Life was never going to be easy for the golden ring and speed addicted hedgehog. From his humble beginnings as Sega’s hopeful new mascot, to becoming a dreaded “secondary character” playing second fiddle to the communist, iron-fisted red plumber, Sonic’s had a hard life.
He made his debut in 1991’s self-titled “Sonic The Hedgehog” as Sega’s answer to the communist, tripping-on-mushrooms, stereotypical Italian plumber over at the Stalin-esk Nintendo. In releasing Sonic to the masses, Sega basically told Alex the Kidd to move over as a slick new hedgehog was in town. The aim of the games were simple – you were this blazing fast hedgehog whose main goal was to collect golden rings and play through six infuriating Special Stages to prevent Doctor Robotnik from stealing the Chaos Emeralds.
Secretly Sega was hoping Sonic was their answer to Mario’s ever lasting struggles to rescue the Princess. A basic story. One that would win over the hearts and minds of many a child back in the day and sure enough, Sonic was soon flying high; snorting the Chaos Emeralds off Doctor Robotnik’s burnt carcasses, smelting the rings to wear from Green Hill Zone to the Starlight Zone and back.
Life was good, and soon there would be sequels to the hit first game. Sonic was a star! And he was representing Nintendo’s biggest competitor, so what could possibly go wrong?
Soon he would star in Sonic 2, which by all accounts was even better. It had multiplayer! Arguably the first hurdle came with the release of Sonic 3 in 1994 after Sega came out and admitted that it was only really a half completed game. The “second half” to Sonic 3 was going to come out as a separate and brand new title: Sonic and Knuckles. This would make Sonic 3 a “complete” title by proxy of a new technology: a lock-on cartridge that Sonic 3 (and previous Sonic titles) could plug into the top of. While that may sound a bit hokey by today’s standards, combining two physical games to create the “complete” Sonic 3 and Knuckles was ultimately no different than say, downloading some overpriced DLC pack for your favourite game today. Sonic and Knuckles also marked the first time since Sonic 2 where a major new character was introduced (Knuckles, obviously).
Sega was always all about the newest gimmick. Mario sure as hell didn’t have lock-on carts. Anecdotally, fans point to Sonic and Knuckles as the beginning of the end for Sonic and the games he would star in. After the lock-on gimmick, Sega began a seemingly never-ending search for new ways to keep Sonic interesting and lost focus on the core product. Subsequent titles were all about new secondary characters, instead of blazing through levels with Sonic in a blind ecstasy of ring collecting.
As technology continued to improve, 3D was suddenly feasible on a consumer level. By 1994, Nintendo was developing their newest game console in a project that would take advantage of this reality, with the backing of the red plumber of course. But how do you handle a traditional 2D platformer in a 3D realm? While they were busy with that question, Sega were developing addon after addon in a quest to keep people pushing money into their aging Sega Mega Drive’s. First came the expensive Mega CD, adding the compact disc to your 16-bit experience. The result? A load of awful full-motion-video games and nary a stand-out title, save for Sonic CD (arguably the best Sonic game of the original batch). Then there was the even more dismal 32X (seen above)…
The 32X came out in 1995 and barely survived 6 months before being abandoned. It had 33 games released, one of which was Knuckles Chaotix: Knuckle’s very own game in which Sonic did not appear at all. While Sega was wasting all this money propping up technology from the 80s, Nintendo and Sony had new 3D consoles well into development, with plans to launch them with games featuring flagship mascot characters. Sega would continue to flounder, dropping the Sega Saturn in a suprise launch with little to no fanfare, and no major Sonic title to support it.
Suddenly Sonic found himself in a decadent wasteland of pawned rings, and he’d seemingly snorted his way through all the Chaos Emeralds. By 1996, gamers were forgetting about him and moving to the third dimension courtesy of the red italian plumber, and wrangling with the extremely frustrating camera in Super Mario 64. Sonic was stuck, and losing traction to the competition faster than he could collect rings. Not so fast anymore….
Some idiot dressed as Sonic, with Michael Jackson. Fun fact: MJ was signed on to create the music for Sonic 3, but wanted nothing to do with it after he heard the awful sound quality of the newer model Mega Drive’s. His musical influence remained in the game.
Ultimately, it was Mario’s (mostly) excellent transition to 3D that had taken Sega by surprise. The big shift from 2D to 3D did not go as well for Sonic. In the middle of all of their business woes, Sega somehow had to translate the sheer speed and mindlessness of the original 2D platformers to 3D, now playing a game of catchup that they would never recover from. With several failed expensive addons, and a failed console later, consumers and game developers were losing faith in Sega. The quality of their machines and the quality of their games. No one could afford to keep throwing money at things that were going to fail in a few months time, electronically and commercially. Ultimately everyone abandoned Sonic, only to come back to him around the debut of the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, which did launch with a Sonic title (in the USA): Sonic Adventures. Apparently that game was pretty good, but by then it didn’t matter. The Sega Dreamcast proved to be Sega’s last ditch attempt at the console game, and while it was a relatively strong performer initially, the sales just didn’t add up. The Sega Dreamcast would be discontinued in March 2001.
I think the best way to sum up the succession of 3D Sonic games is with this one Youtube video:
Yes that is Sonic the Hedgehog, the formerly-renowned speed runner and ring-grabbing extraordinare, walking around a loop-de-loop. Enough said.
Fast forward to 2010, and the unthinkable (to raging 90s fanboys anyway) has happened – Sonic and Mario seemingly team up all the time now! Sega – now ten years out of the console hardware game – constantly rehash all their classic catalogue titles and characters wherever possible to exploit the nostalgia for more cash. They seemingly don’t really care what happens with anything anymore, hence the crappy 3D games and countless re-releases of the more successful back catalogue stuff. You can get Sonic the Hedgehog on your iPhone now.
The poor blue mascot that was in the hearts of many growing up now plays second fiddle to a bunch of first class Nintendo characters on Nintendo consoles. No longer starring in his own flagship games on Sega branded consoles, Sonic will be a reminder of what could have been. If only they hadn’t spent so much time on forgettable love interests for Sonic, games where the hedgehog and assorted two-bit characters have (terrible) dialog and games where you can casually walk around a loop-de-loop, they might still be in the console game.
The old magic that used to define classic Sonic titles is gone, and Sega is now but a shadow of its former self. Sonic embodies the stereotype of many 80s action movie stars – he’s out of rehab and all washed up, occasionally trotting out for some shitty Whitney Houston-esk returns to capitalize on pangs of nostalgia.
There is but a glimmer of hope in the garbage they continue to mash out however. Sonic is coming back… to 2D, and in a Sonic-only game. Surely they can’t mess this up… right?