Sonic the Hedgehog is one of gaming's most prolific and well-known characters, whose meteoric rise to fame on the Sega Master System and Genesis (Mega Drive) spurred the first real console war between Nintendo and SEGA. His insane speed, in-your-face attitude, and addictive gameplay made him an excellent candidate to compete with Nintendo's portly plumber. But since his inception, has Sonic's appeal kept up to speed?
-=The Sonic Golden Age=-
By far the most popular incarnation of Sonic was his debut "trilogy" on the SEGA Genesis (known as the Mega Drive outside of the USA). In this series, Sonic was a 2D platformer in which the player's goal was to reach the finish line as fast as possible. Along the way, Sonic collected rings, defeated "badniks", and won the powerful Chaos Emeralds. At the end of each Zone, Sonic would face off against Doctor Robotnik, who fought Sonic in a series of eccentric contraptions designed to slay our cerulean speedster.
Sonic 1 introduced the series with a great start, utilizing catchy music, bright backgrounds, and unforgettable boss fights. Sonic 2 introduced three important facets on top of its predecessor; it introduced Tails as a sidekick character, included the Spin Dash as a way for Sonic to gain momentum from a standstill, and showed the power of the Chaos Emeralds by allowing Sonic to transform into Super Sonic if all 7 were acquired. In Sonic 3, Knuckles was introduced as an anti-hero, and Sonic acquired a mid-air Insta-shield, as well as some other shield options.
I originally referred to the Golden Age as a "trilogy" tenuously because this period also included two other major games: Sonic CD and Sonic and Knuckles.
Sonic CD was built for the SEGA CD system, and add-on for the Genesis. It used the CD medium to give Sonic awesome animated cut scenes, as well as improved music quality and better background graphics. This little-known entry into the series also gave Sonic the ability to time travel, as well as a Peel-Out move that was used as a standing Spin Dash. Finally, it introduced Amy Rose, a character whose unrequited love for Sonic would be a recurring theme for a decade to come.
Sonic and Knuckles was actually the second half of Sonic 3 that wasn't finished in time! SEGA released this game as a special cartridge with "Lock-On Technology" that allowed the player to attach Sonic 3 in order to play the entire saga uninterrupted. Additionally, players could now play as Knuckles, Sonic's previous adversary, as well as connect Sonic 2 to play through that game as the same red echidna.
As a side note to the main hits of this franchise, several of these games were ported to SEGA's portable Game Gear system, with minor changes.
-=The Blue Void=-
After Sonic 3 (and Knuckles), SEGA's mascot began a slow descent into a series of spin-offs of limited popularity. For some reason, the Blue Blur got little love in the form of straight-up platforming, and was instead licensed into several games that had little to do with the formula Sonic fans loved (speed + music + fun bosses = win).
Sonic 3D Blast was a failed attempt to bring Sonic into 3D, and forced players to collect birds at painfully slow speeds in a repetitive manner. Sonic Spinball, though fun, was based entirely on the concept of using Sonic as the ball in a giant pinball machine. Sonic R was a racing game for SEGA Saturn that suffered horrible graphical issues and boring, nonsensical gameplay. Knuckles Chaotix for SEGA 32X was a poorly designed game that was another nail in the coffin for that system. Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine was a puzzle game that simply copied the pre-existing Puyo Puyo. Finally, a plethora of Game Gear knock-offs featuring Tails all failed miserably.
In fact, the only "true" Sonic game in development before Sonic's return on the Dreamcast was Sonic X-Treme, a 3D platformer designed for the Saturn that set Sonic in a fast, half-pipe-like world racing forwards through incredible landscapes. Although the dream game for many Sonic fans, and a game that would have helped save the SEGA Saturn, it was canceled after production issues and delays. This setback meant that no "real" Sonic game appeared on a SEGA system for an entire generation of the console wars, dealing a nasty blow to SEGA's reputation. What hurt more was that later videos of Sonic X-Treme showed that the game looked amazing and was at a respectable level of development, angering many fans who waited for its release.
