The rise and fall of Sonic
Tue, 11 April 2006
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The first time I played Sonic the Hedgehog, it had only just come out (to surprisingly little fanfare, initially, here in Australia). I rented it for the weekend from my local video shop, as I was wont to do back then. Upon first viewing I found Sonic's graphics to be, quite simply, astounding. At that stage most platform games (and games in general) tended to look very blocky, almost like they were made out of Lego.
Console game's aesthetics were certainly improving since the arrival of Sega's Megadrive, and the Commodore Amiga computer was running some impressive looking games long before that. But, graphically, Sonic the Hedgehog was pretty much in a whole new league. The colours were extraordinarily vibrant and Sonic's sprite was so sharp and nicely animated that I recall thinking the game was like a playable cartoon. The other factor that stood out about the game was its blazing speed. Zooming through the levels and bouncing around at such an incredible pace had never been seen before. It made quite an impact on most who laid their eyes on that Felix the Cat looking hedgehog's game for the first time.
As a youngster, I'd usually play the one title for far longer time periods than I do now. Not because I had a longer attention span then, it was just that I could rarely afford to have more than one game at a time and this was before I first gained the luxury of being sent my games to review for free. For better or worse, games back in those days tended to be a lot tougher than today's titles, so that dedication to an individual piece of software was often required of the player, if you wanted to get to the end. For its era, Sonic was something of a pushover in comparison to most of the other stuff I'd been playing. Consequently , I'd well and truly "beaten" the game and seen it through to the finish (with the "good" ending and all) by the time I returned it to the video "store" (as the Americans, or Mugwai, would say).
Not long after, I'd somehow gotten enough money together to actually buy a new game to own. I went into the game shop and asked what cool new Megadrive titles they recommended. They instantly suggested Sonic the Hedgehog. I explained that I'd already finished it and asked what else they had. Basically, they said they really hadn't been playing anything else. Sonic was what it was all about and they didn't care about any other games. So, I wound up buying Sonic the Hedgehog - a game I'd already completed - unsure if I'd just made a really dumb decision. I went on to happily play through that bastard countless times, so I'd say I got my money's worth.
A short while later- BAM! - Sonic the Hedgehog took off. It was being shown in computer, toy and game shops all over the place and all of the videogame magazines were raving about it. As a result, the game began attracting a great deal of attention, from even the most casual of game consumers. Suddenly, my mates started asking if I had "that Sonic game" (I was the only one of us to own a Megadrive at the time). When I told them that I did, old Sammy was suddenly extra popular.
"We shook up the world!" The little Hedgehog that could.
|Not everyone here in Australia gives this thing the respect it deserves. I hope to eventually help fix that. |
When Sonic's creator, Yuji Naka, and his band of merry men (who wound up naming themselves Sonic Team) designed Sonic the Hedgehog, one of their intentions (and instructions) was to give Sega a new mascot, one who could star in the kind of game that would attract as much, or even more, widespread appeal than Nintendo's Mario.
That was a fine idea in theory, but nobody really thought they had much chance of achieving it. Back then, Nintendo's grip on the game industry seemed utterly unbreakable (how times have changed). So, it sure shocked the shit out of most people when Sega actually managed to do what they were aiming for. The Sonic craze was huge and by far the hottest thing going in its day. I'm not exaggerating in the least either. It is difficult to convey just how much of a hit the game was. I'll put it this way: Sonic the Hedgehog probably did more for the Sega Megadrive's success (especially in the west) than all of its prior titles combined.
When I first purchased my SNES, it came with a copy of Super Mario World packed in (those were the days). I fell in love with that game right away. But when my mates came over, I couldn't get them to play it. They still insisted I put Sonic on instead. Today, almost everyone will admit that, in terms of depth, level design and gameplay, Mario World is the superior game. But at the time its simple (yet still very nice) graphics and more traditional slower pace led many people to view it as old fashioned. Mario was yesterday's hero, Sonic was considered to be much cooler. So why exactly was that the case? Why did the blue hedgehog appeal so strongly to so many? I'm glad you asked, please read on.
