Sonic the Hedgehog Full Series Analysis
I realize that style is a very subjective topic, but I do believe that after having spent 20 of my 27 years of life following Sonic the Hedgehog, I have some degree of intuition on what helps and hurts the series. (Then again, my rampant textwalls in my other sections probably illustrated that a long time ago.)
For the most part, Sonic sticks to what he knows. While he may dabble in the occasional sports game here and there, his home is firmly established in the realm of action/adventure platformers. Without question, this is the bread and butter of the StH series, regardless of whether it’s side-scrolling or 3D. Back in the 90’s, the original Sonic the Hedgehog helped redefine what a platforming game should be. Although he’s suffered a bit since his games entered the third dimension, Sonic has managed to consistently shine more brightly in the action/adventure platforming genre than any other in the last two decades.
Is that to say that he doesn’t have a place in the other genres at all, though? There are certainly a lot of fans (and critics) that seem to think so. Personally, I’m not so sure; there are plenty of instances in which StH deviated from the beaten path and still managed to turn out good games. Just as a fan, I make it a point to collect every game in the series that I’m able to get a hold of, and the hardware to play it on too if possible. This has given me an extensive amount of experience with non-platforming Sonic games, which I’d like to share my thoughts on.
One pet peeve that I have is when people complain about Sonic having a car. The complaint is usually in the form of, “Why does he need a car? He can run faster than any car!” It’s true that Sonic doesn’t need his car, but then neither does Tails need his biplane. Ever since the early 90’s, Sonic has been depicted in official art as being interested in a wide variety of sports, and racing just happens to be one of them. Everyone’s interested in something that goes beyond need. Besides, Sonic didn’t use a vehicle in Sonic R, and people still complained.
But, I digress. Sonic’s racing games have rarely disappointed me; I find them challenging without being unfair, and I deeply enjoy how much attention Sega focuses on customizing each character’s vehicle and special abilities. Sonic Drift 2 was my favorite in that regard, although the actual racing mechanic in Sonic Riders continues to be my preference. Considering that the entire concept behind the StH series is speed, I’m kind of surprised that there aren’t more racing games by now. Racing games are actually even more adept than the standard action games at conveying the sense of flow and adrenaline that Sonic thrives on. The downside to the racing formula is that Sonic is restricted to actual roads, but with the way his games tend to be designed, even that isn’t necessarily true for this series.
As far as other sports games go, Sonic has only recently started getting his feet wet in any serious sense. Sega Superstars Tennis was a decent enough title, but I think Sonic & co. really shine in the three Olympics-based games. Without question, I think the greatest moments happen in swimming events, because the characters don’t all swim in the same way. I had mentioned in the Characters section that I would like to see more nods toward species-specific traits, and the swimming events do exactly that: Tails dog-paddles (as he’s done ever since Sonic 3) and Vector slithers from side-to-side like a real crocodile. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sonic’s life jacket and the fact that he refused to submerge his head in the water, further emphasizing his weakness.
When it comes to other sports games, Sega could take the same route as Nintendo and fling Sonic into every sport under the sun, but I’m actually glad that this hasn’t been their M.O. so far. Athletic games will draw in more fan attention if the sports in question actually relate to the characters’ interests. With this in mind, I’d love to see Sonic & Mario at the X-Games or a Sonic edition of Dance Dance Revolution (which is something I’ve craved for years). I also think Sonic would be particularly adept at parkour and soccer, as they both require careful footwork.
(I suppose one could technically call this an extension of sports, but I’ve always felt that fighting games have such a different dynamic and presentation that they pass as a separate entity.)
To date, the StH series has only seen three fighting games (well, four if Fighter’s Megamix is included, since that one had Bark and Bean as unlockable characters), and I’m somewhat surprised that there haven’t been more; as a kid I used to joke about how Sega should revive every abandoned character all at once so they could make a game called Sonic Brawl. Just as I gushed with the racing games, I think the fighter genre would be another fantastic opportunity for Sega to really customize and craft the move set specifically to each character, giving us new peeks into their abilities and personalities. It would also be a great opportunity to use more species-related traits; in fact, didn’t Espio have an attack that involved snapping out his tongue in Sonic the Fighters? Regardless, I think more fighting games would definitely enrich the series. Our existing primers have already proven that it can be done successfully in arena-style (Sonic the Fighters), open-world style (Sonic Battle), or a combination of both (Super Smash Brothers Brawl), so Sega has plenty of methods to choose from.
