A Critique of Sega Character Design Practice: Sonic The Hedgehog

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Words: 4980 |

Pages: 11|

25 min read

Published: Mar 17, 2023

Words: 4980|Pages: 11|25 min read

Published: Mar 17, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Sonic the Hedgehog
  3. Conclusion
  4. Bibliography


Between the 1990s - 2000s technology has vastly improved, particularly more so when it comes to video games graphics. Back in the 90s technology was premature, characters were 8 bit and colours were scarce; today they are teeming with detail and prowess. However Back then video game were not seen as “bad” the gamers of that time didn’t know any different so there was nothing “better” per say to compare today, not that “modern games have been created there it can be seen that there has been an obvious spike in graphical advancement. Because of the inability for these games to be compared to anything “better” at the time, they still continue to resonate within older gamer’s hearts; they may not have been visually pleasing but the memories associated with the games is what makes them significantly special. Although games companies have now developed the ability to improve the quality of their game design they have still chosen to conform the look of previous games and keep characters and even sometimes the environment in these games similar to previous productions. Regardless of how much said characters change their certain characteristic that are present throughout, which insures that regardless of how much a character changes its essence is always carried on. Companies that come to mind when on this topic are Nintendo most notably with their character Mario and SEGA, with their character Sonic; and the other characters present in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.

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In this essay I aim to explain how and why the iconic appearance of SEGA’s mascot Sonic the Hedgehog (designed by Naoto Ohshima) has changed or lack thereof, how said changes are significant and how they’ve have been received by fans of the franchise; and the changes have that much of an impact on to the overall character of Sonic the Hedgehog. I’ll achieve this by arguing that the reason for SEGA choosing to do this with character design is because them and many other video game companies market nostalgia, and keep their characters looking similar to older version, allowing them to appeal to older audiences whilst still enabling them to gain newer audiences. This allows them to make significant changes and make new titles whilst keeping old values. My essay will also include how this has an effect on gaming society, I’ll derive points from books and scholar texts that focus on the evolution of this character and the significance he has within the gaming industry, and briefly compare and contrast other companies that follow this practice. I intend to also stress on whether the physical changes made to Sonic the Hedgehog and his friend’s take away from who they originally are or, if the personalities that SEGA have gone out of their way to give these characters is enough to ensure that they are still the same within themselves.

Sonic the Hedgehog

SEGA is a Japanese multinational video game developer and publisher headquartered in Tokyo Japan. They are known for the Dreamcast, genesis and more notably their mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. It was when SEGA realised the genesis that they found major success rivalling Nintendo along with the successful release of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game in 1991; since then Sonic has been SEGA’s mascot. He was initially created In order to compete with Nintendo’s mascot Mario SEGA created “a teal hedgehog with red shoes he (Naoto Ohshima) called Mr Needlemouse.” He was later renamed Sonic the Hedgehog, His palate was then changed in accordance to SEGA’s cobalt blue logo. Sonic was originally supposed to be a long-eared rabbit, but SEGA decided against this stating a rabbit wasn’t able to constantly keep moving whereas a hedgehog could and could continuously take down enemies with its spines.

In Sonic’s earlier games (1990s) his appearance was 8 bit and pixelated, the box art for these games and even the early TV show featured a Sonic with a short stocky build, he wore his signature red shoes with the single white stripe going horizontally across them. This first depictions of Sonic lasted long until the late 90s and although trying to recreate a drawing into an 8 bit form was difficult the resemblance was uncanny and still easily recognisable as Sonic. SEGA released Sonic 3D Blast in 1996 Sonic discarded his pixelated, 8-bit look and adopted a new 3D one, as SEGA now had the means to do so. The team that had worked on Toy Story had a hand in the creation of this game. They had just finished Toy Story and SEGA being eager to start a new project wanted them to be a part of it, after witnessing their abilities. With skills growing and new means of game creation surfacing SEGA thought it was time to start creating 32-bit games, the games that followed after 3D Blast now only solely featured a 3D Sonic.

In 1998 Sonic’s appearance was changed yet again his red shoes adorned some belt buckles (perhaps to relate more to the initial Santa Claus look, which I’ll elaborate more on later) finally his eyes changed from black to green to conform to a more humanoid look. As well as the change in appearance Sonic Adventure was released in 1999, It was the first game that featured 3D gameplay. Melissinos and Patrick O'Rourke point out “The power of the Dreamcast allowed producer Yuji Naka to create an experience that was both recognisable and new to the player who grew up on a diet of Sonic games”(Melissions and O’Rourke, 2012). This is a key factor that must be looked into when creating newer games for a franchise, it establishes that both the new and old fans of the franchise are satisfied as both are as important as the other. Sonic Adventure was created for the Dreamcast after cancellation of Sonic X-treme which was intended for the SEGA Saturn. The game received critical acclaim and became the Dreamcast’s bestseller one reason being that the newly realised 3D environment and realistic physics allowed the “team to bring a much more believable world to life,” As Melissions and O’Rourke brilliantly state (Melissions and O’Rourke, 2012).

