Love it or hate it, the Sonic the Hedgehog series is one of the most popular and iconic franchises in the whole video game industry, and arguably the whole entertainment world. It’s Sonic that put SEGA on the map, and gave Nintendo its first true competitor after gaining market dominance back in the late 80s. Sonic rose to staggering heights of popularity after his debut in 1991, and he rocked through the 90s like nobody’s business. When the 2000s hit, things went bad. The Sonic series has been in a weird limbo since the start of the new millennia; flip-flopping between hits and (mostly) misses. Despite its varying level of quality, the franchise has continued to be one of SEGA’s primary sources of profit, and the fan-base is still incredibly passionate. But, why? How has the Sonic series managed to stay afloat for so long despite its many mishaps?
When the original Sonic the Hedgehog debuted, it became a classic very quickly. But, why? Unlike other platformers, Sonic was unique. Instead of the usual running and jumping over obstacles, Sonic was all about getting from point A to point B in the quickest amount of time you could. The emphasis on speed and precision made Sonic clearly distinct from the many other platformers that were out there, especially Super Mario. This, combined with Sonic’s signature ‘hero with an attitude’ personality, propelled the series to unbelievable heights and helped SEGA finally achieve a respectable position in the industry. As time went on, the series continued to grow and it remained successful throughout the 90s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
While SEGA was killing it in the games’ department, it was overkilling it when it came to hardware. In an effort to keep consumers as hooked as possible, SEGA continuously pumped out new systems, as well as add-ons for older models. In addition to this, SEGA was juggling support for multiple consoles at once, all belonging to different generations. This caused developers to be get confused and consumers to be overwhelmed. The situation really started to go south with the arrival of the SEGA Saturn. Being the first SEGA system to be capable of 3D gaming, it was a very powerful and expensive piece of hardware. SEGA’s approach to it was interesting, to say the least. A good example of this is the fact that the company had announced the system and released it on the same day in North America. While this shocked the media and the gaming community, it shocked retailers even more; many stores were not made aware of the Saturn until that very same day it was announced.
The system struggled for most of its life, and to add insult to injury, its life wasn’t all that long. Just a few years after its launch, SEGA’s then CEO made an announcement about the system, stating that it was “not SEGA’s future.” Sonic Team didn’t even release a full Sonic title on the system. The only games that made it were spin-offs: Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Jam and Sonic R. There was a full title in development, dubbed Sonic Xtreme, but it was canceled after a short period of development. Soon thereafter, the Dreamcast was announced. The system was well ahead of its time and SEGA was determined to supply a slew of exciting new games. To help push the system, it launched with the critically-acclaimed Sonic Adventure; the first true-3D Sonic game. Despite its initial surge in sales, the Dreamcast’s lifespan ended up being ironically like a dream—shortlived.
Sonic’s first real trip-up was a result of SEGA’s own hardware woes.
By the time SEGA launched the system, the gaming world had just about enough. Developers no longer wanted to support the company’s hardware. Many considered SEGA to be untrustworthy at that point, as it seemed the company didn’t really have a set vision. How ironic is that the Sonic the Hedgehog series has ended up being a similar way.
After Sonic Team brought the series into 3D with Sonic Adventure, this have been all over the place. The main reason for this is pretty much the same reason as to why Sonic became so popular—the formula. The speed-focused platforming of the 2D Genesis era worked very well there, but it has proved to be a challenge for the developers to try and get it to work in 3D. Since Adventure, the Sonic console games have spawned very different designs throughout the years. As a result, Sonic has been caught between a rock and a very hard place for the majority of the last decade.
Just as SEGA kept flip-flopping between systems, Sonic Team has kept flip-flopping between gameplay styles. This lack of consistency has been the primary reason why the series has fallen on hard times on so many occasions. The team looked like it was getting into the swing of things between 2008-2011 with Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, but they went ahead and flipped the script again with the 2013 release of Sonic Lost World. To add to this lack of consistency, a lot of the Sonic console games throughout the 2000s have fluctuated between being mediocre and downright terrible. Considering that two titles that are in the group of games that are considered to be the worst of the worst belong to the Sonic franchise, it’s really hard to see how the series is even still a thing.
This series has entries that are considered to be some of the worst games ever released — yet, it’s still popular.
Sonic Team went for a very long time pumping out bad Sonic games, and yet, that wasn’t enough to kill the series. Fans, for some reason, just kept buying the games. There are other video game series that used to be juggernauts, but after a slew of bad titles they were pretty much erased from the face of the planet, for the most part; Crash and Spyro come to mind. While it’s arguable that neither of those series were as iconic as Sonic was in the 90s, they still ended up in a very similar situation and paid the ultimate price for it. Sonic on the other hand has pretty much been cheating death.
Ultimately, the reason why the series is even still a thing despite its questionable track record, is due to the power of nostalgia. Many Sonic fans simply don’t want to let go of their passion for the series. They will pummel an entry into the dirt, yet still show great enthusiasm for it. Take Sonic 06, for example. Despite being the worst of the worst (unless you consider that position to belong to Rise of Lyric), the game’s legacy has managed to live on in the very active fan-creation community. From level mods to entire fan-games, the assets of this abomination of a title can be found in far too many places. This shows the passion that is surging through the Sonic community; they can hate a Sonic game with all their heart, but it’ll turn a profit regardless.
Honestly, it’s a good thing that the fan community is so devoted. If this were not the case, then SEGA would most likely have gone bankrupt by now. The Sonic series has continued to be its largest source of income over the years. Terrible games or not, the green is real.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Earlier this year the company finally admitted that it hasn’t been taking quality control as seriously as it should have been. With that said, it has promised to make the necessary changes in order to deliver truly satisfying content, especially with the Sonic series. While no new Sonic game has been released since then, we have seen evidence that a new leaf really has been turned. The upcoming 3DS exclusive Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is actually a year late. When it was originally delayed, SEGA stated that this was done to polish the title. The game will be launching later this month, so we’ll soon see for sure if the wait was worth it. Seeing that the delay was a whole year—it better be worth it. In addition to this, it should be interesting to see how the recently announced Sonic Mania and Project Sonic 2017 titles fare. Both games look very attractive, but only time will tell if they are truly up to snuff. As controversial as the series is, Sonic games really aren’t all that bad. It took over the 90s for a good reason — it’s fun, flashy and unique. Let’s hope SEGA, Sonic Team and their partners bring that zest back with the next set of games. But even if they don’t, fans will make sure to keep the funds coming anyway.