After decades in a spin, Sonic’s break-out leaves Sega hoping for more

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Japan’s Sega Sammy Holdings Inc is hoping to ride the fast-moving coattails of Sonic the Hedgehog as the character enjoys a renaissance amid a global scramble for entertainment content.

This year sees the release of a sequel to a record-breaking Hollywood movie and a Netflix series, along with a title that Sega hopes will revive the fortunes of the long-running Sonic game franchise after decades of malaise.

“Sonic is the face of Sega. If Sonic is doing well, then Sega is doing well to an extent, too,” Shuji Utsumi, co-chief operation officer of Sega, told Reuters in an interview.

The blue blur became a household name in the West in a series of side-scrolling games in the 1990s on the Sega MegaDrive console, also known as the Sega Genesis in North America, which outsold Nintendo’s Super NES in many countries.

“Sonic was cool with humour and an attitude… that resonated in the West,” said Utsumi, who worked at Sony when it launched the first PlayStation.

Unlike Nintendo’s Mario, who starred in decades of acclaimed titles, Sonic struggled to make the transition to 3D games as Sega withdrew from the console business to become a game publisher.

Now, after years of trial and error during which Sega merged with pachinko gambling machine maker Sammy, Sonic revived his career as a movie star as studios raided corporate larders for underused characters with mass appeal.

Sonic-related sales, including from the movie, have quadrupled in the five years to the financial year that ended March 2021.

The game series has a committed, and long-suffering, fanbase in the West, in contrast with other Sega franchises such as “Yakuza” and “Persona”, which have a large audience in Japan.

“It’s definitely a nostalgic love for him,” said Jacob Mills, 31, a British game level designer, referring to the hedgehog. Mills plays new Sonic releases and describes his enthusiasm as “a shared experience of mutual disappointment.”

Initial prospects for the first Sonic movie from Paramount, which featured Jim Carrey, seemed in doubt when a trailer showing the character with prominent white teeth was derided on social media.

The studio tweaked the design, and the movie eventually raked in more than $300 million worldwide – becoming one of the best grossing video game adaptations – after its release in 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” will be released in April. The franchise’s importance to Paramount was underscored in an investor presentation earlier this month outlining the future of the company and announcing a second Sonic sequel along with a hybrid animated/live-action series about the Knuckles character for its streaming service. A separate animated series is due to launch on Netflix this year.

“It’s another big franchise for us and for Sega,” Paramount Pictures chief Brian Robbins told Reuters.

The Sonic investment is part of a broader commitment to franchises spanning movies and series, Paramount Chief Executive Bob Bakish said during the presentation. Shares fell on scepticism over whether the content could compete in an increasingly crowded streaming market.