Retro Scope: Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis)

To celebrate the release of Sonic Mania, we look back at the debut of the Blue Blur!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 08/15/2017 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis


That one word sums up what I thought of Sonic the Hedgehog the first time I ever played it. I didn’t own a Sega Genesis as a kid, but I always had a couple of family members who did. Whenever I’d visit, it was always a treat to see the Blue Blur in action.

Maybe it was something about Sega’s edgy advertising campaign, or maybe it was the cartoon show, but whatever the actual reason might be, all I know is Sonic screamed attitude. Leaned forward, a fierce look in his eyes, and those bright red shoes all made Sonic seem so different from Mario. He felt like someone I could actually hang out with.

Sonic has something of a spotty track record these days as a video game frontman, but back in the day on Genesis, there was never any question that his titles would rock. That original outing, though, has a certain spark and chutzpah that the sequels don’t. I guess the same thing can be said about a lot of different games but, in the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, perhaps it’s because of its unique development.

Sonic’s creation is largely credited to two people: artist Naoto Ohshima and designer Yuji Naka. Naka’s core vision for the game was simple: if Super Mario games can be played with only two buttons, Sonic the Hedgehog would be playable with only one. The goal was to make Sonic not just faster than Mario, but also easier to control. That sort of simplicity might have been the death knell of lesser developers, but at that point in Sega’s history the team in place was virtually unstoppable.

Simplicity of control was one thing, but Sonic himself was imbued (comparatively) with far more emotional complexity than Mario. Again, that attitude! Sega had all sorts of crazy ideas to make Sonic the coolest video game character of all time. Examples include Sonic having a band (which included Vector, who eventually became part of Team Chaotix!) and his girlfriend being Madonna. Yes, the Madonna! Nuts. Absurd. Maybe a little too much so; after all, these things didn’t ultimately make it to the screen in Sonic the Hedgehog. Still, it speaks volumes about what Sega wanted the character to be and the studio largely achieved its goal.

In the end, Sonic didn’t need any superfluous details to get his message across. He was faster and badder than any other video game character, and his game reflected that. Green Hill Zone remains one of the most iconic locales in all of gaming, owed especially to the incredible impression that it made on players. Lush greenery, shimmering waters, and that wild checkerboard motif left a lasting impression as it all whizzed by underfoot and in the background. I sat transfixed every time, mesmerized by how all those details popped right off of the screen and into my face.

Perhaps just as important as how Sonic the Hedgehog looked and played was how it sounded. The music was composed by Masato Nakamura, a Japanese musician with a career beyond the world of video games. With connections to J-Pop, Nakamura had a finger on the pulse of what was popular in mainstream Japanese pop culture, which is perhaps why Sonic the Hedgehog‘s soundtrack has such a catchy, pop quality to it. Green Hill Zone is of course very memorable, but other tunes like the one playing in Marble Zone and Spring Yard Zone definitely got more than a few toes tapping.

There are a lot of characters who were designed over the years to be competitors to Nintendo’s Super Mario, but Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog is the only one who has truly ever gotten close to dethroning him. Though the quality of his games has fluctuated over the years, this original outing remains not just one of Sonic’s best performances, but it’s also one of the greatest games of all-time. Perhaps most importantly, though? Sega showed the world that a hedgehog with ‘tude could actually be cool.

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