LOS ANGELES — The conference room inside the offices of Big Red Button Entertainment's would look unremarkable if it weren't for the vibrant panoramas of a cartoony, tree-filled world plastered next to portraits of colorful creatures and robots on the walls. At first glance, one of the critters looks like Sonic the Hedgehog — if he wore a brown scarf and had sport tape around his appendages.
But it's not a blur. Or a shadow. That's indeed the intrepid new look of the iconic video game character, who originally raced into gamers' hearts in 1991 as the star of the fast-paced side-scroller Sonic the Hedgehog before becoming the face of game maker Sega. The latest makeover of Sonic isn't simply about accessorizing the 22-year-old character with new gear.
It's part of a Sonic revolution.
Sonic and his three pals — tinkering fox Tails, brutish echidna Knuckles and hammer-wielding hedgehog Amy — are starring together in a new Nintendo 3DS and Wii U game, plus a Cartoon Network series, set for release this year, called Sonic Boom. The games and TV series will share the new style, voice actors, locales, story lines and more. The collaborative take on Sonic will extend to merchandising, too.
"We're looking at this more than just a video game," said Marcella Churchill, senior marketing director of Sega of America. "Yes, Sega is primarily a video game company, but Sonic is a very viable character for us. We're always looking for new ways to expand the franchise, and we knew we wanted to grow the appeal of Sonic and reach many different touch points."
Churchill expects that innovations in the game and TV show formats will draw new fans and not just gamers nostalgic for the ring-hording hedgehog. For example, the TV series will forgo old-school cartoon cheesiness to blend action and comedy, while the game will feature more open-world exploration than in Sonic's previous interactive escapades.
With split-screen, four-player functionality, the game — the third in Sega's deal to exclusively release Sonic titles on Nintendo platforms — serves as a prequel to the cartoon, the first Sonic series to be computer-animated. The game and the TV series, which is being created by OuiDO Productions, will put more emphasis on the characters' personalities and teamwork.
The focus on Sonic's crew inspired the developers, animators and everyone else working on Sonic Boom to make each hero distinct, in form and function. In the case of Knuckles, that meant putting the once Sonic-size sidekick through puberty — not steroids — in an effort to make the burly red echidna stand out from the pack, as well as pack a punch.
However, the creators are quick to note that the sportier, teenage rendition of Sonic and his team doesn't erase the depictions from four previous TV series and more than 70 games. Sonic Boom is merely a new branch of the Sonic universe with sensibilities they hope will appeal to modern youngsters who expect their entertainment to cohesively cross screens.
"When you have a franchise with the depth and fan base of this one, you can have more than one incarnation existing side by side," said Evan Bailey, executive producer of the TV show. "Look at Batman or Mickey Mouse. There are many iconic characters with more than one rendition, and none is the definitive take, so hopefully fans don't firebomb our houses."
Unintentionally, Sonic Boom has become the franchise's biggest multi cultural effort, with game developers and executives in California working in tandem with TV executives based out of New York and animators in France, on a new iteration of a blue hedgehog born in Japan. Initially, however, the biggest barrier in crafting this Sonic wasn't language.
"Before we first met, we're thinking, 'Oh, boy. TV people," said Bob Rafei, CEO of Big Red Button. "They're gonna want to change everything. They're not going to understand games. To my surprise, Evan actually plays more games than I do. I don't know where he finds the time, but he understands the fundamental differences of mechanics and fiction."
Rafei, who worked on such landmark game franchises as Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter at Naughty Dog, noted the most challenging aspect of taking on a Sonic game was illustrating the character's signature speed without sacrificing new gameplay elements. The other major issue? Figuring out just what the heck Sonic is allowed to wear.
"The clothing argument was a big one," said Rafei, leaning back in his chair in Big Red Button's conference room. "The most surreal moment in my life occurred when I was conveying with passion through a translator to the Sonic team in Japan why Sonic needed to wear pants. Looking back at it, I'm glad they didn't go for it. Sonic wouldn't really be Sonic with pants on."