Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we gotta go fast through the classic 8-bit and 16-bit era of Sonic the Hedgehog. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. I recommend turning up the embedded YouTube playlist above each section’s cover art to get the full Sonic experience.
Where two years are present, the first is Japan and the second is North America. I have tried to use the North American version of game and console titles after first identifying international variants – consequently, Genesis will stand in for Mega Drive and Sega CD will stand in for Mega-CD; writing both simply became too messy after a while. The one exception is Eggman/Robotnik, since that localization changes midway through the series.
Specific sources will be cited as they pertain below, but three key general sources inform much of the following text:
- Sonic Retro
- Blake J. Harris – Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (2014)
- Alex Wiltshire and John Szczepaniak – Japansoft: An Oral History (2020)
Table of Contents
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit, 1992)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (16-bit, 1992)
Sonic CD (1993)
Sonic and Tails / Sonic Chaos (1993)
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
Sonic and Knuckles (1994)
Sonic: Triple Trouble (1994)
Knuckles Chaotix (1995)
Sonic 3D Blast (1996)
Sonic Blast (1996)
Sega was established in Japan in 1965 following Nihon Goraku Bussan’s acquisition of Rosen Enterprises. Coin-operated machine distributor Nihon Goraku Bussan had grown out of the 1950s slot machine producer Service Games – itself originally founded by a small group of Americans in 1941 as Standard Games and dogged by government scrutiny until its dissolution in 1960 – and had already been branding its products with the name Sega (an abbreviation of “Service Games”) for several years at the time of the merger. Rosen Enterprises founder and US Air Force Officer David Rosen was installed as the CEO of the new corporation and Sega pivoted from producing slot machines to importing pinball machines and mechanical gun games from the US-based Williams and Midway.
Sega’s first original arcade amusement was 1966 submarine combat simulator Periscope; the origins of this product remain in dispute, however, as rival Japanese game developer Namco claims to have originally released a version of the same machine in 1965. Whoever initially created it, Sega successfully distributed the product in North America over the next couple of years. In addition to building an international reputation for the company, Periscope is noteworthy for having standardized the $.25 cost to play an arcade game in the United States.
Rosen sold Sega to US-based Gulf and Western Industries in 1969 in an effort to expand its financial value. Sega developed and released its first video game arcade cabinet, a Pong (1972) clone called Pong-Tron, as a subsidiary of Gulf and Western Industries in 1973. The success of this experiment led the industrial conglomerate to install Rosen as head of one of its publicly traded companies, Polly Bergen, and rename that company Sega Enterprises, Inc. Sega continued producing content in Japan while also opening a new California branch under the name Sega of America in 1975. The international studio successfully built a major arcade empire throughout the back half of the decade but the North American video game crash of 1983 laid it low, leading Gulf and Western to sell much of Sega Enterprises, Inc. off to manufacturer Bally and entirely divest itself of Sega by the end of 1984. The Japan-based subsidiary Sega Enterprises, Ltd. survived alongside the R&D portion of the studio’s North American branch, however, and became independent under the leadership of Hayao Nakayama and David Rosen.
While arcade cabinet production would continue to form a core part of Sega’s business strategy over the coming decade, the increasing volatility of this market caused the studio to begin producing home consoles in the 1980s. The studio’s SG-1000 launched in Japan and limited overseas markets alongside Nintendo’s Famicom in 1983 but was rapidly outpaced by its competitor. An updated version, exclusive to Japan, was released in 1984 to similarly dismal sales. Both feature the beginning of a trend which would cause serious issues for the studio ten years later: an abundance of plug-and-play peripherals, including a card reader and a keyboard.
Sega’s persistence would finally begin to pay off with 1985’s Sega Mark III, which was known outside of Japan as the Master System. Alex Kidd, the inadvertent result of a failed licensing deal to produce a Dragon Ball adaptation, became the mascot for the platform following the release of side-scroller Alex Kidd in Miracle World (1986/1987). This rival to the ubiquitous Super Mario Bros. series failed to keep the console from struggling in North America even as it surged in Europe and Brazil, however, due to the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo’s policy of contracts binding developers not to produce games for rival hardware manufacturers.
In a bid to overcome continuing apathy among North American consumers, Sega hired former Mattel and Atari employee Michael Katz to promote the studio’s 16-bit Genesis console in 1989. North American reception to the platform’s launch still proved relatively tepid in spite of the Genesis’ superior graphics and Katz’s attempts to garner celebrity endorsements. Amid the 1990 release of Nintendo’s own 16-bit console, the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Sega opted to replace Katz with Tom Kalinski only one year after the former’s arrival and go back to the drawing board. Kalinski correctly perceived that the key to disrupting Nintendo’s market dominance would be marketing Sega as everything that Nintendo was not.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
According to Blake Harris’ history of Sega, Console Wars (2014), Sonic was born from an internal contest held among Sega’s Japanese staff prior to Kalinski’s arrival. Competing designs included “an armadillo (later developed into Mighty the Armadillo), a dog, a cat, a cheetah, a Theodore Roosevelt look-alike in pajamas, and a peppy rabbit that could use his extendable ears to collect objects.” The winner, submitted by Naoko Ohshima, was a spiny hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse based loosely on Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. While Michael Katz shot down the idea, Ohshima began to work with Phantasy Star creator Yuji Naka on a prototype game for the character.
Mr. Needlemouse’s second shot came with the arrival of Kalinski at Sega of America. As part of their efforts to rebrand Sega and the Genesis, Kalinski and product manager Madeline Schroeder took up the task of working Ohshima’s character into a mascot that would appeal to North American audiences. They first stripped out his electric guitar, sharp teeth, and human girlfriend Madonna. Kalinski’s team then worked up an extensive 13-page backstory for the character that would go more or less unused in the decades ahead. According to Yuji Naka in a 1992 interview, Mr. Needlemouse acquired the name Sonic when an unnamed designer described the character’s speed as “supersonic.”
