"SONIC THE HEDGEHOG features a classic clash between good and evil, as Sonic battles through the zones to free his friends and defeat Dr. Ivo Robotnik. Sonic and Robotnik are not "flat" characters, however. Each is a true individual, with strengths, failings, and vulnerabilities''
"Dr. Robotnik the mad scientist, is snatching innocent animals and turning them into evil robots! Only one tough dude can put an end to the demented scientist's fiendish scheme. It's Sonic, the real cool hedgehog with the spiked haircut and power sneakers that give him super speed."
Sega began as Standard Games, a Honolulu, Hawaii-based company founded by three Americans in the 1940s. Today Sega is comprised of Sega of Japan (SoJ), Sega of America (SoA), Sega of Europe (SoE), and several smaller subsidiaries.
Sega had its sights set on the west, a market promising tremendous growth through the late 80s and 90s. As Oshima put it, "Sonic is the personification of my image of America back then. Relative to Japan and its politics, America had a sense of speed and motion that were dynamic. I wanted to capture that essence in Sonic" (Nintendo Power interview, 2008). In an interview with Gamasutra, Oshima's colleague Hirokazu Yasuhara admits, "we definitely were trying to make [Sonic] popular in America."
Indeed, Oshima's concept bore all the tell-tale marks of American influence, with a design harkening back to classic American cartoon icons like Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. And from his red, white and blue motif to his edgy, freedom-loving persona, Sonic exhibited his American inspiration through and through.
Sega introduced their new mascot to the world on their Genesis gaming console ("Mega Drive," as it was known outside the U.S.) on June 21, 1991—first to North America and Europe, and a month later to Japan on July 26th. The game was developed by a team of about 15 Sega of Japan employees, originally known as AM8 and later dubbed "Sonic Team." The team was headed in part by Oshima, Yashuhara, and lead programmer Yuji Naka.
The Sonic Team label is a bit of a misnomer; Sonic's development has never been managed solely by one team. Historically, the franchise—cartoons, comics, and even games—have been handled and influenced by a variety of people from all over the world.
In fact, the big secret about Sonic Team is that it actually didn't exist for much of the 90s. Some of the most famous titles in the Sonic library were developed in the United States by Sega of America's Sega Technical Institute (STI). Check your copies of Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles and you may be surprised to find that "Sonic Team" never once appears in the games' manuals or credits.
Following the release of Sonic 1, lead programmer Yuji Naka departed Sega along with several other members of Sonic Team who were dissatisfied with management policies at the company's Japanese branch—pay structure, specifically. At around the same time, a high-ranking Sega game designer by the name of Mark Cerny was working with Sega of America's president Tom Kalinske and executive vice president Shinobu Toyoda (the supervisory link between SoA and SoJ at the time) on an idea for a new development studio that would increase game development stateside. Known as the Sega Technical Institute (STI), the studio would bring together some of Sega's brightest talent from both the U.S. and Japan.
After learning of his departure from Sega, Cerny convinced Naka to relocate to the U.S. and work for him at STI (Cerny had worked at Sega of Japan for several years and knew Naka personally). Sonic Team was effectively disbanded and several of its founding members (including Hirokazu Yasuhara) joined Naka in the U.S.
There at STI, Japanese and American teams worked side by side developing such highly acclaimed titles as Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles (as a side note, Naoto Oshima stayed behind in Japan and went on to direct Sonic CD). While Sonic 2 combined the efforts of the American and Japanese employees at STI, the language and cultural barriers between the two teams soon proved difficult. As a result, Sonic Spinball was developed largely by the the American team, while Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were developed by the Japanese team. While they continued to work together and share talent during this time, Yuji Naka purportedly preferred to have the two teams work separately.
Note: This explains the two different, yet equally canonical, points of view.
Sonic the Hedgehog launched in North America and Europe to critical acclaim in June of 1991. Just as hoped, Sega's target audience in the west had fallen for its new mascot, and they were clamoring for more. It soon became clear that Sonic—not just as a game but also as a brand—could become the next hot commodity. With this potential in mind, Sega began approaching companies like DiC Entertainment and Archie Comics with the intent of licensing out their character for comics, merchandise, children's books—even a television series. It was a win-win proposal: Sega would gain exposure and drive customers to their products, while licensees would derive strong sales from Sonic's existing and rapidly growing fanbase.