This is a relatively small and unacknowledged sect of Sonic’s gaming library, but it does exist. The few educational games that came out in the 90’s, such as Sonic’s Schoolhouse and Tails and the Music Maker, were pretty awkward and not really engaging enough to really teach that much. I do think that this genre stands a chance at being viable, however, because the StH series does have a lot of very young fans. There was a relatively successful Sonic X title made for the Leapster, although I don’t actually know for certain if it was educational or a port, as that specific game is outside of my collection. Still, the market is there, and I think Sonic now has more resources than he did in the 90’s to make an educational game more engaging for young kids. There are also more young characters in the series than there were back then, which the young players could use to relate to as they learn. Sonic’s Schoolhouse could actually have a complete makeover by way of having Sonic teach not only the player, but virtual classmates for the player to learn along with, such as Cream or Charmy.
This is another niche that not many people seem to know about. Sonic has had several small arcade games, mostly back in the 90’s. While none of these games were very complex, or even all that long, I still think they’re important. They’re a piece of Sonic’s history, and they were so limited that not many of his fans have gotten to enjoy them in the last 20 years. I personally have really, really wanted a chance to play SegaSonic Arcade if just because it’s the only title to feature Ray the Flying Squirrel; other games, such as Sonic Cosmo Fighter, pique my interest because the sprites are unique and because it’s the only space shooter to star Sonic that I’ve ever heard of (short of a ROM hack, anyway). In my opinion, Sega ought to unbury these small, scattered games, and release them all in one group as an arcade collection. Considering how short and simple they are, it’d be more logically released on XBLA and PSN for just a few dollars instead of a hard-disc format.
If these games were to be considered too minimal for even that sort of a release, they could at least be included in the next re-release of the Genesis-era games. Considering that these titles are re-released each time a new generation of consoles comes out, Sega has to find more and more additional content to bundle with them to make the repeated purchase more enticing. They’ve already resorted to including Game Gear games, so why not branch into the arcade games as well? Collection releases are almost always focused to some extent on Sonic’s history. These games are a piece of history that the vast majority of us haven’t seen before. (By the way, while I’m on this topic, we need a re-release of Knuckles’ Chaotix. I know a lot of people that never got to play it due to never owning a 32X.)
But what about actual arcade consoles? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing too many more of them outside of sports games. Sega has continued to produce cabinets featuring Sonic racing games and tables for Sonic air hockey, but I have a lingering doubt we’ll see another action game in the arcades. SegaSonic Arcade was a nice experiment, as it played with the trackball instead of a joystick, but its gimmick was also its downfall in some ways. A standard Sonic game doesn’t play in the style that most players expect from an arcade, and unless he’s given new gimmicks, he’ll probably continue to live on consoles… Unless someone makes that DDR game I was pining for.
So far as I’m aware, the only true puzzle game to date has been Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, but I guess if you want to be as encompassing as possible, one could technically say there are three if the pinball games are included. In any case, I can understand why this group is small, since stopping to solve a puzzle butts heads with Sonic’s core appeal, but I do think it’s time we had another puzzle game. There are plenty of StH fans out there that enjoy critical thinking exercises, and we deserve more than a reskin of Puyo Puyo. Eggman and Tails are both known for their amazing IQs, which would make either of them perfect candidates for a puzzle or strategy game. I’d even go so far as to say Eggman would be well-suited to an RTS, as he’s constantly trying to claim territory for his empire.
If the game were a generalized puzzle collection rather than a singular, over-arching puzzle objective, the possibilities are even broader. I could see Knuckles having a mini-game in which the player has to reassemble the Master Emerald shards — in three dimensions, not just a standard 2D puzzle. Silver’s telekinesis could work as the basis for a plethora of sorting-style games, or even puzzle-platforming. Rouge and Espio would be good candidates for some sort of puzzle or strategy game based around computer hacking. The objective could either be for one to stop the other, or to beat your opponent in hacking the system first. In addition, it’s perfectly set up for a versus mode.
Virtually any character in the series could have some sort of a puzzle challenge associated with them, really. Furthermore, their different levels of skill and experience would allow the game to assign them different difficulty levels; obviously, a level featuring Cream would be much easier than a level featuring Blaze. As mentioned, I can see why puzzles haven’t been a big focus on Sega’s part, but I do think there’s potential here that shouldn’t be neglected. I’d be satisfied with it on a side burner like the storybook games or fighting games, just so long as it’s not forgotten.
