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New interviews with Al Nilsen and Tom Kalinske on the creation and release of Sonic 1&2


Barry the Nomad
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Hey all! This month we're hard at work at SEGAbits obtaining audio interviews with Al Nilsen, SEGA of America's Director of Marketing from '89-'93, and Tom Kalinske, SEGA of America's President from 1990 to 1996. Both were incredibly influential in the creation of and the marketing of Sonic the Hedgehog. Al's claim to fame is creating "Sonic 2sday" and convincing Sonic Team that Tails was a better name than Miles Prower.

 

On our 60th podcast, recorded last night on Al NilSunday, Al came on and talked with us for an hour and a half! It's a great listen for any SEGA and Sonic fan. Next week we plan to have the author of Console Wars, Blake J. Harris, on as a guest and the week after that we plan to have Tom Kalinske on for an interview! I thought I'd share the podcasts here as they'll be chock full of Sonic content and are sure to feature behind-the-scenes stories never heard before (well, outside of the book) worthy of discussion.

 

I know you guys love bulleted lists of the interview's juicy bits, but I suggest actually listening to the full thing. Bulleted lists just can't compare to hearing the stories from the men themselves.

 

Here's the Al show in full! Other listening options are on our news post.

 

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The information Mr. Nilsen gives is actually kind of funny in hindsight, considering how much it shows that heavy, heavy amounts of misinformation spread throughout the company right from the beginning.

 

I can see him as well as the marketing team of being somewhat proud of their achievements, but they seem to take a lot of credit for what Sonic Team really did. They claim with all intentions that Sonic succeeded almost solely because of them (oh yeah, and because the game was good), even including giving Madeline Schroeder the title of "the mother of Sonic". Really now? This talk they've done since the Sonic Introspective a couple of years back has really rubbed me the wrong way.

 

He also seems to be convinced that the series bible he wrote in the very beginning was later accepted by Sega of Japan / Sonic Team themselves, but in reality it never was. And honestly it's sort of justified; it's Naka and Oshima's baby and these guys were trying to change it for all it's worth. Really, they went their own path while SoA/SoE just assumed they agreed into their idea, which thus explains why Sonic's western depiction and canonical depiction are so far apart (and only makes his statement about brand inconsistency being bad even funnier).

 

I really respect the man, I do. He and his crew wanted to make sure that the product sold in the highest caliber media market in the world (the US), and that's perfectly reasonable. But they should've trusted Sega more with their own creation; it's almost talked about as if Sonic Team didn't have a single clue what they were doing, whenever looking back it seems like they certainly did.

 

Just needed to get that out of my system.

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I really respect the man, I do. He and his crew wanted to make sure that the product sold in the highest caliber media market in the world (the US), and that's perfectly reasonable. But they should've trusted Sega more with their own creation; it's almost talked about as if Sonic Team didn't have a single clue what they were doing, whenever looking back it seems like they certainly did.

 

Just needed to get that out of my system.

 

It didn't seem to work out so well in their home country of Japan.

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Well that's the thing. It was a game inspired by American ideals created by a Japanese team. While it obviously wasn't Americanized to the extent that was probably necessary for success in the 90s (the box art and some specific minor stuff comes to mind), none of what Sega had written nor designed should've been too much for the US market to handle or understand (they handled the games just fine after all).

 

It really just seemed like SoA/SoE pretended that Sonic Team didn't know what they were doing with their own creation they (almost) obviously knew what they were doing with and overwrote whatever they did for the sake of it.

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Let's be honest, Sonic with fangs and a band and a human girlfriend is pretty frikken weird. I don't think it would have been a successful story in the West. Imagine being SEGA of America, and your task is to turn the Genesis around and make it successful, and SEGA of Japan shows you THAT. 

 

In a lot of ways, SEGA of Japan DIDN'T know what they were doing, as evidenced by Sonic's early incarnation, the success (or lack thereof) of the Mega Drive in Japan, and the decision to go ahead with the Saturn rather than pursue partnerships with companies like Sony. Then, of course, there was the idea to release the 32X as a bridge console, which SOA did not like the idea of.

 

That isn't to say that Sonic Team didn't make fantastic games, they did! But I do believe that Sonic's success was a team effort with SEGA of America, Japan and the developers. SOA's design changes and skew toward more Westernized visuals in the US for advertising was a success. Meanwhile, in Japan, SOJ did what they wanted and the end result were sales that paled in comparison to the US's numbers. Of course, we could speculate all day as to whether a SOJ Sonic with zero SOA input would have been a success, but the fact we do have is that with SOA working on Sonic as well, it ended up becoming a success.

