The Supersonic Future of Sonic the Hedgehog
By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
When you think of Sega, you can’t help but think of it’s mascot Sonic the Hedgehog, the blue, bold little guy with an attitude to spare. Sonic could never really escape out of Mario’s shadow, in my opinion, though. He recently celebrated his 23rd Anniversary – now doesn’t that make you feel old? – so take a trip down memory lane with my personal recollections of this historic gaming franchise on home consoles.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
I first saw Sonic the Hedgehog in action on my neighbor’s Sega Genesis when I was a wee tot. I was squarely in Nintendo’s camp at this point, and was even unaware of any type of brewing Console Wars that would later become legendary. I took one look at Sonic and while the speed of the game was dazzling, I saw nothing more than a Mario clone. It simply replaced coins with rings, weird stompable creatures for weird stompable creatures, and a bizarre overweight guy dressed in red… only this time he was the main enemy. I shrugged off Sonic and went back to enjoying Super Mario Bros 3… but there was just something that I couldn’t take my mind off of.
Sonic was incredibly fast, and thanks to the Genesis and it’s infamously coined “Blast Processing”, speed was the order of the day, and it is what made Sonic a star. That, and the attitude he had… wait too long on an idle screen and Sonic will impatiently tap his foot at you. That was amazing to me. I still remember the first time I really noticed that animation, and it blew me away. Mario would never be so daring. Sega even ported Sonic 1 & 2 on its 8-bit Master System… games that kept the same name, but actually featured different levels and music from their 16-bit originals.
Sonic’s future games, Sonic 2 and 3 were good as to be expected, introducing much needed sidekicks like Amy, but his entry on the Sega CD system is largely hailed as the best 16-bit Sonic of them all. I would have to agree with this, as its massive world, lengthy gameplay and unforgetable soundtrack made Sonic CD the pinnacle of the Sonic games. Thankfully, it has been rescued from obscurity, having been released in compilation form on the Nintendo GameCube, as well as remastered for systems such as the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and iPhone/Android.
But even more than Sonic CD, the fourth official game in the franchise, Sonic & Knuckles, introduced revolutionary technology for the 16-bit era. It’s cartridge could lock onto older games, and you could play as new sidekick Knuckles – right in those original titles! It may not sound like much now, but playing through Sonic 2 again with a brand new character was Sega innovation at it’s best. The game itself was overshadowed somewhat by Nintendo’s equally stunning Donkey Kong Country which was released around the same time, but Knuckles was amazing for its time – and maybe even more so now looking back at the era as a whole.
The 32-bit Sonic era began to take some luster off of Big Blue. The bungled launch of the Sega Saturn did not feature a Sonic game, much to many people’s surprise and disappointment. As a diehard Saturn owner, it was a real headscratcher. If anything, launching a new system with your top mascot seemed to be a must, but Sega had other plans.
In fact, Sonic didn’t appear on the Saturn at all until over a year and a half after it’s surprise late-Spring 1995 launch – his hidden level cameos in Bug and Christmas NiGHTS not withstanding. Sonic 3D Blast was actually ported to the Saturn from the Genesis, with only minor 32-bit enhancements. The game was disappointing with its quasi-angled 3D style, and it was even faired worse when compared to Mario 64.
An arcade game, Sonic the Fighters, appeared and was rumored to be in line to appear on the Saturn. Fighters predates Super Smash Bros in having characters from the Sonic universe duke it out in various themed levels in full 3D like Virtua Fighter. Sadly, the game never materialized for the system – although it has made appearances in compilations in later console generations.
Sonic would make two more appearances in 1997 in solid games, but he opened the door to a lot of Mario comparisons in the process. Sonic Jam was a collection of his 16-bit Genesis games (a la Super Mario All-Stars without the upgrade in graphics) with a mini-game that ran Sonic is full 3D mode as an extra. Sonic R was a racing game (a la Super Mario Kart) that I enjoyed more than it seems most people did. Sonic R also gave birth to the infamously “so bad its good” song Super Sonic Racing.
