Sonic the Hedgehog Full Series Analysis
In this final segment (Yes, we’re actually nearing the end!), we’ll be wrapping up with one of the most important aspects of all: The players. Even if a game is fun, exciting, and intuitive, it’s still not really a game if there’s no one there to play it. Sonic in particular has a very testy tightrope to walk when it comes to this topic.
It is a sad but true fact that the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom is one of the most viciously fragmented fanbases out there, especially on the internet. This is due in part to the fact that there are so many different official interpretations and continuities of the Sonicverse; as with anything, many people imprint on the variation they experience first. When faced with another version, some will default back to their original experience as the preferred continuity. That having been said, multiple tellings of the same story cannot be fully faulted for the sheer discord seen among StH fans; it’s truly mind-boggling to me. For whatever reason, StH fans in particular are extraordinarily fierce in their loyalty to whatever they consider the “true” version of Sonic. There are so many internet wars over Sonic that it’s an exercise in futility to attempt to somehow keep track of them. As I’m sure many readers are aware, particularly hot topics include “Classic Games vs. Modern Games,” “Ian Flynn vs. Ken Penders,” “Archie vs. Fleetway,” “Jaleel White vs. Ryan Drummond vs. Jason Griffith,” and the greatest titan of them all, “Sonic x Sally vs. Sonic x Amy.”
This is not to say that Sonic fans can’t get along, nor that they can’t be pleased. There are plenty of Sonic fans out there that are happy with multiple shades of the StH rainbow, if not the entire spectrum. The problem is that those that are the most particular about their tastes are usually the ones that are the most willing to shout what they believe from the rooftops. When their message hits the ear of someone who is just as particular about a different flavor, that person is often willing to shout back from their own rooftop. Meanwhile, a third person may have overheard the first two shouting, and decide to get up on their roof and prove them both wrong. Eventually, an entire community of extremely opinionated people are standing on their roofs and trying to out-shout everyone else about the “real” Sonic — and meanwhile, the fans that are able to enjoy Sonic with both black and green eyes are in their living rooms with earplugs on as they try to read the latest issue of Sonic Universe.
An old saying in writing goes that, if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. The above example illustrates exactly why this is true of the StH series. The overall fanbase desperately lacks unity. In order to please its fans, Sega needs to first identify which of its fans it’s aiming to please.
It’s easy to talk about “Sonic fans” as a blanket term, but as we just noted, that blanket was definitely quilted, not woven. Each square represents a different pocket of the StH community, and no two are exactly alike. Some squares may be of a similar color, but their patterns don’t match; elsewhere, two or three squares may have the same pattern, but they’re all made of different fabrics. With so much diversity, it may seem like a lost cause trying to find a way to please more than just one or two groups of fans. On the contrary, many fan groups share characteristics, even if they don’t match up down in the fine details.
(This is the part where I hope I don’t get offensive to any readers, as I’m just one solitary Sonic fan attempting to speak for the entire fanbase. Please allow me to preface this with the fact that these are only the conclusions that I’ve drawn from my own personal experiences, and in no way do I believe that this is 100% universal. I’m just basing this on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, and a modest amount of deductive reasoning.)
One of the broadest methods to get a yardstick for what a StH fan is most likely to be attracted to is to look at their age. The game Sonic Generations is appropriately titled, because just as we have a couple of generations of game types, so too do we have a couple of generations of fan types. The older fans*, often born in the 80’s or early 90’s, tend to have a different perspective on the series than do fans that were born within the last 15 years or so. They’re a bit more worrisome over changes to the series, as they’ve already watched the series shift and evolve for two decades as it is. At the same time, they’re not as likely to get into the aforementioned internet wars as the younger fans; by now, this group is in its 20’s and 30’s. Most people in that age group don’t engage in fandom battles, choosing instead to simply ignore the things they don’t prefer.
