Sonic the Hedgehog means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To some he is a punchline, an opportunity to laugh at those who still seem desperately cling to a ship in the midst of being sunk, repeatedly. To others he is a constant source of frustration, a tease who seems so close to redeeming himself only to make them feel the fool once again. Then there are those that see Sonic as a terrible game series, one that was never really as good as everyone seemed to think it was.
Personally, I am a big fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. Look at my banner, the series is a powerful part of my childhood and I continue to follow the series to this day. And like the silent majority of Sonic fans, I live in hope that Sega and Sonic Team can manage to catch lightning in a bottle and figure out how to make a really good Sonic game for a modern gaming audience. However, In those brief moments where I am brutally honest with myself I realise that maybe Sonic isn’t for me anymore. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, it funds kick-starters and creates rabid online fan communities, but it also gives you some sense ownership over a thing that maybe isn’t yours to own anymore.
There has been much written about the Sonic series, about how the series has struggled to find its way into the modern era and the joke of the ‘Sonic Cycle’. A ring of anticipation, disappointment and denial, all ignoring the facts that the games continue to sell pretty well despite their apparent lack of quality.
Fans of the original games, who have since grown and started being the people who write about games, always seem to long for a game that will make them feel like they did when they played the first three. Thanks to selective memory, what is wanted from a Sonic game has been distilled to a few vague statements, with reasoning behind it forgotten. Gotta go Fast is a quote thrown around to ridicule the fans who talk about what they want from a Sonic game and yet can’t explain themselves any deeper than “speed” and “feel”. Sonic has always been about speed, but people seem to forget why this speed exists, and that it needed to be earned in the original games.
For a moment, let’s go back to the early 90s. Sega needed to launch a new mascot for the release of their new video games system: the Sega Mega Drive. Nintendo Dominated the market at the time and to carve themselves out a slice of the pie, Sega needed to get aggressive. They made use of the unique aspect of their console, the processing speed, to create a character that could represent them during the launch of their new hardware.
Yuji Naka, one of the lead designers on Sonic the Hedgehog, took the speed concept by the horns in designing the game. He wanted to create something where, the better you got at it, the faster you could finish it. Most games needed to be played from the very beginning during this era, so many people played the early states dozens of times, sometimes never seeing later parts of a game. Part of the reason Stage 1-1 from Mario is so iconic.
While the game encouraged players to go fast, it was only after muscle memory started to kick in that the real speed became apparent. What many people fail to remember; there was a lot keeping you from going fast in the first Sonic, the second stage, Marble Zone was a level all about waiting patiently and having progress slowed by there being lava covering half the stage. It wasn’t just about holding right as hard as you could, it was about getting it done fast.
As we went into Sonic 2, we began to see more roller coaster-esque sections to levels, parts where players did nothing but watch Sonic speed through loops and outrun the screen itself with little real imput from them personally. As time went on, these roller coaster type sections became more cinematic and longer, making the player less active in controlling the game.
As game design made the jump to 3d, Sega struggled to find a way to have Sonic follow. 3D was the way to go, but creating a game with the smooth pace of the originals proved more than they could manage at the time. As seen with the physics and gameplay bugs that pepper their first attempt in Sonic Adventure. Along with a trite story, poorly voiced characters and a more splintered gameplay experience: the era of bad Sonic games begun. Games that became the basis for the punchline that the series continues to be for some.
Ironically, Sonic has been slow keep up with modern gaming trends, as narrative and realism became the norm, a cartoon Hedgehog struggles to find a place to rub shoulders at the top. The inevitable comparison to Mario follows: why Sonic can’t be as successful. Well, Mario has always been a blank slate, one who let his gameplay do the talking for him, Sonic on the other hand has started talking to make up for his gameplay, which took a few console generations to catch up. Unfortunately those missed generations killed off Sega’s hardware business.
