Sonic may have thousands of marketable friends at this point in time, but 22 years ago, he only had one: Tails, who made his debut in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
The name "Tails" might seem like it took all of five seconds to dream up, what with it existing as a direct reference to the character's most notable feature. But at this year's Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Blake Harris' Console Wars panel (named after his recent account of Sega and Nintendo's 16-bit feud) revealed the high-stakes negotiations that took place over naming Sonic's first friend.
At the panel, Former Sega of America marketing director Al Nilsen explained his struggle to give this breakout character from one of Sega's biggest games a simple, evocative name that would stick in the minds of consumers. And, if you're familiar with the history of Sega, you know dust-ups between their American and Japanese branches—like the one you're about to read—were a pretty common occurrence during the company's console days. Since Nilsen did such a great job of recounting the story himself, I'll provide it below, without interruption:
"Madeline Schroeder, who worked for me, we affectionately called her 'The Mother of Sonic.' And she defanged Sonic—I called her 'Sonic's orthodontist.' She was the one who worked with [Sonic co-creator Yuji] Naka and his team in Japan on Sonic 1, making him a little softer, and a little nicer. Because he was really a mean character—a mean-looking character. And she was also our person at [Sega Technical Institute] who was going in and watching them. So we stayed very much hands-off. She was the one who came into my office and said those words which brought terror and fear into my life: 'Miles Prower.'
"And I was like, 'Absolutely not. I do not want this name. This is not a great name.' And I thought it was an interesting pun, but not a name for a character. And we tried everything to go and convince the Sonic team, and [we weren't successful]. Finally, [Sega of America President] Tom [Kalinske] said, 'Come up with a back story.' And so, Madeline and I wrote a back story, and I had to go and present it [to Sega of Japan]. And the back story that you read in Console Wars is the actual thing I presented there. If it feels a little disjointed, it's because I would read a paragraph, and then [SOA/SOJ liaison] Shinobu Toyoda had to translate it into Japanese. And, literally, [the Sega of Japan representatives] are just like this (furrows his brow).
"It's like, 'They want to kill me.' And then, all of a sudden, it just started to lighten up, and, at the end, I had won them over. And Naka came up to [Toyoda] and said 'You may call him Tails.' Shinobu and I were shocked because we didn't think it was going to work, but it was our Hail Mary play, and it absolutely worked. Naka didn't cry, but one of the designers actually teared up. It was interesting, because [the back story] really cemented the relationship between Sonic and Tails. And that's how big business works."
It should be noted, though, that it wasn't a total victory for Nilsen. The pre-title screen for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduces the character as Miles "Tails" Prower, but the two-tailed fox's Christian name has been all but forgotten by everyone outside of hardcore Sonic fans. And Nilsen also had an impact on the first game, asking Sega of Japan to eliminate Sonic the Hedgehog's human girlfriend because he "didn't want any human/hedgehog love stories." When an attendee informed him of Sonic's canonical human/hedgehog relationship in 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog, Nilsen and the other former Sega reps (including former SOA President Tom Kalinske) seemed a bit taken aback.
When asked to respond to this surprising new information, Nilsen replied, "I can't comment on that, but I can comment on one thing about Sonic Boom: Get rid of the damn scarf."