GameSpite Journal 12 strips bare the early years of Sega across multiple platforms, and the Blurb coupon code WONDERFUL will net you 15% off through the end of the month if you choose to purchase a copy. Now, let’s jump ahead to a latter-day classic of the early days:
You could call Sonic the Hedgehog “Sega’s Mickey Mouse” and you wouldn’t be wrong. Heck, both even descended from rabbits — Mickey from Oswald, and Sonic from an early design sketch that depicted him as a bunny rather than a hedgehog. The main difference between the two is that the former remains an active character. They’re both iconic, anthropomorphic licenses to print money, but Mickey has long since passed into the realm of the mascot; about the only place you’ll ever see him active these days is in video games. That may be true of Sonic, too, I suppose… but since he started out as a game character, it only makes sense, right?
Sonic commands a loyal, enduring fanbase that will suffer any offense and continues to cling to the franchise and character through their ups and (increasingly frequent) downs. Sega themselves struggle to understand Sonic’s popularity, but they’re entirely happy to lean on it; recently the company announced a sort of restructuring that will see the release of fewer niche titles and more emphasis on tentpole brands. Naturally, Sonic’s name came first on that short list. More than two decades after his debut, he still brings in a crowd, and even Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic ‘06 couldn’t kill his popularity.
A fair portion of this Sega anthology discusses the company’s existence in terms of its relationship to the o’erweening domination of Nintendo, and in truth Sega largely brought that on themselves. Their brief ascent to console domination in the West during the early ’90s owed much to Sega’s success in pitching itself as the anti-Nintendo: The company that did what Nintendidn’t, as it were. Sonic the Hedgehog worked as the keystone of that campaign: The antithesis of Mario.
And yet, of all of Sega’s successes, Sonic most deserves to be respected on his own terms. Were Sonic merely a reaction to Mario, we wouldn’t be writing about him now — or possibly about Sega, either, except in memoriam. Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog impressed the world as a zippier, more adrenaline-fueled alternative to Super Mario World. Unlike so many other games that cropped up in the way of Mario’s multi-million-unit popularity, though, Sonic possessed that rarest of attributes: Genuine quality and creativity.
People often describe Sonic the Hedgehog as a game about going fast. That’s not true. Rather, Sonic is a game about momentum. The idea is not to dash as quickly as possible — the loops and springs that send him hurtling at high speeds are simply embellishments to add a little dazzle to the action — but rather to maintain forward inertia. Sonic doesn’t do well when he’s standing still. His movement is sluggish, his jumps clumsy. While he’s in motion, though — even fairly slow motion, so long as it’s consistent — he moves with grace and style.
Sonic entire world revolves around him always being in motion. Well, almost; not surprisingly, the least enjoyable segments of the game are the ones that involve him standing at the edge of a wall, waiting for a moving rock or platform to drift by. Whether he’s dashing across a collapsing bridge that would send a slower protagonist plummeting to their death, rushing through water in search of a pocket of air, or ascending a series of ancient ruins in advance of a rising flood of deadly water, Sonic should be moving at all times.
The game design reflects the needs of its hero. The level layouts take a different approach than had ever been seen back in 1991; they’re tiered, multi-layered creations, offering collectables in every direction and beckoning the player to find them. Unlike a game about Mario or his countless knockoffs, though, Sonic doesn’t expect players to collect every single ring. Such a goal may be possible (though maybe not), but it would be impractical at best; at worst, it would violate the very spirit of the game.
You’re not meant to pick your way through the stages, meticulously backtracking to gather every single ring in sight. Sonic is meant to keep pressing ahead, completing each stage as efficiently as possible. Rings aren’t like Mario’s coins, either. Yes, you gather them, and if you gather enough the game rewards you. But you don’t get to keep them. You cash them in at the end of the stage and start the next level with none. When you collide with a foe or hazard, they go spilling out. They are a zero-sum game.
Rings are padding; they cushion Sonic when his speediness proves too much for the player to handle. Sonic’s stages are designed to be played efficiently, and leaping or dashing in the appropriate spot will always bring you through the action unscathed. But if you can’t live up to the game’s exacting demands, you’ll jump at the wrong place or dash the wrong way. Sonic will stumble into a foe. The rings will spill out. But you can gather them again, or at least as many as possible, and so long as Sonic holds a single ring he’ll always be safe from any hazard save a spike, drowning, or a pit. Rings offer insurance and give Sonic a sort of forgiving feel that it desperately needs given its inclination to encourage gamers to engage in unwise behavior.
Sonic has a story of sorts (which is why all those robots turn into cute woodland creatures when defeated), and of course there’s Dr. Robotnik or Eggman or whatever you want to call him. The showdowns with his machines at the end of each zone are probably the least inspired element of the game; they don’t really fit the feel of Sonic the Hedgehog. Jump, hit the weak point from above, avoid the wrecking ball or whatever. Safe, dull, predictable.
But this failing feels far less egregious in light of Sonic’s stunning presentation. The game offered visual virtuosity with its distinct, iconic zones. The Green Hills Zone stands as one of gaming’s most memorable synesthetic experiences with its checkerboard patterns of earth topped by grassy overlays and accompanied by a brilliant chiptune melody. Sonic games go back to that particular well over and over for a reason: It’s absolutely brilliant. The subsequent areas may not command quite the same power over our collective nostalgia, but they really shook up the standard tropes of platformers. Sonic included no ice zone; the fire and water areas are housed in ancient ruins; and there are several different variants on high-tech industrial or city level designs. The overall effect was to create an aesthetic distinct to the Sonic universe.
And in every world, Sonic’s mission was to keep moving forward. Did I compare him to Mickey Mouse? In nature, only one animal needs to remain in motion constantly less it die: The shark. If ever a video game mascot were a shark, it would be Sonic. Come on — you didn’t really think those fin-like protrusions on his back were spines, now, did you?
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)