Sonic The Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book Review
245 pages of pure nostalgia
I love collecting video game books. Years ago, they were as rare as hen’s teeth. Not only that, but when certain books were released, they never made it to Australia. For example, I only managed to acquire Game Over by David Sheff (which is perhaps the most significant book about Nintendo ever written) because a friend in the U.S. sent me his old copy as a gift. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.
It’s now much easier to import various books in general, but there are also many more being produced every year. I suspect that games have been around long enough that there’s now a sizeable market of folks who are prepared to invest in high-end, premium products that celebrate their favourite franchises. I’m not referring to the resurgence of boutique video game magazines, either; I’m talking about specialty hardcover books produced by the likes of Cook & Becker and Bitmap Books.
One such book — although book seems reductive; it’s more of a tome — is the Sonic The Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book by Cook & Becker.
Before I dive in, I need to point out that there are two versions of this book. There’s the Standard Hardcover Edition and the Collector’s Edition. I picked up the Collector’s Edition. Here are the extra bits you get if you go for the CE:
- Limited to 2,500 copies
- Officially licensed and made in conjunction with Sega
- Hardcover with separate dust-jacket
- Comes in a high-quality outer box
- Has a unique inner sleeve that folds into a book stand which is perfect for display on your coffee-table
- Contains an exclusive, hand-numbered 12 colour screen print by Yuji Uekawa
Birth of an Icon
There are art books and then there are art books. Many books simply contain key art that is already widely available online. Some go even further by supplying unique concept art with annotations (Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar is a good example of this).
What’s different here is that the editorial team (consisting of Maarten Brands, Ruben Brands, and Arjan Terpstra) have gone so much further. They place Sonic’s birth in context, both in terms of Sega’s place in the industry at the dawn of the ’90s, as well as the broader circumstances that led to the company introducing its first game console in 1983 (the SG-1000). It wasn’t until 1985, with the launch of the SEGA Mark III (known as the Master System in the west) that the company had a serious home console contender on its hands. Importantly, this book takes some time to explain the lengths Sega went to throughout the ’80s to find its own breakthrough mascot character — a figure that could become the flag bearer for the Master System and for Sega itself. Alex Kidd in Miracle World, introduced in 1986, was a bold attempt and received favourable critical reception. But Alex Kidd simply never gained enough traction to take on Nintendo’s already-famous plumber.
What follows is an insider account of the internal design competition that ultimately gave birth to Sonic. It’s a story that revolves around artist Naoto Ohshima and his programmer colleague Yuji Naka. It’s not just that Oshshima designed the character and Naka designed the game mechanics, either; the authors reveal a highly-collaborative and insightful partnership. Both creators came to the table with clear problems they wanted to solve. For example, Ohshima had observed that during this particular gaming epoch, few platformers allowed players to save their game. If they lost all their lives, they’d need to start again and repeat the same levels. Oshshima wondered if the experience could be designed in such a way as to encourage players to get faster and faster with each play through; if this need to constantly re-play the same levels could be turned into a strength rather than a weakness. And Naka, for his part, possessed a love of racing games (in fact, if you follow Naka-san on Twitter, you’ll notice he still regularly visits racetracks in Japan — his love of fast things hasn’t faded at all). Naka also happened to be one of the most talented programmers of his generation. He wondered if it was possible to make a game that replicated the sensation a fighter pilot feels when they break the sonic barrier.
Don’t worry; I promise I’m not spoiling the reading experience for you. This is just a very small sample of what’s in store. The book’s first chapter runs for many more pages, and steps readers through the full journey that Ohshima and Naka took to create Sonic. Along the way, you’ll see detailed accounts of multiple design iterations and even some alternative characters that ended up on the cutting room floor. There are also countless pages of Ohshima’s pencil drawings, which are absolutely gorgeous, and which illustrate the extent to which Ohshima and Naka were conducting an elaborate character study. Although Sonic only had a few movements in the game itself, Ohshima produced vast quantities of drawings that explored Sonic from multiple perspectives — including a detailed study around his iconic run animation.
If Cook & Becker had simply left us with a detailed account of Sonic’s character design, I’d have been pretty happy. But that’s only the beginning. You’ll find equally detailed accounts of enemy design, environment/level design, and several fascinating insights into game mechanics. Here’s just one example, regarding Sonic’s famous golden rings:
“From a game design perspeftive, rings are used as affirmation to the player that they are on the right course. As long as they are seeing rings they know they’re on the right way. It’s breadcrumbs basically; if you’re unsure if you need to go up or down, you only have to look at the rings to find directions. Obviously we used the rings for a second fundamental game design feature too: collecting as many rings as possible gives the player a sense of accomplishment, and losing them helps motivate the player to try again. The same goes for the collectible Chaos Emeralds, that were introduced to encourage replaybility.”
