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The History of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Mid-90s Spin-Off Era

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.

"Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble" U.S. Game Gear Cover

"Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble" U.S. Game Gear Cover

Recap

When Sega evolved from its early beginnings, the company tried to establish its own identity in the gaming industry. They had luck with video arcade games, but new companies, especially Nintendo, dominated them in the home video game console market. Their answer came in a mascot of a blue, fast hedgehog named Sonic that not only outran Mario but helped make the Sega Genesis a high-seller in the competition. Sonic's success also led to a few sequels.

Even though they became critical and commercial hits, they each had a consequence when looking behind the scenes. The first led to the main programmer quitting the company after an unsatisfying experience with no management support. The second had promising cooperation between American and Japanese developers, yet many ideas were removed or changed due to creative and cultural differences among the staff. An exclusive game for a console add-on entertained players as one of the best, but the add-on itself didn't make much profit as the company hoped for. Lastly, producing a single game with large content had to be divided into two separate games through a time crunch, a marketing campaign, and a controversial debate over an iconic musician's involvement. Regardless, the Genesis games have been considered classics that launched Sonic's history.

Elsewhere, Sega experimented with spin-off games for their current line of consoles for home or on-the-go where they were being made by either the Sega Technical Institute or lesser-known companies at the time. These are the type of games that audiences and fans found either underrated gems or forgotten wastes of time. Either way, they came with varying results.

When Sonic 2 was done, Sega proposed to isolate both the American and Japanese developers on two different projects. While Sonic Team spent their focus on an ambitious third entry, the Sega Technical Institute was tasked with creating a pinball game starring Sonic, or should I say...a Spinball game. That game was Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball (1993).

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.

"Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball" Genesis Art Cover

"Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball" Genesis Art Cover

Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball (1993)

When Dr. Robotnik builds a new roboticization fortress on top of an active volcano, Sonic must destroy the fortress from within and collect the Chaos Emeralds.

Once the development teams were divided, Sega Technical Insititute was tasked to create a game to release for the holiday of 1993. When looking for ideas and research, the team learned that Casino Night Zone was one of the best levels in Sonic 2. Developer Peter Morawiec sparked a game idea of combining elements of a pinball game based on the Commodore Amiga game Pinball Dreams with Sonic gameplay mechanics. He and a couple of staff members pitched the concept with a short animation of Sonic as a pinball ball and the project was greenlit.

One noteworthy fact about the game is that if you play the bonus stages, Sonic would occasionally rescue the Freedom Fighters from being encapsulated: consisting of Princess Sally, Bunnie Rabbot, Rotor, and Muttski. This marks the first and only time that characters from the Sonic SatAM series would appear in a Sonic game since they bear no connection to continuity and visually represent the American side of production. Another game that featured characters from a Sonic animated series was the puzzle game Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine for both the Sega Genesis and Game Gear. Long story short: it was a Westernized version of the first Puyo Puyo game with stages featuring Dr. Robotnik and his robotic minions Scratch, Grounder, and Coconuts from The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog as bosses.

Realizing that STI was under a "tight" schedule for the deadline, Sega sent Sonic artist Katsuhiko Sato and some veteran staff to help on the game, but their involvement cost more of their time than planned. The staff then decided to change the programming language from assembly to C, in order to speed up production. It may cause frame rate and optimization issues, yet the plan worked.

As for the music, Sega reminded the staff that they didn't have the rights for the Sonic theme music and it belonged to the band Dreams Come True, whose member Masato Nakamura composed for the first two Sonic games. So, Morawiec entrusted lead composer Howard Drossin, who would later compose for various games and films, to write a new theme within two hours.

Reception & Legacy

When Sonic bounces his way over on November 23 in North America, 26th in Europe, and December 10 in Japan, it was a fun ride. Critics and players enjoyed the novelty of a Sonic pinball game with great graphics, music, and sound effects. Yet, the controls and physics were mixed. In a Business Wire article, it was reported that Sonic Spinball was among many Genesis games that each sold a million copies in sales during that year. The following year, Sonic Spinball was released on the Game Gear. Unlike the Genesis version, it was more ambivalent where it was described as a mediocre pinball game, at best. A Master System version was also released another year later exclusively in Europe. But, it didn't sell well and became a valuable collector's item.

