The Sonic the Hedgehog Movie and Why I Will be Watching.
The Sonic the Hedgehog movie is going to be out on Valentine’s Day 2020. I have decided, as have a number of my fellow Sonic fans, to go and see this after the redesign of the Sonic character. The filmmakers have won my rear end in a movie theater seat, because after all that Sega’s put me through, I’m glad this happened. Let’s go back in time a bit, and I’ll explain.
The creation of Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog was released in the USA on the 23rd of June in 1991. The Gulf War was over. Paula Abdul’s “Rush, Rush” (with a video featuring the breathtaking Keanu Reeves, fresh off of filming “Bill n’ Ted’s Bogus Journey”) was #1 on the charts. The Chicago Bulls had just won their first NBA Championship. “The Rocketeer” was stumbling at the box office after a major media buildup.
At the time, Nintendo’s NES was a highly dominant force in the game industry, mostly due to the popularity of a certain Italian(-American!) plumber and his hand-wringing brother of unspecified difference in age. Super Mario is, in almost every way, a perfect mascot character. The official portrayal of him by Nintendo is 100% devoid of any real specifics about his personality beyond being nice, brave, and carefree (Shigeru Miyamoto initially described him as ‘hang-loose’, which I only understood from having read my dad’s 1960’s Marvel Comics as a kid). He is also inoffensive in every single way that Italians tend to be stereotyped as (dating an Italian lady, claiming privileges, sorry).
Sega had achieved visibility with their Mega Drive/Genesis console’s stunning (for the time) “16-bit” graphics capability, but this proved to be only enough for them to keep up with Nintendo. Then, someone at Sega realized the problem: Nintendo had a recognizable mascot character. Sega did not.
Sonic the Bulldog
Therefore, sometime in the winter of 1989, Sega of Japan held an internal contest to design the new company mascot. Of the over 100 entries that were submitted, the four finalists were Sonic the Bulldog, Sonic the Wolf, Sonic the Scare Clown, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Of these four, Sonic the Hedgehog was selected, and Sonic the Scare Clown, seemingly because clowns are horrible, was made into the villainous Dr. Robotnik. Thusly, Sega’s mascot character was chosen. However, the development of the game itself would actually take another 18 months.
You read that right. 18 months. As in one and one half years.
Now, I know you’re a jaded modern gamer who is used to Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Kingdom Hearts III taking forever, but back then, the average development time for a game was about 8 months. That’s a full 125% more months than a game took, back then. But this was because Sega knew that they couldn’t just coast on this. Sonic the Hedgehog had to not only be recognizable, but fun enough to make people ignore Mario. That’s like saying you have to make a backpack that can outrun an aircraft and not fry the user.
So, Sega was going to sit down and do their homework. They wanted to make something that felt completely new in the realm of platform gaming, while at the same time making it visually impressive. It’s this kind of attention to detail that future Sonic games lacked, and what brought about the Sorry State of Sonic in 2019 (or ‘SSS19’ for short).
Mario. The enemy.
Nintendo somewhere along the line, had decided that it was better if Mario did not exude too much personality, or else they risked him being inaccessible to too many people. Sonic, on the other hand, had this stark difference; he was targeted specifically towards American teenagers of 1991.
At the time, it was effective enough to actively attract the attention of the primary game-buying demographic. However, this proved to be Sonic’s biggest weakness against Mario: Mario does not have to adapt to changing styles and culture. Sonic does, and this journey did not go well for him. In particular, after his inital trilogy/tetralogy (depending on your point of view), which are some of the most engaging 2-D sidescrollers in history, Mario came along with one of the funnest and most engaging 3-D platformers to date, that being Super Mario 64.
You will notice that, even though Super Mario 64 added in voice acting (literally the first thing you hear when you start up the game), Mario’s ‘personality’ is kept to a minimum. This wasn’t laziness on Nintendo’s part, at all. It was almost definitely a calculated move, to counter Sega’s competitive blue rodent and also not seem like they’re countering him, at the same time.
Sega, at the time caught up in dealing with newcomers Sony outperforming them at every turn, seemed to be caught suddenly off-guard. They were only able to push out the questionable Saturn title “Sonic R,” and the lacklustre “Sonic Jam” as an answer. They attempted to recover with Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, but all in all, it proved to be too much for them.
One of the main complaints that people have about Sonic Adventure is that the story and voice acting, however they might have been perceived at the time, did NOT age well. If you’ll recall from my previous article about the Final Fantasy VII Remake, this was at the time when the idea that story in games was sort of just ‘fluff,’ and not truly necessary, was being challenged all over the place. You could almost refer to this time as the beginning of the ‘Auteur Period’ of Video Games, with such talents as Hideo Kojima bringing their storytelling A-Game in FF7’s wake. Sega, on the other hand, was not really known for games that told much of a story, and so…
Sonic Adventure didn’t really hit the mark. In the unfortunate aftermath, Sega decided to cash in their console war chips and head home. Sonic was left in an oblivion which he has resided in to this day (aside from the actually pretty good Sonic Advance Series, which I will give an honorable mention to). That original burst of inventiveness which produced him had long faded away due to overmarketing, overmerchandising, and lack of anyone taking the reins of the IP properly.
Anyhow, fast forward to 2019. Sonic CD, Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 had been updated for modern PCs and mobile phones. Suddenly, everyone remembered why they liked Sonic in the first place. For all of the poorly-aging teenage slang and ‘tude he had in the various other iterations, Sonic’s personality is mostly just implied in the games themselves.
This made him far more analogous to Mario, in that he is primarily intended as a player avatar. He is not meant to be a replacement for the player’s personality. However, this other, ‘tude filled, marketing-meeting-nightmare portrayal of Sonic, which drowned out how good the original games were, unmistakably reared its hideous head upon announcement of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, and leak of this infographic informing its design choices:
…And in a lot of ways, everything that was dumb about the “90’s Marketing Portrayal” of Sonic was made ten times worse by not only this obviously heartless, money-grubbing and cold approach to his character, but also the maiden-shrieking repugnance of the model itself.
Now, as I said at the beginning of this article, Sonic fans have been through a lot with Sega. They took a nice, simple game about a blue hedgehog that can run faster than a race car, and mutated it into innumerable unwieldy and pointless cash grabs, while its original competitor, Mario, stayed more or less consistently good over the years. After all the disappointments, Sonic fans were not taking this latest insult to their sanity lying down.
But in this darkest of hours for the ‘Hog, a light shone through: someone on this production staff (was it you or your agent, Jim Carrey?) saw all this backlash and said, “You know what? They’re right. This isn’t Sonic.” The Sonic the Hedgehog movie CGI team then agreed to go into total burnout mode over the last few months to repair what very well might have been catastrophic damage to Sonic and Sega’s brand, even though the predominant school of thought in the entertainment industry is usually “… Whatever.”
What we ended up with is exactly what Sonic Fans wanted in a Sonic the Hedgehog movie: A faithful portrayal of the character. Cute, friendly, but with a smart-alec attitude and the ability to run so fast that physically impossible and totally unscientific things happen.
This, in my opinion, deserves for me to spend at least the price of one movie ticket (and likely a package of Reese’s Pieces and 2 hours without a cigarette) to go see. I am glad that, for once, someone said that Sonic deserves better.
After all, he’s the fastest thing alive, and he’s run the gauntlet enough.
The article and its images could not have been made without the following
Electronic Gaming Monthly – September 1991 Issue Page 102