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Game Development:Sonic the Hedgehog (16-bit)

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Sonic the Hedgehog went through many ideas and changes during the development process. What follows is a collection of items related to the game's development.

Contents

Development Process

A collection of images of Sonic the Hedgehog drawn during the creation of the first game. From the Sonic the Hedgehog Material Collection.

Though Sega had received marginal success with their first mainstream videogame console, the Sega Master System, it was unable to compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console that not only saved the videogame market in the United States but defined an entire generation of gamers. Wanting to become more than just a name known for arcade hits and become a major player in the gaming world, Sega released their entry into the 16-bit wars, the Sega Mega Drive in October 1988 in Japan. Premiering in the United States the following January, the executives knew there was still an essential element missing from the equation that would push them beyond both the NES and its upcoming successor, the Super Nintendo.

Although Sega had a mascot in the form of Alex Kidd during the Master System days, the franchise had never gained the momentum they had hoped for. Realizing the importance of having a strong, central franchise, Sega began an internal competition across all of its branches to create the company's answer to the Super Mario Bros. For months, numerous character designs were drawn up by an untold number of people, ranging from American wolves to overall-wearing chickens. In the end, it came down to the handful of drawings from a man named Naoto Ohshima. Having previously been involved in the design of the Phantasy Star series, it was his entries that stood out the most. In various interviews that have described the story, there were four main designs that stood out: a gray rabbit, an armadillo, a round man with a large mustache, and a hedgehog character. It was the latter of these that would ultimately win the competition, and the world of Sonic the Hedgehog was soon to follow.

The character, originally called Mr. Needlemouse, was from the get-go meant to be a reflection not only of Sega, but of the United States. At the time, it was believed that if a franchise was to become popular in the U.S., it would automatically succeed in Japan as well. Using cues from such well-known American cartoons as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, "Mr. Needlemouse" gradually morphed into "The Most Famous Hedgehog in the World." While the blue hue of the character was a reflection of the company's logo, it also drew inspiration from another famous American creation - Santa Claus. The red and white suit of Father Christmas was used as the basis for the red and white color scheme of Sonic's iconic footware, while the physical design (buckle included) was inspired by Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star of the 1980's.

Though Ohshima was responsible for the creation of the hedgehog, he was only one member of the 15-strong team of Sega's AM8 division. Reuniting with the programmer of Phantasy Star, Yuji Naka became responsible for creating the game engine Sonic the Hedgehog would run through. Before the character of Sonic had won in the internal competition, the idea for the gameplay was of a character that would pick up items and throw them at enemies. This gameplay, partly inspired by the rabbit character, would have had him use his ears to pick up the items. However, using his own inspiration for his love of fast vehicles, Naka pushed the engine more and more, wanting the character to become faster. Realizing the entire mechanic of having to pick up items and throwing them slowed the entire experience, the idea came to have the character be the weapon, curling up and using his own momentum to destroy whatever enemies would come near. It was this change in plans that helped Sonic win the internal competition, and have himself poised to be Sega's first true superstar.

With a character and engine in place, it was the work of Hirokazu Yasuhara that would help bring the elements together. Director and Game Planner, he was the one ultimately responsible for making the various zones of Sonic the Hedgehog turn out the way they do in the final product. It was perhaps dumb luck that caused Yasuhara to become the driving force of the game, Sega originally seeking a more seasoned game designer to take up the call.

At the time, I was supposed to go to the United States to establish a new R&D team [at Sega of America] with Mark Cerny...But then the [first] Gulf War Started, and my move to the US was postponed for three months. Work was progressing on the [new mascot] game, but Naka and Ohshima needed a full-time game designer on the project. They saw that I was free, and looked to me for help designing the game until my departure. So I officially joined the project as a game designer, planning to work on it only until I went to the US. But I ended up staying in Japan for a year until we finished the project.

—Hirokazu Yasuhara, Director and Lead Game Designer of Sonic the Hedgehog

Careful in the construction of each unique zone (Green Hill alone taking almost six months to reach its released state), Yasuhara wanted to create levels that appealed not just to one particular market, but a game that both American and Japanese players would enjoy. Along with a team of artists and sound engineers, AM8 decided to dub themselves "Sonic Team," a moniker that is still around to this very day.

