Nearly everyone knows who Sonic the Hedgehog is. He’s a video game mascot from yesteryear who has managed to persist in receiving new entries within his main series and spinoffs such as those that involve “the fastest thing alive” driving around in a car. He even defied everyone’s expectations with a successful movie earlier this year. None of that would be possible if it hadn’t been for the work of the appropriately named development team, Sonic Team.
Unfortunately, if you are aware of Sonic the Hedgehog, you’re likely aware of the very common mixed reception that the series has attained in recent times. It’s become a meme of sorts through the “Sonic Cycle” where a new game is announced, fans build hype as it looks to improve on previous weaknesses, the game releases to middling or negative reviews, and the cycle begins anew with the next title. But it begs the question, where did things go wrong and when does it get better?
The World is Introduced to The Blue Blur
It all begins nearly 30 years ago with Sega’s search for a mascot character. The company’s Sega Genesis console was a direct competitor with Nintendo’s SNES. While Nintendo was known by all thanks to the Italian plumber hero Mario, Sega didn’t have its own mascot to compete with.
As the company searched for ideas, Naoto Ohshima would submit his idea of an aggressive blue hedgehog named Sonic who was the leader for his own rock band. He also had fangs and a human girlfriend. Sega wasn’t a complete fan of the design, which was scaled back to make it more approachable with “worldwide appeal”.
Programmer Yuji Naka would make sure the game was set apart from the average platformer (and Mario), by focusing more on speed and action. It would retain ease of play by restricting the game to directional pad movement and assigning one button to jump and attack.
Sonic the Hedgehog launched on the Sega Genesis in 1991. Focusing on speed proved to be a great choice as the game became a hit with critics and consumers alike. The visuals and audio would also contribute to its popularity and help it to be considered one of the best video games in history.
Sega had accomplished their goal of creating a mascot for their company. Sega and the Sega Genesis could now stand in competition against Nintendo. Sonic Team would release three sequels for the game on the Genesis (up to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles) before looking to upgrade Sonic to compete against a new hurdle.
Sonic Goes 3D with Sonic Adventure
As technology moved forward and new consoles were on the horizon, Sega sought to jump Sonic into what was soon to be the new craze: 3D. It was a smart idea as titles such as Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario 64 would become the new face for platformers.
They’d attempt to make the most of it by releasing Sonic 3D Blast as the final Sonic game on the Sega Genesis and as a game on the Sega Saturn. While the game was a success and received mixed reviews, it would later be viewed as one of the worst entries in the series due to its controls.
There would be another attempt in the form of Sonic R, a 3D racing game with a roster of ten characters to race as. It would go on to receive mixed reviews, but retroactive reviews would similarly see it in a much more negative light. Its music would be remembered as a highlight, but it would otherwise be harshly criticized for its controls and length. Turns out it’s overall better for him to race in a car after all.
While the Sega Saturn would be deemed a failure (in part because a main series Sonic game failed to release on it), Sonic Team would look to make up for it by giving the blue hedgehog his first 3D main series game on the Dreamcast. This project would come to be Sonic Adventure.
Sega’s Dreamcast would be deemed a commercial failure, but it would also be subsequently viewed as a console with incredible potential and wonderful games. The best-selling game on the system would be Sonic Adventure, which came out only a few weeks after the system’s launch.
Sonic Adventure would include six playable characters, open hub worlds, minigames, plenty of minigames. It would also introduce the fan-favorite Chao, which were virtual pets you could raise. The popularity of the game would lead to a sequel, Sonic Adventure 2, but the first game is still considered one of the best entries in the series.
Various Sonic games would follow this, mostly for handhelds, but each of them received mixed reviews at best. To advance the series and celebrate the series’ 15th anniversary, Sonic Team would begin their work on a new game simply called Sonic the Hedgehog for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It’s commonly known as Sonic 06’.
Sonic 06’ Is Memorable For The Worst Reasons
Sonic 06’ is now a game that every fan knows.
2006 was the 15th anniversary for the series and the Sonic Team was looking to make something new. It would be the most ambitious Sonic game with multiple storylines, a realistic setting and dramatic tone, and the series entry on seventh generation consoles.
This ambition, coupled with other key issues such as the departure of co-creator Yuji Naka and the team being split off to work on Sonic and the Secret Rings for the Wii, would lead it to become one of the most infamous entries in the series due to its many issues.
The game is known to have been rushed for a holiday launch, which is extremely apparent as outside of the cutscenes, “the rest of the game crumbled under the weight of tight deadlines and leadership changes”. Awkward camera angles, terrible controls, and a bad story among other issues all wrapped around with glitches galore make it a consideration for some as one of the worst video games of all time.
A scene involving a human princess kissing Sonic was just the cherry on top for people to pick the game and its direction apart.
