Thirty years after the original “Sonic the Hedgehog” graced Sega Genesis, the underdog console that briefly broke Nintendo’s winning streak, it’s difficult to believe that Sega’s biggest mascot is still going strong. Well, mostly strong. It’s no secret that the first 10 years were Sonic’s best, and the game franchise has been limping along with mostly minor victories since 2004.
Sega hosted a “Sonic Central” livestream on May 27 announcing a whole slew of new games, comics, memorabilia and even details on the upcoming “Sonic Prime” animated series set to premiere on Netflix sometime next year.
Sega’s continuing to merchandise its mascot for all he’s worth, but the dry spell of Sonic video games has been surprising. 2017 saw the release of mainline entry “Sonic Forces” and the highly successful throwback game “Sonic Mania,” but since then he’s only been in spinoff games like “Team Sonic Racing” and “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.”
Several years between games is not unusual for most franchises, but for much of his 30-year run, Sonic has had a game release every few months. Between home consoles, portables and arcade cabinets, Sonic has starred in almost 90 games to date.
Of course, this pits the hedgehog against the classic dilemma – quality vs. quantity – and even through my rose-tinted glasses, I can tell you with great certainty that my fictional childhood hero has had more misses than hits mostly due to rushed timelines.
It’s a common opinion at this point, and it seems Sega has taken note by, at the very least, slowing down on pumping out main entries. There were two years between “Sonic Generations” and “Sonic Lost World” and another four years between it and “Sonic Forces.” Unfortunately, the slower approach doesn’t seem to be helping much.
At this point, the lack of consistent quality in Sonic games is baffling. Metacritic named Sega its game publisher of the year for 2021 after a consistently excellent showing for 2020 – an average 81.6/100 “Metascore” across 38 products. Essentially, out of all game publishers in the world, Sega’s 2020 releases were reviewed the most favorably on average by journalists and critics.
Clearly, Sega has no shortage of excellent studios under its wing, yet the aptly named “Sonic Team” just can’t seem to do right by its own mascot. Over the years, it’s gone from disappointing to flat-out exhausting.
Aside from 2017’s “Sonic Mania,” which was essentially a fan game so good that Sega worked out a deal and sold it in stores, I haven’t been excited for a Sonic game since 2006. After 2003’s gimmicky, team-based “Sonic Heroes,” 2005’s laughably edgy “Shadow the Hedgehog” and the glitchy, unplayable mess nicknamed “Sonic ’06,” I had enough.
Still, May’s “Sonic Central” left me mostly optimistic. “Sonic Colors Ultimate” is slated to release on all platforms on Sept. 7, a remaster of a great but underexposed game previously exclusive to the Nintendo Wii.
Due sometime in 2022, “Sonic Origins” is another port of the original trilogy, plus “Sonic CD,” but evidently these are the enhanced widescreen versions previously only available on iOS and Android. Sega ended the stream with a teaser for the next mainline entry. Its vagueness has led to a variety of rumors, but one has actual merit.
In January, a supposed focus tester took to online message board 4chan to anonymously share details regarding the next Sonic game, which they called “Sonic Rangers.” This month, Sega sloppily left the term “Rangers” in the trailer’s file and included the title in an early news release, which has since been redacted.
The focus tester says the next “Sonic” game will be open-world – think “The Legend of Zelda” or “Fallout.” It seems like a weird crossover, but, then again, the 1998 classic “Sonic Adventure” contained open hub worlds.
The “Sonic” franchise has always been about tossing around every idea imaginable until something sticks – perhaps exploring large, uninhabited regions as is typical in such games won’t be such a chore when players can run at the speed of sound. I’m open to it.
The hard truth is Sonic games will likely never be of the same consistently high quality of his platformer peers, particularly “Super Mario.” That franchise seldom takes risks and only releases a new mainline entry every few years.
Sega has seen fit to pump the brakes on the breakneck pace of Sonic releases, but will it be enough? We’ll have a more definitive answer in 2022, but “Sonic Colors Ultimate” will whet our appetite for the speedy hedgehog in the meantime.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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