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By Thomas Wheeler

Easily one of the most recognizable and iconic video game characters of all time is SONIC THE HEDGEHOG. And for several years now, the main action figure licensee for Sonic toys has been JazWares.

To be blunt, this isn't one of my favorite toy companies. While they are clearly capable of turning out excellent likenesses of the characters they have been granted licenses for, everybody from Sonic, to the animated world of Hanna-Barbera, to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, their end product tends to have rather considerable quality issues. Somewhere between an initial really impressive sculpt and the actual manufacture is a rather wide and unfortunate gap

In fairness, though, Sonic is one of their better lines, and I've picked up a fair population of anthropomorphic animals from this collection and have generally been very pleased with the results.

I came across a two-pack of figures, with a comic book included. Certainly that particular concept isn't anything all that new -- everybody from G.I. Joe to Star Wars has done that. But one of the figures in the set was entirely new, a character named BLAZE THE CAT, accompanied by SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, and a special edition comic book produced by Archie Comics, who has the license to certain Sonic comic books.

Let's consider some of the history of Sonic, a look at the character of Blaze the Cat, and then review the figures and the comic book.

Sonic the Hedgehog is the title character and the protagonist of the Sonic the Hedgehog series released by Sega, as well as in numerous spin-off comics, animated shows and more. The first game was released on June 23, 1991, to provide Sega with a mascot to rival Nintendo's flagship character Mario. Since then, Sonic has become one of the world's best-known video game characters, with his series having sold more than 80 million copies. In 2005, Sonic was one of the first game character inductees into the Walk of Game, alongside Mario and Link.

While Sega was seeking a flagship series to compete with Nintendo's Mario series, several character designs were submitted by its AM8 research and development department. Many results came forth from their experiments with character design, including an armadillo (who later developed into Mighty the Armadillo), a dog, a Theodore Roosevelt look-alike in pajamas (who would later be the basis of Dr. Robotnik/Eggman's design), and a rabbit (who would use its extendible ears to collect objects, an aspect later incorporated in Ristar). Eventually, Naoto Oshima's spiky teal hedgehog, initially codenamed "Mr. Needlemouse", was chosen as the new mascot. Sonic's blue pigmentation was chosen to match Sega's cobalt blue logo.

Sonic was created without the ability to swim because of a mistaken assumption by Yuji Naka that all hedgehogs could not do so. A group of fifteen people started working on the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, and renamed themselves Sonic Team. The game's soundtrack was composed by Masato Nakamura of the band Dreams Come True. Sega sponsored the group's "Wonder 3" tour, painting Sonic on the tour bus, distributing pamphlets advertising the game, and having footage of the game broadcast above stage prior to its release.

The original concepts gave Sonic fangs and put him in a band with a human girlfriend named Madonna. However, a team from Sega of America, led by Madeline Schroeder, who calls herself "Sonic's mother","softened" the character up for an American audience by removing those elements -- thank goodness.

Naka later admitted that it was probably for the best. Yeah -- ya think!? I mean, fangs, and a human girlfriend named "Madonna"?! Sheesh!

Sonic's appearance varies greatly depending on the medium and the style in which he is drawn. In the video games, Sonic's original design by Oshima was short and round, with short quills, a round body, and no visible irises. Artwork featuring this design and drawn by Akira Watanabe was displayed on the package artwork for Sonic the Hedgehog, and most subsequent Sonic video games featured similar designs.

When Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Mega Drive appeared, Sonic's proportions changed. The original 1:2 head to height ratio changed to 1:2.5.

Beginning with Sonic Adventure in 1998, Sonic was redesigned by Yuji Uekawa as a character with longer legs and a less spherical body, longer and more drooping quills, and green-colored irises. Further subtle changes to the character's design have been made in subsequent games. Spin-off media such as comics and cartoons have featured variations on all these video game designs, with restrictions set by the standardized model sheets.