Sonic’s look remained more or less the same until 2016. In 2016 Sonic Boom the game then later the latest Sonic TV show was released. Sonic as well as many other characters from the franchise received a makeover much too many a fans dismay. Sonic acquired a set of smaller quills on his head, resembling him closer to a real hedgehog; as well as bandages around his limbs and a brown bandana around his neck. His arms also went from a tan colour to a blue, matching the rest of his body. In an attempt to cover themselves and keep fans at ease SEGA said that these characters were from an alternative universe and that the change in look wasn’t cannon, therefore meaning Sonic and his friends technically still looked like his original self in our reality.

In 2011 SEGA released the game Sonic Generations, in celebration of Sonic’s 20th anniversary. This game featured classic sonic in 3D as well as levels from the classic and newer Sonic games, levels were played in a certain perspective respective of which variant of Sonic was being used. For instance if “classic” Sonic was being used the game would be played from a side-scrolling perspective like that of the original SEGA Genesis; if it was his “Modern” variation 3D levels similar to those in Sonic Unleashed and Sonic colours were played. Development of Sonic Generations began early in 2009, after the Sonic Unleashed. The Sonic Team wanted to re-imagine the most popular aspects of past games and mould them into one. Each location and boss in the game were ones present in earlier titles, with the game including numerous other references to past entries. The game received positive reviews from critics and was a commercial success. After Generation “Classic” Sonic introduced in the game has continued to make appearances throughout the series. This game supports the main argument of my essay and the fact that most of SEGA’s actions are based nostalgic values. By backtracking to previous games and adding small references it ensures SEGA won’t lose fans that were with the franchise from the start.

An article written by Phil Hornshaw explains how in celebration of Sonic’s 25th anniversary rapper Charles Hamilton spoke about his a mixtape Sonic the Hamilton released in 2008. The mixtape was entirely inspired by SEGA’s speedy mascot. The mixtape included tracks inspired by music and sound effects featured in the 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog game. Hamilton explained how the mixtape was him believing he was Sonic, believing he was Sonic gave him courage and made him feel like he could achieve anything boosting his self-esteem.

Hamilton (Hornshaw, 2016) explained that he never believed in his self, so when he was given opportunity to believe he was a hero his self-esteem jumped through the roof. It was Sonic’s Heroism that drew Hamilton to him, like millions of other fans, to the character of Sonic.

“He never gives up,” the rapper says. “He believes in himself and is a team leader. He also has a great heart. He risks his life for the entrapped wildlife [in the Sonic games and cartoons], and instead of sticking around to receive glory, he's off to save another life. That's what I love about him.' (Charles Hamilton, 2016)

Writing the mixtape also allowed him to re-live the experience he had felt all those years ago as a child when he had initially fallen in love with the blue blur. It was not Sonic’s appearance that made him fall in love with him (although that may have played a small part), but his personality. Although many fans have shown annoyance over the transition from “classic” to “modern” Sonic, to them the saying “If It ain’t broke don’t fix” it comes to mind, but regardless they will still always remain loyal. And SEGA knows this. They feed off of nostalgia. And this is one of the reasons why they put so much effort into giving their characters a personality. Just like how new generations of people are born, new generations of sonic must be born also in order to keep up with the times.

As further commemoration for their 25th anniversary SEGA released Sonic Mania as a homage to the original genesis game. It featured newly polished graphics, and re-designed stages from the past as well as several new ones. It received both positive and negative responses. Comments such as “it relied too much on nostalgia” (Ahern, 2017) and it “felt nostalgic and new at the same time.” (L Patterson, 2017) Were ones that stood out the most, because it relied so much on nostalgia it was also said to lack originality. Using nostalgia as a marketing technique is a smart approach, using this kind of approach ensures that fans will be loyal because playing these newer titles as they bring back memories and feelings from when they were first introduced to these games.

The definition of nostalgia is “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life.” Playing these games produce a sense of bliss and the desire to return to a similar time, a time that was maybe happier. It fills the gamer’s head full of childhood memories perhaps when they played with friends or siblings; taking them back to a similar or even more peaceful time. Games make people feel good. They are created to entertain and used as means of escape, you can be whoever you want to be as Hamilton exclaimed; and after a long day at work or school it is something that you can look forward to. It is for this reason that many companies have such devoted fans and why the gaming society look up to these franchises with such high regard. Sonic the hedgehog’s was a character is something that was present in a child’s life in the 90s at one point or another. Whether they’d grown up with him and was there from the beginning or joined the fray at the end, this is one character who has impacted the lives of many.

