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Sonic the Phoenix – A New Years Special

January 2, 2011


Unless you’ve been hiding under Uluru with super-fluffy headphones blaring heavy metal into your brain until every active neuron in that mushy grey stuff between your ears has been obliterated, you’ve probably got some idea that the Sonic the Hedgehog took a turn for the worst around the coming of the 3D age – in fact you’ve probably heard about it so many times you’d want to throw an IED at the next person that mouths off about it, I know I do – hey, put that jam-jar down!

But the points I want to discuss here is why Sonic still survives – why, despite the tragic tangents, ghastly gimmicks and dozens of spin-offs the world could very well have done without, he is still one of gaming’s titans – how SEGA have brought him back from the brink (only just, but I’ll get to that), and the darkest danger Sonic Team and SEGA have yet to face.  Being the start of a new year, now seems an appropriate time to do so, especially since it appears that this year could be a pivotal turning point for the series’ perception by the gaming community. The last two decades have plotted out Sonic’s fortune in gaming history as a precarious roller-coaster ride, but it began on a peak that the series has never seen since.

Yet, any chance of the Sonic franchise earning a pedigree reputation went down as early as the fifth instalment – do you know what that was called? No, nor do I, probably something obscure and irrelevant such as Sonic Spinball. After the initial blitz of the market that came with the first instalments massive 15 million sold copies, and that when strapped with the Genesis aided SEGA in gaining 65% of the market against the Nintendo giant, we all went SEGA-gaga. And even when the team behind the loveable hedgehog began spitting out mediocrity again and again, those bundles of mediocrity still managed to sell like chicken candy-floss stuck inside a Harry Potter book. Maybe this is because the hit Sonic Adventure for the legendary Dreamcast came not a second too soon, in the Christmas of ‘98. The reception of this game, despite flaws in the physics and a clear diversion from the original formula, was assuredly positive (it was one of the titles that accompanied the Dreamcast upon launch, and was a major factor for the fondly remembered console’s success). So, maybe Sonic Adventure and its epic sequel, Sonic Adventure 2, released in 2001, concreted our love for the series?

A game that captured the world of Gaming

Really? Could Sonic 1,2,3, Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 really prevail over the stack of time-wasters the franchise has also spouted? Now, nobody really expects much from spinoffs such ‘Tails Adventure’ or ‘Sonic Shuffle’, but can we really forgive the numerous duds seen even before the atrocity witnessed in 2006? I’m talking Sonic 3D, the oblique outrage, Sonic Labyrinth, the time when they actually took away the element that made Sonic so cool in the first place, Sonic R, the shocking sprinter – there’s about a million games that generated very little commercial success and a lot of nasty criticism. But perhaps, in the context of their release, maybe they could afford that – after all, the fact that they didn’t generate much commercial success is why barely any of us are aware of their existence, much less even played them. Thus, to our eyes, Sonic’s reputation remained unharmed. The real slap to the face was in the new millennia, when the 3D train took off without Sonic Team and left the Sonic franchise in the dust. I’m not going to even bother explaining and analysing what went wrong, we’d be here until the moon floated to Jupiter or your eyeballs fell out. I mean, was it really necessary to include that half-shod shooter element in 2005? And why would take away everything that made Sonic great (gameplay-wise) and replace it with… a brawler? The blunders, to this day, cannot be accounted for.

I know it's my obligation - that's why I'm writing this, but no comment.

So, why he still alive and kicking? Why do videogame titled with the name ‘Sonic’ slapped on  the front sell like hotcakes? Nostalgia? Maybe, but I think there’s another reason.

