Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the last remaining mascots of the 16-bit era of games. The unassuming blue hedgehog with attitude burst on the scene a little over 19 years ago and helped Sega gain its foothold in the market. The ensuing years have seen the blue blur undergo a steady stream of reinventions--some more successful than others--but he still endures. We got Sega’s Ken Ballough, associate brand manager at Sega, to reflect on the spiky hero and give us an idea of where he’s headed.
GameSpot: Why do you think Sonic has lasted almost 20 years now? What’s his appeal?
Ken Ballough: Sonic is a gaming legend, first and foremost. He comes from a series of games that defined a generation in gaming history, and his iconic personality was the epitome of speed in the early ‘90s, pushing the limits of what gamers knew and expected from high-speed action and platforming games. Throughout the years, Sonic has evolved with numerous different adventures, and likewise, his appeal has also spread for different reasons. Many older gamers appreciate him most for his attitude and the speed of his 2D games, while some younger and newer fans look up to him for his courage and his freestyle personality. Sonic appeals to many different people for many different reasons, but if there's one thing that has always stayed appealing, it's this: He's fast, he's blue, and he's a way fast cool hedgehog.
GS: What games do you think have captured that essence best over the years?
KB: Personally, the games that first come to mind are the Sonic Legacy titles, (Sonic 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles), Sonic Adventure, Sonic Rush, and Sonic’s speed in Sonic Unleashed. I think each of those games did a great job at propelling the series forward to a new generation, both visually and in terms of gameplay.
GS: What games do you think didn’t quite nail it?
KB: I think Sonic the Hedgehog Chaos was put in a bit of a situation. Coming out on the Master System with 8-bit graphics after you had seen Sonic on the Genesis in full 16-bit glory was a bit rough. Visually and speedwise, it was just not as impressive as its Genesis brethren.
GS: Do you think the expansion of the universe with additional characters helped or diluted Sonic’s image?
KB: I think it definitely added more depth to the character and created a much richer universe. A solid supporting cast gives you options, not only where to go with the story, but also where gameplay can go. I remember the first time I saw Sonic 2. What really stood out to me was the inclusion of Tails. I thought the idea of Sonic having a sidekick was awesome, but even more so was the fact that you could actually play Tails. I remember spending countless hours playing Sonic 2 with my little brother. Then came Knuckles, which was that final ingredient. If you think about it, you had all the key elements that make up your quintessential superhero: speed, flight, and strength. Once Sonic 3 came out, you felt like you had everything you needed. In the end I think Sonic’s image is much stronger because you have a solid core of supporting characters. Sonic is still Sonic, and he’s still your main hero. The rest of the cast just gives you a richer tapestry.
GS: Who do you think were the most successful companions? And, who do you think he could have done without?
KB: I think when it comes to characters, it’s all about what you do with them. It takes time to develop a cast and for them to find their niche. A lot depends on if there is a good story that allows the character to develop and grow. Tails and Knuckles, to me, are essential to Sonic. They bring the perfect blend of personalities to the mix. But those two have had over 14 years to grow. I think Shadow, Silver, Blaze, and Rouge have also been developed really well into interesting characters. I would love to see Tikal developed because I think she could be very interesting as well. I think the one character that has yet to find his place is Bark the Polar Bear. I hope he does eventually. It’d be nice to have a cool bear character.
GS: Over the past 19 years, Sonic has been in a variety of different games, some of which were a stretch. Were there any that didn’t happen because they were a little too out there?
KB: Not to my knowledge. There are definitely a lot of ideas that come up when we make games--any game. Some are left on the discussion table and some incorporated into the final product. The great thing about working on the Sonic franchise is that it’s a wonderfully collaborative effort, so we definitely try and refine good ideas and make them work within the gameplay framework. I have yet to be part of a project that was cancelled while in development.
GS: Looking back now, what do you think the biggest challenges have been in updating Sonic?
KB: When you break it down to the fundamentals, Sonic games stand for high-speed action with an edgy attitude. And it’s this essence that you want to keep, regardless of the platform. Sonic has such a rich history and a wide assortment of adventures that in reality, our biggest challenges at Sega are outdoing what we did before. How can we make the speed work better? Can he go faster? How do we build levels that allow Sonic to go to new places? These questions are what keep us working toward bigger and better games.
GS: Sonic CD is touted as the best Sonic ever made in some fan circles. Do you agree? Do you or the team see another as being the all-time best?
KB: Sonic been around for almost 20 years, so people have grown up with Sonic on several different platforms at different ages. I’m partial to Sonic 3--Sonic and Knuckles being my all time favorite. But that may be because I have the fondest memories playing that game. I definitely loved Sonic CD, and the great thing about this franchise is that there is a lot of choices and it’s not hard to search for the Sonic adventure that’s right for you.
GS: Why did Sega decide to bring Sonic back to 2D? Did the success of Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure play a part?
KB: Old-school Sonic fans have long asked to see Sonic return to a more 2D style of gameplay. Many liked the daytime stages in Unleashed but wanted to see a game that plays purely similar to the early games of the Genesis. Project Needlemouse is that critical first step that brings Sonic back to his 2D roots.
GS: What can you tell us about the game?
KB: I can tell you it’s a brand new 2D adventure coming out in 2010, it’s in HD, and to definitely stay tuned.
GS: With HD makeovers of classic games being popular right now, can we expect the game to use chunky old-school sprites or hi-res HD sprites?
KB: You can definitely expect HD graphics.
GS: Thanks for your time.