance, and Dirty Dancing.
Reception & Legacy
Production was stressful and hardworking for Sonic Team. But, when the game was released on June 23, 1991 in North America and on July in both Japan and Europe, all that hard work paid off. Critics and audiences praised the fast gameplay, colorfully detailed graphics, and catchy soundtrack. Many have characterized the game as "Sega's answer to Nintendo's widely popular Mario series, as it was a platformer featuring the company's mascot."
Sonic not only boosted its appeal but its sales as well. The game became the best-selling of both the year and Christmas season, outselling Super Mario in the process. It sold nearly 1 million copies in the U.S. while it was also the highest-selling game in the European markets. Alongside its re-releases on later platforms, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) made a worldwide total of 24 million copies and ranked one of the best-selling video games of all time.
In terms of awards, the game earned the title of "Game of the Year" in the 1991 Golden Joystick Awards and Electronic Gaming Monthly Awards. In the following year, Mega Magazine placed Sonic as their third-favorite Genesis game. In 2016, The Strong National Museum of Play submitted the game to its World Video Game Hall of Fame.
Since then, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) has been ported and re-released. It has frequently featured in compilation games, including Sonic Jam, Sonic Mega Collection (Plus), and Sonic Origins. On November 14, 2006, the game was notably ported on the Gameboy Advance as Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis to commemorate the franchise's fifteenth anniversary. Unfortunately, it was panned for bad performance issues and lackluster music/sound quality.
The game also had different versions during its legacy. Around the same year as the 16-bit version, Sega also released an 8-bit version of the game for both the Sega Master System and handheld Game Gear system. The gameplay was simplified to be slower and emphasized exploration more. It was received favorably as its 16-bit counterpart but criticized for its low difficulty and being short. Regardless, it was considered of the best games of each respective system and was later ported to several compilations.
In 2013, Nintendo re-released the game on the Nintendo 3DS in stereoscopic 3D as part of their "3D Classics" collection. During that same year, the game was remastered from scratch using the Retro Engine by Headcannon on Android and IOS. It contains several enhancements: adding the Spin Dash, playing as Tails and Knuckles, and the ability to become Super Sonic.
Nowadays, people still adore Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) as a classic as how it was first released. It was the game that helped Sega find a name for itself in the gaming industry. There were risks and doubts during development. But in the end, Sonic is what "Genesis does what Ninten-Don't."
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
With the game being a hit, it was time to test if they were ready for a sequel with a new year and a new companion for Sonic in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Dr. Robotnik has returned, not just to make Badniks and find the Chaos Emeralds, but also to construct a space station known as the Death Egg. It's up to Sonic to thwart his evil plot, alongside his new friend Miles "Tails" Prower.
When the first game launched a new milestone in Sega's history, a sequel was obligated. However, because of the previous game's development and disagreements with the studio over his pay, and lack of management support, Yuji Naka quit Sega. During that same time, video game designer Mark Cerny created the Sega Technical Institute (STI) in California to produce more Sega games in America and focus on merging the design philosophies of both American and Japanese developers. Cerny then visited Naka's apartment in Japan and convinced him to work at STI for better working conditions. Almost everyone on Sonic Team joined Naka afterward, except for Naoto Ohshima who stayed behind to work on another Sonic game.
It was only a matter of time before production would begin. In a 2006 interview, Mark recalled:
"I'd managed to reunite two of the three key Sonic Team members...at my Sega Technical Institute. They were ready to start work on their next project, and so I asked marketing the obvious question, "would you like another Sonic?" Bizarrely, the response was, and again I kid you not, "no, it's much too soon." So we found another game to make, and in November, as we were getting started, marketing came back and said "oops, we do need that game, and we need it now." So the team lost two months out of an eleven month schedule!"
— Mark Cerny, programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog 2
When Cerny pitched his sequel concept to SEGA for the 1992 holiday season with a planned 11-month production schedule, the management was unsure if the sequel was certain and marketing executives had more control over game developers than the ones making the games. However, after two months of conjuring up ideas, Sega decided to greenlight the project but now was given a nine-month production schedule in time for Christmas.
