Happy 25th Anniversary – Sonic the Hedgehog

This three page spread appeared in 1991’s Electronic Gaming Monthly. Sega spared little expense in pushing their new mascot into the world to further capitalize on their early 16-bit launch with the Sega Genesis in North America. And for the most part, it worked.

Sega had a problem. Nintendo’s Mario was burning up the charts, closing in on Mickey Mouse as the most recognizable brand by the 90s thanks to the wild success of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Sega needed a face, especially one that had a killer gaming rep behind it like Mario did. Even though Segaphiles could probably point to Opa Opa or Alex Kidd as viable contenders, Sega needed someone new, someone that would embody the rebellious 16-bit wave Sega was riding in North America against Hiroshi Yamauchi’s carefully curated empire.

Such a task was easier said than done that would need both Sega of Japan and Sega of America to overcome a few cultural barriers in order to see a way through together.

At the time, Sega of America was headed by a veteran of the toy business — Tom Kalinske. The president of Sega of Japan at the time was Hayao Nakayama, a sharp business-minded leader who was faced with the unenviable task in trying to find a way to bring the console war to Nintendo’s doorstep. Sega’s SG-1000 in Japan followed by the Sega Master System worldwide had failed to ultimately even act as bumps in the road to Nintendo’s phenomenal success. But with Tom, Nakayama was convinced he found the right person who could find the path forward into North America’s extremely lucrative market.

Kalinske had spent two decades in the toy business and was responsible at Mattel for doing wonders with Barbie and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. When he was at Mattel, Barbie was on the ropes until, thanks to his savvy marketing and business moves that diversified and modernized the line, it eventually became a massive winner again in the 80s. He later took over at Universal Matchbox as president (leaving Mattel’s office politics, and its own presidency, behind) and resurrected Hot Wheels.

According to Blake Harris’ book, Console Wars, Kalinske left Matchbox after accidentally discovering a factory making bootleg Hot Wheels cars in Spain (built by a distributor he was actually supposed to be meeting in an official capacity). The lesson left an impression on him that he wanted to do something else, something that would make as big a splash outside of Mattel as he had when he was there. While on vacation with his family in 1990, contemplating what to do after leaving Matchbox, Nakayama found him on the Hawaiian beach, pitched him to be the boss of Sega of America, and the rest is history.

Kalinske had the chops, and the local know-how, on what made the American market tick. Much like how Nintendo of America had recruited its own cadre of North American wizards such as Howard Lincoln, Peter Main, Gail Tilden, Ron Judy, and Sam Borofsky to help break into the market, Sega’s Nakayama gave Kalinske as much leeway as he wanted to do what he could to bring Sega into the living rooms of families everywhere.

There were already good people at Sega of America, some of whom Kalinske had worked with before at Mattel such as Al Nilsen and Paul Rioux. There was also Shinobu Toyoda, soft spoken and focused on the same goals that Kalinske would bring them together to fight for — to make Sega awesome. And he’d need all of them to fight Nintendo in what was essentially its biggest backyard in the North American market.

Sonic's great graphics, speed, attitude, and a spunky soundtrack by Masato Nakamura, created the kind of game that Sega wanted for its mascot.

Sonic’s great graphics, speed, attitude, and a spunky soundtrack by Masato Nakamura, created the kind of game that Sega wanted for its mascot.

According to Harris’ book, the first reactions to Mr. Needlemouse, as Sonic’s prototype created by Naoto Oshima as part of a company mascot contest, were less than excited on the SoA front. Michael Katz, who headed Sega of America before Kalinske, wrote a letter to Nakayama on why it would never work. Kalinske, for his part, later received a FAX showing a fanged hedgehog with “a spiked collar, an electric guitar, and a human girlfriend whose cleavage made Barbie’s chest look flat”. The girlfriend’s name was Madonna.

Madeline Schroeder, product manager for Sega of America who worked with Kalinske, shared his concerns when he brought over what had come over from Japan. She looked it over. It may be cool in Japan, but to an American audience? Both Kalinske and Schroeder were thinking the same thing — how do we fix this? Schroeder was confident something could be done, and taking her and Al with him, Tom Kalinske went to a nearby Toys ‘R Us to grab a bit of inspiration from toys that already had plenty of character from Mickey Mouse to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kalinske was in his element, pointing out the appealing traits for each toy they stopped by, what worked and what didn’t, lessons they would use to try and transform Mr. Needlemouse.

Nilsen and Schroeder brainstormed when they got back. A backstory was written, the drawing altered. Al Nilsen “rechristened” Mr. Needlemouse as Sonic the Hedgehog (“the” actually being his middle name). It became something more than a winning entry — it would become the face of a new Sega, rearing to go after Nintendo with all of the rebellious energy of a hyperactive teenager eager to prove to the world what they can do.