This is where people seem to forget why Sonic came about in the first place. Sonic was Sega’s anti-Mario, the product of an aggressive and very focused marketing campaign to try and take as many sales from Nintendo as possible. Naoto Oshim, the original character designer for Sonic, drew Sonic as a cartoon hedgehog. It was when Sega realised the real battle would be in the west that they allowed Sega of America to market the character. And so, injected with a vial of pure distilled 90s, Sonic became the embodiment of all the attitude, blast processing and ‘Nintendon’t’ that Sega felt would resinate with the kids of the time.
Sonic was created in a lab to be as marketable as possible. Time has changed, but in many ways, Sonic hasn’t. He is a character primarily aimed at a certain age demographic, thus the kind of culture that exists around the character has persisted. And the culture around the character has become part of the reason he is seen as a joke. Typing Sonic the Hedgehog into Google is like playing some strange lottery; poorly drawn hedgehogs, created with all the subtly a hyped up pre-teen can muster.
Thing is, this culture has always existed. Hell, when I was a kid, obsessing over Sonic in the late 90s, I made my own Sonic OCs before OCs were even a thing. With multiple comic books and television shows to accompany the games, it was a marketing machine that was designed to draw kids in. Today, it’s no different, there continue to be comic books, T.V. shows and the most depraved shit you’ve ever seen pop out of kid’s head. The only difference is that the internet; places like Youtube and Deviantart, allow for things that once lived in the bottom of a wardrobe, to be proudly displayed for the ridicule of the world.
Aside from the internet, there is one more difference between the Sonic fans of the 90s and their counterparts of today, and that is when we were playing our Mega Drives, we didn’t have a generation telling us how much better he was on the Magnavox Odyssey.
The biggest problem with Sonic the Hedgehog, in my opinion is that we, the original fans, still exist. If Sonic was just a game for kids, nobody would care. But because people like me exist, every game is scrutinised and held up against our selective memories of the original games. We can’t let the series go and so we wistfully hope for Sonic Team to give us something to wave in the faces of everyone around us to show our taste isn’t that bad.
Thing is, there have been good Sonic games in the modern era. Both Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations are great games in my opinion, with the exact same design mentality going into them that the original games had. You hear people banging on about things like “game feel”, physics and speed in Sonic games, something I’ve even been guilty of. Problem is, that’s not what made the original Sonic games good. It was how they they made you feel when you’d hit your head against it enough times that you could beat stages at breakneck speed and make it look effortless at the same time.
This was something we appreciated as kids, when he had more time on our hands. Now, as adults, our time is more precious to us and we want our games to value it as we do. Thus we have inbuilt barriers to prevent us from appreciating the newer Sonic games on the same levels that we did in our youth, Games like Colours and Generations really did their best to encourage their players to explore levels and replay them, including a mechanic that hid red rings throughout the level in the paths less trodden. And yet some deemed this as padding.
The better of the modern Sonic games continue to make use of this base formula, that the real speed and skill at the game comes from repeat plays. Learning the various routes through each stage and, though practice, keeping enough momentum to make it through faster. I appreciated Sonic Generations more and more as I continued to play it for months after its release, learning to appreciate it as much as the original games. Yet there were some that played it through once, then put it down and continued to complain there were no good Sonic games.
In the end, what people fail to realise is that Sonic has always kind of sucked. He is the product of aggressive marketing towards a certain demographic. There have always been comics, cartoons and toys for the character. And little of it was good really, it was just easier to ignore it when we were younger. Sonic has always primarily been aimed at kids, and so as time has gone by the character has continued to be for the same age demographic as those of us who were fans in our youth outgrew him. Sonic never really needed to stay true to his roots, because he was never a game about solid platforming, he was about appealing to kids and outdoing the competition.
I appreciate Sonic the Hedgehog as a huge part of my childhood. I don’t live in denial that many of his games aren’t dated, but at the same time, I can appreciate them for what they meant to me and people like me. Out of context, sure they are hilariously broken and dated, but that is just one more reason to find enjoyment in them. Today, I’ll continue to see what Sonic Team get up to, but I’m not going to kid myself, it’s a series aimed at people younger than me, but if they come out with another good game, cool. If not, well, lets say I’m not going to write two thousand words about how they fucked up.