Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Sonic is too cool for his own good

Considering what a gamer I've turned out to become, I wasn't exactly spoiled with access to video games when I was a kid. You hear a lot of people nowadays go on about how they started gaming just about when they learned to grasp things with their hands, me on the other didn't get proper into gaming until my teens. I have vague memories of the odd computer game here and there - watching my uncle play Railroad Tycoon on his Amiga when I was 5, playing Lemmings on the computer of a friend of the family when I was around 6, Shufflepuck Cafe on an old Mac at school when I was 9 - nothing fancy and definitely not for any extent. A neighbour of mine had a SNES however, and this was the closest I got to some good gaming as a kid. He was stingy with letting us play though, at least that is how I remember it, but we got some good sessions of Killer Instinct, Super Mario World and Tiny Toons in before his mom sold it. Then eventually I bought my own first console, a N64, and the rest is history.

So pretty... -

What I can't recall ever playing as a kid however, was a Mega Drive (Genesis for you Americans). I knew of them, obviously. I had heard about Sonic and... that was about it. I didn't know much about SEGAs consoles to begin with, I didn't know anyone who owned one of their consoles and by the time I got around to caring SEGA was almost out of the console business anyway. It makes me wonder when I actually got around to trying a classic game like Sonic for the first time, but I am thinking it must've been well into my late teens. I recall my first impression of it vividly however - I thought it was pretty shit. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of Nintendo fangirl who automatically disliked everything that wasn't Mario. I am in fact not overly fond of most of Marios platforming games either (as it turns out I'm not very fond of platforming games overall), but Sonic disappointed me in being nothing like everything I had heard about it being. Sonic was supposed to be fast and cool, he definitely got the cool factor over Mario but I thought the levels were just confusing and silly. Sonic seemed to run randomly across the place, the level design was pretty much the opposite of the straightforwardness of the Mario games (which were pretty much the only platforming games I had as a reference point at that time). Eventhough I wasn't a big fan of the Mario games I could get around getting from A to B via pretty much one route. In Sonic however you got from A to B via what felt like fifteen different routes and it just had me pressing the buttons wondering what the heck was going on. Did I call the shots or did Sonic? Half the time Sonic was either running too much or not running enough.

Actually not an intestinal tract -

I could go on about the issues I have with the Sonic games, and I would probably still think that way if my bf wasn't a massive Sonic fan. That alone did not sway me, but he nagged me into giving the game a second chance. I played it and still disliked it, played it again and felt like I understood the levels a bit better, played it a third time and thought I could see some of what my bf loved so much about it. The levels weren't confusing, they were open and inviting to exploration and experimentation. Sonic wasn't running aimlessly, the speed was part of the platforming challenge and knowing when and when not to use it was the difference between a skilled and less skilled Sonic player (ie my bf vs me). It's not like I love the Sonic games or anything, but I've gone from dislike to respect and understanding regarding them, and it made me think a lot about how SEGA ruined the franchise so badly with the later games. How come the Sonic games failed so hard to live up to old glory when the Mario games clearly had no such problems? It can't have been introducing the series to 3d or implementing new gameplay elements, all of which the Mario series have also done. But whereas the Mario games generally go from victory to victory, every new Sonic game is always anticipated with a shred of hope and a load of fear. I'm amazed the Sonic fan community never seems to truly give up on their blue hedgehog - even the latest Sonic Boom debacle seems to leave people going "but at least maybe the games will be good" - and maybe that says a lot about them.

I like lamp! -

I read about how the Mario fans complain about how some new transformation in some new Mario World game isn't "as cool and useful as it could be" all the while the Sonic fans go "at least in this game there is a level that isn't completely awful, so there is that!". The Mario fans are spoiled with awesomeness, great level design and ingenuity, the Sonic fans are wrecked with too much of the opposite - how could these two series develop so differently?