Sonic’s character design was based on SEGA’s logo, which I briefly mentioned earlier; his red shoes “were a concept evolved from a design inspired by Michael Jackson’s boots with the addition of the red colour inspired by Santa Claus and the contrast of those colours on Jackson’s 1987 album Bad.” “His personality was inspired by Bill Clintons “can-do” attitude. They gave him this kind of attitude to vastly differentiate him from Mario; who was always cheerful and smiling. In the book The Golden Age of Video Games Dillion explains how “SEGA often tied new games to famous personalities to encourage instant awareness and excitement about the titles” (Dillion, 2011, p.). Because of this it at first it could be confusing to who SEGA’s intended target audience was, on the one hand they included subtle details referencing to celebrities that younger players of the franchise wouldn’t know; this however was a marketing strategy. Including these details insured that the older players and even fans worldwide are kept happy and feel appreciated that they (SEGA) would take time to add, even though minute such specific details. Dillion also points out “to make the system attractive to new players alike, SEGA’s strategy was to fold” (Dillion, 2011 ). Even going as far to incorporate Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker game to receive instant recognition.

It is true that 25 years ago technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, in relation to how games graphics look today, 90s games were abysmal in comparison. Regardless of this however these games still somehow managed to capture the hearts of many. Character models were jagged and polygonal but even today the original titles are more often than not still preferred over the later ones, the reason for that, nostalgia. Falling in love with a game character goes deeper than just appearance and SEGA and many over gaming companies know this, that’s why they put in so much effort into moulding said characters. It was little quirks implemented into these characters that made them special. For example “Sonic would famously tap his foot in impatient frustration if the player took too long to move.” (Loguidice and Barton, 2009, p.) .A person coming back to this after a short break would see the humour in this as they’d be able to relate to how tedious it is to wait on someone. This could be seen as an attempt to make Sonic seem more human and allow players to relate to him more. As well as this Sonic was also given green eyes later on as well as his famous love for chilli dogs. Small tropes such as these have been carried down to different versions of Sonic, allowing his to possess the same personality whilst appearing differently.

Sonic was received with such high regard within the gaming industry because he was seen as an “animal with attitude” making him unique and immediately well loved by the public as Loguidice and Barton (2009) explain. This craze was so well received that Nintendo the very company that Sonic was created to thwart, jumped on the bandwagon; creating Yoshi’s in an attempt to compete with them. Yoshi’s however were as Loguidice and Barton (2009) very laid back creatures, they were all one in the same, not having their own unique look or personality; with only a palate change to differentiate them from one another. To go hand in hand with his quirky demeanour Sonic’s can do attitude, sense of independence, the fact that he never gave up and knew right from wrong; is what made him stand out from so many other characters. An excerpt from an article (Hester, 2016) explains the thinking behind Sonic numerous physical changes.

“From his earlier days Sonic has seen numerous revisions in appearance throughout the years. He’s received a more contemporary, edgy look in Sonic Adventure and a bolder, Western-focused redesign for the Boom series. He has bounced between 2-D and 3-D, console and mobile, and often receives different subtle designs in each game, such as a classic look in Sonic Generations and a modern look in games such as Sonic Heroes and Sonic Unleashed” (Hester, 2016)

Within the same article Hester share the views of Al Nilsen a former SEGA employee. Nilsen goes on to say. “It’s fine to go and change the look of the character, but gameplay has to go and play of against that” (Al Nilsen). By this Nilsen means changing the appearance of any video game character is fine, if the gameplay can live up to that standard as well. If you continuously change the appearance of a character and then the gameplay gets worse fans will associate the change negatively, rather then welcoming it. If however with these visual changes of Sonic came improved gameplay then fans would associate a change in looks to improved quality of gameplay. Some believe however that the later Sonic games go against the original purpose of his character. When Sonic Adventure came out for Dreamcast in 1999 “the game introduced players to a redesigned, edgier Sonic, whose attitude increased as the character was given a voice and three dimensions to explore within” (Hester, 2016). Voice acting is a very important aspect of character personality. Fans of franchises can agree that characters changing visually can be accepted but voice acting is something that should be taken a lot more seriously. Over the years Sonic has had numerous voice actors many fans have been unhappy how many voice actors he’s gone through, in comparison to characters like Mario who has had the same voice actor from the start. This is an aspect that SEGA has been strongly criticised for by fans. With old designs berried about came new ones. “SEGA returned to the visual style last seen in 2003 and worked to on bringing back to his brighter cheerier days” ( Barry, 2014). Whilst in a way Sonic and his friend’s retained their Sonic Adventure designs Barry (2014) explains however that there was a mild lack of “edginess” and “realism to their updates. Through what can be called trial and error SEGA finally hit their desired design and about “Modern” Sonic that we’ve come to know and love.

