When Sega and Nintendo battled for dominance in the early days of the 16-bit console era, Naoto Oshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara were tasked with creating a character that could take on Mario. Sonic the Hedgehog was born of a desire to create a cool, company-defining mascot for Sega — an icon that could sell millions of Nintendo fans on the Sega Genesis.
Much about Sonic’s history is well-known, but at GDC 2018 today, Oshima and Yasuhara shared lesser-known anecdotes about the creation of Sega’s famous hedgehog. Oshima, who was responsible for Sonic’s visual design, now works at Arzest Corporation, a developer that works closely with Nintendo. Yasuhara, who worked on Sonic the Hedgehog’s maps and game design, is now at Unity Technologies Japan.
The two explained how, in 1990, Sega wanted to create a next-generation character that could stand up to the NES and Mario. Sega had its own stable of characters — Alex Kidd, Flicky — but none of them were able to compete in the 8-bit console market.
At the time, Sega did not value characters highly in terms of how marketable they could be, Yasuhara said via a translator. Instead the company treated characters as if they should be used and disposed.
That thinking was shifting a bit with the advent of Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis, Yasuhara said, and Sega wanted something that could be representative of the company, something that was iconic and could have a long lifespan.
Sega and the Sonic the Hedgehog development team settled on a hedgehog mascot, in part, because of its form. A hedgehog in a video game could curl up into a ball, roll around and do damage with its spiky covering. But Sega tested other ideas, including an armadillo, porcupine, dog and “an old guy with a mustache” (who eventually became Eggman) while searching for a mascot.
“I planned a trip to New York while this discussion was going on internally,” Oshima recounted. “They said ‘We definitely want to see something like an old guy with a mustache, we also want to see something spiky, and we also want to see a dog-like character.’”
Oshima said he drew those three concepts on a board and took the sketches to Central Park in Manhattan, surveying random people on which concept they liked best.
“The hedgehog was the most popular,” Oshima said. “People pointed at it and liked it. Second was Eggman. Third was the dog. This was kind of pleasantly surprising. I was asking myself ‘I wonder why it is?’ The conclusion to me ... was that by a lot of people choosing the hedgehog, it will transcend race, gender, different types of people.
“I reported it back to the company.”
Early illustrations of Sonic were simpler than the version we know today and were introduced to in 1991. The hedgehog started off as a simple black and white line drawing, made up of simple shapes. A simple, easy to understand form was one of the design directives, Oshima and Yasuhara explained.
“We wanted a character kids could draw,” Oshima said, a cartoon animal on par with Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or Doraemon. The team wanted their new mascot to be instinctively familiar, almost instantly recognizable and affectionate.
“The biggest challenge for us was that we need to overcome [how] to create a character that represents Sega,” Oshima said, something that could carry the weight of the company on its shoulders and define what Sega is with one image. They chose to make their character blue to match the company’s logo.
They also focused on three keywords to define the ideals of Sonic: cool, challenger and history. “Cool” and “challenger” referred to the mysterious qualities that embody coolness and Sega’s role as an underdog in trying to take on the juggernaut that was Nintendo. For “history,” the team went deep in trying to establish Sonic as someone who had the background of cartoon characters created by the likes of Disney, Marvel, Hanna-Barbera or Sanrio.
Sega was a company with an American history. It was founded by Americans in Hawaii, and imported jukeboxes and pinball tables to Japan. Oshima’s ideas of “cool” at the time — leather jackets and airplane nose art — and the fact that Sega was trying to create a character with Western appeal, led him to create a history for Sonic with American influence. He went to his superiors with a background story about Sonic the Hedgehog, a character he “discovered” in some old documents about planes.
According to Oshima’s made-up history, there was a pilot in the 1940s who earned the nickname “Hedgehog” because he loved to fly at high speeds, which caused his hair to stick up in spikes. The nose art on his plane contained a painting of a hedgehog, as did the pilot’s leather flight jacket. That speed-obsessed pilot later married a woman who wrote and illustrated children’s books. She wrote a story about a hedgehog, based on her husband, and that children’s book story is the premise of the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
The team also drew influence from early ‘90s trends, including a boom in environmental awareness and eco-friendly attitudes. The original Sonic, with its cool furry mascot and friendly woodland creatures battling robots, was based on the idea of “nature” versus “environmental development.”
“It was an era where we began to think about our environment more,” Yashuahara said. “That idea was rooted into [Sonic].”
During the talk, Oshima showed early concept sketches of Sonic, and how the character would move through the game’s environment of hills, loops and twisting tunnels. He also showed unused drawings of animation ideas he had for Sonic, including a full sheet dedicated solely to dance moves he wanted Sonic to do. Unfortunately, Oshima said, there wasn’t any room for Sonic’s dance routines.
Ultimately, the Sonic team’s efforts paid off, they said. In the holiday sales war between the brand-new Super NES, and the cheaper two-year-old Sega Genesis, Sega’s console won out in the U.S. Sonic the Hedgehog, which was packed in with the $149 Genesis at the time, played an important part in that war.
“I cannot leave this room today without mentioning that the biggest factor was that Sega of America were so confident about what we were to embark on,” Oshima said, “The fact that they believed in our work was validation for us. They took that and really worked it into their strategy. That probably had a lot to do with how popular Sonic became here.”