As I started thinking more and more about it a thought popped into my head: Maybe Sonic is too cool for his own good? Maybe that fact points toward a design idea that simply wasn't made for good gaming in the long run. It points towards the fact that Sonic was designed around not being Mario, whereas Mario was designed as being a tool to get through a game. As far as design goes, pretty much everything about Mario was work-around solutions designed to cater the game. With Sonic however, it seems to have been the other way around. The Mario games were never created with Mario in mind, he was just a character Miyamoto chose to use after he had designed the levels. Sonics games on the other hand must have (this is my own conclusion) been designed with Sonic in mind, and the amount of times a game has come out good when the characters were the starting point I feel like I can count on my left hand fingers (case in point: just about every movie license game out there). Thinking of it that way I'm amazed the first four games on the Mega Drive turned out as well as they did. Kudos to the game designers for managing to turn a Sonic character trait spreadsheet into some really good games.

Unfortunately for Sonic this seems to have meant an over-emphasizing on Sonic as a character as time went on and less focus on the games he starred in. Sonic got a whole bunch of tv-series, some of which I swear people remember a lot better than the games themselves (I'm one of those people) when asked. Who on the other hand remembers the Mario tv-series? As far as I know it was barely even aired in Sweden where I live, and eventhough Mario got a Live-Action-Movie (and Sonic was at least spared from that), Mario was always about the games whereas Sonic was about the image of the character, for better and worse (some of the tv-series are actually really good). Going back to the new Sonic Boom again it just shows this exact mentality at play yet again. Mario doesn't have a new tv-series and design overhaul coming out, but Sonic does. If SEGA put all that effort into making just one awesome Sonic game, rather than splitting up their efforts into "Making-Sonic-Look-Cool-For-The-New-Generation"-team and "Creating-Yet-Another-Series-About-Sonic & Co-Shenanigans"-team, I'm sure it might actually turn out alright.

At least Knuckles didn't get a green mohican -

Of course I don't actually know anything about the actual design process regarding neither Sonic nor Mario, and I wouldn't go as far as calling the first four games on the Mega Drive just lucky shots. There are obviously examples of character based games gone good just as there is the opposite. To me it just feels like as the Sonic series moved and new teams got their hand on the Sonic idea, maybe they didn't have a clear framework to work with. The Mario gameplay concept seems clear enough whereas game creators have struggled with Sonic. "So he runs a lot, then what?" seems to be what have gone through their minds. "What about story?", "What about more characters?", "What about fleshing out the characters we have?", "What about putting a lot of really annoying sound effects into the game that gets repeated every two seconds?". Ok the last one is on me. You don't see any of the Mario games putting any dimes into those buckets however. "So you can play 4-player in this game but we only have Mario and Luigi..." "Uhhh... how about letting people play as one of the mushrooms?" "Yeah, and maybe as the princess or Bowser?".

Shots were fired from both directions -

In the Mario games the characters are the means to an end, and when Sonic was introduced SEGA knew they could use that to their advantage. What kid thinks a fat plumber is a cool mascot? I totally agree that Sonic is way cooler than Mario, and a lot more interesting as a character - hence why the Sonic tv-series have become so much more popular than any Mario equivalents. But in the long run the focus on Sonics persona seems to have gotten game designers confused, losing focus of what really matters in any good game - great gameplay.

I don't think making a good Sonic game today is impossible, and there are even a couple of fairly new releases that aren't too bad. Overall it just seems like Sonic himself has been allowed to overshadow too much of most Sonic games design ideas, leaving the rest of the game hollow and but a faint echo of their former glory.


  1. Zinn

    I had a Genesis back in the day and I have to admit to not being a Sonic fan either. I used to like Golden Axe and that genre much more, One of my favorites (for the Genesis at least) was a game called Shining in the Darkness. It was more like an RPG than a typical console game

    1. Thank you for your comment and sorry for a very late reply! My comment notifications were gone for some reason, and I didn't notice until now :(

  2. awww 16 bit SEGA so nostalgic <3

  3. those were the days :) There was a game back then, a cooking game like Papa's Freezeria, and I can't remember its name :S absolutely loved it

    1. Ah, cooking games can be really fun but I don't think I've ever heard of a 16 bit cooking game, that would've been cool to see!