Interview with Tom Kalinske

Tom Kalinske was the CEO of Mattel from 1985 to 1987, CEO of Sega of America from 1990 to 1996 and CEO of LeapFrog from 1997 to 2006. He is currently Chairman of Global Education Learning, dedicated to children's education in Asia. I conducted a phone interview with Mr. Kalinske in July 2011 on the topic of Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog.


First of all I would like to ask you about the animosities between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. I talked to others about this and I noticed that there was some sort of conflict between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. For example, Sega of Japan had an entirely different console — the Saturn — and Sega of America which had its own project, the 32X. And maybe you can shed some light on that.

Okay, I see it a little bit differently. There were certainly cultural differences, and I think the biggest cultural difference was when I first came on board the Genesis. And you know I went to Japan after having worked for a few months on this and said to the Japanese board “We have to be successful in the United States, we can't include Altered Beast, we have to lower the price, we gotta include Sonic the Hedgehog, and we gotta do more sports titles and we gotta do them in the U.S and do American licenses and we're gonna take Nintendo on directly in our advertising” and they said “Oh, we don't agree with anything you said and Hayao Nakayama got up to leave and at the end he said “Well, I hired you to make the company successful so go ahead and do what you want”.

In many respects, there may have been conflict, but they also basically let us do what we wanted for quite a long time, and I think the 32X is another example of that. At the end of the Genesis’ lifecycle, we knew that other competitors were working on 32bit technology. And we were really simply trying to expend the life of the Genesis. We knew that the 32x wasn't a significant new platform, everyone knew that, the idea was that we could at least make a claim of 32 bit technology to extend the life of the Genesis.

I actually think that that worked pretty well, because the Saturn wasn't ready to introduce, in fact it wasn't ready next year when we had to introduce it. I would say that that was the bigger time of conflict with Japan; we were basically gonna be forced to introduce Saturn, there wasn't enough software available for it, the price of the chipset, in our opinion, was too expensive, there was limited production capacity, we couldn't get enough units to do a introduction that would satisfy all retailers in the United States. So we had to say “Okay, we'll do a limited introduction and we'll only introduce it with the top three retailers and we'll lead everyone else out.” They won't get any profit. Well, that made everyone very upset. You know, it was a ridiculous thing to do frankly. But, I would say that was the bigger conflict, not the conflict over whether to do a 32X or not.

Speaking of the Saturn, there was a 2D Sonic the Hedhehog project that ended up as Knuckles Chaotix for the 32X. It was supposed to have the Sonic & Tails characters and they were cut. What was that about?

Yeah I remember it. It was another one of these things where we just needed titles, because we didn't have enough. The original game was long and it was taking too long to get done, so the decision was made to cut it into parts and introduce it quickly on 32x and that was a simple decision because there were too many needs to have more products on the 32X, it wasn't going to be ready on Saturn, it was too big, it was taking too long, it was over budgeted, it was behind schedule — all those reasons.


You had a partnership with Michael Jackson. I know that was part of your strategy to include famous people into games. Did you reach out to Michael Jackson? Or did he reach out to Sega?

No, we really reached out to him. We made visits to him to get him interested in doing basically Thriller on the Genesis. And then he ended up liking it so much, and was quite involved in the development process, and he used to come up to the office quite frequently (this was after Thriller was done and released) and he would just come up and play different games, he loved Sonic the Hedgehog. He would just come up to the office and sit in the R&D area and play different games as they were being developed. So, he actually had a kind of a view of what was coming out in the future well before when most other people did.

It must have been a disappointment when the scandal broke out and you had to stop the collaboration. As I understand, he was somewhat involved with the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 3

Well, I don't know quite who you're talking to; you got a bunch of things wrong in there. There were decisions made that were created by Michael and his lawyers and basically it was mutual. It wasn't Sega's pushing idea that we would dissociate from him at all. There were many factors involved and several different aims involved and the decision was mutual that until he resolved his legal issues, which he was quite confident he was gonna be able to do, that we should stop collaborating together for a short period of time. And that's basically what happened.

Have you have you tried to bring someone like Michael Jackson and didn't succeed? Was there any story that, for example, almost happened but didn't?

I can't really remember, you know. We had so many celebrities involved with us. We had MC Hammer involved with us, we had, of course, Joe Montana, we had many many different athletes, we had Evander Holyfield, Muhammad Ali. We had many different celebrities involved with us on different games.

Sonic's beginnings

Do you remember the first time you saw Sonic? Was it your initiative or was it a developer who came up with the idea of Sonic? Was it part of a strategy to find a mascot?

First of all when I came on board, Sonic's development was already under way. But when I came on board in late 1989, it was one of the things that I said the company needed to do. I felt that the company really needed to have an equivalent to Mario to represent Sega. I was told that they agreed in Japan and they agreed in the U.S and that those efforts were underway and that research was underway on many many different characters. And I saw a lot of that very shortly after I joined the company. It was your usual cast of characters – dog characters, and rabbit characters, and bear characters – all kinds of different characters. And the hedgehog was one of them.

And that turned out to be the one that I think everybody was most interested in, for a variety of reasons. One was that it was a very unusual-looking character, and second was this whole idea that Yuji Naka had of making him move faster than any other character. So you know, the team of Naka and Ohshima really did a good job of initial positioning of the character to make Sonic so fast and to make him sort of a smart-aleck. So that part of it we all liked. There were other parts we didn't like – the initial Sonic that I saw was “too edgy” I would say for the United States market at the time. He had fangs, very sharp fangs, and looked menacing. He had sharp spikes down his back. So we didn't like that. So we asked Japan, actually based on research we did, to tone that down and to get rid of the fangs and the sharp sharp spikes.

He had a girlfriend that was really busty named Madonna and we said “no, that's not a good idea, Madonna would sue us”, and it's also not a good idea to have a sexy girlfriend. If you're trying to develop a character that's like Mario, appealing to all age groups – boys and girls. So there was a lot of stuff like that that we asked to be changed, and they did. But, they kept the strength of the character, he was a little bit edgy, a little bit of a smart-aleck and he was certainly faster and more controllable than any character there had ever been. It was also simple to draw Sonic. I don't know if you realized that, but most of the great licensed characters, even true to this day, are really simple to draw.

You mentioned Madonna. Was it just a concept art or was Madonna in the game?

She was going to be in the game, she was going to be his girlfriend and be in almost all of the games. And she was the wrong girlfriend for him to have and actually changed it to another girl character who was much less “sexy” if you will. I can't remember her name though; she's in a lot of the games. [Her name was Amy.]


I would like to thank Mr. Kalinske for taking the time to speak with me.

See also