Twenty years ago, Sega took a bold gamble in its bid to unseat Nintendo as king of the console realm. The company released Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis on June 23rd, 1991, unleashing the company's speedy mascot onto the world for the first time.
The iconic spiny mammal saved Sega's console in its hour of need and spawned a massive franchise that spans dozens of releases for every Sega console (and plenty of non-Sega platforms since 1998). And whether we like it or not, Sonic started a trend of animal game characters with ‘tudes that continues to this day.
To celebrate the anniversary, I dove headfirst the annals of Sonic lore to pull out oddities for your entertainment.
You might also want to read Sonic the Hedgehog: This Is Your Life.
Sonic’s Evil Twin?
It's no secret that Mario and Sonic were fierce rivals during the console wars of the 1990s. As a result, the two characters' parent companies (Nintendo and Sega) often took the opportunity to pick on each other's mascots. This gentle ribbing usually rook place in advertising, but occasionally it made its way into games like Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (1995) for the Super NES.
In one level of that game, Yoshi and Mario encounter an enemy called "Harry Hedgehog" that inflates itself up if the pair gets too close. Curiously, Nintendo chose the color blue for Harry's spines, which could very well be a reference to Sonic.
Sonic in the Flesh
Despite Sonic's popularity in the US, few Americans have seen an actual hedgehog. That's mostly because the small, spiny creatures are not native to North America.
And though Sonic hails from Japan, no hedgehog species is native to Japan either.
The spiny fellow pictured here is a domesticated African Pygmy Hedgehog, which is a hybrid of several species found in the wild. This common hedgehog variety may have been what Sonic's designers had in mind when they thought "hedgehog," because it's a popular pet breed in Japan.
Sonic Meets Tetris
To play Sonic Eraser on your Sega Mega Drive (the Japanese Genesis), a gamer needed the Mega Modem (seen here), a subscription to the Sega Meganet service, and a Sega Game Library cartridge. The player would then dial up the Meganet service and download Sonic Eraser and save it on the Game Library cartridge.
Despite all this hullabaloo, the game has very little to do with Sonic aside from the Sonic sprite seen here standing next to the puzzle playfield. Still, it's a little-known part of Sonic lore.
(Modem Photo: Boffy B)
Desperately Seeking Sonic
During the creation of the original Sonic the Hedgehog title, Sonic's designers intended to give Sonic a human love interest named Madonna (I swear I'm not making this up), a lovesick woman who wouldn't leave Sonic alone.
It's uncertain whether Madonna would have appeared in the game's action sequences or would have merely been a part of the back story, but one thing is clear: it's a good thing a female Sega of America employee nixed the Madonna idea early on for being too bizarrely Japanese. A 2006 Sonic game featureda kiss between Sonic and a realistic human teenager, and the result still makes Sonic fans gag.
Urkel the Hedgehog
Few people know that none other than Steve Urkel himself - American actor Jaleel White - provided the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog in three Sonic cartoon series: The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (1993), Sonic the Hedgehog (1993-94), and Sonic Underground (1999-2000).
While giving voice to Sonic, White also portrayed arch-nerd Steve Urkel from 1990 to 1998 on the hit American sitcom "Family Matters." The actor had trouble landing other roles after being so strongly identified with the character of Urkel, so he turned to voice acting. His characterization of Sonic remains a fan favorite to this day.
(Urkel Photo: Mario Casilli)
The Master System’s Swan Song
Upon Sonic the Hedgehog's 1991 release, Sega emphasized that the speedy title was something only the Genesis was capable of playing (it coined the term "Blast Processing" to define this concept) vs. Nintendo's 16-bit Super NES.
Ironically, Sonic showed up on two 8-bit Sega consoles that same year: the Master System and the Game Gear. While not as colorful as its Genesis counterpart, the Master System version did a fine job of portraying Sonic's trademark speed.
Sega barely supported the Master System by 1991 due to its poor performance in the face of the NES juggernaut. It's no surprise that Sonic the Hedgehog was the last licensed game released for the Master System in North America.
An Illicit, High-Speed Mario
The world of unlicensed, black market video games has brought more than its share of oddities to the console area. Exhibit A is the game "Somari," a bizarre mashup of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog created for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
In Somari, the player guides Mario in a speedy, Sonic-like fashion through levels pulled from the Genesis version of Sonic the Hedgehog. It's not a great game, but the technical achievement of stuffing a play-alike clone of Sonic in an 8-bit NES game should not be overlooked. Illegal titles like this were available only in Asia and rarely made their way to the US due to strict trade laws.
