BY JAMES METCALFE: Sonic the Hedgehog soared to superstardom in the early nineties by pushing video gaming in an exhilarating new direction. Gamers were given the ultimate adrenaline rush as the blue blur charged through gorgeous levels at a breakneck pace, stomped on enemies and collected rings. It was met with critical acclaim and commercial success, and it sent sales of the Sega Genesis through the stratosphere by showcasing its “blast processing” technology.
Sonic allowed Sega to go toe-to-toe with Nintendo by running rings around its portly plumber. However, Mario has since continued his unassailable march to glory, whereas Sonic has seemingly crashed and burned. What went wrong for the anthropomorphic hedgehog?
A painful transition
The problems all began when the team at Sega was forced to transition Sonic from his 2D heartland into the brave new 3D world that gripped the gaming industry by the late nineties.
The early titles in the franchise tested gamers’ interactive timing, precision and muscle memory, and they were unlike anything on the market. It was easy to manage a fast-paced rollercoaster of a level in 2D, as a linear path connects the starting point and the finishing point. The fast-paced gameplay does not translate well to a 3D world and suddenly Sonic had lost his key advantage over Mario.
Nintendo managed the transition to 3D well with Super Mario 64, but the sharp-talking hedgehog did not fare so well. It is worth pointing out that the team at Sega continued to excel with their artwork, as Sonic Adventure was a visual delight, while the sound designed remained on point. It was also a commercial success for the Dreamcast, but there were significant issues with the gameplay.
The beginning of the end
It featured six different missions and half of them were downright bizarre. You could go fishing with Big the Cat, bash villains with Amy Rose’s hammer and go on a treasure hunt. There was no doubting the scope of Sega’s ambition, but it resulted in a clunky, confused game. This can be seen as the start of Sonic the Hedgehog’s steady decline.
Sega continued to slow the pace of future games down, and they covered it up by introducing a number of new characters while throwing plenty of new features at the wall. The new playable characters were boring and few of the ideas worked. It proved difficult for the team to retain the joy its fans experienced in 2D, and it continued to drift further from its unique selling point while failing to adapt to the rigours of modern gaming.
By this point, Sonic had become more of a brand than a character. Naoto Oshima created him in 1991 in response to the roaring success Nintendo had enjoyed with Mario, who had replaced Pac-Man as the world’s biggest gaming icon.
However, Nintendo continued to push its chubby plumber into interesting new directions – Mario Party was a surprise hit, Mario Kart was lauded as one of the greatest racing games of all time and became a hugely successful franchise in its own right – while Sega’s efforts with Sonic often fell flat.
An all-time low point
The series reached a low point when Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 2006. It was designed to celebrate the franchise’s 15th anniversary and relaunch the brand for a new generation of gamers. Yet it faced development issues, as the studio could not match Sonic’s breakneck speed, and they had to rush key elements in order to release it in time for Christmas. The result was one of the worst games of all time, panned by critics and lambasted for its “terrible” camera and “downright creepy” storyline.
Games Radar, which named it the 43rd worst game in history, said it came “dangerously close to being the video-game equivalent of Spinal Tap – a former icon blissfully unaware that he’s so out of touch, so far fallen from grace, that he’s become a laughing stock. With his next-gen debut, the blue blazer has literally become a parody of himself. Plus, his game sucks.”
A few of the games have been decent since then, but many fans are more likely to remember the unmitigated disaster that was Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal. Reviewers called these games ham-fisted, painfully unfunny and “definitely the worst game of 2014”. They despaired at the unwieldy controls, abysmal camera, insipid level design and lack of responsiveness, while it was also riddled with bugs. One reviewer said it left gamers with “the terrible feeling that Sonic hates you”.
They shifted just 490,000 units combined, making them the poorest performing titles in the franchise’s history.
A much-maligned hero
It has now become fashionable to scorn Sonic, which is a shame because in his heyday he was a legend. It is worth noting that the franchise has sold more than 335 million units, grossed billions of dollars and enjoyed a level of success that many gaming franchises can only dream of.
Smartphone users can now download free-to-play mobile versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, meaning Sega has actually shifted more than 800 million copies. It has crossed over into comic books, animations and even a Hollywood film starring James Marsden.
There is still hope that it could be reinvigorated. Recent titles have been reasonably good. Sonic Mania, released in 2018, sold more copies than the previous two titles. Sonic Team Racing also pushed the kart racing genre in a really intriguing new direction. Anyone browsing the best gaming updates from Unikrn will note that new games are being developed, and they show promise. Yet it seems that nothing will ever compare with the thrill of playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis.