This June marks the 30th anniversary of an iconic and timeless video game mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. After arriving on the Sega Genesis—the 16-bit little console that could—on June 23, 1991, the game quickly became a buzzworthy system seller and corporate mascot. It was a defining character of the ’90s, and a phenomenon the company needed to stand a chance against rival Nintendo.
The brainchild of Yuji Naka, Sonic the Hedgehog touted vibrant graphics and innovative level design. The speed of its gameplay ran rings around Mario and became the emphasis of Sega’s famously angsty and clever “Sega Does What Nintendon’t” marketing campaign. Let’s not forget Sonic’s image and design itself, with that spunky attitude, odd blue color, and enigmatic attributes completely the opposite of a real hedgehog. Sonic had it all, a recipe for success in the ’90s video game market. Sega pushed Sonic as the cooler option for teens and adults—Mario was for kids. And it worked. The 16-bit system wars were the stuff of legend. Sonic was how Sega gained a 65 percent market share over Nintendo.
Sonic had edge, becoming an overnight sensation, spanning a franchise with multiple sequels, an animated television show, and a hefty lineup of merchandise. But by the mid-’90s, after Yuji Naka and development company Sonic Team turned their attention to new projects and ideas, Sonic became that childhood actor entering tumultuous adolescence. By the time Sega’s 32-bit Saturn console launched in the US, Sonic was suffering from a crisis of identity. Could Sonic have gone too fast?
Sonic X-treme was supposed to be Sonic’s next great leap into maturity. His first real foray into 3D became an apt metaphor for the lengths Sonic would go in an attempt to find some semblance of himself in the world of three dimensions. Developed internally at Sega Technical Institute as an attempt to show off Sonic’s growth as a character and mascot, Sonic X-treme might have been doomed from the beginning. It arrived at a time when gamers craved something more mature, the “edge” of yesteryear now simply the latest crop of CD-based game consoles. The game was eventually canceled after extensive internal politics derailed it, including difficulty with Sonic Team’s game engine (the same one used for Nights into Dreams) and the lead developers falling ill from intense frustration. In a last-ditch effort, Sega ported the isometric game Sonic 3D Blast to Sega Saturn. It wasn’t enough and spelled something dire for the Saturn’s tenure in the marketplace.
By 1997, the Saturn still didn’t have a true 3D Sonic game, and both Sega and its audience had become more than a little desperate. To put a band-aid on the problem, the company enlisted Traveller’s Tales, the studio responsible for porting Sonic 3D Blast to the Sega Saturn, to work in collaboration with Sonic Team on what would be the only 3D Sonic game on the console: an “on-foot” racing game called Sonic R. The game was a muddled mixture of interesting track design and recognizably colorful graphics, but ultimately suffered from difficult and cumbersome gameplay. The game was like trying to walk on ice barefoot while drunk, and it was common to have characters stumbling off the track. It makes you ask: What exactly was Sonic running from?
In this case, perhaps Sonic was looking for an outlet for all that adolescent angst. Sonic the Fighters is exactly what it sounds like: Sonic and his pals (along with a handful of new characters) are dropped into the Virtua Fighter/Fighting Vipers engine with practically the same gameplay but none of the depth. The game made it into arcades in 1996, around the same time Sonic was running (off) track with Sonic R. The Saturn port was canceled for reasons that had likely to do with the demise of the Saturn in the states.
Largely considered by fans to be the best Sonic offering on the Sega Saturn, Sonic Jam was little more than a spruced-up compilation of the Genesis games. The idea was simple: The original four Genesis games in one package. 1997 saw Sega in damage control. Sonic Team immediately started porting the 16-bit quintet of classics after completing Nights into Dreams. The goal was to steer Sonic back on track and save face, considering Sonic’s marketing relevance was waning by the end of the decade.
Included in the collection was an interactive hub called “Sonic World,” where players could control Sonic in a 3D environment, the only thing Sonic Team had deemed salvageable from the ill-fated Sonic X-Treme.
