Sometimes I think about the weirdness that we are willing to accept from pop culture. Mario is an Italian man who gets transported through pipes, gains power from mushrooms, and fights a giant talking turtle, yet nobody bats an eye. Speaking of bats, one of our greatest heroes is a rich guy dressed up as a giant bat, and Oscar winning movies have been made about him.
In this world of weirdness, maybe it’s no wonder that one of the most popular video game mascots of all time is a bright blue, super-fast hedgehog. At this point Sonic has been around for nearly 30 years, and has become such a well-known part of popular culture that it is not even questioned anymore.
Today, however, I will question it. How did a speedy rodent become one of the most beloved characters of the past few decades? Where did this idea come from, and how did it turn into the game we know today? Let’s find out!
Yuji Naka’n on Heaven’s Door
There are two main forces responsible for the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog as we know him today. The first is Sega’s desire to create a mascot that would rival Nintendo’s Mario. The second force was head programmer Yuji Naka, and his desire to push the limits of the Sega Genesis hardware. It is the interaction between these two forces – their conflicts and cooperation – that are responsible for the creation of this blue spiky fast mouse.
When coming up with a design for the mascot, Sega tried a number of possibilities such as a egg-shaped man (who eventually became Dr. Robotnik) and a rabbit who could pick up objects with it’s ears. However, it was developmental considerations that actually led to the creation of the final design.
When designing the gameplay for Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka was actually inspired by the work that Shigeru Miyamoto had done on the Mario games. He was impressed with Mario’s ability to navigate complex landscapes while using simple mechanics, and decided that he wanted his character to have simple controls as well. Because of this, it was decided that Sonic would only have two different controls – directional controls to move, and a button to jump.
However, Naka was not entirely impressed with Mario’s gameplay. One aspect that he particularly had trouble with was the pace of the game – he wanted it to be faster! This, coupled with a technical demo that he created in which a sprite is rotated rapidly, inspired Naka to focus the game design on having a character rolling rapidly through the stages.
The decision to only use one button also had a major impact on the design of the game. To eliminate the need to have separate buttons for jumping and attacking, it was decided that the character would damage enemies by jumping into them.
These game design considerations – the focus on speed, rolling, and jumping into enemies – eventually led to the decision that the main character would be a hedgehog. No, hedgehogs are not particularly fast (with a top speed of around 12 MPH), but they can roll their bodies into a ball. Also, because they are spiky it would make sense for them to damage enemies if they run into them in ball-form.
However, even though a hedgehog character worked well with the game mechanics it still wasn’t guaranteed that this character would be chosen. After all, Sega was looking for a character that could be a new mascot, and also wanted a design that would be popular in America. For this reason, artist Naoto Ohshima took several character designs to Central park in New York and asked people’s opinions about them. Sonic’s design, which he claimed was basically “Felix the Cat’s head on Mickey Mouse’s body”, proved to be the most popular.
Once the hedgehog was chosen, all that was left to do was finalize the design. As the counterpart to Mario, Sonic was chosen to be his opposite in many ways. While Mario was a blank, silent protagonist hero, it was decided that this new mascot would have a bit more of a “bad boy” attitude – the “Bugs Bunny” to Mario’s “Micky Mouse”.
Initially Sonic was going to be a lot more “extreme”. He was planned to have vampire fangs, play electric guitar in a band, wear a spiked collar and have an adult human girlfriend. However, these elements were dropped because Sega wanted to simplify the character and make him easier to understand.
Some of the design decisions did stick, however. The name “Sonic” was chosen for the character because of its association with speed. In addition, Sonic’s spikes became more prominent to give the character a more streamlined look. While his character was simplified, parts of his edgier persona still remained, such as Sonic getting annoyed and tapping his foot if the player stops controlling him for a few seconds.
The final change that was made to Sonic’s design was actually his color. Sonic was originally a teal color, but he was changed to dark blue late in the design process to help him stand out more against some of the level backgrounds, as well as to match the Sega logo.
