Between a catalogue of killer games on the Genesis and the Archie Comic series, Sonic the Hedgehog was a fixture of my childhood. At the height of Sonic mania, there was a handful of cartoon shows. My favourite was based on the comics and is now affectionately called Sonic SatAM. But is it as good as I remember?
Sonic SatAM wasn't the first attempt at a Sonic cartoon. The first was 1993's Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, a wild and carefree show that treated the setting as fodder for slapstick humour. Sonic and his companion Tails clashed with Robotnik and participated in Road Runner-esque antics with his robot henchmen Scratch and Grounder.
The next series, simply called Sonic the Hedgehog but known as Sonic SatAM (for "Saturday morning") premiered several weeks later in 1993. It was darker, story driven, and occasionally political. You can find pretty much all of it on YouTube as well as Google Play, so I decided to give it a watch.
The first episode, "Heads or Tails," is strong pilot episode for a cartoon. It was originally aired as the final episode of the first season but I decided to watch it first, as it sets up all you need to know about the show. It establishes the setting, characters, and tone very quickly. One of its best features is the awesome opening theme.
Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog fell back on a wonky version of tunes from the video games. Sonic SatAM opts for some belty butt rock and darker animation. We see an idyllic planet cast in shadow as Robotnik's goons turn it into a polluted nightmare and watch as Sonic and friends friggin' blow up shit. Rockin' stuff.
The episode opens up with a shot of a tangled city full of smokestacks. Looking back with broader pop culture knowledge, I'm surprised how much the show doubled down on an environmental narrative. It didn't seem apparent to me as a kid, but from the first frame of animation, the show hits "machinery=evil" as a pretty clear visual choice. It's all grey and nasty, perfect for when Robotnik shows up.
Robotnik is voiced by Jim Cummings, the voice of characters like Darkwing Duck and Winnie the Pooh. He busts out a deep, sandpapery voice that just so damn captivating. His grand villainy contrasts well with his weaselly sidekick Snively.
It's a simple pairing of archetypes but this is a cartoon and it totally works for the purpose of a creating a memorable villain. The dialog is clunky, with Snively giving Robotnik the run-down on Tails, but the characters are so silly that it hardly matters. Robonick is both sinister and a little bit quirky, which is exactly what you want from villains.
Tails is introduced picking flowers, sneezing and generally being adorable. At least for the pilot he very much plays the role of audience POV character. He's a kid hanging out with adults and it's a good idea to start with him before Sonic leaps in. It gives kids something to latch on to and us to project themselves into affairs.
Jaleel White is singing off key throughout this and it's amazing.
Sonic shows up playing a guitar, singing and speeding around. It's a bit grating but also self aware, and it's terribly 90's. Sonic SatAM's voice actor is the flamboyant Jaleel White, the same actor who voiced Sonic in The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, White is best known for playing nebbish next-door neighbour Steve Urkel on the hit sitcom Family Matters, and here he's fun but overwhelming.
Thankfully, he's much more mellow when interacting with other characters. There's a fun big brother vibe with him and Tails. He's loud but a good dude, leaping in to save Tails from a robot while mouthing off to Robotnik.
If there's a downside to the episode, it's how much it needs to set up the world of power rings, freedom fighters, princesses, and robotising. All of this is balanced out by very clear character interactions between the Freedom Fighters, Sonic's gang of anti-Robotnik friends. Bunnie's the tough gal, Antoine's a fop, Rotor does machines. I don't know if I care about the setting itself, but I like the characters within it. They have clear roles and personalities that work well with each other.
Sally doesn't have time for any of your bullshit.
Sonic's cool, but he definitely needs another character to balance him out, which is where Princess Sally comes in. I appreciate that a kid's cartoon finds time for another character to actually chastise the hero and remind him to be a team player. Princess Sally also serves as one more strong character for young girls to identify with. This wasn't lost on nine year old Heather, and I remain a big fan of Sally and Bunnie to this day.
The latter half of the episode cuts a difference between cartoon shenanigans and hints of something else. Sonic and Tails head off to the city to fetch cotter pins so that the Freedom Fighters' catapults will work. It's a bit of a random item fetch quest, but it's largely an excuse to give viewers a closer look at how rundown and fetid the world outside of the forest has become under Robotnik.
The series uses a lot of visual shorthand to express environmental themes. It's a marriage of Captain Planet's focus on factories and economics combined with Fern Gully's romantic natural spaces. The Freedom Fighters can build a perfectly suitable home in the forest; Robotnik consumes and constructs without care. Things are both serious and cartoony. Sonic runs into his robotised dog and there's a bit of a dramatic "I know there's still good in you" moment that plays out.
At the same time, we have Robotnik's evil plan of destroying the forest and using a "Hedgehog seeking missile" to talk Sonic down. At times, the pilot feels like it's trying to be too many things at once: dark reimagining, wacky slapstick, cute character show, fantasy allegory.
It doesn't all mesh, and it really falls apart when Sonic and Tails are surrounded by robots. Just before they get captured, they just bust out a power ring and dash away. It's a strange deus ex machina that provides a "Get Out of Trouble Free" card that feels a bit cheap, even for a kids show.
They should celebrate. It was a fun episode!
The rest of the episode is light enough, with a little bit of teamwork (and catapult action) allowing the Freedom Fighters to drive off Robotnik's baddies with some water balloons. Thank goodness for finely crafted cotter pins, am I right? It ends with some banter between Sonic and Sally that makes me think of the light-hearted ribbing between Nathan Drake and Elena. A charming end to a pretty fun bit of Sonic the Hedgehog action.
Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed heading back to this episode of Sonic SatAM. It's a solid baseline for an exciting reimagining of our favourite hedgehog. It has a little bit of 90's wonkiness and struggles to find footing. But when it clicks and the characters are kicking things back and forth, it's a damn good time.
Even after 24 years.
I want to head back to explore the entire series. If you had a good time looking back at Sonic the Hedgehog, let me know. I'd love to rewatch and chat all about it with you.