Sonic the Hedgehog was first introduced to gamers worldwide on 23 June 1991 and, since then, has become not only SEGA’s most enduring and popular character but also a beloved videogame icon. Since the Blue Blur turned thirty this year, I have been dedicating every Friday to SEGA’s supersonic mascot.
Story Title: Sonic the Hedgehog
Published: Fall 1991
Writer: Francis Mao
Artist: Francis Mao
So, I mentioned previously that, during the development and marketing of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) for a wider audience outside of its native Japan, Sonic’s design and lore underwent significant alterations. In Japan, Sonic originally had a human girlfriend and battled Doctor Eggman in a wacky fantasy world that was an alternative version of ours openly populated by humans and anthropomorphic animals. However, for Sonic’s American debut, the character was redesigned from a sleek, aerodynamic character and into a Mohawk-sporting superhero who lived on the alien world Mobius and fought with Doctor Ivo Robotnik, who was once the kindly scientist Doctor Ovi Kintobor. This story, which was only briefly reflected in the game’s manual and had pretty much no representation in the videogame, became a prominent and influential part of Sonic’s canon outside of Japan thanks to it featuring in a variety of media. Most notably, the story was told in great detail in Stay Sonic (Mike Pattenden, 1993), formed the basis of Sonic the Comic’s (1993 to 2002) lore, but it first featured in a promotional comic book released in the United States in autumn of 1993. The comic had a very limited run and is now extremely rare, so the only way to read this time capsule of a vastly different and conflicting time in Sonic’s life is by use of online scans.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” beings in medias res with SEGA’s super-speedy mascot racing through the Green Hill Zone and being chased by Dr. Robotnik (who is piloting his wrecking ball Egg-O-Matic and being flanked by a variety of Badniks). The narration box provides a brief bit of context to establish where we are and what’s going on: this is, of course, the planet Mobius, which was once a peaceful and fun place to live before the evil Dr. Robotnik began his attempt to take the planet over and the only one who can stop his the “short, blue, super-fast, and radically cool” Sonic the Hedgehog.
After outrunning Robotnik, Sonic makes short work of his mechanical Badniks, freeing his animal friends in the process. However, he gets distracted and, thanks to a crumbling cliff side, plummets to a spiky death! Thankfully, Johnny Lightfoot (one of the aforementioned animal friends) pushes a swinging platform into Sonic’s path and save him from an unfortunate end. Panicked by the appearance of Dr. Robotnik, Sonic’s animal friends suggest they ask Dr. Kintobor for help and Sonic breaks the news that Robotnik is Kintobor and reveals not just Robotnik’s origin story but his (Sonic’s) as well.
The story the flashes back to show Sonic, then a brown, far less aerodynamic character, stumbling upon the laboratory of the kindly Dr. Kintobor. Kintobor (who is modelled directly on Albert Einstein), an absent-minded but kind-hearted scientist, has created a machine called the Retro-Orbital Chaos Compressor (or R.O.C.C. for short). Inside of the R.O.C.C. are six orbs that Kintobor calls “Emeralds”; Kintobor’s machine is (…somehow) able to channel all the evil forces from the planet and lock them into these Emeralds, with the Doctor’s end goal being the complete removal of negativity from the planet. However, he is unable to achieve this goal without a Grey Emerald, which would neutralise the evil energy and stabilise the Emeralds.
Upon seeing Sonic, Kintobor is shocked and intrigued (apparently he never noticed in all this time that Mobius was home to anthropomorphic animals…) and he begins to help Sonic develop his super-speed using a supersonic treadmill. During one of these experiments, Sonic breaks the sound barrier, destroying the treadmill and being physically altered into his more recognisable blue form thanks to “the cobalt effect”; Kintobor also gifts Sonic with his iconic red sneakers after his battered old trainers get wrecked.
Things take a turn for the worst, however, when Kintobor accidentally spills a soda onto the R.O.C.C.’s main control console, causing a massive explosion; in the process, the “containment Rings” that were inside the R.O.C.C. were scattered across the planet and Kintobor was bombarded with “over 10,000 volts of pure evil energy”. This, combined with the hardboiled egg Kintobor was holding, transformed him into the egg-shaped madman Dr. Robotnik, a literal inversion of his former self.
