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Readers search their hearts and ask if the Sonic series was ever great

Plus the story of a bizarre fan-made Sonic audio drama

Screenshot: Sonic And The Black Knight/Sonic News Network
Screenshot: Sonic And The Black Knight/Sonic News Network

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

The Tough Questions

Yesterday marked Sonic The Hedgehog’s 25th anniversary (and the 20th anniversary of the Nintendo 64—quite the day in games history). Patrick Lee took the opportunity to look back at the series and chart its evolution with one of our Best, Worst, Weirdest cloumns. Popular opinion usually paints the series as being in a gradual decline since the end of the 2-D era, but Patrick argued the games’ level of quality has been volatile throughout their history. And he reckoned that, despite its overall superiority, Sonic 3’s toned down aesthetic marked a beginning for the series’ troubles. Wolfman Jew pointed to another of Sonic 3’s big changes as a possible turning point:

For some time, I’ve felt that there’s truth in Patrick’s position about Sonic 3 being the “start of darkness,” and I think more than anything it comes down to the new guy. This isn’t to disparage the game (which is good) or Knuckles, but he’s not really a character; he’s an idea. That idea—“Sonic but tougher”—makes a lot of sense. If the good doctor can’t be an adequate rival, why not a darker version of the hero?

The thing is that ever since then, every addition to the series, particularly in its cast, feels more like brand extensions than anything interesting or emergent. This was perhaps inevitable considering how much the hero worked in conjunction with the company’s brand identity, but it meant that characters became almost factory made. They’re just a dominant color, character trait, and potential way to better sell the series. If Knuckles is “Sonic but tougher,” then Metal Sonic and Shadow are just more extreme permutations on the same idea, with the latter being extremely tied to the early 2000s culture in which he spawned.

For a character based on outpacing the competition, Sonic is too reverent of whatever modern trends in gaming or broader culture it sees fit to steal. God Of War looks popular? Let’s make a terrible action game that draws from it! The Havok engine is getting good marks? Let’s include a character who can manipulate objects! There never seems to be an attempt to mesh any of the mechanics and styles and narrative tropes. More disreputable Sonic installments are like Frankenstein’s monster, a corpse stitched from better games with whatever heart the series once had now buried underneath all the bone and sinew.

The one way I could see the character “returning” would be for SEGA to ask themselves: What is Sonic even about? Is he a Warner Bros.-esque lovable trickster mascot, a piece of corporate synergy, or something else? How can his kind of game design, where the levels themselves dare you to take more risks and keep going faster, match up with modern trends, and if they don’t, are they necessary to follow? I don’t really think Sonic is “salvageable” for multiple reasons, but Sonic Team would do well to understand the appeal of those games beyond attitude.

Girard wondered whether the series’ identity issues were more fundamental:

When I was emulating everything in college, I loaded Sonic 1 and 2, figuring I’d see what was up and just wound up having no fun. This article, along with that Humble Bundle, prompted me to give them another shot. I tried Sonic 2 and CD. Both really failed to work for me on a fundamental level.

It feels like the Sonic games are pulled between two completely different forms of play, and in trying to balance both, neither feels satisfying. Like, at some points, you’re zipping along, picking up speed and careening through the level, but this isn’t really much fun, as your entire interaction is just holding right on the gamepad and when you have to navigate platforming stuff in this state, your speed gives you no lead-time to see what’s coming. (Especially when you can outpace the camera!) You inevitably run into something, lose all speed, and the game turns into a more traditional platformer. But Sonic‘s slippery acceleration and floaty jumps—designed more for the speedy segments—are really ill-equipped for this, and the platforming feels imprecise and frustrating.

While I was playing, I was trying to think how you could actually make a good, playable Sonic game—or one I’d find fun, anyway. And I don’t think it’s doable. The fundamental mechanics and premise seem kind of flawed at their core.

Green Hill Zone, the first level in Sonic The Hedghog. Screenshot: Sega.

Referencing a critical video from Super Bunnyhop, Merlin The Tuna asked the question that several commenters had been dancing around: Did the Sonic series ever hit any sort of stride?

I plug Super Bunnyhop a lot, but for real, his retrospective on the first level of each main Sonic game is a required companion piece to Patrick’s article. The first stage is both a sales pitch and a mission statement for a game, and it’s interesting to see nearly every Sonic game fumble it in one way or another, to the point that I wonder if there ever really were glory days for Sonic. As big as it got, I’m not sure the “essence” of Sonic was truly established before “Sonic Team” became an endless conga line of new developers designing by their own committees.

I hate to always be a downer, but the series really is fascinatingly singular in its failure. Final Fantasy totally revamps its mechanics every entry but manages to make them all feel linked. Mario is always a horizontal platformer, but each one brings fresh ideas and changes the formula in key ways. Metroid, Zelda, Assassin’s Creed, Call Of Duty, Halo, and so on tend to be more of their respective sames, but they do so in a way that their fans appreciate. Sonic though? Sega hasn’t figured out how to change or execute a Sonic formula, and the series is now more misses than hits as a result. Even with nostalgia more in vogue than ever, Sonic seems doomed to helpless flailing. It’s incredibly weird how enduring he’s been as an icon despite being a punchline for most of his existence.

