On Saturday Mornings, Sonic the Hedgehog Turned Platforming into Pathos

DiC's most dignified take on the video game cartoon won't be praised by animation historians anytime soon, but it still marks an important turning point for Sega's mascot.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

The white-hot flame of the 16-bit console wars never burned much brighter than it did in 1993, that golden year following the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Sega's America-friendly baditude and aggressive marketing campaigns gave the company a short-lived victory, one that wouldn't last after the combined forces of poorly received hardware expansions and the phenomenal success of Donkey Kong Country sunk the company's chances of winning the war. While Sega had this brief advantage, they took their battle against Nintendo to an unexpected frontier: Cartoons. Since 1989, kids had regularly plopped themselves down in front of their TVs to absorb Nintendo's brand through a form of entertainment just as welcome as video games, and, as history has shown us, quality rarely surfaced as a concern.

American animation powerhouse DiC's quartet of Nintendo cartoons (The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Captain N: The Game Master, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World) offered bargain-basement production values, familiar characters, and little else to a young audience obsessed with video games. That hardly mattered, though, and most kids didn't bat an eye at seeing their favorite side-scrolling hero transformed into a dumpy former wrestler who ended every episode with a cruel mockery of dancing while a tool belt repeatedly crushed his pelvis. And, if you can believe it, those live-action scenes with Lou Albano and a Canadian character actor running around a community theater set in Mario and Luigi costumes typically comprised the most entertaining segments of Super Show.

With Nintendo dominating the airwaves for almost half a decade, Sega needed to hit hard and fast to make up for lost time. And they did precisely that in 1993, when two Sonic cartoons — one syndicated and one running Saturday mornings on ABC — debuted on TV just a few weeks apart from one another. Strangely enough, both series placed TV's Jaleel White in the role of Sonic, in the hopes that the sheer popularity of Steve Urkel — the bizarro-Fonz of the '90s — would outweigh the Family Matters character's obnoxious reputation. Outside of its Wheel of Morality-esque "Sonic Says" segments, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog has mostly been forgotten, though it's no major loss; its attempts to simulate classic Looney Tunes with a dash of Ren and Stimpy (with DiC going so far as to hire R&S director Kent Butterworth to oversee the series) were done in by the lack of quality control that typically plagued 65-episode syndicated series. The zippy, timing-reliant slapstick Adventures relied on never stood a chance against the animation sweatshops DiC regularly used to pump out their nearly endless supply of televised content.

On ABC, the cleverly named Sonic the Hedgehog took a far different approach, one that would define the character outside of his vague construction presented in the games. Sonic premiered at a revolutionary time for TV animation, when Disney's focus on quality sparked a movement that raised the standard for children's entertainment — though, to be fair, the '90s were business as usual for DiC. Still, 1992's Batman: The Animated Series — which brought an astounding level of maturity and professionalism to a medium largely regarded as trash — must have turned some heads at DiC, as Sonic the Hedgehog borrowed liberally from Batman's bag of tricks, even if the writers weren't prepared for such a task. In stark contrast to the games that inspired it, Sonic the Hedgehog is ugly, bleak, and dire, and presents its characters with a situation where suicide could be a convincing option. Sonic's Saturday Morning interpretation paints a world where Dr. Robotonik has already won, leaving the world nearly uninhabitable, with just a handful of fuzzy creatures left to its name.

And it's not just the setting that's dressed up in these dire trappings; other elements of the games also receive this same sort of makeover. Sonic isn't just a blue thing running left to right, he's a Freedom Fighter — back when that term had fewer political implications — with a band of rogues who seek to bring down a totalitarian force with sabotage and subterfuge. Robotnik doesn't just encase animals inside robots; instead, living creatures are "roboticized," similar to Star Trek's Borg. The first episode even features an off-screen death, as Cat, the oldest Freedom Fighter, is captured by Robotnik, threatened with torture, and eventually removed from his prison cell to suffer a terrible fate. In an era where shows had to tie everything up neatly in 22 minutes, Sonic offered an underlying problem that couldn't be solved through three acts of plucky, good-natured fun.

Of course, given Sonic's status as a DiC production, the show never quite lives up to its premise. Some of these issues can't be blamed entirely on DiC, though: The idea of continuity in Saturday morning cartoons was essentially unthinkable at the time, so Sonic and his friends rarely made measurable progress in their conflict against Robotnik. The majority of what makes Sonic unwatchable these days, though, can probably be chalked up to writers who, after suffering in the Saturday morning trenches for years (creator Len Jansen previously worked on the worst Filmation and Hanna-Barbera productions known to humankind), simply resorted to their old habits.

