- Sonic the Hedgehog and the original 2D platformers took the world by storm and shot Sega and the Genesis console to the top of gaming in the early 90s.
- Sega liked the idea of a hedgehog because it could “curl up into a ball, roll around and do damage with its spikey coverings.
- Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 and established Sega as one of the top companies in the gaming industry. They dominated the holiday season that year by including Sonic the Hedgehog as the pack-in game for the Sega Genesis.
- Sonic Adventure 2 was the final game to appear on a Sega Console before they exited the console market entirely. Also, worth noting, it is the first game to appear on a Nintendo console as it was re-released for the Nintendo GameCube in December 2001.
Few video game characters are as famous as Sonic the Hedgehog. Other than the likes of archrival Mario, the blue blur is among the most recognizable mascot to come out of gaming. His games have seen their share of ups and downs over the years. The original 2D platformers took the world by storm and shot Sega and the Genesis console to the top of gaming for a time.
Team Sonic has never been afraid to reinvent the legendary franchise, which has led to mixed success. The jump to 3D in the late ’90s was a rocky one for Sonic, but it also produced some all-time classics. Even after Sega decided to exit the console market, Sonic has endured.
- Creator (person)
- Naoto Oshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara
- Release Date
- Original Price
- Operating System
- Sega, Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, PC
- Developed By (company)
This November, Sonic the Hedgehog is gearing up for a new adventure in Sonic Frontiers. With Frontiers, Team Sonic is once again reinventing the franchise. The game takes inspiration from games like Breath of the Wild to create an all-new open-world adventure.
In preparation for the upcoming release of Sonic Frontiers, we wanted to look back at Sonic’s history as a character.
Sonic the Hedgehog: The Character
In the early 90s, Sega was desperate to get a leg up in the gaming industry. They had seen moderate success, but they were being trounced by rival Nintendo after the introduction of their mascot Mario. Originally, Sega rejected the idea that they needed a mascot that could compete with the Italian plumber. But in time Sega would change their tune.
In 1988, Sega released the Mega Drive which did well in its native Japan. A year later they rebranded it for its North American release as the Sega Genesis. Sega pitched it as an edgy powerful system in juxtaposition to the family-friendly Nintendo. The original pack-in game was Altered Beast, a violent beat-’em-up that embodied the spirit of the Genesis.
But with the threat of the SNES looming and weaker North American sales than Sega hoped, they decided to take another look at potential mascots. Sega’s problem was not that it didn’t have good games, but it had to compete with games like Legend of Zelda or Mario.
So, in early 1990, Sega gave the job of developing a new flagship game and mascot to Naoto Oshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara. They were tasked with creating a character that could directly compete with Mario and helm the company’s branding into the future.
Origins of the Character
The pair wanted to create a character that was “cool” and represented the spirit of what Sega was doing. But they still wanted something for all ages that could entice Nintendo fans to look for something new. After going through several character designs, they landed on a hedgehog as the flagship protagonist. In an interview with Polygon Oshima and Yasuhara stated that Sega liked the idea of a hedgehog because it could “curl up into a ball, roll around and do damage with its spikey coverings.”
The hedgehog beat out several other ideas including an “old man with a mustache.” This character would later become Dr. Eggman/Robotnik, Sonic’s sworn enemy. Finally, they landed on the name Sonic the Hedgehog and made the character blue to represent Sega’s branding.
So, Sega had their character, now they needed a game to build around them. They aimed at making a platformer that was different from Mario in every way. It’s safe to say they achieved this goal.
At the time, save states weren’t all that common so players would have to replay the first few levels every time they played the game. This was so common, most players would end up memorizing the levels so they could speed through as quickly as possible to get back to where they left off.
Oshima and Yasuhara decided to build on this trend by centering Sonic around speed. Players could zoom through levels much faster than in Mario and other platformers of the time. The levels were also very well thought out and the graphics showed rich detail that Mario just didn’t have.
Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 and established Sega as one of the top companies in the gaming industry. They dominated the holiday season that year by including Sonic the Hedgehog as the pack-in game for the Sega Genesis. With the success of that first game, the legendary mascot was cemented in the annals of gaming history.
Every Mainline Sonic Game
Sonic has been around for over 20 years and in that time, he has made countless appearances. Video games, cartoons, movies, comics, you name it, the blue blur has done it. Recapping all that could probably fill a 10-part book series, so we are only going to focus on the mainline games in this article.
