Super Series – Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega consoles)

I count myself quite lucky, because most of my favourite franchises that were with me in my earliest years still remain active today. Pokémon is a major one, a franchise that enamoured me immediately and has kept me nearly continuously since. Mario and Zelda, the other major Nintendo showings, are two more. I have the Simpsons for TV, which while it has taken a dip in quality in recent years, will still be sad to me to see go if indeed it ever does. And although not continuous, Crash Bandicoot recently reared his head and got a 2017 trilogy rerelease that taught me that the bits in Crash 1 that made me cry when I was 7 still make me cry now I’m 26.

And then there’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the little blue insectivore with more attitude than late ’90s WWF. While I didn’t buy into Sega’s console outings, I still managed to follow the series quite closely and grow attached to it from early on. In honour of the recent release of Sonic Mania, and the upcoming release of Sonic Forces (which has somehow already acquired a massive fanbase of rabid children ready to do Sonic Team’s bidding and eager, in 2017, to keep the Sonic vs Mario argument alive for some absurd reason), here is my look back at my subjective time with the series.

This recounting of the Sonic series will be in a rough order – I didn’t play the Sonic games I’ve played in chronological order, so I will try to keep faithful to my own experiences where I can and then keep everything else as orderly as possible.

My first experience with the spiky rascal was in the mid-1990s. The PlayStation was already out, but being a wee child at the time, I wasn’t on the cutting edge of technology. One of my friends had sucked me into the world of gaming with her SNES, and I had followed suit by receiving one for my birthday one year. At the same time, a different friend had a Megadrive 2 (substitute “Genesis” for all future mentions if you called it that) and the first two Sonic games. I played them a lot at hers, but never did very well with them, mostly just enjoying watching her play the 3D tunnel levels, better than I ever could, in the sequel. (I was poor at Super Mario World on my SNES as well. The games I played most were F-Zero, Stunt Race FX and Striker.)

In time I got a PlayStation. A couple of years passed. It should be of note the only two Sega-related things at this point – one, I couldn’t figure out why I’d never seen a “Megadrive 2” game, only games for the original, and didn’t find out for a while that the 2 was just a hardware revision. And two, I also didn’t know until about 2008-2010 that there was an interstitial Sega console between the Megadrive/2 and the Dreamcast, let alone two portables.

I remember the day I found out about the Sega Dreamcast clearly. My dad had taken me (a car-loving kid that went on to lose a lot of interest during the 2000s) to a motorshow in 1999. While I remember seeing a lot of incredible concept cars, my strongest memory was the line of shiny, PS1-whupping Sega consoles that all contained copies of Crazy Taxi ready to play. And play I did. And want a Dreamcast, I did, too.

Well, until the PS2 was announced, and then I forgot about Dreamcast on the spot. Incidentally, Crazy Taxi’s PS2 port was my first game for the console, so the one big reason I wanted one at the time ended up being irrelevant anyway.

It was early into my PS2’s life that I started taking an interest in games collecting. I found myself heavily regretting some of my trade-ins, while also yearning to play all the games I had played at my friends’ houses that I never owned myself. During this initial wave of desire, at Banham car boot sale I managed to pick up two old consoles – an N64, and a Megadrive 1. With the latter, I obtained the first and second Sonic the Hedgehog games, and got into them more (as well as playing an unhealthy amount of Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle and the first two Micro Machines games).

I only wish I’d got hold of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles at this time too, as old games were pretty much universally dirt cheap. The later two MD Sonic games aren’t any more.

Fast forward a little more again. My parents had recently upgraded the house PC, and it had a CD-ROM drive, so I bought a lot of CD game compilations. One of these was the Xplosiv Top 10, which contained (not to my knowledge at the time) a number of Saturn games Sega had ported to PC. Two of these were Sonic R and Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island.

I played neither for very long. Sonic 3D was unplayable – I’ve got a history of not getting on with isometric games unless they’re called Marble Madness or SimCity 3000, and this was no exception. I ran into every wall I was presented with and gave up within about an hour.

Sonic R, to me, with no real knowledge of what the series was doing or where it had gone, was just utterly baffling – it controlled horribly, it looked hideous, it suffered from a lack of characters I knew or cared about (not being familiar with Knuckles or any of the extended crew), and the soundtrack sounded like a woman with a chest infection making it to a peak position of 196 on the UK Charts in the week Chico topped it.