The younger end of the spectrum is often less experienced on the full range that Sonic has covered over his lifetime. Many of these fans played the more recent games before having played the classic era games — if they’ve played them at all. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear younger fans announce that they outright refuse to play anything older than a disc-based StH game, with reasons ranging from the older games not being interesting to the current games being the “real” Sonic games. They often have the strongest and most passionate convictions about what they consider to be canon and non-canon. Given the approximate cut-off point between this group and the older one, they’re rarely older than 15 years old. However, as they often have cleaner slates than the older fans, they’re usually much more apt to embrace new elements, whether it’s characters, items, or locations.
*As a footnote, I’d also like to mention that there is a third group of fans out there, which are older than the elder of these two groups (about 40+), but they’re so uncommon that I don’t have any insights into the way this group behaves. When Sonic debuted, he was marketed to children, so most people that were already teenaged or older at the time either didn’t get get very into it or never experienced it at all.
As we’re all aware, there’s a big difference between age and maturity. There are many children and adolescents that are wise beyond their years, and we all know that one brat that, no matter how old they get, just never seems to grow up. Likewise, any fandom will have followers that are understanding of the fact that they won’t always agree with what’s presented, but will still enjoy the parts they do anyway — and oppositely, there will always be naysayers that will never, ever be pleased with anything they’re given. Sonic’s fans are no exception.
Looking at the fanbase in this way, the task doesn’t seem like nearly as much work. There will always be fans that are so indignant about their exact personal canon (which I often refer to as “fanon”) that no game will ever fully please them. There will always be people that are going to criticize StH games, whether they’re fans or not, regardless of what the game in question is actually like. Sega’s not going to be able to please everyone, so they may as well focus on the audience that they at least have a shot of impressing: Those with reasonable expectations and genuine reasoning for the things that displease them. Trying to impress the critics that have an axe to grin simple for the sake of grinding it is a waste of time and money.
While every fan has a favorite continuity, it’s not uncommon to recognize that some of them have more in common than others. As the series currently stands, I’ve been able to identify nine clusters:
- Classic Games
- Modern Games
- SatAM Sonic the Hedgehog
- Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog
- Sonic Underground
- Sonic X
- Archie Comics (which includes both the main Sonic the Hedgehog comic and its branch series Sonic Universe)
- Fleetway Comics (which includes both the official publication Sonic the Comic and fan-made Sonic the Comic Online)
- Sonic: The Movie.
That’s quite a range of titles to comb through. However, as one becomes more experienced, similar patterns do begin to emerge. For example, fans of the classic StH games are typically also fans of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Comic, and Sonic: The Movie, which all made efforts to reference the games of the time. Fans that are more into dramatic stories are often drawn toward the SatAM Sonic the Hedgehog and the Fleetway and Archie comics; they may even also be fans of Sonic Underground, which was partially based on SatAM. Fans that prefer the modern era of gaming are frequently open to Sonic X, which also focused heavily on the games of its time (right down to directly adapting Sonic Adventure 2). When one examines the fandom in this manner, our categories have been reduced to only one third of the original nine niches — and that’s not even accounting for the fans that fall into more than one category!
Sega has frequently suffered criticism for not giving enough weight to what Sonic’s fans want, but with the fanbase so fractured, how are we even able to tell what the fans want? From the outside looking in, trying to please a group that’s so lacking in unity can be a bit like herding cats. I believe that a better way to approach this riddle is not to look at any actual checklists any one group may have, but instead to keep in mind each group’s overall goal. Again, allow me to emphasize that this is me drawing my own conclusions based on what I’ve witnessed and reasoned. With that in mind, I have summarized the desires of StH fans with the following:
- Older fans want to maintain their nostalgia as the series moves forward. They also don’t want to feel alienated on the basis of still being into StH now that they’re in their 20’s and 30’s, which means they don’t want the games to have a “kiddie” feel.
- Younger fans want to see new ideas and directions for the stories, and are likely to put their favorite characters on a pedestal.