STI then consulted some ideas for the sequel with an outline for the characters, story, and levels. Designer Hirokazu Yasuhara thought up a story idea involving Sonic time traveling to stop Dr. Robotnik from taking over the world. However, since Sega Japan called dibs on their own project, the idea was scrapped. Luckily, the levels from the rejected plot were reconstructed as levels. For instance, Hill Top Zone was originally a dinosaur-themed stage as a past version of Green Hill Zone. Other zones like Chemical Plant and Casino Night were meant to be Robotnik-ruled future stages. Speaking of the latter, Yasuhara redefined the stage where he found the springs function similarly to pinball tables. For special stages, they were created using pre-rendered 3D polygons, based on a tech demo by Yuji Naka, and were designed by Tim Skelly, to give a "pseudo-3D" look.
The team also held a contest on a new playable character in order to incorporate the game's new multiplayer mode, a scrapped feature from the first game. After many submissions, the winner was a twin-tailed flying fox designed by lead artist Yasushi Yamaguchi. His name was Miles "Tails" Prower. Aside from his design based on the fox spirit kitsune, his name was a pun on the phrase "miles per hour" so "Tails" was more of a compromised nickname. In the main campaign, A.I. has applied to Tails so he can mimic Sonic's every move and would only be playable with a second controller. Plus, the Sky Chase level was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's anime series Future Boy Conan.
The sequel also introduced more of Sonic's signature moves that helped further his high-speed gameplay. Yuji Naka thought up the Spin Dash attack where Sonic can run faster and avoid backtracking levels for momentum. The second is the ability to transform into Super Sonic when collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds. In this form, he has increased speed and invincibility. Previously, there were only six, and collecting them all would unlock a good ending. In terms of design, it was assumed that Super Sonic was portrayed as a spoof character and a reference to the Dragon Ball franchise where Goku became Super Saiyan, which this power also became a staple. Oddly enough, Dragon Ball was unknown to Western audiences around the time, and many believed the former plagiarized Super Sonic's design before it localized. It's also obvious the Death Egg space station is a parody of the Death Star from the original Star Wars trilogy.
Masato Nakamura returned as the sequel's composer where, like before, he wanted to treat the game's soundtrack like a movie, but better. With the game being more technologically advanced, Nakamura was allowed to work more freely and got accustomed to creating melodies though he still found it challenging because of the limited sounds.
Soon, the development team became larger than in the previous game where a majority of the team was Japanese reaching up to a total of 100 workers with the main team composed of 20 developers. So far, this sounds like having this many people would help make production more smoothly on schedule. But, when comparing the story Naka went through with the first game, Cerny's collaborative strategy turned out to be worse than he anticipated. There was a miscommunication and cultural tension among the staff since they clearly couldn't understand each other's language. Some claimed to qualify as professional workers applied from Sega's visa applications, yet in actuality, they weren't. But, the most troubling issue was the quality concerns and cut content during production, primarily in the levels. Some were added yet never tested, names were constantly changed due to cultural differences, and many had to be removed after thorough feedback from the studio heads. Not to mention, they had little time left to finalize the game.
Because of all of this chaos and difficulty, Cerny decided to quit his position as director and passed it over to executive Masaharu Yoshii, who joined halfway through production.
Reception & Legacy
Many sacrifices had to be made and bugs had to be fixed. But, when Sonic and Tails hit the store shelves on November 21 in Japan and a few days later in North America and Europe under "Sonic 2sDay" (a pun on Tuesday), their adventure still prevailed in the end. Critics and audiences have found Sonic 2 to be an improvement over its predecessor with its colorful visuals, level design, gameplay, and music. The only criticisms they had were Tails' A.I., the multiplayer mode, and the special stages.
Nonetheless, thanks to its $10 million marketing campaign, the sequel broke sales records and the bestselling game of 1992 in the U.S. with 600, 000 copies within a day along with an additional 40,000 in pre-orders. It was also a quick-seller in United Kingdom game history with a total of 750,000 units. At its time, it made a worldwide amount of $450 million which analysts compared to blockbuster box office results. As of 2006 after its re-releases, Sonic 2 made a worldwide total of 6 million copies sold, making it the second-selling Genesis game of all time behind the first game.
