Sonic the Hedgehog is the reason I got into gaming. I'm not trying to over-dramatise that, as I'm sure if it wasn't for him there would be some other 90s mascot that triggered my lifelong hobby - Donkey Kong, perhaps. It definitely wouldn't have been Mario, however, because he's always struck me as a bit of a twat despite being the star of many wonderful games. But for me it was Sonic, and that means something.
You can always spot someone who grew up on SEGA, as they tend to have a more entertaining and developed sense of humour than children of the SNES. They also don't take things so seriously. Maybe it's because they realise the Mega Drive had worse games. Here's the reality: Nintendo won. But SEGA had Comix Zone and Streets of Rage, which is more than Nintendo will ever be able to say.
And it had Sonic. It had Sonic 2. Maybe Super Mario World was a better game, but it will never hold a candle to Sonic 2. It doesn't have the same feeling, and it certainly doesn't have the soul.
The Mega Drive also had the comparative mess that was Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but let's just gloss right over that one for now.
I remember roughly when Sonic the Hedgehog came out in 1991; I would be five in a couple of months, and it was one of the first times when the advertising worked. SEGA in the 90s were pretty much going for the same line that Microsoft would try in 2011 - loads of black everywhere, and the pretence that it was for edgy people who loved the thrill of alternative. SEGA never had as many berks on skateboards, however. To be this good takes AGES? I was hooked.
My cousin had a Mega Drive. His family was slightly better off financially than mine, though at the time I certainly wasn't old enough to understand economics. I saw the game running at his house and I was in love. I needed it. I would go to sleep thinking about Sonic the Hedgehog, and I would talk about Sonic the Hedgehog when I woke up. I don't know if you've ever felt like you have a wide, gaping hole in the core of your being that can only be filled by rampant consumerism relating to one particular item, but that's how I felt about Sonic. I asked, begged, and pleaded for a Mega Drive with Sonic the Hedgehog.
I got a Master System with no games, which meant I had to make do with Alex Kidd in Miracle World - it was built-in to the machine. It was cheaper, and my Mum and Dad couldn't afford a Mega Drive. I was devastated, but the Christmas when my Dad plugged in the Master System will be the most memorable of my entire life, at least until I have kids of my own.
Eight months later - eight - and it was my birthday. I was allowed a present. I asked for Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System. It wasn't the same as the Mega Drive version, of course, and it certainly didn't burst out of the screen glistening with the colour palette of a bag of Skittles, but it still had something. It was fast. It was beautiful. The level design was still pretty good despite the complete lack of Sonic's defining loop-de-loop moments.
I played it every day for months. Here's a fact for the kids of today: there was no way to save and resume your progress in this game. I still beat it, however. Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System was the first game I ever completed.
I eventually got a Mega Drive. I had to beg for it, mind, but my Mum eventually relented and broke down - it cost her far more money than she had, and she had to buy it on credit and spent absolutely years paying it off. I am convinced nobody will ever do something of this significance for me again in my entire life.
As a child, I was part of a family of five that lived entirely off income support. Between getting a Master System and a Mega Drive my father had left, virtually never to be seen again. I used to have to be segregated from my friends at lunch time, and queue up with the other poor children for free school dinners. It was humiliating. But I had a Mega Drive, and I had Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2.
I find family conversation pretty difficult, so I've never been able to tell my mother that I understand just how difficult it must have been for her to afford the machine. I doubt I will ever be able to repay her.
My fascination with Sonic continued well into the nineties. About a year after Sonic the Hedgehog 3 came out - sometime in 1995 - I convinced the owner of a local pawn shop to let me have a pre-owned copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 for less than the price he was selling it for. I basically stood at the counter and whined until he broke down.
This love for Sonic infected my whole family. My mother - a single parent of four boys - was quickly forced to understand the alien world of boy's toys. She'll never say it out loud, but I expect she always hoped for girls. The Mega Drive was at the top of the list of things she had to get to grips with, and Sonic the Hedgehog its crowning jewel.
It was more than just the games. She had to both learn and instruct me on how to operate the video player (for kids: Imagine something like Sky+, except massive towering constructions that required you to understand four thousand buttons on a remote control to record something off the telly) to record both the regular and darker Saturday AM animated series, stand next to me weekly while I read entire issues of Sonic the Comic in WHSmith, and put up with me during a period of my life when I would basically only want an item of clothing if it had Sonic the Hedgehog on it.
In retrospect, I have no idea how she did it. If I ever have daughters, I'm fairly sure I'd never be able to understand why Hannah Montana is good.
One of my brothers - 5 years younger than me - also got into video games as a child. He grew out of them. I didn't. But the first game he owned? Sonic & Knuckles. That cartridge used to connect with Sonic 3 to give you the 'full' game, and my brother and I used to share the two games with one another. It was okay: there were multiple save slots available.
I don't play the new Sonic games. They're shit, and I'm not blinded by nostalgia. But, sometimes, I'll take one of the older games for a spin and allow myself to relive those emotions - that sense of materialistic hunger that would, as I grew older, manifest in the desire to write about games. It's usually Sonic 3 & Knuckles I play, actually, despite my firm belief that it's vastly inferior to the first and second games. I am a fountain of contradictions.
Those early days of Sonic will always be a part of my family history. There is a picture of my three brothers and me over the mantelpiece in the living room of my family home. It's me before I reached the teenage years, all beaming smile and dodgy haircut.
And, yes, I'm wearing a Sonic t-shirt.
VideoGamer.com has also put together a retrospective of Sonic's highs and lows on his 20th anniversary.