Sega’s Blue Blur was a whirlwind of excitement in the early 1990’s. Nintendo had a magical formula in the Super Mario Bros series and every other developer had their run and jump Mario clones. Sega on the other hand, took the platforming genre to the next level by taking advantage of their new Genesis console (and it’s infamous “Blast Processing“) to introduce a new blazing-fast rodent by the name of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Speed, however was not Sonic’s lone gimmick. The landmark series on the Genesis also introduced unique elements such as the then jaw-dropping loops, super spin dash, psychedelic bonus rounds, and impressive boss battles with Dr. Robotnik’s mechanical creations.
While the Super Mario Bros. franchise was definitely colored with personality and great gameplay, the Sonic the Hedgehog titles on the Genesis and Sega CD offered an very exciting alternative to those that weren’t Nintendo fanboys.
Powered by the success of Sonic and their other cutting edge games, Sega had a great marketshare during the 16-bit era. However, they started to fall apart as they aimed to jump ahead of its competitors in the 32-bit market and beyond. The commercial failure of its newer hardware was unfortunately timed with the decline of the Sonic franchise.
While I love the Sega Saturn and its cult classic favorites, it never brought Sega fans the real Sonic game that it desired. Sega started with a Genesis and Saturn release of Sonic 3D Blast which turned out to be slow-paced and boring at times — quite the opposite of the Sonic games fans had been used to.
Sega had a great deal of inner conflict trying to develop a true 3D Sonic game (which was known as Sonic X-treme) and the closest substitute Saturn owners experienced was Sonic R, which was essentially a cart-racer without the carts.
Sega eventfully gave up on the Sonic X-treme project (and the Saturn for that matter) and set its sights on the possibilities that the Dreamcast held.
With Sonic Adventure, Sega fans finally had their fully 3D Sonic action game. Sonic Adventure had a tremendous amount of promise as the first level (which was playable on the pre-launch demo) was incredibly fast and was filled with breathtaking graphics that seemed to exceed how every Sonic fan had envisioned the Green Hill Zone would be in a 128-bit wonderland. (Nobody can forget the killer whale-bridge scene)
But all was not perfect with Sonic Team’s newest creation. In reality, very few of the subsequent levels even came close to living up to the high standards that the demo created. Instead, the game was filled with slow and annoying “exploration” areas that turned off many gamers that were expecting fast-paced action.
Sonic Adventure 2 ditched the exploration areas, but instead added more levels that required you to play as other less-interesting characters that had you perform more tedious tasks such as “find the lost emeralds”. Not the idea of fun for a typical Sonic fan. To make matters worse, once words started coming out of Sonic’s mouth, the game was to the point of being an embarrassment to watch. Characters we all used to enjoy such as Tails and Knuckles all became an annoyance and a joke.
It was clear at this point that Sega had lost sight of what worked in the minds of Sonic’s most dedicated fans and had also failed to bring the sense of speed and tight control to the 3D world.
Once the novelty of Sonic Adventure’s slick graphics wore off, the more experienced gamers realized this wasn’t nearly the same game they had grown up with.
Gone were the intense sense of speed and the awe-inspiring loops. Instead, you were treated to a temperamental 3D camera that was more of an annoyance than a benefit.
The Dr. Robotnik we grew up with and his sweet robotic monsters had also experienced a peculiar makeover for the worse. Sonic Adventure ushered in re-branded “Dr. Eggman” and replaced his cool mechanical boss battles with strange creatures and dim-witted schemes to collect Chaos Emeralds.
Once Sega made its full transition away from the hardware business and developed multi-platform games, they unloaded a series of quickly-developed titles that pulled even further away from the core focus and did more to damage Sonic’s reputation.
Sega’s first original multi-platform Sonic game was Sonic Heroes. Heroes took some of the best aspects of the Sonic Adventure series and put a new spin on them. However, that spin consisted of forcing players to use teams of three characters at a time, when the entire time, fans wanted to play ONLY as Sonic. It also seemed to focus less on speed and reaction time and brought it more into the league of typical platform games as opposed to the high standards that Sonic was once known for.
