As perhaps one of the most highly-anticipated collector’s items in recent memory, Cook & Becker’s 25th Anniversary Sonic art book has a lot of expectations to meet. It’s not easy to produce an elegant video game-themed art book at the best of times, so working on such a project for a franchise as iconic as Sonic no doubt comes with extra pressure. Especially when the blue blur has been through so many design changes over the years. We recently got our hands on a copy; is it worth your hard-earned money?
The book itself is produced to an exceptionally high quality. The weighty, hardback tome adds gravitas to any coffee table, while the striking cover design (reminiscent of Japanese Mega Drive Sonic box art, drenched in block primary colours) is both eye-catching and sophisticated. Inside, the glossy pages and high resolution artwork – both of the 1990s concept art and the modern-era CG images – are similarly impressive. This has the look and feel of a premium product.
After lifting the cover and absorbing the first few pages, it’s clear that Cook & Becker’s ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book‘ is as much a labour of love as it is an artistic endeavour. The opening pages are a carnival of colourful sprites and beautiful box art, as the book begins its journey by covering SEGA’s humble American beginnings (with the coin-op Periscope game and SG-1000 console) and the transition from Alex Kidd (a previous attempt at creating a mascot rival to Super Mario) to Sonic the Hedgehog as the company’s flagship franchise.
Almost as much attention has been given to the years preceding the release of Sonic 1 as the year following its landmark launch, along with the character’s cultural impact. We get to see some interesting concept drawings of not only the hedgehog as we now know him, but of various woodland creatures who were initially shortlisted to ‘be’ Sonic; rabbits, wolves, dogs… the first chapter also includes original storyboards for the first Mega Drive title, including the ‘Madonna’ damsel in distress concept as well as bad guys that never made the final cut.
The more dedicated Sonic fan – those who may already be aware of ‘Sonic the Rabbit’, Madonna, and the trippy Sonic 1 level ideas – will be pleased to discover plenty of long lost drawings that have been unearthed from deep inside Sonic Team’s art vault. Things that many have certainly never seen before, such as Sonic head designs, sketches of Tails during Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s development, badnik illustrations for Sonic CD and multiple rejected ideas for Shadow the Hedgehog in Sonic Adventure 2.
The bulk of these pieces are printed on the high quality glossy paper found throughout the book, but some early line-art drawings are on translucent paper, which gives the opening chapters more of a varied browsing experience. A few of the pages also unfold to reveal huge sprite-based scenes from Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. From 1991 to 2004 there’s very little to complain about – there’s a sheer breadth and depth of art on offer in these early chapters.
A Brief History
The written account of Sonic’s history and evolution, that accompanies the art throughout the entirety of the book, is an interesting and well-structured read for casual fans who are not totally clued up on the origins of the character. The text won’t reveal anything of significance to seasoned Sonic fans, but there are some choice quotes borne from new interviews with key names within SEGA and Sonic Team – notably, co-creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, character designer Kazuyuki Hoshino and former SEGA America marketing director Tom Kalinske.
There is a good attempt at covering all the key beats of Sonic’s changing art design. But where the text falls down is in its overly-broad approach. Within each chapter (of which there are four; the first three covering the Mega Drive, Sega Saturn and ‘Modern’ games) the author largely focuses on one game in that particular era, reducing all successive titles to simple honourary mentions within the main text – or as lengthy captions against key art.
An example of this can be found in the first chapter, covering the 16-Bit and 8-Bit Sonic games. A large portion of text is weighted towards the marketing and development process behind the original Sonic the Hedgehog, with minimal word count offered to explore similar design challenges and opportunities that came from developing follow-ups Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles
For brevity’s sake, it makes sense; Sonic 1 provided the core design that every sequel in the Mega Drive series was based, and ultimately iterated, upon. But Sonic 2 in particular was released during a period of ‘Sonic fever’ in the West, with an incredible marketing campaign and a worldwide ‘Sonic Twosday’ launch. Meanwhile, Sonic games were also being developed for Sega Master System and Game Gear – it would have been fascinating to learn more about the design techniques used to convert a speedy physics-based platformer to 8-Bit consoles. Offering a deeper dive on more individual titles would have made for an overall more engaging read.
Running Out of Steam
A similar criticism could be made of the art selection found in the late chapters of the book. Once the reader reaches the Sonic Heroes / 2004 mark (the artwork is largely organised in chronological order), the volume and variety of content starts to get lean. There is a heavy dependency on publicly-available key art when covering the more modern Sonic games, and very little in the way of actual concept drawings or developer illustrations. And next to no accompanying text to boot.
To be fair, the emphasis on promotional renders has resulted in some nice high-res art of lesser-known titles, such as an interesting double-page spread for Game Boy Advance brawler Sonic Battle. But overall, the third chapter is vastly less remarkable than its strong, Mega Drive-themed opener. Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations in particular are tragically reduced to mere two-page displays of key art and in-game screenshots, when a deeper dive on these modern classics could have brought up some wonderfully insightful concepts. Sonic Lost World too, with its unique cylindrical game design, would have been a fascinating case study if character and level artwork were fully researched for this book.
The final chapter is dedicated to Sonic Boom, but this too seems to have been a slightly missed opportunity. It’s a pretty short conclusion to the book, and it would have been nice to see more here: the segment offers a few concept pieces for each of the main characters of the Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric game, a double-page spread focusing on Sticks the Badger and a large CG render of the cast of the associated TV series. The text largely hinges on interviews with developer Big Red Button discussing the Wii U action game, major redesigns, and not an awful lot else. Given that at one stage, Sonic Boom was intended to be a key branch in the Sonic franchise (covering TV, merchandise, comics and games), one would imagine that there is an incredible wealth of unseen art to harvest for the book’s closing chapter.
That’s not to say there aren’t some pleasant surprises to be found. Cook & Becker have included some rather interesting art pieces within the book, with Egmont Fleetway’s 1990s serial Sonic the Comic getting a good mention and marketing materials for various games wedged next to character line art. There’s even some snaps of console packaging, Japanese manga and SEGA Summer Catalogues from 1991, all of which are unexpected but welcome additions to the selection of images on display.
Value For Money
At £40, the standard edition of the book comes highly recommended. For all its shortcomings, Cook & Becker’s ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book’ is a product that would look perfect on a gamer’s coffee table. Its contents will delight casual Sonic and video game fans, while the early Mega Drive concept art and promotional materials within will also surprise hardcore Sonic connoisseurs.
The Collector’s Edition is a little pricier, coming with a £95 price tag. It includes a commemorative box for the book, as well as a protective sleeve (which doubles as a reading stand) and a numbered Giclee art print signed by Sonic illustrator Yuji Uekawa (we’re not sure but the signature may be printed, too, just FYI). Our recommendation of this edition is dependent on the value you can personally place on the art print, as you’re essentially ponying up an extra £55 for something to frame on your wall. With only 1500 made, the piece will become a highly-sought after item for merchandise hogs, but if that doesn’t get you going, the £40 standard edition is absolutely the more savvy purchase.
Cook & Becker’s ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book‘ is a fantastic trip through memory lane, and includes a lot of detail on the classic titles in the beloved Sonic series. If you’re largely interested in the origins of the franchise, and specifically how the first two Mega Drive titles came to be, then this is a must-buy. For those keen on learning about the later games, it falls a little short, but the collective value of the book – and its quality – will still no doubt impress. Worth a purchase.