When it comes to video game characters, the most popular one of all-time isn’t up for debate. That would be Mario, the man of many occupations who first thwarted the mighty Donkey Kong to save his love (or was a pusher of animal cruelty depending on your point of view). Mario is a character that passes the grandparent test, which is, even your grandparents know who he is. For a time though in the early 90’s, a character rose up to rival Mario’s popularity and may have even eclipsed it for a brief moment. That character is Sonic is the Hedgehog, the mascot for the Sega company who’s responsible for putting a Sega Genesis into the homes of more Americans than the Super Nintendo.
Sonic was a hit, and he always was supposed to be. Look up how a character is created and you likely won’t find a more formulaic character than Sonic. He epitomized 90’s “edge” and “cool” and kids were supposed to love him and think he’s way cooler (way past cooler?) than that pudgy plumber on the other guy’s console. He starred in his own gaming franchise and made the leap to television and basically soared through the first half of the 90’s, but sadly his popularity would not last.
The original Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 is a pretty simple game at its heart. It was a platform game by name only. Very little time was spent navigating floating platforms and hunting for power-ups and warp zones. Instead Sonic just wanted you to hold down on the Right button and power on ahead. Sonic was fast, even though hedgehogs aren’t known for their speed (or for the color blue), and the object of each level was simply to get to the end. Sure there were rings to collect which triggered bonus rounds, but that stuff was secondary. Some levels would slow things down, such as the dreaded water ones, but never to the point where Sonic ever felt like Mario. Sonic would race through the level, leap over enemies, shoot through loops, bounce off springs, and really only pause to battle the villainous Dr. Robotnik (referred to as Eggman in Japan and in all modern Sonic games).
Sonic games were like an adrenaline rush. It was both exciting and nerve-racking to have Sonic zipping along at top speed knowing at any moment an enemy could pop out or a spike pit could be looming. Besting the levels was one part reflex and another part repetition. There was an element of trial and error to Sonic that rarely become frustrating. Sonic was also a single player game, but Sonic 2 would introduce the character Tails and shoe-horn cooperative play into the game. As player 2, Tails was not fun to control because the game followed Sonic and only Sonic with Tails often getting left behind off camera. He couldn’t die, so that was a plus, but he didn’t really bring anything to the gameplay experience. Players could elect to control Tails and only Tails, but he was basically just a palette swap of Sonic, only cuter. Sonic 3 would improve on the co-op dynamic by allowing players to control Tails in flight. He could lift Sonic to hard to reach places which made the Sonic and Tails adventure a little different from the Sonic solo mode.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and its sister title, Sonic & Knuckles, probably represents Sonic’s peak as well as his fall. The game became bigger and introduced a new character, Knuckles the echidna (whatever that is) who could glide and climb walls with his spiny knuckles. He was an antagonist in Sonic 3, and a playable character in Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic 3 was a big game compared to the previous titles. There was more emphasis placed on exploration which slowed things down just a touch. The graphics were also overhauled and allegedly Michael Jackson was responsible for most of the soundtrack. It was also meant to be bigger, as Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were supposed to be one game, but Sega likes money so it rushed the game to market. Sonic & Knuckles was the only game to feature Sega’s lock-on technology which allowed players to attach the prior Sonic games to the cart in a pretty ingenious maneuver. For Sonic 2, this meant gamers could play as Knuckles for a new take on things. For Sonic 3, this essentially opened up the whole game and allowed for saving as well which finally made collecting those pesky chaos emeralds worthwhile.
While this was all going down, Sonic was also succeeding elsewhere. On television, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog was airing on weekday afternoons. Featuring everyone’s favorite nerd Jaleel White as the voice of Sonic, the show was a pretty typical children’s cartoon with cool protagonists and dim-witted villains. On Saturday mornings, a separate Sonic cartoon, simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog, was airing on ABC. It too featured White as the voice of Sonic but this show struck a more serious tone. Robotnik was the antagonist seeking to “robotocize” the population and succeeded in doing so with Sonic’s beloved Uncle Chuck in the first episode. Sonic was joined by Tails as well as a cast of character not featured in the games. Together they referred to themselves as freedom fighters and often employed guerrilla tactics to stop Robotnik and slow his progress. It was actually a pretty cool show, and both looked and sounded better than Adventures and the serious tone helped make it stand out. It doesn’t quite hold up for adult viewing, and Sonic for some reason needed to have a food obsession (chili dogs) like a certain group of turtles, but it’s still a pretty interesting interpretation of the games. Also of note, is Sonic’s solo adventure for the ill-fated Sega CD peripheral. I covered that in a full review years ago but it’s often heralded as Sonic’s best outing, it’s just too bad so few got to play it since the Sega CD was both pricey and awful.
