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Gone Too Fast: Sega's Sonic Problem

Let's not mince words. The years haven't been kind to Sonic The Hedgehog. You can look to several of his modern games, or to the numerous articles in this vein, or to the dismal sales of his latest outing as proof of this. Whether or not you like Sonic and his ragtag gang of anthropomorphic animal pals, you really can't deny that they've all seen better days. I mean, did you see either of those Sonic Boom games? Did you?

But unlike some overzealous writers online, who love to spit venom and trash the franchise at any chance they get, I write this from a more sympathetic stance. I don't believe that the curtain has dropped for the Sonic games yet, but it could at this pace. What, exactly, is wrong with Sonic? And can it be fixed?

Reinvention Is Sonic's Worst Enemy

How many times has Sega tried to "reinvent" their once-beloved mascot at this point? It didn't start with Sonic Boom, I'll tell you that much. Whether it's trying to make the franchise grim and edgy with Shadow The Hedgehog, turning Sonic into whatever the hell a WereHog is in Unleashed, giving him weird alien friends in Colors, ripping off the Mario Galaxy game in Lost Worlds... the list, unfortunately, goes on and on. But why? That's what I'm asking. Why? When Sonic was in peak form, back in the 1990's, there were no massive differences between each entry. Sure, yeah, there were different bonus stages, new items, different stories. But the basic gameplay? The core mechanics? All the same. And you know what? That wasn't a bad thing. In fact, it was a great thing. So great, in fact, that we still manage to care about the franchise all these years later. We care because we know how good it can be. And it was best when Sega barely changed anything. Look to the excellent Advanced and Rush series for proof of this.

But this doesn't just apply to the 2D games. Unlike some people (the same people who love pissing on Sonic and the fanbase surrounding him,) I genuinely believe the formula can work in 3D. The Adventure games are dated, but still fun, and have a consistency between them. Hell, aside from the team mechanic that nobody asked for, Sonic Heroes plays the same damn way, and is a pretty solid game for it. The same can be said of Colors and Generations, which retain the same basic 2D/3D hybrid gameplay and it actually worked! 3D Sonic has been done and done well. It's not all Sonic '06

So... Why doesn't it work very often? It goes back to my initial point: too much reinvention. For every step forward, Sega seems content to just throw whatever progress they've made out and start from the ground up. The result is a franchise that feels like a disjointed wreck because, well, that's what it is, if we're just being honest. In the Sonic games, the only way you can keep the little guy going fast is by gaining momentum, then doing whatever it takes to keep it. Why can't the same thing be done for the franchise as a whole?

Who Is Sonic, Really? 

Apart from the identity crisis of the franchise's mechanics, there's another crisis simmering underneath the surface. A crisis of character. Yep, I'm talking about Sonic himself. Who, exactly, is he? What makes him tick? Why should we care? Frankly, that seems to change with every single entry, and it results in a character that's sometimes lovable, other times obnoxious, and still other times more of a butt to a joke than anything. At this point, even Sonic's most loyal fans seem to enjoy him ironically, as a relic of the 90's... myself included. Yes, I do genuinely want to like Sonic, and latch on to any excuse Sega tries to throw at me to convince me that I should care, but it's just become increasingly difficult to gauge who, exactly, Sonic is.

It doesn't have to be this way, is the sad part. I may get some shit for saying this, but look at Mario. Mario is the same damn guy in every game. He's friendly, but down for a scrap when he needs to be. It's pretty obvious that he's more of the reluctant adventurer type; sure, he's courageous, but seems to like chilling out and making friends much more than killing Goombas and saving the damn princess again. He acts, reacts, and behaves consistently between each entry... and this is all without saying a single word, outside of his obligatory verbal ticks. Why can't we have this with Sonic? A character who we know what to expect from? A character who actually feels like a consistent character? It can't be that hard, can it?

And you know how I know it can't be some monumental challenge to make a cute, fast blue hedgehog have a consistent personality? Because Sega's managed to do it with almost all of the innumerable sidekicks of the franchise. We know Tails is going to whine but pull through in the end; we know Knuckles is going to be a brash hothead; we know Amy is going to be obnoxious and lovestruck; and we know that Shadow is going to be the walking embodiment of your middle-school MySpace page circa 2007. Is it really too much to ask to have some sort of trademark behavior unique to Sonic, outside of "going fast" and "making one-liners"? I don't think so. Some games want me to laugh at him, others, want me to laugh with him, and others want me to believe he's some gallant, noble warrior. If Sega wants to have a mascot, they need to figure out what, exactly, that mascot does.

Also, they really need to decide if chili-cheese dogs are still his thing or not. That shit bothers me.

Gimmick Hill Zone

This sort of ties into the "reinvention" thing, but it merits its own section. Why? Because, above anything else I've listed or will list, I feel like this is the big one. The thing that could make or break this franchise. Sega, bro, listen to me. Please. Listen to this. Sonic? He's a cool guy. He's a fun character. You've got a good thing. He runs, he jumps, he's got an attitude. That's all some real neat stuff. But you know what he's not? A Honda Aztec to steer around obstacles. Or an Chinese bootleg werewolf. Or some weird animal that gets superpowers from aliens. You... you do know that, right?

Sonic is at his very best when he's doing two things: running and jumping. Admittedly, the 3D games added some cool stuff. The homing attack? That's awesome. Light dash? Yeah, give me more of that. I mean, I even liked the bits in some games where he's on a snowboard/skateboard/scrap of metal. But the rest of the time, I feel like Sega doesn't know what to do with the character, and haven't for the past decade. I mean, Secret Rings had you steering Sonic with the Wii Remote. Black Knight added (broken) sword fighting mechanics. Then there was the brawling in Unleashed. And the two gameplay styles of Generations. And the turn-based RPG mechanics of The Dark Brotherhood. Okay, that last one was rad, but still!