According to various official materials from Sega, Sonic is described as a character who is "like the wind", a drifter who lives as he wants, and makes life a series of events and adventures. Sonic hates oppression and staunchly defends freedom. Although he is mostly easy-going he has a short temper and is often impatient with slower things. Sonic is a habitual daredevil hedgehog who is honest, loyal to friends, keeps his promises, and dislikes tears. He took the young Tails under his wing like a little brother, and is uninterested in marital proposals from Amy Rose. In times of crisis, he focuses intensely on the challenge as if his personality had undergone an astonishing change.

Sonic is known as the world's fastest hedgehog. Sonic's greatest strength is his running speed, which is faster than the speed of sound. Many of his abilities are variations on the tendency for hedgehogs to roll into tight balls for protection with the addition of spinning his body. Since his introduction in 1991's Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic's primary offensive maneuver is the basic "Spin Attack" (or "Sonic Spin Attack"). Later games in the series expanded on this basic attack and two of these enhancements have become mainstays of his: the Spin Dash which was introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and involves Sonic spinning on the spot before blasting off at full speed, and the Homing Attack, officially introduced in Sonic Adventure, in which Sonic dashes toward a target in mid air. Sonic's only weakness is that he cannot swim, sinking like a rock if plunged to a deep body of water. However, he can overcome this by running on the surface of water.

When the seven Chaos Emeralds are collected in most Sonic games, Sonic can initiate a Super transformation into Super Sonic, a faster and invulnerable version of himself that can fly. Most games follow a rule whereby after collecting the emeralds he can transform into Super Sonic with 50 Rings. While transformed, the rings are used up (usually about one every second) and he returns to normal when all the Rings are used up.

As Sega's mascot and one of the key reasons for the company's success during the 16-bit era of video game consoles, Sonic is one of the most famous video game characters in the world. In 1996, Sonic was the first video game character to be seen in a Rose Parade. Sonic is also the first video game character (later followed by Pikachu) to have a balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sonic was one of the three game characters inducted on the inaugural Walk of Game class in 2005, along with former rivals Mario and Link (both from Nintendo).

And just to throw in some really weird trivia, one of a class of genes involved in fruit fly embryonic development, called hedgehog genes, has been named "sonic hedgehog" after the character.

As to the character of BLAZE THE CAT, she is a purple cat princess from an alternate dimension. She has been appointed as guardian of the Sol Emeralds, her dimensions version of the Chaos Emeralds, making her role similar to that of Knuckles the Echidna.

She is portrayed as calm and levelheaded, hiding her true feelings. She is sometimes "bogged down" by her own strict discipline and devotion to her position, making her appear withdrawn.

Blaze can control fire, but wears a cape to conceal it as she was teased about her pyrokinetic abilities when she was young. Using the Sol Emeralds, she can transform into Burning Blaze.

Blaze wears a purple coat and white tights with pink stiletto heels and a gold necklace.

Blaze debuted in Sonic Rush as a playable character along with Sonic. She arrives in Sonic's dimension from another dimension along with the Sol Emeralds. While searching for the Emeralds, she befriends Sonic and Cream and helps them stop Dr. Eggman and Eggman Nega before returning to her dimension.

She reappears in Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) as Silver the Hedgehog's friend during the future of Sonic's dimension. The two attempt to fix their ruined future world by traveling back in time and then again, as main character in Sonic Rush Adventure, where Sonic and Tails are transported to her dimension and help her retrieve the "Jeweled Scepter".

Since her first trio of games, she has been relegated to being an extra playable character in Sonic spinoffs and multiplayer games. She is an unlockable multiplayer character in the Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight, a playable racer in Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity and Sonic Free Riders and a playable athlete in all three Mario and Sonic at the Olympics games.

Blaze has primarily been praised by critics due to possessing gameplay mechanics similar to Sonic. IGN remarked that she "easily earned her place in the team" amidst unremarkable secondary characters", because "her play style was directly influenced by Sonic". GameSpy called Blaze "a nice addition to Sonic's cast, but she doesn't bring anything new to the experience... both Blaze and Sonic play pretty much the same." Her gameplay has been praised as "fast-moving and fun" as opposed to slower characters introduced earlier in the series, such as Big the Cat.

