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Sonic the Hedgehog, Bursting Through Obstacles

This week, we cross from Nintendo to Sega, picking up the chronicle of everyone’s favorite hedgehog.


A sports argument as old as sports themselves is the “peak vs. longevity” argument. Such an argument—how does a short period of utter dominance (If you’re into American Football, think of Kurt Warner’s peaks) compare to a sustained period of near-excellence—can also apply to certain video game mascots. While Mario gets the credit—and rightfully so—as the mascot who saved American console gaming, it’s the main character in today’s series who, at his peak, may have been even more influential to video gaming and the companies who made them. 

In 1991, the NES was still the ruler of the American video game landscape. The Sega Genesis was gaining ground, and Nintendo had its successor system in the works, but the NES was still on top. Other competing systems, such as the Turbo-Grafx 16 and its associated CD unit, failed to make headway in the American market. But while the Genesis was surviving, it didn’t have a killer game, one that would make kids beg their parents for a Genesis. 

A New Challenger Appears

Enter Sonic the Hedgehog

A note here: unlike the previous two entries, this won’t be a comprehensive blow-by-blow breakdown of every game in the Sonic series. Instead, I’ll be hitting the highest highs and the lowest lows in the Sonic catalog. As we’ll see, the blue hedgehog has had plenty of both [ 1 ].

Don’t blink is right. This supersonic hedgehog was a late-comer to the mascot game, and evolved by leaps and bounds.

Sega’s marketing strategy for pretty much the entirety of the Genesis’ lifespan was to point out its superiority to Nintendo’s offerings (see a glimpse of the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign [ 2 ]), or just outright insult Nintendo and its fans (one commercial [ 3 ] depicted a dog unable to tell the difference between the Game Boy and Game Gear; the narration stated: “If you were colorblind and had an IQ of less than 12, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either!”). Sonic the Hedgehog was no different. Sonic was advertised as the “cooler, hipper” alternative to Mario, with a speed that the plumber couldn’t hope to match. The game’s early loop-the-loops and trampolines served as further contrast between Sonic and Mario—Sonic could run faster, spring higher, and even destroy some walls by spinning like a buzz-saw while traveling fast enough.

The advertising worked. For the first time since the release of the NES, Nintendo had a true rival. Sega had a mascot that could go toe-to-toe with Mario for the hearts and minds of the kids of America, and crucially, other companies had a blueprint for creating a mascot of their own.

Haruki Satomi, James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Jeff Fowler and Toby Ascher at the premiere of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ held at Paramount Theatre in Hollywood USA on January 25, 2020.

Earlier, I mentioned “peak vs. longevity.” Not even Mario was responsible for a flood of copycats the likes of which followed Sonic the Hedgehog’s success. A huge number of companies came out with their own “animal with attitude” mascot in the wake of Sonic’s popularity. To name but a few, Accolade gave us Bubsy the Bobcat (complete with snarky voice samples between levels), while Twilight’s more overtly cartoonish take yielded Alfred Chicken. Aero the Acro-Bat (and his rival, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel) came from Iguana Entertainment. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Crash Bandicoot, though he’s a unique case: Originally developed by Naughty Dog, he was adopted as Sony’s mascot during the PS1 era. Over the years, his rights have passed through the hands of a number of companies, including but not limited to Traveller’s Tales, Vicarious Visions, and Toys for Bob.

Sonic Twosday

With the runaway success of Sonic—thanks in part to becoming the pack-in game for the Genesis—there are more copies of Sonic the Hedgehog in circulation than any other Genesis game. A sequel was inevitable, and in the U.S. and Europe, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 graced store shelves on Nov. 24, 1992—“Sonic Twosday.”

In a time where release dates are known to the internet seemingly years in advance, it may be hard to understand how big of a deal Sonic Twosday actually was if you weren’t there. In late 1992, though, it was a minor miracle if a video game consumer could narrow down a release date to within a month or two with the help of video game magazines. Knowing the exact day a game would come out, and having an advertising campaign based around it? That simply didn’t happen… except, for Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it did.

Sega was never like Nintendo in experimenting with the second game of their series. As such, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is more of the same gameplay that was featured in the first game, with a bit of a twist. A new move had been added, the spindash. By crouching and then hitting a button, Sonic (or a new character, Miles “Tails” Prower) would spin in place. Releasing down on the control pad would send Sonic zooming forward. This helped the game feel even faster than the first, as you can now get up to speed anywhere instead of needing a long straightaway or downward slope to do so.

Anything but Humble—Sonic’s beginnings as a “rival” to Mario, on the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis.

