It’s no secret that Sega has struggled to put out quality Sonic titles. They occasionally come out with a decent effort, but your average Sonic the Hedgehog game is disappointing these days. What once was Sega’s flagship mascot that drove the sales of millions of consoles is now the butt of many jokes by gamers, journalists, and analysts. Why does Sega struggle so mightily to get things right? Is the problem on Sega’s side, or does the issue lie with Sonic himself?
Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis. For all intents and purposes, he was intended to be Sega’s version of Mario; and for a while, he was doing his job well. Sonic helped push the Sega Genesis into a position of market leadership for 16-bit consoles in 1992, placing Nintendo is 2nd place for the first time since 1985. Sonic the Hedgehog arrived with a deafening boom. And that’s the kind of entrance you needed to make in the early 1990s. You had to show up in extreme fashion for anybody to take notice. In an era of neon shorts, MTV, Hulkmania, Ninja Turtles, and the Bigfoot pizza, loud and flashy is how we wanted our entertainment. Sonic the Hedgehog was built for the early 1990s.
Sonic burst onto the scene, allowing Sega to create their “blast processing” buzzword and usher in their newfound in your face attitude. As long as extreme was cool, Sonic had no trouble pleasing Sega fans. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic CD followed quickly after the first release, and sales were strong for Sonic 2, which saw over 6 million copies sold. Sonic CD managed to buoy the Sega CD for longer than it deserved to be around, but it wouldn’t be long before Sonic’s appeal would begin to falter. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would release to favorable reviews, but would only sell 1.8 million copies compared to Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s 6.3 million. While still no slouch, Sonic was seeing a decline. With Sonic and Knuckles, reviews remained positive, but grumblings about Sonic’s originality were starting to surface among journalists and gamers alike.
Sega continued producing Sonic games for their consoles with mixed results until the launch of the Dreamcast when Sonic Adventure came out. Again, Sonic was back on top with reviewers and fans excited by Sega’s latest effort. The game had been successfully brought into the 3D realm, despite some glitches and unsure feelings regarding Sonic’s new friends. It wouldn’t take long for that unsure feeling to grow. Sonic’s look also got a makeover, losing his pot belly and gaining some height, longer hair, and a bigger capacity for sarcasm. In the days of waning extremism, Sega dialed up his extreme attitude a few notches.
Sonic Adventure 2 still saw favorable reviews, but Sega did little to correct some of the issues Sonic Adventure had (camera problems, odd glitches, unwelcome extra friends). In the end, Sonic Adventure 2 would become the signpost for the series, where the sign it bears reads, “CAUTION: BUMPY ROAD AHEAD.”
I remember being at E3 2003 and seeing Sonic Heroes. I got some good time with the game on the show floor, and I left hoping that what I had just played was just severely lacking polish and that it would be cleaned up by release. The gameplay seemed interesting, but it was a technical mess. Upon release, I found that most of those technical issues were still in the game, making it a big disappointment and a an obvious misstep.
Nostalgia and good will couldn’t keep up with Sonic’s slide into the downward spiral going forward; especially when 2005 saw the release of Shadow the Hedgehog. While Sega did a good job capturing the early 1990’s in your face attitude, their attempt to get in on the mid-00’s angst and “mature gaming” movement was a misfire of epic proportions. Forcing themes of maturity into one of gaming’s most lighthearted franchises didn’t spur on new fans, it only alienated fans more.
Subsequent releases in the mainline Sonic the Hedgehog series have continued to disappoint. 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog and 2008’s Sonic Unleashed both turned Sonic into a sad joke. Any word of a new Sonic game has since been met with derision, mockery, and downright bitterness from once Sonic supporters and fans. I personally handled the review for Sonic Unleashed, and it was at that point that I resolved to avoid any Sonic games until they were both proven through solid reviews and the lens of time.
So why did Sonic falter when Mario was able to continue to flourish under Nintendo’s watch? Well, while Sonic himself was changed to fit the evolving fads of the 1990s and 2000s, Mario never needed changing as a character, simply because he wasn’t created as a reaction to what was hot in marketing. Both characters appeared in product-of-their-times titles, but only Sonic changed noticeably as a character. Mario could afford the occasional misstep, but everybody learned to blame that individual game, and not the Mario character himself. Additionally, Nintendo has been far more reserved in mainline Mario releases while Sega has been fairly liberal in their project green lighting. Nintendo refused to repeat mistakes between their releases, while Sega often repeated and magnified their bad decisions.
So is their hope for Sonic? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the handheld space, you’ve known that Sonic has actually done quite well with his mainline titles on the GBA and DS. Additionally, Sonic Colors was well received on the Wii, even if many people refused to believe it. It just feels as if Sega is going to have to roll out multiple solid efforts before fans are going to fully trust again.
And what of Sonic Generations? For those that don’t know, Sonic Generations looks to be offering a mix of the old-school Sonic we all loved in the 1990s and mashes his up with the current era Sonic. The game will visit 20 years worth of Sonic levels, allowing the player to control either the classic Sonic in 2D side-scrolling action or the current era Sonic with 3D action. Early buzz is positive, and E3 2011 will be the make or break moment for the game. The concept is great, and it just might be what Sega needs to get the series back on track again.
Personally, I feel that Sonic is a relic of a bygone era. The 1990s ended, and with them so did Sonic’s heyday. Any attempts that Sega has made to modernize Sonic have irritated longtime fans, while his 1990s-based roots continue to shine through and deter those that don’t carry nostalgic feelings. It’s not to say that Sonic won’t see any quality games, but Sonic will never again be looking down at Mario unless Nintendo loses its collective mind. The Sonic name still carries decent weight in the industry, but if Sonic Generations is a flop, the damage just might be irreparable.
In one week I’ll be down in Los Angeles, attending the E3 expo. Among all the huge titles that are sure to be at the show, I hope Sonic shows well. A well-received Sonic can only help this industry when far too many games are based on space marines and bro-fist military squads.