The first reason is probably the most obvious one. It is as true today as it was back then - people like games that look good. We human beings have these things called eyes and it makes us feel nice to use them to look at pretty things. So, that's that.
The second reason for Sonic's larger than average mass appeal is the simplicity of the game's design and control scheme. You use one button to run, you use another button to jump and that's pretty well all there is to it. Many non-gamers are turned off by games because they don't grasp them right away, due to unfamiliarity causing the control interface to appear much more complicated than it (usually) really is. Sonic is easy to grasp straight away and that allows it to be fun for just about anyone.
Thirdly, Sonic the Hedgehog just happened to show up at the right place, at the right time, combined with some very aggressive and well implemented marketing by Sega (which seems hard to believe now), to become a trend. Produce a game that is easy to play and has flashy graphics and you'll be sure to attract sales. In Sonic's case, it was something of a chain reaction. The Sonic character had a certain edge to his look that people found attractive. Plenty of folks were playing and talking about the game and that caused interest to spread even more. In my experience, cynical though it may sound, many people are seemingly incapable of thinking for themselves and will always follow whatever is popular at any given time. That's not to say the game was unworthy of such popularity but, as much fun as Sonic was, there were plenty of other titles around at the time that played equally well. However, those games weren't in and Sonic was. That's just the nature of things; often people will like what they think they are supposed to like.
Sega's most lucrative franchise. To the victor comes the spoils.
As by far the biggest hit in the gaming world, it was only natural to assume Sonic would get a sequel. Sonic 2 for the Sega Megadrive was the most hotly desired follow up since Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. To put this level of anticipation into perspective, Mario 3 was (then) the best selling videogame of all time. Did Sonic part 2 live up to all the hype and expectations? Well, let's face it, when they get built up that much, not many things ever really do. The second Sonic was more or less the same as the first one, but it was still very cool and most fans (including me) were really happy with it.
Along with making the graphics even better, the game did feature a reasonable number of additions to the formula, so it wasn't as though they didn't improve things. The first and most obvious addition was a new character to play as (and/or with). A cute(ish) little fox called Miles "Tails" Prower, now joined Sonic in his adventure. He soon came to be known simply as Tails; a fitting name, as he has not one, but two - you guessed it - tails. He can use his tails like a helicopter, allowing him to hover in the air for a while. Tails follows Sonic around in the one player mode and you can use him to help out in various ways. You're never forced to concern yourself too much about him and if he gets left behind the computer will get him to catch up with you before too long. You can play the game with two players, either with one as Sonic and one as Tails in the main adventure, or in a split-screen mode. Neither work as well as the single player mode, but it is still a nice bonus.
The other key improvement was the level design. The player feels much more involved in part two, with some clever and original actions that can be done in the game. The levels themselves are mostly shorter, but more elaborate, action packed and varied than in the first game. The pure speed sections made a welcome comeback too and were even faster now. To this day many fans consider Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to be the pinnacle of the games. This is fair enough, though I disagree. But we'll get to that in a moment.
Of further note, at the time at least, were the new bonus levels. Pseudo 3D sections that saw Sonic and Tails running through "half-pipe" type environments, they were, considering the hardware, very impressively done. These days though, I personally prefer the first game's 2D bonus levels visually, as they are now more uniquely pretty to look at.
SOS, S (Save Our System, Sonic). Sega's Sonic reliance gets a bit too heavy.
|Sega CD games. They didn't all suck arse. |
Sonic CD was next to hit the shelves, exclusive to the much maligned Sega CD/Mega CD format. Contrary to popular belief, there were some (though admittedly not too many) awesome games for Sega's poorly received Megadrive add on. I'll be speaking about those games in a future addition of Old Games That Sure Don't Suck (and I can't wait to get to them, as they are awfully unrecognised, especially here in the land down under). Sonic CD is one of the games for it that sure don't suck but, in my opinion, the fact that many call it the best 2D game ever makes it somewhat overrated.
