As a kid in 1993, nothing was cooler than Sonic the Hedgehog. The games had a pacing and attitude that Mario games, fun as they were, just couldn't compete with. So when Sonic got his own cartoon show – two of them, in fact – I was in nerd heaven. Here at last was a cartoon show (my second favorite pastime) based on a video game (my favorite pastime) that was actually really good.
For some strange reason, Sega chose to run two different American Sonic cartoon shows at the same time: The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sonic the Hedgehog (fans often refer to the latter show as “SatAM” for clarity's sake, refering to the time slot it ran in , Saturday mornings). As if this wasn't confusing enough already, Jaleel “Steve Urkel” White provided the voice of Sonic in both shows. The similarities end there, however, with Adventures being a slapstick farce and SatAM being relatively dark and serious for a children's cartoon show. Oh – and that theme song. So much delicious cheese.
Some critics will tell you that neither show holds up well, and that's certainly true of Adventures. But something about SatAM made it stand out from lighter fare like The Super Mario Brothers Super Show or The Legend of Zelda. While those shows, and Adventures, made merry with the source material, SatAM transformed the pixelized characters into living, breathing creatures in a believable setting. Plots had consequences beyond a single episode. New characters came and went, villains rose and were defeated. The show had a continuity that most American cartoons of that time period lacked, especially ones based on video games.
Kids these days might not realize that Sonic didn't always battle Dr. Eggman. Well, okay, in a way he did. But back in 1993, the villain went by the name Dr. Ivo Robotnik, and he was awesome. See, in Japan, Sonic's nemesis was always called Dr. Eggman – a goofy, cartoonish mad scientist full of bluster. But in America the name “Eggman” was apparently deemed too silly, and he was given the less-insulting moniker “Robotnik” in the instruction manual for the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The name stuck in the West.
In SatAM, Robotnik evolved even further away from his Japanese self, retaining his portly appearance but gaining black and red robot eyes, high tech gauntlets, outrageous shoulder pads, and a classic supervillain cape. His demeanor changed as well. While Adventure's Robotnik was bumbling and over-the-top, similar to his Japanese incarnation, the Robotnik of SatAM was downright sinister, with a low-pitched growl for a voice provided by the prolific and talented Jim Cummings. This Robotnik was a ruthless, backstabbing oppressor of civilizations who knew just how evil he was and loved it.
SatAM came at a time when the boundaries of Sonic's universe hadn't been established. The Genesis games had little in the way of plot, no voice acting, and only crude pixels to convey emotion. This meant that as a kid, I had no idea that SatAM was straying away from Sega's original vision of Dr. Eggman. It wasn't until Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast that fans like me realized just how clownish Eggman was supposed to be – to us, he was that megalomaniacal genius with the cape and the robot eyes. The goofball in Sonic Adventure wasn't sinister. He was certainly amusing, but because of that you never feel truly threatened by him.
Another huge change SatAM made was giving Sonic a whole team of Freedom Fighters to help him battle Robotnik, such as Princess Sally, the rightful chipmunk monarch of Mobius, Rotor the mechanical genius walrus, half-roboticized Bunny Rabbot, and Antoine the rapier-wielding fox (and unflattering French stereotype). These characters were all memorable, even lovable, and made Sonic's world feel populated and vibrant. Instead of just being a lone wolf, Sonic now had to depend on others. This element of teamwork helped to show how the odds were stacked against the good guys: Robotnik had a city-sized fortress full of nightmarish robots, and even Sonic couldn't go it alone. The stakes were always high in SatAM, which is what kept me glued to my television set week after week.
SatAM unfortunately occupied a rather niche market of young kids who played video games, which meant that it couldn't last forever, especially up against powerhouse shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Only two seasons were ever made, and when it was canceled suddenly in 1994 it left several plots unresolved. The meager 26 episodes are as disappointing to the show's small army of stalwart fans as Firefly's cancellation is to the Whedonites. It's especially painful when you consider that Adventures has 65 pointlessly silly (but entertaining in their own way) episodes. Fortunately, the long-running Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog title largely followed the show while it was on, and went on to expand on and wrap up most of the main plots.
SatAM was added to Netflix last year, along with Adventures. For those of you who had fond memories of it as a kid, it's definitely worth returning to the world of Mobius. Sure, the show's a bit cheesier than you remember, but it definitely stands up better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And for those of you who've never seen it before, you should check it out. It's not fine art, but definitely blows every other video game cartoon show out of the water.