The making of Sonic the Hedgehog

Move over, Mario. The incredible story of how the world’s fastest video game mascot was born.

The making of Sonic the Hedgehog
© Sega

As a new hardback edition of Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega hits Kickstarter, the author describes how Nintendo and Sega’s bitter rivalry in the early 1990s led to the birth of a gaming icon.

By 1990 the stage was set for a full-blown war. According to Nintendo of America's Minoru Arakawa, Sega had fired the first shot by challenging its right to ‘cultivate’ the US market. According to Sega of America's Tom Kalinske, Nintendo had started it by dominating the market in true yakuza fashion, requiring developers to agree to release their games exclusively for the NES.

Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, both companies were now locked in a wrestler's embrace and determined to pin the other guy to the mat. Nintendo had the obvious advantages: reach, size, and strength. Sega enjoyed the adrenaline rush of someone with nothing to lose and a willingness to try any tactic. It had everything it needed to beat the video game industry's 900-pound gorilla save two items: a corporate mascot and a marketing campaign. Like Mario, Sega's mascot would have to be instantly recognizable, easily associated with the company, and star in one bad-ass game.

© Sega
© Sega

Regarding marketing, Sega would have to come up with a new advertising campaign that would let the average consumer know within the space of a few seconds exactly who Sega was, and what the company was all about. The mascot was addressed first in Sega’s hope to kill two birds with one stone, and develop what it hoped would be the system's first true killer app. The ensuing marketing campaign could then use the new game as a starting point and build from there. It was time to take on Mario.

Sega president Hayao Nakayama was, if anything, a meticulous planner. When it came time to take on Nintendo's mascot, he had his staff analyze everything about the plumber and try to determine just exactly what made him tick. If Nintendo considered the arrival of the Sega Genesis to be nothing less than the coming of the Antichrist, fine; Sega would take the antithesis one step further. It would conjure up its own mascot that was everything Nintendo's rotund spokesman was not.

Super Mario World
Super Mario World© http://www.flickr.com/photos/docosong/3430221488/sizes/o/

Even as the early U.S. sales figures began to come in, Nakayama put out the word to Sega's R&D teams worldwide. He wanted them to come up with a mascot and video game to compete against Mario. His instructions were quite specific: the new mascot would have to be as easily recognizable as Mario, yet as unlike him as possible. The new mascot would have to be an unorthodox character, and the game developed for him would have to reflect this. And above all else, the new mascot could not - and would not - be cute.

 We had already created some Sega heroes on the Master System, [such] as Alex Kidd, Wonderboy or again Shinobi, and it is obvious that such characters contributed to the success of this console. With the arrival of the Mega Drive it seemed to us important to create a new character that the public could identify to this console…

 - Minoru Kanari, Sega Producer

Several proposals were submitted and rejected, with the one coming closest to acceptance by an American. Programmer Mark Voorsanger’s submission was a pair of "funkadelic" aliens named ToeJam and Earl, who were both very cool. Nakayama liked the idea - and the game - but had two problems with it: first, ToeJam and Earl were too laid back for his sensibilities. Second, they were too American in nature. It was a noble effort, but Nakayama wanted a mascot with worldwide appeal.

Rejected as Sega’s mascots, ToeJam and Earl were still deemed appealing enough that their game was greenlit. If nothing else, it would be yet another completely original offering in the growing Genesis library. The solution to Nakayama's problem was still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. "Ah, if only we had the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto on our staff!" he would often reflect to himself.

© Sega

And then he heard from someone in his own back yard. One of the programming teams from Sega of Japan - Sega Consumer Department #3, aka AM8 - had come up with a mascot, and a game to go with it. Intrigued, Nakayama contacted the team leader, Shinobu Toyoda, and asked to see it and the man who would be responsible for the game. Together with project director Naoto Oshima and lead programmer Yuji Naka, Toyoda took their work to Nakayama's office for review. When all was said and done, Nakayama nodded his approval. The presentation had been most impressive, and it was obvious to him that AM8's lead programmer was a very talented young man. Nakayama had found what he sought, and Sega had found its Miyamoto.

