In 1991 a blue blur streaked across our screens for the first time. This is when my first experience of Sonic The Hedgehog began, with my Master System controller in hand I spent countless hours dashing through each zone hoping to defeat Dr. Robotnik (as he was named back then in all but Japan). Sonic was like nothing we had seen before, his sheer speed, the lush setting of the green hill zone and his cool persona. Sonic was fresh and a far cry from the outdated podgy plumber sporting a moustache and dungarees, yet at some point throughout the years it all went wrong. You see, although Mario as a character was always much less “cool” than his blue younger rival, Mario is still innovating and refreshing with each new instalment of the main franchise, which is now pushing 30. So where did it all go wrong for Sonic? For some years Sonic was arguably as big, if not bigger than Mario, let’s take a look back at how Sonics rise to fame began.
During the 1980’s the juggernaut of Nintendo began to dominate the games industry with a reported market share of around 92%. By this point Sega had already entered the console market and yet the Master System paled in comparison to the NES, selling around 13 million units while the NES achieved a whopping 61.9 million sales. At this point Sega had to rethink their strategy, the Genesis had arrived in Japan at the end of 1988 and over the course of almost two years it was eventually released in the UK (the console was named ‘Mega Drive’ in both Europe and Japan). This console was about to sow the seeds of success which would shoot Sega into the forefront of gamers minds, and make Sonic one of gaming’s greatest icons for generations to come. The Genesis was not an instant success, however, that was all about to change as a new game had been developed called Sonic The Hedgehog and it would be bundled in with every new Genesis console.
Sonic became an instant success and Sega’s market share peaked at around 55 – 65% during 1991. The golden era of Sonic was about to begin as a string of Sonic titles were released yearly, beginning with Sonic The Hedgehog 2 in 1992, the lesser known Sonic CD in 1993, and both Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles released during 1994. The classic Sonic formula had worked wonders throughout the 16-Bit era, however, Sonic’s reign was about to end due to three important factors discussed below.
Part 1: Sonic Adventure
3D gaming ushered in a new era for videogames, and many existing franchises had to evolve to stay relevant. Super Mario 64 hit shelves in 1996, followed by other 3D platformers, such as Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation. Sega had also begun to evolve and so the natural progression was to bring their mascot into the realms of 3D. Fans had to wait 4 years after the release of Sonic & Knuckles for Sonic Adventure, which was released for the Dreamcast in 1998; it was the first in the main series to feature 3D gameplay (spin-offs such as Sonic Labyrinth and Sonic 3D had previously experimented with isometric gameplay).
Sonic Adventure received mainly positive reviews,so how could 3D possibly have had a negative impact on the franchise? Sonic The Hedgehog had been designed to be a much faster game than Super Mario Bros. There is still an element of skill involved in Sonic’s gameplay, however the main appeal is its speed. I generally felt myself rushing through most levels as fast as possible rather than trying different routes and finding all the secret areas. Adding a third dimension to the mix didn’t really add anything to the game play, and if anything, Sonic became increasingly frustrating to control as his speedy movements were difficult to judge in a three dimensional environment. Mario on the other hand was a slower paced game with a greater focus on skill and taking time to plan each jump with expert precision, or work out a method of attack (there was of course a countdown timer in Super Mario Bros. but generally stages were not designed to be sped through as they were in Sonic The Hedgehog). Adding a 3D element to Mario games offered a further degree of tactics; the player now had to carefully navigate the plumber across narrow ledges, circle enemies and shake off crazed Bullet Bills. Moving to a 3D environment was one of only several large changes Sonic Adventure brought with it.
In recent years many would agree that Sonic games have become bloated with superficial playable characters, and if we compare this with core Mario games, the player is generally only able to play as Mario or Luigi, of course there are exceptions to this (see Super Mario 64 DS). I believe Sonic Adventure was the catalyst for this, adding six playable characters that were insubstantial in terms of their relation to the Sonic universe and more importantly to the player base. Sega seem to have addressed this oversaturation of extraneous character selection with the launch of Sonic The Hedgehog 4, in which a character teaser countdown was used which finally revealed Sonic as the only playable character.
Sonic Adventure also brought with it some strange design decisions. Gone were the memorable electronic songs synonymous with previous games in the series, instead replaced by throw away guitar riffs and vocals . . . vocals! As for the level design, there were some beautiful zones such as ‘Emerald Coast’, ‘Mystic Ruins’, and ‘Windy Valley’, all of which were reminiscent of canonical Sonic design. New, however, was the inclusion of hub worlds (think Super Mario 64’s castle), which would be a perfectly fine inclusion were it not for ‘Station Square’; a city populated with humans and featuring a train station. Other than Robotnik (who is very much a caricature) humans had never been a part of this universe before, but that all changed with Sonic Adventure.
Most importantly, disregarding some poor design decisions on Sega’s part, it is the gameplay that should keep players hooked. Going back to play ‘Emerald Coast’ (the first zone in Sonic Adventure) I realized how little interaction there is in this stage, with very few enemies, and a very linear path to the goal. The stage looks quite nice, but due to Sonic’s high speed, the player misses most of its beauty, and has no real reason to slow down to appreciate it as the stage is fairly linear with a general lack of enemies and obstacles.
