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.