Whatever happened to Sonic The Hedgehog?
For anyone who grew up during the 1990’s Sonic, along with everyone’s favourite plumber, stood as a visual representation of the gaming world. Where Mario was plodding along in the Mushroom Kingdom, Sonic was whizzing through Green Hill Zone. He was cool, hip, wise cracking and boy oh boy was he fast, it seemed like nothing could stop this speedy little guy, but something went wrong along the way.
Why has Mario gone from strength to strength while Sonic has fallen on hard times? Why have other characters overtaken the little blue blur? What went wrong with Sonic The Hedgehog?
Sonic’s first outing was in 1991 on the Sega Genesis (Megadrive for UK readers!). He was Sega’s third attempt at creating a brand mascot after Opa-Opa and Alex Kidd. Sonic was created to challenge the might of Mario and for nearly 10 years he did.
Sonic the Hedgehog & Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were massive successes. The thrill of blasting through levels at break neck speed was breathtaking; the games made Mario’s adventures look practically sedentary. I remember watching Gamesmaster when I was growing up and seeing competitions between people to see who could get through a level or finish the game quickest. Speed Running with Sonic 2 is still a considered a worthy challenge; the current completion record is 18 minutes and 12 seconds.
But, by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 3 rolled around in 1994 gamers were starting to notice a familiar pattern. Sega, in a rush to keep the momentum going, was turning out Sonic games on an annual basis so after the first two games people started noticing the same kind of level design. Sega didn’t seem to be putting in that much effort and in some cases appeared to be making things particularly difficult. I’m sure most Sonic gamers can name a few incidents where they have collided with an unavoidable set of spikes or baddie.
The increasingly frustrating level design seemed to become a staple of Sonic games and some would argue that it continues even today, in fact some would argue (myself included) that since Sonic jumped to 3D the levels have only gotten worse.
The gaming shift from 2D to 3D was a difficult time for a lot of developers and gamers. How do you keep that familiar gameplay whilst opening up a new world to explore? New players like Sony & Microsoft were able to design from the bottom up and embrace 3D as they didn’t have the same 2D legacy that Nintentdo & Sega had but while The Big N showed the world how it could be done with Super Mario 64, Sega floundered.
Sonic Adventure was a launch title for the Dreamcast and while it was hailed as the best 3D Sonic game at the time, it also had many flaws. Sonic games were designed for speed. In 2D environments this is an easy thing to process as the path you can take is laid out for you and never changes, in 3D however the need to create an open world means that you have multiple paths to choose from and not all of them will be the right ones. Controlling Sonic also became more of an issue. How do you make sure that he is going the right way and not veering to the side when you have a full 360 range of motion? Sega appeared to have acknowledged these issues when they announced a return to classic Sonic with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 & Episode 2.
Another thing Sega wanted to make sure everyone was aware of with Sonic 4 was that the game featured Sonic and only Sonic. Over the first 3 games and Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic was joined by his best friend Miles ‘Tails” Prower in Sonic 2 and Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic & Knuckles. The reaction to these added cast members was quite warm so Sega thought they would add more, and more and more.
Apart from Sonic, Tails & Knuckles, Sega have added a further 17 ‘friends’ over the years. On my recent play through of Sonic Generations after I rescued Tails & Knuckles I increasingly became more and more bewildered at who the hell these characters were, Cream the Rabbit?? Mighty the Armadillo, Who?? Blaze the Cat, Huh??? And Rouge the Bat, WTF!!??. Christmas must be an expensive time of year! Thankfully I’m not alone, over the years players have tired of games tending to focus more on this seemingly never ending roster of friends than on Sonic, especially when some of them are lumbering brutes and can barely speed up to a swift jog let alone blaze a trail through Emerald Hill!
When you look at the cast members of a Mario game you see that Nintendo have stuck with the same 5 main characters. Mario, Luigi, Toad, Princess & Bowser. Occasionally they will add different characters such as the Koopa Kids or Baby Mario/Luigi but for the most part the core characters in the main games are the same. This has allowed Nintendo to evolve them and allow you to ‘bond’ with them, the same cannot be said for Sonic & Co – in fact I would personally say that my dislike for Sonic started when they gave him a voice!
So, what was the reason for Sonic’s fall from grace? Was it the predictable and frustrating level design? The inability to transition from 2D to 3D? The endless hangers on that Sega felt we needed to be made aware of? Or was it something else? Many would argue that Sonic is a representation of Sega and when things went bad for Sega they went bad for Sonic. Others say that the character has become so watered down that he is just a name now rather than an idea and the only reason he is still around is due to a misplaced sense of nostalgia.
Sega’s most recent attempt at reviving the Sonic brand was with it’s “Greatest Hits” game, Sonic Generations, but for me, all it did was highlight how good Sonic was compared to where he is now. The thrill I had blasting through the remade 2D Chemical Plant zone and then battling a HD Death Egg Robot with the same music playing was immense!
My suggestion to Sega? Remake Sonic 2, keep it 2D and for the love of god, shut the Hedgehog up!