The absolute worst addition to Sonic comes in the form of Antoine, a character who ranks up there with Jabberjaw in the category of "How is this even a thing?" Despite the fact that Sonic takes place in the future of another planet, Antoine is somehow very, very French, and the series takes every opportunity to underline this fact repeatedly. If you told me disgruntled World War II vets wrote the entirety of Sonic the Hedgehog's 26 episodes, I wouldn't be shocked—Antoine encapsulates every ugly stereotype about the French, to the point where they really should have committed and just made him a frog. He's intended to act as the comic relief, but in most scenes, his vain/cowardly/petulant/jealous attitude only serves as a cheap plot complication, to the point where you start to wonder why Sonic and friends haven't sent him wandering into Robotnik's base on a very special mission that involves high-powered explosives being strapped to his chest. I'm guessing he must make really good crepes or something.

Ultimately, Sonic the Hedgehog doesn't hold up to scrutiny 20 years later, and its flaws are much larger than Antoine — though he does symbolize how uncomfortable the series could be with straying too far from the expected. While some cartoons are easy to slip back into, even when removed from the context of your childhood, Sonic comes off as far less mature than it initially seemed. Though it remains memorable for providing its rapt audience a 30-minute break from the surrounding inanity — even if the show could be a little inane itself. 20 years later, and Sonic still lives on, if only in spirit: The series' characters persist in the Archie-published comic, which hasn't showed any signs of slowing down after two decades of extrapolating thousands of pages of plot from a 16-bit platformer. Like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sonic will continue to be refurbished and reinvented for the sake of a new and changing audience, but it's unlikely we'll see a series as relatively dark as Sonic the Hedgehog again. And if we do, I can only pray that it doesn't inexplicably rage against the French.

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Comments 27

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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #1 pashaveliki 4 years ago
    Is the new Sonic Boom supposed to be a cartoon tie-in, too?
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #2 Kadrom 4 years ago
    Unfortunately growing up I saw much more of Adventures than I did the Saturday cartoon. I was up early enough to watch adventures when getting ready for school. On Saturdays I slept in and missed the serious cartoon.

    I think Sega should acknowledge its existence and put Scratch and Grounder into a game though. For old time's sake.

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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #3 nadiaoxford 4 years ago
    I rarely watched Sonic SatAM as a kid, but I heard all about how it's dark and deep and gritty. Watching it as an adult, I definitely notice some shadowy themes, but they're offset by a lot of stupid, goofy antics.

    Sure, Batman the Animated Series has its more light-hearted episodes, but it never swings from "Heart of Ice" to 22 dumb minutes of Batman being chased around by a malfunctioning, stereotypically Jewish robot.

    SatAM has serious balance issues. At least Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog knows it's insane, and revels in it. It also has Long John Baldry.Edited July 2014 by nadiaoxford
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  • Avatar for MattG #4 MattG 4 years ago

