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Show Mercy, Sega, and Put Sonic Out of His Misery

There hasn't been a truly great Sonic game for ages, and 2014's <i>Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric</i> was a nadir that the Sega mascot might never recover from.

Mike Diver

Mike Diver

Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham

When was the last time you played a Sonic the Hedgehog game and liked it? Not even loved it – as we're so past that relationship with the spiky blue mammal – but played it through (or at least most of the way) and didn't, at any stage, want to set fire to your memories of the Sega mascot's 1990s heyday. It was a while ago, wasn't it? Sure as shit wasn't as recently as last year.

Right now, all Sonic-featuring games are exclusive to Nintendo platforms, the Wii U and the 3DS, under the terms of an agreement reached in May of 2013 between Sega and their fiercest competitor through the console wars of the 1980s and 90s. Sonic Lost World came out five months into this deal, Sonic's first escapade on eighth-gen hardware. It was bad, with awkward controls, a twitchy targeting system and puzzles way too tough for young players (not to mention time-pressed adults).

Zero Punctuationreviews Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric

But if Lost World was disappointing, last year's Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U – based on the Sonic Boom TV show – was wretched. Buggy, broken and, even more disastrously, terrifically boring, it was by far the worst "big" game of 2014. Its frame rate was glacial, its co-op functionality flawed. Its critical reception was uniformly negative, and a Metacritic rating of 32/100 represents the lowest-ever mark for a Sonic-series game. Quite how any old-school Sega fan can play it through the tears is beyond me.

But the Sonic rot didn't set in with Nintendo's involvement – while it's never going to be a priority IP beside Mario, the acquisition of Sonic is good business for Miyamoto and company. Sonic is a world-recognised character, likely better known (and definitely a bigger seller) than a host of Nintendo icons: the first Sonic the Hedgehog of 1991 sold 15 million copies on the Mega Drive, and its sequel made its way into six million homes. Nintendo classics like Kirby's Dream Land and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past don't come close to those figures.

Once upon a time, clearly, sticking Sonic in a game meant massive returns. But while 2010's Sonic Colors didn't do badly at retail, sub-million sales for Lost World represent a wake-up call. It's a sign of fatigue on the part of an audience that's come to associate Sonic with inadequacy in contemporary gaming. He has become, at most, a makeweight amid a cast of hundreds, a second-string Smash Bros. combatant, a nostalgia hangover of no relevance to the next generation of gamers. He's a background presence in Wreck-It Ralph, spilling his rings like an all-thumbs OAP fumbling for bus change. He's tired, ready for a quiet, slower life.

It's time for Sega to say goodbye to Sonic as a headlining act – as it has with Alex Kidd, Ristar, Vectorman, Nights and many more, taking them from games of their own into cameo appearances in crossover titles, most notably in (the actually pretty great) Mario Kart competitor Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. To return to that first question, of when you last played a Sonic game and liked it: for me, that was getting on for 22 years ago. I was young, free and single, able to spend hour after hour perfecting runs on what, for me, remains the greatest 2D Sonic game of all: Sonic CD.

Coming out between Sonics 2 and 3, on the Mega Drive's Mega CD (Sega CD, stateside) add-on, in September of 1993, Sonic CD was a joy – and it's one of few retro games that I still enjoy now, just as I did the first time around. Its limitations aren't as prominent as several peer releases, platformers with tired mechanics or overly sensitive controls – it's as speedy as Sonic & Knuckles, but with tighter, clearer stages than that later game, and the increased clout of the Mega CD gives the visuals a vibrancy that still appeals so many years later.

And then there's the music, the European and Japanese versions of the game featuring a succession of excellent tunes. The boss battles were accompanied by a track sampling Xavier's 1982 single " Work That Sucker to Death". Compare and contrast, if you like, or simply check out the whole soundtrack in the gameplay video below, assuming you've an hour to burn.

Sonic CD longplay (the complete gameplay)

Inside three minutes, you'll see that Sonic travels back in time – the environment changes, as does the music, and there's a nasty contraption that needs destroying. Doing so alters the present, wiping out the influence of the nefarious series villain, Dr Robotnik/Eggman – and that affects the future, which transforms from a robots-everywhere dystopia to a blissful, peaceful state. You don't need to clean up the rotund antagonist's mess in every stage to finish Sonic CD (doing so makes you "too cool", though), but the attention to detail shown by the Sonic Team developers – there's effectively four possible play scenarios for each non-boss stage, each featuring unique assets – is in stark contrast to the cowboy job dealt Rise of Lyric.

Love and care and consideration is evident right across Sonic CD – and the same can't be said for any Sonic game since, maybe, Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. And that debut foray into three dimensions brought its share of problems, not least of all with a shoddy camera system and the "mentally handicapped imbecile" of Big the Cat – who Sega have dealt with as they might Sonic himself, ruling his appearance out of future projects back in 2012.

I'd love for Sonic to mount a recovery, for a new Nintendo-exclusive title to actually come close to the splendour of a main-series Mario game – no 3D Sonic has ever matched the majesty of Super Mario 64. But the odds aren't stacked in the fleet-footed erinaceid's favour.

The decay has reached an untreatable situation with Rise of Lyric, opportunities for intervention around the releases of Shadow the Hedgehog (2005: because these games always needed more machine guns, obviously), Sonic Unleashed (2008: what the fuck was that Werehog stuff about?) Sonic and the Black Knight (2009: out go the guns, in come the swords) well and truly missed. As for the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, there's a reason – several, actually – why it features in Wikipedia's article on the worst video games of all time.

It hasn't all been atrocious – Sonic Colors suggested that the rankness of preceding cacophony-over-quality affairs was parked, that Sonic Team was ready to refresh the fortunes of Sega's anthropomorphic ambassador. But all too swiftly the sorry status quo was returned to with Lost World and, now, Rise of Lyric. To be clear, the latter isn't a Sonic Team production – it's the work of Big Red Button Entertainment. Presumably said button was labelled "Fuck Everything Up". Sonic Team is currently occupying itself with the smartphones-only Sonic Runners, expectation for which is currently colder than the outside urinals at Vostok given the tediousness of past Sonic games on iOS and Android.

So, Sega, please: it breaks our hearts to see Sonic suffering like this. At most, hedgehogs only live for five years. What you're putting him through, using shitty video games as a means of life support, is monstrous. Do the right thing: put the poor creature out of his misery.

@mikediver

Previously:

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