Sonic the Hedgehog has turned 25… frankly, I’m amazed he’s not dead yet…
I’ll kick off with a controversial argument; Sonic Generations and Sonic: Lost World were not as good as people think they are.
Lost World had the decency to be average though. Generations was just a muddled, confusing mess trying to celebrate two arcs of Sonic the Hedgehog – the 2D and the 3D – and failing miserably at that. The only good thing to come out of Generations was a series of mods which allowed users to make their own levels… which promptly proceeded to take a steaming dump over anything Sonic Team has done in over a decade. But we’ll come back to that beguiling little air-biscuit later.
Sonic the Hedgehog has just celebrated twenty-five years. And I’ll come clean; I loved the first few Sonic games. Sonic 1 was a breath of fresh air at the time, an interesting spin on what was a formulaic genre. Sonic 2 was on the shorter side (urban legends suggest it was made in a matter of weeks to capitalise on the first games success), but it was still inventive and Sonic 3 & Knuckles remains one of my favourite 2D Platformers ever. It’s just an effortlessly charming, sturdy game that can be played in different ways depending on your mood. Hell, I’ll even defend Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 – both working to transition Sonic into the realm of three-dimensions, years after Mario had already shown how to do it but I’m a BiG The Cat fan anyway so woo BiG!
Sonic Heroes was the first moment I realised something was going wrong. And it got critically panned for the most part. It was the first release of Sonic after the big collapse of Sega as a console manufacturer, and Sonic Heroes was just… weird. Not objectively awful in every way, but the three-character team-switching just never did it for me. Since the teams didn’t really differ much in terms of what they did, it was just samey and formulaic. Then came Shadow the Hedgehog. And then Sonic ’06. And then Sonic Unleashed. Colours and The Secret Rings/Black Knight were again just a bit average. And then Generations and Lost World. Sonic has either been average or just plain awful for a good thirteen years and for some reason, we’re all still giving this guy a pass!
Sonic Boom… yeah. That’s when I knew that Sega had sold Sonic’s soul out.
Was Sonic Boom as bad as Sonic ’06? Well, I preferred the ’06 story – and saying that makes me want to scrub myself clean with a wire brush. Both were technical catastrophes. Both games are just painful to play. So yes. They’re equally as bad as each other. Sonic had a new TV Cartoon Series and Sonic Boom was the game cash-in that nobody was asking for. And they’re still pushing a new Sonic Boom game in the future?! Dear god… Sonic Team needs to be stopped. The horse is dead guys. You can stop hitting it. We no longer give a toss.
But as bad as Sonic has been on the commercial scene – one thing is undeniable. The fan-game scene has been doing some amazing work.
From the Sonic Worlds mod to a series of fan-hacks, from HD Remasters of Sonic 2 and the original Sonic through to experimental stuff and memes, the fan community around Sonic the Hedgehog has taken up the slack that Sonic Team hasn’t been bothered with in years. I could list tons of interesting fan work, but hit up YouTube and have a look for people like Razor & Zenon, and tell me that what you see in the majority of what fans are doing isn’t better than anything Sonic Team has been capable of lately. The fans… are awesome. And I’m sorry I had to dump on Sonic before getting to you people. It’s not your fault.
It’s a curious situation that Sonic the Hedgehog has this deep-rooted fanbase, even after years of constant heartache and disappointment. But they keep the faith, and Sega – unsurprisingly really – looks the other way on most of these projects. Probably because they showcase Sonic The Hedgehog at its very best; creative levels, interesting ideas, speed and control and such forth. All qualities that Sonic Team have been lacking. Seriously, am I the only one thinking that this is an abusive relationship? The same was true for Resident Evil 4 on the PC – the fans ended up making it superb, but giving Capcom any credit for that considering their appalling hack-job of a port is just offensive to me.
What’s worse in all of this is that the gaming world has moved on. Mario, Sonic’s one-time rival, is no longer even in the same league. Mario evolved and moved on, and ultimately holds key lessons as to why Sonic the Hedgehog has been doing so badly.
