I can’t look at the modern-day Sonic the Hedgehog without sighing, putting my arm around his blue, prickly shoulder and asking him in a muted whisper: “What the hell happened to you, man?”
It wasn’t always a life of generic 3D releases and mediocre critical reception for the world’s favourite spiked mammal. Oh no. There was a time once when Sonic was on every advert on every channel on every television set in the Western world. When Sonic the Hedgehog was released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1991 the titular character’s face was swiftly plastered over every piece of merchandise imaginable from lunchboxes to annuals and the videogame world couldn’t get enough of him.
Yes, in the early 90’s, Sonic the Hedgehog was revered by child and adult gamer alike. Cool enough to appeal to the youngest of gamers and cheeky enough to be enjoyed by the eldest, Sonic could be appreciated and adored by any and all. He truly was Sega’s finest creation (aside from the excellent Sega Channel, of course) and was the perfect contender to Nintendo’s own mascot: Mario. If Mario was the bubbly and happy every-day plumber on his way to work at the castle then Sonic was the cool kid in the leather jacket and shades smoking outside the corner shop.
Sonic’s brash attitude and cool design along with his new and exciting approach to 2D platform gaming (emphasising speed and momentum over tactical movement as seen in the Mario series) won over gamers and the character was largely credited for Sega’s success in the 16-bit era of the early-90s. With a character people wanted to play as in Sonic and some truly inspiring advertising campaigns (who wouldn’t love to see Sony release a “PS3 does what Nintendon’t” advert?) Sega ensured that their Mega Drive console accounted for 55% of all 16-bit consoles sold in America by 1994.
Sonic’s staying power and popularity ensured sequels for fans and a cash-cow franchise for Sega executives. The character’s three subsequent outings on the Mega Drive sold in great numbers but the success of everyone’s favourite pot-bellied pal would not last. Despite a promising first outing in true 3D (along with a radical character redesign) on the Dreamcast in the highly-acclaimed Sonic Adventure, the lack of any real progress or original ideas within the series saw the character and franchise stagnate. By the turn of the new millennium, Sonic was reduced to appearing in mediocre efforts like 2003’s Sonic Heroes and, in worst case scenarios, downright embarrassing affairs as in 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
Former sparring partner Mario by contrast enjoyed consistent acclamation throughout the decades courtesy of the brave directions Nintendo were prepared to take with their Princess-rescuing, Goomba-squashing pipe-cleaner. Whilst Nintendo continued to produce genuinely innovative, original and entertaining games for their mascot like Super Mario 64, Mario Kart and Super Mario Galaxy, Sega seemed afraid to take a risk with their most popular character and they paid a heavy price for it.
You aren’t likely to hear of any recent Sonic games winning “Game of the Year” awards as Super Mario Galaxy 2 did, nor are you likely to hear about a Sonic title selling over 20,000,000 copies; a feat New Super Mario Bros. Wii accomplished less than two years after its initial release. Indeed, the best-selling Sonic game in the last decade or so was a collaboration with Mario in 2007’s Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games; a game which sold significantly less copies than New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
Those statistics truly are a sad indictment on one of the most popular videogame characters and franchises of all time. Sega’s unwillingness to take risks with their character in the mid-to-late 90s proved fatal to the Sonic series, from the cancellation of the promising Sonic X-Treme on the Sega Saturn in 1996 to an overemphasis on spinoff titles like Sonic Drift and Sonic Chaos. Wholly unnecessary new characters were introduced in each new game (or at least that’s how it felt to the average Sonic fan) and despite a brief glimmer of hope for the series when the Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure were released to great critical acclaim, the eventual death of Sega’s final home console at the hands of the PlayStation 2 saw the red-sneakered hedgehog enter his worst period to date.
A decade of having your arse handed to you (if you’ll forgive the expression) by your closest rival has to hurt and it seems Sega have been bearing the brunt of Mario’s exquisitely executed kicks to the rear for too long now. Indeed, the series as a whole appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance.
2010 saw the release of two critically acclaimed Sonic games. Sonic 4: Episode I: a 2D side-scrolling game released as a direct sequel to the Mega Drive games of the 90s, became the first console game starring a blue hedgehog (and a blue hedgehog alone) to receive a solid GameRankings score. Sonic 4 certainly looked the part and handled superbly, containing enough throwbacks and homages to the glory days of the early-90s to forgive some questionable physics. For the first time in over a decade Sega released a Sonic game that actually felt and played like a Sonic game. Sonic Colours meanwhile was released for the Nintendo DS and received even greater commendation than Sonic 4, being described by IGN as “the best Sonic game for 18 years”.
Sega listened to the reaction and before long a brand new game had been announced: Sonic Generations. The story involved Sonic travelling back in time to explore stages and zones from previous titles in both 2D side-scrolling mode and the more modern three-dimensional manner. Generations received positive reviews throughout the gaming world and was even heralded in some quarters as the mark of a true return to form for the character and series.
So where do Sega go from here with Sonic the Hedgehog? At present the only games in development featuring the speedy blue scamp are Mario and Sonic at the London 2012 Olympics and Sonic 4: Episode II, two widely predicted sequels. Aside from these releases Sega have remained largely quiet on the future of their most famous mascot.
It just so happens that I have an idea which will ensure that the next game in the Sonic series doesn’t lead to disappointment amongst fans and critics.
Don’t make it and retire the character. For good.
This obviously won’t happen. Of course it won’t. Sonic the Hedgehog still makes money and he is still a relatively popular character amongst kids and adults alike.
But the eleven years between Sonic Adventure and Sonic 4: Episode I were extremely disappointing and even at times upsetting for a fan of the franchise to take. Sega spent a decade developing and publishing poor games with their most popular character in the leading role. I only have to say “Sonic and the Secret Rings” to send a shiver down the spines of even the most forgiving fans of the series.
So perhaps now is the right time to wave goodbye to Sonic the Hedgehog. The series as a whole has found its feet and the last three releases in particular have been of a high standard. The character has had a good run and his first four games on the Mega Drive system will be forever remembered as classics. With the release of Sonic 4: Episode I and Sonic Generations the series genuinely feels like it has come full circle and if ever there was a time to leave a character on a high note, it’s now. Now is Sonic’s time to set sail on a retirement cruise with his friends and wave goodbye to the shores of the videogame kingdom.
Again, it won’t happen. Sonic the Hedgehog is a name and a character that makes money and to the majority of gamers throughout the world this will be a patently absurd suggestion. But having been a fan of the franchise since the age of 4 it was difficult to see one of my childhood heroes blunder his way through poorly-constructed titles like Sonic and the Secret Rings and the 2006 version of Sonic the Hedgehog and I’m sure it was the same for many a Sonic fan across the world.
I’d like to see Sonic bow out on a high, and Generations was the perfect send-off.
For me, it’s the right time for Sonic the Hedgehog to hang up the red sneakers.