How Sega’s wild child went from fighting Mario to helping him
I am, almost exactly, the same age as Sonic the Hedgehog.This nostalgic link to my very own childhood is, at least in part, the reason that I have a fervent passion and adoration for Sonic and his chums. Throughout the years I have grown with him from our audacious beginnings through our difficult teenage years and into something of a strong resurgence in recent times, so when I heard about the latest move that would update the Sonic franchise, I was hit with both joy and scepticism.
From his inception, Sonic was created as the antithesis of everything that Super Mario was. He was designed to break Nintendo’s monopoly on the videogame market and rip a hole right through our tiny little minds that would have us reeling. He was fast, edgy, and blue, everything that slow, humble, red Mario wasn’t and it was along these lines that Sega would try and stake their claim to videogame dominance.
The nineties saw Sonic on everything from lunchboxes to packs of mints, t-shirts to toys and absolutely anything in between.
But, as with everything, what goes up must go down. Technology caught up with the speedy hog and he stumbled when videogames became a 3D affair. His speed couldn’t translate properly and that dastardly plumber had, once again, seized the upper hand with slower platformers being perfect for three-dimensional fun. This, coupled with the disastrous launch of the Sega Dreamcast, meant that Sonic had been knocked off his perch and other pretenders to the furry video game throne had started to seep through the cracks (that means you, Crash Bandicoot).
With this shift of power Sega tried to reinvent their mascot with various different looks through a cavalcade of questionable games. In the same way people are still going to see Transformers films and buy Rolling Stones albums, gamers flocked to each Sonic game in a heady mix of habit, nostalgia, and a hope that this one just might be good again.
The look and feel of the character took twists and turns as we were introduced to increasingly tedious ‘friends’ and side characters who were more ‘family friendly’ to appeal to a younger market and the parents who had to pay out. Even long-term enemy Dr Robotnik became the far less intimidating and, supposedly, the more comic Dr Eggman so that kids no longer had to grapple with the difficulty of three syllables in one name.
Arguably, one of the worst decisions of this time was the hippy/surfer-dude look that saw the iconic blue spikes droop in a dreadlock-like fashion as Sonic himself became elongated and leggy like the gangly teen he was. We’ve all made questionable style choices in our teenage years (I believe I had dyed purple hair in a ponytail at seventeen) but since this was the decision of a group of designers, executives and marketing bods it is far less forgivable than your average fashion faux pas.
As Sega continued this slide in fortunes, and common sense, Nintendo surged on to global dominance with several games consoles all backed by brilliant and innovative Mario games. By this time, Sega felt they could no longer compete and withdrew from the console market, what with Sony now taking up their share of the success with PlayStation and Microsoft just about to throw their hat into the ring with the Xbox.
Whilst Microsoft were offering consumers the ability to blast their way through alien hordes with an eight foot mechanized super-soldier and Sony ploughed on with their unassailably popular series of games about a busty, gun-wielding archaeologist, Nintendo decided it was going for cute. Had they not seen what it had done to Sega’s beloved mascot just a few years before?
However, Nintendo had built their brand on being family-friendly and far from just cutesy-fying characters they had a vision to bring gaming to the family unit. And thus, the Nintendo Wii was born. Like it or loathe it, the Wii caused a revolution in gaming by bringing it to a far wider audience than just your hardcore gamers. What no one expected them to do was to welcome their once sworn foe into their roster. In May 2013, Nintendo announced that the next three Sonic games would be exclusive to their consoles.
Where others saw the softening of Sonic as a disaster, Nintendo could now place him alongside their flagship franchise as a recognisable yet family-friendly character. This led to Mario & Sonic at the Sochi Olympic Games exclusive for the Wii U and action-platformer Sonic Lost World for Wii U and 3DS. And now, finally, we have Sonic Boom.
Sonic has yet again been reimagined with a not-so-edgy and more adventurous feel along with a group of his less detestable allies from the earlier games. The concern is can he survive another image change or will this finally break all ties with the original fans? Despite the backing of Nintendo, Sonic Lost World struggled critically. Sonic Boom is the latest move to bring the hedgehog back to the mainstream, with a tie-in television show planned and a brand new character introduced to the universe, but when the Sonic I know now is so different to the Sonic I grew up with, does it even matter?