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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.
Email the author Brian Shea, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.