Like its predecessor, Electronic Gaming Monthly awarded it as the Best Genesis Game of 1992 and won two Golden Joystick Awards for Best Original Console Game and Promotion Campaign of the Year. It was nominated for 1992 Game of the Year at the Electronic Gaming Awards but lost to Street Fighter II. It was also a runner-up for the Chicago Tribune's Best Game of the Year, below both Street Fighter II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Mega Magazine ranked the sequel as the second-best Mega Drive game of all time in the following year.
Additionally, Sonic 2 had, too, been ported in several compilations, different versions, and several re-releases. Within the 16-bit version's release, an 8-bit version of the game was launched for the Game Gear. The major difference is that this version was developed by Aspect, and the story revolved around Sonic saving Tails from Robotnik instead. Though it lacked features from the Genesis version, the Game Gear version received the same type of reception as its aforementioned counterpart and was ported onto later compilations.
Since then, Tails has not only helped benefit the multiplayer mode and become Sonic's longtime buddy but also one of the most beloved characters in the franchise's history and has appeared in several Sonic media. He even starred in two spin-off Game Gear games in 1995: a side-scrolling shooter called Tails' Skypatrol and a platformer called Tails Adventure. Sadly, Tails' Skypatrol was poorly received for its weak controls and high difficulty while Tails' Adventure was more mixed for notably attempting a new Metroid-like direction yet found the pacing slow and backtracking tedious.
Even when players still enjoy Sonic 2, despite its minor flaws, and cite it as one of the greatest video games of all time, the story behind making it was bittersweet in the end. Sure, the game was marketed well and earned the profit that the company needed. Then again, one man's collaborative plan among two different cultures did not go as well as planned and many proposed ideas were left in the dust. It was stated a remake with the cut content would be considered. Even with recent enhanced versions, it was most unlikely. Granted, a few of the cut content was later repurposed for other games, but that's another story. In the end, it was still a difficult journey but Sonic and Tails' journey was satisfying enough to make an impact.
Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993)
While Naka was busy in America working on the sequel, Ohshima has taken the helm as a director with Japan's own sequel with a new add-on for Genesis. It's time to travel through time with Sonic the Hedgehog CD or Sonic CD for the Sega CD.
When Dr. Robotnik takes over a planetoid known as Little Planet and creates an industrialized future, Sonic must travel through time and collect the seven Time Stones for a better future. Along the way, he comes across a young pink hedgehog named Amy Rose and an evil robotic doppelganger of himself called Metal Sonic.
Plans for a sequel began after the first game was a success. Once a dissatisfied Yuji Naka left, Sega continued on without him where they were developing a new add-on accessory for the Genesis called the Sega CD. It was a CD-ROM accessory built to enhance sprite and audio quality, present full-motion video, and expand more storage for the system. The company wanted to make a Sonic game that would show off the CD's capabilities. Because of his portfolio of other Genesis games, the company made Naoto Ohshima the director for the new Sonic project.
Originally, the game was planned as an enhanced port of Sonic 2 with extra levels, a fully orchestrated soundtrack, improved sprite effects, and animated cutscenes. Shockingly, despite Sonic 2 being a critical and commercial hit, it sold insufficiently in Japan. So, the project had to be reworked from scratch. To this day, fans are confused by the continuity and timeline since Sonic 2 was chronologically released next and Tails was strangely absent. Although Ohshima doesn't count CD as a sequel, Yasushi Yamaguchi believed its story takes place between the first and second games. In fact, if you enter a specific code in the game's sound test mode, you'll unlock a picture of Tails next to a car with text saying, "See you next game." In other words, Sonic CD was intended to come out first, but things didn't go out as planned. Oshima also referred his project to be a recreation of Sonic the Hedgehog, which is highly evident in Sonic's model, entering a special stage at the end of each zone by acquiring 50 rings and having three zones per level. Despite having no involvement with the game, Naka would exchange design ideas with Ohshima.
For the gameplay, Ohshima put more focus on exploration and platforming than just speed and level design. He wanted "to make the world and setting larger, and to add more replayability." As previously mentioned, the Sonic 2 team pitched a story idea about Sonic's time traveling to stop Robotnik's reign but got rejected. In Ohshima's case, he found the concept astounding for Sonic's speed after being inspired by the Back to the Future film series. While ambitious, the programmers found it impossible to render on the hardware and added a loading sequence every time Sonic would travel to a different time period per zone. In addition, they also incorporated a new move for Sonic called the Super Peel Out, which allowed Sonic to run faster than the Spin Dash.
