we got the man who put Sega on the map, Tom Kalinske, who shared his thoughts in a recent interview (thanx Bouge) About The Messy State Of Sonic. And no, I didn’t intend to capitalize the shit in the last sentence, stupid app. And because this app sucks, my comments will be listed in bold!


Tom Kalinske loves Sonic the Hedgehog. And he’ll tell you all about it. Minutes into our interview, he’s listing the Sonic memorabilia in his home office: four plush Sonic dolls, one Tails plush doll, a gold-laminated Sonic the Hedgehog 2cartridge, multiple Sega Genesis consoles — all that still work, he points out — and even a can of Sonic Soda from Japan he got in the ‘90s, which, unfortunately, is leaking now-spoiled liquid. This is just one of the many rooms in his house, he says, where there’s “lots” of Sonic merchandise.

Thatscreepy..

He has all this decorating his Bay Area home because, as he tells it, the Sonic series has had a huge impact on his 30-plus year career in the video game and toy industries. As Sega of America’s CEO from 1990 to 1996, Kalinske led a team that marketed and sold the character, and the console hosting his first four mainline games, the Sega Genesis, to the United States. An immensely successful effort, the work helped turn Sega from an underdog of the industry into a titan of the console wars. And at the front of it all was Sonic: a blue hedgehog that was cooler and faster than anything else on the market.

Ok that makes, but you don’t think that’s a little excessive?

Don’t get me wrong, if I ever played a Power Ranger, I’d have that shit glazin my walls, but plush dolls? Nah son. Action figures are what you should have exclusively. 

*hugs Cyndaquil Plushie* 

“I think we probably would have been successful at a modest level without Sonic. I mean, it would have been better than it was, you know, before I joined the company, but I don’t think we could have possibly passed Nintendo in share of market,” Kalinke says. “And I don’t think we would have reached about a billion and a half in revenue in the United States and 900 million in Europe without Sonic. So Sonic contributed tremendously to that.”

So much so that Nintendo tried suing you guys at court for violent videogames, earning them the long lasting of being called a kiddy company!

Well,  that and censoring MK1…

Under Kalinske’s direction, Sega and Sonic saw tremendous success on Genesis stateside. But differing strategies between the American and Japanese branches of the company quickly doused that fire when it came time to unveil the Sega Saturn.

Understatement of the century. Don’t bring up Sonic Xtreme… plz…

Infamously, Kalinske took the stage at Sega’s 1995 E3 press conference to announce that not only would the Saturn cost $399, $100 dollars more than its competitor’s then-upcoming console, Sony’s PlayStation, but that it was available immediately in select stores — months before it was originally announced to launch. It was Sega’s rushed defense against the PlayStation, and, as far as he’s concerned, “the stupidest decision ever made in the history of business.”

The Saturn was $400!? Holy shit! Sega was out of their fucking minds! They also wanted to make the Genesis expensive as shit too. Kalinske shot that plan down hard. And of course, Soj called him an idiot for that decision. 

The fact that Sega Japan wasn’t rushing to put its mascot character on the console, too, didn’t help things, which frustrated Kalinske, as the series was a force to be reckoned with in Europe and the United States. But, not seeing similar numbers outside its own window, he says, Sega Japan stopped listening to its American counterpart, meddling with a proven formula for success. Kalinske believes Sonic’s lesser appearance on the Saturn, in part, caused the machine to tank.

Because as we all know, JAPAN IS ALL THAT MATTERS! 

I suppose in part, I could see why they’d try to appeal to their own people. Afterall, it’s their people and not some foreign elements that you don’t want to bother with. But again, they continued doing international business, and only focusing strictly on 1 market at the expense of every one else is vintage stupidity. And Sega hasn’t learned a damn thing for over 25 years! Going so far as to antagonize western audiences as well.

“I think they just didn’t understand how powerful Sonic was in the western world,” Kalinske continues. “I mean, it’s kind of a strange thing to say, because they could certainly see the sales numbers and the amount of revenue that was produced, and the passion that players and users had towards the Sonic character, and the TV shows, and the comics and, you know, everything else that [came with] the licensing.”

They didn’t see it IN JAPAN! 

In 1996, the two attempts Sega finally did make at bringing an original Sonic game to the console were far from successful, though. Sonic X-Treme, the first attempt to bring the character into full 3D, developed by a branch of Sega America called the Sega Technical Institute, was plagued with development issues and ultimately cancelled. Sonic 3D Blast, an isometric platformer developed by Traveller’s Tales and Sonic Team, received middling critical reception.

