Sonic The Hedgehog’s greatest asset isn’t his speed but his personality. When Sega first introduced audiences to its new mascot back in 1991, it emphasized his supposed “attitude,” the sense that he was, in some vague way, cooler than perennial rival Mario. This whisper of a personality wasn’t much, but it was enough to build a story around, and it left enough wiggle room for writers to create different versions of the character to suit the needs of their own stories. This goes some way toward explaining how, between 1993 and today, no fewer than six animated shows starring Sonic The Hedgehog have been produced, and why none of them are even remotely similar.
These animated adaptations are fascinating and bizarre historical artifacts, documents of different corporate and creative types struggling to figure out who this popular character is, how seriously he should be taken, and who his stories are for. Even after half a dozen attempts, none of them found any definitive answers to those questions, but in their quest, they at least had the decency to produce some strange work. The Sonic cartoons are only intermittently good, but even at their worst, they’re captivating visions of how far a character with just one defining personality trait can be stretched.
In 1993, Sega Of America teamed up with Paris-based Dic Entertainment to create two completely different adaptations of Sonic The Hedgehog and broadcast them concurrently. Debuting first by just two weeks, Adventures Of Sonic The Hedgehog was Sega’s attempt to pitch Sonic to the youngest possible audience it could find. A lowbrow cartoon with tacked-on morals that indulged in all the most obnoxious vices of the genre but few of its virtues, Adventures burned off its astonishing 65 episodes in just four months.
The biggest inspiration for Adventures Of Sonic The Hedgehog was Looney Tunes. Sonic (voiced by Family Matters’ Jaleel White) is depicted here as a Bugs Bunny-style unflappable wiseass who, like Bugs, will take absolutely any opportunity to dress in drag. Appropriately, then, Dr. Robotnik—Sonic’s longstanding nemesis—is cast as an incompetent joke of an antagonist in the Elmer Fudd tradition. Adventures episodes were deeply formulaic, and usually found Sonic and sidekick Tails zipping around landscapes that resemble Greyhound bus seats before effortlessly trouncing Robotnik’s latest pointlessly elaborate scheme. Every episode ended with an educational/hilarious “Sonic Says” segment in which Sonic instructed children about the importance of wearing sunscreen or the dangers of child molesters.
Strangely enough for a Sonic show, Robotnik is the most interesting part of Adventures. Most of the humor is derived from Sonic’s self-satisfied, kid-friendly camera mugging. Scripting such inane material for so many episodes must have given Dic’s writers a lot of pent-up aggression, because the show finds its best material when it’s making jokes at the mad doctor’s expense. As the show goes on, it spends more and more time with Robotnik, even diving into his backstory to figure out what makes him tick. There are episodes of Adventures in which Robotnik pines for old girlfriends or fondly remembers his childhood—his overbearing, mustachioed mother even becomes a recurring character.
The second of Dic’s Sonic adaptations—which fans have nicknamed “SatAM” after its Saturday morning time slot—was a more mature take on the source material that seems to have resonated with the pre-teens who were the biggest audience for the games. It had some of the highest production values of all the adaptations and employed a cast of Saturday morning cartoon royalty: Kath Soucie of The Weekenders, Christine Cavanaugh of Dexter’s Laboratory, the legendary Jim Cummings. Even Jaleel White’s cocky, nasal sneering was as close to a good fit for Sonic as it’s ever been.
SatAM shares continuity with the dark ’n’ gritty Sonic series from Archie Comics, focusing on a group of rebels in their struggle against a tyrannical Dr. Robotnik. (How gritty could an Archie Comic be? It once ran a story arc in which Sonic becomes a fugitive after being framed for the murder of his girlfriend.) Where Adventures was mostly a one-hedgehog show, SatAM was an ensemble piece where the responsibility for heroism was spread across a few more characters. Since Sonic no longer had to be the sole role model, he was rounded out with a handful of endearing character flaws. Instead of the smug vaudevillian do-gooder of Adventures, SatAM’s Sonic is impatient, short tempered, jealous, and a little dumb, which makes him a far more engaging character.