Part 2: The Console Fiasco
When a new console is released it is generally four or five years until a successor is released. This allows developers to get to grips with the new tech and work on building a franchise. Developers start to understand the limitations of a platform and are in a much better position to release a sequel or two utilising the same engine and tech. Consumers also benefit from these life cycles as they generally end up with better quality games as a result. Buying a new console can cost hundreds of pounds and consumers can be reluctant to upgrade. Both Nintendo and Sony have released every new home console at least five years after their last flagship machines (there was a four year gap between the original Xbox and the Xbox 360). Sega on the other hand have had a very troubled release schedule.
The Master System debuted in 1987 and aimed to compete directly with the NES. By this time however Nintendo had already dominated the market. For the next generation the Genesis arrived two years earlier than the Super Nintendo, giving Sega a much-needed boost. The Genesis firmly cemented Sega as an established brand, and not wishing to fall behind again, Sega quickly began working on new consoles. They were perhaps a little worried that Nintendo might follow up and beat them to the market with their next generation console, which would eventually be the N64.
What happened over the next decade would lead to Sega retiring from the console market and focus solely on software. Between ‘89 and ‘99 Sega would release six new home consoles (along with the 32X there were also Mega-CD 32X games which required both a Mega CD and a 32X), plus provide continued support to the Master System. On top of this Sega also released hand held consoles and updated existing models (Mega Drive II). Compare this to Sony who openly announced that their consoles have a ten year life cycle. The new PlayStation becomes Sony’s flagship system for five years, and then the company spends a further five years supporting the system as the budget older brother to the PlayStation 2, strengthening the user base for their latest console. There is nothing inherently wrong with this logic as Sony only supported two home platforms simultaneously, not seven!
Now arguably the Mega CD and the 32X (along with Mega-CD 32X games) were add-ons for the Mega Drive, as neither could function without being connected to a Mega Drive. The idea was quite innovative, essentially keeping a base console relative for years to come while upgrading it with extra units rather than abandoning it in favour of the latest system. Keep in mind however, that these were full price systems retailing at approximately £250 for the Mega-CD and £150 for the 32X at release. Nintendo implemented this same concept several years later but in a much more user friendly way by offering customers the ‘Expansion Pak’, which increased the N64’s RAM. The Expansion Pak retailed for a fraction of the price of the 32X and was even bundled free with Donkey Kong 64 for a time. So therein lies the problem. It’s not that fans went off Sonic itself, but for the most part they lost interest in Sega as a brand. Nobody could keep up with the sheer about of systems Sega was selling, and for that matter who would want to? The 32X library consisted of thirty-four games while the Mega-CD 32X library consisted of only six (some of which were duplicates of 32X games); quite a price to pay for such a limited selection.
Sega followed up with yet more bad decisions. The Saturn was slated for a September 1995 release but four months before the launch date, Sega surprised fans when the console shipped early at select retailers. Due to the surprise launch there were only a handful of games, none of which were from third-party developers. Sonic didn’t even make an appearance on the console after Sonic X-treme became stuck in development hell. Four years of poor sales passed until Sega released what would be their final console, the Dreamcast. In terms of shipped units, the Dreamcast only scrapped around 10 million, just slightly more than the Saturn. Both the Xbox and GameCube sold about double that amount although they were not considered to be massive successes when compared to the mammoth PlayStation 2 sales; a console which has gone on to sell an estimated 150 million units. For reference here are SEGA’s home console releases in chronological order:
Master System (1987)
Mega Drive (1989)
Mega CD (1992)
Part 3: In Conclusion
There is not a simple explanation as to why both Sega failed as a hardware developer and Sonic failed as a flagship franchise. Sonic’s fall from grace seems to be attributed to the culmination of bad design decisions to both hardware and software. With failing hardware a franchise cannot survive, but would Sonic have fared any better had the Saturn or Dreamcast sold as well as the PlayStation 2?
During the 1990’s many franchises were evolving and Sonic had to compete to stay fresh and relevant. Sonic Team seemed to struggle to evolve Sonic in a way that would remain true to the franchise. Perhaps Sonic should have remained a 2D platformer and found new ways to innovate within that design space; after all, in recent years 2D platformers have enjoyed a resurrection and have been well received. Mario and Sonic have returned to their roots with New Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 respectively, as well as many new and unique platform style games such as Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy populating the downloadable space. In the meantime though, Sonic has been placed in increasingly unfamiliar situations. There has been 3D platforming in Sonic Adventure, the high-paced, almost racing like Sonic and the Secret Rings, and morphing into a werewolf in Sonic Unleashed: none of this content ‘feels’ like a Sonic game should.
Sonic remains a reminder of a bygone era of classic platforming action in the golden age of gaming. Unfortunately he has never been able to move on and evolve in a way that both improves the core mechanics and remains relevant.
1. Kent, Steven L, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), p. 428.
4. Kent, Steven L, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), p.434
Edited by Arthur Salt