Sonic the Rabbit
Around 1990, Sega decided it was time to to formulate its own answer to Mario. Executives solicited ideas from the entire company for characters that could star in their own Mario-whupping title. Among the suggestions were a large man with a mustache, a clown, a hedgehog with a ‘tude, and a jubilant rabbit (seen here in a Sega development sketch).
The rabbit character became a strong contender, and Sega developers put together a demo game in which the rabbit used his ears to pick up and throw objects. The hedgehog won out in the end, however, and the rest is history.
Leaving the Sega Ecosystem
More than any other element in Sega's early 1990s strategy, Sonic the Hedgehog saved Sega's console business. In the mid-1990s, however, the company missteped with all its products and lost its lead in the home market. It also failed to produce a solid Sonic title for its flagship Saturn console.
So maybe it's not that surprising that the company authorized Sonic's first official appearance on a non-Sega game console in 1998: Sonic Jam for the Tiger Game.com. The game, like the system it shipped for, was a horrible abomination. It played terribly and only loosely tied-in with the Sonic Jam compilationreleased for the Saturn around the same time.
(Photos: Tiger, Sega)
Light Up with Sonic
Like other popular video game characters, Sonic's likeness has appeared on literally hundreds of different non-video game products. Seen here are two of the strangest: a Sonic cigarette lighter that tied-in with the Japanese arcade titleSegaSonic the Hedgehog (1993) and two cans of Sonic-themed pasta from the early 1990s and the Dreamcast-era.
You can see dozens more examples of Sonic franchise merchandise over at the Sonic Gear website.
(Photos: Sonic Gear)
“Sonic the Real Hedgehog”
Back in 2008, German artist Marcus Blättermann set out to create a digital painting of Sonic as if he were a real hedgehog. On his website, Marcus wrote of the challenge of translating the fanciful character into a realistic creature:
"The original Sonic looks everything but realistic. He is so stylized, that it's hard to tell if he is a hedgehog at all. This made it hard to find a middle course between the initial design and the look of a real hedgehog."
Marcus pulled through with an amazing rendering. He even created a small piece of "real Sonic" pixel art (seen in the corner) that shows what the first game may have looked like if the hedgehog's creators had used nature as their guide.
(Illustration: Marcus Blättermann)
Sonic Saves Mario
While Sega just recently released Sonic the Hedgehog 4 in late 2010, a Peruvian pirate game group beat them to it by 14 years. In 1996, the unlicensed programmers took the Super NES game "Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos," inserted Sonic-themed graphics, and called the result "Sonic the Hedgehog 4."
Amusingly, the pirate game sees Sonic rescuing numerous Marios (seen here) that have been caged up by an unknown entity. In reality, it seems likely that Sonic would have just raced past them without stopping.
Sonic the Gene
In the early 1990s, Sonic made a strange leap into the world of science when researchers Cliff Tabin, Andy Mahon and Phil Ingham discovered that a previously unnamed member of thehedgehog gene family was responsible for creating limb symmetry in animals. The trio named the gene "sonic hedgehog" after the Sega video game character.
In 2007, the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (which establishes the official names for human genes) voted to change the name of sonic hedgehog and other whimsically-named genes that have become an embarrassment when doctors need to discuss genetic problems with their patients.
(Protein Illustation: Peter Znamenskiy)
The Jackson 3?
Through clever detective work, Sonic fans recently discovered that Sega asked Michael Jackson to compose the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1993). But there's a problem: While the songs sound like his style, Jackson isn't credited.
Various theories exist as to why Jackson's involvement in Sonic 3 has never been acknowledged by Sega. One of the most credible deals with the fact that Jackson was accused of child molestation around that time. Another put forth by one of Jackson's writing partners says that Jackson was unsatisfied with the console's sound hardware.
Either way, it appears some of Jackson's influence remains in the Sonic 3 soundtrack, as a few of the songs bear striking similarities of Jackson's music from the 1990s.
A Squeeze of Sonic
I leave you with one last piece of strange Sonic-themed merchandise: a 1991 bottle of Daddies Tomato Ketchup from the UK. While the thought of squeezing Sonic onto your hot dog is unappealing enough, I'm just hoping they didn't fill it with blue ketchup. Happy 20th, Sonic.
(Photos: Mr. Jakeway / UK Resistance)
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