Sonic the Hedgehog Full Series Analysis
For this first installment, I’ve chosen to discuss characters. In the world of gaming, characters are a very important part of how players connect to the game. We need to know who this character is, what they do, how they think, and where they came from in order to really care about them. This is not limited to protagonists, either; there are many, many people out there that think the villains are always more interesting, or that find the most fascination with the characters who get the smallest roles. For this reason, characters must not be handled carelessly. The following are my thoughts on both what’s good and bad about the way the Sonic characters have been utilized, as well as what can be done to take them further.
Primary characters are like the engine of a car: They’re what the game needs to have a game at all. In most cases, this is the protagonist and the antagonist. The StH franchise is no exception.
Obviously, the most primary character of this story is Sonic himself. This means that the way he’s handled is the most critical of all. He’s going to require the most thought and instinct, because even a casual fan can pick up on when someone is going “out of character” — a quick way to raise the ire of the audience.
Luckily, it’s my opinion that Sonic has only strayed OoC a couple of times, and in most cases, each progressive game helped us get to know him a little better. Based on my 20 years of experience with the blue hedgehog, I can confidently say that Sonic:
- values freedom above all other things
- is very loyal
- is arrogant and cocky
- is antagonistic
- is able to be serious when needed
- enjoys sports
- is an adrenaline junkie
- is light-hearted
- is impatient
- likes helping people
- is not ready for commitment
…and many other things. Now, the best thing about the fact that I know all of this isn’t that I know it because I read it or heard it; it’s that I know it because I saw it. It’s not enough to write those characteristics down on a piece of paper and call it a day; any writer or artist worth their salt will ALWAYS illustrate things like this with the way the character behaves. Despite wobbling a few times every now and then, I’m pleased to say that Sega’s been able to maintain a nice grasp on the essence of who Sonic is, and they fill us in on more information each time we enter Sonic’s world. One thing that I particularly like is that, in recent times, Sega’s gone back to the rhetoric of Sonic being a “dude with a ‘tude,” as it was often said in the 90’s. Just because Sonic’s the hero of the story doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a great guy all of the time; in fact, he can be a real prick (no pun intended) if he’s disinterested enough. But that’s what helps make his character so interesting; it humanizes him. None of us are always nice ALL of the time. Like the rest of us, Sonic gets annoyed, or bored, or irritated — sometimes over relatively trivial things. It’s tiny tidbits like this that help make a character more relatable and realistic.
Interestingly enough, despite being the main character, what Sega has not done is be too specific about Sonic’s history. It’s a curious juxtaposition when one realizes that they’ve given significantly more background information on secondary characters, or even supporting characters. For the moment, however, I think this actually works in Sega’s favor. There are a lot of StH continuities floating around out there (which I’ll touch on more in a different section), all of which have their own breed of purist fans. Sonic’s history, were it ever to be ironed out, would be an extremely delicate matter, and almost undoubtedly there’d be offended fans out there somewhere. If it were up to me, I would never sit down at my keyboard with the intent to write Sonic’s backstory any more than it’s already written. One thing that I often press when giving writing advice is to let the character dictate what feels natural to them, as opposed to forcing something you want upon them. In my opinion, Sonic’s history should be revealed in small pieces, incidentally, and as Sonic chooses to mention them. It’s fitting with his personality, and it will allow him to take on deeper dimension in a gradual manner rather than smacking us in the face with it.
As far as recommendations with his character go, my main push would be to continue giving us the tiny glimpses into Sonic’s life beyond the realm of crime fighting. I really don’t have any complaints about his personality; as I mentioned, Sega’s maintained a good grasp on that, and they illustrate it well. One thing I would suggest is that we be given the opportunity to see Sonic struggle more often. There are lots of times when I feel that Sonic makes things look a bit too easy or too casual, and one of the things that makes an audience root for a hero is seeing him or her face difficult adversity. Seeing Sonic not only struggle, but actually lose (while in super form, no less) in the opening sequence of Sonic Unleashed was a refreshing — and gripping — change of pace. I would definitely add more of these sorts of moments to future games.
One other thing I would add is just a small detail: I’d make Sonic visibly tense around water or while in water levels. It wouldn’t have to be anything big; in fact, it’d work well as one of his idle animations. Considering that his inability to swim is really the only major setback he faces (enough so that he has a life jacket in the Olympics games), it’d be a nice nuance to add.
There is one additional tip that I would give, but it’s something that I’m going to eventually relate about all of the characters, so that comment will turn up later.
Make no mistake that Eggman is the only other primary character. Ever since day one, Sonic vs. Eggman (or Robotnik, if one prefers) was the showdown, and this has been… mostly maintained over time. Other villains have appeared here and there, but in the end, all roads eventually lead back to Eggman.
It’s common in writing to say that a hero is only as good as his villain, and this holds poignantly true when it comes to this pairing. Sonic and Eggman have a very dynamic chemistry with each other, and as the two have progressed, this relationship has only gotten more and more interesting. I’m pleased to see that Eggman has evolved past the archetype of a villain who’s just evil for evil’s sake. Furthermore, I’m pleased that what ultimately came to be revealed as his motivation is that he’s just that eccentric. He loves science, he wants power, and he likes to put his face on everything he touches. Eggman is larger than life, and extremely entitled.