Long before the audience has a chance to feel the controls, explore the levels, or judge whether or not the characters are behaving naturally, they’re going to extrapolate far more information about the game through its look. The artwork of a game can define everything, whether it was intentional or not. The visual impact of the chosen art style can carve out far more atmosphere for a game than any other element. Art has the power to make a game feel frightening, ethereal, playful, intense, manic, calming… The list goes on.
Sega has a very sharp eye for when and how to use game art to project their desired atmosphere. Even all the way back in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, there was a clear distinction in visual style between the first and last levels. Traditionally, StH games begin in a bright, colorful, naturalistic setting to convey a sense of paradise. The environment is vibrant, cheerful, and full of life. This serves two purposes: To contrast sharply with the setting of Eggman’s final lair, and to make the player feel personally involved.
As the game progresses, the environments gradually get darker. The wildlife and foliage fades away, replaced by increasingly dangerous metal facsimiles. Even though the mechanics of the game are essentially the same, the game itself feels different based on the way it looks. With each passing level, Eggman’s presence can be felt more heavily, allowing the illusion of closing on on his base to unfold in the player’s mind.
This effect is bolstered by the fact that the first level of the game is always so pristine; regardless of which game a Sonic fan has played first, they always started out at the same type of opening level. Sega’s suffered criticism for remaking Green Hill Zone over and over in each new game, but they do it on purpose. It’s to ensure that the players always have the familiar sense of “home” every time they start up a Sonic game. Whenever the player makes it to a boss fight, they have a solid sense of what they’re defending. The disparate nature of the environment they find themselves in now versus where they started off gets more and more stark every time they advance. In a player that’s relatively new to the series, this can simply ramp up the excitement, because it’s a visual indicator that they’re gaining ground against their opponent.
As a player becomes more seasoned, however, a new effect begins to surface: The player finds themself with a personal investment in the story. Veterans of the StH series harken back fondly to the Green Hill Zone because, for many of them, it was their very first experience with Sonic. As I said, Sega taps into the Green Hill archetype with every new game deliberately, and it’s for exactly this reason. When a long-time fan picks up a new game, they’re able to relive the nostalgia of their first game to some degree. By nurturing that bond, the boss battles then become more intense for the player, because they begin to feel personally threatened by the danger Eggman poses. Green Hill Zone (or whatever variant the player originally imprinted on) is something that the player personally cares to defend, and subsequently, players become even more invested in the gameplay and feel an even greater sense of victory when they win.
Anyone under the sun that’s ever played a StH game can tell you that one area Sega’s never had trouble with is the soundtrack. No matter how poorly a game was received by critics or fans, the music has always been a redeeming quality. We all know it, and I certainly don’t need to embarrass myself trying to come up with suggestions for improving it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Music and artwork go hand-in-hand to set the mood of a game, but in my opinion, the music is more powerful. To demonstrate this, let’s suppose that in the game Sonic CD, our game files got all mixed up, and it started playing past music (which is cheerful) over the bad future levels (which are post-apocalyptic). Maybe it’s just me, but I find that the music makes the setting feel less depressing, as opposed to the setting making the music feel less up-beat. I also feel that if the opposite were true, and bad future music were played over a past level, it would still result in the music overpowering the setting. Well-executed music is so powerful that it can make the player more forgiving (on a subconscious level) of other flaws in a game — just as bad music can suck the pleasure out of a game that would’ve otherwise be fun.
Even though Sega’s been criticized at times for not listening enough to what their fans want, that certainly can’t be said with regard to the music. Each new game continues to deliver an unforgettable new soundtrack, and there are several tracks that continue to turn up in games with a new remix. I find this practice refreshing; it’s a nice acknowledgement to the long-time fans, yet it’s not a carbon copy and gives us something new to appreciate. It expands the reasons why we love these songs while simultaneously introducing good tunes to new players that might have otherwise missed them in a game they don’t have access to. This is especially significant because the music is the one thing a player can enjoy beyond the boundaries of the game itself. We have to play the game to enjoy the levels and the mechanics, but we can take the music anywhere we want, and love it regardless of our feelings about the game it came from.