Sonic’s mainline games can be broken down into two generations: Original Sonic and Modern Sonic. Original Sonic is the protagonist of the original 2D platformers. He has a cute design, is smaller and rounder than the newer version of Sonic. Modern Sonic is taller, slimmer, and has even more one-liners (who knew that was even possible!)
So, we’ll cover the games of each generation noting the console or era that they are in.
Original Sonic: The 2D era
We’ve already touched on the importance of that first Sonic game. It was a smash hit and it positioned Sega to take on the ever-growing Nintendo. That first game sold around 1 million copies in its first year. A lot of those sales were pack-ins as well so console sales sky-rocketed.
By 1992, Sonic had sold a record-breaking 2.8 million copies and the game had helped to capture much of the gaming market in Europe. The success of Sonic spawned a new series of games that improved and expanded on the original.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
The follow-up to Sonic the Hedgehog exceeded expectations. It improved the gameplay in just about every way. It introduced us to Sonic’s most loyal ally and one of the greatest puns in video games, Miles “Tails” Prower. It also added the spin dash, a move that allowed Sonic to roll up in a ball, spin up, and fire himself at super-fast speeds.
The game allowed local co-op as well. A second player could plug in a controller and take over as Tails. The game was another hit for Sega and shattered release day sales records. Sonic 2 sold over 600,000 copies in the US and a whopping 750,000 copies in the UK all on the first day of release. The game brought in about $450 million for Sega in 1992, shattering sales expectations.
Sonic two remains a beloved classic and a mainstay in the speed-running community. The well-designed levels, the inclusion of the Spin Dash, and introduction of Tails make this game one for the ages.
When Sega released the ill-fated Sega CD peripheral for the Genesis, they needed a game to helm the new tech. Sonic was the obvious choice. The original plan was to port Sonic 2 to CD with some added levels and call it a day. The game still enjoyed lasting fan engagement everywhere except for Japan. The game wasn’t a flop in Japan, but it didn’t do great sales either.
To remedy this, Sega decided to design a new experience expanded from Sonic 2. The game featured all-new levels, a new story, and the first appearance of Sonic regulars, Amy Rose and Metal Sonic.
Amy Rose was conceived as Sonic’s self-proclaimed girlfriend due to her infatuation to the blue blur. Metal Sonic was decidedly not infatuated with Sonic and becomes one of his key rivals alongside Robotnik. It also featured a time travel mechanic that complicated the story but made for some interesting gameplay
The game was the best-selling game on the Sega CD by far. It sold over 1.5 million copies in the US and topped sales charts in the UK, where the Mega CD was more popular. While not technically considered canonical by Sega, Sonic CD has earned its place among the Sega pantheon.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Sonic 3 once again pits the lovable Sonic and Tails against the reviled Robotnik. This time, however, Robotnik has found an ally in the red echidna Knuckles. Yup, this is the first appearance of the guardian of the chaos emerald and Sonic’s future best friend and rival.
Knuckles has been tricked by Robotnik into thinking Sonic is after the chaos emeralds for his own gain. He is an antagonist to Sonic for the better part of the game. Near the end, Robotnik shows his true colors and betrays Knuckles, forcing the echidna to team with Sonic for the remainder of the game.
Sonic 3 was critically praised and became one of the top-selling Genesis games of its time selling over a million copies. While positive reviews were overwhelming, there were a few that called out a lack of innovation from Sonic 2.
This might have been due to the fact that the game was missing a key element, Knuckles as a playable character
Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic 3 & Knuckles
This is where things go a little confusing timeline-wise. While these games a technically separate they were eventually merged into one mega game. This was the original intent of Sega but the decision was made to split the games in two.
Sonic & Knuckles let players take control of the red echidna to traverse their own levels. The gameplay was similar with a few adjustments for the new character. Most notably, Knuckles could glide through the air when.
The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge also came with a “lock-on” feature that allowed players to plug in Sonic 3. Since this is how the game was originally intended this mashup is considered the canonical game and was dubbed, hilariously, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles.
