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Sonic the Hedgehog

Sega's spikey blue erinaceinus across platforms, across time

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Gin and Sonic

Sonic CD came along a year later, attempting to bolster sales of the Mega-CD peripheral. While the hardware it tried to promote was doomed to commercial failure, Sonic CD showed plenty of merit. Again, it stuck to the tried and tested side-scrolling formula, yet introduced a time-travel element - levels could exist in past, present and future - plus the CD-quality soundtrack was an impressive novelty back in 1993. A PC version emerged a few years later, and without doubt the title has aged well, with a re-vamped Sonic CD appearing on modern platforms at the end of 2011.

Sonic 3

Three's a crowd: Sonic 3 was not the sequel Sega originally planned...

Back on Megadrive cartridge, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was allegedly going to be a huge – for the time – 34Mb cartridge, yet Sega balked at the cost implications. It opted for a unique piece of game marketing, and released a stripped down Sonic 3, followed six months later by a game called Sonic and Knuckles. While this second installment could be played by itself – and indeed contained the sections culled from the Sonic 3 release – the cartridge itself had a slot onto which any of the previous Sonic games could be piggybacked. Sonic 2 and 3 could then be played using the new character, Knuckles, opening up sections of levels previously unobtainable, due to the echidna’s ability to climb walls and glide through the air. Sonic 1 would launch as a somewhat terrifying standalone collection of its migraine-inducing special stages.

Essentially, that was the end of a very settled and successful era for both Sega and Sonic. In contrast, between the mid-1990s and now, the Sonic franchise has spread out in all sorts of different directions, and unlike Nintendo, which has tended to keep a tight grip on the quality of Mario’s releases, Sega has banged out plenty of tosh along the way.

Sega’s next console effort, the Saturn, was a flop, one reason being that Sega got its knickers in a twist trying to make a decent 3D Sonic game - Sonic X-treme - which after a long and tortuous development cycle was eventually canned. Saturn owners got a spruced-up version of the Megadrive title Sonic 3D – which actually played in isometric 3D – but it wasn’t much consolation. When Sonic R turned up, this attempt at a true 3D racing game on foot, in a similar vein to Mario Kart, was universally panned for its dreadful controls and lack of depth.

Sonic and Knuckles

...but was split to form Sonic and Knuckles too

Fast-forward to 2006: a particularly dreadful year. Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360 and PS3 was a scrappy mix of glitches, poor camera angles and unresponsive controls. The year was made even worse by a dreadful port of the original Sonic game to Gameboy Advance – full of disappearing sprites and unresponsive controls.

There have been plenty of spin-offs of variable quality too. Sonic Shuffle (boardgame style title; Dreamcast), Sonic Battle (fighting game; Gameboy Advance) and Sonic Chronicles (RPG; Nintendo DS) have all been interesting distractions, but none have left a significant mark on gaming’s wider history.

Sonic Adventure (1998) and its sequel worked reasonably well, despite a frustrating camera system. Two ‘storybook’ games for the Wii were fairly promising, though the 3D ‘on-rails’ action still wasn’t the most natural of gaming experience. Likewise, 2008’s Sonic Unleashed was let down by trying to be too clever: the night-time levels, where Sonic turns into a “werehog”, involved sluggish, awkward play mechanics.

Sonic X-treme

The canned Sonic X-treme

Regrettably, it would appear that the freedom and versatility of modern 3D gaming has tripped up the Sonic franchise along the way, with Sega confused as to what Sonic should do with that extra dimension. For some, releases such as 2005’s Sonic Rush - a DS success, due to its similarity to the original 2D releases - merely confirmed what they had been thinking for a while: isn’t Sonic actually a better game in two dimensions anyway?

Well, if recent form is anything to go by, perhaps not. Sonic Colors (2010) turned out to be the most accomplished 3D platformer yet, while Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed has proved itself to be a most respectable 3D racer. Meanwhile, both episodes of Sonic 4, developed to appease those hankering back to the early days, were of good quality, though not brilliant; they failed to hammer down 2D play as the definitive style for Sonic. So I guess the jury’s still out.

It never struck me that the Sonic franchise had the most engaging plotlines or characters, save the main protagonist himself, yet here we are over 20 years later with a huge range of spin-off games, not to mention the various animations and comics based on the character. Kids clearly love him to bits and he’s here to stay.

Sonic Colors

Three dimensional: Sonic Colors

Sonic has kept Sega buoyant, even through tricky times, and now the company is without hardware of its own to promote, the blue spiky one is most certainly one of their key assets. Yet it could have been an entirely different story: without the quality and success of those first few Sonic games, it’s quite possible to imagine Sega and Sonic sadly consigned to the history books by now. ®

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