Between the years 1991 and 1997 Sonic’s changes were minimal from Sonic Adventure where SEGA intended to a Sonic that was “nostalgic but new” (Melissinos and O’Rourke, 2012, p.119) came a Sonic that everyone was finally happy with. Then Sonic Boom was created. Fans were confused to why SEGA would change Sonic’s appearance yet again just as everyone finally got used to “Modern” Sonic for the past seven years. SEGA was quick however to point out that Sonic Boom was not a replacement for the existing Sonic. They said to instead think of it as a “complement”. The new design was like marmite, you either loved it or hated it. As the video game industry gets older however these sorts of updates and redesign are inevitable. In an article Max McGee (2014) he explains how style change techniques redefined, and what’s in vogue today could be gone tomorrow. In McGee’s article a quite from Bob Rafei director of Sonic Boom pointed out that “change just for the sake of change is not a worthy goal by itself and not as impactful as change that serves a greater purpose.” (Bob Rafei, 2014). If changing for the sake of changing is unnecessary then SEGA can be questions for their choice in Sonic’s latest appearance. Sure the change isn’t cannon but why do it in the first place?

Apparently SEGA wanted Sonic to appear older, with the anniversary Sonic was now technically 25; so maybe a change was in order. This can be seen in Sonic Boom the game and also the TV show of the same name, there is a lot more adult humour and breaking of the fourth wall present. Sonic now has a Deadpool esc vibe to him even go so far as to turn and talk to the audience (in the TV show) every now and again. SEGA have explained that no other entertainment medium evolves as fast as the gaming industry, and if gameplay evolves so should its characters; this is a view that is completely understandable. “I’ll admit that SEGA of America’s changes worked, but I have to wonder if they were all necessary' (Madeline Schroeder, 2014). Madeline Schroeder product designer has a point here, not all change is bad as I’ve stressed on numerous occasions but if fans are happy do you really need to make changes. Again I’ll use Nintendo’s mascot Mario as an example. Sure From when Mario first premiered he’s under gone changes but these have only been changes in graphical quality as the years have gone on. But once Nintendo established a 3D version of Mario they stuck with it, and this kept their fans happy whilst still holding on the characters nostalgic properties.

There have been so many different variations of Sonic since the early 90s from “classic” to late 90s and even at one point a were-hog! The fact that the blue hedgehog still warrants so much attention after so many years of change and the fact that he still has dedicated fans speaks for itself, SEGA must be doing something right. Of course the fans of this franchise are not new to their favourite character getting redesigns. So they were not to blame when assuming Sonic was undergoing a permanent change Takashi Iizuka (2014) state that Sonic Boom Sonic and “Modern” Sonic will continue to move forward in parallel” to each other at the Sonic we all know and love is her to stay for quite some time.

The changes in Sonic’s designs aren’t a thing that SEGA took lightly however a lot of thought and preparation is put in beforehand, and many variations are created before coming up with a final one. From when Sonic was created however from 8-bit to i16-bit days where they had to work with certain hardware limitations. SEGA were cautious however they didn’t want the changes they made to be overly extreme for no reason, this was because they knew they couldn’t always please everyone and that there’d be a definite split when unveiling their new designs. When creating new variations of Sonic they decided the best thing to do was to play it safe. An interview with Stephen Frost supports this claim

“There were going to be a lot of passionate people who didn’t understand what we were doing and there were other ones who did and accepted it. But I was happy that while there are still questions about it and uncertainty, that given the few days or week after the event and people had more time to spend with the designs, I think that for the most part they’ve come to understand why we did it and are okay with it” (Stephen Frost, 2014).

It is impossible to please everyone, not everyone like change; and if you change a person’s favourite character of course they’re going to be unhappy. To avoid this however SEGA has kept one thing constant, his personality. Sonic’s cheeky nature is something present in every game new and old his habit to tap his foot in impatient and look at his non exist watch is something that even older players will appreciate, keeping them happy while simultaneously taking them down memory lane.