Sonic 3D Blast and the troubled jump to 3D
By the mid ’90s, the life of the Sega Genesis was waning. The two peripherals Sega had hoped would prolong its life, Sega CD and 32x, were commercial failures and the jump to 3D seemed imminent. So, Sega decided to release their first ever 3D Sonic game as a series spin-off in order to test 3D development and end the Genesis era with a bang. The game they released was more of a whimper.
Sonic 3D Blast was an isometric 3D platformer with little to no of the charm of the blue blur’s 2D outings. It was met with generally positive reviews at first, but critical reception began to sour over time. The isometric controls frustrated players and the graphics were a far cry from past games’ usual impressive detail.
All in all, this game would probably have gone down as a footnote. A game that heralded the real jump to 3D on the Sega Saturn, but that wasn’t what happened. Sega had planned a major jump to 3D with Sonic: X-treme, a fully 3D platformer that would usher in a new age for the mascot.
Sadly, Sonic: X-treme was canceled due to a troubled development and the strain on the developer’s mental health. Due to this, Sonic 3D Blast was rereleased for the Sega Saturn in 1997. It is the only 3D Sonic platformer to be released for the console and only one of two Sonic games in total, the other was a racing game called Sonic R.
Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t a bad game, but it is saddled with a bad legacy. The cancellation of Sonic: X-treme coupled with the unfamiliar perspective made this game a hard one to love.
Modern Sonic: The Adventure Era Begins
The lack of a real, mainline Sonic game for the Sega Saturn was one of the biggest contributing factors to its failure. I mean, it was like Nintendo releasing the Switch and never making a Mario game, it wasn’t going to fly.
By the late ’90s a new challenger had entered the scene as well, the Sony PlayStation. Sega needed something big to compete with the rapidly changing landscape of gaming. Their answer was the Sega Dreamcast released in 1998. To go along with their new console was Sonic’s first mainline foray into 3D, Sonic Adventure.
Sonic Adventure took the classic format and placed it in a fully realized 3D world. It still centered on Sonic picking up speed as he ran, using his spin dash attack and simple yet satisfying platforming. The game had some new features as well. The story was much more robust than previous entries and it introduced new characters in Big the Cat and the antagonist Chaos.
The game was extremely well received by most outlets. Some outlets compared it to Mario 64 and said that it even exceeded that game. It sold like hotcakes in the US and Europe and holds the record for best-selling Dreamcast game. Sonic Adventure breathed life into a dormant series by firmly establishing it as a 3D series.
Sonic Adventure 2
The highly anticipated follow-up to Sonic Adventure came in 2001. Sonic Adventure 2 was an improvement in the game in many ways. It featured tight platforming levels that allowed players to pick up more speed and fight more enemies. It also had a great story with two paths the player could walk. The hero’s story follows the blue blur as well as friends Tails and Knuckles as they fight against the evil Robotnik and his newest ally Shadow. The villain, or dark, path puts players in the shoes of Shadow himself and introduces a new character Rouge the Bat.
The game received critical praise for its fun platforming and inventive story. It didn’t have quite the critical reception of the first game but it held its own. The game ended up selling 500,000 copies for the Sega Dreamcast.
If that number seems low, it is. This is because the Sega Dreamcast was discontinued on March 31st, 2001. Sonic Adventure 2 was released back in June meaning that those sales occurred over a 9-month period. Not bad for a game sold on a dying console.
Sonic Adventure 2 was the final game to appear on a Sega Console before they exited the console market entirely. Also, worth noting, it is the first game to appear on a Nintendo console as it was re-released for the Nintendo GameCube in December 2001.
Even though the sun had set on the Dreamcast and Sega’s console run, Sonic was still alive and kicking.
Sonic Heroes was the first mainline Sonic game that Sega released after exiting the console market. The game expanded on the multiple story feature of its predecessor but added more paths to take. There was Team Sonic, Team Dark, Team Rose, and Team Chaotix. Each had different storylines and difficulty ratings with Team Rose being the easiest and Team Dark the hardest.
The game received mixed reviews but leaned on the positive side. The spirit of Sonic Adventure could still be felt here and that gave the game some points. Although, the PS2 version was pretty well panned due to multiple bugs and clipping issues.
Despite these problems and middling reviews, Sonic Heroes was a massive commercial success. The game sold 1.42 million copies in the first year and reached total sales of 3.41 million copies. It was a game of the year contender that year although it didn’t pick up the award in any contest.