The Genesis game has been re-released to many compilations and different platforms while the Game Gear game was an unlockable game in Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut and Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo Gamecube.

Although pinball physics has been a recurring gameplay mechanic, Sonic wouldn't have another official pinball game till Sonic Pinball Party for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. It was made in a sort of celebrating Sonic Team and its franchises, including Sonic, Nights Into Dreams, and Samba De Amigo.

Fascinatingly enough, even though it bears no connection to the game, Alton Towers Resort in England made a partnership with Sega to re-brand their roller coaster Spinball Whizzer into Sonic Spinball. It was a Sonic-themed roller coaster that ran from 2010 to 2016 when their partnership ended.

Today, Sonic Spinball may not be as positively received when it came out, but it is still considered a decent distraction for those that enjoy pinball. One person who was satisfied with how the game turned out was Peter Morawiec himself. Before launch, he thought his project would face "acceptance challenges." Fortunately, after returning from Europe, Morawiec was surprised and glad it benefited the series' popularity, despite regretting the team lacking time polishing the game. It was the first of many experiments where an American division would mostly handle a game on its own. It was a busy production and took drastic measures to finish making it. It is not as iconic as the main platformers, yet it proves that Sonic and pinball can mix.

After the 8-bit versions of Sonic and Sonic 2 were favorably good among players, Sega believes this would be the right moment to make more original Game Gear games. Two games, in particular, were marked as a duology starring Sonic and Tails.

"Sonic Chaos" Master System European Cover Art

"Sonic Chaos" Master System European Cover Art

Sonic Chaos (1993) and Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble (1994)

In both Chaos and Triple Trouble, their stories involve Sonic & Tails stopping Dr. Robotnik from snatching all the Chaos Emeralds, whereas in the latter they also butt heads with Knuckles (who got tricked again) and a new treasure hunter named Fang the Sniper.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, an outsider Japanese studio called Aspect produced the 8-bit version of Sonic 2. Though players noticed that it was slow and didn't offer much as its 16-bit counterpart. It was then decided that the next 8-bit sequel would incorporate as many elements into the hardware as possible. The biggest changes given to both games were that the level design was large and the characters would be able to move faster. On top of that, Chaos was the first Sonic portable game to make Tails a playable character. While both characters retain their trademark powers, Aspect gave each character their own exclusive moves. For example, Sonic uses the Super Peel Out move from Sonic CD while using a new power-up, either the Rocket Shoes from Chaos or Jet Board from Triple Trouble, for quicker travel.

"Fang the Sniper" Early Concept Art

"Fang the Sniper" Early Concept Art

However, if one goes deep into development, the real meat was designing a new character for Triple Trouble. When the company wanted to make a Game Gear-exclusive character, character artist Shinichi Higashi came up with a drawing of jerboa wearing an outfit resembling an explorer. His pointy nose and hat were meant to reflect the design's simplicity after being inspired by Fantasy Zone character Opa-Opa. Planner Tadashi Ihoroi characterized him as a cunning and egotistical treasure hunter. In terms of marketing and localization, the Japanese viewed the character as half-jerboa and half-wolf, while the rest of the world viewed him as a weasel. Additionally, the character originally carried a revolver or silver magnum as his weapon. However, it was changed to a popgun in the final version. It was most likely to tone down the controversial use of violence in video games.

Finally, the name was quite a difficult chore. During development, he was called "Nack the Weasel." Despite the name being kept in the localized version of the game for being easily pronounced, it was harder to enunciate in Japanese since both Nack and Knuckles' names sound too similar. So, they held a name-changing contest in a gaming magazine for the character. Ultimately, the character was officially known as "Fang the Sniper."

