Many moons ago children everywhere were, in the most legal way possible, firmly in love with a fat Italian plumber. Nintendo and their cuddly mascot Mario dominated the home console market and for a long time it seemed that their position at the top would remain firmly unchallenged. However, history tells us otherwise, with Sega and the edgy promotion of the Genesis almost dethroning Ninty in the early 90’s, with the key component to their success being the anthropomorphized blue hedgehog we know as Sonic.
Like Mario, Sonic was an expert in precise platforming, lived in an imaginative world filled with colourful characters and also sported a bit of extra padding around his midriff. However, unlike Mario, Sonic was able to get a grip on the difficult “cool kids” market, making fans of 13-year-old boys who were previously too busy gelling their hair and pretending they’d had sex with 16-year-old girls to waste their time on video games.
Sonic’s ability to make the western youth refer to a video game using words such as “wicked”, “bad” and/or “rad” was something that Nintendo’s stable of skirt-wearing elf heroes and talking mushrooms simply couldn’t achieve, and led to Sega’s use of the tagline “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. Word on the playground spread and those in possession of a Genesis were seen as the more mature pre-pubescent little twerps, while those with a SNES were often forced to remain silent of their favouring of Nintendo, with all the hushed awkwardness of an addict walking through customs with a gram of ketamine tucked away in his anus.
So where did it all go wrong? At what point did Sega decide to launch a smear campaign on the reputation of their most beloved mascot, filled with odd gimmickry and human/hedgehog romantic subplots? Sega’s apparent lack of knowledge concerning what made Sonic games good in the first place has led to them taking the George Lucas approach during the development process, which roughly equates to them putting both index fingers in their ears and shouting “LA LA LA, WE CAN’T HEAR YOU”, while fans attempt to explain to them that there have been no worthwhile mechanics added to the series since 1994 and no, giving Sonic a sword, a gun or a Chevy Corvette Convertible doesn’t automatically give you the right to put “a refreshing take on the popular Sonic The Hedgehog series!!!” on the back of the box.
Just as Lucas has firmly dismissed all criticisms of his constant pillaging of the Star Wars legacy in favour of the timeless “fuck it, it’s Star Wars, they’ll still buy it” strategy, Sega have employed a similarly stubborn tactic: George threatens to tarnish the memory of Darth Vader by consistently altering the original trilogy to turn the Sith Lord into an angsty You Me At Six fangirl, while Sega ruins Sonic by turning him into a werewolf and partnering him with an obese 9-foot cat and a pre-teen female hedgehog with dependency issues.
Sega seemed to briefly realise this in 2010 when they announced Sonic The Hedgehog 4, an episodic game to be released on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and WiiWare. Upon hearing the news gamers quickly searched for more information regarding the title, convinced that Sega must have included a cheap gimmick in there somewhere; perhaps it was set in Manhattan, during the Great Depression, with Sonic as a rogue cop and Eggman as a loan shark. Perhaps it was going to be a Kinect fitness game, where you’d lose weight by gamboling in circles around your lounge. Surprisingly it was just your run-of-the-mill 2D platformer in the vein of the old Sonic games, but there was still something missing, and it most certainly wasn’t Big the Cat.
During the Genesis campaign of which Sonic The Hedgehog was the main attraction, the most oft-discussed positive about the console in comparison to the SNES was speed. “BLAST PROCESSING!” screamed the commercials, showing footage of Sonic spin-balling around Green Hill Zone. But Sonic wasn’t just about speed, and this is where Sega has been going wrong. Sonic was about intelligent, layered level design and good platforming: the hedgehog’s swift movement was just its selling point.
Unfortunately, Sega seem to have forgotten this, replacing the aforementioned layered level design with completely linear routes, and the platforming with gameplay that moves so fast it practically plays itself. These changes to the series were no more apparent than in this year’s Sonic Generations, which combined “classic” levels from both Sonic old and new to create a videogame that was both 50% awesome, and 50% “oh for God’s sake, not this again”.
As Generations draws to a close the new, thin, snarky teen Sonic turns to the old, portly, mute version of himself and says a line that will go down in gaming history as one of the greatest lies ever uttered in the industry since Duke Nukem Forever received its first release date: “you’ve got a great future ahead of you”. The truth is Sonics future is hampered by a developer who assumes that its fans are the kind of people who would be impressed solely by pretty, bright colours and things that goes vroom.
Unfortunately, we happen to be slightly less easier to entertain than they assume and, as a result, we all patiently await the day that Sonic swaps those red sneakers for a pair of slippers and retires with a reasonable pension and a few remaining shards of dignity.