My next encounter with the Azure Spiked One was Sonic Heroes, a game that I got second-hand for cheap along with True Crime: Streets of LA when my dad came home with a price list and told me his workmate was selling some unwanted games. At this time, I was off school for a while with a pretty nice case of conjunctivitis, for which I’m sure playing two new-to-me PS2 games probably didn’t entirely help.

Sonic Heroes introduced me to what people today might refer to as a “modern Sonic game”. Gone was the 2D engine, where you had to build up momentum to make it around loops and up hills. Gone was the more maze-like level structuring of levels with the ability to play the same one five times and not see much repetition. And gone was the full, total control you had over your character… well, all three of them, in Heroes’ case.

In its place, Heroes felt like you were controlling three balloons 50% of the time, the other 50% being the game cutscening you through loop-de-loops and undynamic sequences where you might get a quicktime jump sprung on you if you were lucky. It also had several new mechanics such as a homing attack that also felt really unnecessary. It almost played like a rhythm game, with you pushing a sequence of buttons that the game expected as if Parappa the Rapper was in the background shouting “Homing attack! Loop loop loop! Turn the Eggman over!” Except instead of Parappa spitting fire, you get Tails. Talking. In his stupid, shrill voice, that somehow makes Navi from Zelda feel like a godsend.

I still enjoyed Heroes though. At least once I’d got past that theme tune, at least. It played anywhere from competent to dog-arse, with rail sections that were embarrassingly inferior to Ratchet & Clank’s ones, about half an hour of total dynamic gameplay in a multi-hour game, and Big the Cat with no further comment required, but I was always happy to have another platformer on PS2 in the era of platformers, and Sonic Heroes worked well.

After that came Sonic Advance. I never owned any of these games, but I was leant them by a friend. They were that weird moment when you were playing an official Sonic the Hedgehog game on a Nintendo console, whose maker had been in a rivalry with Sega for years prior. I honestly don’t remember much of the game – I remember it being alright, and a throwback to Sonic’s 2D outings, but in all honestly I played the Tamagotchi-esque Chao minigame more than the actual Sonic game.

Next was a demo of Sonic Adventure DX for PC. I knew this game had come from Dreamcast (which was long dead by now), but didn’t have it on that. Sadly still don’t – Dreamcast is the only Sega console I don’t have any native Sonic games for now. Adventure DX played like Heroes, but uglier (partly down to limits with my PC, partly just age) and without the frankly unnecessary character swapping mechanic.

It was alright, but I never felt compelled to seek out a full copy of Sonic Adventure DX. (I have one now, though, and yeah, still not a fan. But I find it difficult to give either Adventure game a fair shake – I have an ongoing grudge with them due to their introduction of all the crappy 3D engine mechanics that modern Sonic games are still hellbent on using to this day, if previews of Forces are to be believed.)

A couple of other games came and went at this point. I tried a demo of Sonic Riders and was about as impressed as a cat being given toothpaste-flavoured cat food. Similarly, I tried someone’s copy of Shadow the Hedgehog, and was about as impressed as the same cat, hungry after rejecting its hideous previous meal, being given a follow-up meal of even more toothpaste-flavoured cat food and then being pooed on from a great height by a mime. I was 14 when it came out and was already immune to the Sonic franchise’s bizarre transition from “attitude” to “edgy preteen”-styled content, which Shadow epitomised.

It was 2006. The Xbox 360 out here, which my friend bought and thought he was the second coming for owning. Nobody I knew owned a Wii early on. And I was holding out for the PlayStation 3, still having to use magazines and their pack-in DVDs for my fix of trailers and news on the new generation of games. One of these was a reboot of Sonic the Hedgehog that promised to bring the franchise up to date with gusto. Although it took me a while to grab it, my earliest PS3 games being Motorstorm, Resistance, Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and Elder Scrolls IV, I eventually got Sonic the Hedgehog and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, SONIC TEAM

Quite a few games that came out for earlier systems were irredeemably terrible. I figured that the world had moved on from that, having a baseline of quality that no game would be released if it was below. Sonic killed that notion dead with his 2006 PS3/Xbox 360 outing (which I got in 2007 in the UK because of the PS3’s delayed launch). And it hurts. Because there are so many points where the game feels like it’s edging dangerously close to being not only good, but ambitiously good.

