It’s amazing to think that Sega’s iconic blue mascot is now 25-years-old. He’s starred in some of the Mega Drive’s greatest platformers and appeared in over 80 different videogames. Never afraid to star in new games, he’s tried his hand at racing games, fighting games and much more. To celebrate this special day, Retro Gamer speaks to Sonic’s creator, Yuji Naka, about the origins of the original Mega Drive classic.
Before Sonic span onto the scene in a dazzling blur of cobalt blue, Sega’s previous attempts to create a company mascot had been unsuccessful. Their primary intent was to capture hearts in the same way that Mario had done for Nintendo, but nothing seemed to fit. Fantasy Zone’s ovoid spaceship
Opa-Opa is often referred to as the very first mascot, briefly holding on to the honour until a tracksuit-wearing, rock-smashing prince named Alex Kidd came along and took his paper crown.
But when creating Alex, it’s debatable that Sega had hit upon the key ingredients that would give them a character to match the might of Mario. Younger and more athletic than Nintendo’s tubby talisman, trained in a martial art and able to drive an assortment of vehicles, Alex exhibited many of the same characteristics that Sega would imbue into Alex’s spiny successor. For connecting with a young audience, Alex certainly had a lot going for him. Unfortunately, he had a tough time competing against Nintendo’s all-conquering NES, which at one time could be found in 1 in 4 American households.
Few levels are as recognisable as Green Hill Zone
Two years after the 1989 release of the Genesis in North America, Sega found itself in a fairly strong position stateside. Its arcade machines Space Harrier, OutRun and Shinobi were proving popular coin-guzzlers, and its powerful new 16-bit successor to the Master System was also selling well thanks to its impressive visuals and early library of arcade tie-ins. But conscious that Nintendo was preparing to release its 16-bit successor to the NES any day now, Sega knew it needed to find itself a Mario, and fast.
So it was that Sega of Japan famously set its best designers the task of coming up with a brand new hero to represent the company and its new console. During the initial ideas stage many designs were pitched and considered; rabbits, armadillos, even human characters, but in the end it was a teal-coloured hedgehog that was finally selected, put forward by artist Naoto Oshima, who had previously worked as a designer on the first two Phantasy Star games.
Originally dubbed Mr Needlemouse, Oshima’s creation went through a number of changes before becoming the zippy blue hedgehog we know today. Early concepts for the character, which were dropped as a result of a makeover by Sega of America, had him playing in a rock band, his mouth drawn with fangs, and in a relationship with a blonde human girl named Madonna.
Fail to reach the bubbles in time and poor old Sonic would drown.
For obvious reasons Sonic’s colour was altered to Sega blue, while Oshima has revealed that Sonic’s iconic red power sneakers were inspired by a combination of the belt-strapped boots Michael Jackson’s wore on the cover of his album Bad and the colour of Santa Claus, whom Oshima regarded at the time as the most ‘famous character in the world.’ Blending all these visual elements together, Sega hoped it had the perfect character to appeal to an American market. All Oshima needed now was a striking game to show his creation off, and it was here that Sega bosses turned to a talented programmer named Yuji Naka.
Naka had become renowned in the company for his impressive programming skills thanks to his work on Phantasy Star. He had also proven his skill for tackling the platform genre, with an impressive Mega Drive conversion of Ghouls’n Ghosts. And so Sega asked Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara, Sonic’s game planner/level designer, to help Oshima bring Sonic to life and become the driving force in a team of AM8 developers. They were later famously renamed Sonic Team.
When work on the project began, Naka was adamant the game should be fast and exhilarating to show off the impressive processing speed of the Mega Drive. An important cornerstone for the game, Yuji Naka explains how it was Super Mario Bros. that inspired him to create the fastest platformer the world had ever seen.
You won’t be a true Sonic master unless you get all the Chaos Emeralds.
“Every time I played the first stage I wondered why I couldn’t clear it faster, the better I got playing it.” Naka explains. “This feeling must have been the beginning of the idea of Sonic, as you get good at playing you can run through the stage really fast. I think Sonic itself turned out to be a totally different concept to Super Mario Bros. But I do feel it was a game that affected me very positively. There is a part in Sonic 1 where Sonic swims in the water and eats bubbles to take his breath to go on. I was very happy when Super Mario Bros. later used a similar system in one its sequels, because I felt we were inspiring each other.”
Meanwhile, Yasahura’s approach to Sonic’s level design was to create them in such a way that they would appeal to both casual and hardcore gamers. He set about achieving this by mixing fun level elements with challenging obstacles and moving parts. Of the seven zones in the game, Sonic’s opening stage Green Hill Zone became the most iconic. A vibrant place featuring blue skies, lush green grass, chequerboard tunnels and loop the loops; the perfect playground for Sonic to showcase all his abilities. It was a brilliantly attention-grabbing introduction for gamers, and for those who had never owned a console. So where did inspiration for this iconic stage come from?
“Green Hill Zone was inspired by California,” Naka answers simply. “Also we were aiming to show the latest computer graphics at that time, which were using polygon and ray tracing, through pixel art to make it look very new. With regards to the colours, I believe they were inspired by a picture drawn by Eizin Suzuki.”
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