The Sonic story started simple enough: a fast hedgehog, a fat man, and an environmental theme. You see, in the beginning Sonic's titles were developed with the understanding that they would be localized by each branch of the company in order to better suit audiences in each territory. As a result, the games themselves contained very little in-game storyline. Sonic was intended to be the "cool" alternative to Nintendo's Mario, and Sega understood that what might be considered "cool" in Japan might not have the same appeal in Europe or America (and vice-versa). In a 1992 interview with Sega Visions, Yuji Naka explained, "It was difficult to create a character that can please children from all over the world, because we had an idea of the worldwide evolution for Sonic. We concentrated on creating simplicity and the impact of colors."
And so, with very little story or background established by the games, each division of Sega developed its own mythos to appeal to its respective territory. The effort was not a particularly coordinated one; sometimes these concepts and stories would build off of and complement each other quite nicely—other times they would present wildly contradictory views of the character and his world. To add to the confusion, Sega's new licensees would later be provided the freedom to borrow, build upon, and sometimes even alter these concepts to suit their particular needs and demographics.
Most of the story development was initially behind the scenes. While Sonic Team was busy developing Sonic 1 in Japan, the producers on the American side were beginning to flesh out a back story for the character in the west. This included giving many of the characters and enemies English language names. Dr. Ivo Robotnik—originally known in Japan as "Dr. Eggman"—is one of the characters who received a different moniker for the west (Remember all those egg-related insults and nicknames Sonic used to use for his nemesis in the old cartoons and comics?).
Note: It wouldn't help fans of the Japanese to know that even Naka confirmed in an interview that Eggman is merely an insult, with Robotnik as the character's actual name.
Sega of America carried the SatAM story over to other formats, effectively making it the standard Sonic story in America for several years. Even while SatAM was still in the fledgling stages of production at DiC, Archie Comics borrowed from an early version of the show's writer's bible to develop the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book series, a long-running comic that still features the same characters and premise developed for SatAM and endorsed by Sega 17 years ago.
Sonic has never been as popular in Japan as he is in America and Europe. This isn't too surprising, considering that the west was Sega's target audience from the get go. Sonic was never intended to be viewed as a Japanese import, nor was he one in actuality (although, admittedly, this perception was used as a marketing tool to capitalize on the otaku craze during the mid-2000s, i.e. with the Sonic X anime). Internally at Sega, in fact, Sonic is viewed as a "western property."
Recall that Sega of America's Sega Technical Institute was the location of most of Sonic's development during the 90s. In fact, part of Yuji Naka's motivation for joining STI in 1992 was to be closer to Sonic's epicenter of success: the U.S. When asked about Naka's move in an interview with Sega-16, former president Tom Kalinske added, "I think he (Naka) wanted more freedom, and since Sonic wasn't as successful in the Japanese market as it was in this one, he probably wanted to be closer to where it was successful and listen to why people thought it had been successful, as well as get the input of Americans who loved the character and gameplay."
The main reason we had the team over here [in America] was to figure out how to best appeal to the U.S. . . . We were starting to create Sonic 2 in Japan, but were kind of guessing; "maybe they'd like something like this, maybe we can do it this way." I decided the best way was to go to America and get their feedback directly. We went to San Francisco, and watching the kids in the focus groups play it and see their reactions was really helpful. And that certainly changed my game creation style -- my concept of game design was on a more worldwide scale, and that was a really important highlight of my life." - Yuji Naka
There is a common misperception that Sega of Japan was the main party responsible for Sonic's development and success and that anything that came out of Sega of America should be relegated to a secondary status. In reality, the efforts of Sega of America were inseparably linked to Sonic's success in the 90s.
