The original Sonic the Hedgehog is a game that has been ported and re-released on as many consoles, mobile devices and toasters as you can shake a stick at, and for very good reason. It’s a bona fide classic. The 1991 Mega Drive release remains one of the most iconic video games ever made, and cemented the blue blur’s status as a pop culture icon.
Sonic’s meteoric rise to stardom as a character go hand-in-hand with the innovations found within the game itself. Sonic 1 kicked off many different trends in the games industry, introduced new ways of storytelling and popularised certain gameplay mechanics that we now take for granted today. We take a quick look back at some of the reasons why Sonic the Hedgehog made such a massive impact on June 23rd, 1991.
Video games simply didn’t look this detailed or vibrant before Sonic the Hedgehog showed up. Even the Super Nintendo, the rival console to SEGA’s Mega Drive which launched after Sonic 1’s release, had trouble matching this game’s eye-popping colours and souped-up speed. But it left a cultural impact on video games forever – the simple fact was that nobody had ever seen a game before with this level of presentation, and it forced third party developers (and Nintendo) to drag themselves out of dull colour palettes and give their virtual worlds some life.
Sonic the Hedgehog can be single-handedly credited for pushing the boundaries of video game presentation – and SEGA leant hard on that fact, with the game’s sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, infamously running a campaign on how fast it was compared to Super Mario World by touting a technique called ‘Blast Processing’. Blast Processing sort-of didn’t exist, but the point was made – only Sonic could provide the fast, fluid gameplay that rocked the gaming world in the 1990s.
Every video-gaming kid in the 1990s had the above poster tacked onto their bedroom wall. Why? Well, just look at it – there’s this cool-but-crazy-looking blue hedgehog, with a face full of attitude, wagging his finger at you as if he’s inviting you to his Cool Kids Club. Bad guys surround him, in this weird fantastical world – but he hasn’t a care in the world. You can tell he’s a hero – he can take on all of these guys at once without breaking a sweat, for sure.
From the very beginning, Sonic the Hedgehog’s character design was striking, ambitious, innovative and simply just very cool. Taking design cues from such influences as the American Flag (red, white and blue anyone?) and Disney characters among other things, it’s no surprise that Sonic ended up becoming so popular that he was more recognised worldwide than even Mickey Mouse!
Compared to quite literally every other video game character that came before him – which almost always took some form of dull-looking human, robot or cyborg – Sonic was an inspiring breath of fresh air for kids who wanted something much more interesting to look at while they played on their home consoles.
The combined effect of Sonic the Hedgehog’s breakthrough in both visuals and character design led to an explosion of copycat ‘mascot platformers’ that filled the gaming industry for the rest of the decade. Sonic’s attitude-fuelled, cool persona resonated with so many kids, that other companies tried their hand at doing the same thing. Most of them didn’t last very long (Rocky Rodent who? Awesome Possum wha?) – as you’d expect, most kids just wanted the real deal (Sonic) rather than some imitation.
Many of these mascot characters’ designs followed Sonic’s lead in keeping within the realm of the animal kingdom – from Aero the Acrobat, Sparkster the opossum and Crash Bandicoot the… Bandicoot – but sometimes you’d get an outlier like Zool, who was an alien ninja (in fact, of all these games we probably love Zool the most). Perhaps the most offensive of these was Bubsy the Bobcat. We shall not explain why.
While there may be the odd difference in tone or visual style between all of these games and the Sonic the Hedgehog series that inspired them, all of them share two or three major similarities. They’re always some anthropomorphic version of an animal, alien or other non-human object, and their games always involve a similarly-vibrant colour palette. Some games, like Jazz Jackrabbit, weren’t as subtle about their references, with certain level sprites seemingly lifted from Sonic 1 and 2 without so much as a thank-you.
Another thing that a lot (but not all) of the above copycat mascot platformers had that was lifted from Sonic the Hedgehog was the environmental angle of the game’s plot. While Sonic the Hedgehog can’t really take sole credit for kicking off a conservationist story trend (‘saving the planet’ was one of the major early-90s pop-cultural topics that was embedded into a lot of kids’ media, from cartoons to comics and beyond), it’s quite possible that the game popularised the concept, due to its incredible sales success.
