Sonic Mania released to critical praise because it evoked the nostalgia of classic Sonic the Hedgehog. Being reminded that the heyday for Sonic was in the realm of 20-25 years ago raises an interesting question, how did Sonic make it this long? If Sonic had that many bad games, how is he getting not one, but two games in 2017?
I’ve only ever played a few Sonic games in my relatively short stint in the world of gaming, 2003’s Sonic Heroes being the first one I ever picked up. As I grew older and continued to play Sonic titles, I increasingly noticed the weak design and frustrating mechanics until I came to a glum conclusion: Sonic games just weren’t that great. As I started to reach out into the community, I learned that I wasn’t alone; that many gamers also felt that Sonic didn’t really have the chops. Yet, Sonic has survived. Why?
In the mid-2000’s, gaming started to move away from cartoonish mascots in lieu of grittier experiences in an attempt to better hit the aging gamer demographic. No longer could animated characters be flagship faces for publishers, especially with poor to middling games. Nostalgia alone was rarely enough to keep mascots alive. But Sonic was just too cool to fade away like the others. What Sonic represented in his early days was an edgy contradiction to Mario and Nintendo. The classic line “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”, was a direct shot across the bow of every Nintendo fanboy and Sonic was leading that charge. Despite not treating the games with much regard, Sega has been giving the Sonic the Hedgehog brand a significant amount of franchise care by keeping him relevant in pop culture through other means than traditional Sonic platforming.
Whether you believe Sonic’s games have been quality or not, his offerings have been diverse. Another way Sega has kept Sonic alive is by utilizing him as a jack-of-all-trades character, similar to Mario. Sonic has starred in a number of spinoff titles like Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series, broadening his appeal to gamers who preferred kart racers and sports titles respectively. Similarly, with the mainline franchise, Sega has not been afraid to experiment with different gimmicks that alter the core experience. Mechanics like wielding a sword in Sonic and the Black Knight or a total character redesign in the Sonic Boom series were not always well received by critics and fans alike, but the morbid curiosity of new and odd idiosyncrasies kept players coming back. Add in Sonic’s foray into other mediums, like comics and cartoons, and you have a character whose sum is much greater than his derelict parts.
Sonic’s image in gaming is polarizing to put it lightly. Yet, the fact that he has remained a cultural icon despite the scorn of the games industry is an incredible and often overlooked feat of marketing. Some could say that Sega has continually willed Sonic the Hedgehog into the mindshare of gamers. Sonic has taken more than his fair share of abuse through all of the poor titles he’s starred in over the past two decades. Hopefully, Sonic Mania marks a turning point for the franchise that will eventually lift Sonic to a position of reverence.