It is a very good Sonic game, that makes good use of the increased storage space and technical upgrades of Mega CD to do a few things that the stand alone Megadrive was incapable of. So, if you dig classic Sonic action, it is an enjoyable title that is well worth playing. Sonic CD had a substationally increased degree of depth to it, because every level had three versions. Each level in Sonic CD had a past, present and future version to access. All three versions are presented with a slightly different layout, along with a different look and music (by the way, the game's music is fantastic, even to this day). This added a heavy degree of exploration and was exactly the kind of thing that should have been done with the Mega CD's increased memory, rather than the (mostly) shithouse FMV games it became known for. Sonic CD also featured far more colours on screen than the regular system allowed for, making the graphics very striking, even now, for a 2D game.
The (now traditional) bonus sections are very "SNES like", in that they feature full scaling of the backgrounds, very similar to what the Super Nintendo hardware was capable of with its "Mode 7" routines. This was a big deal at the time and you can't fault Sega for trying to show off the fact that they could now meet (or surpass) this sort of thing with their hardware upgrade. But it is debatable as to how much fun these sections are to play. Once again, it is just my opinion, but I find them to be the least enjoyable aspect of the game.
The proceeding 16-Bit cartridge Sonic games featured better overall level design (those in Sonic CD seem quite empty and haphazardly put together at times. Presumably, this is mainly due to the game being rushed out, to help remedy the otherwise poor line-up of launch games for the format). There are so many aspects to Sonic CD that are nearly awesome that it saddens me. If it was allowed more time in development to flesh the ideas out fully, it would likely be one of the greatest games ever made. As it stands, it is a fine game that doesn't meet its full potential.
Also, with the Megadrive games, they improved the character models and (using in-built cartridge chips) added graphical affects that, to my eyes, enable them to look even more pleasing, overall, than their more colour-packed CD counterpart.
Sonic Overkill: Too much too soon.
Sonic 3 is a great game. As is Sonic and Knuckles, which was not only a stand alone game, it also enabled you to lock all the old Sonic carts onto it, to access extra content (then still a very innovative concept). At the time though, I had lost interest in the series. The games were all just too similar and released too closely together for my liking. Sega just did what most companies would have done back then (and most continue to do now) - when you get something that is popular enough to put you on top, ride it as hard as you can and drive the f*cka into the ground.
With Nintendo's Mario, each instalment took quite a while to come out. With that, they were each greatly different. I mean, so many alterations to the formula that every one of them stood out distinctly from the last and offered a fresh playing experience. The 16-Bit Sonic games, however, all came out in a relatively short space of time and, despite improvements, each looked and played very closely to the last. When I play them now, I find them to be very enjoyable titles that have aged beautifully. But, at the time, it was overkill, pure and simple.
What added to that problem was the fact that, since Sonic's success, so many other game companies had begun producing their own platform games to try and cash in on the craze. There were a massive array of Sonic clones coming out. Some of them were genuinely quality products in their own right. But the majority were just cash runs and poor imitations. It was all too much and resulted in apathy and disinterest in the style.
Sammy's verdict: Which 16-Bit Sonic game is best?
This particular article is going on a bit longer than I want it to, truth be told. But I've promised to offer my opinion as far as the best of whatever titles I'm discussing in these things. As such, I'll make this short, but sweet. In my opinion, Sonic 3 is the best of them all. Despite not being all that interested in it when it was released (for reasons I just explained) the level design and graphics of the game hold up extremely well and I still play that one quite often today. Since you can get all the games (apart from Sonic CD, though I believe the most recent version does have it) on the various collections now available, that is easily the best way to go. So, just buy Sonic Mega Collection
In case you needed more: The also-rans.
Basically, those knuckleheads at Sega just went plain Sonic crazy. There were Sonic games on Master System (long dead in most the world, that old console still survived in Europe) and a plethora of Game Gear ports; decent enough handheld games, but they don't hold up at all well today. Along with those came all the off-shoots, like Sonic racing games, Sonic porno (okay, I don't think they really did those, but I wouldn't be too surprised) and a Sonic pinball-style game. Titled, Sonic Spinball, the latter was inspired by some sections in Sonic 2. Though not designed by Sonic Team, Spinball is actually a pretty fun game. You can get it on those previously mentioned collections too and it is worth a go. But, again, enough was more than enough at the time!
