Sonic Jam - "Sonic The Hedgehog" (1991)


It's usually best to start at the beginning. Well, sometimes. Sometimes, starting at the end is pretty cool. You seen Memento? They start at the end, then work their way back. That was a pretty cool movie, right? You know they're going to remake that? Weird, man. Hollywood's running out of ideas.

Anyway, here's Sonic The Hedgehog.

To understand why Sonic took the world by storm, which is admittedly unfathomable in 2016, it's important to understand the gaming climate that was around back in good ol' 1991, two years before I was born. There's been a lot of ink spilled on the Great Console Clash of the Late 1900's, the best of which is Blake J. Harris' book Console Wars, but to recap: Sega was trying to compete with Nintendo in the late 80's and failing miserably in most respects. They had no defining mascot, no cohesive brand, no killer apps... nothing, basically. Just a failed console (the Master System) and a console on the verge of failure.

I mean, when your mascot is Alex fucking Kidd, you've got a problem.

This gives Mega Man's box art a run for its money.
Point is, Sega wasn't doing too hot, and Nintendo was dominating the gaming market in key locations. People tried to compete, sure. Sega, Atari, Mattel, and, uh, I guess Commodore, too, with the Commodore 64 and Amiga. But nothing happened. Nintendo not only had Mario, Zelda, and a whole other slew of first-rate series, but they had extensive third-party support from Konami, Capcom, and a zillion other companies. If you wanted your games to sell, you put them on a Nintendo system, plain and simple. Oh, and there were restrictive licensing agreements forced on most game companies by Nintendo. That had a little something to do with it too. 

Barring Great Giana Sisters (for obvious reasons,) Nintendo pretty much had it all. Which left Sega with a bunch of half-assed ports and lame exclusives. Granted, it did decently enough in regions that weren't Japan or America, and in fact, the Master System is still the most successful system in Brazil, where it's still distributed today. Yes, really. But the point is, Sega was on the ropes, and Nintendo was going in for the kill. Even with the Genesis/Mega Drive/MEGA DORAIBU hitting the market in 1989 and having better tech under the hood than what was on the market, nothing could stop Nintendo's assault on children's eyes and ears.

Except for one man. The golden bastion of light in a time of great darkness. Our Eternal Lord and Savior, a true knight in shining armor. Ladies and Gentlemen. Tom Kalinske. 

Please, contain your orgasms.
Kalinske had cut his teeth on most of the major toy companies. Mattel. Leapfrog. Matchbox. The guy had a pedigree, and he'd taken all those companies to the top, no less. Which is why he was recruited to be the president and CEO of Sega of America. The guy knew how to market stuff to kids, plain and simple, and Sega knew this. Maybe this guy could turn them around. And turn them around he did. The Sega scream? The surprise, ultra-competetive price drops? Sonic as we know him today? All him. From 1990 to 1996, aka "the years where Sega was actually a big name," Kalinske oversaw everything Sega-related in America, and the company slayed because of it.

But it wasn't just Kalinske. At the same time, Sega was holding a company-wide contest to come up with a new character, one who would get a game and potentially become Sega's new mascot. The winner was one "Mr. Needlemouse," a fast, sarcastic hedgehog inspired by Bill Clinton. He was eventually renamed to Sonic, then given a whole cast of friends...

Freedom Fighters they ain't.

And a human girlfriend named Madonna...

Guess Pauline got a haircut and dye job.
... who were all axed in favor of just having a game that focused purely on Sonic squaring off against Teddy Roosevelt in pajamas, aka the maniacal scientist known as Doctor Ivo Robotnik. Utilizing tech pioneered by Yuji Naka that allowed sprites to move smoothly along a curved environment, Sonic's signature movement (going real fast up things and rolling into shit) was born. Several months of development and dozens of arguments between Sega of America and Sega Japan later, not to mention a huge marketing push, and Sonic was unleashed (no, not like that) into an unsuspecting populace.