Kazuyuki Hoshino, Sonic Team Art Director
One of the book’s greatest and most unique features is that you’ll often come across full-page images of classic 16-bit levels that are overlaid with semi-transparent pages (which act a little like tracing paper); these contain hand-drawn designs of the same level. It’s a clever way of demonstrating the transition from concept design to finished product, and it’s remarkable just how much of the original drawings the team were able to realise in the final product.
The entire first part of the book (all 157 pages of it) deals with the birth of Sonic right up to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which were the final games in the series for the Mega Drive/Genesis console. The second part (from pages 158 through 165) deals with the slightly awkward period between Sonic 3D Blast (released in 1996) and Sonic Jam (released in 1997). Many Sonic fans consider this period something of a lost era. While the book doesn’t delve into this era in too much detail, there are some fascinating tidbits to be found here — including an account of the various hurdles and limitations Sonic Team came across as they fought to bring Sonic into 3D.
The third part (from page 167 onwards) deals with Sonic’s post-Saturn exploits. This period starts with Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast in 1999. It represented something of a rebirth for Sonic Team, and the book devotes substantial time to discussing the challenges the team went through in their efforts to move Sonic into 3D. One of the biggest takeaways for me was the idea that those “lost years” in the Saturn era were actually a time of highly valuable learning for Sonic Team. It’s very likely that Sonic Adventure simply wouldn’t have been possible without the four year period between Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure.
As well, the actual character design for Sonic himself famously changed. He morphed from an almost-spherical shape to a much taller, skinner figure with elongated limbs. I had certainly always thought that this design change was solely due to some attempt to “freshen” Sonic’s look to appeal to a new generation of gamers. And while that is partially true, the underlying reality is far more interesting:
“The third-person camera woud follow Sonic from behind and from a certain height, to give the player an idea of the area in front of him. But when we used our existing character models, which were very short in size, Sonic’s head suddenly looked so big you did not really see anything below. His body was obscured, and you could hardly see his arms and feet. To us it was clear we needed to change Sonic’s basic design, make him taller, change his head-to-body proportions.”
Takashi Iizuka, Director, Sonic Adventure
There were certainly serious conversations around Sonic’s design and appeal to western audiences — particularly to older players. The more the team delved into Sonic’s evolving design, pushing him further from his roots, questions began to arise around “who is Sonic now” — what is his personality? Who are his friends? What are his motivations? The team invested time in exploring these questions, which led to greater world building around him than ever before.
The book ends by exploring the Sonic Boom era. Yuji Uekawa, the current art lead artist at Sonic Team, rounds out the story by explaining that Sonic is an inherently adaptable character. “His design and style will adapt to whatever new gaming platforms ask of him,” says Uekawa.
If you’re a Sonic fan — especially if you have long memories of the series going back to its inception in 1991 — it’s really hard to go past Sonic The Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book. Although it has a strong art focus, there’s an enormous amount of detailed behind-the-scenes information here that is likely to shed new light on Sonic’s development for even the most hardcore fans.
It’s even more difficult to pass up when I consider that this is, by far, the most beautiful and well-produced gaming coffee table book I’ve ever seen. The paper is high-GSM (though I’m not sure what the exact figure is), lending a heavy and sturdy feel to the entire piece. The cover is ultra-thick, and the Collector’s Edition inclusions are wonderful.
I should also mention that I purchased this title for myself (so it is not a review copy sent by the publisher).
I pick up all my gaming coffee table books at PixelCrib. You can find both the Collector’s Edition and the Standard Hardcover Edition over there, for A$169.95 and A$89.95 respectively. If the CE version’s price is too tough to swallow, then I’d still definitely recommend the Standard Hardcover Edition — you’re getting all the same great content, just without those few extras I mentioned earlier in the review. I’m advised that the next shipment of books will be available in November, so you can jump in now to pre-order if you want to nab one soon.
About Cook & Becker
Founded in 2011, Cook & Becker is one of the world’s leading online video game concept art stores. They work with writers, artists, and video game developers to produce an extensive range of specialty products including high-quality coffee table books. Cook & Becker works directly with developers and publishers to reproduce their digital artwork at “museum-grade” levels in an effort to create long-lasting products that retain their value over time.
Founded in 2016, PixelCrib are gaming culture specialists, and purveyors of rare, high-quality video game memorabilia and collectibles. They specialise in video game related products, and select items based solely on whether or not they celebrate and promote video game culture. Outside of coffee table books, you’ll find a wide array of items, including an extensive collection of vinyl game soundtracks, board games, artwork, and stationery.