It's hard to think of Sega without also picturing Sonic the Hedgehog. Since the dawn of the '90s, the 'Blue Blur' has been the company's mascot and figurehead, appearing in multiple games, movies, cartoon series and comics, as well as generating millions of dollars of revenue via merchandising.
Given his amazing popularity over the decades, it's remarkable to consider just how much scepticism there was within Sega surrounding his inception. We recently reported on the fact that Sega of America initially had concerns over the character's design, and we've recently spoken to Al Nilsen – Sega's Head of Marketing during the Genesis era – who reveals that the character's selection was very much a case of choosing the "lesser of two evils".
It's well documented that Sega held an internal competition to design a new mascot, and Nilsen was involved in that process:
"In 1990, I was chosen by Mr. Nakayama, the head of Sega, to choose who would be the mascot, because they had this mascot contest. I was presented with two coloured boards. The first was this egg-shaped character, which I felt in the US would be very pre-school. And then there was a hedgehog. A blue hedgehog. It was like, ‘What’s a hedgehog?’ He had a band, a rock band and he had a human girlfriend who looked like Marilyn Monroe and was named Madonna. These were the two choices that I had and I chose Sonic because it was the lesser of two evils. I had no gameplay or anything like that."
That last point is vital here; Nilsen really didn't have much to base his choice on here, outside of the fact that the 'egg-shaped' character was such a non-starter. However, a few months later, he had reason to feel that his choice was vindicated:
"Fast forward nine months, I had heard nothing about it since and I was in Sega R&D in Japan and from across the room I see two monitors. On the first monitor was this wireframe with something spinning at super speed. I walk up and it’s like, ‘Here’s this character in a ball’ spinning, but all it was was a wireframe of, I don’t know, Green Hill Zone. But I was like I have never seen a game like this before and the speed was amazing. Then they stopped it and it was Sonic, that thing that I had seen 6-9 months before. I just fell in love with it.
The next monitor next to it was the Green Hill Zone, it was the background. It was just these beautiful colours - these rich colours - which were just amazing. [The Sonic co-creator Yuji] Naka was there and I went and I said, ‘Can you go and do those rich graphics and combine it with the speed we have there on the Genesis system?’ And he was like, ‘Yep, absolutely!’ I just knew we had something special."
Sonic would, of course, become a smash hit and gave Sega a valuable weapon in its battle against Nintendo. Nilsen would spearhead key promotional events – such as the iconic 'Sonic 2sday' – before parting ways with Sega to join Viacom in 1993.
Be sure to check out the full interview with Nilsen here.