Looking back on 30 years of ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ with composer Jun Senoue

With three decades of 'Sonic' behind us, we spoke to the man that soundtracked most of them

In the course of 30 years, Sonic The Hedgehog has become a cultural icon, and the music from his games has provided soundtracks for several generations of gamers. We tracked down Jun Senoue, Sonic’s musical guru since 1993.

Three decades ago this year, a pop-culture phenomenon whirled into life on the Sega Mega Drive. At the time, he seemed an unlikely future standard-bearer for the games industry – Sonic The Hedgehog was a lurid shade of blue, didn’t really look anything like a hedgehog and moved about twenty times quicker than any hedgehog that ever existed in real life.

Yet 1991’s Sonic The Hedgehog was a fine game, using unprecedented speed to take platform-gaming to a whole new area, selling a mind-boggling 24million units in 30 years (with mobile versions taken into account), while the Sonic franchise overall has shifted a staggering 140million units, putting it right up there with the games industry’s biggest money-spinners.

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The universally lovable Sonic, meanwhile, caught the public imagination to such an extent that he spawned an outrageous body of merchandising. Ivo Gerscovich, Chief Sonic Brand Officer at Sega US, picks his highlights of that: “The ones which really left an impression with me over the years have to include the Sonic Spaghetti and the Sonic and Knuckles-themed diapers — and who could forget the Sonic The Hedgehog curry or the Sonic toaster?” Sonic has starred in his own feature film – with a sequel due for an April 2022 release – and made cameos in countless games, including various Olympics-themed ones with one-time arch-rival Mario, Minecraft, Fall Guys and Monster Hunter.

Sonic in Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise. Credit: Capcom

The implausible, jet-heeled blue hedgehog, then, has evolved into a true cultural icon over the last 30 years. But there’s another key factor in his enduring popularity: the music that soundtracks his games. Typically either poppy and 80s-influenced or rockish in a commercial manner, it may not fall into stereotypical NME-reader territory, but the music accompanying stages like Green Hill Zone in the first game and Speed Highway in Sonic Adventure, along with the likes of Escape from the City, the theme to Sonic Adventure 2, have the power to induce near-Pavlovian responses in several generations of gamers.

Masato Nakamura, drafted in from the J-Pop band Dreams Come True, set the initial tone as music composer for Sonic The Hedgehog 1 and 2 but for the last 28 years, since 1993’s Sonic The Hedgehog 3, the series’ music has been primarily composed by Jun Senoue. Senoue, dividing his time between San Francisco and Tokyo, proved a tricky man to track down, but we managed to grill him via email.

Nowadays, with streaming services’ diminished returns for musicians compounded at the moment by Covid-19’s destruction of the live scene, any musician would jump at the chance to make music for video games. But back in 1993, it was an unusual move. The 23-year-old Senoue had taught himself to play guitar aged 15, but was also a keen gamer, and sent demo tapes to Namco and Sega, who hired him: “I think every guitarist has dreams of performing in arenas and being a rock star. But at that point, I knew I just wanted to be making music. I’d been interested in playing games since the early 80s, be it on the home computer or at the arcade. With that said, the Sonic franchise was no doubt the first game that ignited my interest in games.”

He waxes lyrical about how his association with Sonic unfolded: “I love music, and the fact that my music has had an impact on so many millions of people is very special. Since I started playing the original Sonic The Hedgehog back in the early 90s, I have always had this respect for who he is, and his infectious spirit is still inspiring me today. He has a vibe that is so energised and ready to go at any time. It is so cool seeing what he represents to so many generations throughout his 30 years. Sonic will forever be a huge part of my growing up, and I am extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to compose some of the most impressive songs for the franchise.”