The introduction of Tails allowed for something it would take the Mario series much longer to introduce a limited form of two-player cooperative play. When playing as “Sonic and Tails,” Tails would typically copy Sonic’s movements. However, a second player could take control of Tails directly. Tails was effectively invincible and would always find his way back to Sonic, so Tails could be a big help, or a huge hindrance if the person controlling him so chooses (e.g., by hitting a boss at exactly the wrong time, causing Sonic to fall through it and to his death). There’s also a two-player split-screen competitive mode that seems to be added as an afterthought or an advertising feature. Instead of properly proportioning the two play fields, Sega just vertically compressed the single-player screen by 50 percent to get two of them to fit. The gameplay of this mode was also a bit strange; speed was only one of five factors used in determining who wins a given stage.

Another element introduced in Sonic 2 is Super Sonic. The basic plot of most of the Sonic series can be boiled down to “Dr. Robotnik (or “Dr. Eggman” as he’s now known) trying to steal the Chaos Emeralds, and Sonic has to stop him.” Whereas collecting all the Emeralds in the first Sonic just changed the ending a bit, getting them in Sonic 2 and then jumping when you have 50 rings (the Sonic version of Mario’s coins) turns you into an invincible golden warrior who can run faster and jump higher. The drawback is that this form drains your rings at a rate of one per second and is harder to control.

Sonic 3: Almost Complete

Sonic 2, much like the first Sonic, was a resounding success, selling in excess of 6 million copies including pack-in games. As Sonic 2 went bigger than the first game, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would try to go larger still and succeed almost too well. Indeed, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is literally half a game.

Much like Sonic Twosday, Sonic 3 would get its own promoted release day. This one, Feb. 2, 1994, would be known as Hedgehog Day, a play on Groundhog Day. Sonic 3 introduced another new character, Knuckles the Echidna. Robotnik has conned Knuckles into thinking Sonic is the bad guy, and as such, he’ll periodically show up to get in your way. Other than that, the gameplay is the same formula as the first two games. Sonic runs, jumps, and spin-dashes his way through 12 levels—six zones with two acts each—to defeat Dr. Robotnik. Once again, collecting all the Chaos Emeralds and getting 50 rings unlocks Super Sonic. This time though, you have to hit the jump button twice to activate him, giving you more control over when and where he’s unleashed. This seemingly small change is a huge improvement over Sonic 2’s method, where you were at the mercy of the terrain in terms of activating Sonic, causing him to go Super at times when it was sub-optimal. The method of “press a button twice to activate” alleviates this issue. 

In addition, playing as Tails by himself in Sonic 3 is a different experience. Instead of just being a clone of Sonic as he was when played in Sonic 2, Tails can fly and swim. This opens up some interesting routes in some levels at the cost of a bit of the raw speed of the Sonic routes. In Sonic and Tails mode, Tails can also grab Sonic and lift him up to higher places Sonic wouldn’t be able to get to on his own. 

Sonic 3’s levels are bigger than Sonic 2’s, which is offset somewhat by being able to save your game at the start of a given Zone. Yet close observation reveals that something is off—the total of 12 levels is lower than that in either of the first two Sonics. More tellingly, when you use the hidden stage select code, the screen reveals several Zones that aren’t in the game. Yes, it turns out that Sonic 3 was rushed to market before it was finished. People who complain about unfinished games being released today would do well to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. Sega would remedy this in a unique way.

Sonic and Knuckles: Two Make One

Later in 1994, Sonic & Knuckles was released. This title ditches the save system and forces you to select either Sonic or Knuckles from the outset. Knuckles doesn’t jump as high as Sonic but can glide and climb walls. This again leads to him taking different paths through the levels. Similarly, the game is short—Knuckles in particular has a total of nine levels. But the most unique part of Sonic and Knuckles is the cartridge itself. Sega advertised the game as having “Lock-On Technology” [ 4 ]. What this meant was that the game’s top would retract, revealing a slot you could attach another Genesis game into. As it turns out, attaching Sonic 3 to Sonic & Knuckles yields a massive game, Sonic 3 & Knuckles. After playing through Sonic 3, the game immediately launches into the Sonic & Knuckles part. Additionally, Knuckles is now playable from the start of the game and opting to do so opens up new routes in the Sonic 3 half, further betraying that game’s unfinished state. There are other modifications too, there’s a second set of Emeralds in the Sonic & Knuckles half: Super Emeralds. Collecting these unlocks a second form of Sonic, Hyper Sonic, which can go even faster and jump even higher, and can also kill all enemies on the screen by pressing a button. Tails also gets a Super form using the Super Emeralds, and Knuckles gains both Super and Hyper forms as well.

The saves provided in Sonic 3 & Knuckles are welcome, since the levels themselves are huge. For the first time in the series, the 10-minute time limit becomes a legitimate concern in several stages. The levels are almost too big and unwieldy at points, even taking into account the branching paths of Sonic vs. Tails vs. Knuckles. 

