There are few pop-culture icons as instantly recognizable as Sonic the Hedgehog. During his conception in 1990, Sega was struggling to compete against their archrival Nintendo and the king of all video game characters: Super Mario.
Sega realized that having a popular, recognizable mascot like Super Mario could bolster sales of their state-of-the-art Sega Genesis console, which had been struggling to contend against the massively popular Nintendo Entertainment System and its flagship Super Mario Bros. series. Its first two attempts at establishing a mascot were underwhelming. The first character, Opa-Opa, was a multicoloured sentient spaceship who served as protagonist of the 1985 Sega arcade game Fantasy Zone.
In 1985, with the release of their first home console the Master System, Sega unveiled Alex Kidd, the face of their new video game franchise. Sega released six Alex Kidd titles in the 1980s, and they eventually realized he was not going to catch on. Meanwhile, Nintendo and Super Mario were leading the video game industry. By 1990, 30% of American homes owned a NES, while their 1988 title Super Mario Bros. 3 grossed over $500 million and sold over 7 million copies in North America.
That year, Sega ordered its in-house team of developers to create a new game that would feature a new mascot for the company. Sega president Hayao Nakayama had high expectations, not only did the mascot need to compete with Super Mario, he wanted a character could become as iconic as Mickey Mouse. Early development of the game placed emphasis on speed, so any slow moving animals were out of contention. Some of the early ideas included kangaroos and squirrels, but the designers felt they were not aggressive enough.
They began looking at animals with spikes: armadillos and hedgehogs. The first iteration of the hedgehog character was created by Naoto Ohshima, who named him “Mr. Needlehouse.” It prevailed over the armadillo, who would later become the basis for Mighty the Armadillo in later Sonic titles. Ohshima later omitted that he created Sonic’s design by combining Mickey Mouse’s body with Felix the Cat’s head.
Sega wanted reassurance that, unlike his predecessors, this character would not fail. Sonic was playtested across the United States with fans being shown Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Their results showed 80% of their subjects preferred Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega then confidently unveiled the new character and game at the 1991 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, with a release day of June 23, 1991.
Sega made the brilliant move of packaging Sonic with the Sega Genesis console, a strategy that Nintendo had successfully employed with the NES and Super Mario Bros. 3. Their plan worked, and along with a massive marketing campaign featuring Sonic, Sega sold over 15 million Genesis units and were suddenly on their way to competing with Nintendo.
Sonic became a massive franchise, with dozens of game titles, television series, movies, and comics released over the following decades. As of 2018, the Sonic series has shifted over 800 million copies. The Sega Genesis outsold the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the US almost two to one over the 1991 holiday season, and by 1992 Sega controlled 65 percent of the console market. They continued to outsell Nintendo over the following four holiday seasons.
A new Sonic movie was unveiled in 2019, and for proof of how iconic Sonic had become, fans were outraged when they saw the vfx artists had strayed from Sonic’s original look. The filmmakers were forced to delay the movie as they returned Sonic to his proper look.