In some cases, the sound effects can become just as iconic as the soundtrack. Even though sound effects are a comparatively small detail, that doesn’t make them any less important; I think the best example of this is the chime that sounds anytime Sonic collects a ring. That’s a sound that has been so burned into our memories that we likely wouldn’t even recognize something else if it were ever replaced. While there is some lenience for variations within a small range, overall there are certain sound effects that need to remain consistent. … Then again, there are certain sounds that I would love to never hear again in my life; I doubt there’s a StH player alive that doesn’t experience some degree of panic in response to the running-out-of-air jingle.
It’s difficult to discern where the line is between what’s expected to remain constant and what’s expected to change. There’s a range of acceptable jingles used every time Sonic gets a 1-up, but the variety of spring sounds are all relatively close to one another. Sonic has two main categories for the sound effect of jumping (divided between classic and modern), and yet there’s been one consistent jingle for earning a Chaos Emerald in nearly every game in Sonic’s library. It may come off as random and disorganized, but the important thing to note is that none of these sound effects comes off as out-of-place. Everything gives the sense that it “should” sound that way, even when a sound effect is changed from one game to the next.
It seems clear to me that Sega already has a handle on what to leave alone and what to tweak, so instead, I’m going to switch up my tactics. Since a lot of game companies seem to struggle with this concept, I’m going to address this in advance in the hopes that Sega doesn’t fall into the same trap: DO NOT CHANGE THE SOUNDS IN RE-RELEASES. I don’t know if doing so is supposed to be part of the appeal for old players to re-purchase the game, but if so, it fails miserably at its job. Switching around the music and sound effects in game ports only serves to irritate veteran players seeking familiarity. It’s not going to impress new players, as they have nothing to compare it to, and more often than not it’s a major turn-off to players of the previous version. A port should be exactly that: an import into a new format. If sprucing up the game itself is intended to be part of the process, don’t brand it as a re-release; go the whole nine yards and do a full remake, so everything gets a tune-up and any one change won’t stand out so starkly. If nothing else, at least offer the player the option between playing with the original soundtrack and the new one.
Something that I find so great about the StH series is that it has enough flexibility to convey just about any mood it wants. While most games revolve around excitement, adventure, and adrenaline, the series has also not shied away from drama, comedy, tragedy, suspense, and wackiness. However, sometimes too much breathing room can be a curse, as it’s easy to lose focus if a writer has too much wiggle room.
I don’t think that games should have only one note in terms of atmosphere. The traditional model of a dramatic story arc shows a single slope to indicate rising action, but in practice, that line is actually pretty squiggly. An audience expects peaks and valleys in mood , with each peak getting a little higher than the last until culminating in the climax. If it’s all the same note all the time, the audience will get exhausted of the overload and need a break — and some may not come back. This should not be taken to mean that a consistent feel can’t be maintained overall, just that it needs to vary in intensity.
The question then becomes, how is this conveyed? In a multitude of ways, but one of the most important ones is through character expressions. This has improved for the StH series over time, but even so, I feel at times that the characters’ faces just don’t quiiiite match what they’re supposed to be feeling based on the situation and dialogue. They’re nowhere near the overdone facial ticks of Sonic Adventure anymore, but it actually kind of feels like the opposite problem instead. Not always, but sometimes, it feels like Sega just didn’t go far enough. There are a handful of expressions that the characters habitually fall back on, and every now and then it feels out of place. Overall, this quality has improved a great deal through the years, but it’s not perfect.
If anything, the voice acting hurts the mood more than the faces. I’m not going to go into detail on this, as Sega’s already heard far more feedback about the voices than I could ever give. What I do want to point out, however, is that I prefer to have different language options. This option has appeared and disappeared many times over the years, and I personally feel that when the option is removed, the game becomes less enjoyable on some level.
Having a variety of actors, regardless of the language they’re using, gives us a variety of takes on each of the characters. Some actors get more into character than others. Some dig into the character’s psyche and deliver their lines with nuances not seen in the other versions. And of course, the elephant in the room: Some actors are just plain more skilled than others. There are lots of times when I’d rather listen to the game in a foreign language with the subtitles on if just to be able to hear the role taken seriously, as there are some actors that clearly aren’t doing so. Sound files aren’t all that big, and the amount of data storage available per game is forever increasing. There’s no reason to not give the players multiple options.
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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.