In Defence of Sonic the Hedgehog

I think it’s time we set the record straight: Sonic the Hedgehog is good.

It’s not a stretch to say the little blue hedgehog has disappointed many over the years. Whether it be in a series of nearly consistently poor releases, mismanagement of his brand, or his somewhat dated aesthetic, there’s a lot of reasons to assume Sonic isn’t what he once was. Yet for all the series’ missteps, when Sonic games get things right, they’re something special.

Sonic’s history isn’t a problem

Before digging into any of the Sonic games themselves, one of the biggest points of concern for the “Sonic was never good” argument is his past. Specifically, his origin story. As Sega’s old mascot, Alex Kidd, began to fall in popularity, the company wanted new representation. A character that could also compete with Nintendo’s mustachioed plumber. And so Sonic was created.

The original game, Sonic the Hedgehog, was more than just a gimmicky platformer with some good advertising behind it. Sonic the Hedgehog introduced players to a new way of platforming, just as Metroid and Castlevania gave way to the metroidvania genre. 2D Sonic games rely on elements you won’t find in many other platformers. It’s not just about going fast; at their core, 2D Sonic games offer varying amounts of verticality and different ways to complete a level. Secrets hidden down one path that you might not run into on your first play session. They’re much more than what most people give them credit for.

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Classic-era Sonic games are still good as hell

If Sonic Mania wasn’t proof enough, going back to the source is still as fun as ever. Classic Sonic games, spanning from the first Sonic the Hedgehog to Sonic CD, are still some of the best platformers around. Sure, they might not offer hardcore precision platforming, or that same freedom of motion a Mario game will. What they do provide, however, is something entirely unique.

Like I mentioned before, Sonic’s 2D games usually offer multiple ways to complete a level with lots of verticality. But that’s only part of what makes them so special. The other key is their intricately-designed stages that often put a stop to players looking to just blaze through them on their first run through. The series’ reliance on speed has never been the focus for me; rather a reward for players who’ve replayed its levels.

Much like the many secrets in a stage, like the special stage portals, the incentive to learn a level will also result in an easier time playing it. On a first run of Green Hill Zone, you might run into a spike wall, but on that second run through you’ll probably know exactly where it is. Instead of breaking your flow, you’ll be able to speed past because you’ll know where it is.

It’s a game mechanic that rewards players who know the lay of the land. At the time when Sonic the Hedgehog was first released, it was essential to prolong the value of a game. Instead of making it arbitrarily difficult like many other games of the time, Sonic instead is rather tame. The games emphasised replayability. That, coupled with their attention-grabbing design, led them to become the most played games by many Sega gamers.

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The 3D Sonic games still have merit, when they work at least

Of course, most people agree the early years for Sonic the Hedgehog were undeniably fun. What causes the most contention for gamers these days is Sonic’s modern legacy. Specifically, the shift from 2D to 3D.

People usually refer to Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast as the beginning of the franchise’s descent. It may be a valid opinion, but it skims over some important Sonic history. His notable absence during the Sega Saturn’s production run has been a sore spot for my entire life, it seems. Besides a graphically enhanced re-release of Sonic 3D Blast, the awkwardly-controlled racer Sonic R, and the classic era collection of Sonic Jam, there wasn’t much representation for Sega’s mascot hedgehog. It wasn’t until the Dreamcast arrived that we saw what the future of Sonic would look like.

Unfortunately, Sonic Adventure hasn’t aged well. It’s a glitchy, awkward mess that doesn’t control particularly well, but I still find a lot to love in it. Its much bemoaned hub areas, for instance, felt like a different take on Super Mario 64’s castle. Its opening level is also one of my favourite stages in Sonic’s entire history. But then again, nearly every opening stage in Sonic games is good on its own. It’s the later stages that usually begin to fall apart, and Sonic Adventure has plenty of warts to show.

The same can be said for its sequel, Sonic Adventure 2. More people enjoyed this one though, thanks to its re-release on the Gamecube as Sonic Adventure 2 Battle. But the game that really things right, as far as I’m concerned, was Sonic Heroes; the game most people refer to as the third and final game in the Adventure series. Its three-characters-in-one control scheme worked by offering plenty of variety within levels themselves, often forcing you to swap between normal speed focused stretches of the stage before changing things up with an action-heavy or platforming portion of the level.

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The lowest of lows won’t ever be as memorable as the highest of highs

I could go on explaining how I adore the Sonic Advance series’ approach to 2D Sonic’s level design, or how the modern “boost” games actually have a lot to offer when done correctly. But the fact of the matter is I won’t be able to make anyone, myself included, forget how bad a really bad Sonic game can be. We all remember Shadow the Hedgehog, or 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, or even the more recent Sonic Boom games. Hell, Sonic Forces hasn’t helped much either.

Even still, I can’t help but continue to love Sonic despite all his missteps. Because when a Sonic game is running on all cylinders, there’s nothing like it. The series has more value than any sense of personal nostalgia for Sega fans. For me, Sonic represents the best in the underdog spirit, despite how corporate he is. Without him, Sega wouldn’t have been able to break Nintendo’s 90% market share in the 1990s and, as much as I love Nintendo and Mario, I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where they were never forced to innovate past Super Mario World.

And yes, I did just write over a thousand words about Sonic the Hedgehog without bringing up any fanart creations, thank you for noticing.