Conception and Genesis games (1991—1995)
In 1990, Sega of Japan president Hayao Nakayama decided Sega needed a flagship series and mascot to compete with Nintendo's Mario series. Nintendo had recently released Super Mario Bros. 3, at the time the bestselling video game ever. Sega's strategy had been based on its earlier release of the Sega Genesis in the 16-bit era and its reliance on its successful arcade business to port games to the console. However, Nakayama recognized that Sega needed a star character in a game that could demonstrate the power of the hardware of the Sega Genesis. Sega's mascot, Alex Kidd, was considered too similar to Mario.
Several character designs were submitted as part of a contest; the winning character was a teal hedgehog created by artist Naoto Ohshima. The gameplay of Sonic the Hedgehog originated with a tech demo created by Yuji Naka, who had developed an algorithm that allowed a sprite to move smoothly on a curve by determining its position with a dot matrix. Naka's original prototype was a platform game that involved a fast-moving character rolling in a ball through a long winding tube, a concept fleshed out with Ohshima's character design and levels conceived by designer Hirokazu Yasuhara.
Sonic's color was chosen to match Sega's cobalt blue logo, and his shoes evolved from a design inspired by Michael Jackson's boots on the cover of his 1987 album Bad. Sonic's red shoe color was inspired by Santa Claus and the contrast of those colors on the Bad cover. His personality was based on Bill Clinton's "can-do" attitude. The antagonist, Doctor Eggman, was another character Ohshima had designed for the contest. The development team thought the rejected design was excellent and retooled the character into a villain. The team took the name Sonic Team for the game's release. Although Sega of America CEO Michael Katz and Sega of America's marketing experts were certain that Sonic would not catch on with American children, Katz's replacement, Tom Kalinske, arranged to place Sonic the Hedgehog as the pack-in game with the Genesis. Featuring speedy gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog greatly increased the popularity of the Sega Genesis in North America and is credited with helping Sega gain 65% of the market share against Nintendo.
Naka was dissatisfied with his treatment at Sega, feeling he received little credit for his involvement in the success. He quit but was hired by Mark Cerny to work at the US-based Sega Technical Institute (STI), with a higher salary and more creative freedom. Yashura also decided to move to STI. STI began work on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in November 1991. Level artist Yasushi Yamaguchi designed Sonic's new sidekick, Tails, a two-tailed fox that can fly and was inspired by Japanese folklore about the kitsune. While STI made Sonic 2, Ohshima led a team in Japan to create Sonic CD for the Sega CD. Like its predecessor, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a major success, but its development suffered from the language barrier and cultural differences between the Japanese and American developers.
Once development on Sonic 2 concluded, Cerny departed and was replaced by Roger Hector. Under Hector, STI was divided into two teams: the Japanese developers led by Naka, and the American developers. The Japanese began to work on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. The two were intended to be one large game, but time was limited and the manufacturing costs of a 34-megabit cartridge with NVRAM were prohibitively expensive. The team split the game in half, giving the developers more time to finish the second part, and splitting the cost between two cartridges. The games introduced Sonic's rival Knuckles, created by artist Takashi Thomas Yuda.:51; 233 When Sega management realized Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would not be completed in time for the 1993 holiday shopping season, it commissioned the American team to make a new game, the spin-off Sonic Spinball. Following the release of Sonic & Knuckles in 1994, Yasuhara quit Sega and Naka returned to Japan, having been offered a role as a producer. He was reunited with Ohshima and brought with him Takashi Iizuka, who had worked with Naka's team at STI.
A number of Sonic games were developed for Sega's 8-bit consoles, the Master System and Game Gear. The first, an 8-bit version of the first game, was developed by Ancient to promote the handheld Game Gear and was released in December 1991. Aspect Co. developed most of the subsequent 8-bit Sonic games, beginning with a version of Sonic 2. Other notable Sonic games released during this period include Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (a Western localization of the Japanese puzzle game Puyo Puyo), SegaSonic the Hedgehog (an arcade game), and Knuckles' Chaotix (a spin-off for the Genesis's 32X add-on starring Knuckles).
During the development of Sonic 3, the developers had created a prototype for an isometric Sonic game. Sega reused this concept for Sonic 3D Blast (1996), commissioned towards the end of the Genesis's lifecycle. In Japan, Sonic Team was preoccupied with new intellectual property, Nights into Dreams (1996), for Sega's 32-bit Saturn console, so development of 3D Blast was outsourced to the British studio Traveller's Tales. While 3D Blast sold well, it was criticized for its gameplay, controls, and slow pace. Meanwhile, in America, STI worked on Sonic X-treme, a 3D Sonic game for the Saturn intended for the 1996 holiday shopping season. X-treme's development was hindered by disputes between Sega of America and Japan, Naka's refusal to let STI use the Nights into Dreams game engine, and problems adapting the series to 3D. After two of the lead developers became ill, the game was canceled.
