We are spending the month of December celebrating the year’s greatest games and those beyond. For our Retro Spotlight feature, we’re focusing on the games that changed something and stood out against the rest in their respective year of release. Today, they remain special to us not just because of their inherent quality but for the impact that they left on us and on the medium.
Celebrating twenty-five years this year, our selection for 1991’s Retro Spotlight is Sonic the Hedgehog. First released on June 23, 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on the Sega Genesis, and later that year as almost a demake on the Master System. Sonic the Hedgehog not only became the new mascot for Sega, but its eponymous character ignited a brand new era for the company. Further, it challenged the status quo of the industry and began a rivalry that would span the better part of a decade.
As a game, I never really loved Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t think it’s a bad game, but my first Sonic experience was its successor Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which made returning to the original feel clunky and weird. I missed Tails and had no idea why I couldn’t Spin Dash.
While my experience demanded a faster, more polished game, the original 1991 game had already changed what a platformer could be. While we had been comfortable with Super Mario Bros. and its style of platforming, Sonic entered the scene asking that we race through the levels as quickly as possible without caring much for the precision of things.
In many ways, a standard Sonic the Hedgehog level can be completed without stopping and without a lot of perfection required by the player. Where Super Mario Bros. and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s launch title, Super Mario World wanted the player to methodically move through a stage and find the right balance between advance and discovery, Sonic the Hedgehog asked that you run as fast as possible to the right. When you weren’t running fast enough, Sonic could and would find a pair of running shoes to speed up the already fast action and combine it with invincibility to set the stage for level completion in an almost autorun style. It was a much different game than we had seen before.
With its different gameplay came a different marketing technique. The team at Sega of America had used the slogan, “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” to initiate the first shot into what would later escalate and become the console war of the 1990s. Once Tom Kalinske stepped into the role of President for Sega of America, the company upped its rivalry with Nintendo and Sonic was the face of it.
“Welcome to the Next Level” became the company’s new slogan to be plastered within magazine ads and on television commercials. The idea behind the slogan, elevating Sega’s 16-bit console above Nintendo’s was complemented by Sonic’s attitude, both what the game and character represented. One commercial begins with the camera on a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo, side by side plugged into two TVs. One screen is playing Super Mario World while the other is Sonic the Hedgehog. Sitting in front of both screens are white cards with the respective prices for each console; Super Nintendo at $199.99 and Sega Genesis at $149.99. An offscreen teenaged voice asks the onscreen salesman about the games in front of him and the man tries to sell the kid on Super Mario World while the kid is more impressed with the speed, sound, and price of the Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sega boldly marched into the next level of marketing with its direct comparison and bashing of Nintendo, proudly animating Sonic and bringing him to life in a way that would grab the attention of many. The game’s curved landscapes and colorful box art against a black border popped when compared to Nintendo’s offerings, and ultimately led Sega to capture a majority of the market.
For the first time since it released the NES in 1985, Nintendo had a rival.
Like Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega didn’t want its consumers to slow down and look at the details. Just run as fast as you can to the finish line. In what ultimately became the real-world version of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” Sega poised its Trojan Horse to overtake the dominance that Nintendo held through the 8-bit era and disrupted the state of video games forever.
It wouldn’t be the last to take on Nintendo’s plumbing mascot, with Sonic paving the way for the likes of Crash Bandicoot from Sony to demand the throne a generation later. Sadly, it was this opening of the door to take down Nintendo that invited more competition to the ring and eventually caused Sega to lose its ability to stay running in the race at all.
Sega’s introduction of the Sega Saturn, successor to the Genesis would not go as well as expected when pit against Sony’s PlayStation, the very console that Sonic allowed to exist. As the company lost more and more of the ground it had earned in previous years, Sega still held Sonic as its mascot, featuring new titles on each successive platform launch until Sega ceased manufacturing its own hardware.
Today, Sonic is still Sega’s mascot and he still has a healthy number of games being released. He has appeared across multiple platforms and even went head-to-head with his old rival Mario in both the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and Nintendo’s own Super Smash Bros. series. Currently, Sega has two Sonic games in development that are both due to release in 2017.
1991 was an impactful year for video games, from the release of the Super Nintendo in North America, and game releases such as Street Fighter II, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Neverwinter Nights. Yet against three genre-defining and creating games, Sonic the Hedgehog left an impact on gaming that cannot be easily ignored.