The tour poster for DREAMS COME TRUE in 1990, officially unveiling Sonic the Hedgehog to the world.

Work on the game went underway in April of 1990, the mythology of Sonic and the locale of the game, South Island, being worked on actively. The public at large would soon get a first glimpse at Sega's latest creation that same year, his image stamped on the 1990 tour of the highly-successful Japanese music group DREAMS COME TRUE. Wanting a unique soundtrack to the game, Sega hired Masato Nakamura to compose the legendary tracks that pepper the game. Being one of the driving forces behind DREAMS COME TRUE, it only made sense for Sega to sponsor the tour, using it as the first advertising push to a game that would not be seen in Japan until July of 1991.

Having over a year of development, Sonic the Hedgehog was hyped beyond belief, the development cycle being unusually long for a game of that era. All three branches of Sega realized the importance of the game, knowing it could make or break the system. Ohshima, knowing that a protagonist is only as good as the villain they fight, went back to one of the designs that had been discarded for the main character of the game, the mustached man, and worked on simplifying the design. Wanting to create an antagonist that was simple to draw for young kids, the character of Dr. Eggman was born.

While every element of the game was important, at first Yuji Naka focused so heavily on the speed aspect of the game that, when testing it out, he found himself nearly getting motion sickness from the pace Sonic moved at. Not wanting the same fate to befall anyone playing the game, Naka worked diligently until he found the right balance of motion for the character, that would emphasize the speedy nature of the character but at the same time being slow enough so anyone could pick up and play without being overwhelmed. This, along with darkening the shade of blue Sonic was, the game gradually formed into the final product. Along with a distinctive pop art-inspired cover created by Akira Watanabe, the game was almost ready to unleashed to the masses.

Though developed entirely in Japan, the game would actually see release first in the west, premiering on U.S. shores on June 23, 1991. A few random bugs and effects would be polished for the Japan release, but it was with that game the 16-bit wars truly began. Drawing critical and commercial success in the west, Sonic the Hedgehog brought the character - and the company behind it - into the mind of the general public.

While there were originally intended to be ports to the Amiga and the Mega CD, it was decided that the game would remain on the Mega Drive for the time being, letting the cart become one of the main selling points for the system.

Westernization

The westernized look of Sonic the Hedgehog, Dr. Eggman, and the Green Hill Zone. From the American promotional comic.

Although the game was a huge success, originally Sega of America was weary of the concept of Sonic as a character. Though hedgehogs were well known in Japan, at the time hardly anyone had even heard the word in the United States. As more information of the game was given to the offices in the U.S., the marketing team went into full panic mode, scrambling to correct what they felt was a terrible decision on Sega of Japan's part. Even going as far as to suggest an alternate designer to come up with a character which they felt would be more suited to an American audience, the staff at SOA was fearful of what they thought would be a failure.[1]

When it became clear that the western side of the company would have to market Sonic the Hedgehog, it was decided that the marketing for the character would be modified from what the Japanese team was working on. Discarding the simplistic world of South Island, a storyline was developed in which Sonic the Hedgehog was once a brown hedgehog that, through a chance meeting involving a kindly scientist, turned into the blue hedgehog featured in the game. That same scientist, Dr. Ovi Kintobor, would be transformed into the villain of the piece due to an accident involving the Chaos Emeralds and his invention, the R.O.C.C. The physical designs of the characters Sonic and Eggman were also tweaked, making them look more like the style of 1980's cartoon phenomenons, and in the process trying to make Dr. Eggman look far more sinister than Ohshima's art suggested. This change in tone for the character was reflected further when it was decided that the given name of the character should be changed for western audiences.

Game tester and Sega help line employee Dean Sitton was the one responsible for coming up with many of the western names of the characters in the games, including such badniks as Buzzbomber and Ball Hog (called Beeton and Ton-ton in the original Japanese version, respectively). However, his greatest contribution to the westernization of the franchise was coming up with the name Dr. Ivo Robotnik.[2]

The game Sonic game in in an early state (just a few levels and some of the characters appeared as garbage chars that flickered. The producer of the US version would be in Japan and call in for updates. Like how many rings for a free man...how many rings for a continue etc.. I got to play the game for a week or so and I submitted a document that showed the characters in the game that I could see and a few names for each of them. Dr. Badvibes and many other names were not chosen.