Unfortunately, the tension between Kalinski’s redesign and Ohshima’s original vision represents the first signs of broader disunity between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. Ohshima’s unhappiness with the changes prompted a series of negotiations which culminated in Schroeder traveling to Japan to make Sega of America’s case. Though the initial plan was to produce two different versions of Sonic – one for Japan and one for North America – Schroeder was eventually successful. Sega of America’s vision of Sonic would take center-stage in the studio’s self-described “Mario killer.”
A Sonic the Hedgehog prototype was demoed internally to Sega of America in late 1990 and instantly impressed. Programmer Yuji Naka, character designer Naoko Ohshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara had been hard at work crafting their game around the Genesis’ key technical feature: its clock speed was twice that of the SNES (7.6 MHz rather than 3.58 MHz). The core crew of three, which was soon augmented by five additional staffers and dubbed itself Sonic Team, had the game ready for public release in June 1991 following a grueling eight-month development period. At Kalinski’s idiosyncratic suggestion, Sega opted to replace the Genesis pack-in arcade port Altered Beast with its most impressive piece of original software in June 1991 rather than selling the game on its own. An accompanying ad campaign throughout Summer 1991 pitched Sonic as the speedy, aggressive alternative to Nintendo’s traditional side-scrolling mascot. The gamble paid off, introducing the world to Sega’s new character and finally managing to popularize the company’s hardware in North America.
Sonic the Hedgehog‘s gameplay broadly resembles its platformer predecessors – the player character can move left or right, jump, and collect items throughout horizontally-oriented stages as they move towards a goal. In contrast to earlier genre offerings, however, Sonic can barrel forward at a speed barely matched by the screen itself. By jumping or tapping down on the controller as Sonic moves, the player can also transform their avatar into a spiny blue ball which defeats most enemies upon contact. Sonic lacks the precision of Mario but makes up for it with distinctive momentum physics that encourage constant movement.
The game’s six zones – Green Hill, Marble, Spring Yard, Labyrinth, Scrap Brain, and Sky Base – represent uniue biomes and each include three acts culminating in a boss encounter with an oversized mech piloted by series antagonist Eggman (Japan) / Dr. Robotnik (North America). This naming inconsistency, which would not be resolved until Sonic Adventure (1999), represents another early instance of disharmony between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. Loops, valleys, and hills all encourage the player to move Sonic forward as quickly as possible while traps and robotic enemies that punish carelessness reward memorization of stage layouts.
Like his rival Mario, Sonic collects currency while exploring stages. Rings serve as Sonic’s life gauge, as he can always survive an enemy attack so long as he has at least one ring, and are scattered when Sonic sustains damage. Quickly recovering these lost rings is paramount to preserving Sonic’s safety. Power-ups include a shield that grants Sonic an additional hit point, temporary invincibility, and a temporary speed boost. Gaining additional lives by collecting 100 rings or finding a standalone 1-Up hidden off the beaten path is critical to completing the game, as losing all of Sonic’s lives results in the player needing to begin the game again from its first stage.
Sonic the Hedgehog‘s superlative presentation was perhaps the most significant factor in its instant popularity. Sprites are large, colorful, and feature numerous unique animations that would have been impossible only a couple of years earlier; Sonic’s idle animation, in which he taps his foot impatiently, goes a long way towards establishing the character’s irreverent identity in the absence of any in-game narrative. A soundtrack composed by Japanese pop musician Masato Nakamura likewise established the series’ ongoing reputation for brilliant music.
Critical reception to the game was universally positive and, along with a handful of wise marketing deals made by Tom Kalinski, Sonic rapidly reversed Sega’s home console fortunes in North America. A less successful 8-bit adaptation produced by studio Ancient, newly founded by ex-Falcom staffer Yuzo Koshiro, was subsequently released on Sega’s portable Game Gear hardware and the Sega Master System; this version more or less maintains the structure of the original but features altered level designs and slower gameplay. A planned port to the Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Atari ST by U.S. Gold was announced but never published. Players can now find Sonic the Hedgehog across nearly every digital distribution platform, including iOS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit, 1992)
As development on a 16-bit sequel was ongoing, Sega paid a group of developers at second-party studio Ascent Co., Ltd. to produce an 8-bit follow-up to the Sega Master System and Game Gear port of Sonic the Hedgehog. Though it bears the name of its Genesis cousin, the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is an entirely original game that arrived in stores shortly before the 16-bit version. Its plot, which focuses on Sonic’s attempts to save his erstwhile partner Tails from Eggman/Robotnik, serves as the low-key debut of this friendly flying fox.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit) includes seven new zones: Under Ground, Sky High, Aqua Lake, Green Hills, Gimmick Mountain, Scrambled Egg, and Crystal Egg. During each zone’s truncated third act, Sonic battles a robot master rather than Eggman/Robotnik. Aside from robotic doppelganger Mecha Sonic, the boss of Scrambled Egg Zone, these robot masters are functionally oversized variants of standard enemies. They are made especially challenging by the absence of any rings in their stages, ensuring that Sonic will die in one hit.
In the first instance of what would become a franchise trend, a final confrontation with Eggman/Robotnik and the game’s happy ending are only accessible if Sonic assembles six Chaos Emeralds. Five of these collectibles are hidden in the second act of each zone and the sixth is held by Silver Sonic. Completing the game without all six in Sonic’s possession reveals a melancholy ending cutscene in which Sonic fails to save his friend.