Some would see this as the beginning of a bad streak for the Sonic series. Wii titles such as Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight would have mixed reviews at best that used the Wii controller movements as a gimmick. Sonic Unleashed would release in 2008 with considerable hype, with the game split between stages playing in typical Sonic fashion, those that took on a slower, beatdown playstyle. Unironically many enjoyed the normal Sonic-style stages, but the other half of the game was harshly criticized.
Celebrating the 20th Anniversary With Sonic Generations
Sega would eventually delist “average” Sonic games to up the value of the brand as new titles were released. This would prove helpful as there would be a snippet of hope with 2010’s Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. Co-developed with Dimps, the game would see a return to the series original 2D gameplay. Reception to the game would prove positive, although the eventually released Episode 2 would be more criticized.
Sonic Colors, released on Nintendo platforms, would also see a positive reception. The title focused solely on Sonic and utilized side-scrolling and 3D perspectives. It certainly helped the look of the brand, but the Nintendo exclusivity meant that not everyone was as familiar with the title. Sonic still carried a bit of negative baggage from previous games.
Sonic Team would look to remedy this with a new game that focused on remaking aspects and levels over the entire series, both in classic 2D and modern 3D. Sonic Generations would launch in 2011 for the series 20th anniversary and see the current design of Sonic working together with “classic” Sonic.
Not only would the game see the return of fan-favorite levels, but also the return of old bosses from the series as well. Some criticism would be aimed at the occasional control problem, but for the most part, the entry was praised. Fans and critics alike appreciated it as a tribute to what everybody loved about the series.
Hitting New Lows and Highs…Without Sonic Team
Sonic Lost World would be released in 2013 as the last Sonic game the team would make for a while. It would again be released as an exclusive title to Nintendo platforms, and receive average reviews. While Sonic Team would go on to make Puyo Puyo Tetris, the next and well-received entry in the Puyo Puyo series that the team also worked on, the Sonic series would see new development.
2014 would see the debut of the Sonic Boom franchise. Two games would be developed to act as a prequel to the Sonic Boom TV series. While the TV series is actually really good, the games were absolutely not. Both Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal on the 3DS and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric were picked apart by fans and critics for the design changes and for the latter being plagued by glitches. Rise of Lyric has been compared to Sonic 06’ in terms of quality.
And yet, like it always seems to do, the series would see an exceptional release in 2017. With a development team formed of famous Sonic fan game creators, Sonic Mania was developed as a tribute for the 25th anniversary of the series. Its gameplay, audio, and visuals were inspired by the series’ 16-bit roots on the Sega Genesis.
Sonic Mania would be hailed as not just a wonderful tribute to the series but is considered by many as one of the best entries as well. It would sell well and see an updated version, Sonic Mania Plus, that introduced new characters and content the following year.
Picking It Back Up With Sonic Forces
Alongside Sonic Mania, the series would see a new release by Team Sonic for the 25th anniversary. Sonic Forces would also release in 2017, containing modern and classic style stages akin to Sonic Generations (the game also features “Classic Sonic” as well).
A key part of the game is its inclusion of a custom fanmade character to use, complete with a separate playstyle. The Sonic series has seen a nearly limitless amount of fanart, with a game of sorts being made where you google your name and add “the hedgehog” at the end to see what kind of fan made characters people have come up with. It ranges from the childish to the obscene and to the absolutely weird part of the internet, so I’d suggest doing that only if you’re very curious.
It appears the Sonic Team was aware of this and decided to make many dreams come true. The darker tone of the game, different playstyles, and overall quality would result in mixed reviews. Its release only a few months after the successful Sonic Mania would lead to common comparisons between the two titles, with Sonic Forces failing by most accounts.
What The Future Holds
Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most beloved video game series of all time. Mario certainly hasn’t had as many stumbles as Sonic has, but somehow the latter has managed to outlast and pump out more titles than most other platformer mascots. Even then, through mixed and negatively reviewed games, and two failing Sega consoles, the series continues to persist and manages to surprise its fans here and there with an absolute gem.
Not much is known about the next steps for the series. The movie was a success (despite a poorly received trailer and an extremely uncommon change to his design) and will be receiving a sequel. Another mainline game has been confirmed to be in development, which could match up well with the series celebrating its 30th anniversary next year.
The puzzling and ever changing quality has certainly been noticed. It’s not uncommon to think that Sonic Team just isn’t up to par with making consistently successful Sonic games, especially in comparison to titles they didn’t work on like Sonic Mania. A counter-argument against that is the many spin-off games and some such as the Sonic Boom series which didn’t do well without being touched by Sonic Team. Positively received games such as Sonic Generations also serve to counter this idea.
Many video game franchises see their ups and downs, but Sonic fans have gone through a ride with more loops than anything Green Hill Zone has ever offered. Yet, the fans have always remained and supported the chili dog-loving hedgehog. It seems like no amount of bad or average games are enough to slow the series down. I just hope fans can enjoy the series without so many hiccups in the future.