Last time on the Sonic twenty-fifth anniversary retrospective, thrills, chills, and spills! And now, the thrilling conclusion, just in time for Sonic’s 25th birthday!
2011-2013: Everything Old Is New Again
Sonic turned 20 years old in 2011. It had been two decades since the Blue Blur first burst onto the video game scene in a wild rush of 16-bit attitude and Blast Processing. Much had changed in those twenty years, including the people behind the scenes, the places where Sonic was seen, and the style of the games. Yet for all of the change that was happening, there was a distinct undercurrent, one that had been present for a long period of time among Sonic fans: the good old days were better. Whether or not this nostalgic longing for the Genesis days was well-founded, there was little argument that there was a distinct clamor for a return to basic form for the Hedgehog. The 2011 release of OverClocked Remix’s twenty-fifth album, The Sound of Speed, was indicative of just that: a desire among fans to see the old halcyon days of Sonic running circles around his competitors.
Sonic Team appeared to be listening. 2011 was a defining year for Sonic. Very few video game icons were still going after 20 years, and most of them were Nintendo properties. Sonic Team marked the year with the release of Sonic Generations for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 late in 2011. The premise behind the game was a celebration of the past 20 years of Sonic’s history by playing levels resembling iconic past levels of prior games, such as Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Speed Highway, and Rooftop Run. This game also dared to break the pattern set back in 1999 with Sonic Adventure by having the final boss actually be Doctor Robotnik and not just some monster that he unleashed. Overall, I liked Sonic Generations and so did critics as a general rule, scoring in the high 70s on GameRankings and Metacritic. A separate version was also released for the Nintendo 3DS. However, it was clear that the 3DS version was inferior and the HD version released for console and computer, while the stronger piece of software, sold principally on nostalgia. Despite attempts at witty dialogue, Generations was not big on plot or even on extensive gameplay in the form of being Sonic as Sonic. A sizeable chunk of the game was dedicated to side missions that allowed the player to unlock music, artwork, and other goodies. Enjoyable as the game was, it was clearly the kind of trick that could only be pulled once – even if getting Naoto Ohshima, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and Yuji Naka in the same room again to celebrate the twentieth anniversary was every old-school fan’s dream come true. By comparison, the release of Mario and Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games late that year was almost an afterthought.
Interestingly, 2011 was punctuated by another tribute to the nostalgic fans: the re-release of Sonic CD on Steam, Android/iOS, PSN, and XBLA. Unlike other iterations of Sonic CD, this version was completely built from the ground up by Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead, who, with Simon “Stealth” Thornley, built a proprietary engine called the Retro Engine on which this new iteration of Sonic CD ran. Whitehead even came up with an original design for the level Final Fever. This spectacular work attracted the attention of Sega, which joined with Whitehead. Ultimately, the original designs that Whitehead created for Final Fever were scrapped but several other additions, such as playing with Tails, were added to this enhanced remake. Sega released the new Sonic CD in December 2011 to rave reviews, scoring a 93% aggregate on Metacritic. This was significantly more successful than the Japanese-only release of Sonic Advance for iOS that same year.
Following the powerful final note of 2011, there was something of a lull in 2012 for Sonic. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed came out early in the year as a sequel to 2010’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing. The game featured a significantly expanded roster, including the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph (a movie in which Doctor Robotnik had a brief cameo), and Danica Patrick. One might very well have imagined that Sonic was back in the spotlight with much more favorable press than in past years and his presence in a variety of unexpected places like in a commercial for Progressive auto insurance (because that is how I know which insurer I want). 2012 also saw the release of Episode II of Sonic 4, which, unsurprisingly, did not strike the same chord with fans that Generations did. An additional episode, Episode Metal, was released the same year. Lastly, Sonic Jump was released for Android/iOS. A very simple mobile game, Jump was actually a remake of a 2005 mobile phone game with the same name and it was well-received among critics. In addition, 2012 saw the release of Temporal Duality by OverClocked Remix. This album featured veterans of the other Sonic OCR albums and focused on Sonic CD as its inspiration. Thus, notwithstanding Sonic 4: Episode II, 2011 and 2012 appeared to be a sign that Sonic was back.
