Monday, June 22, 2009

Sonic the Hedgehog

When I wrote about Super Mario Bros I talked about how much of a revolutionary game it was. As a revolutionary new piece of art, Super Mario Bros influenced many games that came out after it. This led to a few memorable games and a lot of mediocre and bad games. A lot of designers just didn't have the talent to build upon the groundwork that Super Mario laid, and created Mario clones that had nothing to say for themselves. Sega was two years into its Genesis console and was still somewhat trying to make a name for itself around the world. Many people still associated games with Nintendo and great platforming with Mario. Sega set out to change this but they couldn't just copy Super Mario. They made a platforming game that was similiar enough to be easily accesible but different enough to feel new and exciting. This is how Sonic the Hedgehog came about and left his mark on the video game industry.

Character Design

Sega had to make a name for itself and it quickly found out that it couldn't just simply copy Nintendo's successes. Nintendo had a certain feel and art style to their games and if Sega tried to emulate it too much it would have been lost in the background. So rather than, playing it safe like Nintendo, they attempted to bring a little attitude and edginess to their console. The new mascot of the company line was Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic is a Hedgehog in name only, he bares a very slight resemblence to the real animal. This overly cartooned look has worked great for so many Warner Bros characters (for example the Tazmanian Devil doesn't look to much like the real animal and neither does the road runner), and it was with this school of thought that Sonic was created. They changed the typical colour a hedgehog has from brown to blue (again something Warner Bros does frequently). The colour brown is a fairly earthy looking tone and is used in games in the background and does not stand out (many post apocalytic games use brown to show how degenerated the earth has become) thus it would not be a suitable colour for Sonic. Blue is much like the colour green because it is a softer colour that welcomes the player. Furthermore, when used to colour something that is not typically blue (like a hedgehog) it catches our attention since we know something looks a little odd. Sonic was already a fairly edgy character for its time (something I will get to later) so using a harder colour like red would have overdone it. Blue is the perfect soft colour that balances out the character.

Beyond the gameplay, visual representation of Sonic lays his personality, which was fairly fleshed out for a 2D platformer. Now at this time neither voice nor text was used to have Sonic communicate so his personality had to shine through other aspects. Like a really good silent movie, Sonic showed a lot more about himself through his expressions and movements. Sonic was given slightly downturned eyelids giving him an angrier expression. This is a simple technique any artist can do to change their creations expression (drawn a simple happy face and see how different it looks when you put a pair of down turned eyebrowns over the eyes). Sonic's animation also was laced with his personality. He also moved extremely fast, giving the player the sense that he was controlling something much more powerful than they were used to. His speed was such a part of the character that if you left the controller still for a moment Sonic would turn his head and look at the player, tapping his toe in frustration. Sonic basically called out to the player to be controlled and have fun. Putting both his slightly edgey look together with his speed made Sonic an instant hit with a lot of gamers that were looking for a character that had a unique and fun personality.


Not only did speed have a lot to do with the character design but also the gameplay. When it first came out it was a sight to behold, watching Sonic clear his way through a section of a level in seconds. Speed does not neccesarily equal "fun" though and the game designers knew this. If the levels were too simple and the player could speed through it with ease the game would become extremely boring. Obstacles and sections that forced Sonic to slow down for a bit were put in the game to challange the player as well as change up the gameplay before moving on to speeder sections again. As the player learned how to deal with these slower sections he/she could then play them faster, giving the player a sense of achiement that translated to the screen. At its best Sonic was controlled chaos, moving at high speeds while the player had to make twitch decisions in order to keep up the momentum.

There was also something to be said about the secrets and pathways through the levels. Most levels were linear but usually offered some hard to reach locations for the player to find powerups or extra rings. These sections of slowdown were a reward for players who took a second to think before they sped off (these sections were much more common in Sonic 2). Having these parts as optional also helped create a two-tiered game, one for those who want to explore a little and one for those who enjoy speeding as fast as they can through a game.


The music in Sonic blended perfectly with the gameplay and atmosphere of the game. Like the game the music was fast. Each tune had multiple layers to it adding to the complexity of the score. However, the best aspect of the music was how well it blended with the sound FX. I have talked about this before and Sonic is one of the perfect examples of how developers mixed the sounds of the gameplay with the background music. The springs Sonic bounces on, and the rings he collects both have a musical sound to them that add to the music of the game. Since Sonic only has seven zones I can go into a little more detail into what makes them special.

Green Hill Zone: The music here is fast, while at the same time light and fun. It is a perfect intro song that welcomes the player while at the same time sets the fast paced mood.

Marble Zone: The music here is a bit slower. This level does force sonic to stop and preform some trickier jumps. There is also areas in which Sonic has to stop and wait for pillars to rise.

Spring Yard Zone: The music is again a bit slower. In this level Sonic is a bit more out of control because of the abundance of springs. The slower music matches suggests that the player take some time to think before he/she acts.

Labyrinth Zone: Again the music here a little slower. This zone does involve water which slows Sonic down, thus the music matches the gameplay.

Star Light Zone: A night time level, and the music matches the atmosphere. The music is somewhat relaxed but the beat in the background is a little faster then the previous songs. 

Scrap Brain Zone: The music is picking up speed again in this level. It is also much more complex then the levels before it. This level throws in new platforming mechanics which require fast gameplay. 

Final Zone: The last zone involves almost no running. It is basically a larger boss fight. The music does sound a lot more menacing in this level, which is something that had not been heard in the previous songs. It is a perfect song for a final boss fight.


For better or worse (most likely worse) Sonic inspired game designers just as much as Mario did. And quite like Mario, most games that tried to copy Sonic's success fell flat. Since Sonic was an animal with an attitude and a gimick (speed) every developer tried to get out their own mascot with the same formula. Games came out titled Gex the Gecko, Bubsy (the Squirrel), Aero the AcroBAT, Zero the Kamakazi Squirrel, and countless others. As with any piece of art there are going to be imitators and very few will be worth remembering. Much like how once Walt Disney started making a hit off his creations everyone tried to copy his magic and failed.

It just goes to show how original Sonic was when he came out. Rather than being another Mario clone, the game stood out on its own and gained its fanbase. Sadly Sonic has now become the very thing it once avoided, a hollow mascot. In many ways Sonic is a product of its time. His edginess (in the newer games) now seems cheesy and the games storylines are ridiculous. The bad 90s animal mascots, that Sonic helped influence, have now all died out on other platforms, but are alive and well within Sonics games. But it really doesn't matter how far Sonic has fallen because nothing can take away how great the original games for Genesis are.

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