Would it surprise you if I said that Sonic’s debut was not actually in the franchise’s opener Sonic The Hedgehog? Well, much like Mario before him, Sonic made his first appearance in a game that wasn’t his own. In fact, Sonic’s debut came as part of a cameo appearance within Shemue creator Yu Suzuki’s Arcade racer, Rad Mobile. A game released just three months prior to Sonic the Hedgehog.
Built on SEGA System 32 Hardware, Rad Mobile was first released in Arcades in 1991. Developed internally by SEGA-AM2, the game plays in a first person perspective, and places gamers in the driver’s seat of a cross-country race from Los Angeles to New York. The game was well received at the time, though unfortunately over the years has somewhat disappeared into obscurity. This all came despite both being designed by Yu Suzuki, and featuring the first appearance of one of gaming’s most iconic characters.
Long before Rad Mobile was in development, SEGA’s AM8 Research and Development department had long been planning a new mascot to replace Alex Kidd. This character would be the face of SEGA, and many concepts were put forward for a character that would have to have the potential to rival Nintendo’s Mario. These concepts included an armadillo that would later become Mighty from Team Chaotix, a rabbit that would eventually evolve into Ristar, and a Theodore Roosevelt lookalike that became Sonic’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Eggman. However, it was Naoto Ohshima’s spiky hedgehog, originally codenamed Mr. Needlemouse, that ultimately became SEGA’s new mascot.
All this meant that by the time SEGA were preparing to release Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, Sonic as a character, was already well established internally. Not only this, but as with SEGA’s plans to launch Sonic as the company’s mascot, SEGA were already planning to have the character appear across a range of mediums. These would include marketing and promotional materials, television shows, comics, and of course guest cameo appearances. It just happened that this began before SEGA could even release Sonic’s debut game.
Given Sonic’s numerous racing appearances, alongside his trademark ability to run at the speed of light, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this cameo may have had something to do with speed, or racing. However, the public’s first glimpse of Sonic within a video game, was actually far more low key, despite constantly being in the player’s vision. You see, Sonic actually started his video game life as a simple air freshener.
Rad Mobile also went on to get a console release in 1994 through a SEGA Saturn port, though sadly this was only released in Japan. This version was renamed Gale Racer, and features a number of changes, including a full FMV intro, a brand new soundtrack, and polygonal rendered cars. Finally, this version also featured a brand new “Keychain” system, replacing Sonic’s cameo on the car’s rear view mirror. However, not only was Sonic one of these keychains, but this time Sonic was joined by Tails, Knuckles, and the whole range of Sonic the Hedgehog characters, clearly celebrating Sonic’s lesser known cameo appearance. So, next time you look up at your rear view mirror, spare a thought for Sonic the Hedgehog who spent the first three months of his career in that very place.