Sonic is about as recognizable as video game characters get. Even now, decades since the first game, that blue hedgehog is second only to Mario when it comes to being almost universally well-known. But Sega’s classic mascot has had a much rockier ride than Nintendo’s celebrated plumber. The years have not been kind: despite the fact that there has been a near-constant stream of Sonic titles released over the last 25 years, only a handful since the original Genesis title could really be described as great. In fact — and this is perhaps the most telling truth about how the series has been treated — far more of the Sonic games released in that period have actively been described as downright dreadful.
In his recent comments to GameCentral, Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka appears to be indicating that Sonic’s future as a franchise hinges very much on the success of the upcoming Sonic Mania, Sega’s latest attempt to recapture the magic they once had. His allusion to figuring out “the direction of future titles after seeing the reaction [to Sonic Mania]” indicates in no uncertain terms that Sonic is reaching a crossroads, with the very future of the series seemingly at stake.
It’s a far cry from the glory days. When Sonic The Hedgehog dropped on the Genesis in 1991, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. One minute the world had one major platform gaming star (the aforementioned mustachioed plumber), and then, in a sudden blaze of speed and vivid color, it had two. The instant fanbase and universal acclaim the game acquired was justified: its action packed, speed-focused gameplay was incredible, and, perhaps most importantly, served as the perfect counterpoint to Mario’s more thoughtful puzzle-platforming and deliberate pace. Sonic brought springs and checkpoints and the idea of momentum: concepts that would become staples over time. When the original game’s sequel arrived a year later, bringing an even faster pace, some of the series’ most memorable levels (Casino Night Zone, anyone?) and Sonic’s beloved mutant fox pal, Tails (the first in a long line of sidekicks), it cemented the series’ status in the pantheon of truly great side-scrolling platformers.
The arrival of these two opposing characters was a huge catalyst for the console wars, with fans on both sides swearing their favorite was the best. The fact was, and still is, each game series in those early days had its own very different but equally valid merits. Gamers with any sense overlooked petty rivalries, and if they could, played both.
No long after that came the wilderness years. Though the sequels that came in the following few years were well received at the time, looking back (and without the effects of nostalgia), few recaptured the truly revolutionary feel of those original games. At the turn of the century, Sonic Adventure marked the series’ first foray in true 3D, and, though lauded at the time, it really hasn’t aged well. In fact, perhaps its grandest legacy was its most unfortunate: despite premiering on the doomed Dreamcast, the game was successful enough to allow Sega to justify transitioning Sonic into a primarily 3D-centric series.
After that, Sonic limped along for a time when dedicated fans knew the best games were the handful of 2D platformers tucked away on the Game Boy Advance. At the same time, the numerous side-game and spin on off concepts that had always been part of the Sonic franchise since the early days had begun to take over. Suddenly there were no mainline Sonic titles as such, just guff like Sonic Pinball Party and Sonic Battle. While it’s true these weren’t great; the bad times were still to come. Sonic Riders, Sonic Unleashed, and the much maligned Shadow the Hedgehog came in the mid-naughties, and continued to destroy the series’ credibility, warping it into something it was never intended to be (especially in the case of Shadow — a sonic game with guns? Really?).
The confusingly named Sonic the Hedgehog, the game designed to get the series back on track by both wiping the slate clean and evoking memories of the still fondly remembered (for some reason) Sonic Adventure games, was released in 2006 in a broken and unplayable state. It was a catastrophe that few people noticed. Because the biggest tragedy was that the series wasn’t relevant anymore.
Of course, that wasn’t the end. Since that rock-bottom moment, there has been no shortage of Sonic releases. There have even been some glimmers of hope: Sonic Colors was fine, and Sonic Generations had some good ideas. But there was nothing of real note, no memorable successes. It almost felt like the series was running out of steam.
Then Sega announced Sonic Mania at its Sonic 25th Anniversary Event during San Diego Comic-Con in 2016. The game aims to emulate the exact look and feel of the Genesis originals. After a quarter of a century and a series of failed promises, this time it genuinely did seem that the Japanese publishers were looking to wipe the slate clean and go back to their roots.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: everything rests on this game, and on the willingness of fans to go back to a series and a style of game they may not have encountered for many years. There needs to be enough demand for a game that is, by its nature, unoriginal. Whether it’s actually any good is almost irrelevant.
But this game’s impending release isn’t the only factor at play here. Because Sonic Mania wasn’t the only game to be announced at that 25th-anniversary event.
No. There is another.
Sonic Team, have a patchy history, having been involved in some of the best and worst games in Sonic’s history. Now they’re making Sonic Forces, another 3D Sonic game that looks just as derivative as Mania, but without the nostalgia to trade on. Or, frankly, the charm. Prepare to get excited, Shadow fans, because your favorite Hedgehog is back! (Seriously, though, if you are a fan of Shadow the Hedgehog, please tweet me. I’d be fascinated to hear why). Oh, and now you can create a custom playable character! You know, like you can in other games that are around now. Yuk.
With Forces, Sega may have scuppered the chances of a series revival before it’s even started by reminding gamers of the terrible (and lengthy) trend of 3D mediocrity that was the norm in the all too recent past.
Sonic Mania needs to gather together enough goodwill and popularity while operating under the unenviable shadow of the pedestrian-looking Forces. Sadly, this feat may be beyond the powers of a little side-scrolling platformer, even one representing a once acclaimed series. Let’s say the game is great: will it truly be enough to revive an entire franchise? I hope so, but I worry that for this plucky young challenger, things don’t look good.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.