Is understanding 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog ‘mechanically’ where SEGA is going wrong?

SG_3DS_CVR SHT_2xThere seems to be no game series that is more self aware of how it has evolved over the years than Sonic. Which is why it’s so hard to understand why SEGA is still unable to troubleshoot where exactly it all went wrong with the long-running mascot’s appearances. Sonic may take his steps at a lightning pace but SEGA’s steps toward making Sonic the genre stalwart he was in 90’s are a bit like a rapidly receding glacier.  Sonic was delectable, but SEGA seem to have misplaced the recipe

Or perhaps the recipe was just more like the avant-garde Heston than the traditional Childs.  Perhaps the recipe wasn’t as simple as it seemed.  Perhaps it was something more experiential.

I grew up around SEGA, and in particular Sonic. Let’s be honest for anyone living as a kid through the 90’s it was hard not to.  The 16-bit era was the time where Sonic could almost literally do no wrong, to the point where he was practically ever-present, his tapping foot and waving finger seemingly on every street corner.  I vividly remember the presence of Sonic the Hedgehog games, from the first game to Sonic and Knuckles, standing idle at Mega Drive demo kiosks in Department stores music blaring across the floor.  The (then unnoticeable) flicker of the cathode ray screens was hypnotising, the bright colours of Sonic’s world mesmerising, and .  It was an exciting time to grow up alongside video games, and even though I was never an owner of the system, SEGA were an enormous part of why.

While I never played sonic in earnest, I was around enough SEGA kids at the time to have seen the games start to finish, without even lifting a finger.  The Green Hill Zone music could be heard emanating from houses right the way across the neighbourhood as every kid and their dog strained their eyes trying to keep track of the eponymous hedgehog, as he whirled frantically through loops and zoomed left to right across the screen.  I’ve never finished any of the Mega Drive Sonic Games – and only a small handful of the subsequent ones for that matter – but the all-encompassing nature of Sonic has left an imprint on me that’s been impossible to shake.

But by Jove, if you asked me what made Sonic so great, I’d be at a loss.

That said, even for me there is something intangible about what made Sonic the Hedgehog special, and as someone who was merely a spectator of the phenomenon, the 3DS Sonic Generations perfectly captures that certain unidentifiable quality.  The cheese-tastic electric guitar licks and garish visual design – particularly the geometric shapes reminiscent of the side panel of an early 90’s Daihatsu Charade – are a type of faux nostalgia evoking the period rather than the game in a way that many games with 1990’s roots have left behind.  Sonic Generations successfully identifies and recreates, and then contrasts, the enormous evolution the gameplay has experienced in the past two decades.  And that’s undeniably impressive, putting old Sonic up against new Sonic is a minor stroke of genius, and one that at the very least reminded people how much subtlety there’s been in the change.  But that’s certainly not what had my radar blipping.

While the speed is nice – and it is undeniably nice for a large proportion of those who played and loved it- there’s something a little more intrinsic that made the series so special in the nineties.  It may sound a tad wanky, but Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t just about the speed or momentum, but its about the sum total of the experience.  The look and the feel of the game – the attitude, the music, the character design, the sound effects – it all came together as a perfect storm.   In short, there is no gameplay equation that made Sonic what it was.

And perhaps that’s where SEGA have misunderstood the appeal of Sonic.  For someone raised on a tidy diet of the more euro-centric Giana Sisters and Turrican, the speed of Sonic was always off-putting, and I came out of the nineties with a fondness for Sonic in spite of its speed.  But despite that the notion of Sonic is still an exciting one.  The jovial tune Palmtree Panic juxtaposed with the sound of Sonic’s spin dash brings back an instant feeling of jealousy for those that had SEGA consoles, bringing back memories of birthday parties and after school hangouts where of which Sonic were often a major feature.  Is it nostalgia, possibly, but for those there and then there was something undeniably appealing about the Sonic games, and that something wasn’t just running at a million miles an hour.

