How Sonic the Hedgehog Sped Past the Competition

The fast-moving blue runner raced his way to video-game fame

The hedgehog became an overnight success 29 years ago.
29 years ago, Sega realized it needed a signature character to show off its new Sega Genesis system.
Courtesy of Sega

If you had lived in New York City three decades ago and spent some time in Central Park, you might have chanced upon a slender, bookish-looking man named Naoto Ohshima. And if you had perchance run into him, you’d have influenced the course of video-game history.

It was 1990. Ohshima, an artist for Sega, had flown to New York with his sketchbook. Inside were several prototypes for a character that his employer planned to build a video game around. One afternoon, Ohshima wandered into the park where he randomly approached passersby and, while displaying three characters he’d drawn—a dog, a hedgehog and a man with a mustache—asked them which one they liked best.

Hands down, it was the hedgehog.

“People pointed to it and liked it,” Ohshima recalled at last year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I reported it back to the company.”

Good thing the company listened. This informal bit of analog crowdsourcing resulted in Sonic the Hedgehog, among the most popular video game characters in history. The quick and crafty mammal has led to books, toys, a TV series, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and, most recently, a movie (see sidebar.) But foremost, he is a celebrity from the game world, and a rich one at that. As of last year, Sega had shipped over 800 million units of the Sonic game, with a total value ringing in somewhere north of $5 billion.

Sonic was born in a series of black-and-white sketches (1) by Sega artist Naoto Ohshima (2) before his video-game debut (3). By 1998, the Sonic Adventure game relaunched the character in 3D (4). In addition to crossing over into books and toys, Sonic has run the streets of Manhattan as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (5). After years of marketplace rivalry, Sonic and Mario finally faced off for real in 2007 with Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (6).
Courtesy of Sega; Courtesy of Game Developers Conference; Courtesy of Nintendo

None of this overnight success was in sight 29 years ago. Sega was a Japanese company that had first hit it big in the 1980s with arcade games. Less auspicious was its planned entry into the home video-game market, back then dominated by rival Nintendo Entertainment System and its resident plumber star, Mario. Sega realized that, to show off its new Sega Genesis system, it would require its own signature character, too.

And it would need a lot out of him. Because the 7.6 MHz processor in the Genesis was much quicker than the 3.58 MHz system that Nintendo had on the market, the mascot would have to show off the goods by running fast and rolling himself into a spinning ball. The chosen hedgehog got the name Sonic to emphasize his ability to run at the speed of sound. On his June 23, 1991, debut, the blue hedgehog was an immediate hit. As Ivo Gerscovich, svp of Sega, told Adweek, Sonic “delivered a game with speed running in it before this type of gameplay was even a thing. It was a very innovative title with a character that became an instant icon.”

Sonic wasn’t just popular because he was quick on his feet. With his blue mohawk and red shoes, “he was totally punk rock,” said Dustin Hansen, author of the video-game history Game On! If a player put the controller down, Sonic would get pissed, breaking the fourth wall to glower at the player for making him stand still. “He’d look at you like, ‘Dude! I’m fast! Why are you sitting there?’” Hansen added. “Which was fun.”

This Hedgehog Bites

It’s not like there are any rules when it comes to anthropomorphic characters, whose creators have to take considerable liberties to create them in the first place. But in May, when fans got an early look at the furry blue star of Paramount Pictures’ upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog, they ran for the hills. The problem? This “live-action” iteration of Sonic was a bit too human: His legs and especially his teeth led to a Twitter-fueled revolt. Fearful of the power of fans, Paramount hauled the hedgehog back into the studio to, in the words of director Jeff Fowler, “make Sonic just right.” The new release date has been pushed into next year.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Gaming credentials aside, it’s Sonic’s irrepressible adolescent ’tude that’s not only kept him around for so long (88 games, according to IMDb), but helped him cross over into the broader culture. “Over Sonic’s 28 years of history and up till the present day,” said Gerscovich, “he has continued to capture people’s imaginations.”

And what of Ohshima? Sonic’s creator left Sega in 2006 and these days works at game developer Arzest. But in 2016, Ohshima had a hand in Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a chance to run with that hedgehog once more.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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