The point is, each Sonic outing now has some sort of gimmick, some sort of new chicanery that's inevitably going to be kicked to the curb for the next game, which will then add some new sort of mechanic, which will then be discarded for another mechanic in the next game. What Sega fails to see, I feel, is that Sonic doesn't need a gimmick to support him. Instead of trying to shove things in, in a forced attempt to remain relevant, why not stick to what made the games relevant in the first place? You've proved that the classic sense of speed can work with modern games in the non-Werehog parts of Unleashed and in Generations. You've proved that combat can flow nicely without breaking speed with the Adventure games and Colors. Hell, you've even proved that playing as Sonic's friends and enemies can work in some of the games.

Why complicate things with stuff that people don't like? That's my point here. Sonic was fine without gimmicks beforehand. Why start now? Or, more accurately, why has the last decade been comprised of poorly thought-out concepts being forced down our throats, sacrificing speed for whatever half-baked idea Sonic Team (or Big Red Button) cooked up in an afternoon?

"Sonic/He Can Really Move/Sonic/He's Got An Attitude!"

Look, I know when you're making a mascot, they need to be cute and lovable and heroic. Especially if they're talking animals. But... that's not what Sonic was ever supposed to be. Look at all the best Sonic media, especially the early stuff. The originals for the Genesis, the Adventure titles, Colors. The cartoons, the Sonic OVA, Sonic X (yeah, it's dumb as shit, but I love it.) In all of that? And some of the other good Sonic media? Well... he's a bit of an asshole, isn't he? And kind of stupid. And egotistical. But you know what? You like him anyway. He's sort of like Ash from the Evil Dead movies, but instead of a person, a blue hedgehog. Practically the same thing, right? Right? Hey, where are you going?

Seriously, though, Sonic is supposed to have a fierce attitude and a bit of a mean streak to him, but, despite that, he ultimately ends up erring on the side of good. But in an alarmingly high amount of games, he ends up being as cuddly and nice as Tails. He saves a princess and romances her with cheesy platitudes rejected from Hallmark cards, for Christ's sake. What happened to sarcastic pops at his own friends? What happened to the obscene gestures at enemies? What happened to not caring about anything except speed (not that kind) and chili-cheese dogs? Basically, when did Sonic become such a generic wet blanket?

Sonic was conceived as a rude, crude, and X-TREME RADICAL BRO DUDE for the edgy 7 year-olds of the 90's. If you look at the Archie Comics, which are still top-notch stuff as far as furry soap operas go, he's still like that. Annoying and awful, but likable for some strange reason. Those comics are the only place where Sonic's personality has remained what it used to be, and you know what? It still works. Those comics still sell like hotcakes, and are going strong to this day, with hundreds of issues and more side-series than you can shake a stick at. So... why, exactly, is Sega not paying attention to that? Why does Sonic rescue princesses and join the Knights of the Round Fucking Table? Isn't that... you know... kind of stupid? And not in a good way?

Sonic needs to get back that signature edge that made him fun in the first place. Even if it's done in a satirical, "we know he's an ass and that's the joke" kind of way, it would be the shot in the arm that the franchise needs in terms of personality. And when I say edge, I don't mean an angst-riddled Hot Topic poster child that's so edgy I somehow cut myself on him. I mean a rude smartass who does things his own way and we love him for it. It's not hard, guys. If you can come up with an elaborate, complicated time-travel plot that makes no coherent sense or grimdark edgy backstory for a fucking black hedgehog, you can write some funny, sarcastic witticisms for your flagship character.

I mean, you can, can't you?

Can't you?

Just Go Back To Basics

Basically? Sonic is an awesome franchise... in theory. It has a wealth of fun, funny and varied characters that all interact in different and exciting ways.... in theory. The world it takes place in is an explosive one that's like ours, but also not, and that's really cool... in theory. Note all the "in theories." Because, in theory, everything that exists in the franchise could work together, and it has before. And it can be done again, I'm positive.

Some people suggest that Sega cut all of the supporting cast, or make it 16-bit again, or kill the franchise entirely, or some other ill-advised bullshit that they feel the need to spout. I don't think things need to be that drastic. If the supporting cast existed in a way that wasn't to propel forward some angst-y, convoluted plot, if the 3D gameplay worked and was consistent between games, if the franchise actually tried to have a consistent tone... well, I really think Sega would be onto something. You don't need to reboot it and give the characters bandages on everything and turn Knuckles into a chump. We don't want to see the huge roster of characters get thrown into the trash and forgotten. And nobody asked for brawling/waggling/other garbage mechanics to be thrown into the mix.

All that the Sonic franchise needs to do, really, is this: go fast, be funny, defy expectations, and most importantly, work in some consistent way between each title... not to mention just work period. It can be in 3D. It can have more than one or two characters. It can even have long, detailed plots. But in order to survive, players need to know what they're getting into when they spend sixty bucks on a game, and they need to actually like what they're playing once they crack it open. To me, that's the important thing. A franchise that has a pattern and works consistently. It's something that Sonic hasn't seen for quite some time now, but I firmly believe it can happen if Sega pulls through its financial problems, stops cranking out freemium shovelware for cell phones, and actually puts some effort into a game... or at the very least, gives it to a dev who does. Only then might we see a day where another generation of kids grow up loving Sonic, just like we did.

But what do I know? I'm just a 20-something writing about anthropomorphic hedgehogs on the internet.


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