Beleaguered Blue Blur: A Sonic the Hedgehog Retrospective

If you didn’t have enough reason to feel old already, ruminate on this fact for awhile: Sonic the Hedgehog turns 20 years old this year. That’s right, Sega’s most successful response to Nintendo’s Mario franchise has reached the two-decade mark, but has the franchise gotten wiser with age? The premise of Sonic’s latest title, Sonic Generations, would suggest not. In this recently-released 20th anniversary Sonic title, Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic team up to stop the erstwhile villain Dr. Ivo (Eggman) Robotnik by speeding through re-interpretations of the most iconic levels from Sonic games past. As premises go, I’ve heard worse. My question, however, is this: What went wrong? Why is the Sonic of today so different from the immensely popular Sonic of 1992 that we actually have to make a distinction between the “classic” and “modern” versions of the exact same character?

To answer this question, as usual, we need a little Sonic history. In 1990, Service Games corporation (SErvice GAmes=SEGA) was looking to catch up to the wildly successful Nintendo. The 16-bit Mega Drive (known in North American markets as the Genesis, due to a licensing dispute) was, at the time, more powerful than the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, but the console lacked a successful mascot franchise. Sega’s previous attempt, Alex Kidd, was no Mario, and the Sega executives knew it. So a series of mascots were devised by designer Naoto Ohshima, including a rabbit, an armadillo, a round man with a large mustache, and the eventual winner: a hedgehog called Mr. Needlemouse. I’m sure we are all happy that they changed his name to Sonic.

A coalition of American and Japanese designers headed by producer Yuji Naka, called the Sega AM8 Development Team (later renamed Sonic Team) worked for nearly six months on the game, an unprecedentedly long design cycle for a market that is used to games being pushed out in as few as three weeks. Incredible hype and a slew of high profile promotional events gave Sonic the Hedgehog the distinctly desperate air of a “bet the farm” franchise. In this case, however, Sega’s bet paid off. Sonic was a huge success—deemed a perfect blend of speed and platform based gameplay by the critics of the day. The game went on to boost Sega’s overall console sales—the Mega Drive outsold the Super Nintendo 2 units to 1 during the holiday rush of 1991, thus firmly establishing Sega’s place in the home console market.

For a time, it seemed like the Sonic franchise had nowhere to go but up. With the full weight of Sega’s corporate resources behind the project, the sequel Sonic 2, was, and still is, one of the best platform games ever created. The 1993 followup, Sonic 3, was originally chastised for its short length, but the situation was rectified the following year when the lock-on cartridge Sonic and Knuckles extended the game to a satisfying and challenging length.

Sonic 3, however, was to be the last home console Sonic game for over five years. Between 1994 and 1999, Sega suffered misstep after misstep, releasing such failed consoles as the atrociously ugly 32X, and the hopelessly complex and short-sighted Sega Saturn. Although Sonic Team did produce a few obscure titles like Knuckles Chaotix and NiGHTS into Dreams during this epoch, most of the original developers had moved on by the time Sega finally got its act together on 9/9/99, with the release of the Dreamcast (a rather odd parallel to this article’s date of publication). Sporting the most advanced graphics of any game console to date, the Dreamcast was poised to re-capture Sega’s place in our hearts and wallets with such breathtaking 3D spectacles as Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. Although both of these games were still produced by Yuji Naka, they represented a massive shift for the Sonic franchise. A darker storyline, driving rock soundtracks, and a snarky, belligerent new personality for Sonic changed the atmosphere of the franchise entirely, from a colorful kid’s game to a darker action movie with some gameplay included. If there was any one game that could be said to mark the cutoff between Sega’s concept of “classic” and “modern” Sonic, it would be Sonic Adventure.

The saving grace of the Sonic Adventure series, and the later Sonic Heroes on Gamecube/PS2/Xbox, however, was the gameplay. Although more linear and story-oriented, the first three 3D Sonic games did give audiences enough of the famous Sonic platform-hopping and free-running formula to make the games at least playable. It was not to last, though. With Yuji Naka’s retirement after Sonic Heroes, Sonic games became increasingly linear, boring, and even horribly glitchy, as evidenced by the infamous attempted reboot of the series in 2006, simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog. Contemporary installments in the series, such as Sonic Unleashed, while fixing the glitches and true deal-breakers of their predecessors, have continued the new tradition of what fans have termed “Boost to win” gameplay—a derogatory title that implies that if one simply holds left on the joystick in conjunction with the boost button, no extra interaction is required to win the game.

With the release of Sonic Generations, one might be able to argue that Sonic Team is beginning to see the error of its ways, by including more of the classic platforming that the series’ fans are familiar with. That’s well and good, but I’ll end on this final question. If, after twenty years, you find yourself desperately reverting to the style of gameplay that made your games successful in the 90’s, why did you ever deviate from that formula in the first place?

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