Although there could often seem to be a single path through a level, each level had a lot of vertical space that allowed players to explore and find precious rings, special items like shields, and other secrets -- much like how Mario's levels could hide so many mysteries.

Although there could often seem to be a single path through a level, each one had a lot of vertical space that allowed players to explore and find precious rings, special items like shields, and other secrets — much like how Mario’s levels could hide so many mysteries. Sonic’s backgrounds were also colorful, often animated, and filled with teasing challenges leaving hints there was something more to be found outside of dashing for the finish line.

Kalinske faxed the revised drawing (sans Madonna) over to Nakayama who, respectfully, greeted it with a “neutral” approach. Not quite what Kalinske had expected, mirroring Nakayama’s reaction to Kalinske’s neutral reply with the initial drawing. But Nakayama was focused on making Sega a success in the United States and trusted Kalinske and his team in doing what they felt was best to make that happen. It’s why he had come to Kalinske in the first place in Hawaii. If this is what they felt was what they had to do, then so be it. He would let the designers know and go from there. As Harris noted in his book, Nakayama felt it didn’t matter what he thought, it only mattered that it would sell.

Then Nakayama called Kalinske back a few days later and told him they had to go back to the old design — the designers were not happy with the changes, especially since they felt they were the ones in charge of every part of the project.

But to Sega of America, this was a character that would carry the banner for Sega’s victory in the States. The stakes were incredibly high on making sure that it delivered. It would also be only one of several moments in SoJ’s and SoA’s relationship that things could get a bit rocky between the two sides of Sega’s empire, challenges that Kalinske and his team would battle through together.

He wanted Nakayama to reconsider, patiently explaining why the changes were important and channeling years of experience in the toy biz into a distilled, passionate plea nailing down why a character’s character mattered so much — that it opened a door for their audience to let that character “become a part of their world” and they become a part of theirs. Nakayama replied that he understood what Kalinske was saying, but there were people of “premium integrity who think differently”. Kalinske knew what he had to do.

Prizes sitting in out of the way spots like this were done on purpose. Just how did those things get there? But more importantly, how do I get there???

Prizes sitting in out of the way spots like this were done on purpose. Just how did those things get there? But more importantly, how do I get there??? The solution was almost always something that involved Sonic going fast — or flying high thanks to a handy spring or ramp. Or pinballing off of robot enemies, bouncing his way to the goodies. If Mario could do it by jumping around, Sonic did it as a fast cannonball blur of blue.

Madeline Schroeder went to Japan to explain the changes on Sega of America’s behalf. Sega’s programmers, like Yuji Naka who would code the magic that made Sonic’s speedy world possible, knew their stuff. But Sega of America’s team knew characters and it was hoped that Schroeder could bridge everyone’s concerns together to build the secret weapon that Sega wanted to bring to bear against Nintendo’s plumber.

Talks seemed to go fine at first but neither side wanted to back down. A suggestion was made to have TWO different Sonics — one for Japan and one for the United States — but to Schroeder, that was not a great idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that Sonic was meant to be Sega’s Mickey Mouse, the same the world over. Eventually everyone left the room, seemingly ending the meeting. But, as Harris notes, her words seemed to have done the trick. When Kalinske talked to Nakayama again, Nakayama gave him and his team “the green light to proceed as they saw fit”. Sonic was born.

Now it was up to the geniuses at Sega to build his world. Yuji Naka and the team around him proved more than capable of making the hardware in the Sega Genesis dance around his coding, put speed in Sonic’s steps, and stages to surprise the senses. It was initially a demo by Naka that planted the seed for a fast game unlike anyone had ever envisioned before, taking those tricks and expanding them out into a full game. Now he and the team were laser focused on crafting a title that could stand up to Mario.

The result was nothing short of phenomenal. Sonic was fast — faster than anyone had seen a game move. More importantly, he was fun to play with, to zip through twisting tubes, bop robots to free the animal critters trapped inside of them by the evil Dr. Robotnik (Eggman in Japan), and collect rings to survive a hit or two.

The finish line! As Sonic speeds past this sign, it spins revealing his face replacing Dr. Robotnik's mustachoed grimace.

The finish line! As Sonic speeds past this sign, it spins revealing his face replacing Dr. Robotnik’s mustachoed grimace.

The game was innovative in a number of ways such as its “health” system. By collecting golden rings arranged throughout the map, in rows, arcs, or out of the way places, Sonic could survive a direct hit (or stepping onto a trap like spikes) at least once at the cost of losing all of those rings. As long as he had one, though, he would get a second wind to keep going (and hopefully snag any of the rings bouncing away from him). Having as many rings as possible on you, however, when you cleared a level also went towards your score giving players a lot of incentive to improve and try not to get hit at all.