SatAM’s much-ballyhooed maturity was also the real deal. The show pushed its cartoon animal characters to the most dramatic places they could go without venturing into self-parody. Over the course of the series, the characters dealt with loss, romance, and death. All the heightened emotions that Sonic and the gang normally only deal with in the slimiest fan fiction were on display here, but it somehow mostly lands. Even Robotnik is treated like a real menace instead of a bumbling screw up—his volcanic growl and towering Stormtrooper-like SWAT-bots make him feel genuinely threatening without being too frightening. The entire series successfully pulled off that sort of balancing act, and even 20 years later, it’s still a solid Saturday morning cartoon.
Four years later, Sega Of America approached Dic Entertainment once more to talk about producing a new Sonic cartoon in the hopes of drumming up interest in the approaching release of its latest console, the Dreamcast, and its big game, Sonic Adventure. The show that ended up being the fruit of those meetings is one of the most spectacular artistic failures to ever end up on television. A backdoor marketing attempt that had nothing whatsoever to do with the product it was ostensibly marketing, Sonic Underground’s only saving grace is that its premise and execution are thrillingly insane.
In this version of the story, Sonic (Jaleel White again) is a prince, the son of deposed monarch Queen Aleena. An ancient prophecy foretells that the despotic Dr. Robotnik can only be overthrown if the Queen’s three children work together. So in order to reclaim his throne, Sonic teams up with his long-lost siblings Manic (also Jaleel White) and Sonia (yes, Jaleel also played the girl) to battle Robotnik’s mechanical forces with their secret weapons: laser-firing musical instruments sealed within their heirloom magical medallions. Did Sonic and his siblings find their missing mother and defeat Robotnik with the power of rock ’n’ roll? No one knows. The show was supposed to run for 65 episodes, but mercifully, only 40 were ever produced.
Sonic Underground is a hot dog of a TV show, the result of several unrelated ideas being forcibly squashed into one project. The musical angle has no relation to the prophecy shtick, the deposed prince business doesn’t gel with the Sonic mythology—and then there’s the inappropriateness of its stab at class politics, depicting the old money twits who get to live in repulsive decadence in exchange for financially supporting Robotnik. Underground even looks like multiple projects forced into a marriage of convenience. Its original characters are tall, thin, and detailed, and look terrible next to the squat and simplistic Sonic. Most of the Sonic cartoons are weird, but it’s often the familiar weirdness of children’s shows or anime. Sonic Underground is like a show from a different universe.
Sega Of Japan and Sonic Team also took a crack at producing a Sonic cartoon of their own. They partnered with Studio Pierrot, which is best known today as the animation studio behind mega-hits like Bleach and Naruto. The result was a two episode direct-to-video anime that had creative input from Sonic creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima but didn’t receive a North American release until three years after its Japanese debut. ADV Films, its American distributor, re-cut the episodes into a single 55-minute production, and called the resulting hack job Sonic The Hedgehog: The Movie. ADV’s ownership of the license ran out without being renewed in 2008.
Sonic The Movie offers some great insight into how differently Japanese and American audiences view the hedgehog. In the American shows, Sonic’s character-defining “attitude” manifested as a hatred of standing still—he was a hero because he never lost his diligence in the fight against Robotnik. The Movie’s Sonic is a lazy, selfish jerk who will only deign to bother saving the day at the last possible instant. When Robotnik himself explains to him that he’s the only one who can prevent an impending world-dooming explosion, Sonic responds by picking his nose and stubbornly refusing to help. It’s behavior that would be shockingly out of character for Dic’s Sonic.
