Last week marked the release of Sonic Unleashed, the latest disappointment in the mistreated Sonic franchise. The game features pretty-good 2.5D platforming sequences and crappy beat-‘em-up sequences in which Sonic becomes a werewolf (sorry, wereHOG), making for a seriously ‘meh’ package. The current reception to the game is also indicative of how far Sega has fallen, given that this looks to be one of their tentpole titles of the season. So just what the hell is going on here?
The 16-bit Sonic series was enormous back in the early ‘90s. It’s undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Sega was so successful during this era against the Nintendo behemoth. When placed side-by-side with the SNES, the Genesis appears to be pretty technologically inferior. 512 colors vs. 32,000, a crappy sound chip vs… well, just go listen to ActRaiser. But the Genesis did have one thing that NintenDon’t. BLAST. PROCESSING. Or at least that’s what Sega’s ridiculously well-conceived commercials would have you believe was powering Sonic the Hedgehog. Could the SNES have done Sonic? Probably, but the closest it got was Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally, which was a load of crap. To a lot of kids, Genesis was cool, and SNES was a hulking, moaning turtle, albeit a colorful one. Sonic was fun, challenging, and fast-paced. All of the main series Sonic titles of this era were good. Even the Game Gear titles were some of the better options in that system’s library.
Spinoffs aside, Sonic was practically a nonentity for a number of years—up until 9/9/99. The Dreamcast was released, and Sonic Adventure was a must-have title, a system-seller. It successfully brought Sonic into the 3D era—well, for the most part. Though the game featured a lot of fast-paced Sonic gameplay, it also featured mostly pointless in-between-levels gameplay, similar to Mario 64 but a lot more story-driven and lengthy. The game also featured a supporting cast of tertiary characters. With the exception of Tails and possibly Knuckles, I have no idea why anyone would want to play as these hideous monsters. A fishing cat, REALLY? No seriously, I never finished the fishing cat stages, though this is partially because I strongly dislike fish. I can think of a couple reasons these characters were likely added. First off, their levels are a lot more simplistic in nature than Sonic’s spectacular level set, and allowed the development staff to easily pad the core game. Also, tertiary characters = expansion of the Sonic universe = Expansion of the Sonic franchise = PROFIT.
While Sonic Adventure was well regarded, its main series successors did little to progress the series, leading to lower review scores and a general feeling amongst old-school Sonic fans that new Sonic titles were no longer must-haves. The spinoffs continued as well, bottoming out with Shadow the Hedgehog, a title which meant to be edgy and mature, but which came off as.. well jeez, it’s a game about a hedgehog fighting aliens, how they expected to bring this into remotely edgy and mature territory is beyond me. Portable Sonic games continued the traditional 2D Sonic gameplay, but incorporated elements of the 3D iterations to create an experience that, while certainly decent, didn’t really feel like the 16-bit titles.
But then, things started looking up. The first screenshots of a next-gen title known only as “Sonic the Hedgehog” were released.
HOLY SHIT, THE SPRAWLING VISTA!!!
THIS IS NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S SONIC!!!
This looked like a much-needed reboot for the 3D Sonic games. It was going to bring the series back into AAA territory! I was lucky enough to attend E3 2006, and got a chance to play this game early. It seemed much slower than Sonic Adventure, there were certainly no sprawling vistas, and I kept falling through the scenery. But hey, this was just an early version, six months before the game’s release.
Apparently, that’s how Sonic the Hedgehog shipped. Like a broken version of Sonic Adventure. With interspecies love between Sonic and a human princess apparently ripped from Final Fantasy Whatever. And with all the tertiary characters you’ve come to know and love, plus two new Hedgehogs. From the looks of things, another six months in development and this might have risen to the rank of Mediocre, but it shipped a complete buggy mess since Sega needed to get it out for the Christmas season. Fantastic, now we’ll have to wait another 15 years before a game can once again be called Sonic the Hedgehog. Hopefully the 2021 version turns out better than its 2006 predecessor. To add insult to injury, a GBA port of the original Sonic the Hedgehog was released in conjunction with the next-gen version. Somehow, it was also completely broken.
If you’re an old-school Sonic fan, you’re probably aware of most of what I’ve said up until now, but I plan to spend the next paragraph making an argument that might actually be new to you, so sit tight.
So why does Sega continue to keep pumping out these half-assed titles featuring our beloved former system-selling mascot? Because they sell really well. Even Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 was an Xbox 360 Greatest Hit, and this is despite sucking. But certainly old-timey gamers like myself aren’t buying these titles, so who is? Why, the younger generation, of course! These kids don’t give a crap about the fact that there are 93 tertiary characters or that the storylines revolve around bestiality, this is the only Sonic they know! Hey, maybe kids today like fishing cats and bestiality. Old-timers can bitch and moan all they want about what the Sonic series used to be, or what it should be, but we’re not Sonic’s target audience, so we may as well just move on. It’s been a decade and a half since Sonic’s heyday. Our Sonic is not the current Sonic. Sure, we see the potential for a better Sonic based on our recollections of his past glories, but let’s face facts, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because it clearly doesn’t need to. Nothing to see here, folks…