Yuji Naka was born on September 17, 1965 in the old provincial city of Osaka. A bright, energetic young lad, he found himself as a teenager attracted to the music of Riyuchi Sakamoto and his Yellow Magic Orchestra. His love for Sakamoto's synthesized strains were what led him into his lifelong attraction to computers, and the new phenomena known as video games. Naka not only played every one on which he could get his hands, but analyzed them, trying to figure out how they worked. Shortly thereafter, he began coding his own.

The gifted young student could have had his choice of any of Japan’s top colleges, but passed on enrollment. Given Japan's cultural emphasis on a good education, this was a daring move, but Naka did not feel like wasting four or more years at university when the personal computer revolution was unfolding about him. In 1983 the newly graduated Naka moved to Tokyo and applied for employment with Namco, at the time the world's leading arcade video game company. His lack of a college degree hampered any chance he had, and Namco did not offer him a job. Undaunted, he continued to shop his talents around and in 1984 found himself working as an entry-level coder at Sega.

The mid-1980s were tough years for Sega - struggling against Nintendo like everybody else - but Naka made the most of it. It was a steady job, and creating video games was one of the things he truly loved to do. Quickly earning a reputation as a micro-managing perfectionist, it was not unusual for him to be heard arguing with his co-workers over some seemingly insignificant coding detail. "Not just programming," Naka would comment many years later, "everything...the graphics, the pictures. I'm really careful about everything." It was a personality profile that fit well with Nakayama's autocratic management style, although Naka was hardly known to Sega's boss until his programming efforts bore fruit.

Naka's very first effort for Sega was Girl's Garden for the SG-1000, its first home console system. Over the next seven years, Naka's programming excellence demonstrated itself in a number of impressive original games and console conversions for Sega. His credits during this period include such legendary titles as OutRun, Space Harrier, and the groundbreaking RPG Phantasy Star - widely regarded as the best game ever released for the Master System.

© Sega

In 1988 his team was detailed to begin developing software for the Genesis, and again Naka made his programming presence felt. He was the one responsible for Super Thunder Blade, a port of the arcade original and one of the system's two launch titles, and no one else could have been called upon to develop the system's first hit RPG, Phantasy Star 2.

After that monumental effort, he assisted in the port of Capcom's Dai Makai Mura (aka Ghouls 'n' Ghosts), spending much of his spare time trying to figure out how to make Nintendo cartridges work with the Genesis. His efforts would eventually result in the world's first video game system emulator; although he knew it could never be released. All this gained him the respect of his fellow AM8 team members, who were willing to put up with his idiosyncrasies because he was obviously one hell of a good coder.

It was in the first few months of 1990 that AM8 got the directive from Nakayama to come up with a new company mascot and a game to go with it. Team leader Shinobu Toyoda and his staff began bouncing around ideas. The first character they came up with was a rabbit-like being with long, extendable ears that could pick up and throw objects at his enemies, but it proved difficult to execute and the concept was abandoned.

Looking at the rough sketches one day in April, Naka remarked to fellow team member Naoto Oshima that what was needed was something fast. Oshima was intrigued, so Naka continued. Years ago, he’d conceived of a character that could roll himself into a ball and then slam into his enemies, knocking them over. "You're talking about a hedgehog," Oshima replied. "Yeah," said Naka, "you're right." Both grinned as the realization dawned upon them. Naka elaborated on the character’s creation in a 1992 interview with Sega Visions:

At first we used a character that looked like a rabbit with ears that could extend and pick up objects. As the game got faster and faster, we needed to come up with a special characteristic to give our character some power over his enemies. I remembered a character I had thought about years ago who could roll himself into a ball and slam into enemies. Hedgehogs can roll themselves into a ball, so we decided to go from a rabbit to a hedgehog.