However, it’s important that an eccentric villain still be threatening, or else the dramatic tension has essentially been laughed away. It’s entirely possible to have a kooky yet deadly villain; The Joker from the Batman series is the king of this concept. I had worried for a few years that Eggman was slowly losing his credibility as other one-shot villains sprang up and he began working with the hero characters more and more, but Sonic Unleashed put us back on track. The opening sequence really allowed Eggman to shine, as it demonstrated just how overwhelming of an attack he can put forth — and furthermore, just how big of a threat he really is. It was also refreshing to see Eggman actually succeed at his goals in this game, rather than getting smacked down before gaining a foothold. There’s a similar feeling in the game Sonic Colors.
As a player, there’s a big difference between when you feel you’re playing on your own turf or on the villain’s. The sense of danger experienced when invading enemy territory shouldn’t be abruptly felt at the very end, but rather build up to a breaking point throughout the entire game. The StH series has generally been consistent with this concept, as in many games the environments gradually get more mechanical as you advance. As the world of gaming gains better graphics, the environments have the opportunity to be much more visceral, which can go leaps and bounds in aiding with the player’s immersion if executed properly. Having Eggman actually stake out his own territory in the games advances this notion even further. When you know you’re in his territory — an established one, as opposed to something he’s still trying to pin down — and you have no hope of a home court advantage, it makes Eggman’s eccentricities both entertaining and unsettling.
My recommendations for Eggman have nothing to do with his character; after 20 years of development, I think he’s a fantastic opponent for Sonic to face. I believe that he and Sonic balance each other well, that they know how to push each other’s buttons, and they know one another well enough to be able to moderately predict what the other will say or do, yet not so well that one can’t still surprise the other. What I would change for Eggman is to increase his foothold. I would like to see Eggmanland become just as much of a staple to the series as Green Hill Zone. Eggman having a stable territory that he not only successfully took over, but then was able to keep, adds a lot of power to his character, which just makes it all the more satisfying to battle and defeat him.
A secondary character is a character that is still central to the story, but not absolutely vital in order for the story to progress. They’re usually tightly involved with either the protagonist or the antagonist (or both, in some cases).
Easily the most critical of the secondary characters, Tails has seen some interesting developments and advancements over the years. All we knew about him in the beginning was that he was Sonic’s biggest fan (and incredibly young), and that he followed Sonic around in the hopes of being just like him one day. As the years went by, Tails matured and grew, and gave us some interesting new sides to his character: his love of technology, his amazingly high IQ, and his struggles with courage all helped to flesh him out more in the eyes of his audience. Again, these are all things that we’ve been able to observe, which is in his favor.
However, as these characteristics have come to the surface, his original ones have actually diminished quite a bit — specifically the idea of Tails following Sonic around like a puppy (again, no pun intended). As their dynamic has evolved, Tails spends more and more time tending to his own projects and studies. This is not entirely unexpected, considering that Sega’s adjusted his age since his first appearance, but some of the more classic fans often get left with a mildly sour taste in their mouths over this. Almost every continuity of StH indicates that Sonic and Tails are so close that they’re like brothers, but the game series appears to have made that relationship less intense in recent years. They’re still good friends, to be sure, but they just don’t seem as tight.
Tails hasn’t tagged along with Sonic on a regular basis since the first Sonic Adventure, and I think that hurts his portrayal a bit. I wouldn’t say to have him follow Sonic at all times, but giving the player the option for this once more would be my recommendation. From a story perspective, it would help to affirm the fact that Sonic and Tails are best friends, and from a gameplay perspective, it’s always useful to have an assist character — presuming they’re well-programmed, of course. (The assist characters in Shadow the Hedgehog would be a good model for this, in my opinion.) Furthermore, in the event that Tails is able to accompany Sonic, one option that I believe ought to be added back into the games is that a second player can control him if they activate a second controller. Co-op modes are more important now than they ever were, and Sonic and Tails are the ultimate co-op when it comes to this gaming series. It’s difficult to find a StH game beyond the Genesis era in which two players may play as Sonic and Tails in a non-competitive fashion. Sonic and Tails are about teamwork. It would be wise to allow players to illustrate this in gameplay. (This idea will be expanded upon later in the Gameplay section)
I think Knuckles is a good character, but sadly, I think he’s been mishandled in recent years. When Knuckles debuted, he was perceived in a very different way. Most of this was because of the uneasy alliance that he found himself forced to take on by teaming up with Sonic. Due largely to the responsibility on his shoulders, Knuckles (originally) was a somewhat grim and very aggressive character, full of passion to fulfill his duties to protect his territory. However, because of this duty, he was also highly isolated from the rest of the world, which made him fairly gullible and socially awkward. Knuckles knew how to work in a team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wanted to; he’s suspicious of others, and he believes very strongly in his own abilities. Assistance is something he begrudgingly accepted.