 

I also wouldn't paint SOA as thinking they're superior to Sonic Team - Tom and Al and the other SOA staff had great respect for the devs. So much so that when Sonic 2 rolled around, they offered Naka offices in the US to save him from leaving SEGA and let him develop uninterrupted by SOA's marketing team. They respected Naka enough to create the game as he wanted.

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Let's be honest, Sonic with fangs and a band and a human girlfriend is pretty frikken weird. I don't think it would have been a successful story in the West. Imagine being SEGA of America, and your task is to turn the Genesis around and make it successful, and SEGA of Japan shows you THAT. 

 

And I get that. They turned around the whole idea to be simplified, asking for something more well-rounded. To give any of the American team credit for constructing Sonic to being as he was or Eggman in his entirety though isn't correct in the slightest. SoA pushed them to do it in a different direction (a great idea), but everything past that was a product of their own.

 

That's why things like Madeline Schroeder being dubbed by her fellow marketing team as "the mother of Sonic" and claiming she created Robotnik (which I believe was in the Sonic Retrospective doc) seems like they remember themselves a little too importantly. They certainly did a great thing, but those things weren't it.

 

 

In a lot of ways, SEGA of Japan DIDN'T know what they were doing, as evidenced by Sonic's early incarnation, the success (or lack thereof) of the Mega Drive in Japan, and the decision to go ahead with the Saturn rather than pursue partnerships with companies like Sony. Then, of course, there was the idea to release the 32X as a bridge console, which SOA did not like the idea of.

 

I suppose SoJ has always been kind of foolish, but Sonic Team, hardly. It just seemed like they were really passionate yet open-ended on whatever direction they'd take. Even if they didn't know what they were doing so much in the beginning (no kidding, they were just put together for the making of that game), they definitely weren't some crazy level of incompetent.

 

 

That isn't to say that Sonic Team didn't make fantastic games, they did! But I do believe that Sonic's success was a team effort with SEGA of America, Japan and the developers. SOA's design changes and skew toward more Westernized visuals in the US for advertising was a success. Meanwhile, in Japan, SOJ did what they wanted and the end result were sales that paled in comparison to the US's numbers. Of course, we could speculate all day as to whether a SOJ Sonic with zero SOA input would have been a success, but the fact we do have is that with SOA working on Sonic as well, it ended up becoming a success.

 

Sonic didn't do well in Japan because there he's just about as much of a niche market as you can get in Japan. Already considered too Americanized for Japan's taste, on the not-so-popular console, in the platformer genre which paled in comparison to RPGs, fighters and puzzle games. 

 

I'm not saying Sonic's visuals should of been 1:1 with the Japanese style since it was also a bit too quirky to be in America (as I said, the box art and advertising was a little strange), but I don't see too terribly much that would've needed to be outright changed. Eggman to Robotnik? Sure. Sonic being a bit more brash and "attituuude"-ish? Double sure. Mohawk Sonic, conehead warlord Robotnik and the entire plot to SatAM? Come on now. 

 

Sonic's story was that he was a world adventurer with his pilot/best friend/sidekick Tails, going on massive adventures in hot pursuit of a goofy looking old man that's bent on taking drastic measures to rule the world in his namesake, with the back up power of an army of robots run by animals used as batteries (in other words, the premise we have now). I get that the '90s were a different time, but I'm not seeing how that could've been any less appealing than what they decided to work with.. especially since most of what they worked with just didn't resemble the games they're based on.

 

And yeah, I know the instruction manuals kept to the idea of the game's actual canon in most ways, but it was still completely stripped of additional depth. I guess they thought kids couldn't handle anything more than "Sonic beats up the bad guy"? Then again, going by SatAM's plot, that doesn't make much sense.. geez this was a mess!

 

 

 

I also wouldn't paint SOA as thinking they're superior to Sonic Team - Tom and Al and the other SOA staff had great respect for the devs. So much so that when Sonic 2 rolled around, they offered Naka offices in the US to save him from leaving SEGA and let him develop uninterrupted by SOA's marketing team. They respected Naka enough to create the game as he wanted.

 

True, but the marketing and entire everything that followed it seemed to go against what he wanted to do anyways.

 

I understand giving them credit for the massive success that Sonic was in the west, but I can't help but still criticize the way they did it, especially with how the game devs and the marketing team were on such different levels that they wrote completely different stories / had completely different ideas behind what Sonic was.

 

It's without a doubt where all the brand confusion came from (that still plagues the series today).

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Sonic didn't do well in Japan because there he's just about as much of a niche market as you can get in Japan. Already considered too Americanized for Japan's taste, on the not-so-popular console, in the platformer genre which paled in comparison to RPGs, fighters and puzzle games. 

