2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Mega Drive. The 16bit-era sequels that followed are remembered fondly, but can be unfairly regarded as all style and no substance. The commonly held view is that they were all hold-right-to-win affairs, where entire levels were treated as giant time-attack modes with little depth behind the bright colors and flashing lights. But that's so far from the complete picture.
Certainly, the games were a lot faster and more frantic than many of the other platformers available at the time. (The first person to mention Zool gets a lollipop.) Compared to Sonic, Mario's adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom were positively sedate affairs, and going from Nintendo's mascot to Sega's new, blue figurehead for the first time felt like embarking on a narrow boat vacation only to find that a wizard had turned your barge into a jet ski. Sonic flung himself around the courses, to the point that the screen could barely keep up once you had unlocked Super Sonic, introduced in Sonic 2. Shooting smoothly through shuttle loops and curving pathways was, thanks to the relative power of the Mega Drive and some very clever programming, utterly unlike anything that gamers had seen before.
Yet Sonic, almost from the very beginning, wasn't exclusively about speed. Granted, some levels were light—the first in the original Sonic can be beaten in under 30 seconds, and the opening stage of Sonic 2 can be just about be completed in less than a minute while blindfolded and using your feet¹. But as you go deeper into the Mega Drive-period games, they reveal some deviously tricky platforming that remains challenging to this day, with multiple routes through zones and jumps that require Jedi-like reflexes to get right the first time. After a quarter of a century of playing video games, Sonic 2 remains one of my favorites, and 2015's 3D re-release on the Nintendo 3DS was a gorgeous way of making something familiar feel fresh and new.
'Sonic Generations' launch trailer, from 2011
Unfortunately, time hasn't treated the old hedgehog too kindly. With each iteration of the Sonic series, Sega seemed to veer further away from the magic that'd made their explosive erinaceidae so appealing in the first place. While the Mario games managed to change with the times, Nintendo constantly reinventing their iconic plumber for new audiences and technology while retaining that unmistakable "Mario-ness," Sonic appears to have gotten stuck in an uncomfortable rut.
"The Sonic Cycle" has become a byword for the anticipation and disappointment fans go through prior to each new game's release. Even 2010's Sonic 4, released to coincide with the series' 20th anniversary, felt flat and lacking. Its controls were wrong, the world was bare, and the whole thing came across as a strange cargo-cult emulation of what Sonic used to be.
With all this in mind, it would be easy to become cynical and jaded. There are already countless articles saying that Sonic should be dragged outside and shot—look, here's one that VICE made earlier. And once you click away from these pages, it won't take you long to find a piece claiming that Sonic has lived way beyond the seven-year lifespan of your average hedgehog, fancy sneakers, or otherwise, and that it's time Sega just packed the whole thing in and wrote off what was once the company's greatest character asset.
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For the longest time, I felt the same way. I found myself getting actually angry because a series of games were coming out that didn't reflect "my" Sonic; that there were people out there whose first experience with the series wasn't the glorious, pixelated romp of my youth, but instead a buggy nightmare of hollow cityscapes and horrific cross-species relationships with human women. This is, of course, a completely mad way to live. It all came to a head when I played the demo for 2011's Sonic Generations and started to nit-pick over tiny details. The jumping wasn't quite right. There weren't enough of the classic levels. I was so obsessed with not being handed an exact slice of my childhood that I failed to appreciate it for what it was: a sincere, well-intended love letter to a series that wasn't designed to cater solely for me, but instead to appeal to anyone who had ever played a Sonic game. It introduced younger players to Sonic's origins, while offering jaded old guys like me a chance to experience an old favorite in a totally different way.
This is why I'm cautiously optimistic about whatever Sega has planned for Sonic's 25th anniversary. Generations demonstrated that it is still possible to make a good Sonic game. More than that, it's possible to make a Sonic game that actually relies on platforming, rather than raw speed. A lot of the more recent games have felt like a clumsy version of Wipeout with occasional bothersome bits of jumping, which was never what Sonic was about. Yes, in 1994's Sonic 3 you can blitz through some stages, and that can be tremendously satisfying; but there are others which require skills that would give even a seasoned Shovel Knight player pause for thought. And that's what I want to see more of.
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I want to see a Sonic game that respects the series' history while recognizing that this medium has changed a lot over the past 25 years. The resurgence of indie titles has shown that people will lap up a platform game that can be punishingly hard, so long as the mechanics are solid and failures are fair. Games like Super Meat Boy and N++ have vigorously scratched the itches of masochists the world over, and still garnered critical acclaim. On the other end of the spectrum, Freedom Planet² demonstrated that it's entirely possible to make a scrolling platform game that's colorful and rich and filled with nostalgia, while also being inventive and fun to play.
On release, Generations was praised for being a nice combination of 2D side-scrolling and frantic whizzing around a three-dimensional plane, but there's much more to be done. Sega needs to stop being afraid of slowing Sonic down. The series won't implode if players are allowed to move at a pace where they can see what's going on, rather than pinging along in a blur and intermittently slamming to a halt because they didn't have time to react to an enemy. Make the 2D sections into a(nother) solid platform game. The Wii U's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze showed how great "old" games can be with a fresh lick of paint and some revamped mechanics. This would allow the 3D sections to be full on, balls-to-the-wall twitch gaming, like some unholy combination of rhythm action affairs, endless runners, and FAST Racing Neo.
The contrast between these two styles would allow both sets of strengths to shine—the fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled thrills of the 3D games highlighting and emphasizing the careful, methodical platforming of the 2D titles, and vice versa.
Of course, all that's been released so far is a spiffy new logo, with a podgy hedgehog and a background distinctly similar to Green Hill Zone. It could be in support of a game (that isn't the 3DS-exclusive Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, which has been coming for a while), but it could just as easily be artwork for a retrospective documentary about the series. I hope, though, that Sega does have an anniversary game planned, and that they've learned from their past mistakes. The time is right for a Sonic game that truly reflects the best of both dimensions he's inhabited. He deserves it. We all do.
¹ Yes, I have taught myself to do this. No, it generally wasn't worth it.
² Incidentally, Freedom Planet had one feature that, if implemented by Sega in a new Sonic game, could immediately put a stop to a huge amount of bitching about the series: the ability to turn off cutscenes. Large numbers of Sonic fans are livid about the idea of story polluting their games, and positively foam with anger at the inclusion of Sonic's ever-growing roster of friends. With one simple checkbox, Sega could put an end to this. Play for the gameplay and nothing else, or explore the backstory and motivations of a motley crew of assorted mammals and lizards—leave the choice to the player and we're all happy.
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