The Life and Times of Sonic the Hedgehog - A Retrospective
When most gamers think about Sonic the Hedgehog, they immediately picture a video game hero who started off hot only to plummet to degrading depths. I think the argument that Sonic sucks nowadays is used ad nauseam. Seriously, folks, the Sonic franchise isn't that bad. Sure, you can argue that it was better back when the blue blur was battling Dr. Robotnik on the Sega Genesis, but I doubt that the franchise is as bad as people make it out to be. I would like to take this time to look back at the speedy hedgehog's history in gaming---the good, the bad, and everything in between. Except for fan games. I won't be acknowledging those because they do kind of blow.
Now let us journey back through the 20-year video game career of Sonic the Hedgehog.
The Golden Years
Make no mistake about it: Sonic the Hedgehog made a huge impact when he first debuted on the Sega Genesis. The hero ran rampant through wonderfully designed levels at dizzying speeds, and he provided an alternative to gaming's top dog of platforming. What made the first Sonic the Hedgehog so spectacular and so memorable was its successful deliverance of something far different from the Mario franchise. The game was followed by a superior sequel, and Genesis owners were once again treated to a speedy dose of platforming goodness.
Of course, Sega didn't forget about the Master System crowd. Owners of this classic console were given their own versions of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. And while these lacked the high speed of their Genesis counterparts, they were still credible side-scrollers that provided an immense amount of platforming awesomeness. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Master System remains one of the most enjoyable titles for that console, and it's a unique chapter in the series thanks to its level variety and interesting use of mine carts and hang gliders.
The third original iteration in the main series was Sonic the Hedgehog CD for the Sega CD. This is still a favorite among fans of the series. It provided big levels for Sonic to zip through, alternate versions of each stage, and some of the most enjoyable music in the series. Sonic CD is often ignored by the causal Sonic player, but the diehards know that this is one of the blue blur's greatest adventures.
As awesome as Sonic CD was, it wasn't my personal favorite. No, that distinction would go to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which took all of the elements from previous games and perfected them, added to them, and created one of the most compelling games in the platformer genre. While I'm fully aware that everyone is entitled to his or her favorites, I know I'm not alone when I say Sonic 3 is the greatest game the franchise has ever seen. To continue the legacy was a direct sequel called Sonic & Knuckles, which allowed players to quest through the game as the iconic blue hero or his rival at the time, the mysterious Knuckles. This game was less speed-based (especially in later levels) and far more story-driven than any of its predecessors. The result was a stellar piece of Sonic fiction that was a total blast from start to finish.
Sonic Goes 3D ... Kind of
Ah, the black sheep of the early Sonic games. Sonic 3D Blast will forever go down in history as the first main Sonic game to truly taint the potential of the franchise. The game was sloppy, slippery, and slow. Need I say more? Oh, and for those of you who think Sonic X-Treme would have been good, be realistic. That game just looked like Sonic 3D Blast with cooler level design (and crappy controls and physics intact).
The Spin-Offs Cometh
Just like every good franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog was host to many a spin-off early on. Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball put the blue hero in what can only be considered an expected pinball environment. It wasn't perfect, but it was an interesting game of pinball and a fun take on the Sonic series. That was followed up by Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, a variant of Puyo Puyo that was highly rewarding, progressively challenging, and tons of fun, especially when played with another person. Sonic Drift and Sonic R offered a racing experience for fans of the blue one, but the latter was easily the better of the two, offering satisfying gameplay on expertly designed tracks.
Sonic Goes 3D ... For Real This Time
With a new system came a new Sonic title, and the Dreamcast saw a fitting makeover for Sega's flagship series with Sonic Adventure. This was one of the best games on the system, and one of the most memorable titles in the entire series. More importantly, it did what Sonic 3D Blast couldn't: it made a competent, thoroughly enjoyable 3D Sonic game that anyone could get into. The game was succeeded by Sonic Adventure 2, which offered more of the same (not that that's a bad thing). Sonic Heroes followed suit, allowing players to take on the role of different characters from the Sonic universe. Gameplay wasn't as tight as it was in the game's two predecessors, but Sonic Heroes was a fun 3D romp nonetheless.
Then there was Shadow the Hedgehog. I'm going to be honest here, people. I don't really feel like talking about this disaster of a game, so I won't. Just know that it sucked. It sucked bad.
