Few gaming mascots have seen the drastic transition that Sonic the Hedgehog has suffered in the past two decades. At one time he was the influential face of a Sega that not only stood toe to toe with Nintendo for many years but even managed to steal countless loyal Mario fans. In the end we know that Nintendo was the one that survived as a hardware company, but back then it was impossible to predict which of the two giants would go strictly third-party.
Those of us that grew up during that time are the ones who still have trouble believing just how far Sonic has strayed from relevance. Now one of the many punchlines in the gaming industry, gamers rarely expect the next Sonic game to be any good. Instead, fans of the blue hedgehog simply find themselves hoping and praying that the next game doesn’t suck as much as the last one.
So how did the once-dominant Sega mascot go from leading the charge against Nintendo to a consistent let-down?
The Blue Blur Arrives
Before getting to when things started getting slippery for the iconic character, we can’t help but go back to his impacting arrival onto the gaming scene. After all, those of us that remember the heated Nintendo vs Sega rivalry know that it was possibly some of the best years the industry had ever seen. Today’s competitive spirit between Microsoft and Sony is certainly hot, but it doesn’t hold a candle to when the two biggest Japanese game companies were duking it out.
It all started when Sega realized just how important Mario was to Nintendo. Not only was he a likable and unique character but the games he starred in always served as some of the best experiences available. Not only did they want a mascot to serve as the face of Sega; they wanted one that would make Mario look lame.
This attitude is what led to the birth of Sonic the Hedgehog, a cool-looking character that had plenty of attitude and enough speed to make Mario look like, well, an overweight plumber. Sega constantly pushed this idea in their marketing, making sure gamers saw Sonic as an awesome fast-footed character that made Mario games seem slow and childish.
Of course, it also helped that Sonic’s first game on the Genesis proved to be a fun, must-play experience. Never before could players zoom across a stage with so much speed, all while zipping through loops and spinning through enemies. Fast, vibrant, and full of charm, Sonic the Hedgehog was exactly what Sega needed to challenge the red-wearing plumber representing the competition.
From Face to Franchise
Even before another game arrived, Sonic began appearing on just about anything you could think of. Through television cartoons, toys, and even a float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Sonic dashed into the spotlight as a global icon. More than just a cool character, the blue hedgehog became an extensive media franchise that to this day still exists, most notably the new cartoon series Sonic Boom.
By the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3 came out, the Sega Genesis was selling twice as much as the SNES, resulting in the first time that Nintendo didn’t stand atop the console market in nearly 15 years.
Both games were also well received as they both improved on the original by adding more characters, gameplay elements, and graphical enhancements. Followed by Sonic & Knuckles, Sega was doing so well that they failed to realize just how damaging the next few decisions would be.
Speeding Toward A Slippery Slope
Seeing as Sonic was making Sega ridiculous amounts of money, the Japanese company did what most businesses would do — put their mascot on everything, fast.
This led to several poorly-received titles that lacked the polished gameplay that made the main Sonic games fun. This includes spin-offs like Knuckles Chaotix, educational games like Sonic’s Schoolhouse, racing game Sonic R, and many others.
Opting for quantity instead of quality, gamers began losing trust in the Sonic name as disappointment after disappointment arrived on their consoles.
Sega even made the exact same mistake with their Game Gear, starting with solid titles like ports of Sonic 1 and 2 only to follow it up with mediocre games like Tails Sky Patrol and Sonic Drift. The slow but steady loss of interest in the blue hedgehog would only be the start of what would result in a terrible transition to 3D.
Sonic Stumbles Into 3D
Maintaining faith in their powerful mascot, Sega used Sonic Adventure as the title that would help sell their new console – the Dreamcast. Although not as impressive or polished as Nintendo’s own Super Mario 64, it was met with positive reviews despite the glaring camera and control problems. It was clear that reviewers and gamers alike were so anxious for a good 3D Sonic game that they proved forgiving despite Sonic Adventure being a relatively poor experience.
Instead of getting vast improvements and more Sonic-focused action, Dreamcast owners got Sonic Adventure 2. Not only was it just as glitchy as the last game but now you had to play terrible, slow-paced levels as Knuckles and Tails. Despite having decent Sonic/Shadow levels and offering the enjoyable Chaos Garden, Sega once again proved that perhaps Sonic just isn’t cut out for speeding through 3D worlds.
Spinning Into 3rd Party Irrelevance
Many reasons could be said as to why the Dreamcast failed, forcing Sega to step out of the hardware race. The fact that Sonic failed to sell the system the way he did with previous consoles is up there on the list, especially when strong competitors like Xbox and PlayStation were gaining momentum. Sonic would still continue serving as the title character for many more games, but things didn’t get any better.
Sonic Heroes arrived in 2003 on every major platform only to show that Sega still didn’t know how to use Sonic in 3D. The game was far from terrible, often feeling as fast and fun as the original 2D games. But the same problem Sega has had and will continue having was evident in Sonic Heroes: questionable gameplay decisions and an abysmal camera.
Although not starring the blue hedgehog, Shadow the Hedgehog came next and offered more poorly-executed gameplay and camera controls. More spin-offs like Sonic Riders and cringe-worthy main entries like 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Unleashed have turned Sega’s mascot into a joke among gamers. The Sonic Advance trilogy for Nintendo’s GBA were the closest thing we’d get to the original fast-paced 2D gameplay we first fell in love with.
Still No Signs Of Change
It is now the year 2014 and so far only two of the last few games in the Sonic series have been well-received: Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations. Both of these were the closest Sega has ever been to implementing interesting twists while also providing a satisfying, fast-paced Sonic experience. Other than those two, we’ve seen highly criticized entries like Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic Lost World, and the recent Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.
Will Sonic ever rise to the top again where he stood during the 1990s? Probably not. Even so, plenty of us are still hoping that Sega turns things around and finally figures out how to consistently develop good 3D Sonic games. Instead, it looks like the Japanese developer would rather rinse and repeat a recipe that has rarely worked for them – add other playable characters besides Sonic, a new yet poorly-executed gameplay mechanic, and fail to fix camera problems and glitches.