It’s difficult to believe nowadays that Sonic the Hedgehog was ever a major rival to Mario as the video game world’s most recognisable character, and yet for a brief time in the 90s, it was as though the future had arrived in hedgehog form. With his sleek blue looks, attitude and bright red shoes, Sonic’s arrival on the scene suddenly made Nintendo’s mustachioed plumber with a penchant for mushrooms, only the bad kind. For kids in the 90’s, it was a revelation. People went crazy for Sonic straight out of the gates. His first game, Sonic the Hedgehog, debuted on the Mega Drive in 1991 and became one of the biggest selling games of all time. It’s still in the top 20 best-selling games of all time twenty-five years later. That’s impressive.
A Flying Start
In 1990, Sega and Nintendo’s rivalry was reaching its peak. Realising that it didn’t have a strong mascot character to compete with Nintendo’s Mario, Sega gave the order to its in house development team to create a mascot. After working through several designs, including, at one point, a rabbit that threw rocks at enemies, Sonic was eventually conceived and made his debut on the Mega Drive in a whirl of sudden success. Sonic the Hedgehog was a bright, colourful and fast platformer that told the story of Sonic trying to reclaim the stolen Chaos Emeralds and free his animal buddies from the machinations of evil genius, Dr Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD and Sonic 3 all followed in quick succession and though none of the sequels sold quite as well as the original game they were all wildly successful and fuelled school arguments over whether Nintendo or Sega were better for years to come.
Though Sonic and Robotnik were immediately established as the core of any Sonic game, Sonic 2 saw the debut of a new character: Miles “Tails” Prower, a two tailed fox who could fly and would either be controlled by a second player or just follow along behind Sonic and die repeatedly every time an underwater level came up. It was the first of many characters to be introduced in subsequent games. Knuckles the Echidna, a nemesis and eventual friend of Sonic was introduced in Sonic 3 and played a leading role in Sonic and Knuckles. Many others followed: Amy Rose, Metal Sonic, Shadow the Hedgehog. Today, the Sonic universe is made up of a bewildering number of characters and, if you really care to delve into it, a surprisingly complex storyline told over a huge number of games. The core games spawned spin-offs in multiple genres: Sonic Spinball was a pinball game. Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine was a puzzle game and also a great potential name for a food truck. If you go delving into Sonic’s back catalogue, you are guaranteed to find things you didn’t know existed.
The early games on the Mega Drive still look great. They’re colourful, they have great music and there’s a lot of interesting things going on in them. Sonic 3 in particular makes great use of animations and transitions between stages to tell a story. The gameplay itself can be a little difficult to adjust to, something that has led certain corners of the internet to question whether Sonic games were ever really good or whether the fondness for them is just misplaced nostalgia. The answer is, of course they were good. No, they don’t play as perfectly as Mario games from the same era, but compared to the mountains of by-the-numbers platform games that were being churned out in the early 90’s, the Sonic games were great.
The problem with Sonic’s early games is that, at first glance, the game mechanics and level design seem to be working cross purposes. Sonic can move at a blisteringly fast pace and yet the levels do everything they can to stop you reaching and staying at top speed. Throughout most levels, you’re continually running into hidden springs that launch you into enemies and spikes or send you skidding back in the opposite direction. This level design makes sense from Dr Robotnik’s point of view, but doesn’t make for fun times to be Sonic. And yet when you do get going on a good run, the games feel great. Travelling at top speed as Sonic, just managing to avoid obstacles as they come looming out of nowhere at you, is a wonderful experience to the point where you just don’t want to stop moving until something forces you to.
