My inner search for Sonic The Hedgehog
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Guy discovers why you can't please old gamers with 3D retreads...
This was a week in which many gamers became all-too-horribly aware of their own crushing mortality: Quake turned fifteen and Sonic the Hedgehog turned twenty. Terrible realisation dawned across the globe, rendering geeks immobile as their eyes focused somewhere in the mid-nineties and scalding hot coffee sluiced numbly down their chins. They were insensible to everything bar the inexorable passage of time and the bone-deep need to blow on a ROM cartridge to get it working again. Under the harsh fluorescent lighting of myriad offices brimming with bastards, hearts and minds were cast back to a simpler time of pixelated mascots and Lucozade in glass bottles.
The games we played as children will always have a strong hold on our lives. Fragments of box-art, snippets of music and half-remembered characters can grab you by the brain and force you back decades, while the noises of various threats and power-ups can still produce a Pavlovian response years later – should you ever want to destroy a twenty-something friend, for example, simply set their alarm to the drowning countdown from the first Sonic title and they’ll be a quivering pile of paranoia within days.
As with anything capable of producing such a reaction, there are strong opinions on all sides and rose-tinted spectacles distort the truth. The twentieth anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog was met with equal amounts of joy and derision; the general consensus seems to be split between two camps, Sonic-as-messiah and press-right-to-win (there are, of course, those who are blisteringly cruel enough to call Sonic the Hedgehog ‘ITV’ in comparison to Super Mario Brothers, which they see as the BBC. For our Atlantic cousins, the BBC is generally seen as the bastion of quality, while ITV is seen as a low-rent depository of charmless mulch; needless to say, these people are not to be trusted).
"Sonic felt more and more like a beloved family pet kept alive solely through the pitiless machinations of Soviet scientists and who wishes only for a swift and painless death"
The first four Sonic games, released for the Sega Megadrive, were unlike anything else available at the time. Thanks to the particular processing quirks of the Megadrive (BLAST PROCESSING!¹), gamers were treated to a character who could rocket through levels like an amphetamine-powered motorbike. That’s not to say that the press-right-to-win crowd are right; some of the later levels required breathtakingly-precise platforming, often involving the sorts of cruel challenges only dreamt up by level designers who really hate children.
Ultimately, whether tearing through the dazzlingly colourful vistas of Green Hill Zone or just tearing your hair out thanks to the monster who designed Scrap Brain Zone, the Megadrive Sonic titles were always backed up with rock-solid level design and a control system tighter than a hipster’s trousers.
Sadly, however, good things never last.
Sonic has, in recent years, become a by-word for shattered expectations and broken dreams. While Mario went from strength to strength, Sonic felt more and more like a beloved family pet kept alive solely through the pitiless machinations of Soviet scientists and who wishes only for a swift and painless death. Sonic Adventure enjoys the less-than-enviable title of The Last Good Sonic Game, while later instalments in the series have become a textbook example of barrel scraping.
The Sonic Cycle became a byword for fans’ disappointment. Hopes would rise with the unveiling of each planned new Sonic title, only to plummet to new lows every time the new game was actually released. After buying (and swiftly returning ²) Sonic Heroes, I swore that I’d never be hurt again.
It worked, for a while. Forgetting my own torment, I’d laugh at the fools who naïvely thought that the next game would be The Return To Form, only to be crushed anew when they found Sonic was going to be a werewolf, or a knight of the realm, or a chartered accountant, or whatever the hell else some dead-eyed committee at Sega decided to make him that day. Not for me, I thought. Never again.
Then came the whispers. Dark little rumours in the night. Tales of a return to form. Project Needlemouse! Oh how it was trumpeted! “We’ve learnt our lessons!” Sega cried, “We know we’ve made mistakes! We promise to make amends!”
I was hooked. I hoovered up news and concept art like a model at a cocaine convention. The backgrounds! The enemies! Oh lord the lack of a third dimension! I was too deep in The Cycle to even see a way out. It didn’t matter, of course – this would be it!
The controls were sloppy, making Sonic lock-on to enemies was a hang-up from the 3D games and the lack of momentum was the single most inexplicable omission since Clarissa refused to explain a god damn thing. It was heartbreaking. Sure, the graphics were pretty, but the game-play was all manner of broken and the music sounded like a funeral dirge for the world’s last synthesiser.
Once more, I swore ‘never again’.
"Firing the game up for the first time felt like starting the first Sonic game in a hyper-advanced version of 1991. I prepared myself for massive, massive disappointment"
Six months later I saw the first trailer for Sonic: Generations and my willpower crumbled to dust. Sonic was...Sonic again. Little, fat Sonic. Not the emaciated heroin addict Sonic of the later games, but the mute, slightly portly Sonic of my childhood. Sure, his lankier incarnation was also present, but that didn’t seem to matter. We were back in Green Hill Zone. The music was right. The game-play looked right. Even the modern bits looked fun. Checking the sky for airborne pigs, I began to hope against hope that the impossible had happened.
Then I played the demo.
The music was simply perfect. A bouncy, jolly re-working of the original. All the sound effects matched; firing the game up for the first time felt like starting the first Sonic game in a hyper-advanced version of 1991. I prepared myself for massive, massive disappointment.
As I took control of Sonic, I started to fret. The jumping felt...off. He wasn’t the Master of Inertia that starred in Sonic the Hedgehog 4, but he still didn’t land quite right. Dropping into a spin was awkward, sometimes impossible, making tried-and-tested methods of playing feel strangely difficult. Sometimes, just sometimes, Sonic would feel like he was being pushed in a direction contrary to the player’s input.
These differences may be small, but when you’ve sunk the better part of a childhood into a series of games, even small changes like these can feel like you’ve come home to find your family wearing each other’s faces.
I relayed these fears to my girlfriend and was met with a look normally given to people with a strong belief in Lizardmen and a hollow moon full of Nazi super soldiers.
Like a woman talking a man off a cliff, she began to explain.
“Look at the work that’s gone into the game,” she said. “Look at those backgrounds. They’re beautiful.” She made a fair point. The stage was rich and colourful, the backgrounds painstakingly detailed and the transitions to 3D used sparingly and incredibly effectively.
“But...but...” I managed, “It doesn’t feel right! It’s not how it used to be!”
She nodded, and in that moment I had a horrible realisation. The sort of realisation that usually only occurs about seven-eighths of the way through a John Hughes film. Somehow my brain, so addled by pop-culture and videogames, drew a link between the alteration of the game-play mechanics in a 20-year-old series, and growing up.
I want things to be how they were. I want to play the games I played when I was a child, only I want them to be new. Naturally, this just can’t happen. Things will never be the way they used to be. Summer days are no longer spent running around outside before collapsing on a sofa to try to beat Labyrinth Zone; instead they’re spent in a sweltering office full of morons who watch The Apprentice. Life has changed. Circumstances have changed. Even if the perfect 2D Sonic game were released tomorrow, it still wouldn’t feel right, because I’m no longer the person who played those games.
Little-Me didn’t have bills, a bad back and the occasional nostril hair – Little-Me had an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Transformers and a complete collection of Pogs.
I’m not saying that the sins of the previous Sonic titles should be forgiven – I still believe that Sonic should be taken behind the Sega offices and Old-Yeller’d for the good of us all – I just think that Sonic: Generations, in offering a game that’s a well-presented and carefully considered mix of old and new, is as close as Sega has ever come to giving us not what we want, but what we’ve needed for a very long time.
¹ Incidentally nothing to do with Vorticist administration
² The man behind the counter looked at me with the sort of pity and scorn usually only reserved for heroin addicts and readers of HEAT.
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