With regard to mechanics, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit) is quite distinct from its 16-bit companion. Sonic lacks the spin dash but can ride mine carts and hang gliders. He can also glide across the surface of water if he gathers enough momentum, a move that would not be revived until Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994). Unfortunately, the Game Gear’s narrow screen size means that stage hazards originally designed for the Sega Master System are sometimes nearly impossible to avoid in its portable adaptation.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit) launched on Master System and Game Gear in Europe, Brazil, and Japan but only made its way to North America on the Game Gear due to that territory’s lack of enthusiasm for the Master System. Though the Master System version is the more successful of the two, due to aforementioned screen real estate issues, virtually all re-releases across subsequent decades are based on the Game Gear version. Though the Master System version would finally be republished in 2008 on the Wii’s Virtual Console, the discontinuation of that digital storefront in January 2019 has made the best version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit) once more inaccessible to new players without the aid of unofficial emulation.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (16-bit, 1992)
Sonic’s meteoric ascent to worldwide popularity was not enough to head off contentious internal politics at Sega of Japan. Yuji Naka, the man most responsible for the gameplay of the franchise’s debut, departed his employer due to frustrations with their unwillingness to credit or compensate developers appropriately and sought out a job at Nintendo. Fellow Sonic Team founder Hirokazu Yasuhara also quit Sega of Japan but quickly took up a position at the newly created Sega Technical Institute (STI) in California.
STI had been founded in 1991 by Mark Cerny, creator of Atari’s Marble Madness (1984) and future co-designer of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 platforms. The Sega subsidiary was focused on fulfilling Cerny’s vision of a small team-driven approach to game design in contrast with Sega’s otherwise highly corporate structure. Cerny successfully lobbied Naka to join him and Yasuhara in the United States, then pitched a Sonic the Hedgehog sequel to Sega of Japan. Though the studio’s leadership initially balked at the idea, believing that it was too soon to begin work on a follow-up, they eventually relented and greenlit production of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in 1992.
Development of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would prove unexpectedly challenging, however. The combination of Japanese and American developers at STI struggled to cohere into an effective team. While Naka and his staff were able to implement a two-player mode that Sonic Team had originally intended for the previous title, numerous prototype stages were cut during the game’s rushed one-year development period; these include Dust Hill Zone, Wood Zone, and Hidden Palace Zone. A time travel mechanic planned by Yasuhara was likewise never implemented.
At the same time, disputes between Sega of Japan and the company’s American branches continued to arise. Sonic’s partner, a flying fox originally called Miles Prower by character creator Yasushi Yamaguchi, underwent a name change to Tails at the request of Sega of America. This compromise proved controversial, and evidence of the character’s original name remains present in the final game; his official name, moving forward, would be Miles “Tails” Prower.
The final game was released on the Genesis in November 1992. Sonic explores West Side Island and attempt to destroy Eggman/Robotnik’s Death Egg, a massive floating weapon. As is typical for early 16-bit platformers, the narrative is conveyed exclusively through instruction manual text and level design. Zones include Emerald Hill, Chemical Plant, Aquatic Ruin, Casino Night, Mystic Cave, Hilltop, Oil Ocean, Metropolis, Sky Chase, Wing Fortress, and Death Egg. Most zones are comprised of two acts, which culminate in a boss fight, but Metropolis Zone features three acts and the final three zones feature only one act each. Areas include unique stage hazards and cartoonish enemies, like the pneumatic tubes of Chemical Plant Zone and the blade-hurling praying mantis robots of Metropolis Zone.
As in Sonic the Hedgehog, the player character acquires rings and loses these if struck by an enemy or hazard. Amassing 100 rings nets the player an extra life, while crossing a checkpoint with 50 rings allows the player to access a quasi-3D bonus stage. In each of the game’s seven bonus stages, Sonic and Tails travel down a half-pipe from a behind-the-back perspective and try to gather coins while avoiding obstacles hidden by blind curves in the path. Successfully completing the special stage confers a Chaos Emerald on the player, and acquiring all seven Chaos Emeralds grants the player character the ability to transform into the invincible Super Sonic every time they rack up 50 coins.
Aside from its new special stage, Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s chief mechanical improvement on its predecessor is the addition of a spin dash move. By holding down and tapping the jump button, the player can charge up their avatar’s momentum without needing to gradually build up speed by running. When the jump button is released, Sonic is hurled forward along the ground in a damaging rolled-up position at top speed.
As indicated above, multiplayer makes its debut in Sonic’s second home console outing. A second player can control Tails in the main campaign, while a fully featured competitive mode allows two local players to go head to head in splitscreen. The competitors are judged on coins acquired and time taken to complete each of the multiplayer mode’s three standard zones. After completing a final competition set in the main campaign’s special stage, a winner is declared.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was lauded by critics upon its release and sold over six million copies. It has since been re-released on nearly all later video game platforms, including PC. One particularly odd port was released under the name Sonic Pocket Adventure on the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 1999. This SNK-developed version features renamed levels largely drawn from the 16-bit original but includes songs from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic Jam (a compilation of Sonic games released for the ill-fated Sega Saturn and Game.com), new bosses, and a puzzle mode.
The most significant port is a version produced for iOS in 2013 in collaboration between Sega and longtime series fans Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley (more on the latter two below). Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s iOS edition famously reintroduces Hidden Palace Zone as a secret area accessible via Mystic Cave Zone. This stage, which is actually a new creation based on promotional prototype images and unused assets associated with the scrapped area, has sadly been excluded from all later re-releases at the time of writing in March 2020.
Sonic CD (1993)
Sonic creator Naoto Ohshima continued working on the series in Japan even after his erstwhile Sonic Team collaborators left for STI. In preparation for the 1993 launch of the Genesis’ new CD-based peripheral, the Mega-CD/Sega CD, Sega of Japan asked Ohshima to direct a new Sonic game for the platform in early 1992. Ohshima brought Hiroyuki Kawaguchi onto the project as art director and kept in contact with Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s development team during the planning phase to ensure that his game would be distinct from theirs. Some elements, like the spin dash, would still appear in both titles. In spite of being produced closer to headquarters, Sonic CD would be allowed a less rushed development period than its American-made contemporary and arrived on shelves nearly two years after the Mega-CD’s Japanese debut.
