A prickly object of desire: Zapped] Sonic the hedgehog beats Mario the Italian plumber at his own game

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THE HOTTEST present this Christmas involves a bloke-ish blue hedgehog called Sonic with a foxy friend nicknamed Tails but known officially as Miles Prower (miles per hour, geddit?) The object of Sonic 2 is to catch an evil-looking human being named Dr Robotnik, who has kidnapped some furry little animals and turned them into thoroughly nasty mechanical dealers of death.

The Mega Drive, the hardware to run the game on your home television, will set you back pounds 129.99, plus pounds 39.99 for the Sonic 2 game cartridge. The portable version - the Game Gear - is pounds 99.99 for the machinery and pounds 27.99 for the game. (Be warned: coming soon is the CD/karaoke machine and Mega Drive all in one, for a cool pounds 400.)

Sonic 2 got here courtesy of Sega - a smallish Japanese company with huge British sales. Sega's main competitor is Nintendo, but though Nintendo was first into the market, Sega now sells more in the UK. 'Somehow Nintendo became associated with kids playing alone in their rooms, while Sega was first experienced in the arcades with a gang of friends,' says Paul Wooding of Force, a computer games fanzine.

In the week after Sonic 2's launch on 24 November, the Gallup software chart reported that it was responsible for 48 per cent of all software sales. Woolworth says the little hedgehog has brought in more customers than Michael Jackson on video or disc. The 750,000 copies of Sonic 2 sent to retailers went on the first day, and Dixons reported selling 14,000 Mega Drives. Projected Sonic 2 sales for all of the US are only 1 million by Christmas - the same as for the UK.

The game is played in stages, each with three levels. At the end of the third level you get to meet Dr Robotnik, who will be in one of his machines, and you have to work out his weak spot, which, in Stage One - as any eight-year- old already knows - is the roof of his digger. Every time you kill a monster, a furry animal is released. Buying Mayfair in Monopoly, say today's teenagers, cannot compare with Sonic 2's chemical accidents, ocean-polluting oil slicks and visually stunning casino.

The game differs from its predecessor, Sonic The Hedgehog, in that it is more complex and, with the introduction of Tails, offers dual-player potential. Kids will tell you that Sonic is also 'more realistic, colourful, bright and bouncy' than his closest competitor, Nintendo's Mario, a little Italian plumber. Nintendo is battling back with Street Fighter II, but at pounds 60 it costs pounds 20 more than Sonic 2.

Off the record, toy executives say that Sega's British success is predominantly due to its slick and aggressive marketing. The company is heavily into sponsorship - it is taking children to Lapland with Capital Radio, for example - and its advertising through television, radio, posters and teen magazines is particularly catchy.

If you get up early enough on weekend mornings, you can catch the advertisements during childrens' television; they resurface daily in the early afternoons and occasionally between 9pm and 10pm. The first Sega advertisement last year introduced Jimmy, a cool, hip, expert games-playing hero, with a Japanese sidekick called Joey. In a recent version, Jimmy enters the barber's and asks for a cyber razor cut: which, again as every child can tell you, is when the barber cuts out your eye and removes your arm to replace them with better mechanical versions: all the better to play your Mega Drive with.

(Photograph omitted)

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