GODDAMMIT, they brought up Xtreme.

Look, it was clear Sega didn’t want to make Sonic games as their home market had no interest in the franchise. Fishing them out to Travelers Tales and STI was essentially shifting responsibility. 

Problem is western devs didn’t have access to the engines necessary to produce those desirable pinball physics. And seeing how bitchy Yuji Naka was with his precious NiGHTS engine, I doubt asking for permission to use their superior hardware would be futile. 

There’s something else Kalinske also considers during our chat, something that may have caused Sega Japan to ignore its mascot character during the Saturn era: an inability to bury the hatchet.

Brudha… you ain’t kidding! 

Early into development of the first Sonic The Hedgehog game, series artist Naoto Ohshima designed a character much more aggressive than Sonic ultimately ended up being. He had fangs, a busty girlfriend named Madonna and fronted a rock band. Sega America, fearing it wouldn’t be able to market the character globally, went to work softening him, ditching the girlfriend, removing the fangs and breaking up the band. According to Kalinske, Sega Japan wasn’t happy with the character’s new look, pushing back whenever it could.

OHSHIT!! See, NOW I wanna know the real reason this turd got made!

And a big ol’ tittied white woman that looked just Linda Carter!? Yeah, I saw the concept art.

“[I] think they resented the fact that we changed him from being aggressive, and having fangs and [a] very sharp personality — and to some degree a menacing personality — to being soft and friendly,” he says. “I think they resented that. But I don’t know [if] I’d carry it so far as to why they didn’t do the things that should have been done. I think it might have been part of it, however.”

I  highly doubt it. Granted, Japanese creators are very childish people and have massive egos the size of Jupiter, I believe this had more to do with being more successful than the Mega Drive. Afterall, in your earlier interviews, you did mention they were pissed at you for making the Genesis a hit while they fumbled in failure. Thinking that they should be better than their American counterparts (though considering Sega started as an American company anyway, this was appropriate). 

Why the hell would Japan not favor a cuter character design? Isn’t that their usual MO? 

Or maybe… they liked cool shit before the millennium? It certainly would explain why anime looks so shitty now.

After multiple fumbles with the Saturn, Sega tried to reinvent itself with its next console, the Sega Dreamcast, and its first tentpole Sonic games in years: the Adventure series. The next two entries into the franchise, Sonic Adventure 1 and 2,saw a fully-voiced Sonic, full of personality and attitude. The big-budget games finally brought the series into full 3D, introduced multiple playable characters and had multiple intertwining narratives. It seemed Sega learned from its lessons and was making a real attempt to focus the spotlight back on its hedgehog.

Sonic shuffle, anyone?

Kalinske, out of touch with where the series went after his departure, was left with some strong opinions after a recent encounter with a statue of Shadow the Hedgehog, a character introduced in Sonic Adventure 2.

“[I] walked into a Sega office last year I guess it was — maybe more than a year ago — and there’s this big, dark Sonic character with a machine gun in his hands. I mean, what the hell is that? That’s not Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic The Hedgehog doesn’t need a machine gun, and why [is he all of the sudden] all black instead of blue?

Last year!? 

I’m disturbed that Sega would have a statue referring to a game that doomed the franchise. It must’ve kicked ass in Japan!

This would be bizarre if that’s the case. A qoute unqoute “grimdark” Sonic being more appealing to Japan… while they think Westerners like Sonic as kiddy bullshit, using Kalinske’s decision way back yonder as a footnote. 

I could just be reading too much into that, but it would explain sogoddamn much!

So, there’s a lot of things that were done that didn’t make sense to me as I started [getting] back into it and went to Comic Con last year and saw some of the different things they were doing. You know, it just didn’t make sense to me [for] the Sonic characters,” Kalinske says. “I think when you build a brand and a character, you really have to stick with it, and stick with what made that character great, and don’t mess around with the key attributes of the character or the character’s personality.”

Exactly. 

That said, Kalinske does recognize there’s no need to remake a game over and over for 25 years; some experimentation and iteration is fine, in his opinion. But to the extent Sega’s taken the series, Kalinske says, “I think they kind of went overboard with it.”

This interview is full of understatements, no?

“WE ALL FELT CERTAIN A FEW YEARS AGO [THAT] ‘DAMN. WE COULD HAVE GONE BACK IN AND FIXED THIS THING.’”

I don’t know why l found this line hilarious!

