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The Evolution of the Freedom Fighters

11/10 - Written by PorpoiseMuffins

Back in the early 90s when Sonic the Hedgehog was still fresh on the gaming scene—back before Knuckles the Echidna, Cream the Rabbit, Rouge the Bat, or Shadow the Hedgehog were even a flicker in the creative minds at Sonic Team—there was another cast of characters supporting our lovable blue hero in the western world: The Freedom Fighters. Featured in western-developed cartoons, comics, books, merchandise, and established in Sega of America's own internal continuity, this diverse team of forest critters was well known to many fans as Sonic's definitive group of friends.

Yet today, even the lengthiest—borderline colossal—lists of Sonic characters published by Sega pass the Freedom Fighters over without so much as a mere mention. So where did they come from, and where did they go? Did Sonic pack up and leave his old friends in the dust? Let's take a look at the history of this somewhat neglected group of Sonic characters.

Sonic 1 | June 1991

Our story begins at the birth of the Sonic franchise itself: Sonic 1 on the SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive. It began as a simple environmental allegory about technology in the hands of evil: Sonic's animal forest friends are being rounded up by the sinister Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Dr. Eggman in Japan) and trapped inside robotic creatures (“badniks”) doomed to do his bidding. Sonic serves a beacon of freedom; a solitary hero able to come to the aid of the rest of the animal citizenry.

So, where am I going with this? Well, this “animal population” is where the Freedom Fighters come in. Think I'm stretching things a bit? Bear with me.

Contrary to popular belief, the saga of the Freedom Fighters begins very early on in the development of the Sonic franchise; well before these characters were actually known by their collective title. Remember those little animals that popped out of Robotnik's badniks when you destroyed them? There were seven different characters (we'll call them the “tiny animals” since they were so... tiny—and it's the term that has stuck). While the American/European version of the Sonic 1 manual only references the tiny animals in passing, the Japanese version actually bestows each of these animals with its own identity and corresponding image in the section on “Story”:

Scans courtesy of Sonic Retro. From left to right (translated): Pecky the penguin, Ricky the squirrel, Picky the pig, Rocky the walrus, Cucky the chicken, Pocky the Rabbit, and Flicky the bird.

The tiny animals even got plushies in Japan!

We recognize the “Flicky” right away for its role in Sega's 1984 Flicky arcade game and its prominent role in Sonic 3D Blast. But whatever became of these other characters? As far as we know in Japan, very little ever did—they stayed tiny. In the western territories, however, things were a bit different.

Now, here's where things really start to get interesting (and you hopefully start to see that I'm not quite so crazy after all). As each division of Sega began developing its own mythology (the Great Sonic Continuity Debate explores this in much greater detail), the tiny animals began popping up in surprising places.

The Sonic Bible | 1991

The Sonic Bible was an internal document developed by Sega of America during the production of Sonic 1 for use in western territories. It gives descriptions and backgrounds for each of the characters in the game, including the tiny animals.

Below is a scan from the June 24th 1991 revision of the Bible (Draft II)

The seven tiny animals are given western names: Johnny Lightfoot the rabbit, Sally Acorn the squirrel, Porker Lewis the pig, Chirps the chicken, Tux the penguin, Flicky the bluebird (unchanged), and Joe Sushi the walrus.

This figure, also dated 1991, provides further evidence of Sally Acorn's early origins. It is one of a series of six fève figures released in France (Thanks Elisto Dragonwings for spotting this!).

The Promo Comic | June 1991

This promotional comic on the origin of Sonic and Robotnik was widely distributed in North America and Europe through gaming publications and outlets like Blockbuster Video and Disney Magazine.

Pay close attention to the appearance of the tiny animals:


Notice anything? The squirrel character is now fitted with a little pink bow! Although she is not mentioned by name, it's clear that Ricky's western counterpart has changed genders (My theory: SoA thought the cast was a little too male dominated for progressive western tastes). Also notice here that one of the tiny animals, Porker Lewis, is explicitly called by name. Sound familiar? This is in fact the same name given for the character in the aforementioned Sonic bible.

Although most of the ideas presented in this promo issue were not considered “canon” for long, it is still a must read for anyone interested in Sonic mythology. Canon or not, it's possibly the first Sonic backstory ever created and widely distributed.

Stay Sonic | 1993

Stay Sonic was the "official SEGA handbook" for the Sonic series, published by Sega of Europe. The book—with it's distinct British humor—provides further insight into the Freedom Fighter saga.

Much of the book's contents, including the character page above, is copied straight out of the Sonic bible. This may be the first time that all of Sonic's friends are named in a public source.

Sonic the Comic | 1993


Meet Johnny Lightfoot and Porker Lewis in their fully evolved forms. Sonic the Comic (StC), the officially licensed comic series developed in the UK, featured a Freedom Fighter team originally consisting of Sonic, Tails, Johnny, and Porker.

The StC Freedom Fighters, later joined by Amy.

“We talked about a new direction for Sonic in which Robotnik would become the dictator of Mobius and Sonic would form a gang of freedom fighters. Suddenly the possibility of far more interesting stories presented itself.

