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Sonic the hedgehog turns 30 this week and despite the many decades under his belt, the world's favourite hedgehog shows no sign of slowing down.
Since being released on the Sega Genesis in 1991 as a 16-bit platformer game, Sonic the Hedgehog has remained a relevant and memorable character within the gaming world and the defining representative of Sega.
But for Takashi Iizuka, creative officer for the franchise, who has spent more than half his life with the blue blur, Sonic is more than a mascot.
“I think what has left the biggest impression on me is Sonic’s attitude, no matter the situation, to always stay positive and move forward.
Takashi Iizuka, Creative Officer for Sonic the Hedgehog
“There will always be tough times at work or other struggles in life, but I am always encouraged when I think of Sonic smiling and facing any of his tough opponents head-on”, he says.
Members of Sega's Japanese development teams were given the chance to come up with creative ideas for what that mascot would look like.
As development moved toward a game focused purely on speed, the character candidates were narrowed down to a handful of designs that could potentially run very fast, and attack without losing their momentum.
Sketch of Green Hill Zone
Early ideas included an armadillo, rabbit, dog and an egg-shaped man with a moustache (sound familiar?).
In developing the concept, Sonic illustrator and co-creator Naoto Ohshima took some designs with him on a trip to New York City and sought feedback by asking random passersby at Central Park for their opinions.
The hedgehog proved the most popular in his informal poll, followed by the egg man and the dog character.
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While early illustrations of Sonic were simple line drawings, the eventual design was aimed to be something that could be easily drawn by children and be familiar.
The hedgehog’s blue colour was chosen to match Sega's cobalt blue logo but in a 2009 interview, Ohshima revealed the shoes were inspired by the boots on the cover of Michael Jackson's Bad while the colouring was influenced by Santa Claus.
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For Sonic's personality, inspiration came from Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign after Sega designers felt his ‘get it done now’ attitude captured American culture perfectly.
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While Sonic’s look and personality haven’t changed much over the years, the way the game makers have approached and treated his character has changed.
“There have certainly been big changes in the creative process from back then. Back when we were making Sonic 3, there were only a few people in development and the whole process was very stoic.
THe original Sonic The Hedgehog was released June 1991
“Since then we have had so many more members join the development team and the style has changed to include more brainstorming sessions and team collaboration throughout development”, he says through a smile.
But Iizuka tells the Mirror he’s never once thought it was easy to continuously come up with new and challenging ideas for each addition to the franchise.
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“I believe it is up to all of us making the game to deliver fresh and exciting entertainment to our fans, so we have been constantly challenging ourselves to do something new, which sometimes gets a lot of harsh criticism from people.
“But I am always trying to bring those two contradictory concepts of ‘safe and familiar’ and ‘new and innovative’ into the content to make something interesting”, he says.
The Sonic the Hedgehog 20th Anniversary Celebration on June 8, 2011 in Paris.
(Image: 2011 Kristy Sparow)
When it came to discussing this new and innovative approach, Iizuka says he’s keeping an open mind about expanding the Sonic universe.
“In 2019 we released the racing title Team Sonic Racing, and personally I would like to see more of these types of spin-off titles in the future.
“As long as the title has a Sonic-ness to it, it doesn’t need to be bound to any specific genre, so it’s not like we are limited to just action games.”
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It seems our need for speed doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon with more than 70 video games selling 920 million copies over the course of 30 years, 1.9 million comic book sales (combined Archie and IWD sales), and a movie that grossed more than $320 million (£226 million) at the box office.
According to investment site Titlemax, the Sonic franchise is worth a head-spinning $6.2 billion (approx £4.4 billion) today.
Sonic was turned into a blockbuster film in 2020
(Image: Paramount Pictures)
Yet for Iizuka, it’s the fans who have kept Sonic running across our screens these past three decades.
“One of the key reasons we have been able to continue providing Sonic content for so long is because of the support from the fans, for which I am deeply grateful.
“And because of this, we have a huge range in the ages of our fans.
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“We are at the point now where I have even been able to work with fans to develop new games, which is what we did for Sonic Mania.”
Personally, Iizuka says the franchise has had a far greater effect on him than he ever anticipated when he started working for Sega 28 years ago.
“The most impressive part about working on Sonic has been just how much of the world I have been able to experience and how that has expanded my view of the world.
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“Before I joined Sega, I had never even left Japan and I could not speak English.
“I came to America for the first time to create Sonic 3, and after that, I came back to America to live while creating Sonic Adventure 2, during that time I was also able to visit many other countries and meet with many people.
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“Although my plan was to grow Sonic as a character, it could be said that Sonic was actually growing my character and experience”, he laughs.
Yet despite this connection, if you thought his favourite character was the spinning hedgehog, you’d be mistaken.
“Of course, I really like Sonic, but if I had to choose another character it would be Shadow.
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“Shadow was created for the title I was Director on, Sonic Adventure 2.
“I wanted Shadow to be a dark hero, in stark contrast to Sonic, so we made
sure to put a lot of effort into his look and attitude”, he says.
One thing that wouldn’t surprise Iizuka is if Sonic one day observed a 60th- anniversary celebration, or even a centennial.
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“I’m not sure if I will be alive for another 30 years, but I believe Sonic will continue to grow.
“Maybe even some fans reading this article now will be a developer in the future making new Sonic content. Until then I will do my best to oversee his growth and progress.”