Ohshima also wanted to expand the roster of Sonic characters, and artist Kazuyuki Hoshino was tasked as to design new characters. The first was Amy Rose, who was intentionally created as Sonic's girlfriend akin to how Minnie Mouse is to Mickey. However, since it didn't match Sonic's behavior, Amy become more one-sidedly in love with him to make it more interesting. Her design and personality also reflect what Hoshino looked for in women at the time. Interestingly enough, Amy technically debuted in a Sonic manga a year prior as a girlfriend to a geeky hedgehog named Nicky. Unbeknownst to her, Nicky transforms into Sonic whenever there's trouble and has a massive crush on him. In layman's terms, there was once an adaptation that parodies Sonic as Superman and Amy as Lois Lane. Isn't research great?
The second was creating a rival character for Sonic. Hoshino had a clear image of the character briefly at the moment. It was a robotic version of the protagonist designed, not just as "menacing" but also to match Sonic's speed and power. That character was Metal Sonic. Beforehand, there have been mechanical versions of Sonic in previous titles. A prime example is both the 16-bit and 8-bit versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 featuring a penultimate boss character called Mecha Sonic.
Knowing this would be on the Sega CD, the team put in the effort of upping the ante with the video and audio quality. When visualizing the game, the graphics were made more vibrant to visually differentiate themselves from other Sonic games at the time. The noteworthy aspect of the visuals was making it "CG" themed. For example, the 3D rendered sprite of Sonic during the title screen was actually a figurine modeled by Taku Makino where the team photographed and scanned it as a reference for animating it. The special stages were also created using Mode 7-like background plane manipulation effects to give the illusion of dimensional depth in the environment around the 2D character. For the animated opening and cutscenes, the animation was provided by Studio Junio, which was co-operated and produced by the famous Toei Animation. Full-motion video in many Sega CD games were commonly compressed in Cinepak format to look choppy and pixelated. With Sonic CD, the team created a format that would render uncompressed imagery to make the cutscenes run more effectively.
A significant difference between the Japanese and U.S. versions was their respective soundtracks. The original music was composed by Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, who previously worked together on the 8-bit version of Sonic 2. The soundtrack was given a club music genre, like house and techno, after the team was affected by the works of C+C Music Factory, Frankie Knuckles, and the KLF. The opening song "Sonic - You Can Do Anything" (originally meant for Sonic 2) and ending song "Comic Enternity - Believe in Yourself" were both performed by singer Keiko Utoku. It was also one of the first Sonic games to have vocals and voice acting, particularly in the latter where Sonic says "I'm outta here!" if the player leaves Sonic idle for three minutes, he exits the stage and automatically receives a Game Over.
When it was time to localize, Sega's America division had to make a compromise. Since they believe the techno soundtrack sounded too similar to other electronic dance music at the time, they decided to delay the game's release for two months by changing the entire soundtrack with musician Spencer Nilsen as the composer. Nilsen managed to contact then-Satana members Mark "Sterling" Crew for select tracks and Armando Peraza as a percussionist. As for the opening theme, it was replaced with "Sonic Boom" performed by a female vocalist group called Patische, to evoke female influence in the soundtrack after Amy's introduction. The only musical pieces that remained unchanged in the final product were the past versions of each zone. After the soundtrack's release, it received backlash from fans after learning that the Japanese soundtrack existed exclusively.
Nilsen, who was fully aware of the criticisms, in a 2008 interview addressed:
"I think the controversy surrounding the two versions of the game soundtrack were really blown out of proportion. Honestly, I've had hundreds of people tell me that they LOVE the score I wrote for that game, and I'm sure the Japanese version has tons of fans as well, so everybody wins in the end… as it should be! After all… IT'S ONLY A GAME!!...I think critics were looking for reasons to bash the game, and so many critics are hardcore, loyal fans so they are not very objective. AND… they had all been playing the Japanese version for weeks or months before our version hit the streets, so it was like we replaced the music to Star Wars after the movie had been out for a while. From that perspective, I can't blame them. But to be honest, the game critics were always very kind to me and my collaborators, so a little bad press ain't the end of the world!"