Out of Control
As the console generations moved into the 32-bit era, things started to take a downward turn for Sega. Sonic made some fairly obscure appearances on the ill-fated Saturn (and you’ll notice that all of Sega’s consoles after the Mega Drive could very well have “ill-fated” at the start of their names) before coming back in a big way on the Dreamcast with Sonic Adventure. The Dreamcast was a great console that nobody bought because at this point, Sega had made too many mistakes with or without Sonic. Sonic Adventure was a full 3D game in answer to games like Mario 64. It was received extremely well at the time but contemporary reviews are far more scathing of its poor camera management and frustrating difficulty. The game was followed up with an improved sequel in Sonic Adventure 2 but by then, no one was buying the Dreamcast anymore. It was the beginning of a long slide downhill for Sonic. No more would he be regarded as the only real rival to Mario. Instead, as the Dreamcast slowly failed, he became a symbol of Sega’s failing fortunes.
The Post Sega Years
There’s a fairly understandable misconception that after Sega’s collapse as a console maker, Sonic spent quite a few lost years standing outside Sega HQ asking for spare change, but he’s never really gone away from the video game scene. His first post Sega title was Sonic Advance for the Gameboy Advance, released in the same year as his final appearance on the Dreamcast. That Sonic was appearing on a Nintendo console was something that had been utterly unthinkable just a few years before. The Sega kids who’d always been able to count on Sonic in the Sega vs Nintendo argument were fuming, or at least would have been if they weren’t busy playing their shiny new Playstation 2s and Xboxes by now. Sonic Advance is a surprisingly solid Sonic game. It’s not as colourful as its original Mega Drive counterparts but it retains all of the fun and imagination. It spawned two sequels and gave Sonic enough success on Nintendo’s handhelds to appear on Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventures on the Nintendo DS, both of which made interesting use of the DS’s split screen but for the first time ever, overdid it with Sonic’s speed.
Over on the home consoles, Sonic wasn’t doing nearly as well. Here, 2D platforming had been mostly abandoned in favour of Sonic Adventure’s full 3D. There were numerous attempts to relaunch and reboot the series including Shadow the Hedgehog, a gritty spin-off featuring a gun wielding, motorcycle riding hedgehog blasting his way through levels. It was not good. The most notable reboot was Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. There was an impressive amount of marketing leading up to this title, a promise that Sonic was back to his prime. With its extravagant CG cut scenes it still looks like it costs millions of dollars but on release it was almost universally panned and a spectacular failure. It was full of bugs, long load times and an oddly complicated plot. If Sonic had hit a low before, Sonic the Hedgehog sank him even lower. Surprisingly, even more games followed across all consoles and though these have their fans, the less said about them, the better. Through all this, there were still occasional glimpses of the old Sonic, most notably in Sonic 4 parts 1 and 2 which were attempts to take Sonic back to his roots. Unfortunately, Sonic was all but exiled from mainstream gaming culture by now and even these weren’t well received.
It wasn’t until this year’s Sonic Mania that Sonic finally got a break. A loving throwback to Sonic’s 16-bit days with a perfect mix of new stuff and nostalgia, Sonic Mania was made by fans who knew exactly what made Sonic fun in the first place. For the first time in a decade, a Sonic game gained widespread acclaim and made people remember exactly why Sonic had been so popular. Coming up next is Sonic Forces which looks to be attempting to reinvigorate the 3D incarnation of Sonic with healthy doses of 2D platforming. It looks fast, colourful and exciting, but time will tell where in the Sonic pantheon it falls.
There’s no getting around the fact that Sonic is nowhere near as popular as he once was. He will never really be a rival to Mario again. But the fact that Sonic has somehow endured is a testament to just how iconic the character is and somehow remains. There are still an astonishing number of hardcore Sonic fans out there and the games always sell well enough to continue being published, no matter how the critical reception is. At this point he’s had a lot more misses than hits but the best thing about Sonic is that there’s always a new game around the corner and it always has the potential to be great. Sonic is a survivor and Sega’s stubborn refusal to let him go means he’s earned his spot alongside Pacman and Mario as an icon of the industry.
Article by Matt Russell.
Check back every week in November for a Sonic article and review and catch Sonic Forces out November 7.