From its pixelated 16-bit beginnings, to its startling 3D gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog has long since occupied a soft spot in the cultural heart of gaming.
In 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog began its life as one of the most critically acclaimed franchises of the decade, and over the past three decades (through trial and tribulation), Sonic has time and time again proven itself as a force to be reckoned with. The Sonic franchise celebrates its 30th anniversary next month, so today we'll be celebrating with a recap of the speedy hedgehog's greatest hits.
With the rise of the gaming industry in the 1980s, there appeared one clear forerunner: Nintendo. Having spent the better half of a decade creating one groundbreaking game after another, including (but not limited to) fan favorites such as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., it was clear that the gaming market essentially belonged to Nintendo. However, they were not without competition. Throughout the late 80s, Sega made attempts to expand its demographics with a series of games targeted at slightly older players with graphics that were, at the time, revolutionary. While these efforts proved moderately successful, it wasn't enough to challenge Nintendo's lovable cast of characters and user-friendly interface. Soon, Sega realized they needed to take their game design a step further, and address the competition head on. Thus, Sonic was born.
Originally created to compete directly with Nintendo's main character, Super Mario, on June 23, 1991 Sega released the Genesis-exclusive Sonic: The Hedgehog. With a new bright and colorful tone, Sega introduced the Sonic character: an anthropomorphic blue hedgehog whose strength grew from his incredible quickness. Indeed, one of the game's most unique selling points was its emphasis on speed. At this point in video game history, save files were an uncommon phenomenon. This meant that most players were forced to run through the beginning levels in order to make any progress, often memorizing the levels and completing them as fast as possible. Programmer Yuji Naka of Sega realized this fact could add to Sonic's character, and incorporated it into Sonic's mechanics and design. Rather than having the player gain speed by pressing a run button, Sonic gained speed simply by running forward and gaining momentum over time.
It was this speed-based design, combined with Sonic's mischievous demeanor and advanced processing power of Sega's Genesis console that skyrocketed the game to the forefront of the gaming industry. However, the competition was not yet over. While the original Sonic game proved a hit, the franchise was a bit, well, uncoordinated. Throughout the years, Sega continued to release sequel after sequel, often experimenting with interface and format in ways that consumers didn't always approve. Ultimately, the series met what's widely regarded as its rock bottom in 2006, with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. Originally intended to be a reboot for Sonic's 15th anniversary, the attempt to return to its origins was misguided by the glitch-ridden, seemingly unfinished game. Though now infamous, the game averaged out at a whopping 4.5/10 stars.
Thankfully, Sega has since reclaimed their glory in the name of their titular hedgehog. After many more experimental Sonic iterations, they finally found their footing with the release of the 2010 game Sonic Colors. The game represents a successful return to Sonic's form, and was heavily praised upon its release.
Today, the Sonic franchise has undoubtedly become a huge commercial success since its inception: as of 2013, the franchise had sold more than 140 million units, making the series the 5th best-selling video game franchise of all time. As of 2020, over one billion cumulative units have been sold.
Check out this article to learn more about the 30th anniversary celebrations.