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Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic Adventure 2. Credit: SEGA

In 2000, Senoue formed a band called Crush40, with a conventional guitar, bass, vocals. keys and drums format purveying a hard rock sound, to broaden the horizons of the music he was creating for the Sonic games, and it soon developed a live following. Asked to itemise his favourites among the songs he has composed for Sonic games, he highlights the different types of tracks you’re liable to come across while playing a Sonic game: “I’d say ‘I Am… All Of Me’ and ‘What I’m Made Of…’ from the Crush40 songs. ‘Escape From the City’ (Sonic Adventure 2) and ‘Believe in Myself’ (Sonic Adventure) from my non-Crush40 vocal songs. As for the instrumental songs, I’d say ‘Speed Highway’ (Sonic Adventure), ‘Radical Highway’ (Sonic Adventure 2) and ‘Seaside Hill’ (Sonic Heroes). It is so hard to pick my favourite tracks.”

He also has some news that will delight aficionados of the music of Sonic games: “I am currently working on a few newly arranged tracks of popular Sonic songs called Sonic Sessions. They will be released through social channels, and I will release them as an album in February 2022, so please look out for that. I can’t wait to perform those songs in front of everyone sometime soon.”

Sonic The Hedgehog officially turned 30 on June 23 this year, and to mark that occasion, Sega celebrated the franchise’s music. Senoue was, of course, heavily involved: “There was an online concert called the Sonic 30th Anniversary Symphony for his [Sonic’s] birthday this year and I participated in it as Crush 40 with my songs. The band was in Japan, the singer, Johnny, was in the US and the orchestra was in Europe, so it was a very global project and an exciting event.”

It was greeted enthusiastically by Sonic fans, although another 30th-anniversary gig, a 30 November DJ set by notorious purveyor of EDM cheese Steve Aoki with a background of Sonic visuals, didn’t go down so well with the fan-base, many of whom complained that it barely included any music from the Sonic games.

So, how does one go about making music for a game? Senoue acknowledges that playing each segment of the game is important, but intuition also seems to play a part in his process: “When I can check the development version of the game, the experience of playing it can help me find the right tempo for the music. I can count on imagination when composing music from sketches and words. At all times, the first impression is very important to me.”

He also acknowledges the two styles of music he is known for via the Sonic games: “I grew up listening to 80s-style synth-pop music and have played lots of rocky songs as cover bands, so both are my background. I like listening to a wide range of music, from classic rock to metal, Japanese anime theme songs to smooth jazz. And I basically like to perform aggressive rock music.

“With that said, video game music is linked to scenes and the experience, whereas with my band, the music is simply the music we feel we need to play. As for when I’m making music for a game, it depends on what the game is about, what are the themes, the setting, the motivation, the emotion we’re trying to convey to the player. All of that comes into consideration when writing the music for a game.”

Despite his 28-year association with Sonic, Senoue isn’t a one-trick pony – he has written music for a wide range of games, mostly published by Sega, which encompasses the likes of Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition and Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll. What has he been working on recently? “I’ve been busy with Colorful Stage: Hatsune Miku. It is a music game featuring vocals by both Vocaloids and voice actors. It’s been just over one year since its launch and has gained popularity here in Japan.”

But of course he has also been working on the music for Sonic Frontiers, the recently announced game which will be the first to place the blue hedgehog in an open world, and is due to be released in late 2022: “This game is going to broaden how we view Sonic games, and I’m so excited for 2022.”

Senoue signs off with an elegant tribute to Sonic’s enduring popularity, and his ability to transcend the boundaries of videogames: “Sonic still, to this day, embodies transformation and vitality, so the soundtracks throughout the years, in my opinion, are so pivotal to the past, present and future of Sonic. I think the fact I get to talk to NME, which was a magazine I remember seeing when I was younger, is a testament to what a cultural phenomenon Sonic is.”

But the last word goes to Ivo Gerscovich, who acknowledges the key part that music has played in raising Sonic to such an exalted position in the pop-culture firmament: “Music has always been an important part of what goes into making the franchise feel like Sonic. Even from the very beginning, many people will instantly recognise the music of the original Green Hill Zone as Sonic, even beyond core Sonic fans. It has become iconic. And that has continued over the years with music in the later games. Music adds so much to the overall experience, and delivering a great soundtrack has always been an important part of what goes into making a Sonic game. Depending on at what point in your life you first discovered Sonic, our intention has always been that the music will stay with you, as we saw with the Sonic 30th Anniversary Symphony this past June.”

The next Sonic entry – Sonic Frontiers – is set to launch in 2022.

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