Over the years, I feel that Sega’s attention has shifted more to the social awkwardness aspect, and Knuckles has been frequently categorized as comic relief. While I don’t necessarily think this is a bad move, I do think it’s gotten out of balance. Characters will always have comedic moments (whether they intend on it or not), but this should not outweigh the core of their character. In recent years, Knuckles has been downgraded from a rival to a sidekick — sometimes even by Sega themselves. His ‘badassery’, for lack of a better word, has been overshadowed by his klutziness, his naivety, and a tendency to punch first and ask questions later. In short, he’s been treated like a dumb jock.
Let me be perfectly clear when I say that Knuckles is not stupid; stupidity and naivety are two different things. Knuckles is clearly a highly intelligent character given how much trouble he caused Sonic and Tails in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. He understands strategy, he knows how to build traps, and he has an incredibly thorough knowledge of the natural world. However, none of these things have gotten showcased very well in recent years. If these aspects were to be pumped back up, it would make the comedic moments more incidental and less definitive.
Beyond his intelligence, I also feel that Knuckles has become a bit too ‘relaxed’ among Sonic and Tails. Now, one could argue that he’s finally learned that they don’t actually pose a threat, but I feel that there clearly ought to be a personality clash between Sonic and Knuckles. Sonic is an antagonistic person by nature, and Knuckles (as shown by his reactions to deception) does not enjoy being laughed at. This clash shouldn’t be enough to keep them from being allies, but I really don’t think that Sonic and Knuckles would be very close. Furthermore, having a rocky relationship with Knuckles would actually improve Sonic’s character as well, as it would force him to deal with negative feedback. No one gets along with or is liked by everyone, and Knuckles is a perfect example of someone who does not find Sonic’s antics amusing. Knuckles is also someone who’s perfectly capable of putting Sonic in his place, and with a poor relationship status, Knuckles would be more willing to do so than other people. This would help project the image of Knuckles as an intimidating character, as he was originally portrayed.
Contradictory as it may sound at first, I believe Amy is a character that has both grown and stagnated over the years. It’s almost paradoxical to think of how much she’s changed, and yet how much depth she still lacks. This is a character that had all of the tell-tale signs of being a throwaway character, and yet managed to get her foot in the door and linger to this day — which is even more significant given that she’s the first official female character of the series.
At Amy’s point of origin, she really isn’t all that different from Tails. She was an exceptionally young and motivated fan that wanted nothing more than to follow Sonic around in his adventures. Her design was (appropriately) girly and child-like, and despite her relatively brief screen time, she most definitely left an impression with the player on just how much she adored Sonic; if Amy latches hold, Sonic cannot move away unless he jumps to knock her off. The game further emphasized that Sonic wasn’t necessarily comfortable with this dynamic, as during the final cut scene, Sonic makes a very clear “STAY” gesture after setting Amy on her feet, shortly after which he runs off.
Unlike Tails and Knuckles, Amy was and still is capable of bringing out a side of Sonic that we rarely see: Discomfort. Their dynamic stuck in the minds of the players because it put Sonic in the position of having to fight for someone that couldn’t (yet) defend themself, yet at the same time he wasn’t necessarily pleased to help this person. Coupled with the fact that Amy had a chance of drawing in more female players, she gained supporting roles in many games — including a role in Sonic the Fighters, which gained her the iconic Piko-Piko Hammer — leading up to her major re-introduction in Sonic Adventure. At this point, Amy was given an overhaul in terms of physical design, but surprisingly little was changed about her personality.
This is what I mean when I say she’s both progressed and lingered over the years. Amy has matured in terms of her appearance and temperament; her clothes have a more modern styling, and she’s become a formidably strong character that’s able to take care of herself relatively well, as opposed to the screaming damsel-in-distress back in Sonic CD. Despite these improvements, however, her motivation is just as static as it ever was: Get Sonic as her boyfriend. That’s really all we’ve been given. We understand that she’s a girly-girl, that she’s caring, and that fewer and fewer things scare her these days, but the theme behind almost every action she takes relates in some way to snagging Sonic.
This is what I think is the most disappointing aspect of her character; for someone that’s been around for almost the entire 20 year span of this series, I would’ve expected a lot more depth by now. We know almost nothing about Amy beyond her desire to be with Sonic. We don’t know about her other interests (well, besides stereotypes like shopping), we don’t know about her background, and we rarely get to see her interact with other characters if Sonic’s not in the scene or the subject of discussion. Amy has the potential for far more independence than she’s been given the opportunity to utilize. This is what I feel is the most important part of her character that needs to change. Women have more interests than simply dating boys, and it’d be nice to see some other sides to such an important character.
As one other final footnote, I’d like to mention that Amy’s modern outfit, ironically, is also becoming a bit dated. The newer clothes that she’s been using for games such as Sonic Riders and the Olympics games have been a nice change of pace. Given that she’s shown interests before in shopping, I think the occasional wardrobe change would be beneficial to her character.
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This analysis, however, is mine, and screw you if you try to steal it. No part of this article may be reproduced without my written permission.
Posted on April 15, 2013, in Analysis, Game Characters, Journalism, Video Games and tagged Amy Rose, analysis, character development, Dr. Eggman, game design, Knuckles the Echidna, Sega, Sonic the Hedgehog, Tails the Fox. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.