I named Ivo Robotnik, Ballhog, and 3-4 more from that game. I helped to flesh out the fiction for Greenhill and Sally/Sandy/Amy? whatever the girls name is now... with a guy named Jamie Wojik... usually producers of games have only to fill in the blanks..it doesn't always matter how the blanks get filled in.

—Dean Sitton, Sega of America Game Tester

While Robotnik was the final name for the character, Sitton had thrown a handful of other names that could have been used for the antagonist.

[As] far as the change, its as if someone held up an object and said "what do you call this"? ... meaning I didn't create the object... I just named it. I found the list someone else asked about - other names that I suggested that were rejected. other Robotnik names were, Doctor X, Doctor Gloom, Dr. What.

—Dean Sitton, Sega of America Game Tester

A westernized version of Dr. Eggman, renamed Dr. Ivo Robotnik.

Also thrown about were the names "Mister Badwrench," "Mr. Bad Year" and "Fatty Lobotnik." Even the first name, "Ivo," was suggested by Mr. Sitton, pronouncing the name with a soft "I," having it sound closer to the word "evil."

Although the changes weren't as dramatic as other Japanese properties have had over the years, the original Sonic Team was unhappy when they saw what Sega of America was doing to their work. Years later, Ohshima would go on record saying he was baffled as to why they felt the need to redraw his artwork and come up with concepts that had nothing to do with the game, especially as it had all been originally design with a western audience in mind. Madeline Schroeder, Product Manager for Sonic the Hedgehog in the United States and the one responsible for the shift in the character art for the west, went to Sega of Japan to try and explain to the Sonic Team the reasoning behind the changes they were applying to the brand, wanting to prevent any further animosity between the two sides of the company. Even though the team still felt uneasy over how their work was being meddled with, there was nothing they could do to alter the course SOA was on. Even knowing that the very look of Sonic was being altered for western audiences, most of the team was able to remain blissfully unaware of the more drastic changes that were to occur, such as the entire Kintobor storyline, not learning of the deviation until years later.

Building up to release, the marketing of the title in the west was focused on the speed aspects of the game, at the same time making clear comparisons between the Mega Drive (called the Genesis in the United States) and the competition. Even if SOA wasn't as confidant in the product as they should have been, those behind the marketing put their all into the initial print and television ads, also being sure to draw focus on Sonic being a "hip" alternative to the Mario series and Nintendo in general. Once they realized that the title was poised to take off in ways they had not even imagined, Sega of America began a full-on publicity tour in September. Dubbed the "Sega World Tour '91," the campaign took place in twenty-five shopping malls across the country, having players compare Sonic the Hedgehog to Super Mario World by being able to play both.[3] The showcase was not only Sega's first push for Sonic in the mass media, but was also the perfect time for the company to announce their lowering the price point of the Genesis. Then-president of Sega of Japan, Hayao Nakayama, was baffled when he first learned not only of what SOA was planning on with the price of the system, but of their idea of making Sonic the bundled title so early on in the software's life cycle. While at first Nakayama was nothing less than furious, in the end he allowed Tom Kalinske to have free reign, confident in the decision-making powers of the man he hired.[4] With Sonic the Hedgehog replacing the aging Altered Beast in late 1991 just in time for the holiday season, the gamble worked, surprising Sega of Japan at just how well their American counterparts were able to succeed. Having an aggressive marketing campaign to showcase the game Sonic Team had crafted together, for the first time Sega was a true contender in the console wars, the unprecedented success of this one title being one of the main reasons the company was able to beat Nintendo for a significant period of time in terms of number of consoles sold in the west.

