Twenty years ago today, Sega released the first Sonic the Hedgehog videogame. It was a joyous occasion—and it was also my dad's 41st birthday. (Happy 61st birthday, dad.)
Ten years ago today, Sega released the worst Sonic the Hedgehog game — that we'd yet seen. The years since have seen sales of Sonic the Hedgehog games plateau, as fans time and again consider self-mutilation.
One of the most common questions I get in my line of work is, "What was ever good about Sonic the Hedgehog? Why do you always talk about Sonic the Hedgehog as if the games were ever good?" My answer requires $5,000 in cash and a soundproof room where I can scream at you for six hours.
Seeing that the new Sonic game — Sonic Generations — decided to give players the baffling option to play as a slightly lighter blue, chubbier, shorter-armed Sonic in addition to the darker-blue slenderer "modern" Sonic, I'm guessing that Sega themselves would have done well to ask me that question.
It's weird that they would assume This Is What People Want. why would a slightly-lighter-blue hedgehog be the thing that finally redeems the series in the fans' eyes? What was Sonic 4? Wasn't Sonic 4 a "return to form"? How many "returns to form" must the series endure? Why can't it just STAY on form? Sonic 4 was a step in the right direction, though it didn't sell a billion copies, so Sega obviously thinks that they messed up. They didn't, really—even if the game wasn't very good. So they figure we want Sonic to look exactly like he does in Sonic 1. And they pair him with a Sonic that looks like modern Sonic, because they want to show us they are not giving up on the future. There's a lot of weird psychology behind the design choices in Sonic Generations.
Having Modern Sonic meet lighter-blue, chubbier Sonic is not as exciting as having Superman meet Batman. it's more like having X-men: The Movie Wolverine meet X-men Origins: Wolverine Wolverine, is what it's like.
I'm pretty sure that Sega doesn't know what was ever good about Sonic. I do. I could rail on about Sonic for hours. I love Sonic the Hedgehog, and I would snap up the opportunity to dedicate myself to the cause of intervening on his sucking addiction.
I'm sure that no matter how loudly I said a whole bunch of perfectly rational things, Sega wouldn't listen to me. In fact, I'm sure that whatever I said, they'd do the complete opposite. Hmmm. I'm getting an idea! I present you, then, with a list of
8. Make Sonic 3 Sonic playable in Generations as well
For 1994's Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sega utilized the increasingly popular technology of 3D computer graphics to design a new Sonic who was darker blue and bigger-eyed than the previous Sonics of Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Why hasn't he — and his sphere-running over-the-shoulder 3D bonus stages — been included as a playable character in Sonic Generations?
To call Sonic 3 Sonic a "minor" Sonic is poppycock — he appeared in both Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles — the first game to use Sega's patented "lock-on technology"! That's two games. There's no way you can call Sonic 3 Sonic "insignificant" with a straight face.
7. Add another Evil Sonic
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 had a big aluminum-looking Metal Sonic robot. Sonic CD had an edgy, future-like Mecha Sonic, a Sonic robo-clone meant to do all of the same things Sonic could do — only robotically. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 gave us Knuckles the Echidna, who is like Sonic, only an echidna, and red, and with his spikes down instead of up. Also, he's the bad guy. Well, No One Can Stay Angry At Sonic The Hedgehog, and Knuckles became a good guy. Clearly, this wouldn't do, so Sega made Shadow the Hedgehog for Sonic Adventure 2 — and Shadow the Hedgehog eventually got his own game, during which he, too, became more or less Sonic's best friend. 2006's eponymous Sonic the Hedgehog introduced Silver The Hedgehog, who, from the ground up, was designed to be more ominous than evil.
Demographic feedback must not have been off the charts, so they made Sonic his own worst enemy in Sonic Unleashed, which answered fans' dreams: "What if Sonic the Hedgehog weren't a whimsical cartoon character hearkening back to Felix the Cat, and were instead a big dumb werewolf?" That didn't seem to take, either — review scores were less than stellar. So maybe they should try again! Maybe give Sonic multiple personalities — where one of them is a serial killer! Who also steals cars.
6. More human interaction
While we're on the subject of turning Sonic into a serial killer, let's also say that more human characters probably couldn't hurt.
Fans freaked all of the way out when, at the end of 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic kissed a human female. The consensus was that it was about as creepy as watching a hobo make out with a vacuum cleaner hose. Maybe this has something to do with the "Uncanny Valley" — maybe they were too deep into it, and needed to push for more detail? What better way than to take Sonic to the next base: have a scene in which Sonic the Hedgehog graphically has long, passionate, laborious sex with a human female. If you actually require proof that the fans are ready for this, you clearly don't know how to use Google.
5. More furry friends
Fans more often than not react negatively to the addition of new furry friends to Sonic the Hedgehog games. Why is this? I asked a friend who is a game designer (me), and he says that it's because characters like Sonic Adventure 2's Rouge the Bat are off-putting and clumsy, and confined to stages that are, essentially, strictly timed scavenger hunts where the objects the player must find are invisible and placed randomly within a world that no one play-tested.