— Spencer Nilsen, Sonic CD North American Special Edition Composer
On a side note, they also changed Amy's character in the game's manual to Princess Sally. Princess Sally was one of the main characters in the animated television series Sonic the Hedgehog a.k.a. "Sonic SatAM." It was an attempt of marketing two different characters from two different products as one and the same. Coincidentally enough, Sally's original color scheme was closer to Amy's, but it was finalized to brown. That notion turned out to be foolish since players and fans would easily distinguish who was who.
Reception & Legacy
The game launched in Japan on September 23, 1993, in Europe in October, and finally in North America in November. Did Sonic CD and the Sega CD manage to bring out a literal sonic boom to the world?
With its extraordinary scope, soundtrack, and time-traveling gameplay, Sonic CD was highly commended as one of the best Sonic games in the series, by far. Though some felt that the Sega CD's capabilities weren't used to their full potential, which I'll explain in a bit. It was also the best-selling Sega CD game with more than 1.5 million copies, won the Electronic Gaming Monthly award for Best Sega CD Game of the Year, and was ranked #17's in EMG's best console game of all time, mainly for the bonus levels and animated intro.
Since their debut, both Amy Rose and Metal Sonic have become staple characters in the franchise and appeared in several other media. Amy gradually received mixed to positive reception from critics and audiences over the years. While many praised her design and gameplay style in select games, others found her annoying. In spite of this, Amy was placed #5 on the official character popularity poll in 2005, making her the most popular female character in the series. Metal Sonic became one of the most popular Sonic villains, where he was ranked #13 on GameDaily's "Top 25 Video Game Robots" list and the most demanded character to appear in future games, though beaten by Shadow the Hedgehog, on Sonic Channel's poll.
Unlike the Genesis games, Sonic CD was then ported to Windows PC in for the Pentium processor in 1995 and DirectX processor a year later. The catch was the Pentium was only bundled with new computers and never sold in stores, while the DirectX was released under the Sega PC brand and compatible with older Windows versions. It performed identically as the original version except with more loading times. The game was ported again to the Sonic Gems Collection compilation for Gamecube and PlayStation 2 in 2005. Sadly, it suffered from technical and graphical issues, but the cutscenes were presented in higher quality fullscreen. That was, until 2011 when indie programmer Christian Whitehead remastered the game using the new Retro Engine for the IOS, and later Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Android, and PC by Sega. This enhanced port was deemed superior by fans for not just fixing the aforementioned issues to make gameplay run more consistently, but added widescreen support, unlocking Tails as a playable character, and an option to play either both the U.S. or Japanese soundtracks. Two new original special stages were planned, but Sega removed them in order to stay faithful to the original version. That port was also recently added to the Sonic Origins compilation, with two additional new cutscenes animated by longtime Sonic artist Tyson Hesse.
Yes, the game alone made an impact in history introducing new characters and presenting new technological advancements for years to come. Dismally, the Sega CD's legacy came with a literal price. It was more pricey than the Genesis itself with a retail price of $299 compared to the console's $189 price. Consumers were mixed about the add-on's competence where some of its games had impressive functionality, others believed that its quality didn't live up to expectations with lackluster performances (i.e. compressed FMVs) and support from Sega themselves. Not to mention, it was a subject of controversy of the 1993 U.S. government act on violence in video games, with the interactive game Death Trap being the focus. As a result, the add-on sold only 2.24 million units and was discontinued soon after. That action also canceled plans for an enhanced port of the first Sonic game and a localized Sonic version of Popful Mail.
The Sega CD may have flopped a bad future, but Sonic CD still managed to gather enough Time Stones to develop a brighter future for the hedgehog.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)...
After Sonic 2, Sega thought it was best for the Japanese and American developers to split them and focus on their own separate projects. While it sounded like a step up in production, nothing prepared them for the troubling story of a once-planned complete game into two. The first half was Sonic the Hedgehog 3...
...& Knuckles (1994)
...& Knuckles was the second half.