And there's a comparison... Big the Cat is so massive that when he was offered as an action figure, he had to be placed in a box akin to the multi-packs of certain figures because he was too big for a standard package card. I don't want to say how big he is, but his underwear is made by Goodyear. He tried to take tap-dancing lessons one time and set off the Richter scale. NASA is worried that if he gets much bigger, he might generate his own gravitational field and pull satellites from orbit. Blaze, thankfully, is a lot more average-sized.

So, how are the figures? Well, let's start with SONIC. I'm not going to say all that much here, because I already have a Sonic figure that is identical to this one. I picked him up on a single card some time back, and he's not the reason I purchased this particular pack. Blaze, who is unique to this set, is.

I will say a few things. Whatever my concerns with Jazwares' final product quality, they are certainly to be commended for managing to craft such effective small-scale action figures out of characters with these sorts of bodily proportions. Sonic stands slightly under three inches in height. Of that, roughly one inch is head, not quite one-half inch is his body, and his legs are about 1-1/2 inches in length.

Add to that the fact that both his arms are legs are extremely slender, his arms being not quite 3/4" from shoulder to wrist, and you've got what I would already regard as a tricky design to work with. But -- throw in the level of articulation that these figures have, and it's a wonder that they can even be assembled. Sonic is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles. Consider also that the arms move forward, backward, and outward, and the legs move not only forward and back but rotate, and you have one amazingly designed action figure.

Jazwares produces a line of 6" Sonic figures, that is more limited in its character count, and I can see getting this sort of articulation into a figure that size. But in a 3" line? With characters that look like this!? There's 4" figures of far more human-proportioned figures that don't manage that. That's impressive.

And, as I said, the character is an excellent likeness. Sonic is a deep blue in color, with large eyes, and a small, flesh-tone muzzle with a little black nose. The muzzle is actually molded separately and attached to the head during assembly. Most of his body is blue, although his arms are flesh-colored for reasons I've never been certain of. It's an unusual feature unique to Sonic among his animal buddies. He has a little flesh-tone patch on his chest, and he's wearing white gloves, and red shoes with white trim, either white tops or white socks, and gray soles. There's what appear to be yellow buckles on the outsides of the shoes.

But -- had I been looking for just Sonic, and had this particular Sonic figure been carded individually, I would've kept looking. He's not without his problems. The flesh-tone patch on his torso isn't as neatly painted as it could be, and the outside of his left leg, where the assembly peg is inserted, is somehow messed up. It almost looks like some sort of burn scar. His shoes could be more neatly painted, and when I got him out of his package, his left knee is extremely loose.

These are problems that one has to be very vigilant about when it comes to JazWares products. Generally speaking, for whatever reason, they seem to pay a little more attention to quality control on their Sonic products than some of their other lines, but lately, even Sonic has been slipping a bit. Maybe taking on the Hanna-Barbera license extended their resources a bit too far?

I'll be honest here -- I've never entirely understood why toy quality should be all over the map the way it is. It's not like these figures are cheap knock-offs. Admittedly, Jazwares is not as major a company as Mattel, or Hasbro, or Bandai -- nor are these companies problem-free, as far as that goes -- but ultimately, they all contract to manufacturing facilities in China, and it's not as though JazWares' products have bargain-basement pricing -- they don't -- so why isn't the final quality better?

There's certainly nothing wrong with the DESIGN of these Sonic figures, either from a likeness or articulation standpoint. And when you get one that's been well painted, there's obviously nothing wrong with that, either. But between occasional paint goofs, molding goofs, and especially lately, loose articulation, it can be a strain to get a really good figure. And it certainly affects more than just the Sonic figures. In JazWares' 6" scale Hanna Barbera line, I saw a Space Ghost figure whose leg had broken off. Right in the package. There's just no excuse.