Maps are huge and sprawling. The game dares to edge into locations that no Sonic game really did before. There is a massive amount of gameplay there, with Sonic alone having hours and hours of gameplay, let alone the extra stuff piled on with the two extra characters you can unlock. But it’s blatantly obvious that the thing was rushed out, at least a year before it would have been done properly, and as a result the game is infamously awful. Also, Sonic gets into a relationship with a human.

Bosses are broken, especially Silver and that robot in the jungle. Levels are full of physics bugs that somehow even put Sonic Adventure’s non-physics to shame. You can skip chunks of areas by glitching through terrain. Even if you don’t try to do that, it’ll probably end up happening anyway. The city of Aquapolis that serves as the game’s hubworld is full of terrible, menial tasks that do next to nothing of worth.

Nothing in Sonic the Hedgehog for PS3 works in any way, in concept or execution… except that, in retrospect, the game is accidentally one of the funnest experiences you can have now, as it is absolutely hilarious. I’d almost recommend it. It’s almost legendary at this point.

Still, greener pastures.

Skipping ahead to 2010, I got a job. And with that job came expendable income. And with that, came games collecting. In this time period I bought a Master System, a Game Gear, a Saturn and a Dreamcast. I bought Sonic the Hedgehog for the former (which is a very odd game, it’s like a slowed down, almost Mario-ish Sonic game), Sonic 1 and 2 for the middle (same, except it’s almost invisible because either the Game Gear’s screen is awful or my unit is defective), and Sonic Jam for the Saturn. Now we’re talking.

Sonic Jam finally gave me a go at Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which was an incredible pair of games to play, with one minor issue. The Saturn controller. Now, I will respect anyone’s opinion on controllers and appreciate that different hands will prefer different shapes. But… oh god, the Saturn controller makes me want to dry heave.

This must be my biggest complaint about every Sega console out there, all of their controllers anger me with their uncomfortableness. I excuse the Master System because nobody had invented round edges yet (even though having Pause on the console is annoying). The Megadrive is as good as it got, but it’s such an odd thing, with its flatness but also its round shaping and its horrible squidgy unresponsive-feeling buttons and its even worse directional… disc… thing. Saturn exacerbates that further by introducting sharper edges again on one variant that I own, and on the other, going for a more PlayStation controller-esque grip shape… but it still uses the “flat” design, so gripping it just hurts! I’m glad they finally went different with the Dreamcast controller, but its squeaky triggers, raised single analogue stick and thin grips don’t exactly push my buttons either.

ANYWAY, back to new-at-the-time games, Sonic wasn’t quite done being bad. I have yet to play Unleashed… largely because nobody at the time had good things to say about it. I heard people say “it’s part Sonic Adventure and part terrible” and all I can think of is a Venn diagram where the Adventure and Terrible circles are overlapping, with a picture of Sonic the Werehog in the middle. I did however get the two Wii-exclusive “fantasy” Sonic games, Secret Rings and Black Knight. They’re bad in a much different way to Sonic 2006. That game was bad because it was unfinished and broken, the two Wii games were just… boring. Boring, and they played like balls.

And then Sonic Colours happened, which was, out of the blue, quite good. What? A 3D Sonic game with all the old Adventure mechanics, containing a throwaway gimmick, that is actually a wonderfully playable game even if my PS3-tuned eyes wish that it was playable on an HD-ready console? Get right out of town.

It happened again, with Sonic Generations a year or two later. I didn’t actually buy it until I got a 3DTV and was scouting games that could be played in 3D, but Generations could on PS3. Don’t play it in 3D. I’m not susceptible to issues with 3D for the most part, but Generations didn’t work at all in it – my eyes couldn’t get focused on anything and I ended up with a fairly astonishing headache.

But when I’d overcome that hurdle with Generations by turning off the 3D forever, it was pretty fun. The 2D parts were enjoyable, the 3D parts were some of the least glitchy in the series’ history even if they still had all the same bloody engine problems. I think the only thing I have against Generations is that it’s the apex of Sonic Team trying to please everyone by stitching 2D bits into the games. It’s okay, but if you’re having to plug in big chunks of alternative gameplay because a portion of your audience hates the rest of it, you’re less solving an existing problem and more giving people a shot of tequila every now and then so they’re more tolerant of the still-existing problem. This is something I think Forces is making a mistake with – now Sonic Mania’s out, it seems ridiculous to still be going after the 2D lovers when most of your game is still just Adventure all over again. But we’re not quite up to 2017 yet.

