First published in CubedGamers (Printed Edition): August 2016
It is a sad fact that commentators have been charting Sonic the Hedgehog’s decline for far longer than his rapid rise. The former darling of Sega, who rode so high in the early 1990s, has for over a decade been drifting from title to title, without ever been able to compete with Nintendo’s Mario. It is a sad predicament, though in some respects it is not surprising that Sonic has struggled for longevity.
Whilst Nintendo have backed Mario through hit after hit title, just over three years separated Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) from Sonic and Knuckles (1994), a period which included two direct sequels and Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993). When he first appeared, he caused a ruckus as consumers rushed to play the game. Over the Christmas of 1991, the Sega Genesis outsold the Super Nintendo two to one in the USA.
These days it’s hard to find anyone who is enthusiastic for Sonic. Games are released with alarming regularity – approximately one every six months – and some garner reasonable reviews, but each misstep, is seen as another nail in the franchises’ coffin. What happened?
Any explanation is complicated by the downfall of Sega as a developer of games and consoles. Short on money, they have sought to cash in on Sonic as their one remaining asset, without putting in the effort required to keep him fresh and vital. This has intensified as years have gone by. As early as the Autumn of 1993, with the broadcast of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon show, and the release of Sonic Spinball, a pinball game, Sega have exploited Sonic as widely as possible.
Sonic Spinball was the first, but also a typical example of what could go wrong with a Sonic game. Designed on a tight schedule the game garnered negative reviews highlighting design issues, slowdown, and a choppy framerate. Not for the last time, Sonic’s speed exacerbated the weaknesses in a game engine, but undeterred Sega decided to put their mascot on everything, rushing out further games including Sonic’s Schoolhouse, Sonic R, Knuckles Chaotix, and Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.
In the five years between Sonic and Knuckles and the next instalment in the main series, Sonic Adventure (1998) for the Dreamcast, Sega skipped a console generation in the form of the Sega Saturn. In that time, Nintendo had released Super Mario 64, a game which revolutionised 3D platformers. Though not perfect, Sega have arguably never designed anything of comparable quality. More than a dozen 3D Sonic games have been released in the intervening time, but only a couple have reached the heights of that title.
Sonic Adventure introduced new game mechanics and broadened the cast of supporting characters, each of which had their own storyline. Unlike Mario 64s brief framing device, the lengthy story sequences proved uninteresting, and apart from Sonic, all of the supporting characters played terribly, with the controls ranging from unpolished to irretrievably broken. The most maligned being Big the Cat, whose levels consisted entirely of fishing. What was exciting about Sonic, as always, was speed, something that Big the Cat and the other characters were lacking.
Crucially, the game was the first of many to fall foul to numerous camera angle issues, and a lack of well-designed levels. Follow up tittles for the Playstation and Xbox failed to fix the problems. Both Sonic Heroes (2003) and Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) failed to address the camera and level design issues, with the latter also alienating fans for equipping the characters with guns.
Recognising this, Sega promised that Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) would draw a line under the previous games, and return Sonic to its speedy roots. But in every respect, the game failed to deliver. It was sluggish, had major framerate issues, poor camera angles, and even worse level designed levels, huge expansive areas with little indication of where to go. A decade after Super Mario 64 and still they couldn’t get it right.
In 2008, Sega tried again with Sonic Unleashed. Though the graphics were remarked for their particularly beauty and freshness, a new mechanic which involved Sonic turning into a Werehog and the game reverting to a God of War style beat ‘em up. Like night and day, the night levels turned out to be boring and overlong, with forced enemy encounters that slowed the framerate considerably.
And so it has been that every time a new Sonic game was announced, the press informed us that this is the return to form. And granted, they haven’t all been bad. Sonic Colors (2010) and Sonic Generations (2011) were partly successful because they were able to implement interesting twists while also providing a fast-paced Sonic experience. But we’ve also seen highly criticized titles such as Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic Lost World, and the recent Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.
Even Sonic 4 Part 1 (2010) and Part 2 (2012) failed to meet with unqualified praise, in spite of the designers deliberate attempt to create a spiritual sequel to Sonic and Knuckles. The poor reception given to Sonic 4 was puzzling. Critics stated that the levels were uninspired, and too easy, but this glosses over the fact that Sonic was never that difficult. It was always relatively easy to breeze your way through a level just by moving fast.
Perhaps then, the decline of Sonic is down to something more fundamental than simply poor design. Compared to Mario, Sonic’s character was never fleshed out, and he was never given a personality. From the very early days of the Nintendo, Mario was designed to be a figure of fun – a bumbling overweight Italian-American plumber transported to a magical kingdom. Sonic on the other hand, was intended to be fast, slick, and cool. Put down the control pad for long enough, and Sonic would tap his foot, eager to get back up to speed. But what he represented was a very 1990s style of cool, and one that was not easy to update.
We do know that if enough effort is put in, Sonic has been able to succeed in a 3D environment, but the mechanics of the character mean that special care needs to be put in to ensure that the main selling point, the speed, is fully functioning. And while Sega appears ready to give Sonic chance after chance, you never know when the next title might be the next. Let’s hope that we do not have to wait too long.