Sonic Enters the Disc World

Meanwhile, companies, including Sega, still hadn’t fully embraced CD technology. The Turbo-Grafx CD, an add-on to the Turbo-Grafx 16, was a non-starter in the U.S. (in part because the TG-16 itself was relatively obscure compared to the Genesis or Nintendo’s offerings), and while the Sega CD had a number of decent games, most of them could be summed up as “it’s really a cartridge game but with CD music.” This didn’t stop Sega from putting its flagship character on it. Sonic CD is a Sonic game with CD music and some fascinating opening/closing cut scenes. The game itself revolves around time travel; each level has a past, present, and future version. You begin in the present and can travel back and forth between the three times via signposts in the levels. The basic gameplay is “get to the end of the level.” The true way to save the world, though, is to go back to the past in each level and destroy a machine, which results in that level having a “good future.” Getting all the “good futures,” either by following this method, or by collecting all seven Time Stones (which replace the Chaos Emeralds) will automatically result in a “good future.” Because each level has three time periods, Sonic CD is one of the larger games in terms of material to explore, though if you’re just trying to finish it, you can skip at least two thirds of that material.

The other interesting bit of trivia regarding Sonic CD is that its soundtrack is completely different in Japan versus the U.S. As one example, the U.S. opening cut-scene theme was “Sonic Boom” [ 5 ], while Japan got a song called “You Can Do Anything” [ 6 ], though the song is commonly called “Toot Toot Sonic Warrior,” after its chorus. Either way, Sonic CD was regarded as one of the best 2-D Sonics for quite a while.

Sonic Enters the Third Dimension

But of course, as Mario went 3-D, Sonic naturally had to follow. As Super Mario 64 was the Nintendo 64’s killer launch title, Sonic Adventure would be the Dreamcast’s. In this title, you’re once again trying to stop Robotnik from taking the Chaos Emeralds. This time around, he wants to feed them to a being called Chaos, who can effectively be a God of Destruction when fully powered with the Emeralds.

Sonic Adventure adds a number of new characters to play. Besides the three from Sonic 3 and Knuckles, you have Amy Rose, who has a bit of a psychotic crush on Sonic and uses her giant hammer to combat things; E-102 Gamma, a robot who thinks he’s saving people and things even as he destroys them; and most infamously Big the Cat, who wants to find his friend Froggy, and turns everything into a fishing simulator in his quest to do so (his focus on his quest to find Froggy is also admirable as he keeps his eye on the prize, even as Robotnik is attempting to destroy the world). You begin the game as Sonic and, by completing levels as him, unlock the other characters. Each character has its own path through the game and levels to play, although some overlap.

Rail-riding in Pristine HD. Sonic continues to wreak havoc, now on the Nintendo Switch.

While you can simply get through the levels to beat Sonic Adventure, if you decide to do more, you’ll spot that the game has its own take on Mario 64’s Star collection. Each level has three Emblems to collect—typically, one will be “beat the stage,” another will be “beat the stage with a certain number of rings,” and the third will be “beat the stage quickly.” There are also hidden Emblems in the “overworld” to collect. 

Sonic Adventure was well-received, and would get a director’s cut version, Sonic Adventure DX. A sequel, Sonic Adventure 2, would follow. Meanwhile, for those who wanted their Sonic in only two dimensions, there was Sonic Advance, a three-game series for the Game Boy Advance. These games come closer to the gameplay of the Genesis Sonic games, down to collecting the Chaos Emeralds in bonus stages. 

Dark Times for Sonic

Sonic’s 15th anniversary was in 2006, and Sega had planned a huge blowout of Sonic goodness for it. What actually came out was a one-two punch that the series is still, in some ways, struggling to live down. First were the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, which fans call Sonic 2006. The title is a 3-D game that is, charitably, a mess. The plot involves a human princess named Elise, and Sonic’s efforts to protect her. The gameplay uses the Havok physics engine, although its main use is in various puzzles. Its application seems to be “we paid for the license to this engine and by golly we’re gonna use it!” The gameplay is buggy in the extreme. For example: Sonic has an energy bar that doesn’t seem to relate to anything. The game was negatively received, although Play Magazine gave the Xbox 360 version a 9.5 out of 10, based on Sega’s word that the problems in the review copy would be fixed. They weren’t; the PlayStation 3 version received a 5.5 out of 10 from the same publication; it’s arguable that even that was too high. 

The second 2006 debacle for Sonic was Sonic Genesis, a re-release of the first game for the Game Boy Advance. While the game includes a level select and the ability to save by default, it also runs slowly, which is the kiss of death to a Sonic game. The music is also remixed, poorly. To accommodate the GBA screen, the screen is also zoomed in a bit, making it more difficult to see oncoming obstacles.