As ever, players take on the role of Sonic as he explores themed zones and foils the schemes of Eggman/Robotnik. The plot introduces players to Amy Rose, a pink Hedgehog with an unrequited attraction to Sonic who had originated in a Sonic manga tie-in, and antagonist Metal Sonic, a sleek revision of penultimate Sonic the Hedgehog 2 boss Mecha Sonic. A hand-animated introductory cutscene justifies the game’s CD media, but its slim narrative is still primarily conveyed using an instruction manual. Though the original Japanese release of Sonic CD features a soundtrack composed by Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, the North American version was controversially re-scored by Spencer Nilson. Amy Rose’s name was likewise localized in English as Princess Sally in reference to an unrelated character from Archie Comics’ Sonic adaptation.
Sonic CD‘s most noteworthy addition to the mechanical palette established by Sonic the Hedgehog is time travel. With a presentation directly inspired by Universal Pictures’ Back to the Future (1985), Sonic can move into the pastoral past or mechanized future of each stage by gathering speed after passing a flag respectively labeled “past” or “future.” The transition occurs in more or less real time, aside from a brief loading screen masked by a bright light, so Sonic can freely switch between all three variants as he navigates the first two acts of each zone; the final act of each zone is set exclusively in the future. If Sonic successfully finds and destroys a transporter device hidden in the past of each zone’s first two acts, the future version of the zone is transformed into a less dystopian vision.
The super peel-out likewise makes its debut in Sonic CD. By holding up and the jump button, the player can cause Sonic’s legs to turn into an infinity symbol and confer a more powerful burst of forward momentum than the spin dash. In contrast to that move, however, Sonic remains vulnerable while moving forward using the super peel-out. As ever, risk is measured against reward.
Sonic CD eschews the multiplayer of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 but does feature a unique type of special stage that would not otherwise reappear until 2018’s Sonic Mania. In a nod to the Sega CD’s advanced processing power, the special stages see a sprite-based version of Sonic explore a circular pseudo-3D racetrack as he chases down six hovering UFOs in the pursuit of a Time Stone. This rudimentary polygonal presentation is simplistic by the standards of the 32-bit generation but is thrilling in comparison to Sonic CD’s otherwise traditional 2D spritework. If Sonic acquires all Time Stones or destroys all hidden transporters, the player receives an animated cutscene following their final battle with Eggman/Robotnik.
Sonic CD was critically and commercially successful, rapidly becoming the bestselling title for the Sega CD. Unfortunately, its popularity was not enough to save the peripheral from the interdepartmental mistrust which was beginning to characterize Sega’s decade. A lack of communication from Sega of Japan to Sega of America and poor developer support ensured that the Sega CD was an international flop.
Sonic CD was happily saved from being mired in hardware exclusivity through a port to PC in 1995/1996 and its later inclusion in Gamecube compilation Sonic Gems (2005). Most importantly, it was remade from the ground up in 2008-2009 by Australian Sonic enthusiast Christian “Taxman” Whitehead using his own custom-built Retro Engine Development Kit. Whitehead successfully pitched an initial iOS demo to Sega in 2009 and was hired by the studio to officially produce the mobile port. This remake would also be published on Windows PC and seventh-generation home consoles, establishing Whitehead’s reputation as a major creative voice for the Sonic franchise in its third decade. In collaboration with Simon Thomley and Thomley’s studio Headcannon, Whitehead would go on to develop remakes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for mobile devices in the years ahead.
Sonic and Tails / Sonic Chaos (1993)
Ascent Co., Ltd. produced a follow-up to the Master System/Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in 1993. Though this project began development as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (8-bit), its name was changed during production to reflect its entirely unique identity. The 8-bit sub-series had now fully diverged from its 16-bit source material.
In a startling nod to real-world concerns, the plot involves Sonic and Tails preventing Eggman/Robotnik from using Chaos Emeralds to build nuclear weapons. This articulates as a typical side-scroller in which the player character navigates multi-act zones – Turquoise Hill, Gigalopolis, Sleeping Egg, Mecha Green Hill, Aqua Planet, and Electric Egg – while acquiring five hidden Chaos Emeralds from special stages. These special stages can only be accessed if the player completes an act with 100 rings.
For the first time in the series’ history, Sonic Chaos allows the player to choose between controlling Sonic or Tails at the start of their adventure. The two diverge in critical ways: Sonic is faster and can use the super peel-out technique (renamed strike dash) while Tails has access to more extra lives and continues. Tails’ ability to fly also makes its debut here, as the player can hold down the up and jump buttons to have him ascend through the air for a brief time. Since Sonic is the only character who can access special stages, the game’s true ending is inaccessible in Tails’ comparatively easy campaign.
Sonic Chaos was critically successful upon its European launch on the Master System in October 1993. It then made its way to that console in Brazil and Japan – renamed Sonic and Tails in the latter region – alongside a worldwide Game Gear release one month later. As with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit) before it, the only re-releases of the game besides a 2008 Wii Virtual Console version would be based on the graphically-inferior Game Gear edition.
Note: Cover image sourced from Sonic Retro
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
In the face of Sonic‘s widespread popularity, Sega of Japan finally acknowledged the key role of Yuji Naka in the franchise’s success. The programmer was given the role of producer on the franchise’s third numbered entry and he used his enhanced level of creative control to have Sonic the Hedgehog 3 developed exclusively by the Japanese staff of STI; the American half of STI would be left to develop a spinoff called Sonic Spinball (1993). While this did little to alleviate ongoing friction between the Eastern and Western employees of Sega, it did resolve the poor communication and tense workplace culture which had characterized the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Takashi Iiuzuka, who served as a designer on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 after making his Sega debut as a planner for Golden Axe one year earlier, would go on to play an increasingly outsized role as the series moved forward.
