It’s commonly understood that Sonic was Sega’s ace in the hole to compete with Nintendo back in the ’90s when the rival publisher needed its own mascot to represent the Genesis console. Since then, Sega has exited the hardware business, but the blue blur has persisted in spite of a nearly consistent stream of mediocre titles. Sega stumbled for numerous reasons, but there was a science and history behind the hedgehog’s appeal, which might help explain how he stands the test of time. Sonic’s original character designer Naoto Oshima and game designer Hirokazu Yasuhara explained that history during at talk at GDC.
The pair of creators gathered at the Game Developer’s Conference this week and talked about how Sega challenged them to crack the code on what makes a mascot. They considered making Sonic an armadillo, porcupine, dog, or even “an old guy with a mustache.” Interestingly enough, while Oshima was on a trip in New York, he asked passersby which concepts they liked best and showed off sketches he’d drawn. The hedgehog proved to be the most popular. Oshima chalks this up to his recognizable features like his blue spikes and connected eyes, which were simple enough for kids to draw, like Mickey Mouse. In addition, the fact that Sonic is an oddly-colored animal allows him to “transcend race and gender and things like that.”
One of the most interesting details is that Sonic The Hedgehog’s premise is founded in a fake story about an aviator. Oshima was fascinated by American culture and things like “leather jackets and plane nose art.” When he started to design Sonic, he conceived of a background story about a pilot nicknamed “Hedgehog” whos hair stuck up when he flew. This pilot married a children’s book author, who took inspiration from his plane nose art and wrote the story that ultimately plays out in the game. “Now that you know a little bit about the story we wrote in coming up with Sonic,” Yashura said, “I think you can see why the Sonic emblem [on the title screen of the original game] looks the way it does.”
You can read more about how Sonic’s animations and level design were conceived, the challenges of meeting Sega’s expectations, and more via the source links below. You can also check out our recent interview with comic story writer Ian Flynn, who is taking Sonic in new directions with a rebooted comic series.