It’s hard to believe that, as of this month, I’ve been duking it out with Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik for thirty years.
Ever since the mad doctor fluttered down in his iconic hovercraft and tried to smash my six-year-old face in with a checkered wrecking ball, he’s become a decades-long fixture in my life as a gamer, as well as those of countless others the world over. Very few video game villains today can stake such a claim. And as his arch-nemesis Sonic the Hedgehog once said, “Without villains, what’s a hero gonna do?” It’s high time, on the 30th anniversary of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, that we celebrate the career of one of gaming’s most well-known baddies.
“Without villains, what’s a hero gonna do?”
Believe it or not, Eggman and Sonic had a rivalry before the first Sonic game was even conceived. When Japanese game publisher Sega was looking for a new mascot in the early 90s, character designer Naoto Oshima pitched multiple ideas, including an egg-shaped man wearing pajamas and a small blue hedgehog who would eventually become Sonic. Needless to say, Sonic won. It was the first of many victories he would have over his mustachioed rival, who would be repurposed as the character’s arch-nemesis in the game series.
With his goofy egg shape and penchant for environmental destruction, Doctor Eggman, as he was called in Japan, became instantly recognizable in a sea of forgettable video game villains. However, Sega of America felt that some changes needed to be made if he were to appeal to American kids. The character made his debut in the United States, not as Eggman, but the much more sinister-sounding Ivo Robotnik. Adding to his menace in America was the US box art for the first several Sonic games, which featured him with gaping eye sockets. Whether this was due to miscommunication between Sega’s notoriously fractious American and Japanese branches or an intentional design choice remains a mystery to this day, but it would prove to be influential on the upcoming American designs of the character.
EGGMAN IN ANIMATION
The popularity of a blue rodent fighting a mad scientist reached a fever pitch in the early 90s. The next logical step: a television show, or in this case, two. Yes, Sonic was popular enough to have two cartoons running concurrently: Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog on weekday mornings, and Sonic the Hedgehog (retroactively nicknamed SatAM by fans) on Saturday mornings. Both shows featured drastic redesigns of Robotnik.
In SatAM, Robotnik is a former warlord named Julian who actually succeeded in conquering the planet. Instead of stuffing animals into robots to power them, he uses a much darker method: turning flesh-and-blood creatures into actual machines via a process called "roboticization." Naturally, a more serious villain begat a more serious design. Robotnik’s twiglike limbs were beefed up to match his portly figure. Instead of glasses or gaping eye sockets, he was given black eyes with red pupils. He also traded in his round head for a pointy one.The companion cartoon, the more comedy-focused Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, featured a similar design to his Saturday morning counterpart, though he shared more personality traits with the game character: goofy, flamboyant and melodramatic, yet still menacing. “Robotnik to me is the perfect image of self-love,” says Milton Knight, who designed Robotnik’s appearance for the cartoon and even refers to the character in official design documents as animation’s sexiest fat man. “He gets extremely excited about the fact that he exists, and everyone should know it.”
“He’s gets extremely excited about the fact that he exists, and everyone should know it.”
These two versions of Robotnik would be the ones most familiar to the US and UK for the majority of the '90s. Sonic Spinball featured creepy eyeless Robotnik for the Genesis box art and Knight-designed Robotnik for the Game Gear version. Knight’s Robotnik would also be used for the box art of Sonic Triple Trouble and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. UK’s Sonic The Comic featured Eggman with his original Japanese design for the first handful of issues before he underwent a bizarre metamorphosis into Knight’s Robotnik. The American Archie comics and later Sonic cartoon Sonic Underground utilized Robotnik’s SatAM design. Basically, there were a lot of Robotniks out there by the turn of the millennium, and no one could say for sure which version was definitive. It was high time for Sega to rein things in. EGGMAN GETS MODERNIZEDThe year was 1998. After several years off, the Sonic franchise was ready to fully embrace the world of 3D — as well as new designs for the entire cast by Sonic Team character designer Yuji Uekawa. While Robotnik’s iconic egg shape remained fairly unchanged, a red jacket and pair of googles was added to his ensemble, giving him more of a fighter pilot appearance. However, there was one more change to make, starting with Sonic’s first 3D game, Sonic Adventure.