Reception & Legacy

Sonic Chaos, or metaphorically speaking Sonic & Tails as it was called in Japan, arrived in stores on November 19 in Japan, and a few days later in North America and Europe, where the latter had an exclusive Master System release. As the first original Game Gear game, critics were impressed with its level design and gameplay being closer to the Genesis versions. Sonic Chaos was also awarded Best Game Gear Game of 1993 by Electronic Gaming Monthly and it was the top-selling Game Gear game in January 1994.

Chaos was later an extra unlockable game for Sonic Adventure DX: DIrector's Cut and was re-released in the Sonic Mega Collection (Plus) compilation and other systems. As of 2018, a fan-made remake is currently in development with 16-bit stylized graphics, new gameplay mechanics, and new bosses.

Did Triple Trouble offer the triple amount of fun more than its predecessor?

Well...it depends on the reception.

When Triple Trouble was released worldwide in November, publicists said that the game was fun to play and the graphics were amazing, yet they found it lacking challenge and originality. While no reports of sales were found, the only recognition the sequel received was a runner-up nomination for VideoGames Magazine's Best Game Gear Game of 1994 but lost to Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya.

Like its predecessor, Triple Trouble was re-released on a few compilations, the Nintendo 3DS, and an unofficial fan remake currently in development.

As for Fang the Sniper himself, he appeared in a couple more games, like Sonic Drift 2 and Sonic the Fighters, and was featured in several Sonic comics. Despite the artist's ambition, Fang quickly fell into obscurity. Heck, there was even a wanted poster of him during the classic City Escape level in Sonic Generations. It wasn't until in Sonic Mania that he made a surprise cameo appearance as one of a few illusions created by the Heavy Magician boss.

Oddly enough, when players revisit the games today, they made more of a contrary reaction. Sonic Chaos was viewed more as an average game with its slow framerate and mediocre presentation, though some would characterize it as one of the easiest Sonic games to beat. As for Sonic Triple Trouble, players found it better than it was initially released and called one of the best 8-bit Sonic games to match up with the 16-bit versions.

Aspect made a noble attempt of making 8-bit Sonic feel more like a real Sonic game, along with a potentially intriguing rival character. Both games were critically and commercially solid during their preliminary run. In face of what people say about them in retrospect, they still found a new form of appreciation and two fan-made projects that would someday get a newfound impact than what they originally did.

While there are some hidden gems, there are a few that not only became disregarded but caused some serious outcomes upon their conception and release. The biggest example was a spin-off game exclusively for the Sega 32X add-on. That failed experiment was Knuckles' Chaotix.

"Knuckles' Chaotix" Sega 32X Art Cover

"Knuckles' Chaotix" Sega 32X Art Cover

Knuckles' Chaotix (1995)

When Dr. Robotnik and Metal Sonic conquer a mysterious island using its six Chaos Rings, Knuckles and a few new allies must reclaim the Chaos Rings before it's too late.

The idea started back in 1994 when a prototype Genesis game called "Sonic Crackers" was made. The project involved playing as both Sonic and Tails holding an elastic band of energy together with combined speed and strength for navigating stages. In fact, the name "crackers" was heavily implied by the clackers toy rather than the food itself. The prototype served as an engine test to demonstrate new potential gameplay mechanics to the higher-ups. The pitch went decently well where a majority of the elements ended up in the final product while the rest were repurposed for another game. It was planned to be released for the company's first upcoming 3D console, the Sega Saturn. However, since the Sega Saturn was still in development and couldn't be done in time, the company decided to release it for their new Genesis add-on the 32X solely instead.

The Sega 32X was made to expand the power of the Genesis into the fifth-generation era, or the "32-bit era" with a visual display processor. It was meant to be a standalone console to compete with the Atari Jaguar fearing that the Sega Saturn wouldn't be complete by the end of 1994. Because of this, it was changed into an add-on with a low-cost option compared to how much the Sega CD cost.

Back to Chaotix, the game was produced by another team, primarily those that worked on Sonic CD, despite Sonic Team being credited. It was re-worked where Sonic and Tails were almost entirely removed and decided to become a spin-off game starring Knuckles under the title "Knuckles' Ringstar." I said "almost entirely" because both Sonic and Tails actually made a cameo in the finalized game's good ending. With the 32X's processing power, the game was given lively sprite-scaling effects, a palette system that allowed levels to render colors, and 3D polygons for the special stages. As for the music, it was composed by Junko Shiratsu and Mariko Nanba.