A few years after this, Sonic Unleashed was released. This title features two styles of gameplay. In the daytime levels, the game plays much like Sonic’s levels in Sonic Adventure. The nighttime levels involve Sonic turning into a Werehog, and these are more 3-D brawler-esque, with a jazzy score accompanying combat. The daytime levels were positively received, while the nighttime levels got a more mixed reception.

In 2010, two more Sonic games were released. After Sonic 2006 and Unleashed, the Sonic fanbase was excited for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. Here was a 2-D game that, it was thought, would restore the Sonic franchise to respectability. It was accordingly shocking when Sonic 4 came and went without much fanfare—indeed, while Sonic 4 Episode 2 was released in 2012, a planned third episode was canceled. Instead, Sonic Colors, a Wii/DS game that came out around the same time as Sonic 4 (and that the fanbase regarded as something of an afterthought), was the Sonic game that people loved, featuring (On the Wii) a mixture of third-person and side-scrolling perspectives. Allies called Wisps lent Sonic special powers, letting him reach areas he otherwise couldn’t access.

Sonic Turns 20

Sonic’s 20th anniversary would go much better than his 15th, with Sonic Generations being a fun mash-up of various games from the series, from the original Sonic up through Sonic Colors. Each area is played as both Classic Sonic, who has side-scrolling 2-D gameplay, a la the Genesis Sonics, and Modern Sonic, which plays closer to the Sonic Adventure and other 3-D Sonic games. 

In late 2014, two games with the name Sonic Boom were released—Rise of Lyric on the Wii U, and Shattered Crystal for the 3DS. The former is a Sonic 2006-esque debacle, as it took less than a day for people to discover a glitch that allowed you to skip most of the game. Shattered Crystal had marginally better programming, but neither game was well received, with Metro.co.uk calling Rise of Lyric “Definitely the worst game of 2014” [ 7 ].

As Mario’s main rival through the console wars of the 1990s, Sonic has had some incredible highs and some devastating lows. The games discussed here are but a sample; there were also 8-bit Sega Master System/Game Gear versions of Sonic 1 and 2, Sonic Spinball, a pinball game featuring Sonic, and the Sonic Rush series on DS, to name a few more games that weren’t covered here. However, even as Sonic games and their performance has certainly fluctuated over the decades, fans of the spinning blue hedgehog have stuck by their favorite Sega mascot through thick and thin, showing that it takes more than a few bad games to burn the goodwill created by this iconic game series. If anything, the live-action Sonic films can attest to the Blue Streak’s longevity and enduring popularity.

Images

  1. “Don’t blink is right. This supersonic hedgehog was a late-comer to the mascot game, and evolved by leaps and bounds.” Game Selection. 2017. Free-Images.com. 
  2. “Haruki Satomi, James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Jeff Fowler and Toby Ascher at the premiere of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ held at Paramount Theatre in Hollywood USA on January 25, 2020.”
  3. “Anything but Humble—Sonic’s beginnings as a ‘rival’ to Mario, on the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis.” Screenshot. Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega. 23 Jun 1991.
  4. “Rail-riding in Pristine HD. Sonic continues to wreak havoc, now on the Nintendo Switch.” Screenshot. Sonic: Colors. Sega. 11 Nov 2010.

Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.

Resources

  1. “The Ultimate And 100% True Chronological Timeline For The Sonic The Hedgehog Franchise: Updated and Expanded 2017 Edition.” Edited by Jacky, SSMB, Sonic Stadium, 23 Jan. 2017, board.sonicstadium.org/topic/21795-the-ultimate-and-100-true-chronological-timeline-for-the-sonic-the-hedgehog-franchise-updated-and-expanded-2017-edition/.
  2. Saberspark. “What RUINED Sega? — The Fall of an Empire.” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Dec. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH7R2PEvzXo.
  3. Wesley, David T. A., and Gloria Barczak. Innovation and Marketing in the Video Game Industry: Avoiding the Performance Trap. Gower, 2016.
  4. “Lock-On Technology.” Sega Retro, Backwards Compatible, segaretro.org/Lock-On_Technology.
  5. Anon7906. “Sonic CD [Sega CD] Opening Sonic Boom NA Version.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Dec. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIWYU3xDcFw.
  6. Anon7906. “Sonic CD (Mega CD) Opening You Can Do Anything JAP-EUR Version.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Dec. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_HqRTYzQ58.
  7. Jenkins, David. “Game Review: Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric Is the Worst Sonic Yet.” Metro, Metro.co.uk, 21 May 2015, metro.co.uk/2014/11/25/sonic-boom-rise-of-lyric-review-fall-of-a-hedgehog-4961816/.