Sonic also brought a kind of attitude that fans liked from popping up and wagging his finger at the title screen to tapping his red sneaker’ed foot impatiently if you let him idle on screen. The diverse levels offered a smorgasbord of challenges ranging from moving platforms, pits, fiery pools of lava, and of course, boss encounters at the end of each zone (each zone was split up into different levels). The goal was find the “Chaos Emeralds” supposedly hidden on a mysterious island. Unfortunately, Dr. Robotnik is also looking for the emeralds and as a part of his plans, have captured many of the animals, turning them into robots. Determined to stop his evil, Sonic heads out to free the island’s inhabitants from his grip.

With rotating floors, Sonic is permanent spin mode as a curled up ball, pinball-like contacts, rings, and a lot of flashy effects, these special psychedelic stages were like the "secret warp zones" of the game.

With rotating floors, Sonic is permanent spin mode as a curled up ball, pinball-like contacts, rings, and a lot of flashy effects, these special psychedelic stages were like the “secret warp zones” of the game. If Sonic makes it to the end of the first two acts of each Zone with fifty rings (besides the Scrap Brain Zone), a giant ring will appear that allows the player to access one of these special stages and possibly seize the Chaos Emerald hidden inside. While not necessary to complete the game, or bust up Robotnik, it was a nice scoring incentive for players. And to try and avoid Robotnik mocking you in the ending for not finding them all.

As a part of Kalinske’s plan, the game replaced Altered Beast as the pack-in game for the Sega Genesis in the States. That was followed by a carefully orchestrated blitzkrieg of marketing on a yearly budget smaller than what Nintendo spent in a single quarter on the same, leaving the “kids” demographic to Nintendo and urging teens and young adults to “Graduate to Genesis” with celebrity tie-ins. As Sonic-bundled systems started to appear in June and July, word of mouth started the kind of firestorm Kalinske and his team were hoping for. All this before the SNES would drop into retail outlets in the States for August.

And it exploded, reportedly outselling the SNES 2:1 in the 1991 holiday season thanks to the bundle and eventually snatching away a little over half of the market from the House that Mario built for the first time. It was every bit the success that Nakayama, Yuji Naka, Kalinske, and the team at Sega of America and Japan hoped it would be, leaving behind an enduring legacy.

It’s also a legacy that hasn’t always been great since those halcyon days as Sega’s lead demonstrated itself to be a brief one. That hasn’t stopped die hard Sega fans, though, from pointing to the titles that have worked as possibilities that there could still be an awesome Sonic title just waiting to be made.

Each Zone had its own personality, challenges, and special look. There was also no continue available at the start. Once you spent all of your lives, that was it, unless you managed to find a Chaos Emerald in one of the six special stages. Hardcore.

Each Zone had its own personality, challenges, and special look. There was also no continue available at the start. Once you spent all of your lives, that was it, unless you managed to find a Chaos Emerald in one of the six special stages.

The battles that Sega, Nakayama, Kalinske, and their team at Sega of America fought together are largely overshadowed by a lot of the attention paid to the phenomenon that was Nintendo at the time. As Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. Or in this case, better remembered by the generations that have grown up with them.

Sega’s failures following the Genesis also tarnished its reputation and further buried the glory years of when it snatched away half of the North American market from Nintendo, making Kalinske’s story and that of Sega relatively underrated. Articles from the past several years such as the work at Sega-16 have also gone some way to correcting that record, and as others take a look back at the history of gaming in a retro sense, more stories continue to emerge giving even more balance.

As for Kalinske, he’s still hard at work. After resigning from Sega in 1996 having done all that he could (and disagreeing with the Sega’s push for the Saturn), one could say that he still kept close to his element only this time, he chose to focus his energy on technology that not only could entertain, but that which would help create better lives. Shortly after leaving Sega, he became involved with a company that would eventually merge and become part of Leapfrog who specialize in making high-tech learning toys where he continues to serve as a part of their board. He’s also the Executive Chairman of Global Education Learning, a company dedicated to improving education for children using technology all around the world along with being a member of the board for online-gaming company, Gazillion, and Genyous which specializes in cancer drug treatments.

People may not remember him in the same way they do Hiroshi Yamauchi, Shigeru Miyamoto, or Yu Suzuki. Many may only remember him as that one guy who ran Sega of America for a time.

But what a time it was. In the larger context of history, he and his team of dedicated pros, with Nakayama’s confidence that he had the right people in place to do the impossible, managed that back in the 90s by beating Nintendo at its own game, even if it was only for a moment, with help from a new mascot.

Not bad for a little blue hedgehog.

 

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