Character Illustration Set from "Knuckles' Chaotix" Japanese manual

Character Illustration Set from "Knuckles' Chaotix" Japanese manual

Since Sonic and Tails were unavailable, Knuckles needed some new buddies to literally band together on his journey, each having their own unique gameplay abilities. One character that returned to the roster was Mighty the Armadillo. who previously appeared in the Japan-only SegaSonic the Hedgehog arcade game. Even though Sonic isn't playable, his "Crackers" animations were reused onto Mighty. So technically, Sonic is playable in the game...in spirit, which kind of makes sense, considering Mighty was the runner-up design for the first game.

Chaotix was also the debut of new characters that were based on rejected and adapted concepts from past Sonic games and media. The most prominent was Vector the Crocodile, who was originally a kidnapped bandmate from the first Sonic game. Another character was Charmy Bee, who made his debut in the 1992 manga where he would occasionally help Sonic by controlling time. Imagine if he had that power today.

Anywho, the only original character conceived for the game was a chameleon named Espio, designed by manga artist Takumi Miyake, and was featured more than Knuckles in early builds, possibly intended as the main character. Two more partner characters that appeared were Heavy the Robot and Bomb. Unlike the others, these two act like a joke where Heavy may be invincible but his weight slows down the player's progress while Bomb is fast but would explode when getting hit.

This advertisement's problem speaks for itself.

This advertisement's problem speaks for itself.

Reception & Legacy

As Knuckles and his new crew ventured into a new world without Sonic's help, their adventure ended more chaotic than the game's bad ending. While there was a valued effort to be innovative, the critics found the controls and physics awkward, along with bland level design, low difficulty, and lacking promise of much of the 32X's technical capabilities.

As a matter of fact, Sega was so desperate on getting the 32X add-on out for 1994, that production had to be rushed with not much time for marketing, leaving with a limited game library that wouldn't completely support the hardware, including Genesis ports. Speaking of advertising, the best way to describe these magazine ads is that they're symbolically "on the nose" for something aimed at children. Unfortunately, the 32X was unveiled too late as the Sega Saturn was completed and launched in Japan first with newfound attention. Because of this, both Knuckles' Chaotix and the 32X ended up as commercial failures.

As of this article, there hasn't been a port nor a re-release of Knuckles' Chaotix. The only time that the game was re-released was through a brief period on an online video game service called GameTap during the mid-2000s. Aside from that, nothing ever since. Christian Whitehead has expressed interest in remaking the game using the Retro Engine. For players that are interested in the game, they are better off emulating it rather than spending a premium since a copy of the game has become a valuable collector's item.

On the bright side, some ideas from Knuckles' Chaotix were re-used and revitalized in later Sonic games. A similar partner system, for instance, was the basis for Sonic Advance 3 for the GameBoy Advance, a couple of its music tracks were used in Sonic Generations, the "Hyper Ring" power-up returned in Sonic Mania, and a recreation of the final boss fight was added as well.

But, the biggest historical impact goes to the characters. While Mighty remained dormant...for a while, Espio the Chameleon (despite later appearing in Sonic the Fighters), Charmy Bee, and Vector the Crocodile made a grand return in Sonic Heroes. Since then, they had became recurring characters in the Sonic franchise and appeared in several media. Critics and fans gave Team Chaotix a mixed reception. Many found their inclusion as worthy additions and some call them, particularly Espio, one of the best characters in the series. Others felt their appearances felt wasted at times, and find Charmy to be annoying.

What began as a hypothetical prototype quickly fell into obscurity through rushed development. If the game had more time, then this would've been an underrated title. Its gameplay mechanics and characters were right there, but never fully utilized. Knuckles' Chaotix may have shattered its bonding with consumers, yet its ideas and a trio of detectives have connected fans to a new era in Sonic's history.