So perhaps recreating 90’s Sonic games isn’t necessarily the goal.  Perhaps its about recreating everything that made it a phenomenon.  Perhaps it’s about evoking the same feeling of playing a Sonic game without evoking the mechanics that made it so.  Perhaps understanding Sonic mechanically is where SEGA is going wrong.

Is Sonic Generations a good Sonic game?  You’re probably looking at the wrong person to answer that question.  But then again what is a good Sonic game?   In the end it doesn’t really matter.  For an entry in a series that seems to struggle with its own identity, the portable version Sonic Generations perfectly captures my own memories of Sonic.  And honestly, I don’t need the extent to which it’s Sonic quantified, I’m just glad to finally understand what all my childhood friends’ fuss was about.

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6 Comments

  1. I think you hit on the exact problem SEGA is having. I also grew up with Sonic, and there was definitely a whole feel to the old Genesis games that didn’t simply consist of speed and more speed. The couple of newer 2D Sonics I’ve played don’t even come close to those old titles, despite having all the right elements on the surface. I think good level design might be a big part of the reason for this. In any case, SEGA has by this point run Sonic into the ground so hard that the word has become a synonym for “shit” as far as games go.
    In fact, I think the best Sonic game I’ve played recently is Freedom Planet, and that isn’t even a Sonic game.

    1. Level design is key, i reckon you’re right on the money there. Although Sonic levels seem to have multiple “tracks” through them – and to be honest I’ve never really been able to familiarise myself with the levels spatially in all but the most linear of levels.

  2. I have not played this game. I have played most of the Sonic games on the Sega Mega Drive and Game Gear, with some experience of playing a few of the later Sonic games. I did like the bright colours used to illustrate the levels in the older games and felt the backgrounds looked good, which seemed to be more detailed than other games. The tapping-foot and waving finger also seemed to be important, as they gave the character a certain personality that continued into later games with laid back dialogue and rock-like music. I actually think the Sonic Adventure game greatly changed the series. This game introduced complex stories and dialogue that did not exist in the previous games. As suggested in the article, speed is an important part of the Sonic games (with the character referred to as the fastest creature alive and using actions that increased the character’s speed), therefore, it was interesting how this aspect would be used in games that used a 3-dimensional setting.
    I have also wondered if the Sonic games have a subtle ecological message. The first zone of the game usually take place in some idyllic, natural environment (such as the Green Hill Zone) and the games end in some highly technological environment (such as the Scrap Brain Zone or Death Egg), built by the villain Dr Robotnik. I have also wondered why Sonic, a character in games suitable for children, regularly visits casinos. Levels based on casinos appear more frequently in Sonic games than levels based on other settings, such as in ancient ruins or on mountains.

    1. Wow, that’s some deep thought. I think Sonic as a theme as opposed to Sonic as a mechanic is somewhat understated as important to the series. And I think it’s captured perfectly by all of the above you mention.

      I’d love to read more on all of this – if you’d care to write it 🙂

  3. The games always incorporate Sonic’s fast speed as part of the game. The old games allow Sonic to race through the levels, which increases to an extreme degree if the player becomes Super Sonic. In my limited experience of the newer games, they still try to make Sonic as fast as possible in 3-dimensional environments (I can remember losing control of the character and letting him guide himself because I could not keep up with his speed).
    I am not sure how true the themes I mentioned are. I have played most of the Sonic games available on the Mega Drive and Game Gear, but have experience of only playing a few games on other consoles. I remember the games started in an idyllic setting by deep, blue water (which seems to have become beautiful beaches in later games). The games did end with highly technological environments, usually the Death Egg, but, the levels in between seemed more random, such as a level set in factory, followed by a mountaintop, then a city, etc. The most interesting is the Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Game Gear. This game provides a map to show Sonic’s progress to Dr Robotnik’s base, which clearly shows Sonic passing through natural environments to reach a group of buildings built by Dr Robotnik. Unfortunately, Sonic only visits casinos in the games available on the Mega Drive, there are no levels set in casinos in the Game Gear games. It is strange that all the games include casino levels, particularly Sonic Three and Knuckles, which includes a roulette wheel as part of the bonus stage.

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