And Sandler’s List evoked another of Sonic’s endemic issues:

One thing that never sat well with me is how Sonic was designed specifically as a mascot. I hate to compare him to Mario, but you almost have to. Mario became Nintendo’s default mascot because Super Mario Bros. was such an enormous hit, but you never get the impression that Miyamoto was trying to make him anything other than a fun character in a great game. And pretty much every one of the countless Mario sequels feels earned, like they had enough new ideas to justify making a new game. Even after all these years, a new Mario game always feels like it needed to be made. In that way, Mario isn’t just the mascot for a company, he’s the mascot for a certain design philosophy, and I think that’s why he’s endured.

With Sonic, there’s a very Poochie-like lack of authenticity behind the whole endeavor because he was very clearly created to be both the face of the Sega brand and a faster and edgier alternative to Mario’s uncool earnestness. It was never possible for Sonic to garner the kind of organic popularity that Mario did, because Sega’s approach to the character precluded that. And don’t get me wrong, Sonic 2 and 3 are great games, but not so great that people would still be making Sonic games today if Sega had never tried to push the character like they did. This is why there have been so many bad/baffling Sonic games over the years: They’re designed as vehicles for a mascot, not as expressions of a design philosophy that Sonic happens to represent.

Screenshot: Sonic Shuffle/Sonic News Network

Elsewhere, ItsTheShadsy had another suggestion for “Weirdest” Sonic game:

The Sonic series has a lot of great options for weirdest, so as an alternative, I’d like to suggest Sonic Shuffle. The game was clearly made to capitalize on the success of Mario Party, but while Mario Party translated the joyful world of Mario into a digitally enhanced board game, Shuffle completely missed the boat on both the charms of the series and how to design a board game.

Sonic Shuffle has a bizarre story mode about interdimensional light beings from the land of Maginaryworld. If not for the fact that you play as Sonic, it would be almost unrecognizable as a Sonic game, and it suffers from the same plot-heavy pitfalls as Sonic 2006.

But even more weirdly, the game uses Uno-style cards as a way to navigate the board—and then throws card-based boss battles on top of that. It’s just a grab-bag of mechanics, ideas, and strategies, and nothing sticks. There’s none of the immediacy of Mario Party, and it’s way too confusing for a game meant to be played with friends at a sleepover. Sega gets credit for trying something different with the formula and deviating dramatically from the Sonic canon, but it’s the rare game that feels like a wild experiment and a knockoff at the same time. This is emblematic of the weird, half-formed, narratively incoherent directions the series keeps going down.

And speaking of weird Sonic things, darquegk told an amazing story about being involved in a lost fan-made Sonic radio play:

True Showbiz Tales #5: One of my first paying gigs post high school was as a voice actor in a Sonic audio drama/podcast. I expected it to be some furry crap, but it was the opposite: an extraordinarily stoned, free-wheeling comedy in which I had to improvise and play most of the “canon” characters.

I still remember, one of the stage directions was: “TAILS picks up guitar and improvises nonsensical song about Big Macs.” The climax, if I recall, was that Robotnik had arranged a cage match between Sonic and his “evil double,” a can of Sonic and Meatballs from Franco American.

More highlights:

  1. Robotnik, the only Sonic character I did not play, had a Serbian-Russian accent and was forever accompanied by a balalaika playing a Serbian folk song. When he “smashed the balalaika,” the music was resumed by two actors vocally impersonating its tune.
  2. Knuckles was always being called upon to freestyle rap. The script would just say “KNUCKLES: (freestyle raps).” I hadn’t had to do that before, so the results were predictably messy.
  3. A recurring series of “commercial breaks” involved an ill-conceived character called Tourette’s Guy (which I also played—imagine a bad parody of Wesley Willis) attempting to read actual ad copy but gradually devolving into vocal tics. The character’s signature tic was screaming “cock-squirrels! The squirrels in my cock!”
  4. After the finale, in which the can of Franco-American Sonic and Meatballs managed to inexplicably kill the entire Sonic cast (despite not being sentient), the final commercial break involved a parody of Pittsburgh’s top lawyer, Edgar Snyder, who’s famous for his catchphrase, “Remember, there’s never a fee unless we get money for you!” In the Sonic podcast, this was rejiggered as “Remember, there’s never a fee until we take money from you!” The script indicated “actors alternate each line,” intending us to do one sentence each. Somehow, in the recording room, this changed to “each actor speaks one word at a time, and we try our hardest to make it sound like a fluid sentence in a single voice.” It did not.

I’ve tried looking for the podcast but haven’t found anything. I suspect the recording was destroyed before release—either because it was bad, or offensive, or just too weird.

So this either never made it to the internet or this whole story was completely fabricated. Either way, it’s pretty incredible.

That does it for this week, Gameologinistas. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!