To give Sonic Heroes some credit, it did go back to the 16-bit roots in terms of level design and the overall look and feel. Sonic Heroes got a little bit closer on fixing some of these crucial things but still managed to screw up other aspects. It’s such a shame that things went downhill after that.
As much as everyone tries to forget about it, Sega somehow thought that the best way to solve the fact that the Sonic franchise was getting tired was to have a game centered around Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow was supposed to be the Sonic for the hardcore gamers that needed a rough edge. (And I thought all this time, Sonic was the cool hedgehog with the attitude.)
As soon as everybody laid their eyes on the promotional artwork and screenshots filled with the pistol-packing hedgehog, the gaming community knew Sega was losing it.
Instead of renewing interest in the Sonic universe, Shadow the Hedgehog fell on its face and was mocked by reviewers around the globe. Again, some players enjoyed the game, but it really strayed from the Sonic formula.
Sega followed up Shadow with Sonic Riders, a racing title that was essentially “Sonic R 2.0”. While I appreciate Sega trying to emphasize Sonic’s speed capabilities (even though the game was not as fast as it should have been), it wasn’t a true Sonic games and was way too rushed to be taken seriously. Instead, it turned out to be a shallow F-Zero clone thrown out on the marketplace to make some quick change.
As the new generation of platforms emerged, Sega used Sonic as a way to show off their newest graphical technologies. There is no doubt that the new Sonic the Hedgehog for the XBox 360 looks nice, but as the abysmal reviews indicate, graphics are not everything.
In order to push its cutting-edge graphics to the limit, Sega, in their infinite wisdom, felt the need to bring Sonic and his friends into a more realistic world, filled with life-like humans. As you can see from this video, there is something creepy about some giant hedgehogs interacting with humans.
My point is that Sega doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with Sonic. It seems like Sega assigns various quick-and-dirty development projects in order to see what ideas sticks with consumers. Unfortunately, Sega fans have had to suffer through this process.
Sega’s one redeeming endeavor has been the portable titles. The Sonic Advance series has at least replicated the original Sonic experience about as much as the GBA could, and Sonic Rush on the DS was probably the best Sonic game in over a decade. (Although, the really botched the new Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis for the GBA)
Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush are essentially the only Sonic games since the Genesis (sans the initial buzz of Sonic Adventure) that the majority of hardcore fans have actually spoke positively about. One would think that maybe Sega would try to go back bringing the series back to its roots more in order to succeed. (Read How Sega Can Bring Sonic Back To His Glory)
As we turn back to look at Nintendo and what they did with the Mario franchise, you will notice that The Big N took their time developing the N64 (remember THAT wait?) and polished Mario 64 in order to maintain its magical feel and bringing a consistent experience to the third dimension. Even though Mario fans would gladly welcome more traditional Mario games, Nintendo kept the pace slow in order to keep the standards high.
Sega needs to take a long look at Sonic and decide where the games of the past really shine and focus on those aspects and those alone instead of doing even more damage.
Personally, I believe the Sonic thrives in 2D and the third dimension should be used on Sonic Team’s other fan favorite NiGHTS into Dreams. Once Sega stays focused on creating killer gameplay instead of the quick dollar, Sonic may be brought back to his former glory.
Part 2 – How To Fix Sonic
I followed this post up with my expanded thoughts on what Sega can do to make Sonic successful with both hardcore and casual gamers.
Sega Still Commited To Reviving Old Franchises
Sega’s Best Genesis Moving To PSP and PS2
Getting The Most Out of Your Dreamcast
New Nights Into Dreams Coming To Revolution?
Classic Franchises That Actually NEED a Resurrection
Classic Game Franchises We May See Again Soon
The Best Graphics on the Dreamcast
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