Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Extreme Etymology of Sonic the Hedgehog


I don't think it's a particular stretch to say that Sonic The Hedgehog was a significant part of my early childhood. Ever since I was but a wee lad in the early nineties, playing Sonic 2 on the Genesis before I was even toilet trained, I can say that I was incensed by the speed freak's fast-paced platforming escapades. Though I was too young and too poor to be able to catch other parts of the franchise as it was developing in the west--the Archie comics, the numerous cartoons (both good and bad), and its many storybooks, I did try my best to keep up with the franchise as it crossed consoles and generations. I didn't own all of the games--I still don't to this day--I always kept pace in some fashion with the nitro-fueled needle mouse, even as I watched him burn out in much the same way a lot of Nineties kids did.

However, even as the franchise continues its swings-and-roundabouts cycle of good and ill games and media, I can't help but appreciate how sublime the aesthetics and music of this franchise are. Say what you will of the mechanical dumbing down of recent entries or the fact that a lot of the games seem to not capture what made the original trilogy (or quadriology, if you want to count Sonic & Knuckles as its own game), or how basic the stories are and how one-note a lot of the cast has become, one thing that has stayed largely consistent through the franchise's over 30-year lifespan is the distinct and easily-readable character designs. Each of the characters in this franchise has a deliberate, intuitive design that gives you a nice at-a-glance idea of what they're about.

Sonic, as a franchise, is highly inspired by anime, particularly shounen anime. Dragon Ball is often cited as a particularly strong inspiration, and it's hard to dismiss that. Especially given how in the second game, Sonic quite literally goes Super Saiyan on a 100% run. But another big similarity (and to an extent, a big deviation) is the way in which each character is named. There's a distinct theming in the character names in Sonic that rather succinctly and effortlessly gives you a great high-concept idea of what they are. You look at a name and you can tell what they're good at, what sort of ability (or abilities, even) they have, or even their personality, to an extent.

You may be asking "Adam, are you seriously doing a deep-dive on the names of cartoon animals?". That's a great question. The answer is "yes". Let's run down some examples, bitches.

Let's start off with the big three. The main trio. Good 'ol Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. Team Sonic Heroes. As the three first characters designed as playable, they're all pretty simple on the surface. At least, that's how it seems at first blush. Sure, Sonic is easy to pin down--Sonic gets his name from the idea of moving at sonic speed (i.e. As fast as sound), sometimes going literally supersonic *as* Super Sonic. After that, you go to his best bro Tails. Right off the bat, you know he's named after his signature two tails, but then you pull it back and remember that "Tails" is actually not his name. It might be a middle name or a nickname, but his *given* name has always been Miles Prower. 

Say that to yourself a few times fast. Enough for it to slur in your mouth. Let it sink in: Miles Prower. As in "Miles per Hour". This lets you know that Tails, while perhaps not quite as fast as our mach-speed mammalian friend, can still book it when he needs to. However, there's another little hidden meaning, too. Recall, if you will, what he does through most of his debut game as the dedicated Player 2. He follows right behind Sonic, always keeping pace. Almost as if he's...tailing him.

See what I mean? There's an art to these names, and it only gets deeper the further you look into it.

And then there's Knuckles, rougher than the rest of them. The echidna who's tougher than leather and who'd rather flex his muscles. While yeah, his eponymous knuckles are a huge part of his design, he still wears the same white gloves the rest of the cast typically does, making his knuckles nice and white. That may be coincidental, but what isn't is how this design informs his penchant for pugilism. He's a rough-and-tumble, no-nonsense fighter that lets his fists do the talking. He may not be one for talking, but he's got the meanest right hook this side of Brooklyn.

Now let's take a walk on the dark side. That is to say, let's talk about Team Dark.

Shadow's name alludes to a lot of things. His dark demeanor, his mysterious past, his obviously darker color palette. However, as anyone who's studied psychology (or played the later Persona titles) can tell you, there's something distinctly Jungian about his design. The way he mirrors (and more importantly, contrasts) his blue-haired rival in looks and actions. The Shadow, as psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote, represents the unseen true nature behind every person's expressions. It's the Id. Tha unconscious desires and deeper self. We often see this side of him reflected, at least in the older games, by how much more introspective his compared to Sonic. While later games would dilute him into being a self-isolating edgelord, the earlier games portrayed a sense of stoic self-reflection in himself.

Rouge, by contrast, is a lot more cut and dry. On top of being a possibly intentional misspelling of the word "rogue"--as in, the term for a scoundrel, thief, outlaw, or otherwise unlawful type--it also refers to a type of makeup. Specifically, Rogue is a red pigment typically used on the lips or cheeks. While this little detail is...conspicuously absent,  she *does* sport some pretty noticeable eyeliner and eyeshadow. This tells us, visually, that she's a tad on the vain side. This, combined with her...notably voluptuous body design, is meant to evoke a definite Femme Fatale look, and in most games, that holds true in some fashion.

E-123 Omega is...honestly not much to write home about. His design looks cool, he's got a powerful build, but beyond that, he doesn't really have much, design-wise to speak of. He literally gets his name from the final letter of the Greek alphabet, used to denote the final or ultimate thing in a set. This is a fact he quite verbally, quite *frequently* expresses in his debut game, ad nauseum. It's honestly a bit too simple.

