By the time 2006 rolled around, it appeared to many that the Sonic franchise had hit rock bottom. At least, that was the perspective on the games licensed by Sega. At the same time, a not-insignificant development marked the shifting of focus and priority for Sonic fans. Project Chaos was released in 2006 as a fan-driven enterprise to recreate the remix the iconic music of Sonic 3 & Knuckles for the Sega Genesis. Whether because of Sonic 2006 or in spite of it, fans were turning inwards to create fan games and fan music – along with the proliferation of fan-fiction that had existed for years. The Internet gave a venue to fans of all skills, ages, and opinions. This was as ideal a breeding ground for creativity as it seemed it would get; 2006 was marked by Sonic 2006, Sonic Rivals, and Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis. This last one was particularly offensive because it was a buggy port of the very first Sonic game to the Game Boy Advance and only served to make it appear that Sonic Team had no idea what it was doing. Despite that, it is always darkest before dawn.
The intensely negative press of Sonic 2006 was looming large over Sonic Team. What had been planned as a port of that game for the Nintendo Wii began to spiral into something else entirely; Sonic Team soon realized the plan of simply porting Sonic 2006 was not feasible. The idea was scrapped and Sonic Team began reworking elements of gameplay around the Wii’s touted motion control feature. Yojiro Ogawa, who had been originally the director of Sonic 2006, was leading this new project and wanted to revolutionize Sonic, inspired by the fact that the Wii’s codename at the time of production was Revolution.
This new game, known as Sonic Wild Fire, was built around a single premise taken from Sonic 2006: the speed sections. In Sonic 2006, certain stages had speed sections, portions of the stage in which Sonic ran at high velocity, essentially a frenetic, on-rails platforming extravaganza. Sonic Wild Fire took this concept and (quite literally) ran with it, giving Sonic permanent forward momentum. This could have worked well if two principal issues had not presented themselves. First of all, backtracking was cumbersome with an over-the-shoulder camera angle; players could not really see where they were going when trying to reverse direction. Second, the game’s level design was certainly nothing Hirokazu Yasuhara would have designed. Many levels were built around stopping or moving slowly and having permanent forward momentum meant that not moving required more effort than moving. Surely this sounds bizarre to us because Sonic is not a Formula One race car and should not have a problem like this. Platforming was consequentially clumsy at times and this lessened the enjoyment value of the game. By the time the game went live, it had been given a Thousand and One Arabian Nights theme and was renamed Sonic and the Secret Rings. To its credit, Sonic and the Secret Rings was better received than Sonic ’06, but that was not saying a lot; arachnophobes would have received being covered in tarantulas better than Sonic ’06, so Sonic Team needed to step up its game.
What it did not need to do was release Sonic Rush Adventure, but it did it anyway. A sequel to the Nintendo DS hit Sonic Rush, this game built on the premise of Sonic Rush and did very little to change up the formula. The only really interesting thing about Sonic Rush Adventure was the concept of special stages centered around competing with a shark boy named Johnny using various marine vehicles. As a side note, the character of Marine the Raccoon was first introduced here and caused the PEGI rating in the United Kingdom to be slightly higher since she had a habit of calling other characters “buggers.” In Australia, this is apparently acceptable, whereas in the United Kingdom, this is a rude term (and in America, it has no meaning whatsoever), so here was a Sonic game teaching kids vulgarities. Yay! Overall, though, this was standard Dimps fare, replete with bottomless pits in place of actual challenge and little to distinguish the core mechanics from its predecessor. Sonic Rush Adventure was favorably received, but it was hardly the proverbial Sonic Adventure that the series desperately needed.
2007 was a largely lackluster year for the Blue Blur, but it was one spent rebuilding after intensifying criticism of the franchise. This was apparent with Sega’s re-release of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 through Xbox Live Arcade that year (they would not make to the PlayStation Network until 2011). It would have seemed preposterous 15 years prior to think that a franchise that took off so quickly crashed so hard. Sonic was lightning in a bottle. Many other developers after Sonic’s debut attempted to emulate his cool attitude and all-encompassing 90s spirit, such as Bubsy’s smirk and foot tapping or Oscar’s backwards cap and childish antics. It was such a twist of fate, then, that 2007 ended with Sonic, meant to be the Mario killer, finally joining the Plumber himself in a video game: Mario & Sonic at the Olympics. Released for the Wii at the end of 2007 and for the DS at the beginning of 2008, this game was the first time the Plumber and the Hedgehog were meeting in the same game. Though this was a game long-awaited by fans in some respects, it was also not quite what fans were expecting for a game with both Mario and Sonic, the definitive mascots of 90s platforming. There was no platforming in this game. This game, initially perceived by some as a hoax, was nonetheless commercially successful, winning the the Guinness World Records title of best-selling gaming crossover. Easily, there were worse ways to engage in rebuilding the brand than stealing my ideas (seriously, I came up with the idea of Sonic in the Olympics in 1996 and wanted it to be called Sonic 4, so thanks for looking over my shoulder when I was not even ten years old, guys).