I bought into Nintendo’s Wii U. Okay I bought into all three generation 8 consoles as they came out, but Wii U was first, and I got one on launch day along with Zombi U, Nintendoland and a couple of other games. Something it did get was a couple of then-exclusive Sonic games – Sonic Lost World, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. I’ll start with the first.

Honestly, Lost World didn’t appeal to me. It looked interesting – a hybrid of Super Mario Galaxy’s planets, Mario 3D World’s overworld design, and the “lost” Saturn game Sonic X-treme – but seemed at a gameplay level to literally just be Adventure yet again. I ended up snagging a digital copy of the game for free when Nintendo offered it to anyone that preordered Mario Kart 8, and also ended up being right. That was EXACTLY what it was. So Lost World only held my attention for a stage or two.

Sonic Boom looked promising. It looked different. How it turned out to knock Sonic 2006 off of the top of the “bad Sonic games” totem pole, I still don’t quite understand. I actually bought this one outright – I wasn’t expecting it to be incredible, just intriguing. It actually was incredible, but in the word’s older sense – it was not credible that Sonic Team could pull the dead, decaying, infectious rabbit out of the hat twice, and yet here we were, in the mid-2010s, with another Sonic-shaped absolute turd.

But it managed to recapture the magic of Sonic 2006 again as well! It was so buggy, it ended up being a genuinely enjoyable experience. That moment when you figured out you could pause the game mid-jump to gain another jump, repeating ad infinitum to skip entire game chapters, that bit when you used a bounce pad (as helpfully pointed out by one of your collection of Heroes-esque characters) and it ejected you through the ground into a death plane… Sonic Boom was a menagerie of bugs that were giggle-inducing to hunt down and witness.

The last game that is out at time of writing is Sonic Mania, which takes the game right back to the 2D gameplay style – no Sonic the Hedgehog 4-esque half-baked attempt, it feels like a Megadrive game with the odd touch of Mega CD. And although it rides just a tiny bit too close to the old games (did we really need that bloody hideous bit from Sonic 3 where you have to slowly jump over moving platforms to avoid having to do the same underwater section for the ninth consecutive time), it is a beautifully constructed game from start to finish, with some of the best music in the franchise (even better than CAN YOU FEEL THE SUNSHINE and SOOOONIC HEEEEEROES) and a ton of wonderful content. I hope it’s not a one-off.

Sonic the Hedgehog, as a series, still isn’t dead. Infact, it probably has more fans now than ever before – fans that have walked over landmine after landmine of a game, ever eager to crawl through the franchise with their one and a half remaining arms and their viscera-dropping bloodied stumps for legs, and ever willing to point out the next landmine in their path, screaming on Twitter “it’s not a landmine, it’s a hospital!”, as onlookers watch half of their torso and their four remaining fingers explode.

I’m not optimistic for Sonic Forces. I’m buying it, and can only hope that either it’s surprisingly excellent, like Colours, or hilariously awful, like Sonic Boom. Either is worth my money. What I don’t want is for it to just be average. But it doesn’t look like it will be that way. The main boss of Forces, Infinite, is straight out of a 2006 emo’s playbook. The theme song is like a teenage pop rock band from the same era had an off day. The character creation is Sega’s gift to all the people that contributed to the thing where if you Google “<your name> the hedgehog”, you’re in for a wild, not-safe-for-work adventure. The whole game looks… hilarious, custom-built for 10 year olds That Still Think It’s Cool To Start Every Word With A Capital Letter Regardless Of Context.

I want to see something else. A Mirror’s Edge-esque Sonic game. A Tasty Static-esque Sonic game. But with such a confusing, maniacal fanbase, I’m fairly sure Sonic will be able to stop mid-loop and stand upside down forever for decades to come. And I’m sure, despite my better judgment, I’ll still like Sonic, even when Sonic 2006 and Sonic Boom are joined by a third infamous entry, and a fourth, and a fifth.

Because he’s been there since the start.

Allison James

Independent game developer, font creator and occasional casual writer.

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