Presumably Sega was eyeing its resources critically going into 2013. The company had more goodwill toward its mascot than it had in about a decade. Sega chose to remake Sonic 1 for Android/iOS devices and tapped Whitehead and Thornley to co-develop while also releasing the same game again on the 3DS as a 3D remake At the same time, Sonic Team and Dimps were putting the finishing touches on a project in the works since 2010. This new game was the result of a contract brokered between Sega and Nintendo for the latter to have exclusive publishing rights on three new Sonic games. Concept art of the first level drew immediate parallels for old-school fans to the fish-eye appearance of one of the many iterations of Sonic X-Treme. This new project again featured the Wisps from Sonic Colors and appeared to be much in the same vein as that game. However, the game was anything from annoying to outright vexatious with its seemingly capricious controls and frustrating level design. Oh yes, Dimps’s love of bottomless pits was made well known with the release of Sonic Lost World in 2013. Sonic Team published its version for the Wii U while Dimps published for the 3DS. Critics were unforgiving and Sonic Lost World was panned for its odd handling, gimmicky use of Nintendo hardware, and wildly alternating styles of gameplay. The release of Lost World brought an end to the so-called Boost Trilogy (Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Generations) and a lot of Sonic’s momentum in the gaming press. The release of Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games (try saying that three times fast) and the mobile game Sonic Dash did little to staunch the sudden hemorrhaging of Sonic’s popularity. Even the late 2013 re-release of Sonic 2 by Whitehead and Thornley for Android/iOS only served to suggest that Sega’s recent success with the Hedgehog was more accident than design and that people were not interested in the gimmicks when the basics would suffice.
If 2013 was a misstep, 2014 was a pratfall.
It was suddenly very hard again to be a Sonic fan in 2014. After years of scorn and derision by games journalists, Sonic had re-emerged into popular culture as a trendy figure again. It had become an “in” thing to bash Sonic for his remarkably swift fall from grace and an even more “in” thing to trash talk the fans, who were often characterized as furries, disaffected man-children still living in their parents’ basement, trashy fan-fic writers, and the majority of the deviantArt userbase. Of course, the bloviators of that opinion neglected to note that the reason bashing Sonic was even an option was because Sonic once had been a gold standard. Unlike, say, Jak and Daxter, which fell by the wayside into relative obscurity, Sonic was still popular, and it was only for that reason that the scathing criticism of the games journalists was at all relevant. The almost rabid hostility that some game journalists had for Sonic seemed to be aimless and pointless. Instead of redirected criticism at Sega and its developers, journalists were blaming fans for the decline of the franchise, the line of logic here somehow being that Sega was listening to its fans and giving the fans exactly what they wanted. While there were certainly very many things that fans may have wanted to see, almost nobody wanted what 2014 delivered: Sonic Boom.
Sonic Boom was part of an elaborate plan to reimagine Sonic once again. Concept art showed Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy with new designs. Fans immediately took poorly to this new redesign, commenting that Sonic had a Nathan Drake look to him with his scarf and wraps and that Knuckles looked like a steroid-filled yield sign. Sonic Boom came with two games at the end of 2014: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U and Shattered Crystal for the 3DS. Both were shot down as critical and commercial failures for being buggy, unplayable, and absolutely horrendous in every conceivable way. Everything about Sonic Boom‘s two games were rejected, and combined sales of the two titles did not even reach a million by mid-2015. Interestingly, Rise of Lyric was developed by Big Red Button, one of whose chief programmers on the project was Christian Senn, last seen languishing on the ashes of Sonic X-Treme. In addition to the two games, Sonic Boom also launched a new TV series under the same name. Despite the games being atrocious, the television show is seen as tolerable. Still, the shotgun blast of vitriol that the games took put the brakes on a sequel. Thus, the aforementioned contract between Sega and Nintendo for exclusive Nintendo Sonic titles must have left both companies stinging: between Sonic Lost World, Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and Sonic Boom, there were probably not enough fingers to be pointed at who should have been held responsible for these fiascoes.
2014 also saw the publishing of Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars and Sonic Jump Fever, a sequel to the mobile game Sonic Jump from 2012. Sega did not neglect to get Sonic some time in a more positive light this year by securing his return to the roster of smashers in Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U and 3DS. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Sonic had taken another nosedive in respectability. To date, Sonic Lost World remains the latest mainstream Sonic game, almost three years later.
2015-16: Dreams Are Eternal
Not that anyone really wanted to remember Sonic Lost World anyway, but it was released on Steam in 2015. Halfway through the year, Sega re-released Sonic 2 on the 3DS as a 3D remake, much like its predecessor in 2013. Sonic Runners, an endless-run game in the vein of Sonic Dash, came out in 2015 for Android/iOS. All in all, 2015 was a suspiciously quiet year, although that may have been the sting of hostility toward Sonic Boom making Sega recoil.
