Back in the early 90s, Sega were involved in a two way tussle for dominance of the home video game market with rivals Nintendo. Whilst Sega's Megadrive (known as the Genesis in the US) had a number of technical advantages over their main rival, the Super Nintendo, most notably a more powerful central processor, Nintendo had an ace up their sleeve in the form of their immensely popular Mario character. By comparison, Sega's own mascot at the time, Alex Kidd, was far less popular with gamers and could not be relied upon to sell consoles in the same way that Mario could for Nintendo.
Sega wanted a new character that would be capable of beating Nintendo at their own game. Several ideas were floated, including a dog, a rabbit, an armadillo and a pyjama-sporting Teddy Roosevelt look-a-like, whose design would later become the basis for the Dr. Robotnik character in the Sonic games. However, it was Naoto Oshima's sassy teenage hedgehog, originally called Mr Needlemouse, that won out in the end and a 15 man development team, named Sonic Team, was set up to work exclusively on games featuring the character.
The colour of blue was chosen to match the blue Sega logo, whereas his trademark red boots were inspired by Michael Jackson and Santa Claus. It has even been hinted that his quick-thinking personality was inspired by that of then-US President Bill Clinton. Due to a mistaken assumption that hedgehogs are unable to swim (they can!), Sonic was initially unable to go underwater, although he gained this ability in later games. Sonic Team originally envisioned Sonic as sporting vicious fangs and being in a rock band with a human girlfriend called Madonna. However, Sega's American arm felt that his image would need to be softened up for the US market, so the fangs, the guitar, and the girl all had to go.
The first Sonic game, simply called Sonic the Hedgehog, was released in 1991 to widespread acclaim. Gamers had simply seen nothing like it before. Platform games such as the Mario and Alex Kidd had always been fairly slow, ploddy affairs, involving tricky puzzles and precision manoeuvres. Sonic's ability to run at speeds faster than the speed of sound, run upside down at speed, and curl into a deadly spinning ball, turned the world of platform games on its head, and enabled the developers to really show off the power of Sega's new machine. Needless to say, it went on to sell millions of copies, and more than any other title, helped to establish the Genesis/Megadrive as the most popular games console in the US and Europe at the time.
Since then, Sonic has gone on to star in more than 40 different games and various animated television series. He has also made two cameo appearances on The Simpsons, and numerous cameos in video games such as Donkey Kong Country II and The Incredible Hulk. Originally, Sonic games were only available for Sega's own consoles, such as the Megadrive, Game Gear, and Saturn. However, Sega's exit from the console business in the early 2000s saw Sonic games being developed for all the leading gaming platforms. You can even play Sonic games from within your web browser.