Sonic the Hedgehog dashed onto the scene in 1991 to challenge the Super Mario Brothers’ video game dominance. Here are a few things you might not know about Sega’s iconic standard bearer.
1. HIS STORY STARTED WITH A BALL IN A TUBE.
Programmer Yuji Naka’s started small. His prototype for the game featured a simple character rolling through a long tube while inside a life-sized ball. He used this version of the game to create the algorithm that would make Sonic’s complex motion scheme possible.
2. BEFORE SEGA LANDED ON A HEDGEHOG, SONIC WAS A RABBIT.
Sega was bent on creating a character that would rival the appeal of Nintendo’s Mario. Early drafts of the brand’s hero envisioned him as a rabbit that could grasp things and fight with prehensile ears.
When Sega recognized that this design would be too technologically difficult to pull off and that having a character who would pick up and throw things would slow down the game's fast pace, the company shifted its sights to the general community of “rolling” animals that could use their bodies as weapons. They wound up with a head-to-head battle between hedgehog and armadillo. Of course, the hedgehog ultimately won, despite Sega’s concerns that most Americans wouldn’t have any idea what a hedgehog was.
3. …AND HIS NAME WASN’T ALWAYS “SONIC.”
Even after Sega settled on the hedgehog, an idea proposed by designer Naoto Ohshima, the company tried out a taxonomically confusing name for the character: Mr. Needlemouse. (Project Needlemouse would serve as the code name for the later game Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I during its development in 2009).
4. THE CHARACTER HAD SOME FAMOUS INFLUENCES.
A number of pop culture icons were gathered as resources for the character’s creation. Ohshima borrowed Felix the Cat’s head and Mickey Mouse’s body for Sonic’s basic likeness. Michael Jackson’s boots from the Bad album sleeve inspired Sonic’s patented footwear (with Santa Claus’ coloring tossed in for a sense of familiarity).
5. AND LED AN INTERESTING SOCIAL LIFE.
Sega’s staff had worked out a hefty back-story for the character, most of which was scrapped before release of his debut game. Originally, Sonic was the leader of a rock band—consisting of a parakeet (who is often mistaken for a chicken), a monkey, a rabbit, and a crocodile—as well as a skilled break-dancer. What’s more, he was also romantically involved with a woman—not a female hedgehog, but a human woman—named Madonna.
6. POP ART WAS A BIG INFLUENCE ON THE GAME.
Sega cited the work of Japanese pop artist and illustrator Eizin Suzuki as a reference for Sonic’s lively color scheme. Moreover, Akira Watanabe, who designed the game’s packaging, is quoted in the 1994 book SEGA Video Game Illustrations as saying that the company encouraged him to employ a style “similar to pop art.”
7. THE GAME’S SOUNDTRACK WAS COMPOSED BY A BIG-NAME JAPANESE BAND.
In keeping with the spirit of the above, Sonic was scored entirely by the Japanese pop group Dreams Come True, formed as a trio in 1988. The band went on to provide music for films including Sleepless in Seattle and the New Line Cinema animated film The Swan Princess.
8. SONIC’S ARCHENEMY WENT BY MANY NAMES.
As you may know, Sonic’s primary nemesis Dr. Ivo Robotnik was originally known as Dr. Eggman in Japan; Sega’s U.S. and Japanese headquarters could not agree on a universal moniker. American developer Dean Sitton came up with the Robotnik name for Sonic’s central villain, borrowing the forename Ivo from his sister’s contemporaneous boyfriend from Croatia. Other options tossed around for the baddie’s handle: Badwrench, Badvibes, Bad Year, and Fatty Lobotnik.
9. THE GAME MIGHT TAKE PLACE ON THE WEST COAST.
The game’s official setting is the fictional South Island, which may or may not be retroactively located on the likewise fictional planet Mobius (the established home of Sonic and company in a number of the franchise’s cartoon and comic series). However, the original game’s most iconic level, the Green Hill Zone, was modeled after the landscape of California.
10. SONIC LIVED UP TO HIS SPEEDY REPUTATION.
At the time of Sonic’s release, the titular hero was the fastest-moving video game character ever created. In 2001, Sonic programmer Yuji Naka told Edge magazine, “Sonic was delivering [the kind of] high speed no other [game] was capable of, and the Mega Drive allowed this stunning demonstration of rotation during the bonus stages. This was said to be impossible on the hardware at the time.”
11. BUT TECHNICALLY, SONIC HIMSELF WASN’T ALL THAT FAST.
According to the player’s manual that accompanied the game, it was Sonic’s “power sneakers” that afforded him his renowned speed, not any innate superpowers.
12. THERE WERE ACTUALLY TWO VERSIONS OF SONIC RELEASED.
The variation of Sonic the Hedgehog most prominently associated with the title is the popular 16-bit Sega Genesis version, but another version was released as well: an 8-bit game for Genesis’ predecessor, the Sega Master System and Game Gear, Sega's answer to Nintendo’s Game Boy.
A number of minor differences exist between the 16-bit and 8-bit versions. The 8-bit game sports fewer rings for Sonic to collect, more bodies of water for him to avoid, and level checkpoints that take form as monitors instead of lampposts. Additionally, 8-bit “Special Stages” differ from 16-bit ones. Most prominently, the 8-bit games lack loops through which Sonic may run, a trademark component of the Sonic franchise.
13. SONIC’s PROGRAMMER DIDN’T GET ALONG WITH SEGA.
Yuji Naka became increasingly fed up with his employing company during the process of creating and releasing Sonic the Hedgehog, primarily due to Sega’s resistance to giving the game’s developers proper credit. Shortly after Sonic’s publication, Naka severed ties with Sega’s Japanese headquarters and moved to America…only to find work at the company’s stateside office.
14. THE GAME INCLUDES A HIDDEN MESSAGE.
The most scandalous thing about the message is not in fact what it says, but the way it was embedded into the game. In a covert act of rebellion against Sega’s prohibition of post-game credits, Naka did indeed include a displayed list of the names of all parties responsible for creating Sonic, printing them on the screen that introduces the game. Since Naka printed the names in black text before a black background, they were effectively invisible and could only be seen via cheat code.