The decision was made that Robotnik would officially be called by his Japanese name, Eggman, in all versions of the game—in a clever twist, not as his actual name, but an affectionate nickname. While Robotnik didn’t take kindly to the name calling at first, he warmed up to it over time, fully embracing it by 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2. Thus, the man previously known as Robotnik in the west and Eggman in the east was now known worldwide as Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik.
The timing of these changes worked out well for Archie Comics, the US-based publisher who had been publishing Sonic comics for half a decade. As mentioned earlier, they had been using the American SatAM Robotnik design since the book’s inception. However, he had been killed off in issue 50, and with Sonic Adventure on the horizon, it was the perfect time to make some changes of their own.
“With the lead up to Sonic #75, the plan was not to bring Robotnik back from the dead, but that he would be replaced by [a] roboticized alternate version, meaner than ever, thereby raising the stakes in having an enemy worse than the one they defeated to deal with,” says former Archie Sonic editor Justin Gabrie. “Downloading himself into his Eggman body was simple to set up once we had a plan to tie-in the comic continuity with the Sonic Adventure game, which was huge after the newly released Sega Dreamcast hit the market.”
“A genius… just not very smart.”
“We thought that the anniversary issue would be as good a time as any to implement Robotnik’s game design, which we had always loved,” adds former Sonic comic writer Karl Bollers, “One of the major challenges we faced creatively with the series at that point was that we were kind of stuck with two separate continuities bumping up against one another. As time went on and the Saturday morning cartoon was no longer being aired, it seemed logical to try and incorporate more and more of the game elements into the series since the games had effectively become the current ‘continuity’ and we wanted to stay relevant.”
EGGMAN IN THE MODERN DAY
Looks-wise, things have settled down for Eggman over the past two decades. Other than the occasional tweak here and there, such as his more realistic portrayal in 2006’s (much derided) Sonic the Hedgehog or beefy look in the short-lived Sonic Boom spinoff series, he would always return to the design he was given over 20 years ago.
For as long as the character has existed, though, many fans have wondered: if Eggman was ever to be portrayed in live action, how would he look? That question was answered in 2019 when the first trailer for a live action, American-made Sonic the Hedgehog movie was revealed. While fans recoiled in horror at Sonic’s realistic human teeth and beefy legs, there was one aspect that garnered near-universal praise: Eggman’s portrayal by actor Jim Carrey. He was equal parts pompous, silly and malicious, even more so by the end of the film when—spoiler alert—three months stranded on a mushroom planet causes him to go insane and revert from a more subdued design to his classic Eggman look. The extent of his warped personality remains to be seen when the sequel hits next year.
Few villains in video game history are as iconic as Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. As varied as his iterations have been over the past three decades, at his core, he’s still the same evil goofball. Ultimately, what is it about Eggman that still resonates with people today? Input reached out to several Eggman experts for their thoughts.
“People love villains and can relate to frustration and perceived lack of appreciation,” says Knight. “And he's funny looking.”
“He is a buffoon who comes with more and more outrageous and ingenious ways to trap Sonic and fails—sometimes quite spectacularly,” says Garry Chalk, who voiced Robotnik in Sonic Underground, as well as Robotnik’s lackey Grounder in Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. “He’s like Wile E. Coyote: A genius… just not very smart.”
Mike Pollock, Eggman’s voice actor for the past 18 years, feels similarly. “There's always the possibility that he'll win,” he adds, “but when he ultimately loses, he does so spectacularly, and hilariously. That'll keep you watching and playing.”
Looking back 30 years later, it’s not difficult to imagine a character like Dr. Eggman headlining his own game series as was intended when he was first designed. While the quality of the Sonic franchise has fluctuated for years, few out there would say that Eggman hasn’t remained a constant shining star in the history of video game villainy.