Round and round and round we go…
So, there’s a new Sonic game teaser doing the rounds.
It’s a lot like the cancelled Saturn game, Sonic X-Treme, by way of Super Mario Galaxy and with a subtle yet unmistakable hint of classic Mega Man titles. Without question, I suspect this is Sonic Team’s most ambitious, most daring attempt to get Sonic back on top in nearly a decade. The game looks – from what we’ve seen – slick, polished and interesting. The heady aromas of classic Sonic waft and dance before us, with the cute animal friends and the visual impact of a twisted, topsy-turvy Green Hills Zone inducing flashbacks of a bygone era. All of this is being done under the close supervision of Nintendo – which is arguably more than enough reason to give Sonic: Lost World the benefit of the doubt. Surely this is the game that will break the disappointment cycle with Sonic the Hedgehog?
For several years, we have all been on a roller-coaster. It begins with Sega announcing a new Sonic game, and we’re suspicious. Then comes the initial teaser, which looks just good enough to eradicate the suspicions and replace them with hope. Over the next months, you spin round and round the loop-da-loop, with more teasers and screenshots indicating a level of polish and shine and a distinct indication that maybe this time, maybe just this one time, Sonic the Hedgehog will come good again. Everything seems great, hopeful, and then all goes quiet. The game release flies a little under the radar, and for good reasons; because the games are woefully prepared. Some have been average, some okay, and others truly terrible. It’s a disorientating, nauseating ride.
And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sure, the emotional roller-coaster that comes with the Sonic Cycle is a little strange. But in a world of safe PR and manufactured conferences orchestrated to follow a specific pattern, there’s something almost primal and exciting about the Sonic Cycle. It’s the expectation of waiting for the roller-coaster. Your inner child, that eternally youthful spirit inside you is thrilled at the prospect of danger and excitement, the primordial high of endorphins as you spin dizzyingly in circles. Your adult self, the sensible educated side of your psyche, knows how it always ends. You get off, stagger about for a bit and then proceed to profusely vomit all over the nice shoes of a gentleman in a suit standing nearby. But still, that eternally youthful part of yourself eggs you on. The brief high of the expectation and the notion of the aftermath trumps the swift, brutal comedown that quickly follows the fact. It’s in our nature, we thrive on the danger and in a world where danger is increasingly curbed, we have to find our own little version of Russian Roulette. For many gamers – myself included – Sonic the Hedgehog has been delivering this for years.
Sure, I didn’t like Generations. A game that did divide, the sweet two-dimensional thrills ruined by the sloppy three-dimensional spills. I didn’t much go on Sonic Team Racing – although I concede, after Mortal Kombat: Armageddon’s terrible Motor Racing addition, there is scant little that in comparison doesn’t look like a huge gleaming diamond. I didn’t even get deeply involved in Sonic Colors; it was alright, but it lacked something for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I shall quote Top Gear’s resident Captain Slow, James May, and say that Sonic Colors lacked the ‘fizz’. That sensation deep inside, that pleasurable feeling that makes you feel a little giddy from the overwhelming joy being translated into your brain. And this is before we get to Sonic 2006 and Sonic Unleashed – stains upon the reputation of Sonic Team that no amount of scrubbing and soaking in Vanish will get rid of. Shocking, awful, terrible pieces of vulgar game design that would have seen the death of any lesser studio; but the esteem Sonic Team are held in for their past works is unquestionable and largely in part to blame for much of the last ten years or so of truly terrible abuse that Sonic the Hedgehog has been subjected to.
But – and it’s strange I know – I have always enjoyed the Sonic Cycle. I’ve always found myself actually finding a lot of deep-seated pleasure in the ride, strapped in and ready to go, up and up and up, then down, round a dozen or so times, exposed to G’s and forces I can’t quite remember or explain right now, then you slow down, and stop, and get off. And you feel queasy, and nauseous and that guy in the suit is there and his shoes are just too good a target to waste. And yet for some reason – for some inexplicable reason – you join the queue again and want to get right back on it.
Some would say this is madness. And perhaps it is, but it’s a controlled and delicious madness that many people subject themselves to routinely when it comes to Sonic the Hedgehog. I am not alone; I am sure of this much. Everyone thinks when you bring up the Sonic Cycle, you’re talking the series down but in reality, there’s nothing like it. It’s a completely strange natural high, a really odd emotional state of affairs and we couldn’t really live without it.