Given the rise of 3D games precipitated by Sega’s own arcade hit Virtua Fighter (1992), it’s unsurprising that Naka and his crew originally planned for their mascot’s third numbered 16-bit outing to be a quasi-3D isometric adventure. The studio’s hardware division had recently produced a new chip designed to facilitate polygonal graphics on the ostensibly sprite-based Genesis console. This SVP chip was intended to be included on each Sonic the Hedgehog 3 cartridge to enhance its graphical abilities, but issues in development scuppered the ambitious concept. In the end, the only remnant of this prototype is Sonic’s comparatively rounded presentation on the game’s title screen; the SVP chip would only ever be commercially used for Sega’s home console port of Virtua Racing (1994).
Sonic Team’s goals were no less audacious with regard to the audio side of the game’s presentation. King of Pop Michael Jackson approached STI with an offer to create the game’s soundtrack, as he had become a big fan of the series, and submitted a demo to the development team. Unfortunately, a scandal concerning the musician’s alleged molestation of children caused STI to reconsider the collaboration and scramble to have a new soundtrack spearheaded by internal music producer Howard Drossin. Brad Buxer, one of the musicians credited for Sonic the Hedgehog 3‘s soundtrack, claimed in a 2009 interview that Jackson was actually disappointed with the Genesis’ reproduction of his compositions and independently dropped out of the project. Whichever is the true story, fans have noticed similarities between elements of the game’s level themes and Jackson songs released throughout the 1990s.
Even though it was scaled back to be a traditional 2D platformer, Sonic the Hedgehog 3‘s scope would prove too ambitious for a single cartridge. Naka planned to include more zones than ever before and triple the size of every act. A red echidna named Knuckles, designed by Takashi Yuda as part of an internal design contest and focus-tested by Sega on American schoolchildren, would play the role of a rival to Sonic. The team finally decided to split the game into two halves when they ran up against a deadline imposed by an impending promotional tie-in with the McDonald’s restaurant chain. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would be shipped in early 1994 with hidden functionality only unlocked when players bought its second half, Sonic and Knuckles, later in the year.
Players choose between playing as Sonic, Tails, or both, as the heroes traverse six new two-act zones across Angel Island. Knuckles’ floating home falls out of the sky following the Death Egg crash-landing upon its surface and the island’s echidna guardian is manipulated by Eggman/Robotnik into believing Sonic is the culprit. Sonic and Tails rush to the island’s aid but have their collected Chaos Emeralds stolen by Knuckles as soon as they arrive. Lest the powerful stones be used by Eggman/Robotnik to relaunch his mechanical fortress, Sonic and/or Tails must recover the Chaos Emeralds, escape traps laid by Knuckles, and defeat Eggman/Robotnik at his headquarters in Launch Base Zone. Brief in-engine cutscenes wordlessly convey transitions between zones for the first time.
The gameplay is very similar to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, though a handful of new mechanics separate it from its Genesis predecessor. Tails can now fly when chosen as the main character or when controlled by a second player. Three new power-ups also confer new skills upon Sonic if he acquires them while exploring stages: the Aqua Barrier prevents Sonic from running out of breath while underwater and offers the ability to bounce from the air to the ground with a second tap of the jump button; the Flame Barrier protects against fire damage and lets Sonic hurtle himself forward in mid-air; and the Thunder Barrier draws in rings, deflects projectiles, and gives Sonic a double-jump. Sonic CD‘s super peel-out technique is absent but Sonic can now activate a brief shield even when he lacks a power-up if the player taps jump a second time while in mid-air.
Special stages hiding Chaos Emeralds can only be accessed if the player character finds giant rings hidden in each act. Based on the design of a small planet in anime Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996), the new special stage features the illusion of 3D as the player character navigates the checkered surface of a massive sphere from a behind-the-back perspective. Blue spheres, red spheres, yellow spheres, and metallic bumper spheres dot the landscape in a grid. Sonic or Tails must collect the blue spheres while avoiding the red spheres; the yellow spheres hurl the player character forward in an airborne arc while the bumpers propel them backwards. If all blue spheres are collected in a Special Stage, Sonic or Tails acquires one of the game’s seven Chaos Emeralds. As in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, collecting all Chaos Emeralds allows the heroes to transform into super-powered forms.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3‘s truncated length did not keep it from being lauded as the series’ best entry at the time of its release. Its spritework and soundtrack alone were vastly superior to earlier releases, while the addition of brief scripted sequences and noticeable environmental changes within zones themselves – like the second acts of Marble Garden Zone and Carnival Night Zone respectively featuring earthquakes and a power outage – make it a more varied experience than Sonic the Hedgehog or Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The addition of setpieces like a snowboarding segment at the start of Ice Cap Zone and mid-bosses at the conclusion of each first act likewise serve to make its twelve stages more memorable than those of its predecessors.
Sadly, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would have the franchise’s most troubled re-release history. It was a standard inclusion in compilations of the 8-bit and 16-bit era up through the seventh console generation, where it appeared for the last time on the Xbox 360’s digital distribution service. Since that time, Sega seems to have become uncomfortable re-publishing it on other platforms; it was conspicuously absent from 2018’s Sega Genesis Classics collection and 2019’s Genesis standalone miniature console. Christian Whitehead, who had produced highly popular remakes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sonic CD, was turned down by Sega when he pitched a remake of Sonic‘s third Genesis outing in 2014. Happily, if perhaps inexplicably, the game remains available on Windows PC via Valve’s Steam platform at the time of writing in March 2020.