Sonic reveals to his friends that he has set out to collect all of the scattered Golden Rings in order to rebuild the R.O.C.C. and reverse the process…while also vowing to oppose and defeat Robotnik. To that end, he randomly races off and comes across Robotnik but blunders straight into an ambush of Badniks. In a mad dash to escape, he tumbles into the Labyrinth Zone and barely avoids being scorched alive and drowning but, in the process, randomly finds one of the Chaos Emeralds (I guess this comic is based more on the Master System version of the game…)
Emerging from the water, Sonic chases Dr. Robotnik through what appears to be the Marble Zone and the dastardly doctor manages to slow Sonic down by having him race through the Starlight Zone. Sonic, however, is easily able to avoid Robotnik’s traps and Badniks and finally confronts Robotnik in his “secret lab” (clearly the Scrap Brain Zone). There, he finds another of his animal friends, Porker Lewis, bound and tied to a conveyor belt and facing certain death. This distraction allows Robotnik to literally get the drop on Sonic and cause him to drop the Chaos Emerald; Robotnik then presents Sonic with a choice: save his friend or retrieve the Chaos Emerald! Sonic opts to save Porker, allowing Robotnik to take the Chaos Emerald for himself and make a hasty retreat, vowing to rule the world in due time. It’s not a completely sour ending, though, as Sonic summarily destroys Robotnik’s Badnik Transforming Machine and frees even more of his animal friends and swears to end Robotnik’s threat over the course of the Mega Drive videogame.
Being a fifteen page promotional piece, there’s not really a lot going for “Sonic the Hedgehog”; unlike its Japanese counterpart, the art isn’t as appealing, the story isn’t as fun and exciting, and the dialogue is nowhere near as quirky and unique. A lot of SEGA’s promotional media at the time was focused (obsessed, you might say) with characterising Sonic as this cool, edgy, radical surfer-dude so his dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well when looking back at adaptations of this time.
Still, the comic does a decent job of adapting the gameplay mechanics and features of the videogames; it doesn’t showcase every Zone from the game and is largely focused on Green Hill Zone more than the others but it does include things like the crumbling cliffs, spike pits, swings, and the various hazards of the other Zones that briefly feature in the games. There’s a sense that anyone reading this would get a small head’s up on what to expect when playing Sonic for the first time and the objectives of the game are spelled out pretty clearly in the comic’s narrative: Collect Golden Rings to save the planet and smash Badniks to free woodland critters.
The biggest contribution “Sonic the Hedgehog” makes is, of course, the popularisation and depiction of Sonic and Robotnik’s American origin. Rather than the two simply being who they are, they undergo separate transformations (one into a super-fast superhero and the other into a crazed madman) that have more in common with traditional superhero origin stories than the simple plot of environmentalism that is prevalent in the videogames. The idea that Sonic and Robotnik were once friends adds an interesting wrinkle to the plot but, honestly, this concept rarely, if ever, impacted subsequent continuations of this narrative. Even in Sonic the Comic, which revisited Kintobor on more than one occasion, had Sonic more determined to defeat Robotnik rather than turn him back into his former self and, since the transformation basically turned Kintobor into an entirely different, deranged individual, this previous relationship wasn’t ever really used by Robotnik as a means to goad Sonic and considering that it was never mentioned in the games or the manuals it really does make me wonder why they ever bothered to come up with such a convoluted way to explain why an anthropomorphic hedgehog has super speed and is collecting Golden Rings and smashing robots.
If you’re unfamiliar with Sonic’s previous lore or in need to a jolt of nostalgia, I’d say it’s worth giving “Sonic the Hedgehog” a quick read, if only to scratch that itch and to satisfy a curiosity for one of the franchise’s rarer materials. Still, as much as I loved Sonic the Comic, I never really cared for the whole Kintobor/R.O.C.C. origin story and feel that it didn’t really add anything to the videogames. Add to that the fact that the comic doesn’t really showcase much of the source material beyond the basic concept and the Green Hill Zone and you have a disappointingly barebones piece of media designed specifically to tantalise children with bright colours and quirky characters and to help sell the videogame, which is fine but the manga proved that there are ways of creating a piece of shameless promotion and still producing an entertaining comic at the same time.
Have you ever come across the Sonic the Hedgehog promotional comic online, or perhaps out in the wild? Maybe you own a copy; if so, how did you get it and what is the condition like? What did you think to it as a reflection on Sonic’s lore at the time? Were you a fan of the Kintobor origin or do you, like me, find it a bit of an unnecessary addition to the story? Which Sonic canon did you go up with and are there any unused aspects of Sonic’s long and complex story that you’d like to see make a return? Share your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to check back in next week for even more Sonic content!