The Unsung Artist Who Defined the Look of Sonic the Hedgehog

It’s hard to overstate just how important the Sonic Adventure series was to the Sonic franchise and video games as a whole. Not only did these games take Sonic in a bold new narrative direction, they also introduced core 3D mechanics that are still alive and well in all modern Sonic games — from homing attacks to grinding on rails. Perhaps most important of all, Sonic Adventure marked the debut of Sonic’s modern look designed by Yuji Uekawa, evolving him from his child-like “Classic” design to a taller, cooler teen-esque appearance now known as “Modern Sonic” that visually rebranded his attitude-driven thesis statement for a new era.

Avid Sonic fans know Uekawa’s name and work, but not many are aware that he wasn’t the first to give Sonic a new coat of paint in the waning days of the 20th century. In fact, the origins of Uekawa’s design and — by extension — Sonic’s entire modern aesthetic, lie in the work of artist Satoshi Okano.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Kick It Jam!

Before Sonic Mania was the name of a 2017 return-to-form, it was an idea that Sonic Team art director Kazuyuki Hoshino presented for a 1997 Sega Saturn port compilation of Sonic’s Genesis titles. SEGA chose to go with another title, Sonic Jam, a name submitted by Satoshi Okano, a designer who had joined SEGA in 1996 after serving as the planner, character designer and main graphic artist for KAZe Net’s Uchuu Race: Astro Go! Go! and a brief stint at HAL Laboratories.

“My dream was to make a new Sonic companion after I joined SEGA,” he recalls, “However, the opportunity I first sought when I joined was just to draw Sonic.” 

Hoshino gave Okano this exact opportunity — he was tapped for promotional artwork for Sonic Jam, pictured above. “I thought ‘I’ll never have a chance like this again! How lucky!’” Okano recalls. But his contributions didn’t end there: “The “Sonic Jam” title was my idea,” recalls Okano, “My SEGA coworkers would ask me ‘what does that mean?’ I would politely turn and explain it to them like this: ‘The jam is like the jam in a jazz session. It means it’s packed with cool stuff.’”

“I wanted to give Sonic a timeless, cutting-edge image,” Okano says, though his approach was certainly inspired by a particular era of pop culture. “I was raised on and inspired by American Sci-Fi movies, New York hip-hop, sneaker and street culture, and UK industrial rock music,” he tells me. “My inspirations were George Lucas and Steven Spielburg movies, Nike basketball shoes, the Adidas tracksuits RUN DMC wore in their 1988 photoshoots, Flavor Flav’s clock and glasses, De la Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers lyrics, Bjork, Underworld, and other music, music videos, and artwork like that.” 

The result of Okano’s efforts was a Sonic like no other, a previously unexplored look for the character that made a major impact. Not only would this art go on to inspire artists to pursue a career with SEGA — “a junior employee had said ‘I wanted to join SEGA after seeing your illustration postcards at the store!’” Okano notes — it also inspired Sonic’s creator himself, Yuji Naka, to seek out a new Sonic design for his upcoming Dreamcast debut. 

Sonic the Hedgehog

The Story of Modern Sonic

With the advent of the Dreamcast came true 3D environments, characters and camera, and the transition added up to problems for Sonic, according to Hoshino

“For instance, the third-person camera would follow Sonic from behind and from a certain height, to give the player an idea of the area in front of him, but when we used our existing character models, which were very short in size, Sonic’s head suddenly looked so big you did not really see anything below. His body was obscured, and you could hardly see his arms and feet. To us it was clear we needed to change Sonic’s basic design, make him taller, change his head-to-body proportions.” (Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book)

Around this time, Yuji Naka came across Okano’s Sonic Jam art. With the impending need for a modern Sonic design, Naka was inspired by Okano’s work to hold an internal contest — artists within SEGA would submit their designs for Sonic’s new, modern look. 

Sonic the Hedgehog

“Among the four who participated in the contest,” says Okano, “there was classic Sonic’s father, Naoto Ohshima, Yuji Uekawa who drew characters like Ristar the Shining Star and Sonic, and Takumi Miyake who illustrated the 1996 Nights into Dreams storybook. Although I was a 3D field designer for SEGA, I was recommended because of my past work on Saturn Magazine.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Yuji Uekawa’s modern Sonic design was chosen as the winner and his interpretation of Sonic became the face of the franchise.

In a 2019 interview with Brandon Sheffield for Gamasutra, Okano reflected on the results. “I was disappointed,” he said, “but it was because of my drawing that the competition happened at all, which wound up setting the direction of the new Sonic, so it’s a bittersweet memory.”

Additionally, Okano may have had a hand in helping Uekawa develop and refine the design he submitted. “Before ‘new Sonic,’ I had drawn an illustration of Sonic,” he tells me, “then Yuji Uekawa finished it. Because of that, the initial ‘new Sonic’ illustrations were a two-person effort. This is something very few SEGA employees know about.”

More Sonic:

Sonic the Hedgehog

Bittersweet Memories

Without the bold stylization of the Sonic Jam magazine cover, there may have never been an opportunity for Uekawa to submit his winning redesign of Sonic — and though Okano took second place in the contest, he would still get the chance to draw Sonic for a game later down the line.

“After Sonic Adventure’s release wrapped,” Okano says, “I naively became a ‘shadow’ during the ‘new Sonic’ work. Frankly, I was young and thought ‘ahh… I blew the biggest opportunity of my life.’ However, I was abruptly called by both Yuji Naka and Kazuyuki Hoshino.” Okano was presented with the opportunity to draw the cover for the upcoming Sonic 3D Blast Saturn port (known as Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island), a Japan exclusive release.

“At the time, I thought this was my consolation prize for losing the Sonic Adventure contest,” Okano says. “However, when I think about it now, the ‘rarity and added value’ of me drawing it my own way they spoke of has been admirably recognized by fans.”

Sonic the Hedgehog

“I’m surprised people from North and South American know about this,” he adds. “This is very interesting. Perhaps this is the best reward after all?”

In addition to his work on Sonic 3D’s Saturn release, Okano would go on to serve as the character designer of Samba De Amigo, with Uekawa serving as art director — though Uekawa would, once again, receive sole credit. “However, I’m really not bitter towards him!” Okano assures me. “After thinking about it, I think it was rather a good experience. Although it’s a bittersweet memory, it was valuable.”

After leaving SEGA in 2006, Okano established his own studio, Studio Okanotion, through which he continues to do character design work, as well as Kabuki and Sumo-related work.

“There Is No Futility In Life”

Okano agreed to answer my questions as long as I was respectful with the usage of his words, in that I didn’t use them to convey ill will towards Yuji Uekawa or any other members of SEGA and Sonic Team. He makes it clear that his Sonic Team career, his “loss” to Uekawa in the Sonic design contest and his relatively unknown contributions to the character are not sources of bitter or angry feelings. 

“I want to say this to you who are reading this article,” he says, “Even if the spotlight doesn’t hit you, be patient. Even after 10 ~ 20 years, there will be times when the spotlight misses its aim. Even the ‘shadow’ becomes sunny. There’s no futility in life. You are the one that makes it interesting.”

Okano’s name isn’t easily found amongst sources of Sonic info — save for his credit as field designer on Sonic Adventure — yet his contributions to SEGA have had a major impact on the Sonic franchise. Simply put, Sonic the Hedgehog owes his modern look to the efforts of both Yuji Uekawa and Satoshi Okano.

You can follow Satoshi Okano and his work via his Twitter and Instagram. Interview translations provided by Blake P.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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