Certainly, at least in video games, many plotlines of the time did not really explore anything meaningful beyond “shoot the robot/man/save the girl” and other such simplistic objectives. Sonic 1, on the surface, also suffered from such simplicity (“beat the egg-shaped man and rescue your friends”) but the fact that Sonic’s friends were fellow woodland creatures, being turned into robots, by a guy who had designs to destroy much of the green land surrounding Sonic… yeah, it’s subtle but the message is clearly there. And it inspired a number of other platform games to do the same.
Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros taught you how to play a game within the first ten seconds, without so much as an FAQ, due to its incredible and intuitive level design. Sonic the Hedgehog followed the same level design ethos (right down to its one-button controls), and added its own innovation that is rarely celebrated; Sonic Team showed the world how to tell an intricate tale of heroism without using any dialogue whatsoever.
Until the summer of 1991, most video games were told in esoteric environments that sort-of-maybe illustrated the vague area you were jumping around in. Even Super Mario Bros (and its sequels) were just different themed worlds connected together for no real rhyme or reason. Sonic the Hedgehog changed that.
Starting off in the luscious Green Hill Zone, you begin your journey by fighting off only a few of Dr. Robotnik’s badniks – an opening salvo from the obese dictator. As you speed through each Zone, you notice that the environments start to get more and more mechanical. Dr. Robotnik’s growing influence on the world around you really help tell the story, with badniks becoming more dangerous to match. Even the penultimate Zone, Star Light, sounds chill and pretty, but is in fact a completely mechanical city full of pitfalls and death traps.
It’s perhaps the game’s most under-rated innovation, and its introduction helped pave the way for other games (and even Sonic sequels like Sonic 3 & Knuckles) to explore more elaborate ways to connect game worlds’ stages together.
A pop group? In MY video game? Say it ain’t so! Well, it was so! Sonic the Hedgehog’s original soundtrack composer was one Masato Nakamura, who was a key part of the incredibly-popular Japanese group Dreams Come True. With most video game music being ‘composed’ by coders until this point, having a professional musician take to a Mega Drive soundboard was a very novel idea back in the day.
The result, as we all know, is an instantly-recognisable selection of ditties that were collectively head and shoulders above everything else in the games industry. The hummable bop of Green Hill Zone, the bouncy rhythm of Labyrinth Zone, the dream-like synthesia of the Special Stage, and the chaotic intensity of Scrap Brain Zone. Combined with the visuals, Nakamura’s music helped transform Sonic the Hedgehog into an experience that nobody had ever seen (or heard) before.
You could also say that Nakamura’s involvement in Sonic 1 (and its sequel, Sonic 2) influenced a trend within SEGA itself, to focus on its music production and collaborate with professional musicians and artists. The Sonic series music director, Jun Senoue, often works with rock bands and orchestral composers to help give each game its own unique atmosphere – and outside of Sonic, SEGA continues to excel in the video game music space.
Arcade x Home Console Experience
One of the great things about the first Sonic the Hedgehog game was its sheer accessibility. You didn’t need to know any complicated control patterns to get Sonic to roll down a hill – you simply press Down on the D-pad when you’re at full speed. Almost every other move Sonic has at his disposal can be achieved with one action button. That simplicity made Sonic the Hedgehog the epitome of the phrase ‘easy to play, hard to master’, but it also highlighted one of the first times SEGA was able to effectively play to its arcade strengths in the console space.
The Mega Drive/Genesis had already been on the market for several years before Sonic came along, and the big marketing line that SEGA America ran with was the idea that you could play ‘arcade quality games at home’. With arcades being big business at the time, it was an attractive selling point – but the reality was that the console was nowhere near as powerful as its arcade machines. So ports of Altered Beast, Golden Axe and more ended up becoming watered down versions of their cabinet counterparts. On the flip-side, SEGA could never really quite get the hang of making console-exclusive games either (Alex Kidd in Miracle World notwithstanding; the Mega Drive game was pretttty janky in retrospect).
Sonic changed all of that. It was the first time, for many, where the marriage of SEGA’s arcade-style ‘instantly-accessible’ gameplay and home console sensibility made sense. As a game made from the ground up for the Mega Drive, its graphics and soundtrack absolutely shone. And it was clearly a game suited for arcades, as a MegaPlay cabinet was produced and sent to test sites shortly after its console debut.
How about you? When was the first time you played the original Sonic the Hedgehog game? What are some of your favourite moments/elements of it? Does it still stand the test of time, in your eyes? Let us know in the comments box below!