Concept Art

Rejected Character Designs

The following is a collection of images drawn by a variety of people within Sega during the internal competition to come up with a new mascot for the company. Among the selection is the rabbit image, for which served as the original inspiration for the gameplay. While the throwing dynamic was removed from the final product, it was fleshed out for the 1995 Sega game Ristar which contained a handful of members that worked on some of the Sonic titles. The mechanic would eventually be put into Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, although it was only an afterthought that was not necessarily for any of the game. The concept was also echoed in the much-later character Cream the Rabbit, who would "throw" her Chao at enemies in Sonic Advance 2. Interestingly, the below gallery does not contain any images of the armadillo character, so it is unknown if those sketches served as the inspiration behind Mighty the Armadillo.

Sonic the Hedgehog/Dr. Eggman

Madonna/Unnamed Enemies

Sonic, Madonna, and Eggman dressed in a bee-like outfit. Also pictured are various enemy concepts that were ultimately not used.

A concept that was toyed around with but ultimately dropped from the final product was the character Madonna. Intended to be a love interest for Sonic, it is unknown just how the dynamic between the two characters would have been if placed in-game. According to Naoto Ohshima, Madonna was meant to be a "male fantasy" by chasing Sonic about,[5] though it is unknown if she was meant to follow Sonic in the game or simply be a subtle plot point relegated to promotional material. The concept art for the character was featured in the compilation title Sonic Gems Collection, although artwork for the character had been on the Internet prior to the game's release. The project manager of Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega of America, Madeline Schroeder, later made the claim that she was responsible for the removal of the character in an attempt to make the game an easier sell in western markets.[6] However, this claim was later contradicted by Yuji Naka, who, when recalling the development process of the game, explained that Madonna never went beyond the concept stage primarily because of the stark comparison her presence would have made between Sonic and the Super Mario Bros. series. Having a heroine who would be kidnapped and subsequently rescued by the hero of the game was such a cliche at that point that Sonic Team wanted to focus on the battle between Sonic and Eggman. The first known reference to Madonna by name in a printed article was in High Score magazine. The idea of a hedgehog/human romance was eventually pursued in the game Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) through the character of Princess Elise, with less than stellar results.

At the same time the idea for Madonna was on the drawing board, the team also briefly considered having a slew of various living beings fight against Sonic, ranging from a six-fingered hand to a demon-like entity. Though many were drawn up by Ohshima, in the end everyone agreed that the mustached-fellow was still the best of the lot, and far closer to what they wanted to accomplish with the game. In the end, only Sonic and Eggman of the group shot were fully fleshed out and placed into the final product.

The enemy with a large jaw seems to have actually been implimented in a very early version of the game. A image showing this can be seen here.

Sound Test Band

The Sonic the Hedgehog Band.

Another concept that was forced to be dropped was the idea of Sonic being the lead in a band. Though not meant to be a part of the gameplay, there was originally intended to be a full-fledged sound test within the game, complete with animated graphics of Sonic break-dancing to the music of the "Sonic the Hedgehog Band." Vector the Crocodile, who would make his official introduction in the Sega 32X title Chaotix, was originally meant to be the keyboardist for this graphic. Sharps the Chicken, Max the Monkey, and Mach the Rabbit were to round out the cast playing the guitar, bass, and drums respectively. Due to time constraints, the concept had to be scrapped, a no-frills sound test becoming part of the hidden level select screen. The extra space designated for the graphics was given to the "SEGA" choir chime heard in the beginning of the game, which took up nearly an eighth of the cartridge space.[7] With the exception of Vector, none of these characters have been used in a Sonic the Hedgehog game, although Sharps, Max, and Mach have recently surfaced in the pages of the Archie comic Sonic the Hedgehog.

Level Concept Art

The following is a collection of images drawn up by Naoto Ohshima during the production of Sonic the Hedgehog during the zone creation process.

Tokyo Toy Show 1990

The title screen from the Tokyo Toy Show demo. Similar to the final, it lacks a background, making it appear more like the 8-bit version of the game.

The first glimpse of Sonic the Hedgehog in video game form was at the Tokyo Toy Show in June of 1990, which also happened to be the first time the game could be played by the general public. In a retrospective interview with Yuji Naka, it was revealed that the original Sonic Team put together a small, playable technical demo for the show featuring Sonic in an early version of the Green Hill Zone. Though development had just begun, this first known build has some advantages over the final version of the game, possessing seven layers of parallax scrolling, with trees and rocks in the foreground being independent from the clouds and other objects in the background, all separate from the scrolling of Sonic the Hedgehog as he ran through the hilled terrain.