Going Old School in Portable Form
Prior to the Game Boy Advance, several portable Sonic titles were available for the Game Gear. Some were good; others were bad. But none were as original as the Sonic Advance titles that appeared when the GBA began making its rounds. The three entries in this series provided awesome old school gameplay with colorful visuals and brand new levels. The series turned into Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS, generating the same high octane platforming action that its predecessors did. For those upset with the 3D direction that Sonic had begun going in, the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games were true 2D experiences that faithfully harked back to the series' roots.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2006
Oh, Sonic, you were doing so well. Why did you have to come back in a game titled after your very first gaming endeavor only to throw all of it away? Sega seemed to promise a reboot of the franchise with the aptly titled Sonic the Hedgehog for the Xbox 360 (and later PlayStation 3). Unfortunately, the game was a glitchy mess with little to no substantial gameplay. One has to wonder: which was worse, Shadow the Hedgehog or 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog? Do you dare play both games back to back and find out?
Let's not beat around the bush. When Sonic and the Secret Rings launched for the Wii, we all thought it was going to suck. Surprisingly, the game was pretty damn solid. Sure, the on-rails gameplay was uncharacteristic of the Sonic name and the level grinding was a total pain, but Sonic and the Secret Rings delivered the goods in terms of speed and level design. It was far (and I mean far) from perfect, but once that furry blue hedgehog reached high speeds, the game was a total blast. Sonic and the Secret Rings was followed up by the vastly inferior Sonic and the Black Knight, and there are currently plans of releasing one last title in the Sonic Storybook Series. Let's hope it's a good one.
Sonic and Mario Cross Paths
This wouldn't be a proper Sonic retrospective if I didn't acknowledge the surprising crossover between Sonic and his former industry rival Mario. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games saw the two mascots taking each other on ... in Olympic-themed events. OK, so this wasn't exactly what fans were hoping for when they imagined the two characters battling fiercely for the title of top gaming hero, but at least gamers got to pit the two icons against one another in battle in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. That has to count for something.
Sonic Unleashed is easily one of the most representational games in the series---a complete mixed bag in terms of gameplay. The game was split up into two distinct styles: daytime stages and nighttime stages. During the day, the blue blur sped through beautifully designed locales. At night, the hero transformed into a slow, lumbering werehog that emulated the actions of God of War's Kratos unsuccessfully. I only played the Wii version of the game and found the daytime stages to be superb, but from what I've heard, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game were total failures. Score one for the Wii.
A Sonic RPG?
That's right, folks. The speedy blue icon appeared in a game that fell under a genre that has absolutely nothing to do with speed. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood launched to mixed reviews, and to this day, gamers either like the game or absolutely hate it. I've never actually played it, and I can never find it at retailers to shell out the cash for a spontaneous buy, so I can't say much from personal experience. All I know is that this looked like a typical RPG, which is the exact opposite of what I thought Sonic games should be.
More Wacky Spin-Offs
Before you ask about Sonic Riders and its sequels, I should probably point out that I never subjected myself to playing those awful games. Judging from what most people who did play them thought, they were rubbish. That's why I don't regret missing out on them, and if you haven't played them, you should be happy.
Of course, one recent racer did manage to impress. Sonic & Sega All-Stars easily gave Mario Kart a run for its money (it was a hell of a lot better than the sub-par Mario Kart Wii, that's for sure), and it allowed gamers to race through awesome courses as a number of characters from Sega's large library of franchises.
A Return to Form?
I distinctly remember a chill-inducing moment when I first watched the teaser for "Project Needlemouse." I was even more stoked when I found out that Sega was in actuality working on Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. When I finally played the game, I was impressed with the efforts of developers Sonic Team and Dimps. And although plenty of gamers bash Sonic 4, for me, that was the game that ushered in the return to 2D for the blue "needlemouse."
I've gotten a lot of crap from people for expressing my love for Sonic Colors on both the Wii and DS. Both of these games managed to provide a proper Sonic experience. Sonic Colors on the Wii was exactly what people wanted when they played Sonic Unleashed. It was a 3D platformer that was speedy, beautiful, and stylish, and it left out those awful werehog sequences. Why so much hate plagues people's hearts regarding this game is beyond me. Alternatively, Sonic Colors on the DS was a stellar joyride that offered a much more old school experience. And while that version of the game was a bit on the short side, it was a total thrill all the way.
Looking Ahead at Sonic Generations
What's in store for Sonic the Hedgehog's future? Hopefully quality games. Sonic Generations is slated as the next major entry in Sega's long-running series, and judging from its gameplay---split between "classic" 2D levels and "modern" 3D stages---I can tell how divided players are going to be. Don't be so pessimistic. Sure, Sonic has let us down before, but he's also given us some of the most memorable moments in gaming history. Sega, do right by your fans and deliver the goods when Sonic Generations hits consoles later this year.