    I was a card-carrying Nintendo fan during this era, so I was all about the Super Mario Bros. Super Show over the Sonic cartoon (which, admittedly, came a few years later), but a few years ago I was given the DVD set to watch. Seeing it for the first time as an adult... yeah, let's just say I didn't finish the set.
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  • Avatar for sean697 #5 sean697 4 years ago
    My God all if those Video game cartoons where terrible. Partly because I was in High school already when these came out. But still I could never suffer through watching these now or then. My son was watching this on Netflix last year and I pleaded for him to watch Dora or Jake and the Never land Pirates again. Luckily be got over it. I wonder if my cartons of the 80s like GI Joe or Tranfirmers or the Real Ghostbusters hold up as badly. In some respects you fondly remember the cartoons of your youth, but they have to be better right?
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  • Avatar for bobservo #6 bobservo 4 years ago
    @Kadrom Have you forgotten Mean Bean Machine? They're on the cover!
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  • Avatar for TheSL #7 TheSL 4 years ago
    @Kadrom They were in Sonic 2, before the cartoon -
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  • Avatar for bobservo #8 bobservo 4 years ago
    @TheSL Right, but the specific Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog interpretations of those characters are front-and-center in Mean Bean Machine.
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  • Avatar for Damman #9 Damman 4 years ago
    @bobservo They were! How bizarre that the Sonic puzzle game spinoff gets based on the silly cartoon version. I would say "what were you thinking, Sega?" but honestly I think I'm nostalgic for times when decisions like that were made.
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  • Avatar for darrinwright55 #10 darrinwright55 4 years ago
    I rediscovered this show on Netflix not that long ago. Man, it was way too good for what it was. Saddened that it kind of ended on a cliffhanger.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #11 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @Kadrom They kinda are in the games now. They've just been renamed to Orbot and Cubot.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #12 CK20XX 4 years ago
    The Archie comics don't get anywhere near the praise they deserve these days, mainly because they started out as goofy tie-ins to the cartoon, then ran long past their expiration date and suffered further under the hands of many people, like Ken Penders. It wasn't until Ian Flynn took over that they became respectable; he took all the bad and embarrassing ideas from everyone who came before him and made them good... at least until Ken Penders launched a lawsuit to get back the rights to his Sonic OCs. This forced Ian Flynn to reboot the comics, but he made even that awesome by turning the debacle into a Sonic and Mega Man crossover. Now he's the main brain behind Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Universe, Mega Man, and he may also be starting up a Mega Man X series in the not too distant future.
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  • Avatar for nickdaniel17 #13 nickdaniel17 4 years ago
    @CK20XX I stopped reading Sonic comics firmly in the Penders era, so I'm pretty intrigued by this overhaul and lawsuit nonsense. Maybe Bob could give us a follow up article explaining what that's all about.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #14 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @nickdaniel17 It's currently running through a Sonic Unleashed adaptation. In the aftermath of the second Genesis Wave that triggered the Sonic/Mega Man crossover, the planet is going through the throes of death and rebirth, with its crust splitting into floating continents. Sonic's werehog transformation is triggered not by Eggman's experiments, but by fumes leaking from the planet's core that give rise to dark creatures and cause mutations in native life. The seven Chaos Emeralds need to be placed in the seven Gaia Temples to undo the damage.

    Meanwhile, Knuckles and the Chaotix discover a fuzzy little creature making off with a Chaos Emerald. It may be the spirit of light needed to help save the planet, and Charmy quickly names it "Chip" cause it's totally in-character for him to do that.

    Knuckles: "Why do you keep him around, again?"
    Espio: "Would YOU leave him to fend for himself?"
    Vector: "I write him off as a 'charitable cause' every tax season."
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  • Avatar for admiralsnackbar #15 admiralsnackbar 4 years ago

    Already mentioned but Scratch and Grounder are in Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, at least!

    Here's a shot.

    Edited July 2014 by admiralsnackbar
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #16 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    Ugh, I wish you could reply to more than one person here without erasing your previous comment... okay, trying again.
    @pashaveliki Yes, it's a new cartoon/video game/merchandise thing that is its own thing, and unrelated to anything else Sonic except in the fact that it's Sonic.
    @kadrom Grounder and Coconuts are from Sonic 2, and the lot can be found in Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine and, if I'm not mistaken, Sonic Spinball. =)
    @CK20XX Orbot and Cubot aren't really the same in any capacity, though.
    @nickdaniel17 What CK20XX says is mostly true (Penders didn't launch that lawsuit), but yes, it's good reading now.
    @bobservo In fairness, the cartoon did take on more continuity in the second season, and even brought things to some sort of conclusion-- more than most cartoons got back in the day, to be sure.

    (Also, the first episode was actually a bit more lighthearted. Second ep, maybe?)

    Personally? I see Sonic SatAM as the Sonic equivalent of the Super Mario Bros. movie, aside from the obvious differences (animated, television show instead of movie).

    Strangely enough, though, it seems there were ABC affiliates not on board with the whole "Saturday morning cartoon" thing by this point-- this and ReBoot were shoveled off to the 5am-6am slot on Sunday mornings where I grew up.
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  • Avatar for docexe #17 docexe 4 years ago
    I never cared about the Zelda and Captain N cartoons, but I actually liked the Mario cartoons back in my childhood. Never watched any of the Sonic cartoons as a child though, as I always had school when they were on TV.

    Now, a couple of years ago I watched some episodes of Sonic SatAM and of the Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 shows. While there were many moments where I cringed (more because of the poor quality of the animation rather than because of the plots or characterization, even if admittedly these cartoons are full of stereotypes), overall I ended enjoying them. A big part of that had to do with the dubbing. Fun fact: The Latin America dubbing industry is considered one of the best of the world for the simple fact that the quality of their dubs was able to elevate something that was average at best (and downright mediocre at worse) into something truly enjoyable.