Being the earliest representation of the Green Hill Zone, it is also reflective of what was found in early materials used both internally and in promotional articles. One of the most prominent differences between this version and the final are the strange blue structures in the background, though it is unknown if they are meant to represent a city or are simply a natural yet surreal rock formation. With both trees and giant rocks in the foreground which presumably had layers of scrolling independent of each other, the entire style was indicative of what was to come. Though foreground items were not found in the final, the rocks would be modified and used in the released layouts of the game, transformed into downsized, colored purple obstacles in the final release. The clouds of this early pre-release are also bigger, seemingly appearing with less frequency than in the mainstream product.

Of note is that in the interview, Naka claims that this tech demo was planned at one stage to be included in Sonic Mega Collection, but was never in any build as the ROM has since been lost internally at Sega.

Consumer Electronics Show 1991

A still from the playable demo of Sonic the Hedgehog from CES 1991. Visible are the flashing Eggman monitor and a decidedly different version of the Ton-ton.

These two short clips uncovered by community member drx feature footage taken at the Consumer Electronics Show in March of 1991. Though demoed only three months before the game hit U.S. shores, the footage recorded features numerous differences even in the first level of the game. Among that which is noticeable are the flowers in the level being purple instead of green, the word "RING" instead of "RINGS" in the HUD, and the brief notice of an image of Eggman in a monitor flashing in an almost roulette-styled fashion, though it is unknown what the result of hitting the box would be. As the player doesn't jump onto it, whether there were meant to be item boxes that gave you random power-ups or if the programming for the monitors had yet to be finalized is unknown.

There are also examples of an earlier Ton-ton enemy that attacks in a similar fashion to the Ganiganis found in the final version of the Green Hill Zone, throwing a projectile on either side as opposed to the single shot they fire in the final version of the Scrap Brain Zone. Concept art for this variation of the Ton-ton can be seen within the Japanese Sonic the Hedgehog manual.

It should be noted that CES 1991 also showed videos of Sonic the Hedgehog that seemed to be later builds than the one playable on the show floor. This suggests that the demo for the electronics show had been put together much earlier than March of '91, though it is impossible to know the exact timeline. Also of note is that a form of the debug mode is active in the clips, the numbers in the lower right hand corner corresponding to debug values. Sonic's position is represented differently by the debug mode in the final game. The full video from which these clips are from can be viewed here.

An interesting aside is that while visually the Green Hill Zone is slightly different from the final version of the level, elements such as the purple flowers and the strikingly close water/sky shades of blue in this build did make their way in the finished version. The flowers make an appearance in the final moments of the game after the player has fought the final boss, while the similar shades of blue in the sky and water appear in the title screen.

Early Videos

Portuguese Mega Drive Commercial

noframe

A Portuguese Mega Drive commercial available at Sega-16 shows a wrecking ball for the Green Hill Zone boss that has a sparkle which circles around it.

Translation of commercial

Mega Drive by Sega.

Infernal Machine.
Stereo sound.
Incredible colors!
16-bit micro-processor.
Mega Drive by Sega.
Now also with two controllers and 4 spectacular games, including Sonic!
Sega, it's stronger than you.
Mega Drive, the 16-bit console with most worldwide sales.

French Sonic Commercial

noframe

This French commercial showcases an unseen behavior of the spring in Marble Zone, seemingly extra long when used, and when bumped into the two blocks behind it disappear.

Translation of commercial

Well... are you angry?

It's me, master Sega. So you're choosing Sonic. Let's go.
Humbabbabbaba humbabababa.
Arrrrrrrhhh.
Boing.
And you're gonna laugh, because you're not even at the half of the game.

Promotional Screenshots

The following is a collection of images published in a variety of sources used to advertise Sonic the Hedgehog and to comment on its progress. Though it is unknown at what point these shots were taken during the development process, each come from a point before release.

Title Screen

Green Hill Zone

Marble Zone

Spring Yard Zone

Labyrinth Zone

Star Light Zone

Scrap Brain Zone

Special Stage

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