A less well known one is Knuckles Chaotix for the 32X add-on. This game was originally intended as the fourth Megadrive Sonic game, but wound up being...not quite that. The 32X was another upgrade to the Megadrive and, if it had been properly supported, actually not the horrible concept it now sounds like. Nevertheless, it was more or less dead on arrival, due to an internal conflict in Sega's US and Japanese branches and only received a handful of titles.
The majority of 32X games are pretty uninspired and not really worth tracking down. But Knuckles Chaotix is a pretty entertaining curiosity for Sonic fans and I'd recommend giving it a look. The graphics and sounds are impressive and certainly well above what the Megadrive (or even Mega CD) could run.
|32X games. They pretty much all did suck arse. This one was okay though. |
It was not, however, the game people were expecting (or promised) at the time and as such was quite poorly received. This, combined with the relative obscurity of the format, makes the game all but forgotten today. Even so, the gameplay, while (once again) somewhat rushed and haphazardly realized, has some moments of genuine intrigue, if you enjoy the old Sonic titles.
"Because one thing is for certain, you'll surely be hurting. If you thow it all away". From everything... to nothing.
So, Sonic once did the impossible and helped make Sega number one against all odds. And what do we have now? Well, it all went to shit, didn't it? Sega themselves basically made that happen. It'd take me way too long to go into that. But, for more information about the history of Sonic and Sega itself, I recommend this fantastic website called Sega-16. Anyway, the Saturn didn't even get a real Sonic the Hedgehog game. By the time the Dreamcast hit with Sonic Adventure (which gets mixed reviews from Sonic fans, though personally I loved it) the damage was done.
The once legendary Sonic Team is a shadow of its former self and so is the franchise it created. Sonic's GBA titles were very nice. The latest on Nintendo DS seems even better (THQ was meant to send it, but I still don't have it. They send us so many other games, however, that I am in no position to complain). While Mario is now known as something of a "whore" that Nintendo pushes into all kinds of games, his reputation for quality is still pretty safe. The majority of them are still fine products. What's more, the real Mario games (his platform style adventures) are still spaced out and individually amazing, for the most part. If only Sonic had payed more attention to that "uncool" fat plumber when he had him on the ropes, who knows what the gaming world would be like today?
Maybe Sony should learn from Sonic's mistakes. After all, after they took the big N down with the PlayStation 1 and 2's dominance of the N64 and Gamecube, wasn't it considered an inevitable thing that the PSP was going to kill Nintendo's "uncool" DS? I guess you can't get too complacent or confident. You should never underestimate the endurance of Mazza and the house that he built!
Up next - the lesser known 2D platform gems.
Okay, Mario had to be covered, that was a given. Sonic, I felt an even bigger obligation to go into in even more detail, because I think people now often fail to understand just what a massive deal and a huge part of gaming history he really is/was. I know I said these articles aren't essays on the history of gaming, but I believe a man ought to take some pride in his work and do it properly.
The influence of the Sonic games is undeniable, but the impact it had on the industry is not always as recognised now as it should be. Even in "smaller" ways. For example, in my last column I called Yoshi's Island the best 2D platform game ever made. Well, part of that is due to Sonic and the graphical techniques the series achieved. Compare the looks of Yoshi's Island (and the design in general) with Super Mario World - you can tell that what was done with Nintendo's masterpiece of a sequel would be unlikely to have come about so soon, if they weren't pushed to try and better what Sega was already doing.
In my next installment of Old Games That Sure Don't Suck, I get to talk about a bunch of 8 and 16 Bit platform games, not for historical reasons, but just because I reckon they're awesome. So, stay tuned and see my recommendations for the cream of this truly wonderful genres' crop! They are not only games that don't suck, but what I consider to be some of the best ever made.
*Pimptastic!: Remember folks, if you like to play the classics via the wonders of emulation, you need to give them the smooth control they deserve. Be sure to get yourself a sweet USB control pad adaptor, from Buttonhole's pals at Realgamer.*
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