Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most recognisable characters in the world of video games. His distinctive blue fur, those eye-catching red-and-white sneakers and his iconic spikes are famous the world over, and he's perhaps only second to Mario when it comes to global superstardom.
He has starred in multiple games, movies and TV shows and has inspired a range of merchandise which generates millions for parent company Sega. In short, he's the perfect mascot – but it seems that, in the beginning, at least, Sega of America didn't agree.
In an interview with Mark Cerny, kindly republished with the permission of Bitmap Books, your humble scribe discussed Sonic's inception in the early '90s. Cerny – who would later establish Sega Technical Institute and help create Sonic 2 before assisting Sony as lead architect on its PS4, PS Vita and PS5 consoles many years later – served as the middleman between Sega's Japanese office and its North American one when it came to nailing down the design the character, which was being created to take over from Sega' previous mascot, Alex Kidd:
"I met with the team in Tokyo; this was at the time when Sonic was a little bit more 'rubbery' – he was a little bit more Disney-influenced. They had done some sketches for Sonic and some for possible enemies; they had something that looked a bit like Bart Simpson. I bundled it all up, and sent it to the States to let them know that the star team was thinking of having this hedgehog as their lead character; I even made colour copies. Can you imagine how hard it was to make colour copies in 1990? I just wanted to make sure that they had as much information as possible."
Remarkably, despite Cerny's efforts, he was met with a wall of silence. When he got back in touch to chase up feedback, he was shocked at the reply he received:
"When I finally asked, I was told that it was unsalvageable; that the character design was so bad, there were no comments that they could make that would help turn it into something saleable. What I heard was that they were going to be launching a project to 'educate' Sega of Japan about what good characters looked like. They were either very inspired by – or were going to be bringing in – Will Vinton, who, amongst other things, was famous for creating the California Raisins commercial. This was to show Sega of Japan how characters really needed to be designed. Of course, the game came out, we had a price drop on the hardware within the space of one or two months, and our sales went up by a factor of five. That was the end of any conversation about how bad a character Sonic the Hedgehog was!"
You can read the full interview with Cerny – where he talks about his career at Atari, meeting Michael Jackson and getting Sega blacklisted on visa applications – here.
While we're on the topic, it's worth noting that Sonic character designer Naoto Ohshima has recently been sharing some artwork for an action game he was working on in 1989 that evolved into Sonic the Hedgehog.