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Game On: Sonic the Hedgehog’s past shines brighter than his present

The teaser trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog’s 2022 game is about as vague as they come, showing the blue blur running through a field with graphical distortions in his wake before cutting to an image of incomprehensible logo.  (Sega Corp.)
The teaser trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog’s 2022 game is about as vague as they come, showing the blue blur running through a field with graphical distortions in his wake before cutting to an image of incomprehensible logo. (Sega Corp.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

It’s not exactly a controversial statement to say that Sonic the Hedgehog has a pretty spotty history. The merchandise and marketing? Impeccable. The games themselves? Not so much. And while every YouTube critic and keyboard warrior will have you convinced that “Sonic had a rough transition to 3D,” and only the 2D early 1990s titles were worthwhile, I don’t believe that’s true at all.

Sega’s mascot nailed the jump from 2D to 3D games on the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast with Sonic Adventure and its sequel – they were held in high regard at the time, and Sonic Adventure 2’s 89/100 Metacritic rating is testament to the fact. Less than one year later, it was ported to the Nintendo GameCube, where it became the bestselling third-party game for the console.

Sonic on a Nintendo system was practically heresy in 2001, but sales figures show clear demand for him there. Things went downhill from there. 2003 saw Sonic’s first multiplatform release in the form of Sonic Heroes, which used a team mechanic wherein players controlled three characters at once. It was reasonably well done, but between long, tedious battle segments and linear stage design, it wasn’t great. 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog was similarly middling.

What came the following year was the lowest point in the series – advertised as a soft reboot, the self-titled Sonic the Hedgehog, which fans call “Sonic ’06,” arrived in poor shape. Rushed out the door to meet holiday sales demands, the game was a buggy mess. Players routinely fell through the floor and catapulted off ledges for no discernible reason.

Loading screens sometimes lasted a full minute. The game’s attempt at a dark and edgy story fell flat on its face. Even as a starry-eyed 12-year-old, I was disgusted at how awful the game was – it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t even bland or mediocre – it was the most frustrating game I’ve played to this day. From that day forward, I’ve approached each new release with great skepticism.

There have been small victories since – Sonic Unleashed was a solid effort, as was its successor Sonic Generations. Once a franchise that produced several games each year, the output of Sonic games has slowed significantly over the past decade. The only mainline entries in that time have been Sonic Lost World in 2013 and Sonic Forces in 2017, and both went over poorly with the majority of fans.

The sole undisputable victory for Sonic in the past decade has been Sonic Mania, which is essentially a sophisticated fan mod of the original Sega Genesis trilogy that Sega gave the green light to be released in an official capacity. Its excellence is bittersweet – I’m glad to have the game, but disappointed that the best Sonic game in 16 years was made by hobbyist fans and not the professionals at Sonic Team.

It’s a developer that has proven time and again they have no clue what fans want and on many occasions have added insult to injury by releasing messy, unpolished products. All the same, occasionally Sonic Team will diverge from the status quo and help deliver fantastic games such as Puyo Puyo Tetris. They’re not incompetent developers, just misguided.

Ironically, I would love nothing more than for Sonic Team to stop making Sonic games and for Sega to pass the torch to a group with better vision for the series. They wouldn’t have to look far. There are so many ways to make a fast-paced platformer starring a cocky cartoon character into a fun time, and somewhere along the way Sonic Team forgot how.

Sega revealed a teaser trailer for the next main Sonic entry in May and filed a trademark for the title Sonic Frontiers this month. It’s on its way in 2022 if all goes to plan. Rumored to be an open-world “collectathon” with role-playing game elements, I’d love to say I have high hopes for it, but I’ve been burnt by the blue hedgehog one too many times over the years. I’ll reserve judgment until the game is released and the controller is in my hands.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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