2016 will see the release of Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and, because you asked for it, Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice. Of course, 2016 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega and Sonic Team have been suspiciously mum about any celebratory game slated to come out this year. The absolute dearth of any word at all has led to the belief that Fire & Ice is that 25th anniversary game, in a tribute to watching something cool burn into ashes. But hey, at least there is a movie supposed to come out in 2018, produced by Sony Pictures (in no way ironic since the Sony PlayStation was the death knell for the Sega Saturn), that will be both animated and live-action; think the Warcraft movie with more fluorescent-colored animals. And that’s it. That is Sonic in 25 years and 9 retrospective posts.
Okay, so a bit of real talk here. If you have been reading this retrospective from start to finish, you’ll have noticed that the tone has shifted from a chronicling of historical events to a laundry list of criticisms. In part, that is because the early days of Sonic’s history are simply more interesting – even mythological – and the more recent times have been dull. It is also in part to the fact that what made Sonic Sonic is not even there anymore. Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima, and Hirokazu Yasuhara have all moved on, as have Tom Kalinske and the Sega of America crew. Mario still has Miyamoto, and one can imagine that Mario will still remain strong as long as he is paired with his creator. Time has not been kind to Sonic without the Big Three behind him. Furthermore, the fact that Sega trots out Sonic nearly every year to ensure some semblance of profits has done nothing to ensure standards.
Why all of this? What is the fundamental problem? Some will say that the focus has been too much on pleasing the fans. This vague line of attack is a blind shotgun blast of aimless criticism in a dank crater on the far side of the moon. At best, one may suppose that this complaint, at its core, is wondering aloud why in the world Sonic has ever been paired up with genies or talking swords. It is an entirely valid question, certainly. Sonic’s most recent forays have been gimmick-laden. Whereas older games built upon their predecessors’ mechanics (i.e. the introduction of the Spin Dash, the Super Peel-Out, and the Light Speed Dash), the main focus of Sonic games lately are gimmicks (i.e. the Werehog, Wisps, or just pure nostalgia). However, this is only a part of the problem. The Legend of Zelda series has also moved out of the realm of the conventional swords’n’sorcery setting at times, and sometimes to great critical acclaim (see The Wind Waker).
Some are apt to criticize the emphasis on speed over solid gameplay. However, we have to remember that Naka’s original focus was on making a game that would be faster than Super Mario Bros. It would be very short-sighted to downplay the importance of speed in the series. The very name Sonic evokes speed, as does the word by itself. To go at sonic speed is, obviously, pretty fast. So, speed is an essential element of what makes Sonic Sonic. With speed, however, comes a need for strong level design. In the 2D era of games, this was never quite an issue. The level design of 2D Sonic games were anywhere from competent to challenging to outright masterpieces. The ability to clear Emerald Hill Zone Act 1 in 29 seconds requires precision. In the transition to 3D, there is an entirely new dimension to consider, and the whole new horizon of opportunities to explore has also meant a whole new dimension of mistakes potentially to make. Mario, never having been a speed platformer, has never had to contend with this problem, which is why Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy are regarded as industry standards. Mario can move at his own pace without speed as a defining characteristic imposing some kind of demand on level design. With Sonic, that demand is omnipresent, but no one has much of an idea of how to do that. That has left Sonic Team to fill in the void with more linear level design in the third dimension than there ever was in only two dimensions. This has been a significant failing of Sonic Team to understand that scenery is for more than being a motion-blurred background (if you have ever stared hard at artwork up close of the Wii version of Sonic Unleashed, you will have seen how downright ugly it can look when not running past the scenery).
Respect for the franchise and the fans have both been sorely lacking in Sega’s recent treatment of Sonic the Hedgehog. The cynicism with which games have been cranked out had hitherto seen only a critical backlash of any significance, but with the pitiful sales of Sonic Lost World, it appears now that the backlash has become commercial as well. It speaks to a sad state of affairs for the world’s most famous hedgehog that his name is synonymous with video gaming, yet his video games have received universal panning even among inveterate fans. Sega would do well to heed the dissatisfaction of the consumers.
Sonic remains an industry icon and presumably shall remain so for another twenty-five years. It has been a thrill to race alongside him as a fan and be reminded of all those years ago when I first encountered his indomitable spirit and feisty, no-nonsense attitude. To quote Blake Harris, “Sonic embodied not only the spirit of Sega of America’s employees but also the cultural zeitgeist of the early nineties. He had captured Kurt Cobain’s ‘whatever’ attitude, Michael Jordan’s graceful arrogance, and Bill Clinton’s get-it-done demeanor.” That is why I, like so many today, wish the Blue Blur a happy twenty-fifth birthday.
Keep on running.