The market research, however, seems to indicate that the furry friends aren't popular because they haven't found The Best One yet. Let's not forget, people didn't like Sonic the Hedgehog until Sega released the game Sonic the Hedgehog, a game made from the ground up to be about a character named "Sonic the Hedgehog". The first Sonic the Hedgehog game had only one animal character — Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced Miles "Tails the Two-Tailed Fox" Prower, an interesting enough character. It also sold more than its predecessor. So Sonic the Hedgehog 3 kept Tails and added Knuckles. It sold more. Did the escalation of sales happen because the level design tightened up, the scope of the games expanded deliciously, the feel of the games was perfected, and the development team got comfortable enough with the basics to make the games sharp enough to birth endless playground legends? No — it was probably because the games had more characters in them. Fast-forward to The Future, and we have Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood—all characters, all story, and no fun. It sold well enough, though it didn't set the world on fire. Again, we come back to the Uncanny Valley: all Sega needs to do, probably, is stick to their guns and soldier right out of there: more characters, more story, less fun. That'll do it!
4. Make it feel more like LittleBigPlanet
When Sega ports the original Sonic the Hedgehog to iPhone or Android and fewer than six billion people buy it, it's probably not because the game isn't a timeless classic.
It's probably because the game doesn't feel terrible enough. Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 tore a handful of flesh from Sonic the Hedgehog's appealing, delicious, sticky physics, and it, too, failed to sell one copy for every video game console in existence, so maybe it's because the game doesn't feel floaty and weird enough yet. They should probably start making levels in LittleBigPlanet 2 for inspiration, then consider how to make the next Sonic feel a fair deal worse than that.
3. Does it really have to be about speed (movement (joy))?
The idea of the first Sonic game was that the character was lightning-fast — in direct contrast to the more contemplative Super Mario World. Now, the console cold war is over. Times are friendlier. They can really let loose the team's creative juices, now. Sonic Adventure was on the right track, where between exhilarating breakneck loop-de-loop rollercoaster racetracks, we were treated to awkward, plodding moments in which a morbidly obese cat fished for a frog in tiny bodies of water.
Years later, Sonic and the Black Knight gave Sonic a sword, so we could savor the experience of being in the world by standing still and having awkward sword-flapping moments. We should explore this further — Sonic Spinball turned Sonic into a pinball. Why not take a cue from Kirby's Dream Course, and make Sonic into a golfball? I smell a franchise opportunity, there. Or just make a whole game about Sonic as a werewolf. Make it play exactly like Devil May Cry, while you're at it.
2. Give Sonic a gun
Shadow the Hedgehog surprised gamers by being a title in the Sonic the Hedgehog universe in which the main character wielded two highly-realistic pistols, which he used to shoot, destroy, and kill things that didn't like him. Yuji Naka, the "father" of Sonic the Hedgehog, said, of the creative decision: "I would never give Sonic himself a gun."
Well, Naka isn't there anymore, so what's stopping them? They made an FPS about Batman, for crying out loud. And they made a fighting game about Sonic — two of them, in fact (Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Battle). A Sonic FPS couldn't be nearly as bad as either of those games! (Right?)
1. Make the game not suck
Okay, enough jerking around: fans didn't stop liking the games when the titular hedgehog grew longer arms and darker blue skin — they stopped liking the games because of all the sucking. Sega, you are bad at business. That is why your hardware aspirations wound up in the gutter. That's why your headquarters smells bad!
The first Sonic the Hedgehog was a game born of a great urge to Do Cool Stuff In A Cool Way, and you applied the best talent both within and outside your company. You got Masato Nakamura, bassist and songwriter of Dreams Come True, to do the music! That's a classy move! (A Metaphor Approaches!) Somewhere down the line, after you'd established that your girlfriend wasn't going to leave you, you stopped shaving and showering. You now had a "world-class property", so you spread it thin, all over everything. Kart racers. Ropy, stringy, ugly tennis games, terribly ported retro. Rehashes. Your fans are children of all ages and shapes, and though some of them have dirty minds, all of them deserve better. You can still make good games — your AM2 studio made Afterburner Climax, OutRun 2, and Virtua Fighter 5, for example, three of the best games of all-time, in the last 10 years! And some of your finest people made Valkyria Chronicles. Why not get some of them involved? Or — hey! Here's an idea! Remember Gunstar Heroes? Have you ever played Sin and Punishment? Why don't you ask Treasure to make the next Sonic game? You've published games of their making before, and they seem to be over the whole "no sequels" manifesto that they started out with. And hire Masato Nakamura and Dreams Come True to make the music. Use the Unreal Engine — clearly, your guys don't know how to make an engine themselves. Start with the concept of it being like a racing game — right trigger accelerates, left trigger brakes. Look to Katamari for inspiration re: the concept of "joy of play". Duh — just . . . just, duh, people. God! Duh. It's not that hard to make a Sonic the Hedgehog game about the beauty of speed and friction in which the character doesn't control like a stick of butter. I bet I could prototype one in Unity in a half an hour.
Oh, look. I just did. No, I'm not going to show it to you. Sega, you can find us (Action Button Entertainment) in Emeryville, California, right next door to Pixar.
To play us out — Dreams Come True, here all the way from Tokyo, Japan, 1992.