Still, things were looking good for Sonic and his friends. Sadly, good fortune was not on the horizon.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)
If we’ve learned one thing from gaming, it’s that rushing development to meet an anniversary deadline is never a good idea. Many believe that is why Sonic the Hedgehog released in 2006 was an utter failure.
Let’s back up a bit. Sega has been content with sales up to this point, both Sonic Adventure games, as well as Sonic Heroes, did solid numbers. That said, they had failed to reach the critical success of their original 2D run. Sega planned to rectify this with a full Sonic reboot in the form of Sonic ’06, as it has been dubbed for convenience (definitely not out of affection.)
The game was planned to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog as a character. It was expected to be a celebration of the past and a promise for the future. It was neither.
Let’s just say it, Sonic ’06 was bad. The gameplay was bad, the camera was bad, it had multiple game-breaking bugs, and the story was absolutely bonkers. This game featured the infamous scene where a very cartoony-looking Sonic is kissed back to life by a realistically rendered human woman, yeah, it was rough.
Critically panned by nearly every reviewer the game is considered the worst game in the entire Sonic lineup. Some even put it in the list of the worst games of all time. Still, Sonic ’06 was able to ride the hype of the well-received prerelease trailer. It sold remarkably well for a barely playable game. It pushed over 870,000 copies in the first six months.
Still, the game gave the once-beloved franchise an enormous black eye. This would emerge as a trend for the next few installments.
Sonic & The Secret Rings
Instead of taking stock and trying to bring the series back to its former glory days. Sega and Team Sonic doubled down on the weird. Sonic & the Secret Rings were released on Wii in 2007. The game was a spin-off of the popular franchise that ditched many of the characters and gameplay elements fans loved.
The game was based on Arabian Nights and had a middle eastern theme in both the music and level design. Sonic was the only returning character that fans knew and this was to the detriment of the game. The Arabian theme might have been refreshing if the game hadn’t been such a departure from traditional Sonic gameplay.
It was a much more linear experience than Adventure or even ‘06 had been. Most levels felt like they were on rails. The story was as convoluted as ever. Still, the game did garner some hopeful reviews. It was devoid of the bugs that plagued Sonic ’06 and were an altogether more polished game.
Sonic & The Black Knight
So, did Sega take what they learned from the failure of ’06 and the lukewarm reception of the Secret Rings and finally make a glorious return to form? Nope, they made Sonic & the Black Knight which swapped Arabian Nights for Arthurian legend. So, nights for knights, get it?? I’ll stop.
The game received similarly mixed reviews as its predecessor. The main complaint is that the game’s camera was terrible, and the story was very short. Some critics praised the combat but cited it as “repetitive.”
Sales were also lukewarm for both games as the disaster of Sonic ’06 still loomed in everyone’s minds. It turns out these two weren’t able to wash the bad taste out of gamers’ mouths. One game that did give longtime fans some hope however was Sonic Unleashed.
Released in between Secret Rings and Black Knight, Sonic Unleashed brought the series to even more uncharted territory, the horror genre. Well, not really, the game was not a horror game at all but you did get to play as a werewolf, or rather “werehog.” In this game Sonic can transform into a werehog for half of the levels, playing the other half as his normal self.
While the werehog sections of the game weren’t especially exciting or fun, critics praised the Sonic levels. They showed a lot of the charm and good design found in the Adventure series and signaled that maybe Team Sonic was about to pull themselves back together.
A good guess, as a return to form, is exactly what Sega had in mind.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Back to Basics
After 16 years, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was finally released. A direct sequel to Sonic & Knuckles (or Sonic 3 & Knuckles depending on whose keeping score), the game brought back the 2D platforming style that made the originals great. And it was, well, great!
It was planned for 3 “episodes” but only 2 were released. The game had beautiful graphics, fun gameplay, a classic Sonic storyline, and enough new features to give it a much-needed facelift. Funny enough the game was not developed by Team Sonic. It was developed by Dimps, a Japanese developer who had worked on many Sonic handheld games but no mainline entries.
The game was critically praised and earned the franchise some much-needed goodwill. This goodwill from the fans would take them to even further heights with the next Sonic game.
Sonic had seen his 2D return to form, now it was time to refresh his 3D image, and Sonic Colors more than did the trick. Widely regarded as the unsung classic in the Sonic canon, Colors was a critical darling when released.
