RetroVision – Sonic’s Obscure 3D Debut Part 1: The Development of Sonic The Fighters

This year Sonic celebrates his 25th anniversary. So, in the spirit of this momentous birthday, I thought it would be a great time to look back on some of Sonic’s history. We’ve already looked at his connection to Michael Jackson, lost arcade machines, the first DLC, and how the character came to be, and today we begin our look into Sonic the Fighters.

Sonic the Fighters is one of the more obscure entries in a series that has become littered with obscure moments in recent years. Anyone remember Sonic kissing a princess? However despite all that, Sonic the Fighters actually came at a time when Sonic was exclusively known for his polished and memorable 2D adventures.

In fact, whilst most people think that Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island was Sonic’s first fully 3D game, this accolade actually belongs to the Arcade fighter. Although most would be forgiven for not realising this, as Sonic the Fighters is certainly one game that ran under the radar of most gamers back in the mid-90s. This was because the game would remain exclusive to the Arcade for over a decade. Not finding its way to home consoles until 2005, being released as a part of Sonic Gems Collection.

Sonic The Fighters Cast
The cast of Sonic the Fighters.

However, whilst awareness of the title was definitely obscure, the game’s development was even more out of the ordinary. In fact, the groundwork that would make up the idea for Sonic the Fighters, was something that both SEGA’s higher-ups, and Sonic creator Yuji Naka, were unaware of. You see, it turns out that the whole idea would stem from nothing more than one developer’s boredom.

That man was SEGA AM2 character designer Masahiro Sugiyama, who at the time was working on 1995 Arcade fighter Fighting Vipers, a game that would go on to become one of 1996’s highest grossing Arcade games. However, development of Fighting Vipers wasn’t enough to keep Sugiyama entertained.  This caused him to work on a side project in his own time. A side project which looked to add Sonic and Tails into the very game he was helping to develop.

Fighting Vipers
Fighting Vipers, the game that would become the basis for Sonic the Fighters. Sonic & Tails can even still be found in the arcade game’s code. Though the characters are only accessible through hacking.

This might have all been done just for his own amusement, however Sugiyama’s impressive work didn’t go unnoticed. As fate would have it, it ended up being noticed by none other than Yu Suzuki, Sugiyama’s boss and the man who led SEGA AM2 for 18 years. Interestingly, Suzuki also gave Sonic his very 1st cameo appearance, something you can read about here. Nevertheless, on seeing Sugiyama’s work, Suzuki instantly thought that having SEGA’s mascot appear not only in a fighter, but a fully 3D one nonetheless, would be a great idea.

As such, he presented the concept to the present day head of AM2, and the man who would end up directing the title, Hiroshi Kataoka. Suzuki then followed this up by going straight to Sonic’s creator Yuji Naka. However, despite Suzuki’s confidence and belief in project, Kataoka had actually advised that whilst he loved the idea, he was worried that Naka would not approve the concept. Mainly because it would involve SEGA’s family friendly mascot Sonic, alongside his friends, attacking each other.

Yu Suzuki
Nowadays Suzuki is most well known for his soon to be finished Shenmue trilogy, however he is just as well respected for his time at the helm of Sega’s AM2 division where he was responsible for the creation of some of Sega’s biggest global arcade hits.

However this wasn’t the case. Yuji Naka would not only approve the idea, he was actually incredibly supportive of it. This is something he recalled in an interview with Sega Saturn magazine in 1996, shortly after the game’s domestic arcade launch.

I couldn’t think of Sonic as a fighting game and was worried whether he could really fight with his short hands and big head. But Mr. Yu encouraged me.

He also went on to discuss how aside from Yu Suzuki, one of the other critical factors in convincing him of the merit in Sonic The Fighters, was the 3D graphics. At the time nobody had attempted to render a fully 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game, and given the industry’s rapid move to 3D polygons back in the mid 90s, this was an idea that had Naka excited. He was also excited by the idea of title becoming Sonic’s 3D debut.

Naka & Sonic
Yuji Naka with his most famous creation.

Actually, he was so excited that he even leant a hand to Suzuki and Sugiyama for the game’s development. You see, the team were actually very concerned about making sure that they were able to do Sonic justice, when rendering the iconic blue hedgehog for the first time in 3D. So to help, Naka gave them one of his Sonic figures to use as a basis for development, whilst also helping to assist them in any way he could.

Ultimately, Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Dr. Eggman, were represented in all their glory. With AM2 once again proving their developmental might. However, it more than goes to show that the things we do simply to fill the pockets of space within our day, can certainly end up producing something remarkable.

Sonic vs Tails
Sonic and Tails face off in the Mushroom Hill.

However, the surprises didn’t end with the game’s development, or even in its existence as a concept. You see, those lucky enough to head down to the local arcade in 1996 and find a copy of Sonic the Fighters, would discover that the game had a few more surprises in store. And I’m not referring to the fact that the game is a Sonic fighter.

Check back next time for part two, as we run through the crazy cast that made up Sonic the Fighters. Here we’ll be taking a look at some of the more obscure inhabitants of the Sonic Universe, all of which are of course fully rendered in 3D, assisting Sonic in his 3D debut. You may even find one or two you’ve never heard of.

Sophia Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that she's written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DivaXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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