True to its nature, the new character evolved quickly over the next few days. He would be blue because that was the color of Sega's corporate logo. And as a round ball did not offer much visual impact, and quills could not be easily depicted on screen, he was given spiked hair. As he would be a fast character - and hedgehogs are not known for speed - he was given a pair of running shoes. These sneakers would also serve as a good power-up in the game that Naka was now beginning to code.

One day, Naka gave his fellow AM8 team members a demonstration of his earliest efforts on the new game. They watched in amazement as the speedy blue hedgehog zipped around the screen. "You know, that fellow's supersonic," one of the team members remarked. Naka never forgot the comment. The hedgehog now had a name.

Early concept art for Sonic
Early concept art for Sonic© Sega
Early concept art for Sonic
Early concept art for Sonic© Sega

Sonic's very look conveyed his attitude, so Naka built his new game to showcase as much of AM8's new star - a fast, impudent little fellow who blazed his way through intricately designed levels - as he could. Originally conceived as a power-up, what would become Sonic's trademark red sneakers soon became an essential part of the character. He needed them, because he was almost always on the move. And Sonic wasn’t limited to simply running; he could exert extra bursts of speed when needed, and went even faster when rolled up into a blue, spikey-haired ball.

Since Sonic seemed to crave being in constant motion, Naka added an extra programming touch: If Sonic stood still for too long due to player inaction, he would give the gamer a cross look and begin tapping his foot impatiently. And Naka didn’t stop there. Each and every move that Sonic made was exquisitely animated: running, jumping, leaping, falling, spinning, and so on. Sonic had a unique pose and facial expression for every move in his ample repertoire. Levels were large, colorful, highly detailed, and best played with Sonic scooting along at full tilt all the way.

 Sonic’s come a long way in 20 years
Sonic’s come a long way in 20 years© Sega

The game Naka wound up creating is often, aptly compared to a 2D side-scrolling roller coaster ride, and helped to emphasize the differences between Sonic and Mario. In comparison to the speedy little blue hedgehog - with his punkish, spiked hair and rebellious attitude to match - Mario seemed a fat, slow, lackadaisical old fart. The rest of the game was built around Sonic's colorful and stylized world, and he was given an arch nemesis that could seemingly kick King Koopa's ass any day of the week.

Doctor Ivo Robotnik (AKA "the Eggman," as he’s known in Japan) didn't have to recruit his underlings – he created them. Tapping into a common Japanese theme of encroaching mechanization, Naka made the Eggman a mad scientist bent on industrializing the entire world. His goons were actually Sonic's fellow animals trapped inside mechanical shells; Sonic could rescue them by cracking shells open with his trademark rolling ‘spin attack.’

Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog© Sega

It all seems so obvious now that gamers today tend to take Sonic's success for granted, but what’s key to remember are the circumstances that brought it about. Sonic was Sega's answer to Mario, and if he proved anything less than a total success, it would have been quite easy for Nintendo to bury the Genesis beneath SNES hype. The fate of the company was now resting in the hands of Yuji Naka and his fellow team members at Sega AM8, and no one, not even Naka himself, could be sure the gamble would pay off.

Nakayama was betting the company's future on Naka's efforts, but he wasn’t about to bet the bank. Under his direction, Sega quietly built up a $400 million dollar contingency fund, to see the company through hard times should Sonic fail to deliver the goods, until new ideas could be developed. Years later, former Sega of America president Michael Katz would say: "We thought it was silly, but to the credit of (Naka's) game, which was so good, the character of Sonic became established... The character could have been anything, but it was a hedgehog which would have died a dismal death had it not been for a very good game."

Service Games: The Rise And Fall of Sega: Enhanced Edition by Sam Pettus, David Munoz, Kevin Williams and Ivan Barroso is available to buy on Amazon. The Kickstarter campaign for the hardback edition is live now.