Bits & Bytes: Button

This week, Robert has Sonic on his mind thanks to the latest issue of Retro Gamer!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 08/01/2021 22:29 Comment on this     ShareThis

Bits & Bytes is a weekly column where Editor-in-Chief Robert shares his thoughts about video games and the industry on a lazy Sunday. Light reading for a day of rest, Bits & Bytes is short, to the point, and something to read with a nice drink.

Issue #221 of UK publication Retro Gamer just hit American shops and I picked up my copy today. Sonic the Hedgehog is the cover star, with a whole celebration inside for the series’ 30th anniversary. It got me thinking about all of the effort that went into producing the first game. When Yuji Naka set out to create the original Sonic the Hedgehog, part of the mission statement from SEGA was to produce a legit rival to Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. series. So far, no one had really come close to Nintendo’s success with its mustachioed plumber siblings. SEGA itself had failed with its own previous mascot effort in Alex Kidd. The pressure was on: beat Nintendo and make something that would sell well in the US.

Development of Sonic the Hedgehog has some fun trivia, for sure, much of it revolving around efforts to make the character “cool.” This included wanting Sonic to be the frontman of a rock band and for his girlfriend to be Madonna. Bonkers, right? Although it’s interesting to realize that even as far back as the series’ origin SEGA was trying to get Sonic to date a human, but I digress. Artist Naoto Ohshima put a lot of effort into getting Sonic’s look just right. The team oscillated between different possible animals to play the part, but Oshima’s hedgehog was the winner—he even took sketches with him to New York to ask Americans what they thought of the design and got a lot of positive feedback from SEGA’s targeted demographic. Sonic is truly one of the most iconic mascots ever created, regardless of medium, all thanks to Oshima’s ingenious mix of Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat.

Among the numerous tidbits about Sonic’s creation is this great nugget: Naka wanted the game to be playable using a single button. Speed was always at the core of Sonic’s game design, but Naka believed in crafting a control scheme with what he felt would be an even over lower bar of entry than the one in Super Mario Bros. It worked very well, too. Sonic’s speed is dictated by the momentum he builds up from heading downhill and avoiding obstacles, while the only other action he’s capable of that isn’t tied to the d-pad is jumping. As controls go, Sonic’s are easy to learn within a few seconds of picking up the game.

It’s this idea of controlling Sonic with a single button that is a favorite of mine. Often, people like to discuss how the more limiting specs of early video game hardware helped foster some truly creative examples of innovation. In this instance, SEGA self-imposed a limitation and made it work so well that to this day, Sonic (in 2D at least) is still controlled using only a single input. Even the eventual additions of the Spin Dash and Drop Dash haven’t necessitated the introduction of another button into the mix. It’s not the flashiest bit of design work the industry has ever seen, but it’s certainly still one of the most elegant. The ensuing war between SEGA and Nintendo continues to get a ton of attention even now, sometimes so much so that I feel like the quality of the Genesis Sonic games don’t get quite enough love. Thankfully, Sonic Mania helped to remind everyone how damned good Sonic is when you cut out the crap and get back to basics and throw in just enough new.

Still waiting on Sonic Mania 2 by the way, SEGA. Also, if you’ve yet to read an issue of Retro Gamer, stop denying yourself its magnificence and go order yourself a subscription. No, this doesn’t give us any kickbacks—I just really freaking love this magazine!

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