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Sonic's 20th Anniversary: Happy Birthday To Gaming's Favorite Hedgehog!

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Posted June 23, 2011 - By Guest Writer


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Sonic's 20th Anniversary Video »


A fast-spinning ball of 16-bit blue, whizzing around, and sometimes well beyond the boundaries of, the screen is the first thing a lot of us remember seeing of Sonic. The Sega Genesis mascot created by Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima stood proud as a rival to Nintendo's brick-breaking plumber Mario in 1991 when Sonic the Hedgehog was released. He was there to challenge the NES superstar, but he offered a very different sort of experience. He could run faster and jump farther, all with a single button to Mario's two. Why get excited about sometimes shooting fireballs from your hands when you could run really, really fast, always.

Sonic turns 20 today, the anniversary of the original game's June 23, 1991 release for Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis console. More than 40 games have followed it, spanning a variety of genres and gameplay styles. Sega celebrates that legacy this year with the coming release of Sonic Generations, but it's the fans who are responsible for breathing life into the iconic video game character again and again. Read on for more about everyone's favorite little blue furball.

Sonic has stumbled along a few times during his two decade sprint, but the people who grew up trading schoolyard insults with Mario supporters during the Nintendo / Sega wars of the '90s never let go of their hopes that the spiky-haired, blue hedgehog would see better days. Some of those same fans actively help shape Sonic in the here and now, like Sonic Team Japan head Takashi Iizuka, who has been working with the character since 1994.

"I first met Sonic when I was about to join Sega, through Sonic the Hedgehog. I immediately bought [a] Genesis and the game, and got an impression that the game was like an arcade action game, although it was on consoles," Iizuka said in an interview with G4. "At that time, there wasn't the so-called Sonic Team. Sonic 2 was being developed in the U.S., and Sega was planning to create Sonic 3 in the U.S. as well."

"This was when I started working on Sonic, after being offered the job by my boss to work on Sonic 3 in the U.S.. This was actually the first time that I flew outside of Japan."

Coming in several years after the first game's arrival, Iizuka was immediately drawn to the job by the allure of working on a character that had become, as he put it, "a global icon." Sonic had become a well-established component of the pop culture landscape at the time, and the opportunity to be creative with such a high-profile touchstone was hard to resist. Iizuka quickly learned on the job that there was more to Sonic than spiky hair and a high top speed, lessons that went on to inform his continuing work on the series.

"I didn’t realize that Sonic himself does not destroy the environment – this I found out when I joined the team," he explained. "Everything Sonic destroys are Dr. Eggman’s machines. In Sonic CD, plants' seeds come out of the machines and they grow into flowers. Sonic is a character that doesn’t destroy but does good things to the environment. This policy is [carried over] to the recent games as well."

Happy thoughts for a better world are a theme for the series, but high-speed action is the guiding principle of any Sonic game. Iizuka's main focus is on having the gameplay create a sense of exhilaration in each release, of "having the players want to play the game over and over." Speaking in Generations terms, he said he equally enjoys both the 2D side-scrolling "Classic" gameplay and the "Modern" style, featuring a 3D world setting with a series of guided paths for Sonic to follow. To Iizuka, the best examples of each are Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Virtual Console, iOS) for the older style and Sonic Colors (Wii, Nintendo DS) for the more recent approach.

It's tough to sustain a consistently high level of quality over the course of 20 years and 40+ games, and most fans will agree that Sonic hasn't always kept up. Part of the reason for that as Iizuka sees it is the sort of inconsistent track record that can come from relying on different developers to work on a single creative vision.

"The so called Sonic Team did not develop any Sonic games between Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure. In between the two titles, many teams tried to create a 3D Sonic game but they all failed to do so," Iizuka explained. "The main reason was because no one could imagine how the exhilaration of running through the loops in side-scrolling can be translated to 3D gameplay."

That's when Sonic team returned, to work on a Sega Dreamcast game that would, for many, stand as a bold reinvention of the series. Sonic Adventure was the first of the games to feature voice acting and, much more importantly, it was also the first to set Sonic loose in an open 3D world. It fused the high-speed action that had been such a success for the series with the sort of adventure gaming that you see in the likes of The Legend of Zelda or Metroid. More of the world opened up to Sonic and the other playable characters as the story progressed and the range of available tools grew.

"When the Sonic Team came back to develop Sonic Adventure, the [problem with realizing Sonic's adventures in a 3D world] didn't change until I proposed a real-time camera which alternates from behind-the-back camera on normal gameplay... to side-view when running through the loops. The dev team were finally able to visualize 3D Sonic when we saw this idea working on the dev kit. The idea is still inherited to this day, and has established the 3D Sonic. The transition from 2S to 3D is where I feel the most accomplishment."

Iizuka doesn't look back on the failed attempts with too much regret, though he would change a few things if he could. "There were many interpretations of Sonic, through different media and different creators, but not all of them were necessarily controlled by the Sonic Team. If we could go back, I wish we would have had all the control over all the Sonic products."

And so we circle back around to Sonic Generations, a series-spanning retrospective rendered as an all new game built on top of an original story. Splitting the action up between the above-mentioned Classic and Modern styles of gameplay, Generations will take players through a series of settings pulled from the collected 20-year history. The process of deciding what to reference and how was not an easy one, Iizuka admits, though it helped to establish a core, guiding ground rule at the outset: "There is the evolution of the main Sonic action games, and Generations follows that history."

While that trims away a lot of the fat, it doesn't make the process any easier. In the end, the decision was made to have the selection of legacy material highlighted in Generations informed by the people who know the series best, the fans inside and outside of Sega. In addition to an Internet poll asking fans which stages they'd like to see, an internal survey was conducted across Sega Japan, Sega of America and Sega Europe.

"The stage selections are based on those," Iizuka said, adding, "however, we have balanced out the stages so it will work as one game [since] fans tend to select the first Act of each game, and we didn't want Generations to be consisted of only Act 1's. The console versions and the 3DS version will have different stages, except for both of them having Green Hill as the first stage of the game."

Another vintage Sonic element featured in Generations is a return to the character's original, pudgy form. The slim Sonic that we know today is a main character, but he's joined by the Sonic of old on his time-traveling adventure. Pudgy Sonic disappeared early on, and in his place rose a debate that rages on to this day among fans about which version is preferred. Iizuka pegs Sonic's impressive weight loss to the evolving graphics technologies at the time.

"We felt that the characters needed to be renewed because of such big change between the dot-sprite graphics and 3D gameplay in Sonic Adventure," he said. "The 2D Sonic was very functional as a side-scrolling game character, but his proportion did not work for the 3D gameplay with behind the back camera."

"As for how Sonic himself made such a change, I think he [matured] a bit as he went through so many adventures."

Adam Rosenberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY and living at the whims of his lovable chow, Loki. You can find his work plastered all over the Internet, or just follow him on Twitter @geminibros for daily doses of his crazed, nonsensical ramblings.

Sonic's 20th Anniversary: Happy Birthday To Gaming's Favorite Hedgehog!
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