Game Corner: Happy Birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog!

GameCorner

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Sonic the Hedgehog turned 26 this week so I figured it was only appropriate for a very special edition of Game Corner to celebrate the legacy of everyone’s favourite supersonic blue hedgehog. I know that Sonic isn’t exactly as relevant or anywhere near as popular as he used to be but, there was a time back in the nineties, when Sonic the Hedgehog was the videogame icon and the character, and his franchise, have significantly impacted my life over the years.

Growing up, I went through many phases where I had franchises and characters I gravitated towards; first it was Thomas the Tank Engine, then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so on, alongside superheroes from DC Comics (mainly Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern) and Marvel Comics (primarily Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four). However, my first real memories of truly latching on to a franchise and taking it as my own were with my first experiences with Sonic the Hedgehog.

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The first Sonic videogame I ever played, and owned, was Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA/Ancient, 1991) for the SEGA Master System. I remember playing the game for the first time and being struck by the colourful imagery, the addictive tunes, and the simplicity of the gameplay. I used to play that game all the time; one time, my friend came over and struggled to get past the first boss, so I offered to beat it for him and ended up getting further than I ever had before at that point, all the way to the final boss of the game. Sonic on the Master System had many features that were markedly different from its more graphically-impressive counterpart on the Mega Drive; Chaos Emeralds were cleverly hidden throughout the games Zones, for example, and the game also featured three Zones not seen in the Mega Drive version and, with the exception of the first boss, it also had completely different boss battles as well.

I didn’t have quite the same experience, or have quite the same love, for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA/Aspect, 1992) on the Master System. Sonic 2 was much harder than its predecessor, with Chaos Emeralds hidden in stupidly-difficult places and a gameplay mechanic whereby you had to collect all five before facing the robotic Silver Sonic or else you’d never get to see the good ending. Unlike the first game, though, Sonic 2 had a rather complex cheat code involved the second player’s controller, which I’m not ashamed to say I would utilise to overcome this issue.

Sonic_FleetwayIt was around about this time that I acquired a sample of Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic series, which had one-page teasers of the full issue’s stories. The first issue I got was issue two, which I still have, and I got issues here and there throughout the first year of its run before subscribing to it on a fortnightly basis. A few years ago I was able to fill in the gaps in my collection and have managed to collect every single issue bar the last two, which is good for me as the comic was unfortunately cancelled after a long series of reprints. However, the series is being continued at Sonic the Comic – Online.

I don’t remember the exact year (it must have been 1992 or 1993) but, after some cajoling, I was able to convince my parents to upgrade me to the SEGA Mega Drive purely based on pictures and reviews of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team/SEGA Technical Institute, 1992). I got the game, and the console, as a Christmas present and it tided me over for quite some time; I remember getting into trouble because I’d finally defeated Doctor Robotnik’s Death Egg Robot and wanted to watch the final cutscene and credits of the game rather than go eat dinner.

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After picking up Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) I was set; from that moment on, I bought every Sonic game I could for the consoles I had. I never got a Mega-CD, so I didn’t play Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sonic Team, 1993) until many years later on PC and, now, PlayStation 3 so, for many years, my absolutely favourite Sonic game was Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (Sonic Team, 1994). We all know the story; Sonic 3 was too big, too complex to be one game so, to save time and make more money, SEGA split it into two, releasing Sonic & Knuckles six months later. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge would “lock-on” to Sonic 3 (and Sonic 2, or any other Mega Drive cartridge) to unlock the full, complete version of the game.

For me, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was a game-changer; it introduced me to my favourite character of the franchise, Knuckles the Echidna, and topped everything its predecessors had done. You could play as Sonic, Miles “Tails” Prower, Knuckles, or Sonic and Tails simultaneously. Each had different paths to take, fought bosses differently, and had a unique ending. The game was bigger, brighter, faster, and more action-packed than its predecessors and had way more options, enemies, power-ups, and replay value. I was absolutely hooked!

Then dark times came for SEGA; the failure of the Mega-CD, 32X, and Saturn spelled the beginning of the end of the company. As videogame developers began entering the 32-bit era, I switched to the Nintendo 64 rather than the Dreamcast or Sony’s PlayStation. This was still at a time when parents couldn’t afford to get you every console going; just like back when I used to have to go around to my friend’s house to play the Super Nintendo (SNES) and he would have to come to mine to play the Mega Drive, so to did I opt for the N64 over the Dreamcast or PlayStation. The PlayStation was nothing to me then; it had no iconic characters, no games I was familiar with, and no-one I knew had a Dreamcast so I went with the popular option.

