Sonic the Hedgehog: The Origins of Sega’s Speedy Mascot

Photo Courtesy: Sega

Earlier this year, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) absolutely dominated the box office. Domestically, it became the highest-grossing film based on a video game of all time. But Sonic’s success is about so much more than the surprising live-action-meets-animated movie hit. 

The blue hedgehog is everywhere. Sonic and his pals are on merchandise in shopping malls around the world, for one. Not to mention, the speedster has floated down Sixth Avenue in balloon form during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But, before all of that, Sonic found his 16-bit footing on the Sega Genesis in 1991 — and sped right to the top.

As of the beginning of 2022, there are a whopping 31 mainline titles in the Sonic the Hedgehog library. If you count all the re-releases and spin-offs — including those games that feature Sonic duking it out with Nintendo’s Mario at the Olympics — you’d have a list of over 100 releases. 

So, now that the iconic blue hedgehog is over three decades old, let’s take a look back at Sonic’s evolution, starting with his origins as Sega’s flagship character. 

The First Console War: Sonic the Hedgehog Takes on Mario

It may come as a surprise to casual fans, but Sonic was almost a dog. Can you imagine that? According to Game Developer, Sonic’s creators tried out a number of different designs before settling on the hedgehog we all know and love. Why a hedgehog? Well, conveniently, they can coil into a ball — and do some damage. And all of that makes for a lot of fun in video game form. 

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Released on June 23, 1991 on the Sega Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog was tasked with competing against other big-name platforming games. Mainly, Nintendo’s Mario — and the Super Mario Bros. series as a whole — was Sonic’s main competition.

If you’re familiar with Donkey Kong (1981), the arcade game that first introduced us to Mario, then you probably know all about rudimentary platformers — you move a character from side-to-side and jump up and down to avoid pitfalls and reach a level’s endpoint. 

Photo Courtesy: Sega

A decade later, though, there were some innovations on the simple “jump from platform to platform and avoid obstacles” formula. Even so, there weren’t many platformers that played with speed — sure, Mario and co. could run faster at the press of a button, but it wasn’t anything like Sonic’s trademark speediness. That thrill set Sonic the Hedgehog apart from other platformers, finally giving Mario some stiff competition.

Aside from the signature focus on speed, Sonic games are known for directing players to grab rings, hunt gems and protect animals (or animal-like creatures). The 2D side-scrolling platformer that started it all pulled from all of these now-iconic elements. The story, if you don’t know, sees Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Ivo Robotnik, wreaking havoc on South Island. 

Why? Good question. The island is home to the six Chaos Emeralds, which Dr. Robotnik hopes to steal so that he can harness their power. He goes to great lengths to complete his quest, even trapping the local animal inhabitants in mecha suits and capsules. Sonic’s goal, of course, is to free his animal pals and collect the Chaos Emeralds so that Dr. Robotnik can’t use them. 

Sonic Takes the ‘90s By Storm

The first game in the series became the Sega Genesis’ runaway best-seller. In 1991, it outsold Super Mario, becoming the best-selling home console game of that year with 2 million copies sold worldwide. In the five years after the first Sonic game’s release, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD, Sonic Chaos, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic Triple Trouble, Knuckles’ Chaotix, and Sonic Blast were all released for Sega consoles. 

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Photo Courtesy: DiC/Sega

Sonic was quite the ‘90s phenomenon. In fact, his charm couldn’t be contained in video games alone. Thanks to animated features and the three-season series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, the speedster’s signature personality started to shine through. He became the chili dog-loving, fourth wall-breaking ball of snark we know and love today in that first series by DiC. 

Later, that same animation studio would release Sonic the Hedgehog, a darker take on the franchise that took place in a world where Dr. Robotnik had already won. That show only lasted 14 episodes — but, hey, we’re kind of here for the dystopia of it all. 

Sonic the Hedgehog Goes 3D

In 1999, Sega released Sonic Adventure for its Dreamcast console. Although the blue hedgehog had been portrayed in 3D before on the Sega Saturn, the Dreamcast’s more impressive tech allowed for some great new features; the levels were more expansive, and you could play as other characters from the Sonic-verse, too. For the first time, Knuckles, Tails and Sonic’s other pals had important roles in a game’s story. 

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After Sega dipped out of the console wars, Sonic games appeared on consoles from other industry leaders, like Nintendo’s GameCube. In 2002, Sonic Adventure 2 really took things to new heights, introducing Shadow — the darkness to Sonic’s light — and allowing players to choose between “light” and “dark” story paths. 

Photo Courtesy: Sega

Riding on the game’s success, yet another animated series, Sonic X, hit TV screens in 2003. It was this show that introduced the franchise’s popular “Gotta Go Faster” tagline. After that, developers churned out new Sonic games, as well as re-releases, across all of the big-name consoles. And the stories got a bit… stranger. (Werehog Sonic, anyone?)

In 2011, Sonic: Generations took a stab at a multiverse narrative way ahead of today’s current trend. The game paired the 2000s version of the character with the more cutesy early ‘90s version, helping to reiterate that, although the character evolved, it’s okay to have, and hold onto, many interpretations of him. While none of these mid-2000s games were landmark, really, Generations certainly paved the way for today’s “multiverse of fastness”. 

An Enduring Icon: Sonic Speeds Onto the Silver Screen

The last major Sonic release was 2017’s Sonic Forces. Production has certainly slowed, so much so that gamers often joke that fans of Sonic are used to being let down. Perhaps surprisingly, Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog films have filled the void. Back in the early ‘90s, a movie starring Sonic almost happened, but (thankfully) it was scrapped. 

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In 2013, Sony acquired the rights to a Sonic feature film project, but movement was slow. While production on the Sonic film began in 2016, Paramount nabbed the project in 2017 — and, even if you aren’t a diehard fan, you probably remember the backlash to the character’s initial design, (and the subsequent “extreme crunch” schedule that saw animators completely re-doing Sonic’s look to align more with the games). 

Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures Studios

When it was finally released in 2020, the first Sonic film was pretty successful. It spawned this year’s box office-smashing sequel, which, if you recall, left the door open to a third installment. Jim Carrey, who plays Dr. Robotnik, has mentioned retiring, but fans are hoping he’ll stay on for one more Sonic film. But the speedster is also returning to the small screen. 

For starters, Netflix’s Sonic Prime, which deals with Sonic’s multiverse, is slated for release in 2022. This upcoming holiday season, Sega’s mascot will return to video game consoles with Sonic: Frontiers. And Paramount is even developing a Knuckles series, with hopes that Idris Elba will reprise his role from Sonic 2. It’s clear that the blue hedgehog isn’t fading into obscurity anytime soon — so, you better keep up!

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