Sonic was not done on his whirlwind tour. He also appeared in the Sega Genesis Collection for the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable between 2006 and 2007. This was followed in early 2008 with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity on the Wii. A sequel to Sonic Riders, Zero Gravity built upon its predecessor with an enlarged roster of Sega characters like NiGHTS, Billy Hatcher, and Amigo, and also tinkered with gravity powers in place of the first game’s air trick system. Just months later came Sega Superstars Tennis, a tennis game featuring a small roster of iconic Sega characters like Sonic, NiGHTS, Amigo, Beat, Ulala, and Aiai. Despite the premise sounding dumb, it was engaging and amusing; I played it for about an hour at Otakon a few years ago and it was fun. It did try to bring back the classic Green Hill Zone music but, due to licensing issues, musician Richard Jacques had to substitute in other music, meaning this game would not be an entirely triumphant return to form. Still, it seems like an ideal party game when everyone has imbibed a few too many alcoholic beverages and wants to prove himself as the next Federer. At nearly the same time, Sonic, along with Solid Snake, became the first third-party characters to appear in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. It was from this game that Sonic’s snarky, “You’re too slow~!” line entered the Internet’s gaming lexicon for all-around annoyingness.
There was also the DS title Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. Excitement ran high the moment it was announced this game was being developed by BioWare. That excitement tapered off when it was clarified that it was not the BioWare team behind Mass Effect. Chronicles was an RPG that explored the plot of the fate of the echidna tribe to which Knuckles belongs. As far as games went, it was okay. The game made significant use of the touch screen to add a real-time element to turn-based combat. That was fine in and of itself, although the final boss was Touch Screen Tapping City. It also ended on a weird cliffhanger, suggesting that Chronicles would be its own storyline. Ultimately, BioWare was acquired by Electronic Arts and no plans for a sequel were discussed thereafter. Fine by me, for I ended up trading that sucker in at my local gaming store. It was not my cup of tea.
Still, as far as “mainstream” Sonic games went, the last one to date was the disastrous Sonic ’06 (Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered a spin-off). Sonic Team went back to the drawing board to plan the next concept of Sonic Adventure 3 (Heroes and ’06 were originally conceived as Sonic Adventure 3). Under the direction of Yoshihisa Hashimoto, Sonic Team seemed to listen to its fans. The developers moved away from the Mr. Noodlemouse design and made Sonic more of an updated version of his classic 16-bit iteration. Sonic Team also made Sonic the exclusive playable character, in a departure from every Sonic mainstream Sonic game going back to the 90s. However, this was offset by the slight quirk of a scenario in which Sonic shifts from his regular hedgehog form by day into a “werehog” by night. The werehog levels played in a beat-em-up/puzzle platformer style, whereas the hedgehog levels were traditional Sonic 2D/3D platforming. Hashimoto hoped to “disrupt” the players’ expectations with the werehog, and he most certainly did: the werehog is cited as the worst insert in this title, being a strange and out-of-place gimmick. Nevertheless, Sega threw its weight behind the new project, aggressively advertising the game online and creating animated shorts for it. Indeed, it was even the first time I saw a Sonic commercial on television in years. Fans got hyped for the music, the cartoony but polished music, and the smoothness of the gameplay. The final product was branded as Sonic Unleashed and hit stores at the end of 2008. Built upon the concept of Sonic visiting real-world locations (the name of the game in Japan was Sonic World Adventure), this game received modestly favorable ratings. The werehog idea mostly marred the ratings, but it was otherwise seen as acceptable.
“Acceptable” in this industry, though, was no option. Even with all of the advertising and the spotlighting of the game’s “Hedgehog Engine,” which was a lighting/graphical engine that could produce CGI-quality graphics, Unleashed was not the next Sonic Adventure. Unleashed was even sold with a completely different game design from Dimps on the PlayStation 2 and Wii as opposed to its high-definition counterpart for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (funnily enough, the HD version suffered from more framerate loss than the so-called “Unwiished” version). The game was a love letter to the fans, between the soft redesign of Sonic, the acknowledgment in the game of his love of chili dogs as first seen in Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and one instance in which a broken-down robot called XB-2006 is criticized for not functioning very well (a nod to the Xbox 360’s Sonic 2006). The intro cutscene even features Dr. Robotnik keeping a Sega Dreamcast on his interplanetary warship (along with a copy of NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams and “Eggman Adventure”).
Despite all of that, Unleashed hardly needed to be chained up. It was more recognized for the absurd werehog gimmick and Sonic’s ridiculous face during a torture scene, which has gone on to become the stuff that memes are made of.
