If you were to ask even the most casual early 90’s fan of anything video game related what their favorite video game was, almost assuredly “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Sega’s hyper-kinetic side-scrolling platformer.
Bursting on the scene with it’s quest for golden rings and the ever elusive Chaos Emeralds, Sonic the Hedgehog was a fun romp that captured not only the hearts and imaginations of gamers but also managed the crack the crossover barrier into popular culture at large.
And yet, today, if you were to mention Sonic to even the most hard core of fans, the game and its character is but a distant memory.
So what happened to what was once the king of the video game world? History will always look on the past of Sonic through kind loving eyes, but after its brief moment in the sun it might always be more forgotten than remembered because of a series of missteps, market movements and just plain ol’ lack of foresight.
An Evolution of Scrollers
When Sonic first debuted in 1991 it was seen as huge leap forward in the world of side-scrolling video games. Fresh and oozing with fun, Sonic’s initial outing pushed the limits of the genre in ways we’d never before seen. It was better, stronger, and literally faster than anything out there. In a lot of ways it was indicative of the emerging sensibilities that would define the early 90s; edgy, hyper, in your face, and most importantly, extreme. Sonic the game moved forward and never looked back and it did so at such a breakneck pace that it was just what the doctor ordered for the rapidly declining attention spans of the emerging Millennial generation.
To boot, the main character was kind of cool. With just a dash of devilish charm and always on the go, he had the right amount of playful edge to get folks to stand up and take notice.
Even more importantly he helped Sega, which up to that point a was just a young upstart to the Nintendo Empire, in grabbing significant albeit limited share of the console market. Taking full advantage of the Sega Genesis’ next level hardware, Sonic made Sega’s claims of “Welcome to the next level” more than just a slogan. It was a fully realized reality.
Going Super Sonic
Sonic’s popularity bred not only more games in the franchise but also spawned merchandise and more importantly an animated series which featured a number of characters that made up the Sonic the Hedgehog family including most notably Tails.
Debuting in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Tails was a secondary character that was playable and could share Sonic’s adventures. Looking to recapture the magic of the original game, Sonic 2 did well enough, giving us a similar adventure with breakneck speed, but it also inadvertently took the first steps toward diluting support for our hero.
While Sonic was busy appearing in cartoons, and even more versions of the original, Sega was busy flooding the market making fans weary of buying new devices. The rapid fire debut of newer and newer Sega consoles and add-ons caused sales to plummet and Sonic went right along with it as collateral damage.
Know Your Roots
As the world of gaming began to embrace the world of 3D environments, the Sonic developers were forced to rethink their franchise and attempt to bring it in line with the rest of the games on the market. The main problem with this was that what made Sonic work so well was its rapid pace that was only really effective from a side-scrolling perspective. With a player only having seconds to skillfully make decisions, the game generated excitement and its own level of charm. Upon moving to a 3D environment the gameplay suffered. It still involved the same characters but it lost that element of “can’t keep up” and “seat of your pants” speed.
Sonic’s biggest and most successful debut on the fanboy favorite console Sega Dreamcast was Sonic Adventure 2, which introduced the Sonic shadow character named…errr…Shadow. Where Adventure 2 was able to effectively create a satisfying experience in the 3D world, through no fault of its own it ended as a failure due to the untimely demise of the Dreamcast system.
The writing on the wall and Sonic on life-support, the once proud franchise was undercut again. Sonic a former shadow of itself (we’ll now stop with the puns) was relegated to the digital section of the Island of Lost toys. And to this day it remains so even as from time to time the game and its character is resurrected in what always feels like the most futile of attempts to recapture lost glory.
In the end, we’ve got love for you Sonic, but that love is reserved for long-since-forgotten side-scrolling dreams. Always giving it that old school college try, Sonic is repeatedly attempted to be brought up into modern times, but what the developers don’t seem to get is that Sonic’s fast-moving feet should always be firmly planted in its glory days of 1991. Fast, fun, and a blur of motion, old school Sonic was just light enough with a touch of motion to keep us going for hours. Sadly, newer versions of Sonic are casualties of the decreased attention spans the original helped create. How’s that for irony?
Sonic will never be Sonic again because it abandoned the style of play that initially put it on the map in the first place. Perhaps, now that 90’s nostalgia is coming into popularity, we can see a return to greatness for the game whose coolest gimmick has been overlooked and forgotten.
Until then, any new version of Sonic is DOA.