    Seriously, some Hannah-Barbera cartoons that English speakers consider among the dullest ever produced, have big followings here primarily because of the level of personality and humor that the superlative Latin American dubbing added to the proceedings.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #18 bobservo 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn Yeah, NBC got rid of their Saturday Morning cartoons in 1992, so the tradition was already on its way out around this time.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #19 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn It's a sordid story. Cable competition, FCC mandates requiring several hours of educational programming, and moral guardians rebuilding the wall between advertising and children's entertainment made Saturday morning cartoons horribly impractical to maintain. It made more sense for advertisers to put up websites for their products or make their own networks, like Hasbro's The Hub, so channels gradually began using Saturday morning as a dumping ground for infomercials and other junk. I think the only remaining Saturday morning block now is Vortexx, which airs on The CW and is run by Saban.
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  • Avatar for Banandango #20 Banandango 4 years ago
    Man, I bought that Sonic SatAM dvd set when it released a few years back and was actually surprised at how much it did hold up compared to some of the other cartoons I used to watch as a kid. I mean, it's no Batman: TAS, but it still seemed like a genuinely good show to me. Maybe I should give it another watch and see if I still feel that way.

    I also have to admit that to this day, Jaleel White is still unironically my favorite Sonic voice. That could be because I never watched much Family Matters, though.Edited July 2014 by Banandango
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #21 pashaveliki 4 years ago
    "unrelated to anything else Sonic except in the fact that it's Sonic" is, unfortunately, how I would describe most things Sonic post-16 bit *____*
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  • Avatar for metalangel #22 metalangel 4 years ago
    Adventures was great! It was completely ridiculous, Robotnik's buttcrack was on show constantly, it really suited the sort of fun Sonic games seemed to be more than the pathos of the other show.

    I don't agree that continuity wasn't allowed on Saturday morning. Transformers had it, and Robotech most freaking definitely had because I got up every weekend to see what had happened to the crew of the SDF-1 next.

    (interestingly enough, if you google 'Saturday morning cartoon continuity' you get an inordinate number of Sonic-related discussions)
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #23 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    @bobservo Yeah, I remember that. You can see it in how the budget was cut in Captain N and The New Super Mario World. Sad, that.

    Wouldn't bother me as much, except that I think they still advertised the "normal" timeslot that other affiliates kept throughout the country.

    Still, they're doing that, and yet they blamed Power Rangers for the show being cancelled-- despite the two barely ever sharing the same time slot, among other factors. Even so, I've seen fans who still hold a grudge against Rangers to this day over it.
    @CK20XX But the Hub and Vortexx and all that stuff weren't really around 20+ years ago...
    @pashaveliki Fair, but this is very literally a clean break. Sort of what Mega Man Battle Network was to every other Mega Man series at the time.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #24 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn Yeah, of course they weren't. They were some of the results of things that happened 20+ years ago. They're part of the same story.
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  • Avatar for Thad #25 Thad 4 years ago
    @CK20XX The comic predates the cartoon, actually (though they probably started production around the same time).

    It bears adding, I think, that season 2 of Sonic is pretty qualitatively different from season 1 -- season 1 was episodic with a lot of cooks, while season 2 had an arc and was mostly the work of Ben Hurst and Pat Allee.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #26 GaijinD 4 years ago
    @metalangel My memory is fairly hazy on Transformers, since I haven't actually watched the TV series for at least twenty years, so while I think it had plenty of stand-alone episodes, I'm not really in a position to argue the point. As for Robotech, however, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, it was syndicated, and if it aired on Saturday morning in your area that's because that's when your local channel decided to air it. It could just as easily have run on weekday afternoons, and I believe it did in many markets. Second, it wasn't an original production designed for the US market. It was a dub of three separate Japanese series which Harmony Gold stapled together in order to have the required number of episodes to syndicate a show. Continuity was already common in Japan, and while I can't speak on whether they wanted to keep it, I have no doubt it would have been more trouble than it was worth to re-edit the show to be episodic. Lastly, both Robotech and Transformers originally ran in the mid-Eighties. A lot can change in nearly ten years.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #27 metalangel 4 years ago
    @GaijinD An outrageously detailed insight there, thank you!
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