Sunday, June 28, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Three: Name Origins for Sonic the Hedgehog

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather lengthy “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


There’s not all that much to say about Sonic the Hedgehog himself, but his arch-nemesis is a bit more complicated. Much in the manner that Peach was once Toadstool in the U.S. but was always Peach in Japan, the Sonic villain most of us grew up with no longer goes by the name Doctor Robotnik all the time. He is now sometimes Eggman, though he always had that name in Japan.

robotnik then, eggman now, and the roosevelt who inspired it all

Robotnik happens to mean worker in Polish. Robotnik was even the name of the newspaper of the Polish Socialist Party. Is Sonic, then, crusading against socialism? Probably not. Robotnik comes from the same origins as the word robot, and the Sonic villain should be known for robot creation if nothing else. Today, Robotnik goes by the far less cool name Doctor Eggman, in apparent reference to his rotund physique. By the way, on the subject of the character’s appearance, his looks — including his trademark mustache — were inspired by those of Teddy Roosevelt.

A commenter calling himself Generic pointed out that even later games seem to retain Robotnik as the character’s family name, even in Japan. For example, Sonic Adventure 2 and Shadow the Hedgehog both feature a kindlier member of the family, Maria Robotnik.

An anonymous commenter had a particularly intricate theory about why Sega changed the character’s name in the U.S. Here’s how he put it, though I should note that I shortened some of his sentences and changed some formatting.
The reason why his name was changed to Dr. Ivo Robotnik when introduced to the English-speaking world was because Sega feared a lawsuit, more than likely due to the estate of John Lennon concerning the Eggman title. Actually, one of the new names chosen for the portly scientist was the nonsensical Dr. Badvibes....

Going with
Ivo Robotnik in itself could be a joke on John Lennon. Robotnik translated from its Czech roots [could also be rendered] as “slave worker.” Ivo, the first name, in itself is shortened from Ivor, which is a variation on the name Ivan that has roots in the Russian/Scandinavian language. Ivan to boot is the Russian/Scandinavian version of John. But, if you remember, John [Lennon] was The Eggman [in the Yellow Submarine song “I Am the Eggman.” Translated from the Slavic meaning, Ivo Robotnik could mean John the Slave Worker — or as the [John Lennon solo song] John the Working Class Hero.
The comment concludes with the note that in the Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday morning cartoon, Robotnik was given the first name Julian, which happens to be the name of John Lennon’s first son. In all, it’s very interesting. It’s also a stretch, though perhaps only as much as other theories that I thought up myself. I’m not sure if the Eggman moniker would have been enough to elicit a lawsuit from the Lennon estate.

Sonic’s sidekick Tails has two names, as well — the one everyone knows and his “real” name, Miles Prower. It might seem like a useless footnote, but it brings the added benefit of being a pun on the phrase miles per hour. (Ha.) It should probably be noted that joke would make a lot more sense if Tails was known for running quickly instead of flitting about with his helicopter tail.

Similar issues exist for the Sonic series damsel, Amy Rose. She debuted in Sonic CD, whose English language version named her Rosy the Rascal. The name similar to that of Rosie the Riveter, which would make sense if the game’s translators wanted to give the character a sense of empowerment.

rascal, princess modern-day hammer-swinger

To complicate matters further, the English instruction manuals for certain releases of Sonic CD also referred to the character as Princess Sally, a different love interest for Sonic popularized in the non-cannon comics and cartoons. (For the record, Sally and other characters from the comics did appear in one actually game, Sonic Spinball.) Regardless, the character soon after became known in English-speaking markets as she had always been known in Japan and is known today: Amy Rose.

Commenter castaspella noted one bit of interesting information regarding this character. It’s not especially name-related but seemed worth noting anyhow: Amy or a character a lot like her was at one point planned to be Sonic’s sister. Sega had initially planned on reworking the RPG-tinged platforming title Popful Mail into a game called Sister Sonic, replacing the original characters with this prototype distaff hedgehog. Sister Sonic never came to pass, however, and eventually Popful Mail made it to the U.S. without being so drastically altered.

The majority of Sonic characters aren’t of much use for this article, as their names are straightforward. (Knuckles the Echidna, for example, is an echidna who has pointy knuckles. Not much to work with there.) There are, however, two characters that time has essentially forgotten, Ray the Flying Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo, that I think deserve a mention. Both debuted in an arcade game, SegaSonic the Hedgehog, that allowed players to control Sonic, Ray and Mighty with a trackball and a single jump button. The three moved identically.

left to right: flight, speed, and power

Despite what their names might imply, Ray could not fly and Mighty was not especially powerful. Lame, I know. And I think Sega thought so too, as Ray never appeared again and Mighty appeared only once more. However, latter-day Sonic games such as Sonic Heroes frequently feature characters grouped into threes — one that can move fast, one that can fly, and one especially that is strong. If you think about it, these three attributes are reflected in the names of the leads in SegaSonic the Hedgehog. In the sense of light, a ray is an airborne thing, while the associations with the word mighty are obvious. In this sense, SegaSonic the Hedgehog’s take on the three-man team could be seen as a precursor to what appeared in later games.

Two other quick ones: A few Sonic games feature a ninja chameleon named Espio, and I only recently realized that the reference to the word espionage makes the name the most appropriate one ever for a ninja chameleon.

Sega jumped on the fighting game craze in 1996 with Sonic the Fighters, which had the various Sonic characters kicking the crap out of each other for no apparent reason. The cast included a character whose name bucks the pattern of “name + the + animal species” — a bomb-tossing duck saddled with the baffler Bean the Dynamite.

explosive waterfowl

The odd name references the lesser known Sega title Dynamite Dux, which starred ducks named Bin and Pin who also specialized in explosive devices.

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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