Team Rose is similarly simple, to the point where I can quite comfortably summarize all three in a single paragraph. Amy Rose's name is literally derived from the French "Amée" (Meaning Beloved) and the flower that in most parts of the world is the symbol of love and affection for someone. Perfectly fitting her archetypical "hopeless romantic" schtick. Cream the Rabbit is arguably the single nicest regular character in the franchise, and her species is typically seen as a symbol of hope, love, mobility, and all other sorts of things. It could potentially be tied to the "Hare of Inaba" myth, but we're already stretching as is, and nothing in her character has any lunar connotations besides the fact she can fly...somehow. And then there's Big. He's a big, dumb cat with a big, dumb name. Moving on.

Last on the major teams from the games is Team Chaotix. While there are far more than three members to this team, only three of them were ever really given much love by either SEGA of Japan or SEGA of America. So for the purposes of this article, we're only covering Espio, Charmy, and Vector. My condolences to any Ray the Flying Squirrel or Mighty the Armadillo fans out there.

Espio is probably the single best name of the bunch. His being a chameleon (a species with the innate ability to naturally camouflage itself) and his name is taken from the root of the word "Espionage" make it readily apparent that he's a master spy-- r in this case a masterful Ninja. A perfectly succinct and clever name that's easy on the eyes and tongue. A-plus there. Charmy, being a Honeybee, is supposed to be seen as the sweet little face of the team. Though this kinda falls flat when you consider what kind of voice is coming out of his mouth, he does support a nice chibi look about it. Maybe that was intentional? Chibi? Chi...bee?  Whatever--his design's all right, but his voice is ironically too grating to be considered charming. 

Vector's something of an odd duck in his team. As the supposed leader and muscle of the group, nothing about his name would immediately indicate his role...except his species. While Crocodiles are well known for being terrifyingly effective hunters, what is often forgotten is that they can get some serious distance out of their linear movement. What does the word "Vector" mean? On top of being a word for thrust for airplanes, it also refers to a symbol of direction consisting of a straight line from one point to another! Now *that* is some ingenious naming. Didn't think we'd get a math pun out of this, did you?

Now while all of these are some fun examples on their own, the games weren't the only place for some particularly poignant character naming schemes. Almost all of the official Sonic comics have some crackerjack character designs. While early on, they didn't really mesh with the actual look of the games, as we look to the sunsetting of the Archie Comics days and look forward to the still well-running IDW issues, there are some stand-outs amongst the crowd of author-insert OCs and timeline-ruining family trees.

To go over the Freedom Fighters from the Archie days, we can't really start with anyone else but the princess that made a lot of nineties kids furries, Sally Acorn. While her first name may not amount to much--being derived from the name of the Roman goddess of Saltwater, Salacia, her last name has some good symbolism to it. Acorns are a symbol of good luck and prosperity in some cultures, being representative of how small actions can have big impacts. In animal symbolism, Chipmunks like Sally represent the spirit of restlessness and preparation, as well as adventurous and curious spirits. All perfectly fitting traits for a go-getter princess leading a resistance movement.

While the rest of Sally's regular retinue isn't quite as deep as her, I can still rattle off a few good examples. Bunny Rabbot, while being a simple pun, is an inventive way to name a cybernetic lagomorph. Rotor the Walrus is a gentle giant who has a knack for machines. Antoine Depardieu is an honor-bound blowhard with a dubious French accent. Though the comics have way more examples, I admit, I'm not as familiar with the wider Archie Universe, as it had existed. 

The new IDW line, on the other hand, has a litany of characters that bring that classic style of naming back in full force. One of the first major standouts was Tangle the Lemur. She's a plucky young action heroine who loves to get stuck into fights with bad guys. She also makes great use of her tail to tie people down or use it as a sling. She certainly enjoys getting entangled in the action, is what I'm getting at. Ian Flynn and the others were seriously going for the pun game on this one.

The second, and perhaps most deep-cut of them? Whisper the Wolf. A cool-headed, soft-spoken guardian angel-type for the resistance, her design is brilliant. The new IDW continuity, in keeping with the game continuity of Sonic Forces, introduced "Wispons", weapons powered by the Wisps first introduced in Sonic Colors. Where Whisper comes into the equation is her custom Wispon, which is designed for long-range fighting. A wolf with a sniper rifle. A Sniper Wolf, if you will. The Metal Gear references don't end there, either. In her dedicated Mini-Series, we learn that Whisper used to run with a mercenary group called the "Diamond Cutters" that has some familiar-sounding characters, we have Smithy the Lion, the gang's gunsmith, Slinger the Ocelot (har), Clair Voyance the Monkey, and Mimic the Octopus. If the less-than-subtle Ocelot member wasn't a huge clue, the Diamond Cutters are one BIG sendup to the FOXHOUND Unit from the original Metal Gear Solid. Right down to the double-dealing cephalopod.

As we've demonstrated today, with some forethought to the visual and narrative intent of your characters, you can actually cram a lot of intuitive design for creating a Sonic-styled character. All you need to do is consider how their name informs their personality and abilities, then work out the aesthetics from there. Plus, hey, now that you're armed with this utterly esoteric and superfluous knowledge, you can avoid the curse of looking up what you'd potentially look like with the words "The Hedgehog" attached at the end.

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