There were times, he continues, that former Sega of America employees, disheartened by what they were seeing with the Sonic series, would talk about going back, trying to fix what was happening, to rebuild the series to what it once was.
“We get together every now and then. And I do recall a few years ago all of us were together and we were lamenting about, ‘How the Hell could they do this to Sonic? How could they change it to being not perceived in a positive way by the audience that loved him so much,’” he says. “We’ve had that discussion quite a bit over the years.”

Over the years? How fucked is this franchise when people involved in it are saying “How could they do this to Sonic?” I mean goddamn…

Kalisnke says he also thinks there were numerous other great Sega properties the company mistakenly let fall by the wayside. “[I think Sega] kind of lost their way,” he says. “Sonic’s great, but there’s also great properties inside Sega. Overall franchises that nothing much has been done with here [recently].”

Amen

“It may be too late now, given the age that we’re reaching, but we all felt certain a few years ago [that] ‘Damn. We could have gone back in and fixed this thing’ … But, you know, that’s probably just wishful thinking on our parts.”

This is honestly the saddest shit i’ve read in a while. Speaking of age..

But, Sega is trying to do just that for them, making another attempt at bringing the Sonic series back to its former glory. This time, though, with less experimentation and more backtracking and reflection.

Not so much reflection, more backtracking. Though including a CaC feature is a good touch.

The Sonic series has had somewhat of an about-face in recent years.

No it hasn’t. The games aren’t even fucking released yet. Stop blowing your loads early, Amma

The official Sonic Twitter account, run by social media manager Aaron Webber, is self-referential, aware of its shortcomings and makes light of the fact that Sonic has been more or less a punchline for the game industry.

So?

Furthermore, Sega recently announcedSonic Mania, a return to form for the series visually and mechanically, adopting the look and gameplay of the original Genesis games. On the surface, it looks as if the company is paying attention to what its fans have been asking for, all the while remaining fully aware of where it’s gone wrong in the past.

Sure it looks that way, but only time will tell if that delay was done to fix that Zone Ratio.

Kalinske, for one, remains hopeful for the future of Sonic The Hedgehog. He points to Webber, bringing up his affinity for the company and series he works for. “First of all, he’s been there a long time, so he does understand the entire history,” he says. “And I think it’s good for him to reflect back on [it and say], ‘See, here’s the things that the company did that didn’t work out, and yeah, we should return to some of the things that did do well in the past. And we’re going to, and bring them forward in the future.’”

HAHAHAHAHAHAH

WAAAAY too much confidence in a guy who’s only contribution thus far was lip service that fell on deaf ears. If SoJ didn’t bother listening to Kalinske’s advice, what chance does talking head Weber have?

His own time talking to Webber and other current Sega of America employees about where they hope to take things, he says, keeps him confident for the future. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have his own ideas about where the series could go. According to Kalinske, marrying old and new may be the way to go with Sonic — maintaining the series’ core speed, but bringing it to new, innovative technologies, for example.

If Weber of all crackas instilled hope in you, I gotta give him credit. He knows how to bullshit.

I’d love to hear the convo he had with the SOA CEO, though.

“Well, I jokingly said the other day, I’d love to see a Sonic AR version and do something on phones with AR and Sonic The Hedgehog. But it would probably cause people walk into poles or run into buildings or something, so maybe that’s not such a great idea,” he says. “And then I can hardly wait for the day that VR gets inexpensive enough for us all to really enjoy it. Imagine a Sonic world where you’re turning around and he’s whizzing around you. I mean, it would be a pretty amazing experience, I think. … I think it [could] be a very interesting exploration and development path. But I know all that costs a lot of money, but I think that Sega still has that. And who knows? It could turn out to be something great, and certainly we could all use that right now.”

I damn sure hope that’s a joke. Cause it sounds like you want to kill people!

Time will tell if the Sonic series will ever reach the peaks of success it once called home when Kalinske oversaw it. And whether or not Sega can reclaim what made the Genesis games special in fans’ eyes with Sonic Mania remains to be seen. But Kalinske thinks the company is aware of where it lost its way and is now ready to take an honest stab at righting its wrongs.
“Let’s just be hopeful,” he says

Well, Kalinske may be convinced, but acknowledging mistakes and correcting them after an entire decade are 2 different things. If Mania and Forces kick ass, will Sega maintain it? After Generation, we thought Sega was starting to get it. Then they lost their damn minds trying to copy other corporate strategies in making money (copying Mario’s success, cross media merchandising, mobile gaming). They need to be continuous with this shit.

Well, if Mania has the whole world thinking Sega got their shit straight, they might just have a helluva marketing gimmick.

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