Sonic and Knuckles (1994)
The second half of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 – under the name Sonic and Knuckles – was revealed to the public in October 1994 at a thoroughly goofy event called Rock the Rock. Per contemporary accounts, the winners of Sonic gameplay competitions across the world were to be handcuffed and transported to San Francisco’s disused Alcatraz Prison for a grand unveiling event broadcast by music-oriented television network MTV. Five additional participants in the event, which was hosted by MTV video jockeys (VJs) Bill Bellamy and Daisy Fuentes, were randomly selected from a pool of people who called into a dedicated phone line. Sega’s marketing budget for the game was an unprecedented $45,000,000.
Silly presentation aside, what fans saw at Rock the Rock was an impressive cross-section of the new content on offer in Sonic and Knuckles. Though its engine and overall mechanics are identical to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, the upcoming game would feature a new playable character and a unique hardware configuration called Lock-On Technology. Knuckles, who had served exclusively as an unplayable antagonist to Sonic and Tails in the prior game, can now be selected from the starting menu. Sonic and Tails play identically to their Sonic the Hedgehog 3 versions, while Knuckles trades jump height for the ability to glide forward in a gradual descent. Knuckles can also climb most vertical surfaces and knock down rock walls to reveal hidden passages.
More impressively, players can connect the Genesis cartridge itself to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to make Knuckles playable in those games; the latter even includes areas which can only be accessed by the red Echidna. If the player begins a new adventure at the start of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 while locked onto a Sonic and Knuckles cartridge, he or she can smoothly play through the two titles’ combined 14 zones as their preferred character.
Not surprisingly, given its origins, the plot of the franchise’s fourth 16-bit game is a direct continuation of its third. Eggman/Robotnik continues to pillage the resources of Angel Island in an attempt to propel his Death Egg skyward. Sonic and Tails battle the sinister scientist while Knuckles engages in unique boss confrontations with EggRobo, an automaton designed to throw him off the trail of the game’s true antagonist. Regardless of Sonic’s, Tails’, or Knuckles’ efforts, Eggman/Robotnik succeeds in launching the Death Egg in a visually spectacular series of late game stages. The true ending and final fight with Eggman/Robotnik in space are only accessible to players who collect all seven Super Emeralds.
In multiplayer, a second player can tag along with Sonic as Tails in the main story or can challenge Player One as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles in a series of splitscreen stages designed entirely for the game’s competitive mode. These involve racing laps on a stage while also snagging power-ups which slow one’s opponent. If a second player is not available, the competitive stages can be experienced as time attack challenges.
Sonic and Knuckles was a critical and commercial success in spite of its troubled production. It was effectively just more of the gameplay and story which had appeared in the preceding title, but lock-on technology and the addition of Knuckles’ unique campaign mitigated against the sense that it was only half of a complete package. The sale of 1,240,000 copies seems to have vindicated Sega’s aggressive marketing strategy.
While being seen as something of a high water mark, Sonic and Knuckles would represent the last appearance of a traditional 2D Sonic the Hedgehog title on home consoles for 15 years. It was re-released frequently throughout the 1990s and 2000s in compilation packages, often (though not always) preserving some version of its lock-on functionality, but it became harder to play in the 2010s. The reasons for this scarcity are unclear but are likely linked to Sonic the Hedgehog 3‘s confused legal status. Even so, Sonic and Knuckles remains available to purchase on the Steam digital distribution network nearly a decade after its last re-release elsewhere.
Sonic and Knuckles likewise serves as the final collaboration between Sonic Team founders Hirokazu Yasuhara and Yuji Naka. The latter left STI and returned to Sega of Japan in 1994 when he was offered his own division, Sega SC3. Naka reunited with Sonic creator Naoto Ohshima and revived the Sonic Team name as SC3 began working on two new IPs for the Sega Saturn: Nights into Dreams (1996) and Burning Rangers (1998). Yasuhara remained at STI and would take part in the production of racing spinoff Sonic R (1997) before accepting a position at Sony second-party studio Naughty Dog around 2000.
Sonic: Triple Trouble (1994)
Aspect’s third 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog series entry is also the core franchise’s only Game Gear exclusive. Unlike earlier titles, no Master System version was produced. The result is the most refined portable Sonic game so far.
As suggested by its abandoned working title, Sonic Chaos 2, Triple Trouble hews closely to the mechanical palette established by its direct predecessor. The most noticeable gameplay changes are the addition of a minor airborne technique called the Flying Spin Attack, which can only be activated when bouncing off of springs or falling from cliff edges, and Tails’ use of a submarine when navigating underwater areas. This submarine obviates the need to find air bubbles, emphasizing Tails’ campaign as the easier game mode. A handful of power-ups and abilities unique to each of the two playable characters, Sonic and Tails, means that some stages feature divergent routes. For the first time, rings lost when struck by an enemy max out at thirty; holding more than thirty rings at any given time provides additional hit points.
The characteristically threadbare plot introduces Nack the Weasel (Fang the Sniper in Japan and later Western reappearance). As the game’s plot is conveyed entirely through an accompanying instruction manual, it differs between the Western and Japanese releases. In the Western version, Nack is out to collect the Chaos Emeralds to sell them at a profit before Sonic and Tails find them. In the Japanese version, on the other hand, Nack has already gathered the Emeralds from his home dimension and Sonic and Tails are tasked with recovering them from the sneaky weasel. Neither interpretation impacts the in-game experience, as Chaos Emeralds are acquired from special stages accessed by smashing a power-up monitor once the player character has acquired 50 rings.