While I have seen far worse product examples from this company, and I hate to complain about a figure -- especially when he's standing right in front of me and staring at me -- I'm glad that I already have a Sonic figure. In this case, however, I was mostly after Blaze, she appeared to be in much better shape, and, ultimately, this was the only set available. It would appear to be a popular pack.

Now, let's consider BLAZE THE CAT. This is a really impressive figure, and is easily one of the most ornate among the Sonic figures that I've seen.

Not counting the topknot on her head, or whatever that's supposed to be, she's slightly over 3" in height, Although given the quarter-inch heels on her shoes, I think she's cheating a bit. Her total height is more like 3-7/8". She is a very pale pink in color, and definitely looks like a cartoon cat, with whiskers out to the side, prominent pointed ears, and rather angular eyes. She has a white muzzle with a small black nose, and the interiors of her ears are yellow. I believe Blaze may be one of the few figures in this line whose muzzle is not a separately molded piece, but neither does she have as prominent a muzzle or nose.

Two rather inexplicable features are a raised red dot on her forehead, and this strange topknot on the top of her head, slightly to the back, that as much as anything looks like four thick, pink feathers, tipped in lavender, tied off at the base with a red band. It's the same color as Blaze herself, so I'm assuming it's part of her somehow, but I'm otherwise at a loss to explain it physically.

Blaze is wearing a dark pink, almost magenta-colored coat, with long tails in the back. The coat has a yellow-orange collar, that matches the color of her eyes, and a red hem along the base. The paintwork on the hem, although obviously done by hand, is very neatly done.

Blaze is wearing white leggings (I'm assuming this is the case and this isn't just her natural body color), and is also wearing white gloves and dark magenta shoes with white trim and gray soles. The shoes, as I said before, are definitely of the high-heeled variety. And she's supposed to be almost as quick as Sonic? How can she run in these things!?

The gloves and shoes are topped with white spiky fur, which has been sculpted with great detail. Additionally, her hands are not clenched into fists like Sonic's, and each finger is separate from the other. It's very impressive work. I have to say one thing I've had to get used to with these Sonic characters is that they all have four fingers and a thumb, instead of the three fingers and thumb that I think a lot of us are used to seeing from funny-animal cartoon characters.

Blaze also has a rather long tail coming out from behind, pink in color, with a frizzed-out lavender tip, adding credibility to the notion that this topknot is also somehow part of her.

Paintwork is, for the most part, excellent. She has huge eyelashes around her eyes. I tend to be of the opinion that eye details on these figures is more imprinted than painted, which is becoming an increasingly common practice, and when done properly, certainly works and adds to the overall precision, and it works very well here. The forehead dot and the shoes could have been a little neater, but they're not that bad. And for anyone with a steady enough hand, the forehead dot is an easy fix.

Blaze's body proportions are similar to Sonic's. Out of her approximate 3" height, slightly over an inch, not counting the topknot, is head. Her body is a little over 1/2", with a waist joint, and it's astounding to me that they'd put one in there, but even more remarkable is the fact that Blaze looks more slender than Sonic! This is a very narrow body. Her legs comprise the remaining 1-1/2" of her height, and her arms are about 5/8" long, to the top of the fur trim around her gloves. Total arm length is about 1-1/2".

Articulation is just as impressive as Sonic's. Blaze is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles, with the same extensive range of motion.

Any complaints? I wish there weren't. The small finger on Blaze's left hand looks like maybe it was pulled out of the mold too quickly or something. It has some rough spots which, for lack of a better term, I suppose I would describe as "scar tissue". Both of her hands had some dirty gray spots on them that fortunately cleaned up easily. There's still a little spot on her forehead, that I doubt you can see in the photos, that doesn't seem to want to clean up. And her left knee is a bit wobbly.

These are all basic quality control issues that really need to be dealt with. These figures are just otherwise too well made and too cool to not be treated better than this, and as I said, I'm concerned that quality on them is slipping relative to some Sonic figures I purchased a while back. That's certainly not the right direction to go.

