Video games aren’t what they used to be. New games all look and feel the same. Every main character is a space marine with a crew cut wearing Master Chief-ish armor and a big ol’ blaster who’s off to an alien planet to shoot the face off monsters. *Claps* — genius.
This wasn’t always the case. Not in the early to mid ‘90s for sure. After Mario dethroned Pac-Man as the face of video games, Sega tried to kick the plumber’s ass with a cooler, edgier, literally faster, mascot of its own: Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic’s debut in 1991 on the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Japan) brought terror to Nintendo’s dominion. Here was a character who had more attitude than Mario in every way. Mario was my homeboy (especially Tanooki Mario), but Sonic was the rad new kid on the block. I tangoed with Sonic on my friends’ Genesis and Game Gear even though my family was a Nintendo household. I woke up extra early to watch the Sonic cartoon on Saturday mornings and even owned his comics. Sonic — the character — gave me a rush of excitement in the ‘90s.
His games — not so much.
2D Sonic games were too fast. His games literally gave me headaches and made me want to vomit every time I’d accelerate him through Green Hill Zone’s roller coaster loops, collecting gold rings along the way before he ran smack into an enemy or bed of spikes only to lose them all. Maybe it was my young sensitive and developing eyes or my tendency to get motion sick when I was young (I’d get car or bus sick all the time) that made Sonic too challenging to control. Or maybe it was the fact that Sonic was blue running through a level that was also mostly blue with blue water and blue sky. Did anyone at Sonic Team (the developers behind the original Sonic games) even look into something called contrast?
Whatever the reasons were, they made it impossible for me to stick with Sonic games. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve never finished a single Sonic game in my life. In comparison, I’ve played basically every Mario game and completed all of the main platformer ones on every Nintendo console. Even more so than a movie, pacing, especially on a 16-bit console, is important.
For me, Sonic was too quick, making a mess of all the pixels on the screen and turning everything into a blocky migraine-inducing experience every time I dared play his games. It was literally impossible to zoom through a level at sonic speed and not run into enemies a zillion times. What are you supposed to do? Slow down? That kind of defeats the whole point of Sonic.
Sonic was too quick, making a mess of all the pixels on the screen.
Things didn’t get better when Sonic leapt to 3D (or even the pseudo-3D games like Sonic 3D Blast). Despite superior graphics with more polygons (remember when polygon count would get everyone hard?), Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast didn’t have the same fine-tuned controls as Super Mario 64. In Adventure, it wasn’t so much the speed that I had beef with, as it was the poor camera angles. I remember playing a demo of Sonic Adventure at a Dreamcast kiosk at the now dead J&R Music and Computer World store in New York City and being so frustrated with the camera controls I swore off Sonic games forever. Okay, I didn’t give up on Sonic, but the bad camera pushed me to double down on Mario and wait it out for the GameCube.
Blame it on the hardware. Maybe Sega was trying to do too much with the limited processing power that wasn't ready for what they envisioned for Sonic. But that doesn't explain what happened after consoles got way more powerful.
History of bad
Sonic games may have been a bastion of the intense rivalry between Nintendo and Sega in the early ‘90s, but his games took a nosedive when Sega quit the hardware game in 2001 after Dreamcast sales fizzled for a few years. Since going multi-platform 19 years ago, Sega has squeezed Sonic for all he’s worth, letting almost any developer get a taste of his spiky blue vitality.
With the exception of a few Sonic games — namely the 2D Sonic Advance series on Game Boy Advance — developed by Dimps, the blue hedgehog’s outings have mostly been unimaginative. If it isn’t bad gameplay then it’s a cringey story. Sega keeps dropping the ball with almost every new Sonic game.
Who can forget 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog reboot for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The one where Sonic kisses a human girl. On the lips. Just think about that for a second. You’ll never be able to erase that grotesque hedgehog-on-human-lips action from your memory. Imagine if Crash Bandicoot puckered up with Princess Peach. You’d have nightmares.
Sonic Riders, a game where you play as Sonic riding a friggin’ hoverboard, seemed promising, but failed to meet expectations. The game was nothing more than a cheap attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of skateboarding and snowboarding in the mid-aughts.
And do I even need to elaborate on the universally panned Sonic Unleashed? Another cool idea — Sonic can transform into a goddamn werewolf! — wasted at the hands of Sonic Team. Mediocrity in full force and proof Sonic Team needed an internal reboot. Or how about Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for the 3DS or the Wii U-exclusive Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric? I’m rolling my eyes so hard right now.
Does anyone even want new versions of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games every other year or so? Sure, pairing two of the most iconic video game mascots of all time in a single game is a license to print money. But has anyone ever played these games? They kill brain cells. They’re rip-your-eyes-out bad for everyone except children who don’t know any better and are there for the Wii Remote waggle. Yet, people keep buying them and signaling to Sega and Nintendo that they should keep making new ones.
Not even Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing can get me jazzed and I’m a huge racing fan (arcade, simulation, you name it!). It’s nothing more than a subpar rip-off of Mario Kart that I had hoped would be more fun because the vehicles can transform, but ehhh. Sonic Dash for iOS and Android? A cheap endless running cash grab masquerading as a game that’s really designed to rake in as much in-app purchases as possible. These kinds of games with IAP-focused designs are the worst and shame on Sega for pimping out Sonic for them.
Was there ever actually a good Sonic game? Sure, I liked Sonic Generations. But most Sonic games were terrible.
The ‘90s and ‘00s had a way of distorting our memories and fondness for the blue hedgehog because he was the only comparable mascot who nearly gave Mario a run for his money. The competition was so scarce back then and information not so instantly distributed that we latched onto anything that diverged from the status quo of Mario saving Princess Peach.
All isn't lost. Sega can right Sonic. Take a page from Nintendo. The game company has pumped out Mario games since 1983 and very few of them have been duds. The reason is very simple: there's a bar of quality for Mario that creator Shigeru Miyamoto has set for himself and the next generation of developers at Nintendo who handles the franchise. It takes immense discipline to say no to bad ideas and only release games when they're good and ready, not because of schedule deadlines. That's how you maintain an enduring level of satisfaction for a single plumber spanning different game genres over 37 years.
I will always love Sonic as a character (he’s so cute and cuddly and thank god they fixed him in the movie) and he'll be forever synonymous with Sega, but his games sucked. They truly did. And they'll keep sucking if Sega doesn't realize this. I don’t need to apologize for the mediocrity. Sega does.