The rise and fall - and rise again - of Sonic: Sega's answer to Nintendo's Mario

By Alejo Rodriguez Lo

There was no greater rivalry in the mid-90s than that between a speedy blue hedgehog and an Italian plumber with a talent for saving princesses

By Alejo Rodriguez Lo |

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The mid-1990s saw video games move from the arcade to the home – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Nintendo 64 were home video game systems that became wildly popular across the world.

Nintendo had rivals, though. Equally keen on cornering the home gaming market were companies like Sega and Sony Interactive Entertainment. Sega, in particular, wanted to create a mascot for their company, much like what Mario is for Nintendo. Enter a speedy blue hedgehog called Sonic.

Sega’s answer to Mario

Before the launch of the Mega Drive console in 1988, Sega hosted a company-wide competition for its staff. The idea was for someone to design a mascot character that would become as popular as Nintendo’s red-hatted plumber. Naoto Ohshima, a designer, came up with three ideas – a rabbit, a round, moustached man, and a blue hedgehog. He, along with programmer Yuji Naka, wanted to create a high-speed, 2D platformer. Eventually, they settled on the blue hedgehog and named him Sonic. The moustached man became the bad guy – Doctor Eggman.

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Sonic the Hedgehog, or Sonic 1, launched in 1991 on the Mega Drive. The bright colours and catchy soundtrack stunned gamers at the time, as did the replay value of the game – there was more than one way for players to get to the end of a level, which meant people would play over and over again in pursuit of the fastest times and the highest scores.

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A year later, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, or Sonic 2, was released. The second entry into the Sonic franchise maintained the first game’s fast pace gameplay and introduced new levels and mechanics, such as an ability for Sonic to charge his attacks and speed when in “ball form”. They also added a two-player element, allowing a second gamer to take on the role of Sonic’s trusty sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower. Sonic 2 was where it all kicked off for the speedy hedgehog outside Japan. Sonic became so popular in the US, he was used to sell yogurt, comics, and TV shows.

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In 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles was released, which allowed players to save their progress (which was not possible until this point – how badly would that suck for you to lose your Pokemon Sun data every time you played?), and allowed gamers to pick which character they wanted to play as. Each character had abilities unique to them: Sonic was the fastest, Tails could fly, and the newly-introduced Knuckles could climb walls. Many gamers called this instalment the best of the franchise yet.

Sonic’s fall … and rise again

With the introduction of the PlayStation 1 and the Nintendo 64 came 3D gaming. Sega, too, turned their eyes towards 3D gaming, and created the Dreamcast console. Their games followed suit – but Sonic fans weren’t happy. 3D Sonic instalments like 2006’s Sonic 06 and Sonic Unleashed were criticised by fans of the franchise for being slow and boring.

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The Dreamcast was not a success and it became Sega’s final home console, marking the end of the company’s 18 years in the console market.

Years later, Sega released remastered versions of their 2D Sonic games for mobile users. The character was also ported over to various games on Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony consoles, where he remains a popular character today. While many of his games that deviated from the original speedy platform system were met with criticism, Sonic remains a huge part of the gaming community – and likely will for years to come.

Edited by Ginny Wong