Meanwhile, the Sega Game Gear wasn't doing well either since sales were starting to decline and new projects were being made for the upcoming Sega Saturn. When the company noticed that one project involved a mix of an isometric view and pre-rendered graphics, these respective elements were separated into their own games.

"Sonic Labyrinth" North American Cover Art

"Sonic Labyrinth" North American Cover Art

"Sonic Blast" Game Gear Cover Art

"Sonic Blast" Game Gear Cover Art

Sonic Labyrinth (1995) and Sonic Blast (1996)

In Sonic Labyrinth, a fed-up Dr. Robotnik swaps Sonic's shoes with the Slow Down Boots that hinder his speed. So, Sonic must survive Robotnik's Great Labyrinth without running and reclaiming the Chaos Emeralds. Sonic Blast follows Sonic and Knuckles teaming up to recover five Chao Emerald shards after Robotnik accidentally destroyed them.

The idea of playing Sonic from an isometric viewpoint has been attempted and carried over various projects. The first was the SegaSonic the Hedgehog arcade game which was presented in an isometric perspective inspired by Marble Madness. Sonic Team also experimented with it on a couple of prototypes but had to be reworked due to time constraints. While the isometric concept was primarily reused for a Genesis/Saturn game, Sega decided to make a solo isometric game for the Game Gear. The game was developed by Minato Ginken, a small company owned by Japanese developer Arc System Works. Minato Ginken was known for contributing into making mostly Game Gear games.

For Blast, it was produced by Aspect yet again after their modest sucesses with Chaos and Triple Trouble. Sega took notice how some platformers from their competitors are using pre-rendered graphics that revolutionized gaming. The biggest example(s) at the time were Donkey Kong Country for the SNES and Donkey Kong Land for the Game Boy. So, Aspect took influence from Donkey Kong and made a platformer where Sonic and Knuckles are 3D-rendered sprites. However, because of the hardware limitations, the character animations had fewer frames, no time limit, and losing 10 rings every time they get hit. Nonetheless, they managed to include many gameplay elements from the Genesis titles, with the addition of giving Sonic a double jump.

Reception & Legacy

Sonic Labyrinth was released mostly worldwide in November while Sonic Blast blasted to stores in December. They were respectively both released a month prior in Europe. Bizarrely, Sonic Blast was ported for the Sega Master System a year later in Brazil only because its lower-graphical quality was suitable for the system and was distributed by the Brazillian toy company Tectoy.

Upon their initial releases, the reviews were...mixed. For Labyrinth, critics found the game innovative while finding the controls to be difficult and challenging. With Blast, they felt it was a "step back" from other Game Gear Sonic titles.

They were both later re-released as unlockable features in Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut, exclusively part of Sonic Mega Collection (Plus), and on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console. A significant difference that Labyrinth approved upon its re-releases was removing the flashing effects that would potentially cause seizures.

Unfortunately, as many players revisit these games, their memories weren't as fondly as they remembered. Labyrinth was heavily criticized for the idea of having Sonic without speed baffling, frustrating controls, and confusing level design. Not to mention that Minato Ginken was infamously known for making poor-quality Game Gear ports. The company went defunct in 1997. For Sonic Blast, they found its presentation aged terribly with the character models being too close to the screen with a hard time controlling them, choppy animations, and dull graphics. The only positive aspect they received was their soundtracks. These were the final Sonic Game Gear games that many didn't bother playing. These were made to cheaply capitalize on other companies' success without thought or effort. As a result, Sonic Labyrinth and Sonic Blast were characterized as one of the worst Sonic games of all time.

In the end, Sega realized that consumers were no longer interested in 2D games as their sales plummeted. I mean, the 2D genre is still relevant to this day. But, around this decade, they noticed other companies took video gaming to the literal next level. Starting in 1994, Sony launched the Playstation console and two years later, Nintendo dominated the competition yet again by launching the Nintendo 64 console. Both of these consoles emphasized 3D polygon graphics and blew everyone away. If Sega wanted to win their audience back, it would take a considerable amount of time for Sonic to make his proper jump into the third dimension. It was not only time for a new era for Sonic, it was time for Sonic to begin a new...Adventure.