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Video Games Killed the Radio Star

Happy 25th, Sonic, and Thank the Gaming Gods You Weren’t an Awesome Possum

Sonic spin-dashed through the Mascot Wars of the 1990s. But let's spare a thought for the fallen, those anthropomorphized heroes who didn't make it.

by Mike Diver
Jun 10 2016, 3:25pm

Sonic illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham

This article originally appeared in VICE UK magazine, Volume 23, Issue 4 (June 2016). Find more information here.

Twenty-five years ago this June (the 23rd), Sega's Mario-rivaling mascot Sonic the Hedgehog spin-dashed onto the Mega Drive and immediately became the edgier alternative to Nintendo's popular plumber and pals. From the perspective of today, it might seem hard to understand how a blue hedgehog that looked more like a design you'd find on the side of some cheap sneakers than an actual animal ever qualified as "cool." But the video games landscape of the 1990s was a strange and terrifying place, stocked with side-scrolling platformers starring an array of questionably designed protagonists, predominantly based on some exotic creature or other from a dog-eared Spotter's Guide to the Natural World.

Which makes you wonder how a hedgehog, above any other, more exotic creatures, became the standout character amid a zoological cornucopia of contenders. Playing the original Sonic today, though, makes it abundantly clear how this game stole a march on so many other platform titles of the time, and why it formed the foundations of a franchise that, while not flourishing in the 21st century, remains a presence in gaming's middle-mainstream firmament. From the very beginning of Sonic's development, its makers at Sega's AM8 department—later renamed Sonic Team—placed their gameplay emphasis on speedy traversal, while the character design aimed to mix approachability and aggression. Ideas for vampire-like fangs and Sonic being the frontman of a rock band were ditched, thankfully, but he still bears the mark of pop culture: His red shoes were supposedly inspired by Michael Jackson.

Play Sonic today, the Mega Drive's biggest-selling title, and it's a remarkably streamlined experience, stripped almost bare of the superfluous extras that pepper even today's simplest games. There are collectibles, Chaos Emeralds, to pick up in special stages, and power-ups to temporarily enhance Sonic's defenses and speed. But it's predominantly a pure-and-simple case of racing from left to right, bouncing off enemies and beating a boss—the same Eggman/Dr Robotnik, in a different power-suit/vehicle—at the end of every zone. It's beautiful, Game Design 101 stuff: You press this button here, and fun happens there.

It's a shame, then, that the game's 1992 sequel, often cited as the outstanding game of the Sonic series, over-complicated its stages with confusing pathways and a rhythm-disrupting amount of backtracking. A clutch of its aesthetically vibrant middle zones are spoiled by speed-killing enemy positioning, blind leaps of faith, and cheap deaths by bone-crushing blocks. Sonic 2 is a great game, for the most part, but when I went back to it on a recent flight, via the excellent 3DS version that came out in October 2015, I was genuinely frustrated by obvious shortcomings I don't recall noticing when playing as a kid. Perhaps I had more patience for poor level layout back then, on account of each game bought using scraped-together pocket money and gift vouchers representing a more significant investment than they are today. I stuck it out through Sonic 2 in the 1990s, but I'd not finished it before we'd landed, and I've not gone back to polish that run off since.

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Sonic made it out of the anthropomorphized gaming mascot ghetto of the 1990s, and while his games aren't universally enjoyed today, it's worth remembering that hedgehogs only usually live for three years in the wild. At 25, he's well over 300 years old in equivalent human years, so we should forgive him for moving a little sluggishly in Shattered Crystal, and for letting so many game-breaking glitches slip into the retail code of Rise of Lyric. He's almost certainly in his twilight years, and he's earned a rest. Which conveniently affords me a moment to reflect on some of Sonic's peers who didn't make it to retirement age, and so very far beyond.

Sonic's success sparked a flood of comparably zoomorphic avatars featuring in their own releases, ostensibly much the same gameplay wise as Sega's breakthrough, featuring a whole lot of leaping, landing, and enemy lamping. On the Mega Drive itself, Aero the Acrobat (a bat) and Bubsy (a bobcat) in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind both came out in 1993, made by Iguana and Accolade respectively, looking to cash in while platforming games featuring attitude-laden mascots were in their post-Sonic pomp. Both were decent and enjoyed some commercial success, but neither could step out from the spiky shadow of SEGA's market leader. And so, while sequels followed each debut, both Aero and Bubsy remain relics of the 1990s, with the latter last seen in action during the days of the original PlayStation.

The PlayStation was also home to Crystal Dynamics' Gex series, featuring a TV-addict gecko (obviously), and two Croc games from Argonaut Software, its playable character being, you guessed it, a crocodile. The terrifically titled Awesome Possum... Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt from Tengen saw an environmentally minded marsupial go up against a mad scientist set on world domination, but the late-1993 Mega Drive exclusive was poorly received by critics and didn't spawn any follow-ups. The same is true of Irem's Rocky Rodent, a SNES release of 1993 that only received an official release in Japan and the States. It was a speedy side-scroller featuring a wild-haired protagonist that was unashamed in its Sonic-aping presentation, but it missed a trick in my opinion for not taking its Japanese title worldwide. In Irem's homeland, the game was called Nitropunks: Mightheads. Which, frankly, can't have failed to grab teenage attentions in any branch of Tandy.

All of these Sonic wannabees are best left in the past, but there is one furry hero from gaming's 16bit era that I'd certainly welcome in a DOOM—or Shadow of the Beast-style modern remake. Konami's Rocket Knight Adventures was, come on now, a Sonic-beater in '93, and its sword-swinging star Sparkster, an opossum with a rocket pack, would look perfectly at home beside the revived Ratchet and Clank, in a shiny new PS4 form. I'd much rather that, than another awful Sonic project that jackhammers a fresh hole through his faded reputation.

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