Sonic The Movie is also the only cartoon to adapt the look, sound, and feel of the Sonic games. The plot is a loose adaptation of Sonic CD, and some design elements are cribbed from Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and 3. Sonic even has a human love interest, a prophetic inclusion that predicts an infamous plot point of the notorious Sonic The Hedgehog from 2006. One extended sequence depicts Sonic and Tails dodging spikes and jumping on springboards from a side-on perspective that apes the look of the Sega Genesis classics. The Movie’s music is also a great approximation of the jazzy, synth-heavy sound of the source material. The film’s soundtrack was never officially released, but several amateur musicians have dedicated themselves to making high quality reconstructions of its tunes.
Japan’s second shot at creating a Sonic anime was overseen by Sonic Team’s Yuji Naka, but it lacked any of the spark or endearing weirdness of Sonic The Movie. It was a mercenary production, Sega’s way of earning a bit of money by loaning its most lucrative character out to another studio. The result was a painfully prolonged shaggy dog story that ran around in circles for 78 personality-deficient episodes.
2003’s Sonic X starts with Sonic and his extended circus of supporting characters being transported from their home world to our own after Dr. Eggman’s (the new monicker of Dr. Robotnik) latest contraption malfunctions. Sonic meets Chris, the show’s human point-of-view character and greatest flaw. Chris is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a normal kid who gets to live in a mansion and be best friends with Sonic The Hedgehog, but he fails as an audience surrogate because he’s such a whiny, selfish drip that nobody would ever want to project themselves onto. The show makes the self-defeating decision to stick with Chris’ perspective as often as it can—in fact its own title character will often get only a few minutes of screen time in an episode.
Where other Sonic adaptations told weekly standalone stories, Sonic X featured a long series-spanning plot. The problem was that it simply didn’t have enough material to spread across its bloated length. It was ostensibly the story of Sonic and the gang’s attempt to get back to their own world, but after a few dozen episodes, it decided instead to loosely adapt the Sonic Adventure games (already five years old when the show aired) and the little-remembered Sonic Battle. Its final 25 episodes told the nonsensical story of Sonic and friends traveling to outer space to battle original villains called the Metarex. These episodes were never aired in the show’s native Japan, instead being quietly buried in a streaming service, presumably out of embarrassment.
All the Sonic adaptations are advertisements to some degree, but this is the most nakedly commercial. Sonic Boom, the rebooted and redesigned Sonic series, was launched as a game and a cartoon simultaneously, each one a tie-in advertisement for the other. The Sonic Boom games are, by all accounts, terrible, but the show fares better. The last several years have seen an incredible number of high-quality cartoons hit the air, and this rising tide has lifted Sonic’s boat as well. Considering its crass origins, it turned out to be a surprisingly charming series.
Sonic Boom, like Adventures way back in 1993, takes a great deal of inspiration from Looney Tunes. This time, though, Sonic and Eggman aren’t Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd; they’re Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, with a hint of the clock-punching nemeses aspect of the Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog cartoons. The first episode even opens with a chase through the desert. Where previous incarnations of the evil doctor were always foiled by Sonic’s meddling, in Boom, he is often foiled by either his own incompetence or simple bad luck. Boom’s Eggman is less a tyrannical villain than a persistent annoyance, and he and Sonic occasionally put up with one another or help each other out. The second episode finds Eggman crashing on Sonic’s couch while his evil lair is undergoing repairs.
This low stakes version of Sonic and Eggman’s relationship gives Sonic Boom a refreshingly relaxed atmosphere. Showdowns between the age-old rivals still feature into several of the show’s stories, but Boom episodes are just as likely to be about Sonic and his pals shooting the breeze, playing golf, or joining the circus. Past Sonic ensembles have never been strong enough to support such stories, but Boom’s cast members have all been subtly updated to be a good fit for a hangout show. Knuckles has been pushed from a headstrong putz to a lovable moron, Amy finally has personality traits beyond being deliriously in love with Sonic, and a cagey, paranoid new member of the team called Sticks is a surprisingly good fit with the established characters. Sonic games still receive mixed reactions from critics, but for the first time in over 20 years, a great Sonic cartoon is finally back on the air.