Triple Trouble is generally considered the best of the series’ 8-bit iterations. It makes the most of an aging platform, including impressive sprites, a variety of characters, and even vehicle sequences for the first time outside of the franchise’s 16-bit titles. Its six zones are brief, as the absence of a save function keeps players from resuming progress if they fail to complete the story in a single sitting, but all are reasonably engaging. A strikingly full-featured port to the 3DS by retro-oriented studio M2 in 2013 ensured that the game remains accessible two decades after its initial release.
Knuckles Chaotix (1995)
Sega hastily launched its 32X peripheral in North America in November 1994 as a stop-gap measure intended to retain players in the face of an emerging 32-bit console generation and production delays associated with its own proper next-generation platform, the Sega Saturn. Originally designed as an entirely new console under the working name Project Mars, the 32X would be reconfigured as an add-on to the Genesis to keep costs down at the request of Sega of America. Sega of Japan failed to manufacture enough units, however, and the console stumbled its way to store shelves. Poor sales and negligible developer support ensured that the platform would be discontinued in less than two years. Prior to its replacement with the Sega Saturn, though, the 32X would be home to the first core Sonic game in which Sega’s mascot was not playable.
Knuckles Chaotix, for all of its ambition, represents the end of consistent quality within its franchise. Nearly every series entry since the character’s iconic Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog had been a critical and commercial success but also relatively conservative; new characters and minor move roster updates aside, no Sonic title besides Sonic CD had introduced a major mechanical update. Knuckles Chaotix would buck this trend by upending a number of core features while still retaining the side-scrolling presentation of its predecessors.
The game began development as a 1994 engine test for the Genesis alternately called Sonic Stadium or Sonic Crackers. This prototype pioneered Knuckles Chaotix‘s distinctive tethering mechanic, which serves to bind either a player character and an AI teammate or two player characters together. Earlier cooperative modes in Sonic games had allowed the second player to intentionally or inadvertently move their avatar off-screen, keeping the camera steadfastly centered on Player One.
Production moved on to the Sega Saturn, though Sega soon realized that the project had stalled out and repurposed it for the faltering 32X by stripping out content including playable characters Sonic and Tails. The game next evolved into a Knuckles-focused experience renamed Knuckles Ringstar under the leadership of producers Hiroshi Aso, Makoto Oshitani, and Mike Larsen rather than Sonic Team. It was finally released under the name Knuckles Chaotix in April 1995.
As an expansion on earlier series entries’ additional playable characters, the developers gave protagonist Knuckles a squad of four allies called the Chaotix. These include Vector the Crocodile, a character originally created by Naoto Ohshima as a background band member sprite for an unused Sonic the Hedgehog sound test mode; Charmy Bee, another Ohshima character who had previously appeared in a Sonic manga; Mighty the Armadillo, who had originated in arcade spinoff SegaSonic the Hedgehog (1993); and new character Espio the Chameleon. Players can choose from two of five characters with distinctive movesets once found in single-player stages: Knuckles retains his abilities from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Vector can boost in mid-air and climb walls, Charmy can fly, Mighty can bounce off of walls, and Espio can run on ceilings. Heavy and Bomb, two robot allies who join the Chaotix after fleeing Eggman/Robotnik, are not playable without the aid of a seemingly unintended in-game exploit.
The aforementioned tether mechanic survived from Sonic Stadium/Crackers and is perhaps Knuckles Chaotix‘s most divisive element. The player’s two characters, joined by a stretchy bond, must work together to navigate the game’s five main zones; an additional hub area joins stages together for the first time in a core Sonic game. This opens up some unique physics-based actions, like pulling one character back before letting them launch forward to pull their partner along at high speed or achieving longer jumps using the rotating weight of the two characters. Partners can likewise be held and thrown upward to platforms. Without a second player, though, these actions are compromised by poor AI and the frequency with which partner characters become hung up on environmental obstacles.
Though the game broadly adheres to the visual palette established by its 16-bit forebears, its developers made use of the 32X’s improved processing capabilities to create larger sprites and a fully 3D special stage. Attractions (referred to as zones in earlier titles) feature alternating time of day aesthetics across five acts, though individual acts vary less than the two acts of each zone in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Special stages, which superficially resemble the tubes of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, see Knuckles or one of his allies navigating on-rails environments from a behind-the-back perspective. The player character avoids pits and collects blue spheres as he moves ever closer to a Chaos Ring at the end of the stage. If all six Chaos Rings are acquired, the player gets to see an alternate ending featuring the game’s only appearance of Sonic and Tails.
Knuckles Chaotix‘s plot is entirely conveyed through the game’s instruction manual, due to the absence of any in-game cutscenes aside from a brief ending sequence, and differs between regions of release in a manner reminiscent of Triple Trouble. In the West, Knuckles is tasked with rescuing the captured Chaotix and preventing the grand opening of an Eggman/Robotnik resort called Carnival Island. In the Japanese version, Eggman/Robotnik builds a resort called Newtonic High Zone on a mysterious island that arises from the sea after the events of Sonic and Knuckles and tries to harness the power of the island’s Chaos Rings. Both narratives feature the imprisonment of the Chaotix in a device called the Combi Catcher and Knuckles’ exploitation of a force called Ring Power to tether himself to an ally.
Befitting its status as standard-bearer for a doomed piece of hardware, Knuckles Chaotix sold poorly and quickly went out of print. It was only re-released once – in 2005 on PC through the now-defunct Game Tap subscription service – and has consequently become one of the series’ rarest titles. At the time of writing, fans must turn to unofficial emulation if they wish to experience the coda to Sonic’s 16-bit 2D era.