The only other major issue is something of a design flaw. As long as they are, the heels on Blaze's shoes could stand to be a little longer. They cause the figure to lean back a little, and she's already a bit back-heavy given the design of her head, especially with that topknot, as well as her long tail. She does not stand up on her own easily as a result.

I can't bring myself to be too harsh, though. She's otherwise an excellent figure and I'm glad to have her.

Let me briefly discuss the comic book that is included with this set, billed as an issue of "Sonic Universe". It's published by Archie Comics, which has had a license to do Sonic comics for years. I'll admit I've never followed them. Ironically, although there's a Sonic figure in this set, he's barely in the comic book itself, except for appearing on the cover, and in a brief flashback sequence.

The story really revolves around Shadow the Hedgehog, who while in a fight with Metal Sonic, a robotic version of Sonic in service to Dr. Robotnik, the main villain of the piece, finds himself transported to Blaze's alternate world, and rescued by the aforementioned Blaze on board her very fancy sailing vessel. Trying to describe this thing verbally isn't easy. Suffice to say it looks like a cartoonish version of a fancy yacht crossed with an ancient sailing ship with a bit of the Jetsons thrown in for good measure.

The crew consists of Blaze, and a small raccoon by the name of Marine, who is supposedly the ship's mechanic, and is a rather hyperactive, talkative, sarcastic sort. I get the impression that she's the equivalent of Blaze's "Tails", the way Tails the fox is to Sonic.

Blaze explains how she encountered Sonic, and then the group heads off to track down Metal Sonic, which doesn't prove to be difficult, as the robot has attacked a nearby village, populated by anthropomorphic koalas, of all things. Between Sonic and Blaze, who definitely gets the chance to show off her powers and as such live up to her name, Metal Sonic is defeated, and Shadow finds his way home.

The back cover features an advertisement for Sonic toys, including a close-up look at a couple of Sonic figures, which I assume are prototypes, and are extremely impressive.

The comic book, written by Ian Flynn with artwork by Tracy Yardley and Jim Amash, with colors by Jason Jensen, is an enjoyable tale clearly fitting well into the Sonic universe. It's also obviously a reprint of a previous story, with numerous references to other Sonic comics throughout, and even an advertisement for a graphic novel of Shadow's adventures at the end.

The artwork is very capable, if just a little odd, in that Sonic and his friends are clearly characters designed very much in an anime-manga style, and yet the comic book itself doesn't quite use this style. It's more of an Americanized interpretation of these obviously anime characters. I'm not saying it doesn't work -- in fact it does rather well -- but it is a little odd. The cover is more in keeping with the expected style of the characters, and is especially impressive.

What's also interesting is the cast, given the distinct lack of Sonic and the presence of Shadow, relative to the figures. Shadow has been made in this action figure line, and I have him, and for that matter, so has Metal Sonic. He, on the other hand, has proven to be one of two highly elusive figures in this Sonic line, along with the modern version of Amy Rose. Good luck finding either one of them.

The figures in this set could have just as easily been Blaze and Shadow, or Blaze and Metal Sonic. There is no existing figure of Marine the Raccoon.

So, what's my final word? In my opinion. If you're a Sonic fan and you've been picking up these figures as they've come out, then the set is definitely worth it just for Blaze. If for some reason you haven't been collecting the Sonic line and have been thinking about it, then the set is most definitely worth picking up, since you'll be getting the exclusive Blaze figure, as well as Sonic, which is certainly not a bad way to start. And the comic book is a fun read.

I do recommend giving the set as close a visual inspection as possible before you buy it. Look for paint gaffes and molding problems. Hopefully there won't be any. There's no real way to check for loose parts in package, but you can at least check some things to get the best set you possibly can.

I really have no idea what's next for the Sonic line. Over the past several months, I've picked up three separate figures sold with skateboards, a three-pack of distinct figures, and now this comic set. I really don't know what to expect next. Hopefully, whomever might be next, will be of good quality, and I look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, I'm pleased to have this set.

The SONIC THE HEDGEHOG COMIC TWO-PACK featuring BLAZE THE CAT and SONIC THE HEDGEHOG definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!