 

I'm not saying Sonic's visuals should of been 1:1 with the Japanese style since it was also a bit too quirky to be in America (as I said, the box art and advertising was a little strange), but I don't see too terribly much that would've needed to be outright changed. Eggman to Robotnik? Sure. Sonic being a bit more brash and "attituuude"-ish? Double sure. Mohawk Sonic, conehead warlord Robotnik and the entire plot to SatAM? Come on now. 

 

Sonic's story was that he was a world adventurer with his pilot/best friend/sidekick Tails, going on massive adventures in hot pursuit of a goofy looking old man that's bent on taking drastic measures to rule the world in his namesake, with the back up power of an army of robots run by animals used as batteries (in other words, the premise we have now). I get that the '90s were a different time, but I'm not seeing how that could've been any less appealing than what they decided to work with.. especially since most of what they worked with just didn't resemble the games they're based on.

 

And yeah, I know the instruction manuals kept to the idea of the game's actual canon in most ways, but it was still completely stripped of additional depth. I guess they thought kids couldn't handle anything more than "Sonic beats up the bad guy"? Then again, going by SatAM's plot, that doesn't make much sense.. geez this was a mess!

 

He was a sidescroller, and sidescrollers were still popular titles in Japan. They were simplistic experiences that Japanese players loved. 

 

Also, the conehead and Satam plot wasn't really all that up to SoA. That was DIC's doing. Robotnik for America was just Eggman without his glasses and a constant scowl. 

 

Now to be honest, the different background was probably something they could've done without, but at the time, what did it really matter? Who cared about the manual when you're just playing a nigh plotless sidescroller? And even then, it's not like Sonic was always portrayed in America as some freedom fighter; he still has his appearance in AoStH promoting his fun wandering self, just with the extra tude. 

 

Also, what depth was there really to the original concept of Sonic just wandering? There's no need to say there was depth that was missing. It was just another silly plot in Japanese, just like how our plot was silly in English. Sonic has never had much depth in the original games aside from "stop Eggman from taking over." Sonic CD was probably the only game at the time that was close to actually having depth in it's plot.

 

 

 

I suppose SoJ has always been kind of foolish, but Sonic Team, hardly. It just seemed like they were really passionate yet open-ended on whatever direction they'd take. Even if they didn't know what they were doing so much in the beginning (no kidding, they were just put together for the making of that game), they definitely weren't some crazy level of incompetent.

 

They were incompetent enough that a lot of their design decisions had to be changed. That was important.

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Let's be honest, Sonic with fangs and a band and a human girlfriend is pretty frikken weird.

 

Is it?

 

I mean... what the "west" got was bumface the hedgehog! biggrin.png I always preferred the Japanese art when I was a kiddie... well, and STC's of course! (Which I know is the scowliest Sonic ever but yknow...) Fangs, a band and a hawt girlfriend were 90s things for mascots to have! biggrin.png

 

That's not to say I didn't like my westernised Sonic posters and stuff. In fact I think us lot in the UK were lucky to get stuff that was clearly influenced from both sides.

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While Tom Kalinski is on next week's show, Blake J. Harris, the author of Console Wars, joined us for our latest episode. We chat about the process of creating the book, and we learn that Blake was the man behind the SEGA Heritage documentaries!

 

Interestingly, Blake also made docs for House of the Dead and Panzer Dragoon... hmmm....

 

He also mentions that there were plans for a Sonic movie in the 90's and promised to dig up more info for a future episode. Check it out! 

http://segabits.com/blog/2014/05/13/swingin-report-show-61-console-wars-release-day-party-with-author-blake-j-harris/

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  • 2 weeks later...

Our interview with Tom Kalinske is ready for your listening pleasure! 
 
http://segabits.com/blog/2014/05/23/swingin-report-show-62-console-wars-with-tom-kalinske-sega-of-americas-president-90-96/
 


 
Some of the stuff we covered:
  • Tom's early years
  • Tom's favorite game and preferred Genesis model
  • SEGA's charity efforts
  • Tom's thoughts on the Pico, Game Gear, 32X, and Nomad and their success/failures
  • Tom's opinion of the Saturn and his thoughts on a SEGA/Sony hybrid
  • Why Sonic had two cartoons
  • Why the SEGA Channel failed to catch on
  • How Masters of the Universe influenced Sonic
  • Tom's opinion of Nintendo pre-SEGA
  • The consoles's code names - to be honest, Tom doesn't recall much from this, mainly because he knew the real names of the Game Gear, etc, so code names really didn't run through his mind much
  • Nintendo sending C&D orders to SEGA
  • Tom's memories of the SEGA Jupiter
  • How SEGA influenced LeapFrog
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