You see, Nintendo has established constants in Mario’s design ethos; certain abilities, moves and tropes carry over from one game to another, as do certain design elements. Sticking rigidly to a framework is dancing on a knifes edge – it can go horribly wrong, but Mario dances on that edge like Darcy Bussel. Sure, Mario has had a couple of dud games over the years, but even recent entries like New Super Mario Wii U and Super Mario 3D World take the safe structure and then proceed to just make something great. Expanding your framework and universe all the time can be tiring – and after two highly acclaimed Galaxy games, 3D World was a sign of a development team letting their hair down and playing around in already familiar territory.
Sonic Team throw out almost everything from game to game – there’s no consistency, nothing to build on, nothing to refine. Whereas Mario polished its craft to a mirror shine, Sonic just keeps trying to reinvent itself and Sonic Boom, for me, is almost as bad as Madonna’s recent reinvention. You just have to cringe at it, it’s kind of embarrassing to watch – there’s also some pity there, because you know they should be better than this. But no, the money has to be made and they’re happy to continue to debase themselves on the market for your… ‘entertainment’, and even the bunny ears are being generous there.
The disaster of Sonic Boom was followed by a critical and commercial mauling; a sign, if any were needed, that the gaming market doesn’t really care about Sonic all that much anymore. I once lauded the Sonic Cycle as a case of consumer optimism, but repeating the same actions each time expecting a different result is the textbook definition of insanity, and Sonic’s career has been unbridled arrogance, hubris and insanity since… well, Sonic Heroes. Where Sonic has at best managed “average”, Mario has become a monolithic example of solid, sturdy and enjoyable game design. And the genre as evolved too; Darksiders, Ratchet and Clank, even Mirror’s Edge (edge edgy edgington the edge lord of edgeville – sorry, I still love doing that!). Sonic the Hedgehog has been left behind – and for a character all about speed, being left in the dust in such a way is tragically ironic in a sense.
As sad as it is, the fans can’t keep Sonic afloat forever. And I admire the effort they put into it; clearly far more effort than the majority of Sonic Team’s efforts in a long while, that’s for sure. With a new Mario game set for the Nintendo NX (which should be amazing), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild veering into a big open-world platforming sandbox and the gorgeous Yooka-Laylee dangerously close to release now, Sonic is an artefact of a bygone era – a quaint reminder of a time Sega was a bigger thing, when Sonic had to openly compete with Mario. Now he’s reduced mostly in the public eye to competing versus Mario in the Olympic Games spin-offs, and that’s also quite tragic. Sonic’s most visible presence and commercial success is coming off the back of Nintendo and Mario.
Can Sonic ever again be good? The simple answer is – yes, absolutely. But Sonic Team needs to sit down and make a list of things that have worked and been well-received, and things which just fell flat on their face. This is basic game design 101. From there, they can also see the ideas they absolutely have to avoid at all costs – and can build on ideas and concepts that have enough merit and potential to be crafted into something interesting and enjoyable. It’s a start – and no, I don’t think Sonic will immediately have breakout success – even Mario had Super Mario Sunshine… *shudders* – but it’s a start.
Sonic Team needs to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. We have standards now – basic game principles that have stood the tests of time for a reason. Once you have a solid base to build on, THEN you can start to mess around with new ideas and new concepts… but you cannot build a game around novelty ideas and lazy design ethos. Well you can, and you might get lucky, but it’s a long shot.
I don’t want to hate Sonic. He’s been a presence in my gaming life since my teens. I used to love him. I used to respect him. But too much reinvention has left Sonic confused and disorientated, and if Sonic Team wants to salvage anything from this franchise, it’s time to pick a lane and stick to it. Build on it. Nurture it. Let it develop. It will take time. It won’t always be good. But the alternative is we continue to care little about each new successive Sonic release, because the last one was just either forgettable or unforgettably terrible.
And it’s still a bad sign when your fans can make better 2D Sonic games than the official creative team. Actually, that’s not bad – the fans are clearly amazing. It’s just embarrassing for Sonic Team, and Sega needs to ditch the nostalgia and demand results. Otherwise it’s better to cast Sonic out into the fandom world and let more passionate, creative and idealistic people steer the character back into more fertile waters.
… as for the Mighty No. 9 dig… the cheek of it was the only saving grace. It’s like tea-bagging a lion pup in front of its mommy and daddy. The reckless audacity of it is the only reason we’re watching…