The Freedom Fighter idea was suggested to me at this meeting and it turned out that it was a suggestion of the (supportive) woman we were dealing with at Sega Europe. So it seemed to me that, on balance, it would probably not be a good move for me to reject this idea at this stage. I wanted the work so I said that the Freedom Fighter idea was great (I actually wasn’t too sure). I later realized that our Sega contact had probably taken this idea from the TV series although I had no knowledge of this series at the time. So that was how the Freedom Fighter idea came to me and I went away to develop it. But all I had to work with was the term ‘Freedom Fighters’ and no more. I do remember thinking for a while that I might use a Robin Hood kind of scenario.

As far as the members of the group were concerned I just selected a few characters that I thought would work from the game handbook and whatever else I had to hand. I should mention here also that at the meeting in London my editor had mentioned the books Stay Sonic and I had managed to buy a copy. I used several ideas from this book but I can’t remember what exactly. I also may well have had some stuff related to the cartoon series by this point – but this would have just been character info. I don’t remember anything telling me about the plot of the TV series. I did decide to use Snively from the TV stuff but was told I wouldn’t be able to do this as it belonged to the TV production company and wasn’t available to us. I changed Snively into Grimer who, I think, turned out to be a better character as a result."

-StC head writer, Nigel Kitching, in an email exchange with Saturday Morning Sonic

Although not one of the main Freedom Fighters, Sally also has a brief cameo in Sonic the Comic (bow included).

A series of picture books published in the UK by Ladybird also featured the tiny animals. Strangely, the Sally Acorn character is two-tailed. Perhaps the artist mixed her up with Tails? (EDIT: The dual-tailed phenomenon also appears in some of the early Japanese artwork of Ricky)

Early SatAM / Archie | 1992-1993

Back before SatAM aired in the UK, Sonic the Comic featured an advertisement to watch for a new Sonic series from DiC that would feature “The Freedom Team,” composed of Johnny Lightfoot, Tux, Sonic, Joe Sushi, Chirps, Porker Lewis, Flicky, and a very different Princess Acorn. This appears to be a prototype version of SatAM before the character roster was finalized. Although it has little in common with SatAM's final form, it demonstrates that the SatAM Freedom Fighter characters were more than likely also inspired by the tiny animals.

We asked StC writer Nigel Kitching about the images and here's what he had to say:

"This is just artwork that Fleetway had – looks American to me, it was certainly not produced by any of us UK freelancers. I just ignored stuff like this."
-Nigel Kitching

Sometime between the production of this artwork and the airing of SatAM in September 1993, the cast was reconceived to arrive at the line-up of Sally, Bunnie, Rotor, and Antoine from SatAM and the Archie comics. Princess Sally, of course, was based on the earlier versions of Sally Acorn. Rotor/Boomer was probably roughly based on Joe Sushi, with Bunnie (very) roughly based on Johnny Lightfoot.

This prototype SatAM intro, featured on the The Complete Series box set, perhaps offers a missing link. Sally, for example, is closer to her design in StC and the promo comic:

And this animation cel, which appears to be from the same sequence:

An early version of the SatAM writer's bible also provides insight into the changes these characters underwent.

Sonic Spinball, released worldwide in 1993, was developed by the American development team at STI and is our single documented case of the Freedom Fighters actually appearing in a completed Sega title (albeit briefly).

Above: Bunnie, Rotor/Boomer, Muttski (Sonic's childhood pet dog), and Sally Acorn in her classic pink form.

These particular models reflect the earlier production art from SatAM and Archie and the character models used in the pilot episode of SatAM. Both Spinball and Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comics were under development at the same time as SatAM, resulting in some elements not matching up quite right, most notably Sally's design and coloration.

Above: Pink Sally graces the cover of Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comic mini-series, issue 1.

Here we have Bunnie, Rotor, and Sally as they appear in the pilot episode of SatAM. Even at this point, the Freedom Fighters hadn't quite fully undergone their evolution.

"As the comic series and the animated shows were simultaneously developed, the tight, advanced scheduling of the comic industry kept us from keeping up with last-minute changes made to the shows. This resulted in Sally being printed in various color schemes that didn't match her TV counterpart as well as Rotor being referred to as Boomer."

-Paul Castiglia, former editor of Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comics

Production art of the SatAM cast as they appear in season 1

This pretty much sums up our characters' journey from the birth of the franchise to the Freedom Fighters we know from SatAM, Archie, and the books and merchandise of the mid-90s. For more on the Freedom Fighters' connection to the larger world of Sonic, check out our article on the continuities.

Freedom Fighters Forever

The Freedom Fighters received a bit of a redesign in the comics, corresponding with the release of Sonic Adventure in 1999. They are pictured above in their current comic book form.

As of Fall 2010, the Freedom Fighters are still alive and well alongside their game counterparts in Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe comics, now led by Sonic-fan-turned-professional writer, Ian Flynn. Sonic the Comic ended in 2002 (although it continues in fan form).

So what does the future hold for the Freedom Fighters?

Sally, "Uekawa-style." By E-122-Psi

...One can dream, right?

Thanks to Nigel Kitching, Ben Hurst (RIP), Dean Sitton, Sonic Retro, Sonicgear.org, and Sonic HQ.

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