This feature originally appeared in issue 284 of Game Informer.

In the late 1980s, Mario ruled the platforming genre. With the flourishing NES dominating the console market, it seemed as though no legitimate challenger could emerge to take on Nintendo's juggernaut. That all changed when Sonic the Hedgehog launched on the Sega Genesis. Sonic quickly rose to threaten Nintendo's mustachioed plumber as the face of the video game industry. Sonic was so popular that Sega's mascot – not Mario – became the first video game character to receive a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. At one point, Sonic was on a trajectory to be more recognizable than Mickey Mouse, according to former director of marketing at Sega Al Nilsen, who cites the mascot's Q-Rating at its peak.

The popularity of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand aided Sega in rising up to face Nintendo. "Sonic really helped demonstrate what the power of 16-bit was versus an 8-bit system," Nilsen says. "It was kind of a game changer. It was the first product that became a 'must-have' product and the product that drove Genesis hardware sales. It really got us noticed and helped us to go and build a strong base as Super NES was coming out."

Since the blue hedgehog's initial release 25 years ago, Sega's mascot has fallen from grace. Inconsistent quality and brand mismanagement have caused Sonic to go from a video game character that was as recognizable (if not more) as Mario to a character that is known more for his appearances in other media.

We spoke with several prominent people from Sonic's past to determine exactly what happened. Over the course of the discussions, several factors and potential tripping points arose. It's impossible to pinpoint one fall guy or a circumstance that stood apart as a cataclysmic event for the franchise; it was instead a confluence of events that led to Sonic's departure from the video game elite. Here's how Sonic took a wrong turn and how Sega hopes to get its Blue Blur back on course.

Factor 1: A Bungled Transition To 3D

Sonic had runaway success in the 2D realm, but with new consoles on the horizon the industry was heading toward a 3D future. The Genesis titles kept pace with Mario's biggest entries, but the true test of endurance would come in the mid '90s with the leap to 3D. Sega hoped to have a revolutionary Sonic title for the Sega Saturn when it launched in May 1995, but the game was stuck in development limbo.

Sonic X-treme was under development by Sega Technical Institute, a studio that worked on games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Unfortunately, much of the STI team that worked on Sonic's greatest hits had either departed Sega or was working on Sonic creator Yuji Naka's new IP, Nights Into Dreams.

While much of Sonic's core team was away from the franchise, word reached Naka that Sega had licensed his engine for the development of Sonic X-treme. He was unhappy with the decision and fought to disallow STI from using his engine.

Though this created a hurdle for the team, Christian Senn, co-lead designer on Sonic X-treme, saw far more problems with development than Naka's objection to them using his engine. "The target platform was changed many times, which involved a lot of redesign, technology changes, redeployment of code, and a number of other significant changes to and effects on the project, the team, and morale," he says. "Engineering leadership/staff changed a number of times, which involved code changes, or even starting from scratch each time."

Senn says this rotating-door style of leadership caused the pressure to mount, as the lead of the project departed a year into development and the lead engineer and co-lead designer was demoted two years in.

Sega canceled the game, and the Saturn failed thanks in part to a lack of software in the face of more robust PlayStation and Nintendo 64 libraries. Firmly entrenched in third place, Sega and Sonic fell into the backs of gamers' minds. The future of the series was in doubt as rival platformers like Mario and Crash Bandicoot thrived in the new 3D space.

Sega had turned to a less experienced studio during a pivotal moment in the series' history, and the gamble did not pay off. The failure of Sonic X-treme meant that the series missed its chance to become a leader in 3D gaming as it had in 2D platforming. This proved to be a major setback, and Sonic was left playing catch-up.

In 1999, the Sega Dreamcast launched alongside Sonic Adventure. This represented the first time the series was presented in full 3D, which brought even more challenges thanks to Sonic's speed. Series producer and current head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka says that while they could recycle many of the assets in a sprite-based title like the Sonic games on Genesis, 3D environments don't allow for that. "Sonic's a really fast character, so we spent all this time making this huge, long, elaborate map, and then we'd run through it in like 10 or 15 seconds," he says.

The way Sonic Team worked around this was to have six distinct characters featured, each with his or her own storyline. The game was a success, garnering high praise from critics and fans, and becoming the highest-selling Dreamcast game of all time. However, the success was short-lived thanks to Sega's troubles establishing the Dreamcast. This raised new issues for the franchise.

 

On the next page, we look at how Sega's changing business affected the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.