-=Fall of a Hero=-
With the release of SEGA's next (and ultimately, last) console in 1999, Sonic debuted in Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. In this iteration, players controlled Sonic and several other characters in a truly 3D environment, often reaching incredible speeds. Although the game received generally positive reviews, it also introduced several problems that would later doom the series. Players were forced to fight as secondary characters including Big the Cat and a reprogrammed robot built by (the now re-named) Dr. Eggman. These levels involved fishing and shooting, and not the fast platforming many came to expect from Sonic.
Additionally, Sonic Adventure suffered from control and camera issues, as well as horrible voice acting and over-the-top guitar solo music. All of these factors came to symbolize SEGA's failed transition from 2D to 3D, and were even more painful in the face of how good the canceled Sonic X-TReme looked by comparison. Instead of embracing its roots, as Nintendo did with Mario 64's 3D debut of its mascot, SEGA scorned the quirky music and trademark gameplay of its classic titles. This wager did not pay off; even though Sonic Adventure sold very well, its follow-up games continued steering Sonic away from what gamers loved.
Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast (and other systems later) would share the same ups and downs as the first game, showing SEGA learned little from reviews of Adventure 1. Characters became even more outlandish, and voice acting caused ears to bleed. SEGA introduced Shadow, a dark clone of Sonic, who went on to have his own game in which he used machine guns and motorcycles to beat his enemies. In other words, the character was a total disaster. The Adventure series also led to Sonic Heroes, which used a team-based mechanic to little success in recapturing gamer interest.
With the perfect storm of Shadow the Hedgehog's assault rifle nightmare and the much anticipated Sonic the Hedgehog remake of 2006, Sonic's 3D adventures were all but doomed. Sonic 2006 was a marvelously detailed and fast game for XBox360 and PS3, but was rushed and shipped without being finished. The final product was incredibly buggy, featuring unserviceable camera angles and embarrassing load times. Videos on YouTube quickly sprang up demonstrating how, even on super-fast consoles, 5 minutes of game time in Sonic 2006 could include 3 minutes of loading time!
Finally, SEGA released Sonic Riders, a racing game. One would think the "fastest thing alive" would race on foot, as he did in Sonic R. However, SEGA decided to give every character a hoverboard instead! This mediocre game only cemented the concept that SEGA had ruined its prize character.
-=A Glimmer of Hope=-
Despite his 3D failings, Sonic's legacy has continued in an unexpected venue: handhelds. The Sonic Advance series on Game Boy Advance were well reviewed, and stuck to the old 2D platforming formula, and then added MORE SPEED! Perfect. This series was followed by Sonic Rush for Nintendo DS, which kept the speed but increased level size, difficulty, and boss battle challenge, all wonderful additions. The Sonic Rivals series on Sony PSP was not as well received, but still did a good job at keeping Sonic running fast, in this case in a race against a "rival" like Shadow.
All of these games were critical and fan successes, and prove that SEGA still knows how to make a good Sonic game. Just keep the speed, make the bosses fun, and add in some style for good measure, right? So why couldn't SEGA do the same for its 3D outings of the hedgehog?
With Sonic's introduction to the Nintendo Wii in Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic was finally close to being back on track. In this game, Sonic continually ran forwards in 3D levels that often resembled a half-pipe. Sound familiar? It turns out the successful formula for Sonic in 3D had all along been the design for the much desired and sadly canceled Sonic X-Treme for the Saturn! Secret Rings did suffer from a few issues, namely a bad "reverse" system and repetition, but these are things that could conceivably be fixed in sequels.
-=The Return of Sonic=-
Sonic has had a rocky life. From his glory in the 16-bit era to an almost complete fall from grace, few are betting on the Blue Blur. But as the success of his handheld adventures and his recent transition back towards his X-Treme roots show, Sonic has the potential for success. If SEGA can learn from its mistakes and just make a Sonic game that captures the rush of speed and the tight controls of its flagship character, it can revive Sonic as a mascot to be proud of. Until then, SEGA will have to pay for its careless mistakes.