- Mature fans want to see a reasonable attempt from Sega at innovation and improvement with each successive title. They’ll most likely forgive good attempts that have failed, but aren’t likely to be as generous with something they consider sloppy or half-hearted.
- Immature fans want exactly what they want and will accept nothing less.
- Continuity-specific fans want their particular brand of Sonic to be acknowledged in some way. They usually realize that the StH games will never truly take on their continuity of choice, but they desire Sega’s nod if nothing else. Among the continuity groups:
- Archie fans are more likely to scrutinize the depth of characters, as their comic series has suffered a sizable character graveyard of its own.
- SatAM fans & Fleetway fans tend to desire a dramatic story arc. They’re also less likely to be bothered by darker themes.
- AoStH fans & Sonic X fans often lean more toward humor. They aren’t usually opposed to drama so long as it’s supplemented with comic relief.
- Sonic Underground fans & Sonic: The Movie fans appreciate the unexpected and unusual elements of stories. They tend to like surprises and aren’t as put off by something coming completely out of left field.
Just to reiterate, this is just what I’ve observed, and it’s wholly possible for a fan to fall within multiple or none of these descriptions.
In any case, this gives us a wide variety of brushes to paint with. The bad news is that Sega will probably never be able to produce one game (or at least, not a good one) that will give every single group what it wants, but the good news is that none of these statements are directly contradictory to one another. That means that each group (short of the immature fans, anyway) can get what it wants in some form or another. If Sega keeps in mind what types of fans they have, they can then more easily identify their target audience(s). Once those audiences feel targeted, they’ll feel acknowledged — and more importantly, they’ll feel appreciated. I have no doubt that Sega would quickly see a difference in fan feedback.
At last, a pun that was intended.
With such a broad range of fans and a varying list of desires, Sega does indeed have their work cut out for them. However, I don’t believe giving everyone what they want is as difficult as it may look at first glance. They key to walking this tightrope rests in nuance. I don’t think any one group should be favored any more than I think any one group should be ignored (save those that won’t be pleased regardless). A gesture toward the any group of fans ought to be noticeable, but subtle. A good example of this was when Sonic 4 was in development, and it was announced as “Project Needlemouse.” This was a very clear yet subtle message to the classic fans that they were being kept in mind for this project, as the older fans were the most likely to be aware that one of Sonic’s original prototype names was Mr. Needlemouse.
Nuance can be used in all kinds of ways, ranging from character cameos to literary allusions. Sega owns all of the various StH media, which means they can use it in whatever way they want. Especially keen fans will be able to recognize when a character says a poignant line from the comic books, or will notice when an obscure character is sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, or when the a song has borrowed a few lines from a tune in an older game. As I already pointed out in the section on Characters, Sega has a history of putting easter eggs into their games, and I already suggested allowing discarded characters to wander around the hub worlds. If they really wanted to, Sega could actually expand on the latter even further by occasionally making use of characters from other continuities as background filler. This practice should probably be carefully regulated so that no one continuity were to be favored over another, and the designs would probably have to be tweaked to fit in more smoothly with the gaming character style, but even so, that’d still be an incredibly gratifying easter egg to fans of that particular continuity. So long as these little teaser acknowledgements are kept subtle rather than prominently featured, they’ll come off as tiny little presents to the targeted fans that find them without leaving fans outside of that group ostracized.
I really do think it’s important that Sega try to reach out to the various types of StH fans, because I honestly think that Sega alone is the only one in a position to actually give this scattered fanbase some unity. By appealing in some form or another to each group within the same medium, Sega would be able to demonstrate that, in the end, there isn’t any one “real” Sonicverse. They can all mix and mingle together with each other if people are willing to take down their walls and stop the fighting. Just because you acknowledge something doesn’t mean you have to like it. There will inevitably be angry reactions from fans that just cannot accept other groups and will kick and scream if Sega acknowledges them, but I firmly believe that they’ll be drowned out by the swell of appreciation that a simple nod can incite.
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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.