For a short time in the early 90s, Sega was an incubator of quality, innovation, and creativity. The two largest branches of the company—Sega of America and Sega of Japan—had a positive and productive relationship. The two operated almost as if they were two completely independent companies, and the American branch was provided a great deal of freedom and influence on the direction of the business. SoA controlled much of its own marketing, product development, and licensing, and they became wildly successful in doing so. In the words of SoA executive vice president Shinobu Toyoda, "[President] Nakayama clearly understands that when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. At Sega of America we have autonomy." This autonomy is arguably a large part of what led to Sega's success. During this time the company's share of the gaming market rose from 1% to 50%, and their new mascot became an overnight success story.
Much of Sega's success can be attributed to Sega of America's then president Tom Kalinske, who was the driving force behind Sega's aggressive marketing image; a direction that the Japanese side of the company was not at all fond of in the beginning. In an interview with Sega-16, Kalinske described one particularly colorful board meeting he attended in Japan:
"I go back to Japan, and I meet with Hayao Nakayama and the board at Sega, and I say "look, you guys have got this thing all wrong" . . . They said they didn't like anything I had told them and disagreed with all of it, 100%. They didn't agree that we should advertise against Nintendo, staff up the U.S. to develop software, reduce the price of the hardware, or put our best title in with the hardware, and I can't remember all the other stuff they didn't agree with. Basically, they didn't agree with any of it, and I thought that well, this was the shortest career anyone ever had! That's it, three months, and I have to go find another job. But at the door, as he was walking out, Nakayama turned and said "but we hired you to make all the decisions for the United States and Europe, and so, that's what we want you to do, even though we think you're crazy and don't agree with it, go ahead and do it." So from that day, for the next four years, I don't think they ever interfered in any decision we made."
It was at this time that Sega of America began carrying the company both financially and developmentally, and as time passed the Japanese side of the business did not take kindly to this new state of affairs. There was a rivalry—or at the very least significant tension in the ranks—brewing between the western branches of Sega and the main Japanese branch during the mid 90s.
In regard to the deteriorating relationship between SoJ and SoA, Kalinske had this to say:
"In hindsight, I think there probably was [some resentment on Sega of Japan's part over the Genesis' success]. I don't believe there was from 1991-1993. I think somewhere in the mid '90s, '94 or '95, they built up a great deal of resentment, and I didn't realize it at the time, until probably the latter part of 1995, when one of my colleagues in Japan, who I knew well and had a good relationship with, said to me something to the effect of "you don't understand how browbeat and annoyed the Japanese executives here are because of your success. Every meeting we go into, Nakayama asks us why can't you do things the way the Americans and Europeans did? Why aren't you guys as successful as they are? We've been around longer." I think the local executives didn't appreciate that he'd take that tone with them. Apparently, he also beat them up over Sonic, which was never as successful in Japan as it was in the U.S. and Europe (to this day, that's the case), and I think he was always throwing that in their faces too. So clearly, by late '95 there was great resentment built up: jealously, resentment, and kind of a desire to get back at those Americans that Nakayama [the CEO of Sega Japan] kept throwing. . . partly due to our success in America, Japan just didn't want to do the things that we suggested."
Note: In other words, because SoA was kicking its ass, SoJ became spiteful & now, we fans of the western canon have suffered in the late 90s & for much of the recent 00s decades BECAUSE SoJ was being much of crybaby wusses over the fact that SoA was more successful.
Professional journalist and gaming insider Steven Kent had this to say about the relationship between SoJ and its fellow branches:
"Nakayama-san never gave Sega of America its due. It's interesting, Nakayama was brought into Sega Enterprises largely based on the efforts of an American—David Rosen, who was always impressed with Nakayama's business sense. Once he got in, however, Nakayama seems to have decided that the Japanese knew best. He gave Kalinske some latitude when it came to marketing Genesis. Toward the tail end of the Genesis period, however, Nakayama's pre-determination that the Japanese know best became very apparent. The Sega of America team was not consulted during the creation of Sega CD, for instance."
Note: Proof positive that the Japanese was being stupid & nearly killed Sonic & the whole of Sega itself, all because SoA was the better package (and for many, especially given the quality of the recent 3D games, still is; But as of most recent developments, Colors, Chronicles, & Generations have all brought back Sonic as westerners from the 90s knew him best).