Personally, I quite liked Unleashed, although the Wii/PS2 iteration had levels cut from the HD version for no clear reason. I still occasionally play it and jeer at how short the level loading times are compared to the abysmal waiting times on Sonic 2006. One man’s opinion is not enough to sway a market, though, and Sega marched on with the release of Sonic and the Black Knight in 2009. A “storybook” game like Secret Rings, Black Knight was a Wii-exclusive title that set Sonic in the world of King Arthur’s England. Sonic used a sword named Caliburn to help him in his quest, marking the second time Sega stole an idea of mine from when I was a kid (though I’m sure the idea of Sonic using a sword was not unique to me, as a cursory sweep through DeviantArt might suggest). In anticipation of the Vancouver Winter Games of 2010, 2009 ended with the Wii/DS release of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, another Olympic-licensed game with the Mario and Sonic characters now competing in winter events. Having played this one, I have no strong feelings about it either way. It was another aimless licensing of video game characters that was cashing in on brand name rather than anything else.
By 2010, Sonic was at least tolerated again. The string of unremarkable games, however, was not helping the franchise. A bold approach was needed. What was given, however, was an unexpected development: a Mario Kart clone called Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Reactions usually went along a theme of, “Why does Sonic need a car?” A valid question since Sonic Drift for the Game Gear and it has still yet to be answered. Nevertheless, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing came out on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, DS, and Steam in the early part of 2010. Like Sega Superstars Tennis, the expanded Sega character universe was invited for the party (except for NiGHTS, inexplicably). Also like Tennis, All-Stars Racing is very fun, despite being clearly a Sega-themed Mario Kart clone. It is another game that is good to entertain a group that has consumed one too many drinks and now everyone is aspiring to be the next Dale Earnhardt. Since Sega was continuing to lack innovation, 2010 was also marked with the release of the DS-exclusive Sonic Classic Collection, a packaging of ROMs of the famous Genesis games and their Lock-On brethren. The added bonus of a save feature for Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 allowed players to stop and start at their leisure. This was a useful addition for the on-the-go gaming implicit in the nature of the portable hardware. Still, the franchise needed a jolt of monumental proportions. It got that jolt on September 9, 2009.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
The moment that Sonic 4 was announced on the tenth anniversary of the Dreamcast’s launch, fans were agog. Some praised this as the Second Coming while others swore that this was Sonic Team’s most hubristic project to date. Honestly, I was not caught up in the hype either way, but I never understood the particular hostility to the idea of the game being called Sonic 4 when it was attempting to be Sonic’s own New Super Mario Bros. Apparently the idea of putting that number implied it was every bit as polished as the trilogy that preceded it. That was too much for some people to bear.
The hype was real. Ken Balough, a brand manager for Sega, promised the fans that there would be a focus on the old-school gameplay of 2D Sonic games. At the beginning of 2010, Sega began blogging its development of what was then titled “Project Needlemouse.” Sega hosted competitions to excite the fan base and showed limited concept art that was highly reminiscent of the original Genesis trilogy. The game was delayed from the middle of the year until the fall. A leak of the game revealed, despite all of Sega’s promises, that the game did not exactly follow the Genesis games’ physics, chagrining some older fans. In fact, the game relied on the Sonic Rush engine. From there, all went downhill. The game had a plastic look to it. Its sound was highly compressed and had hideous instrumentation. The level design was clearly influenced by Dimps (i.e. bouncing along with chained homing attacks over the air), which co-developed the game. In all, Sonic 4 failed to live up to the high bar set by its predecessors, especially with the fact that there was episodic gameplay. Episode I took a critical battering and plans for a quick release for Episode II were hastily delayed.
Sonic 4 was not the kind of lightning rod Sega needed and moved on. In an effort to keep rolling out nostalgia, Sega re-released Sonic Adventure through XBLA, PSN, and Steam that year. A month after Episode I of Sonic 4 came out, Sonic Team released Sonic Colors on the Wii and DS. Again, Nintendo console owners got the better end of the bargain because Colors was generally received favorably. In essence, the Wii version was Unleashed minus the Werehog, a proposition acceptable to just about everyone. At this time, Sonic also underwent a voice actor change. Jason Griffith, who had been voicing Sonic since about 2005, was replaced by Roger Craig Smith, known as Chris Redfield from the Resident Evil series. Indeed, the 4Kids voice actors, with the exception of Mike Pollock, were entirely replaced with new actors around this time. While perhaps not as momentous an occasion as the Sonic Team Unplugged concert of 2004 or that same year’s sight of Sega merging with Japanese pachinko conglomerate Sammy, the change in VAs ostensibly signified that Sega was trying to unburden itself of its past (bad voice acting had also consistently been a criticism of the games for several years). This made for a way better release than the horrific third installment in the Riders series, Sonic Free Riders. That game was an attempt to cash in on the motion controls of the Xbox 360’s Kinect, an idea that was just as bad as we all knew it would be. By contrast, Colors presented with polish and was written by the minds behind Happy Tree Friends (though I can’t imagine why Sega was looking for that, especially since Iizuka wanted to draw in Mario fans). The DS version bore a stronger resemblance to the Rush series. All told, the Metacritic and GameRanking scores for Sonic Colors placed in the very high 70s, a far sight better than other games of the past years.
At long, long last, a mainstream Sonic game was received quite favorably across the board. The only question now was how to capitalize on that momentum going into 2011. After all, that was the year that Sonic was turning the big two-oh. Failure was not an option.