And if you have a little sibling and an open mind, maybe you know the answer. Younger gamers aren’t nearly as anal as we are when it comes to gameplay and innovation – it’s not that it doesn’t matter to them, but there are certain aspects to a game that can appeal more. And I think that, if we look at them, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves and what made us fall in love with Sonic in the first place – it’s him. It’s not just the attitude and reckless, adventurous spirit that has been recreated in comics, TV series’ and even a movie or two, but the way that character is flexible enough to switch between fire and ice, act in aggression and compassion. Heck, maybe it’s because we’ve seen so much of Sonic in so many different ways that he’s got this depth of character – that’s right, depth. He walks, he talks, he cries, he laughs, he loves, hates and hopes. He’s not just running to the right with a smirk on his face, a glint in his eye and gold in his heart, at least, not always – and that’s what our younger siblings can see because it’s how they were introduced to Sonic, with titles such as Sonic ’06, Unleashed, Black Knight, Chronicles, Rush and even the controversial Shadow the Hedgehog. Some of those may not always be the next console/genre-defining games to have blessed our collections, but at their heart and past some cornball voice-acting and questionable technical execution are flexible characters that can be easily fleshed out and plotlines that have been delicately assembled (I mean, for all the trouble Sonic 06 was you’ve gotta admit the plot was pretty kick-ass). The community assembled behind Sonic was, and is, very strong, very pro-active and possibly the most optimistic people on the planet. And that community is huge, they’ve probably helped flesh Sonic’s character out as much as Sonic Team. Their love for the blue dude with a ‘tude actually conceived his very own convention, Summer of Sonic, in London, the first held in 2008 and annually since – fans did that, it’s a convention that is officially recognised by SEGA Europe and is generating more and more publicity every year. That’s on par with Star Wars love., it’s not just a few seventeen year olds in the basement this is a global network consisting of dozens of age groups. You get the gist of things. He’s a hedgehog with some human spirit, and we love him for it.

Of course, even that wasn’t going to hold out forever, and thankfully it didn’t need to. You see, it’s that strength of the series that also nearly condemned it – it may sound all beautiful and fluffy in the paragraph above, but when it comes to standalone games the critics weren’t going to give a flying hoot. The series was being pulled in half, between young gamers and the ‘veterans’ who were clamouring obnoxiously for a ‘return to roots’, as was repeated in preview after preview after preview after preview until nobody really believed it any more (thus the reputed Sonic-cycle was born, but it’s the biggest load of garbage since scientology, so why give a flying hoot?). It was a mess, and though the games were selling well due to now notorious nostalgia and that beautiful and fluffy stuff in the above paragraph, outside of the iron clad community of Sonic fans the hedgehog was hitting some rough reception. There’s really no excuse for why it took SEGA so long to figure out what’s looking to be the solution, but in the end they found it. Finally.

A split target audience? Well, split the series! And this year, we finally saw that done. SEGA and Sonic Team shoved Sonic 4: Episode I in the whinging gobs of the veteran gamers, and gently handed Sonic Colours for the Wii to everybody else. Two games to meet the needs of the dual-demographic hungry for platforming, action and their loved characters. And they got it. Both were met with positive reviews and have sold as well as any other Sonic game released since Sonic 2 (Colours even holding its own despite being under the blacker than black shadow of a certain Activision titan). After slowly being burned into mediocrity, and finally down to the ashes of mockery, Sonic had spread his wings once more in a blaze of glory as a magnificent phoenix.

Okay, mostly, but there’s really no better excuse for the phoenix metaphor at present now is there?

And so today he’s alive and kicking, and the future’s looking brighter than it has in a decade. I know I hope that SEGA hasn’t lost faith in Sonic games that do more than just scroll around the place (as entertaining as that may be) and that the many characters that have each plagued and blessed have not been canned altogether – a certain darker twin had a magnificent backstory, and why have we lost sight of the rock and rolling brawly Knuckles the Echidna? Well, I say that to an extent, of course, if SEGA decide to go off on a tangent once more and make a Sonic game without Sonic as the main protagonist I’d rather them do it with Metacritic smiling down on them, but you know what I mean.

And the darkest danger yet to come? Well that’s simple: it’s you. Us, the gamers, who, as soon as a cutscene pops in between levels or Sonic opens his mouth, shut down and lean back smugly on our pile of cynicism, waving the ghost of poor-games past under his bemused black nose – Croshaw, I’m looking at you. It’s hard to delve into and argue this subject without appearing particularly biased, seeing as it’s Sonic revealing such a depth of character instead of sticking to the formula that’s had him in such strife in the first place, in short, you can’t cheer a lame horse. But, a negative reception of a game on the concept that it’s a game that doesn’t stick to an original formula is bias, and it will kill.

And on that slightly morbid note we reach this anecdote’s end. On a sunnier tone, we can rejoice for the time being; and the coming new year Sonic the Hedgehog is in the transition from one-foot-in-the-grave to rising phoenix and back to legend, though I’d say it’s going to take many years yet to convince the gaming community as a whole that the series is worth returning to. People will tend to look onto Sonic games for long time with frosty caution and wary suspicion.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a fictional character, aimed primarily at children, but that also appeals to an older demographic not just because of nostalgia but because of his heroism and his surprisingly true blue human heart that’s kept him alive in ours. I’d say we leave this in the humble words of a great country musician:

“Cause Champions don’t always win,

they’re known for coming back again,

and we will make amends.”

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