With X-treme's cancellation, Sega ported 3D Blast to the console with updated graphics and bonus levels developed by Sonic Team. In 1997, Sega announced "Project Sonic", a promotional campaign aimed at increasing market awareness of and renewing excitement for the Sonic brand. The first Project Sonic release, the compilation Sonic Jam, included a 3D overworld used by Sonic Team to experiment with 3D Sonic gameplay. Sonic Team and Traveller's Tales collaborated again to produce the second Project Sonic game—Sonic R, a 3D racing game and the only original Sonic game for the Saturn. The cancellation of Sonic X-treme, as well as the Saturn's general lack of Sonic games, are considered important factors in the Saturn's struggle to find an audience. The series' popularity diminished; according to Nick Thorpe of Retro Gamer, "[b]y mid-1997 Sonic had essentially been shuffled into the background... it was astonishing to see that just six years after his debut, Sonic was already retro."
Jump to 3D (1998—2005)
With its Sonic Jam experiments, Sonic Team began developing a 3D Sonic platformer for the Saturn. The project stemmed from a proposal by Iizuka to develop a Sonic role-playing video game (RPG) with an emphasis on storytelling. The Saturn's limited capabilities made development difficult, so Sonic Team transitioned development to the Dreamcast, which Naka believed would allow for the ultimate Sonic game.:65–67 Sonic Adventure, released in 1998, was one of the largest video games ever created at the time, and introduced elements that became series staples. Artist Yuji Uekawa redesigned the characters to better suit 3D, with a style influenced by comics and animation. Sonic Team's American division, Sonic Team USA, developed a sequel, Sonic Adventure 2 (2001), designed to be more action-oriented. While both Adventure games were well-received and the first sold over two million copies, consumer interest in the Dreamcast quickly faded, and Sega's attempts to spur sales through lower prices and cash rebates caused escalating financial losses.
In January 2001, Sega announced it was discontinuing the Dreamcast to become a third-party developer. Afterward, Sega released an expanded port of Sonic Adventure 2 for the Nintendo GameCube, chosen for its 56k technology. Sonic Team USA also began developing the first multi-platform Sonic game, Sonic Heroes (2003), for the GameCube, Microsoft's Xbox, and Sony's PlayStation 2. The game was designed for a broad audience, and Sonic Team revived elements, such as special stages and the Chaotix characters, not seen since the Genesis era. Reviews for Sonic Heroes were mixed; while its graphics and gameplay were praised, critics felt it failed to address the problems of previous Sonic games, such as the camera. After completing Sonic Heroes, Sonic Team USA was renamed Sega Studios USA. Its next project was Shadow the Hedgehog (2005), a Sonic spin-off starring Shadow, a character introduced in Adventure 2. While Shadow retains most elements from previous Sonic games, it was aimed at a mature audience and introduces third-person shooting and nonlinear gameplay. Shadow the Hedgehog was critically panned for its mature themes and level design, but was a commercial success, selling at least 1.59 million units.
Sega continued to release 2D Sonic games. In 1999, it collaborated with SNK to produce Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, an adaptation of Sonic 2 for the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Some SNK staff went on to form Dimps the following year and developed original 2D Sonic games—Sonic Advance (2001), Sonic Advance 2 (2002), and Sonic Advance 3 (2004)—for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (GBA). Sonic Advance was outsourced to Dimps because Sonic Team was understaffed with employees familiar with the GBA's hardware. Dimps also developed Sonic Rush (2005) for the Nintendo DS, which uses a 2.5D perspective. Further spin-offs included the party game Sonic Shuffle (2000), the pinball game Sonic Pinball Party (2003), and the fighting game Sonic Battle (2003).
Seventh-generation consoles (2006—2012)
For the franchise's 15th anniversary in 2006, Sonic Team developed Sonic Riders, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a GBA port of the original Sonic. Sonic Riders, the first Sonic racing game since Sonic R, was designed to appeal to Sonic and extreme sports fans. With a more realistic setting than previous entries, Sonic the Hedgehog was intended to reboot the series for seventh generation consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The game faced serious development problems; Naka resigned as head of Sonic Team to form Prope and stringent deadlines rushed development. None of the 15th-anniversary Sonic games were successful critically, and Sonic the Hedgehog in particular was panned. Production on the next major Sonic game, Sonic Unleashed (2008), began in 2005. It was conceived as a sequel to Adventure 2, but became a standalone entry after Sonic Team introduced innovations to separate it from the Adventure games. With Unleashed, Sonic Team sought to combine the best aspects of 2D and 3D Sonic games and address criticisms of previous 3D entries, although reviews were mixed.