Sonic 3D Blast (1996)
Though the Sega Saturn launched in 1995, Sega of Japan still wanted one more Sonic title for the Genesis. Since Sonic Team was occupied producing Nights Into Dreams (1996), the mascot’s 16-bit swan song was outsourced to British studio Traveller’s Tales. Traveller’s Tales was selected for the project based on the success of its technologically impressive Genesis Toy Story (1995) adaptation. Three members of Sonic Team – Hirokazu Yasuhara, Takashi Iizuka, and Takao Miyoshi – provided maps for the game before it was passed off to the third-party developer.
Sonic 3D Blast’s isometric perspective and pre-rendered 3D character models instantly set it apart from its predecessors. While not a truly three-dimensional experience, the new perspective opens up Sonic’s movement to three axes for the first time. The game was renamed Sonic 3D: Flickies Island in European markets.
A lightly animated introductory cutscene sets up Sonic 3D Blast’s plot, in which the protagonist must free hapless Flickies – cartoon birds drawn from a 1984 arcade game produced by Sega in an attempt to duplicate Namco’s Mappy (1983) – from imprisonment by Eggman/Robotnik. The off-kilter appearance of the character models in this opening sequence signal what’s to come, though, as the game rapidly devolves into a collectathon puzzle-platformer which fails to foreground the franchise’s strong art design or speed. Sonic can battle generic enemy badniks using a jump attack or his spin-dash, but neither offers the precision necessary to consistently execute the desired action.
A new move called the blast attack, which allows Sonic to hurl himself towards an enemy in mid-air, goes some way to mitigating against frustration. Controls are loose and the camera moves rapidly, however, producing a sense of motion sickness in long play sessions. Each of the game’s seven primary zones – Green Grove, Rusty Ruin, Spring Stadium, Diamond Dust, Volcano Valley, Gene Gadget, and Panic Puppet – consist of two exploration-based acts followed by a boss fight. The first two acts of each zone are further subdivided into small play areas which can only be escaped once a requisite number of Flickies are collected.
Technical issues during development forced the developers to abandon a planned two-player mode. More importantly for the series’ long-term history, though, were the events that prompted Traveller’s Tales to hurry an enhanced Sega Saturn port following completion of the Genesis. STI began work on a true 3D Sonic game for the 32X under the working title Sonic Mars in 1994 before shifting production to the Sega Saturn; a planned tie-in to the contemporary Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday morning cartoon show was similarly dropped as the project evolved.
Sonic Mars’ lead designer, Michael Kosaka, left STI in 1995 around the same time. The game was then renamed Sonic X-Treme and the development team split into two groups under the supervision of Mike Wallis. Unfortunately, Sonic X-Treme’s Macintosh-based prototype was discovered to run at a staggeringly poor 3 or 4 frames per second when run on the Sega Saturn. A third-party studio called Point of View (POV) was brought in to augment the internal STI team but failed to meaningfully improve the game’s performance; development then splintered into a combination of internal and external teams working at odds with one another on incompatible versions of the game.
A disastrous 1996 demonstration to Sega of Japan president Hayao Nakayama led to the team adopting the engine of Nights Into Dreams, but this approach too was abandoned when Yuji Naka threatened to quit Sega upon discovering that his game engine was being repurposed by STI without his consent. Two-thirds of the team were cut and the bulk of work was placed on two staff members, Chris Senn and Christina Coffin. Exceptionally poor working conditions, including 16-18 hour shifts, led to a precipitous decline in physical health for both project leads. Sonic X-Treme was quietly cancelled in late 1996 when STI determined that the game simply could not be completed by Christmas and was replaced with the aforementioned Saturn port of Sonic 3D Blast. Sonic would not make his true 3D debut until the release of Sonic Adventure in 1998/1999.
Sonic Blast (1996)
Donkey Kong Country had made waves upon its November 21, 1994 debut on the SNES in North America with pre-rendered character sprites and environments which give its 2.5D world the impression of 3D. Sega’s own 32X was released in that region on the very same day, in fact, as an attempt at competition. While the 32X quickly floundered, Sega would soon pursue other methods of aping Rare’s bold approach to 16-bit graphics.
Aspect’s Sonic Blast (G Sonic in Japan) is mechanically traditional but bears little in common with its predecessors’ visual style. Playable characters Sonic and Knuckles are heavily shaded pre-rendered sprites based on 3D models in the style of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, taking up more of the Game Gear’s limited screen space than the sprites of earlier handheld Sonic games. Environments are likewise presented in 2.5D, so formerly flat surfaces now stretch upwards into the background to offer the illusion of depth at the cost of precision. The game’s five short zones are each divided into two acts. The variety of gameplay and routes in Triple Trouble is de-emphasized, likely due to the resources directed to the game’s visual design, and Tails is omitted entirely. Knuckles can glide and climb walls while Sonic can double jump without a power-up for the first time in the series history.
The negative critical reception received by Sonic Blast would not prevent it from being re-released more often than Sonic CD or Knuckles Chaotix. The first port is the most interesting, as third party Tectoy produced a Brazil-exclusive Master System version in 1997; this release features upscaled graphics and a wider perspective, though its visual assets and limited color palette suffer when expanded to the size of a television screen. The Game Gear version of Sonic Blast was subsequently released on a host of compilations throughout the 2000s before finding its way to the 3DS Virtual Console as a standalone download in 2013.
What do you think about Sonic the Hedgehog‘s first six years? Which is your favorite or least favorite entry in the series’ classic 2D era? How about your favorite boss fight? Are you Team Robotnik or Team Eggman? Let’s discuss below.
Next week we’ll be covering the franchise’s troubled middle period from 1998 to 2007. Be sure to return with your thoughts on those series entries! Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #86: Sonic the Hedgehog, 1998-2007 – April 10
- #87: Sonic the Hedgehog, 2008-2017 – April 17
- #88: Sonic the Hedgehog Spinoffs – April 24
- #89: The Witcher – May 1
- #90: Mortal Kombat – May 8