Sonic was the anti-Nintendo mascot that kids didn’t realise they needed. By combining Naoto Ohshima’s artwork and Yuji Naka’s game design and programming skills, Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 for the Sega Megadrive.
Gotta Go Fast
Alongside Sega of America’s aggressive ‘Sega does what Nintendon’t’ marketing campaign, the first great console war began. Sonic the Hedgehog pushed Sega’s sales revenue to $1 billion, with around 2.8 million cartridges sold worldwide that same year. Sonic saw continued success on the Megadrive with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3, Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic 3D Blast and a couple of spin-offs, including Sonic Spinball.
However, Sega’s management overall was at odds with each other. Sega of America was trying to bring the company to the forefront of home consoles in North America, whilst Sega of Japan was fixated on being the controlling force in all territories. The cross-continental feud resulted in multiple rehashes of dated hardware and a leadership team with no clear direction. This lead to a lacklustre console launch in the Sega Saturn, which only featured the spin-off sonic title ‘Sonic R’.
Sega had fallen behind its competition. In cancelling the next flagship Sonic title ‘Sonic Extreme’, the focus shifted towards its next (and final) home console, the Dreamcast.
Reimagining A Mascot
Sonic Adventure saw a massive overhaul in character design and shifted to 3D platformer gameplay in a semi-open world setting. Its levels kept the spirit of the original sonic games alive whilst introducing new mechanics such as ‘light-speed dash’ and ‘homing attack’. Said abilities were unlocked by finding new wearables.
The redesign ultimately split the fandom, with some loyal fans wanting a vanilla Sonic experience, while others enjoyed the evident modernisation of its core tenets. On the whole, though, it felt like Sonic Team was attempting to keep up with the likes of Nintendo and Sony, both of whom had seen success with 3D platformers of their own.
Players experienced the story of multiple characters in-game, seeing the overall arc evolve from different perspectives, something uncommon in the genre at the time.
While riddled with bugs and lacking in polish, Sonic Adventure turned out to be a classic that many fans still hold dear. Regardless of opinion, Sega and Sonic Team showed they could bring new ideas to the table and create new Sonic experiences old and new fans could enjoy. However, it would take the fandom a few years to accept Sonic Teams new approach.
Sonic Adventure 2 followed in 2001, ditching the free roam elements of its predecessor in favour of a pair of structured ‘Hero’ and ‘Dark’ campaigns. The former featured Sonic’s classic fast-paced levels, Tails' shooter runs and Knuckles’ Emerald hunts, while the ‘Dark’ campaign remixed the hero campaign with Shadow, Eggman and Rouge, respectively.
Sega opted to refine the Sonic Adventure experience in its sequel, keeping many level design ideas intact. It resulted in some great level designs that were beautifully presented and harnessed the power of the Dreamcast, with the Chao Garden allowing players to take their hand-reared Chaos on the go with the VMU.
Sega answered fanboy prayers with the Sonic Advance series debuting on GameBoy Advance also in 2001. The series would move forward with the Sonic and Co. aesthetic redesign whilst thrusting him and his pals into a 2D platforming adventure. It spawned two sequels alongside support for Sonic Adventure 2: Battle’s Gamecube release.
From here, Sonic finally fell victim to the mascot boom and Sonic Team’s inability to create solid titles for the blue blur. Sega thought the key to Sonic’s success was reinvention, switching up the formula with all sorts of new gimmicks while all fans wanted were original 2D or 3D Sonic experiences. Sonic’s TV adventures stopped and a lawsuit began removing established characters from the comic book series from universe canon.
In the mid-2000s, gamers grew up. Looking for realistic, high definition action experiences with modern military shooters such as Call of Duty and the countless brown phase clones introduced during the bro-shooter boom. We’re looking at you, Call of Juarez. It left little room for Sonic, with his relevancy seemingly dwindling during the seventh generation.
The seventh generation represented Sonic's awkward teenage years. The blue blur was suffering from an identity crisis, hitting puberty after the release of Sonic Heroes. Looking past Shadow's ridiculous gun-toting spin-off, 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog was the equivalent of a 13-year-old trying to get served in a pub.
Ridiculous and full of itself, this particular outing introduced some new characters such as Silver the Hedgehog whilst Sonic kissed a human woman. It featured ridiculous load times, broken levels and no real direction. Sonic the Hedgehog pushed Sonic Team away from a Sonic Adventure-type game but for the wrong reasons.
Following this, Sega thought it would be a great idea to see how many gimmicks they can shoehorn into a Sonic title. The Secret Rings, The Black Knight and Sonic Unleashed were all utterly unrelated to the Sonic canon. Whilst these games had their moments; they weren’t Sonic experiences. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was an episodic return to the original 16-bit era, which ignored the control, design and mechanics that made the original trilogy special. Sega cancelled it after two episodes.
Live and Learn
Sega finally began to see what the fanbase wanted in Sonic Generations. To combine the fandom, old school and modern Sonic came together in a mash-up of redesigned levels from previous titles with a 2D and 3D design. It was a massive multi-platform success, selling over 1.8 million copies.
Sega started listening to the fans so much that they enlisted their help. Christian Whitehead is responsible for ports of earlier Sonic Games such as Knuckles Chaotix and became the lead developer of Sonic Mania. The 2D platformer takes on the aesthetic of Sonic 3 and provides a brand new game with some nods to earlier titles, and showed that solely 2D Sonic adventures could still sell. Sonic’s silver screen success with a sequel on the way shows that the franchise seems to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Happy Birthday Sonic
The Sonic Central 30th Anniversary live stream has confirmed next to nothing in terms of new Sonic titles and gameplay. A trailer for the rumoured Sonic Colours remaster and Sega revealed yet another Sonic classic collection. A trailer for an upcoming Sonic title dropped at the end of the stream, which is most likely a tie-in with the forthcoming Netflix animated series Sonic Prime. The time-distortion effects in the video match up nicely with the logo of the show.
We need a solid mainline Sonic game. Whilst an orchestral OST tribute, merchandise and unnecessary references shoehorned into Tokyo Olympic Games and Two Point Hospital were strange yet expected for the anniversary celebrations, we need to end the year looking forward to a fantastic Sonic experience.