The Errors in Sonic’s Approach
Mario dominated the platforming genre in the late 1980s. No legitimate challenger emerged to Nintendo’s juggernaut as the NES defeated the console market during its heyday. When Sonic the Hedgehog was released on the Sega Genesis, everything changed. Despite Nintendo’s mustachioed plumber, Sonic quickly rose to challenge him as the face of the video game industry. Rather than Mario, Sega’s mascot Sonic was the first video game character to receive a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because of Sonic’s immense popularity in the gaming industry. Former Sega marketing director Al Nilsen cites the mascot’s Q-Rating at its peak as evidence that Sonic was on a path to becoming more recognizable than Mickey Mouse.
Sega’s rise to competing with Nintendo was aided by the success of the Sonic Hedgehog brand. 16-bit games like Sonic were instrumental in showing the advantages of 16-bit systems, Nilsen says. “It was a major shift in the balance of power. ‘Must-have’ product and the driving force behind Genesis hardware sales resulted from the first product to be released. It helped us get noticed and build a solid foundation as the Super NES came out.”
Sega’s mascot, the blue hedgehog, has fallen from grace since its debut 25 years ago. A character who was once as well-known in the gaming world as Mario has become more famous for his appearances in other media due to inconsistent quality and brand mismanagement.
To get to the bottom of what happened, we consulted with several notable Sonic alumni. Several factors and potential stumbling blocks came to light during the discussions. It’s impossible to point to a single person or event that spelled the end of the Sonic series; rather, a series of circumstances came together to do so. Here’s how Sonic the Hedgehog got off track, and here’s how Sega plans to correct the situation.
An Unsuccessful 3D Transition
Sonic was a smashing success in the 2D realm, but the industry was moving toward a 3D future with the arrival of new consoles. Genesis games kept up with Mario’s biggest games, but it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that 3D games would put them to the ultimate endurance test. When the Sega Saturn was released in May 1995, the company had hoped to have a revolutionary Sonic title for the system, but the game was stuck in development limbo.
Sega Technical Institute, the same team behind Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and other Sega titles, was working on Sonic X-treme at the time. There were unfortunate circumstances, as many of the STI team members who worked on Sonic’s greatest hits had left Sega or worked on a new IP by Sonic creator Yuji Naka.
Sonic X-engine treme was licensed by Sega while most of Sonic’s core team was away from the project. He fought to prevent STI from using his engine, which he was unhappy about.
This was a roadblock, but co-lead Sonic X-treme designer Christian Senn saw far more problems with the development than Naka’s opposition to them using his engine. Christian Senn: “There were multiple target platforms, which necessitated redesigning the project and redeploying code as well as having significant effects on the team, the project, as well as morale,” he says. There have been several leadership and staff changes in the engineering department, resulting in code changes or even starting from scratch.
A year into development, the project’s lead engineer and co-lead designer were demoted, Senn claims, due to this rotating-door style of leadership.
Sega pulled the plug on the project, and Saturn ultimately failed due to a dearth of quality software compared to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Sega and Sonic faded into the background of gamers’ minds as they remained in third place. Rival platformers like Mario and Crash Bandicoot flourished in the new 3D space, straining the series’ future.
Sega made a risky move to entrust the series’ development to an inexperienced studio at a critical juncture in its history. Xtreme’s failure meant that Sonic missed out on becoming a 3D gaming pioneer like it had been in 2D platforming. Sonic was now forced to play catch-up after suffering a major setback.