Sonic_Games4This meant that I didn’t play Sonic Adventure (Sonic Team, 1999) or Sonic Adventure 2 (Sonic Team USA, 2001) until they were re-released on the Nintendo GameCube. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (ibid) became my new favourite Sonic title, with its crisp 3D graphics, over-lapping narrative, and exciting, fast gameplay variety. Sonic Adventure 2 allowed me to play as Eggman for the first time (by this time I had begrudgingly accepted SEGA’s global acknowledgement or Robotnik’s original Japanese name) and introduced the angst-ridden Shadow the Hedgehog who also became a favourite of mine (he’s like Sonic….but dark!) Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut (Sonic Team, 2003) actually proved even better (it feels like a bigger, more exciting game despite being a bit less pretty to look at and a bit buggier than its sequel) and came with unlockable ports of the Game Gear Sonic titles, allowing me to fill some gaps in my collection.

From there, I’d have to say that I actually preferred Shadow the Hedgehog (SEGA Studio USA, 2003) over Sonic Heroes (Sonic Team USA, 2003) simply because it’s a better, more polished videogame. Shadow gets a lot of hatred because Shadow uses guns and vehicles when, to be fair, he doesn’t really need to and the title was, arguably, dark for the sake of being dark. However, I really enjoyed the shooting mechanics; the weapons were varied and ran out of ammo pretty fast (and were also entirely optional) so you can just used the patented Homing Attack instead. The storyline, while a bit convoluted (aliens? Really?) was fun to play through and to see all the many (and many) different endings to the game. The soundtrack and final boss were fantastic, as well, and the game just controls a lot better than Sonic Heroes, which always feels like you’re running on ice!

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Of course I also played the various Sonic titles on the Nintendo Gameboy Advance; a personal favourite of mine was Sonic Battle (Sonic Team/THQ, 2004), which featured a really long and decent story with multiple characters and options and a simple, yet addictive, fighting, level-up, and gear system. However, things took a sharp turn for the worst with SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (Sonic Team, 2006). By this point, I had switched over to the PlayStation 3 after everyone raved about how great the PlayStation 2 was (ironically, everyone was now raving about how great the Xbox 360 was…). I bought SONIC knowing it had gotten bad reviews, having heard all the negative press, but steadfast in my commitment to the franchise. Despite some stumbles along the way (Sonic 3D: Flickie’s Island (Traveller’s Tales/Sonic Team, 1996), for example), Sonic had never steered me wrong and I’d always found something to enjoy in every Sonic title I played.

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Honestly, I didn’t think SONIC was actually that bad. Yeah, the loading times were stupidly long, the sudden, jarring shift to a real-world aesthetic was a strange choice and the camera and controls could hinder you at some really awkward and frustrating moments but there was also a lot to like about the game. It looked amazing, for starters, had a great soundtrack, lots of variety in characters and gameplay, and told a unique and surprisingly deep story for a Sonic title. Probably the worst thing for me were the Mach Speed sections, where Sonic would speed off at a stupidly fast pace and become impossible to control; these were the sections that gave me the most grief and sucked away my lives. The rest was pretty much fine. I really hate seeing people online bash this game with images and videos of Sonic casually just walking around a loop; when you actually play the game, you’re moving too fast to do stuff like that so you have to be intentionally looking for it. A similar thing irks me when people criticise Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (Dimps/Sonic Team, 2010); when I played the game, I did so at a fast pace and threw myself into the action. I didn’t just stop and walk to test and bitch about the physics; normal gamers don’t do that (or, at least, they shouldn’t because videogames are made to be played, not bug-tested!)

Anyway, unfortunately for me, SONIC made such a negative impact that SEGA decided to strip everything back. While this resulted in some incredible titles, like Sonic Unleashed (Sonic Team, 2008), Sonic Colours (ibid, 2010), and Sonic Generations (ibid, 2011) it came at a price. Sonic videogames were now about Sonic and Sonic alone; you couldn’t play as Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, or any of his other cast of characters. We went from Sonic alone, to adding Tails, then adding Knuckles in the first three/four titles, to six playable characters, right back to just one. Even in polished, sleek, incredibly fun titles like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Generations, you’re limited to playing as Sonic or another version of Sonic (the Werehog, who could’ve just as easily been Knuckles, or Classic Sonic, respectively). Another by-product of this was that abilities and gameplay mechanics afforded to Sonic’s friends now became a part of his move-set; although this had been happening since Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Colours (and, later, Sonic: Lost World (ibid, 2015) made it abundantly clear that you don’t need to play as Tails to fly or swim or as Knuckles to glide, climb, or bash through walls because Sonic now has either default moves or power-ups that let him do all of those things.

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The plus side to this is that it seemed like SEGA were finally getting their act together; after being forced to pull out of console manufacturing and focus on software, and the massive screw up that was SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, SEGA and Sonic Team seemed to have rediscovered the formula that made Sonic such a popular and exciting franchise.

Then they shot themselves in the foot with Sonic Boom.

