In 1988, SEGA launched the Mega Drive in Japan (introduced to the American market as the Genesis the next year, and as the Mega Drive again in Europe in 1990). This powerful home console gave SEGA a technological edge over its competitors—the NES-succeeding Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) wouldn't launch in Japan until 1990, and later internationally. The Mega Drive was one of the first consoles to incorporate a 16-bit microprocessor unit, leading to a much-improved technical performance compared to the previous generation of 8-bit consoles, including the NES.
As well as offering improved graphical techniques, such as complex parallax scrolling, the Mega Drive could also output larger image sprites, and more colors. These technical improvements would greatly enhance the game design of what would become Sonic The Hedgehog. Sensing Nintendo was many months away from launching the SNES, its own 16-bit console, SEGA had a window in which they could convert their technological advantage into sales.
SEGA's internal design competition for a new mascot yielded some 200 new characters, from across all departments within SEGA Japan and SEGA of America. After a lengthy process of elimination, one stood out from the rest: a rabbit with a bow tie and long ears, drawn by Naoto Ohshima, a 26-year-old game artist who had worked on a couple of SEGA titles in Japan.
Ohshima was invited to partner with a developer within the company, and to start thinking about a game that would support the new character. He approached programmer Yuji Naka, 25 at the time, to work with him. Naka, a big lover of racing games and one of the most talented coders of his generation, proposed a side-scrolling title all about ultra-speedy movement, in which the player experienced something like what a jet fighter pilot might feel after breaking the sonic barrier.
His design idea found its origins in Naka's dissatisfaction with many of the 2D platform releases of the time. Games in the 8-bit era rarely had a saving or backup system, usually requiring players to restart after every failed attempt to reach the ending. As a consequence, people played the first couple of levels over and over, and quickly got bored with the endless repetition. What if skilled players could speed through the early levels, challenging themselves to finish them faster, Naka imagined. Then, the first stages would be fun to play again and again, even if you knew all the required moves.
The new pairing of Ohshima and Naka proposed their ideas to SEGA board members. They impressed them by having prepared a set of marketing materials at their presentation—the rabbit character had been made into a plush toy. Yet their true trump card was their vision of a game all about speed: a supersonic game that would work miracles in advertising the processing power of the Mega Drive to consumers. Naka's ideas were supported by a game prototype of a fast-moving character rolling like a ball through a long tube. It used a technologically advanced algorithm that allowed the character sprite to smoothly follow a curved trajectory, setting the demo apart from other games in which sprites moved about with considerably less elegance.
Naka's dedication to speed was supported by his groundwork on porting Capcom's side-scrolling action arcade game Daimakaimura—released as Ghouls 'n Ghosts in the West—to the Mega Drive, where his team succeeded in accelerating the scrolling speeds. Naka felt he could improve on that, providing SEGA with a new and more energetic take on video gaming which stood apart from the competition. SEGA liked his line of thinking, and asked Naka and Ohshima to further develop their concept, allocating them a generous amount of development time and assigning Hirokazu Yasuhara to assist them as game designer. The mission for the new team was clear from the get-go: develop a killer game for SEGA, to boost Mega Drive sales, and create a company mascot in the process.
The team went to work, and quickly ran into its first design challenge when Ohshima's character was used in Naka's code. "At first, our player character was a rabbit that beats up enemies by picking up and throwing objects with his ears," Naka remembered. "However, it quickly turned out that game speed could not be maintained with this process." The rabbit picking up objects with his ears, aiming and throwing them shattered the impression of speed, and hampered smooth gameplay. It also required more button pushes from the player than the team felt was right: to gain an optimal experience of speed, the actions of the playable character would ideally have to be mapped to a minimum of controller button pushes.
Speed and a wish for a simple controller scheme were far more important than the specific type of game character they used. The team sensed a solution was possible, if they could find a protagonist who jumped while speeding, and somehow caused damage to enemies by jumping alone. After some deliberation, they arrived at a new idea: what if the character rolled into a ball after jumping, and smashed obstacles like a bowling ball or pinball would?
A rolling attack had obvious advantages: it not only kept the game's tempo high, but also simplified animating the character, freeing up processing power. As a consequence, the rabbit was off the table, plush toy and all. Exploring their new direction further, the team looked at animals that rolled into a ball to either attack or protect themselves. They arrived at a shortlist of just two: the armadillo and the hedgehog. It didn't take too long for the former to be dropped: the hedgehog's quills were simply better suited for attack than the armadillo's leathery armor shell.
At this point, Ohshima reached for his design sketches and found a pencil doodle he remembered. It featured a 'Mr. Harinezumi,' or 'Mr. Needlemouse,' a hedgehog with long legs and pointy shoes, a determined look and long, semicircular quills across the back of his head and upper body. Up until this point, the doodle had been one of many discarded sketches, filed away in lieu of something better. But when it was reintroduced to Naka and Yasuhara, they recognized that this was the design they were looking for. The hedgehog had long legs, which gave it running credibility, and its quills suggested it could form a ball-like shape well before the character actually rolled into one.
The name Mr. Harinezumi soon gave way to 'Supersonic,' in obvious reference to his speed, and to 'Sonic' a little while later—the word 'super' was already in high rotation amongst the competition. The team started work on animating the new character for the game, adjusting the original sketch design as they went along. The hedgehog now wore white gloves, Mickey Mouse style, and red running shoes with white socks. Pointed ears stuck through his quills, and head-to-body proportions were reimagined, balanced against those long legs.
It was smooth sailing for Ohshima, who was well versed in drawing game characters through his involvement in games like 1987's Phantasy Star and its sequel. Yet the transition from a pencil sketch, seen from the front, to fully animated and pixelated 2D character, seen from the side, wasn't without its challenges. How would the quills behave when the character was running? Where, exactly, would they be when Sonic rolled into a ball? "After Ohshima designed Sonic, I asked [SEGA] to make a Sonic clay figurine based on that design," Naka recalled. "By having this three-dimensional Sonic when developing the game, the design of his quills was fixed, and it also helped when drawing him in 2D in general."
After defining Sonic's shape came the question of coloring. Ohshima worked on a color scheme of sky-blue hair, red shoes, white gloves and socks, and a pink-brown skin tone for the hedgehog's belly and lower face. However, as many of the game levels had a blue background—the first, Green Hill Zone, features a lot of water—the character was blending in too much with its surroundings. So the hedgehog took on a darker hue, more akin to that of the SEGA logo, tying the character closer to its parent company in the process.
The above excerpt is taken from Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book, published by Cook & Becker. More information here.
Disclosure notice: Waypoint's Mike Diver edited some written sections of this book, but does not receive any kind of percentage from its sales, or anything to that effect. He likes Sonic games a whole bunch.