1988 saw the Japanese release of SEGA’s Mega Drive, or Genesis in the United States, placing it ahead of Nintendo’s SNES. The Mega Drive was one of the earliest 16-bit consoles and its expanded graphical options meant that a character like Sonic the Hedgehog could convey more colors as he zipped from left to right. While Sonic was the ultimate outcome of an internal design contest between SEGA’s Japanese and American offices that generated 200 characters, he was not among the initial offerings; the leading submissions in this contest was a long-eared rabbit with a bow tie drawn by Naoto Ohshima.
As the winner, Ohshima was partnered with programmer Yuji Naka and tasked with creating a rival to Nintendo’s Mario. Naka’s love of racing games and desire to make an innovative platformer fostered the need for a speed-focused character. In the duo’s presentation to SEGA’s board of directors, every aspect of its marketing pitch featured Ohshima’s rabbit. SEGA was pleased with the presentation and told them to take their material beyond a mere concept, adding Hirokazu Yasuhara to the team. Their primary directive was to produce a killer title that would boost sales of the Mega Drive and solidify a mascot for SEGA.
One of the first hiccups with a rabbit character came in his approach toward enemies; Ohshima’s character would use his ears to grab and toss enemies but this impaired the intention of high speed and required more button presses than seemed feasible. The team decided to rework the game to focus on minimal button presses and reduction of speed. These needs caused the team make a character that rolled into a ball when jumping, damaging enemies and breaking walls that the character collided with. The need for an animal known for balling itself up forced the team to discard the rabbit idea, eventually paring their biological survey down to an armadillo or hedgehog; the hedgehog’s quills won out over the armadillo’s armor.