AN ADVENTURE TO REMEMBER
The Dreamcast in 1999 didn’t make the same mistake the Saturn did and launched with a full, major Sonic game called Sonic Adventure. It was full 3D and it was beautiful. It was the only game I bought at launch for the only system I have ever purchased at midnight. The game even featured primitive DLC – such as downloadable Christmas decorations to be played in Town Square according to the Dreamcast’s internal clock. Finally after many false promises, Big Blue was indeed back.
His streak of great games continues with Sonic Adventure 2, which was even better than the original. But his Dreamcast days were tainted when he appeared in his own Mario Party-ripoff game entitled Sonic Shuffle in the waning days of the console. It was bad and it was slow, the latter of which should be sacrilegious in the Sonic universe.
MULTI-PLATFORM and OVERKILL
Sega exited the hardware business after it’s disappointing Dreamcast sales – even though it remains one of my favorite systems of all time. They went multiplatform, and Sonic appeared on all of the then-current systems at the time. Although the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube all hosted Sonic games, he gravitated towards Nintendo in a relationship that still is strong today. Original Sonic games such as Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Heroes showed up on multiple systems, but it was the GameCube Sonic Colors that got the highest marks.
Sonic appeared ready to leap into the next generation and looked for a revival with the simply-titled Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006 – another full 3D game to appear on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. But this one was garbage with a camera that was so bad, it ruined the game. And it also kicked off a long string of sub-part games and ports that sent people like me into a nerd rage. Forgettable games like Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight were thrown up on the Nintendo Wii like the bile they actually were. Sonic Unleashed appeared to try and right the wrongs of 2006’s Sonic, but only the Wii and PS2 versions were notable while the PS3 and 360 ports were awful. Sonic Riders was an unofficial sequel to the Saturn’s Sonic R flop, and Sonic Free Riders appeared exclusively on the Xbox 360, making not-so-accurate use of the Kinect system.
One notable event from this time was when a game was announced that would feature both former rivals Mario and Sonic in the same title on the Wii. I was hoping for a side scrolling platform game – could you imagine the possibilities?! But instead, I got some Olympic themed game that wasn’t even that great. But it has been successful enough to return in multiple installments since then, sadly.
At the tail end of the PS3/360/Wii console cycle, Sonic appeared in a handful of games that did nothing to sway popular opinion that he was reduced to being a second-rate Mario clone. He attempted to return to his side-scrolling roots in the download-only title Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – a title I was very excited about initialy, but came two years after Mario did the same thing with New Super Mario Bros Wii (and even longer after New Super Mario Bros for the Nintendo DS). Sega Superstars Tennis was not an official Sonic title, but he was front and center on the artwork and central to the game – and it reeked of Mario Tennis which came out a half a decade prior. The obscenely long-titles Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing was good, but yet another Mario Kart clone. (As a side note, the sequel Racing Transformed was quite good, and even better than a few Mario Kart titles themselves). All that was left was Sonic Golf and Dr. Sonic (to mirror Dr. Mario) and we’re all set.
The only speed Sonic seemed to have was playing catchup to the slower, more popular plumber.
The future for Sega’s celebrated mascot is cloudy. He is still a very recognizable figure in gaming, and he has millions of dedicated fans like myself. His big Wii U game (Sonic Lost Worlds) was a semi-clone of Super Mario Galaxy and not nearly as good – although the DLC crosssover content featuring Yoshi and Zelda were amazing.
But as a beleaguered Sonic fan who always remains optimistic, I am hopeful for Sonic’s future. His upcoming titles, including Sonic Mania, look really good. He represents some of my favorite moments in gaming – from depth of Sonic CD to the awe of Sonic Adventure to the fun of Sonic and Sega Racing Transformed. I will not give up hope on him. I know there are a few more good games left somewhere in that blue fur. I just hope they are scratched out sooner than later.