Sonic and Tails must stop Dr. Eggman from rebuilding his Death Egg after it crashes on a mysterious island. Upon arrival, they constantly encounter an echidna named Knuckles who lays traps on them at every turn.
Thanks to Sonic 2's success, a sequel was warranted and Sega wanted both STI and veterans Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara involved. At first, Naka was hesitant because of going through the same development hell he went through in the previous games. But after negotiating, Sega decided to split the teams into two. The Japanese developers would work on the third entry while the American developers would work on a side-project, which was a pinball spin-off game known as Sonic Spinball. With being promoted as producer, Naka gained more confidence in the project with STI director Roger Hector as executive coordinator and given a 1994 deadline.
As development began, the team planned to test out the Sega Virtua Processor chip, which would convey 3D graphics. This occurred around the same time as video game companies wanted to experiment with adding third-dimension modeling to their products, such as Nintendo with Star Fox using the Super FX chip. They made a prototype where it presented a polygonic Sonic in an isometric view. However, since the chip wouldn't be finished on time, they restart the project as a 2D game while the isometric view concept was reinvented for a couple of spin-off games.
When designing the levels, they were based on locations where the team briefly vacationed during production. Angel Island, for example, was named after an island on the coast of San Franciso where the game was being made.
When designing their own rival character for Sonic, many candidates went from another hedgehog character to an echidna designed by Takashi Yuda, which children from focus groups picked as the final choice. His original name was "Dreds" for his dreadlocks, but marketing director Pamela Kelly suggested changing his name to "Knuckles." Knuckles' shoe colors were inspired by the Jamaica flag and the white mark on his chest was modeled after the Nike logo, where Sega tried and failed to make a marketing deal with the latter company. He was created to emphasize power rather than speed with the ability to break walls, glide, and climb for exploration. It was also one of the first Sonic games where the story and gameplay structure was told from a different character's perspective, notably Knuckles.
Because of their newfound freedom, Naka and his team would be able to expand the world and scope of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 as large as possible. Yet, little did they know, that huge plans would lead them to huge costs. With a total of 14 zones planned and laid out, they realize having this number of stages wouldn't fit into one cartridge alone, and producing a 34-bit cartridge would cost them more than expected. To make matters worse, Sega started committing a McDonald's Happy Meal promotional deal, with no extension on the deadline. Production was so troubling that Hector didn't want the rest of Sega to bother the team's work where Naka was reported to be sometimes acting harshly while the STI staff was jealous over the game's priority. The development team had no other choice: they split the third entry into two separate games in order to allow more time for Sonic & Knuckles while reducing cartridge costs. It also included canceling a limited edition version of the completed Sonic 3.
In a behind-the-scenes magazine interview, Hector said:
"There were so many creative ideas that it would take too much time to develop such a massive project. The team brainstormed up two games' worth of material initially and it was decided, before the Alpha stage I think, that it would make more sense to split it into two games."
— Roger Hector, Executive Coordinator, Sonic 3 & Knuckles
If you want to talk about the game involving its music, then let's address the elephant in the room: the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Initially, Masato Nakamura demanded to work on the third game by wanting more royalties for new music and reusing his compositions in the future. Sega rejected his offer and searched for a new composer. While the sound team, plus newcomer Jun Senoue, composed some of the game's tracks, the company received a visit from Michael Jackson and his crew. Jackson had previous experience with Sega when producing his movie-based game Moonwalker during Genesis's early years. As both a video game and Sonic fan, Sega instantly hired him as one of the composers. However, he wasn't credited since he had a history of being uncredited in productions due to contractual complications, especially with his guest appearance on The Simpsons' third-season premiere "Stark Raving Dad."
Things get controversial when his 1993 alleged child sexual abuse scandal broke out. Hector asserted that the scandal led to Jackson's music being removed. Jackson's longtime production member Brad Buxer argued that wasn't the case. Besides being uncredited, he added that Michael was unsatisfied with how the sound quality of the system turned out. For years, fans have debated whether or not Michael Jackson was involved or not with Sega refusing to answer. It wasn't until 2016 in a Huffington Post article that Jackson's composing team did work on the music which ended up in the final product. Yuji Naka also recently confirmed Jackson's involvement around the time when Sonic Origins was released.
