Formerly titled Sonic Jam on my old blog, Blue Blurbs will be a series where I go through every conceivable piece of Sonic media and talk about it. These discussions will largely be formatted and built around whatever I feel is appropriate for the game, comic, or show I’m talking about. Thanks to Joshua for the suggestion!
In 1991, Sega needed a win.
Nintendo was eating their lunch, so to speak, with the pedigreed NES still making bank and the promise of a new platform on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Sega Genesis had released in 1989 and failed to make much headway in any region. There were a number of reasons for this, but it ultimately boiled down to three major factors: the price point, the marketing, and the lack of killer apps.
I’ll be the first to tell you that, when it comes to the 16-Bit era, I vastly prefer the Genesis to the SNES. Even before 1991, there were plenty of great titles for the system. Golden Axe, MUSHA, Moonwalker, Strider, Castle of Illusion, ESWAT, The Revenge of Shinobi… these are some of the best games of that console generation, and they all released in the first two years of the Genesis’ lifespan. And hey, I love Altered Beast too, even if it’s aged pretty poorly. Point being, the Genesis had a respectable handful of fantastic games, and a decent library of mid-tier titles as well.
The problem was, the NES had been out for longer. It had established itself as a household name. When you played video games, you “played Nintendo.” Sega’s maligned and frankly unimpressive Master System had failed to diversify the market, and the Genesis was running into the same problem. Despite attempts at pointed “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” ads, there was simply no way to tell kids why Sega’s platform was worth owning, or parents why it was worth spending money on over Nintendo’s cheaper alternative – aside from graphical horsepower. And with the Super Nintendo looming, Sega’s fate was about to be sealed.
Or so it seemed. Enter Tom Kalinske, a former toy executive responsible for making big brands like Barbie relevant with modern kids. Appointed in a last-ditch effort to save the sinking system, Kalinske introduced a four-step plan in 1991 to reintroduce the Sega Genesis to an American audience. Firstly, he’d be instrumental in establishing Western satellite studios to make first-party games specifically with Americans in mind. Secondly, he’d slash the price of the console and proceed to step three – ramp up the aggressive marketing leveraged directly at Nintendo.
But it was plan number four that seemed like a riskier gambit. Since 1990, Sega had been looking for a mascot to replace Alex Kidd, who’d failed to make much headway in any region, despite being attached to some pretty respectable games. There was an internal contest held among employees to come up with the next flagship character, and after months of heated brainstorming, Sega settled on a little blue hedgehog with red sneakers and white gloves – design choices meant to evoke Santa Claus and Michael Jackson. That hedgehog was Sonic, and it was his game that would be instrumental in Kalinske’s step four – bundling in his debut with the price-slashed Genesis. Ideally, this game would help prove that the Genesis truly could do things that Nintendo wasn’t capable of, and sway kids into begging their parents for Sega’s console come the holidays.
Of course, this decision wasn’t necessarily an easy one, and almost all of the Japanese executives disapproved. Lower price for a better console? Aggressive and dirty marketing against the biggest name in gaming? Allocating resources to fund additional developers, and giving away the game’s upcoming trump card with the console? It seemed like a recipe for disaster. But Hayao Nakayama, Sega’s Japanese president at the time, wound up signing off on all of it. He told Kalinske that he was hired to handle every aspect of American marketing, so he should do what he thought was best. Early that summer, the Sega Genesis was reintroduced to the American market with a $149.99 price point and Sonic The Hedgehog as a free pack-in. Meanwhile, the Super Nintendo would launch a few months later at fifty dollars more, with Super Mario World bundled in. By the time the holidays rolled around, the best advertiser would win.
As it turned out, that was Sega. With Nintendo resting on its laurels and failing to make itself “cool” to more discerning tweens, as well as failing to explain why it was pricier to thrifty parents, Sega swooped in with edgy commercials, a low barrier to entry, and a perceivably hipper mascot than anything Nintendo could cook up. This resulted in a complete curb stomp of Nintendo for four consecutive holiday seasons, forcing Nintendo to change up its strategy as they flailed against the little company that could.
But if we put aside the marketing, the price point, and the deliberate pitching to Americans, we’re left with Sonic The Hedgehog – the game that saved the Genesis. Frankly, a lot was riding on the little guy, and if his game hadn’t delivered, the Genesis would be remembered very differently. In fact, we might not be talking about it at all. Despite what certain armchair experts today will tell you, however, there is precisely one reason why Sonic was able to turn the tide in his publisher’s favor. And while, yes, his snarky attitude, pointed commercials, and appealing design played a large part of it, I like to think the reason for Sonic’s success lies not in advertising chicanery or being the cheaper competition.
I like to think it’s because, even today, Sonic The Hedgehog is one of the finest pieces of interactive software ever created.
Sonic’s first outing represents a shift in platformers – a shift to focus on speed versus careful, methodical platforming. Instead of taking your time to explore and figure out how everything worked, Sonic instead prompted players to blast through the levels as fast as possible and to figure out the rest later. As you replayed the game, you’d realized that there were several different routes you could take in any given level, with faster clear times, more Rings, and extra lives offered as incentive for taking these routes. Players were tasked with keeping momentum and doing so without getting sloppy if they wanted to get the best times, the highest scores, and the true ending – only obtainable by collecting all the Chaos Emeralds in each zone’s bonus stage. In essence, what Sonic The Hedgehog asks of players is to be fast, be precise, and be smart.
Of course, a lot of games demand these things of players, and many of them falter. Think back to Red Ninja: End of Honor – a game that demands players to be stealthy and do precise platforming, but fails at giving you the tools to do so and therefore fundamentally fails as a game on some level. Sonic, however, gives players everything they need to succeed. The momentum-based, traction-dictated gameplay, revolutionary for the time, allowed players to build speed organically, which gave Sonic a real weight that you could play around with. At the time, few games felt like you were truly guiding a living being. Even great games like Super Mario Bros. 3, and arguably its Super Nintendo sequel, felt you were kind of just manipulating this weightless, empty doll. Sonic felt alive because of the resistance he had to immediate movement, because of the way he fell down steep hills if he wasn’t going fast enough.
All of this is to say nothing of the level design, which is complex in both its visual design and structural layout. There’s something new around every single corner of every level, and no two places feel truly the same. From the outset you’re thrown into sweeping green fields that transition into deep canyons, and are followed up by ancient Greek ruins swamped by lava, tombs flooded with water and booby traps, futuristic cities punctuated by slot machines, and so much more. You’re always kept on your toes, and along the way are invited to take in bright, sumptuous visuals unlike anything else at the time – along with the infectious and masterful soundtrack composed by a member of pedigreed J-Pop group Dreams Come True.
There was nothing else like Sonic at the time, and looking at it in 2019, it’s impossible to deny that it’s still a damn fine game. Even held against some of the very best indie platformers today, Sonic feels unique, unlike anything else that anybody was making then and that anybody has made since. It feels good, looks good, and sounds good, and offered an unprecedented degree of freedom and sense of speed for the era.
When you strip away all the hype, ad campaigns, and edgy slogans, the Genesis was the one place you could play Sonic The Hedgehog. That single, undeniable fact helped to legitimize the console against the competition, and made Sega the dominant North American and European console. But almost thirty years later, when you can play it on every conceivable platform, there’s still something special about it. There’s a magic and freshness to the game that’s very much worth experiencing for any gamer, regardless of age.
Sonic The Hedgehog is a masterpiece.