Sonic: Lost World looks absolutely brilliant for the moment. If there’s any series worth aping for Sonic, it is Mario, and Super Mario Galaxy is definitely one of the best titles it could ever hope to imitate. Nintendo’s almost fanatical control over the project suggests that like many a studio under the thumb of Nintendo, there are stringent checks and tests done to ensure the project is sufficiently of high enough quality. The drifting away from Robotnik – no, I will never call him Eggman, I don’t care what Sega say or do on this front – pleases me, because I am a bit sick of “Eggman”. Just the way Sonic says it is enough to make me a little sick in my mouth, and not in a good way. And the hint of Mega Man, of a series of bosses with individually-themed powers, actually gives the game a framework that the series has largely been devoid of for some years now. It may not be a new framework, but when it’s that rigid and that capable of holding the combined weight of a series that has been going for over twenty years, you can’t really dispute the results.
So yes, we’re at the hope stage. And it’s exciting. It really is, there’s nothing quite like the giddy expectation of a new Sonic game. But it’s not out of the woods yet, even under Nintendo who, despite their impeccable track record, still ended up making the painfully average Super Mario Sunshine. There’s still that dread, that fear, that expectation in the back of your head that it’s all about to go horribly, completely and irretrievably wrong. But again, it’s a sensation that we don’t get to feel often enough as individuals, let alone as gamers, and it’s an addictive formula that has in my experience trumped many a Sonic game release since Sega closed up their hardware business in 2001. The last Sonic game I felt a deep satisfaction with was Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood on the Nintendo DS, created by BioWare of all companies, and truth is that memory is also doused in the tears I have shed in the intervening years.
Sonic is an abusive relationship for gamers. It really is, and there’s no getting away from how warped the relationship between us and the franchise had become. But we are still happy to jump on for the ride. We’re disappointed, sometimes really disappointed. But we’re not bitter, or devoid of hope. Many have come to accept Sonic as a middle-of-the-road former mascot whose glory days are behind him. Some have moved on. And some of us have that little boy inside of them, that memory of being a child in hospital and getting Sonic the Hedgehog for the very first time on their Birthday, the sheer daring of it, the colours and the visuals, the escape and the fantasy, the insanity and the heartache of losing a life. That little piece clings onto an old often-thought-discarded piece of optimism deep inside, and holds your emotions to ransom. You are trapped, trapped forever in the spin-cycle of the Sonic series, constantly left dazed and bewildered but never seemingly beyond the reaches of excitement for another round. And I could think of far worse things for your emotional world to keep tripping up on than the highs and lows of a childhood sweetheart.
So though many roll their eyes when we mention the Sonic Cycle, perhaps it’s worth reminding them that it’s not dead. If anything, it’s a deep-seated part of the experience now, and if you’re not on it, then you’re not really getting the thrill from it either. Many of us are willingly back in the queue, waiting for our turn, our bodies tensing up and the hairs on the back of our necks standing on end. The trepidation, the excitement, the fear of the unknown. There is simply nothing in the gaming world which compares to the Sonic Cycle, and I feel very sorry for those who have chosen not to partake of it. It may seem like a sensible thing to do – to distance yourself from the potential disappointment – but it’s like watching the roller-coaster. Standing on the sidelines, as people loop round and round, screaming and smiling as the din of the game looms ever closer to its conclusion. It looks terrifying, stupid – hell, even pointless. But what is life if you don’t throw your all into something from time to time? What is life without a little jeopardy? What is gaming without a reliable source of highs and lows now and then?
The Sonic Cycle provides this and more. I think it’s just beginning to dawn on some of us that it’s something we created, a ride we crafted somehow in some way along the path travelled. And regardless of the actual end results, the experiences have been joyous, fun and above all, educational. We’ve sat around in the queues and discussed the Sonic series – the best and worst bits. We’ve talked at length about the Sonic and Knuckles cart-links and the bonus stages generated. We’ve stood there chanting, “Why are we waiting?” The weird part of the Sonic Cycle is that it’s a very social experience. It’s a very involved experience, and it’s a very educational experience as well as an emotional one. And whatever the eventual outcome of Sonic: Lost World, a Sonic reveal without the Sonic Cycle just seems somehow a lesser thing.
So count me in the queue. Maybe this time I won’t end up getting off and throwing up over that guys shoes.
Or hell, I may just do it anyway. It’s part of the ride, after all…