The game takes place in an outer space amusement park owned and operated by Dr. Eggman. Sonic and Tails are invited to the park only to find out that Eggman is up to his same old dastardly deeds, this time trying to harness the power of the Wisps. Sonic and Tails set out to save the Wisps in this super speedy, colorful adventure.
The game has built a loyal following and it pulled the Sonic series out of the proverbial gutter. In addition to critical praise, it was a commercial success as well. Selling over 2 million copies in the first year alone. After this Sega and Sonic were riding high and but the party wasn’t over yet.
Sonic Generations is everything Sonic ’06 should have been. It was a celebration of everything Sonic from his 2D origins to his 3D adventures. The game had a super neat mechanic where you could play classic Sonic levels in 2D or switch it around to play in 3D. This was mind-blowing fan fair for long-time fans of the series.
It also had new levels, a fun interesting storyline, character returns, and some new mechanics. The game paid homage to the series while also giving it a fresh new coat of paint. It was well received critically as well as a success commercially. It sold over 1 million copies in the first year.
These few successes in a row must have given Team Sonic the confidence to experiment again. Their next game would deviate from the more traditional storyline
Sonic Lost World
Sonic Lost World introduced the Deadly Six, a group of demons working with Robotnik toward nefarious ends. The twist is, the Deadly Six betray Robotnik, and Sonic and Tails are forced to team with Eggman in order to take them down.
The gameplay took a page from the Super Mario Galaxy playbook. Levels were spherical worlds that Sonic would traverse in 3D. The platforming was a little clunky, but the overall presentation was enduring to some fans and critics.
The game sold 640,000 in its first year and garnered solid reviews.
Arguably the best Sonic game of its time, Sonic Mania brought the series back to its 2D roots. It was a mix of classic sonic levels and all-new levels. It captured the spirit of the old games while modernizing them at the same time. Most critics claimed it did this even better than Sonic 4 which was a direct sequel to the classic platformers.
Mania was the highest-rated game in the Sonic franchise in 15 years and was a smash hit commercially. It sold over 1 million copies in the first year and continues to be represented on current consoles as a digital download. Truly, Sonic Mania is a high watermark for the storied franchise. But the follow-up would, unfortunately, leave some fans scratching their heads.
Sonic Forces: Fall from Grace
Sega followed up one of their most highly rated games in years with one of their lowest. Sonic Forces was critically panned for its weak platforming and “out of character” elements like environmental traps. IGN called these trap mechanics “underdeveloped.”
Most critics were also harsh on the story which took a page from Sonic Heroes and gave the player several paths to take. Even though the gameplay and characters were reminiscent of past Sonic games, the post-apocalyptic setting turned some fans off
Ultimately, the game performed well in sales. Sega revealed that the game “performed strongly” and debuted fifth on the all-formats charts in the UK. While the game was a mixed bag for Sega, their next installment would be a resounding failure.
The release of Sonic Boom is infamous and stands next to Sonic ’06 as one of the lowest points in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Nearly everything about Sonic Boom was panned, the gameplay was repetitive and boring, the camera was terrible, the level design was unpolished, and the new character designs left much to be desired. Especially poor Knuckles who went from cool and serious to an absolute buffoon, he deserved better.
The game has the lowest critical rating of any Sonic game in history. Sadly it earned the title. The game was also a commercial flop as it only sold 620,000 copies in the first year. A far cry from the days where Sonic games were selling that much in a matter of months.
The Future of Sonic
It’s hard to end on such a dower note. The Sonic series is one of the greatest video game series of all time. Not just because it has some great games and character, which it does. But because of what it represents in gaming history. Sonic changed the gaming landscape and pushed Sega, rival Nintendo to new heights. The console wars of the 1990s might be little more than a footnote if not for the blue blur.
Sonic has hit a rough patch of late, but the story is not over. Sonic Frontiers is on its way, and it looks like Sega will be reinventing the series again. These reinventions have always been mixed in their success, but it is cool to see that Team Sonic is still exploring new ideas and formats.
No one knows whether Sonic Frontiers will push the game into a new era of success or drag it down to the depths of Sonic ‘06 or Boom. We are optimistic about the future either way. No matter what happens, Sonic has already more than earned his place in the pantheon of gaming greats.
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