The result was nothing short of a spin-dash to the face coming out of left field for Nintendo. Having just released their flagship Super Mario World for the SNES, they felt like they'd be riding that ol' gravy train through the 1991 holidays. But the perfect storm of Kalinske's aggressive marketing, Sonic's originality, and the introduction of a cooler, "edgier" alternative to the mainstream resulted in the Genesis outselling the SNES during the holidays at a 2-to-1 margin. Let me repeat: two Genesis systems for every SNES. Simply put, Sonic was the final piece of the puzzle for Sega, and its release sped them to a competitive spot in the market for the foreseeable future.

But why? What was so great about Sonic, anyway? What was so different?

Ever seen a plumber do this?
For starters, Sonic the Hedgehog offered an unprecedented sense of speed and exploration in a platformer, two things that weren't really much of a thing at the time. Instead of jogging in a straight line, or slowly trudging different directions to find items, Sonic tore through every level at a breakneck space, spinning everywhere and getting shot in different directions by springs, pipes, and seesaw-catapult things.

Yeah, those things!
Second off, there was a sort of simplicity to it all. Platformers had been trying to outdo each other and upgrade in the years since Super Mario Brothers. More power-ups, more gimmicks, more weapons... the market had sort of stagnated. And then here came Sonic, with some of the most no-nonsense, no-frills gameplay imaginable. You run, you jump, you roll. There's nothing else to it, and that's sort of the beauty of the original. It's a simple concept executed brilliantly, which is why, I'd argue, it's still such an enduring game.

Not to mention that Sonic himself represented something new for the gaming industry, as a character. Prior to Sonic, there were two basic character types in most games, primarily in platformesr: cuddly mascots romping around magical places and beefy studmuffins with weapons, with the occasional lady thrown in. That was about it. Sonic burst onto the scene as a sarcastic, cocky asshole who glared at the player. He was a wise-cracking teenager who little kids could look at and go, "now that's what I call edgy!" It was by design, of course. Sonic was intended to be a harder-edged, PG-edgy character from the get-go, as seen in the internal Sega document known as "The Sonic Bible." Just look at this page:

Ow, the edge!

This resonated with a 90's kid audience in ways that made total sense to a marketing maven like Kalinske. Kids had grown up with Nintendo since 1985. They were older now, and they wanted something to cement their "cool big kid on the playground" status, something that they could use to lay down that ultimate mother of all insults, "Mario is for babies, you dingus" Put some shoes and a 'tude on a blue hedgehog, and voila: instant cool game for cool babies.

"That radical Sonic is so x-treme, fellow rad 'tude children!" - Cool Babies, 1991.
Aside from the edginess and the speed and all of the other stuff that made Sonic a hit among its target demographic, there was something about that first game that explains why it's still something I revisit several times a year: it's fucking good.

Unlike a lot of other sarcastic, edgy animal mascots that would spring up and try to cash in on Sonic's success, what Yuji Naka and his motley crew of developers crafted was nothing short of spectacular. The soundtrack was one of the best pieces of music in a game on the market. The graphics were a bombastic assault on the sense in terms of colors and objects in the foreground and background. The physics-based platforming is novel and still works as intended to this day thanks to being a solid piece of tech. A lot of later Sonic games are more divisive affairs, but to this day, there's no real division on Sonic the Hedgehog: it's one of the greatest platforming experiences of all time, bar none, and a novel alternative to the more methodically-paced Mario franchise.

Sonic The Hedgehog, still a fantastic experience by today's standards, truly kicked off the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, and set off a series of ugly playground arguments that resulted in the highest child fatality rate in human history... probably. With its release, all bets were off on who would sweep the gaming market, and Sonic was about to be cemented as a household name.

But before that, he had to make one last stop on Sega's old system...

Next Time: I slog through the Master System Sonic titles in one post, because unholy hellspawn games don't deserve individual posts!



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