The first Sonic game for the Nintendo Wii, Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007), takes place in the world of Arabian Nights and was released instead of a port of the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog. Citing lengthy development times, Sega switched plans and conceived a game that would use the motion detection of the Wii Remote. Sega released a sequel, Sonic and the Black Knight, set in the world of King Arthur, in 2009. A Sonic Riders sequel, Zero Gravity (2008), and a version of Unleashed were also developed for the Wii and PlayStation 2. Sega collaborated with former rival Nintendo to produce Mario & Sonic, an Olympic Games-themed crossover with the Mario franchise. The first Mario & Sonic game was released in 2007 to tie in with the 2008 Summer Olympics, and sequels based on the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 Summer Olympics were released in 2009 and 2011. Dimps returned to the Sonic series with Sonic Rush Adventure, a sequel to Sonic Rush, in 2007. DS versions of the Mario & Sonic games were produced, while BioWare developed the first Sonic RPG, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (2008), also for the DS.
Following a string of poorly received Sonic games, Sonic Team refocused on speed and more traditional side-scrolling. Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a side-scrolling episodic sequel to Sonic & Knuckles co-developed by Sonic Team and Dimps, began with Episode I in 2010, followed by Episode II in 2012. Later in 2010, Sega released Sonic Colors for the Wii and DS, expanding on the well received aspects of Unleashed and introduced the Wisp power-ups. For the series' 20th anniversary in 2011, Sega released Sonic Generations for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows; a separate version was developed by Dimps for the Nintendo 3DS. Sonic Generations featured remakes of levels from previous Sonic games and reintroduced the "classic" Sonic design from the Genesis era. These efforts were better received, especially in comparison to the 2006 game and Unleashed. The British studio Sumo Digital developed Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (2010) and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012), crossover kart racing games featuring Sonic and other Sega franchises.
Eighth-generation consoles (2013–present)
In May 2013, Nintendo announced it was collaborating with Sega to produce three Sonic games for its Wii U and 3DS platforms. The first game in the partnership, 2013's Sonic Lost World, was also the first Sonic game for eighth generation hardware. Sonic Lost World was designed to be streamlined and fluid in movement and design, borrowing elements from Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy games and the canceled X-treme. The second was Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games (2013) for the Wii U, the fourth Mario & Sonic game and a 2014 Winter Olympics tie-in. The deal was completed in 2014 with the release of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for the 3DS; these games were based on the Sonic Boom television series (see Animation section). None of the games were well-received; Sonic Lost World polarized critics, while Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games received mediocre reviews and the Sonic Boom games were panned. Nonetheless, the fifth Mario & Sonic game, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, a Shattered Crystal sequel, were released in 2016.
Sega began to release more Sonic games for mobile phones, such as iOS and Android devices. After he developed a version of Sonic CD for modern consoles in 2011, Australian programmer Christian "Taxman" Whitehead collaborated with fellow Sonic fandom member
Simon "Stealth" Thomley to develop remasters of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for iOS and Android, which were released in 2013. The remasters were developed using Whitehead's Retro Engine, an engine tailored for 2D projects, and their upgrades received considerable praise. Sonic Dash (2013), a Temple Run-style endless runner, was developed by Hardlight and was downloaded over 100 million times by 2015, and received a Sonic Boom-themed sequel that year. Sonic Team released Sonic Runners, its first game for mobile devices, in 2015. Sonic Runners was also an endless runner, but was unsuccessful and discontinued a year after release. Gameloft released a sequel, Sonic Runners Adventure, in 2017 to generally positive reviews.
At the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2016, Sega announced two Sonic games to coincide with the series' 25th anniversary: Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces. Both were released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows in 2017. Sonic Mania was developed by the independent game developers PagodaWest Games and Headcannon with a staff comprising members of the Sonic fandom; Whitehead conceived the project and served as director. The game, which emulates the gameplay and visuals of the Genesis entries, was hailed as a return to form for the franchise. Meanwhile, Sonic Team developed Sonic Forces, which revives the dual gameplay of Sonic Generations along with a third gameplay style featuring the player's custom character. Sonic Forces received mixed reviews, with criticism directed at its short length. At SXSW in March 2019, Iizuka confirmed a new mainline Sonic game was in development, although he did not confirm any details. Additionally, Sumo Digital developed another Sonic kart racing game, Team Sonic Racing (2019). Unlike its predecessors, Team Sonic Racing only features Sonic characters, as Sumo Digital wanted to expand the series' world and character roster.