Together with Sonic, Sega was able to claim a partial victory, though not a resounding one, in the 16 Bit Wars, but victory would be short-lived. Sega hastily tried to bring Sonic into the third dimension with Sonic 3D Blast, a dreadful top-down platformer released on the aging Genesis and ported to Sega’s new console. The industry moved on and Sega tried to stay one step ahead of its rivals with the Sega Saturn, a CD based system ill-equipped to handle the demands of 3D processing. The Saturn quickly fell behind not only Nintendo and its Nintendo 64, but also new-comer Sony and its Playstation. And in a truly puzzling maneuver, Sonic never had a true outing for the Saturn. He would skip the whole console generation while his old rival Mario wowed industry insiders and gamers alike with his performance in Super Mario 64. Sonic would not receive a full-fledged outing until Sonic Adventure in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast.
Sonic Adventure was the hedgehog’s proper introduction to 3D and the results were a bit mixed. People at the time seemed to be pretty delighted with the return of Sega’s mascot, and the game looked great. The title was a hit and helped get the Dreamcast off to a decent start, but the momentum died quickly as the shadow of the Playstation 2 loomed large. At that time, people seemed willing to overlook Adventure’s short-comings, namely the giant cast of characters that forced non-speed related gameplay into the mix, but they were less willing to do so when Adventure 2 arrived in 2001. Most agreed that playing as Sonic was still fast and still fun (and newcomer Shadow played exactly the same), but 2/3rds of the game was devoted to scavenger hunts as Knuckles/Rogue and mech battles as Tails/Eggman. Those slower segments were mostly panned, and rightly so. This is about the time people started yearning for Sonic to go back to his roots.
There was a brief reprieve for Sonic via Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance. By now, Sega had folded as a console manufacturer and turned to publishing its games on other systems. This helped to land Sonic on handhelds where he was free to be himself. A series of games on both the GBA and the Nintendo DS were mostly well-received, if not spectacular. Simultaneously, Sonic continued to spin his wheels on the home consoles. Games like Sonic Heroes, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic and the Black Knight were mediocre to just plain awful. Sega seemed willing to try everything and anything with Sonic, and few times did it work out.
Meanwhile, Nintendo has mostly kept its star happy with quality main titles. Yeah, Mario has been whored out to the dreaded spin-off more times than can be counted, but the main titles in the Mario franchise have mostly been great. I’m talking about games like Mario Sunshine, Galaxy 1 and 2, 3D Land, and so on. Sonic has even struggled when going back to the well with 2D as Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was a pretty big bummer of a game. Sonic’s brand and reputation has been so tarnished that it’s now a surprise when he stars in a legitimately good game.
So what is Sonic’s legacy? Is Sonic one of the most beloved characters in video game history? A symbol of quality and excellence on par with the rival he will be forever linked with? Or is Sonic more of a flash in the pan; a product of the times that failed to adapt with the changing tastes of the masses? Is Sonic the video game equivalent of disco? When I think of Sonic the Hedgehog I’m taken back to many days and nights with my Genesis. I remember playing the original title at my nana’s house and running out of the bedroom announcing to all of the adults that I had finally beaten the game. I remember seeing Sonic transform into Super Sonic for the first time while playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and being totally captivated. I remember days spent mastering the bonus stage of Sonic 3 in my quest to collect all of the chaos emeralds so I could experience Super Sonic in that game (I also remember doing the same with Tails hoping to uncover a Super Tails, I was very let-down with the end result). That’s the Sonic I choose to remember. Thankfully, I haven’t had many extended experiences with the modern titles, or even the modern cartoons like Sonic X and Sonic Boom. I still know Sonic’s brand has suffered irreparably. I loved Sonic when I was 10 and I imagine most ten year olds today think he sucks, and it would be hard to argue with that. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sega is reportedly planning some big announcements. Hopefully they focus less on the glitz and just make a good game already. Sonic can’t take much more of this.