Rollin’ Around at the Speed of Sound
I believe that Sonic’s character design is a huge part of his success, and is one of the reasons that this franchise has lasted as long as it has. However, a great character design is not enough to make a great video game. Luckily, Yuji Naka and the rest of Sonic Team were able push the boundaries of what a console could do, and push the limits of what video games were capable of at the time.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay was extremely innovative for the time. This innovation can be seen primarily in two main areas – the physics, and the level design. Thanks in large part to the programming prowess of Yuji Naka, Sonic was able to explore both of these areas in ways that had never been seen before.
When you compare one of Sonic’s levels to previous platformers (such as Super Mario World, which came out in 1990), the difference is obvious. Traditional platforming levels are nearly one-dimensional – you just keep moving to the right, avoiding enemies and obstacles until you reach the end. Sonic’s levels, on the other hand, are much less straightforward.
Sonic levels not only have a much greater emphasis on vertical motion, but may also require the player to backtrack through the level. Another huge difference between Sonic levels and previous platformers is the existence of curves. Sonic levels are full of slopes, loops and curves, whereas it’s predecessors consist almost entirely of blocky right angles.
I’ll be honest – I am not a huge fan of the level design in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. While the game encourages you to move quickly, it also punishes you by throwing enemies or spikes directly in your path. The levels are huge and sprawling, and it can be very easy to lose your way. The game also keeps throwing new challenges at the player without necessarily giving them the knowledge necessary to deal with that obstacle. Despite these criticisms, however, Sonic’s level designs were very innovative and influential for their time.
On the physics side, Sonic is responsible for two major innovations. The first innovation was a new system of rotations, which opened up a huge number of gameplay and level-design possibilities. The second major innovation was Sonic’s engine for handling speed and momentum. This engine not only changed the way it felt to control the character, but opened up the door for tons of interesting level obstacles.
While a new method of rotating sprites may not sound very exciting, it is actually at the very core of the Sonic experience. Nearly every aspect of this game relies upon the ability to rotate objects quickly and smoothly.
The most obvious application of this system is Sonic himself, as it is this rotation system that allows him to roll the way he does. It is also this system that allows him to move smoothly on curved surfaces, such as hills and loops. Another obvious application of this system is the “Special Stages” where players could collect the Chaos Emeralds. In these stages, the player must navigate around a level while the entire level is spinning!
If there is any aspect of Sonic’s gameplay that is potentially even more important than the rotation system, it would be the game’s momentum engine. When playing an early Sonic game, it is immediately obvious that something about the way he moves just feels different than other platformers. When Sonic moves, he doesn’t reach top speed right away. Instead, it takes time for him to slowly build up speed as he rolls, and he gains momentum more quickly when going down steeper slopes. He also doesn’t stop right away – his momentum carries him for some distance when trying to stop, and this distance is dependent on how fast he was going. The faster he moves, the harder it is to change direction.
One of the great thrills of playing a Sonic game is when you finally figure a level out and are able to zoom through it perfectly at top speed, rolling effortlessly across the landscape like a blue bullet. However, the game definitely makes you work for this experience, as the level designers seem to enjoy nothing more than messing with your momentum.
The game is full of obstacles that interact with this momentum system in interesting ways. Springs shoot Sonic up, bumpers send you flying in the opposite direction, and see-saws require you to redirect the momentum of a falling object to fling yourself up into the sky. Even more mundane aspects of the levels interact with this physics system. Want to get up a hill? Better figure out a way to gather enough momentum to make it to the top!
When you put Sonic’s unique character, level design and physics system together, it’s easy to see why players were so amazed by this game back in 1991. It was so unlike anything that players had seen before that players were able to overlook all of its flaws. It is not a perfect game – the level design in particular is very flawed – but it was so new that it blew players away. While many terrible Sonic games have been released in the nearly 3 decades since the original came out, players just can’t seem to get enough of this pokey blue speed rat.
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, when I look at the difference between a game designer and developer!