Sonic Boom initially presented itself as a complete rebranding of the Sonic franchise, with all-new character designs and a streamlined, refreshed continuity. Then, SEGA backpedalled and said it wasn’t a reboot but a spin-off series. So instead of having one worldwide brand, they now had Modern Sonic (the taller, older-looking one who used Boost gameplay), Classic Sonic (the chubbier, 2.5D version of the character), and Boom Sonic (with sports tape!) all co-existing at the same time. This was also alongside the Archie Comic series which, until recently, had been publishing consistently for over twenty-five years. Although it had begun as a strange amalgamation of the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAM) cartoons made by DiC in the nineties, Archie’s Sonic comics had since incorporated aspects of the videogames and become a huge, unwieldy lore all unto their own. Recent lawsuits and shenanigans had seen the comics undergo a dramatic reboot which simplified the continuity and brought the comics closer to the videogames, only for SEGA to suddenly undergo an identity crisis with Sonic Boom.

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After Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyris (Big Red Button, 2014) was a critical and commercial flop, rivalling only SONIC for its bugs and issues, the Boom franchise seems too be dead in the water except for the criminally underrated and highly amusing all-CGI cartoon series that accompanied the videogames. throughout the nineties, I used to watch Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog on Channel 4 on Sunday mornings religiously. It was bright and colourful and fun, even if it was hardly anything like the videogames. Then, one day, I tuned in and it was suddenly all different; the cartoon was darker, populated by all-new characters, and nothing like what I’d been watching before. Initially I was upset and confused, but I quickly grew to love SatAM even more than Adventures. It was darker and more serious, had a truly horrific Doctor Robotnik, and was also smarter and sleeker. Then it ended on a massive cliffhanger and shifted tone once again to Sonic Underground in 1999. By this time, I was a bit older and wasn’t watching cartoon as much and, although I liked the action and animation, Sonic Underground was just way too different for me.

Sonic_DVDsSo, growing up, I was used to all these different interpretations of Sonic; these days, though, it seems a lot of kids can’t seem to grasp the concept of multiple versions of popular characters. Yet, Sonic Adventure did a great job consolidating Sonic’s conflicting interpretations into one unified brand image only to somehow drop the ball with it. To me, Sonic Boom should have been a complete rebranding of the character. People moaned about the redesigns but they actually aren’t that bad; I didn’t mind Knuckles’s redesign at all (though I’d rather he was smarter) and all the characters are exactly the same despite looking different. Plus, the Sonic Boom cartoon is amazing; it’s smart and actually laugh-out-loud funny with its self-referential humour. Plus, the episodes are really short s it’s easy to watch over and over.

As for the future, it appears as though SEGA and Sonic Team are getting back on track. While Sonic Boom continues to air, future videogames in the franchise appear to be dead; this has actually negatively affected the upcoming Sonic Forces (Sonic Team, 2017), at least for me. Forces is apparently set in a time when Eggman has finally conquered the world, causing Modern and Classic Sonic to team up once again to stop him. There’s also the option to create your own character which, while exciting, seems to have pushed Boom Sonic out of the title (the custom avatar uses an energy beam similar to the one seen in Sonic Boom, lending credibility to custom character feature having replaced Boom Sonic). However, we’re also finally getting a brand new 2D Sonic title that will hopefully be the true Sonic 4 I’ve been wanting since Sonic 3 & Knuckles. As I said, I enjoyed Sonic 4 (Episode II was the much better experience of the two parts, though) but, for me, a true Sonic sequel should offer more than one playable character. The upcoming Sonic Mania (Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, 2017) finally returns Tails and Knuckles as playable characters and appears to be a lovingly-crafted piece of nostalgia for fans of Sonic 3 & Knuckles with its massive, tiered Zones, huge bosses, and gameplay variety. At the same time, there’s apparently going to be a live-action/CGI hybrid Sonic movie coming out in 2019; I’m a big fan of Sonic the hedgehog: The Movie (Ikegami, 1996) and feel its past time for a new Sonic film (although I’d rather it was all CGI).

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I even have Sonic underpants

Sonic_TattooSonic the Hedgehog has been a part of my life since I was about six years old; that’s nearly twenty-five years now. I went to SEGA World in London when I was a kid and got to play Sonic the Fighters (SEGA AM2, 1996) and SEGASonic the Hedgehog (SEGA-AM3, 1993), which ended up being really special as those titles became extremely rare. I went to Summer of Sonic in London in 2010, where I got to play Sonic 4, see Crush 40 perform live, and mingle with many other Sonic fans. Not only did I put together my own series of sprite comics, not only do I even have Sonic tattoos I also wrote over 20,000 words about the development, rise, and fall of both SEGA and Sonic and all about how the cartoons have changed and shaped the videogame canon as part of my PhD.

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Summer of Sonic, 2010

For me, there is no greater videogame icon than Sonic the Hedgehog. He was faster, more expressive, more action-packed than his counterparts; his videogames had more variety and depth, a larger cast of characters, and far more appeal and replay value. He inspired not only a slew of 2D platformers starring attitude-ladened anthropomorphic protagonists, not only one of the fiercest and most competitive marketing wars in the videogame industry, but also me to be more creative and to write and draw about the things I love. So bust out the Mega Drive, blow the dust out of your cartridges, and stick Sonic 3 into Sonic & Knuckles and celebrate the legacy and impact of what I consider to be the greatest videogame icon of all time.

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