This rivalry—and the rash of politically motivated business decisions that came out of it—are often cited in what ultimately led to the downfall of the gaming giant, culminating in the company's exit from the hardware market in 2001. For Sonic, it meant that a lot of what could have been simply never was.
Note: Thus reaffirming the notion aforementioned, basically saying that SoJ nearly killed Sonic & Sega itself due to its resentment over SoA kicking its butt.
While the tangled web of contracts and copyright laws surrounding Sonic in his various forms may be convoluted enough to dumbfound even professional legal experts, this much we do know: all licensed Sonic is Sega-approved Link.
Everything Sonic-branded—from every single issue of Archie's Sonic Comics to SatAM and its DVD releases—has had to meet Sega's approval through a similar process. In other words, all Sonic is “SegaSonic,” because all Sonic is official and Sega-approved. It simply wouldn't exist if it wasn't.
As the Sonic Bible accordingly states, "Any product related in any way to the Sonic the Hedgehog story or character must be approved by Sega of America Inc., according to the terms outlined in the Quality Control section of this bible . . . To assure consistency for all licensed products, your Sonic the Hedgehog License Agreement requires that written approval be obtained for any proposed use of the Sonic the Hedgehog logo, character names, or renditions prior to production and sale. Approvals must be obtained from Sega of America, Inc. Sega of America's Product Managers and/or Agents will be delighted to work with you on creative concepts."
To this day, every single issue of Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comic book series is reviewed and approved every step of the way by Sega's licensing departments in both America and Japan before release to the public.
To quote Ian Flynn, "Every level of production is run past Sega. Robert Leffler and Dyna Lopez work in Sega Licensing and the script has to get approved, the pencils have to get approved, the inking, then the lettering, then the coloring. Everything has to go through them first."
And what of the stories and characters—like the Freedom Fighters—developed by licensed parties outside of Sega? Well, Sega owns them too.
As Ian himself puts it, "Ultimately SEGA owns everything in the book. If it’s associated with Sonic in the book, it is by extension SEGA’s. From my understanding, that is why BioWare could so freely emulate the Dark Legion for the Marauders [in Sonic Chronicles]. I know there was some confusion elsewhere concerning rights to SatAM. As it was explained, SEGA owns the intellectual property—the characters and such—but DiC retains the rights to the animation. So you wouldn’t see SEGA reselling SatAM boxsets willy-nilly. Conversely, DiC wouldn’t be able to just up and make a new Sonic cartoon."
Sega has always been protective of the Sonic brand. In fact, in the 90s Sega employed a company called Copyright Promotions (a subsidiary of DiC Entertainment) just to oversee licensing in Europe and make sure that the Sonic property was being portrayed correctly in merchandising and comics. Even under this close scrutiny, Sega approved of every licensed Sonic product we have today—multiple continuities and all.
When Archie writer Ken Penders had plans to kill off Princess Sally Acorn for dramatic effect in the comic book series, it was Sega who intervened.
To quote now out-of-work & trying-to-sue-Sega-&-Archie Ken, "I felt that the plot device of killing off Sally would be the only justification for Sonic to fully cut loose and go after Robotnik no matter what . . . Because Sega didn't want to rule out the possibility of using Sally in the future, it was decided she should live.”
What of Sonic Team? In a 1992 interview with Sega Visions, Yuji Naka appeared to acknowledge the western concept of Mobius, saying, “Sonic has to run through more levels . . . the new Mobius worlds are brighter, crisper, and much more detailed. However, we think players will be too busy getting through the game to spend any time enjoying the scenery.” Recall that most of the members that formerly comprised "Sonic Team" were in fact working in the U.S. when SatAM and Adventures were produced and aired. It's only reasonable to assume they—at the very least—had knowledge of the cartoons and other western media of the time.
Of course, all of this begs the question: if all continuities are valid, official representations of the Sonic universe, then how do we reconcile the differences between them? The fact is that we don't have to—Sega certainly hasn't.