Although the second half was nearly done, Sonic Team still wanted players to experience playing both games as one as intended. They suddenly came up with a solution that would ease the pain of their troublesome work. By the time Sonic & Knuckles was released, it included an exclusive connecting feature known as "lock-on technology." It was a device that would "lock on" two cartridges together that result in extended or alternative gameplay. When linking Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles together, it becomes the fully completed game that Naka dreamed of. It allowed players not just to play as all three characters and fourteen levels, but it unlocks new collectibles known as Super Emeralds where each respective character gets a more powerful form when all are collected (i.e. Sonic into Hyper Sonic). If Sonic 2 "locks on" with Sonic & Knuckles, players would play as Knuckles in Sonic 2. Connecting Sonic the Hedgehog or an incompatible game would unlock the "Blue Spheres" mini-game mode where players type in codes to generate and play their own special stages endlessly.
Reception & Legacy
It was a reluctant but resolving process making a big determined game in the end. Once Sonic and Tails set foot on Angel Island on Groundhog Day in the U.S., the 24th in Europe, and May in Japan, Sonic 3 had a similar reputation as Sonic CD as one of the best Sonic games so far. Many loved the visuals, sound effects, and music, while a few others thought it didn't innovate enough compared to the previous games. As Knuckles' adventure launched worldwide on October 18, critics were positively astonished by the lock-on feature and the high replay value for discovering hidden secrets, yet found the game to be similar to its predecessor. But, when played together as one, it surpassed expectations and players declared it as the definitive version of what as Sonic Team had hoped for.
Sonic 3 was the top-selling Genesis game of the year with at least 1.02 million copies sold in the U.S. while Sonic & Knuckles sold at least 1.24 million copies later that same year. Together, both games made a total of 4 million copies worldwide. Electronic Gaming Monthly awarded Sonic 3 as "Game of the Year" and later ranked first in The EMG's Hot 50 list. As for Sonic & Knuckles, the only accolade it received was being runner-up in VideoGames magazine's Best Genesis Game of the Year, with Earthworm Jim winning the title. Retrospectively, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was placed eighth in US Gamer magazine in 2013 and as GameRadar's seventh-best Genesis game the following year.
Knuckles has positively received since his introduction and became a prominent character in the franchise, with several appearances on other media. Sonic Team polled Knuckles as the fourth most-popular character, behind Tails, Shadow, and Sonic, and Complex Magazine placed him as the 11th most-requested playable character for the then-upcoming fourth installment of Super Smash Bros. Since 2018, Knuckles became a subject of Internet memes, including a deformed version of himself created by VR Chat avatars known as "Ugandan Knuckles" which some found to be "racially insensitive."
Porting and re-releasing the games, however, has been...complicated. Separately, both games were ported onto Sonic Jam, Sonic Mega Collection (Plus), Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, and Sonic Classic Collection compilations. Yet, Sonic 3 & Knuckles and the other "lock-on" games were either selectively available, had to be unlocked, or removed due to time constraints. Christian Whitehead wanted to remaster Sonic 3 & Knuckles with the Retro Engine, but Sega always decline because of the legal issues of using Michael Jackson's composed tracks. Finally, Sega remastered all four Sonic Genesis games into the Sonic Origins in 2022, including the long-awaited Sonic 3 & Knuckles solely recreated by HeadCannon. The major difference is that the music composed by Jackson was replaced with rearranged versions of the prototype music composed by Jun Senoue that originated from the PC Sonic & Knuckles Collection. These risky replacements resulted in some criticism from longtime fans. Some found it legally understandable while others felt the quality stripped away their nostalgic value. At the end of the day, it's just personal preference.
Overall, what began as an eager, immense project was too laborious to be singly handled and had to slice in half in to order reach deadlines and production costs. But, when contrasting the previous developments, Sonic Team made a happier and an innovative alternative that would help reach their product to its full potential. Players and fans appreciate the hard work and solution that would play two cartridges as one. It also introduced a staple character and a bigger world that benefited the lore of the Blue Blur. While modern players would be polarized on which port or re-release to play, the game on its own is still an experience worth playing.
The Genesis games have made the big bucks, but what about the side projects and spin-offs in between? The best three words to end this chapter of our story: results may vary.