After the failure of the Saturn, Sega quickly abandoned the system and went full throttle into the future, aiming high with the Dreamcast. This time, they made sure Sonic was ready for launch. The result was every bit what X-Treme should have been and more. Sonic Adventure was a rich, colorful adventure with a vast array of characters and gameplay, all spun around 128-bit next-generation 3D graphics. The game featured six playable characters, including series stalwarts Knuckles and Tails, and newcomers Amy Rose, Big the Cat, and E-102 Gamma, all joining Sonic in their search for the seven chaos emeralds to stop Eggman (Dr. Robotnik). Adventure was everything the original 16-bit games were, in full-fledged immersive 3D realms. Sonic Team added depth to the platformer by offering unique gameplay for each of its playable characters.
Sonic Adventure became a system seller when it launched in September 1999 alongside Namco’s weapons-based fighter Soul Calibur. Adventure and its sequel demonstrated Sonic’s renewed poise and maturity, a confident new direction in the franchise.
Despite consistently excellent hardware and software, Sega was struggling financially and announced their exit from the console business in 2001. The company shifted to become a third-party developer across all major consoles. This period is remembered as a time of confusion, with countless ports of games like Phantasy Star Online, Virtua Fighter 4, and, of course, both Sonic Adventure games. Perhaps most surprising was the fact that the Sonic games ended up on their main rival’s console, the Nintendo GameCube.
Sonic Team retained the reins to the franchise, working on what would become 2003’s multiplatform platformer Sonic Heroes. The game retained the colorful and fast-paced gameplay from Sonic Adventure while also appealing to a wider audience. This meant a distinctive streamlining of the gameplay. Players chose a team of three to navigate the game world. Sonic Team’s choice to begin anew rather than give fans a sequel to the popular Sonic Adventure series would turn out to be a questionable one.
On the surface, it appeared as though Sonic had found himself. He continued moving forward from one adventure to the next. But after Sonic Heroes, Sega reformed Sonic Team into “Sega Studios,” a move that predicted the next couple of years of internal developmental issues.
The team’s first title. Shadow the Hedgehog, was a spinoff starring one of Sonic Adventure 2’s more recognizable characters. The game was enough of a departure in gameplay, with the shooting elements found in Shadow’s sequences in Sonic Adventure 2 becoming a large part of the game. Shadow the Hedgehog might have been a commercial failure, but it ended up selling well, contributing to a middling new direction for Sonic.
Can you guess where Sonic ran next? Back to racing. Sonic Riders was made to be like its inspiration, Sonic R, but with a focus on the increasing popularity of esports, which in 2006 was still in its infancy. Sonic’s jump into the seventh generation of consoles (the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) was, to say the least, uninspired. The next game was set to be a rebirth, of sorts; it would go back to the very beginning and would capture the magic of the original 16-bit game for the next-generation consoles.
Much like in Sonic X-treme, the beloved mascot hit another speedbump and identity crisis. Yuji Naka resigned from the project; Sega executives placed many of the same pressures on Sega Studios, stressing how important it was that the game be a complete reboot of the franchise. They applied strict deadlines, which contributed to a rushed development. For a game that was positioned to be Sonic’s step into true adulthood with confidence and verve, it became the worst in the entire franchise. Sonic fans pointed to the reboot as the cause for Sonic hitting rock bottom, a curse on Sonic and subsequent games in the franchise for years to come.
You can understand the rise and fall of Sega looking at its iconic mascot. Thirty years ago, a blue hedgehog duped fans everywhere into thinking hedgehogs actually ran fast and were blue. Sonic captured the excitement of gamers and grew alongside them, hitting one milestone after another but not without undergoing numerous hurdles and lessons.
There is hope on the horizon for the franchise. In 2017, Sonic Mania was a commercial and critical success, effectively an homage to Sonic’s first four games, complete with vibrant 2D pixel graphics and speed-influenced level design. It became the highest rated and best received Sonic game since his heyday on the Sega Genesis. Perhaps the game is every bit an homage as it is a demonstration that Sonic didn’t need to reinvent himself in order to grow. All he needed was to keep going fast.
- 📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!
- The 60-year-old scientific screwup that helped Covid kill
- The cicadas are coming. Let’s eat them!
- Decades-old flaws affect almost every Wi-Fi device
- How to take a slick, professional headshot with your phone
- What a crossword AI reveals about humans’ way with words
- 👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database
- 🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable mattresses to smart speakers