Sonic's personality is an entwinement of kindness and ferocity. He has an extremely big heart and is driven by his own strong sense of justice and fair play, he stand firmly in the face of evil as he is all for freedom and equality. Because of this he is never the one to rest in the face of injustice or oppression. He hates all forms of corruption, blistering with fury when witnessing anything unethical, and will not rest until it is stopped, throwing caution to the wind without hesitation. However, when faced with problems instead of being worried he takes it as an opportunity to have fun, making seeker of almost frequent adrenaline rushes .To Sonic, saving the world is no big deal and just another excuse for a good time. When he finds himself in a pinch, he acts as though nothing can stop him. Because of this Seeing Sonic scared is rare, and when we do you know something extremely bad is going on. Nevertheless In times of crisis he is aggressively and focused on the task at hand as though he has undergone an instant change in personality. In spite of all this Sonic is very kind an caring he has a strong commitment to helping out anyone in need regardless whether it is convenient to him or not even if it means getting himself into trouble.

Sonic possesses a lot of self-confidence as well as a massive ego to accompany it making him sassy, quick-witted, cocky and sometimes more often than not a tad overconfident. In the original Japanese version, Sonic discards honorifics and often speaks informally which can be seen as rude within Japanese culture. He does however sometimes use honorifics when addressing close friends or acquaintances. He often jokes around to lighten the mood and will never pass the opportunity to taunt is rivals. Despite this, he can be quite the gentleman when he wants and also knows that he cannot deal with all things on his own, he realises that will always have his friends to back him up in troubled situations always excepting their help, and believes strongly in teamwork.

The fact that so much can be said about one character is very impressive. It is rare for video game characters of such simple nature to have such vast and humanlike qualities. Although Nintendo’s Mario gets across the same nostalgic principal there isn’t much to him, this could be seen as a good thing however because his games are still loved by many. SEGA however hose to not go down this path they wanted to create a character that looked good visually, but at the same time was a character that people could look up to and relate to despite not being human.


In conclusion through the nostalgia of gamers, the excitement of die-hard fans, the uniqueness of his character, and his history at the front lines of a war between video game consoles Sonic continues to unite the masses. His story will always be somewhat shadowed, tied to the fact that the console that created him lost that war. But if Sonic was aware of this what he wouldn’t let that get him down, as was his character has achieved up to today greatly overshadows that.

While other characters were only defined by what appeared in their actual games, Sega immediately gave Sonic the Hedgehog something more: multiple, diverse platforms that let fans dig deeper into the franchise. As much as the games succeeded and the character of Sonic resonated with players, it was Sega’s massive marketing push that helped make him a force to rival Mario. Thanks to Sonic’s history and the nostalgia surrounding him, a few bad games aren’t enough to stop Sega’s powerhouse mascot. In the future, Iizuka says, Sonic Team is looking to take the character back to his “edgy” roots even more, while also expanding beyond the sort of games he’s starred in before. As evidenced, the past 23 years have seen many notable changes for Sonic the Hedgehog. Some for the better, some for the worst, and others that fans still debate to this day. Despite being a spin-off series, Sonic Boom is potentially the biggest thing to happen to the franchise in a long while and very well could shape the franchise moving forward. Could we expect to see changes on the SEGA of Japan side of things if Sonic Boom proves to be a hit? Only time will tell. As the end of the 10th anniversary history book says: “Sonic still goes on evolving.”

Confidence, he often engages in playful banter with his enemies, such as his asking Infinite, as 'optional' questions to glean into what the secret behind the latter's powers were, what the latter's favorite color was and whether he liked long romantic walks on the beach, as well as 'asking' a Zavok replica if he would let Sonic join a party occurring on the Death Egg (referring to the commotion resulting from the Resistance's infiltration of the area).

Following his free-spirited nature, Sonic never dwells on the past or allows his painful experiences to weight him down. Instead, he lives in the present and always looks forward to his next adventure, holding no regrets for what has transpired. It is only in the moments of greatest loss that his macho and carefree appearance falls away. Sonic is also of incredibly strong character and will: no matter the situation, he never doubts himself or gives up, never once submitting to the darkness in his heart.

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It is these factors that made him unique, and no matter how much his appearance changed; these traits always insured that sonic would always be sonic.


  • Roberto Dillion (2011). The Golden Age Of Video Games: The Birth Of A Million Dolllar Industry. England: Routledge. p99-157.
  • Tristan Donovan (2010). Replay: The History Of Video Games. Great Britain: Yellow Ant. p219-220.
  • Bill, L. and Matt, B, (2009). Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Supe Mario and the Most Influential Games of All Time. [e-book] Oxford: Focal Press. Avaliable at: dawsonera [Accessed 7 January 2019].
  • Chris Melissinos and Patrick O'Rourke (2012). The Art Of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. New York: Welcome Books. p118-119.
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