Sonic the Hedgehog Is Dying
More people have been talking about Sonic the Hedgehog in the past few days than in the past few years. The 25th anniversary of the Blue Blur is undoubtedly to blame. Yesterday, I ran a report about Sega’s plans to develop a special “anniversary game” starring its famous mascot, whose last few outings have been disappointing at best. Although Sega hasn’t confirmed anything remotely sounding like a new title, you can probably understand why the likeliness of an anniversary game is just a bit frustrating to me.
In the past few years, with initiatives like the Sonic Boom spin-off franchise and its inability to capitalize on its hits, Sega has brought my love of Sonic the Hedgehog to a complete halt. And I’m not just talking about Sonic Boom‘s notably terrible quality—both games are bad—but also the fact that it doesn’t look like anyone really wants to play Sonic games anymore. I’m not talking about the people who spat their coffees yesterday morning and viciously began typing comments about that Sonic news. You’re probably someone who really loves the character and his adventures. But there are too few of you.
That’s how we get things like Sonic Boom, which is really an attempt to freshen up the franchise for a new audience, down to that ugly scarf around Sonic’s neck. And although I can’t speak for the animated series, the strategy definitely hasn’t worked for the games. It also does not help that the Sonic Boom games feel like companion pieces to the TV series, acting as prequels to whatever shenanigans Sonic and friends are up to on the show. Sega seems to have gotten that backwards, hasn’t it?
The hope was undoubtedly to have young TV viewers funnel into the games, which are currently only available on the most family-oriented consoles on the market: the Nintendo Wii and 3DS. But again, it’s you people, the ones who had to mop up coffee from your keyboards and shirts yesterday, who bought these games, titles not made for you, but new gamers who were busy playing Mario games instead. Because Sonic has never withstood the test of time as well as his plumbing counterpart.
In 2014, the Sonic Boom games Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal, which were released on the Wii U and 3DS respectively, only sold 620,000 copies (as of March 2015) between the two of them, making them the worst-selling Sonic games ever, which is indicative that the big “release event” approach—the animated series and the games released within days of each other in November of that year—did not attract a new audience. In fact, the Sonic Boom initiative only proved that the character has been in decline since at least 2011.
Sonic Lost World, the 2013 helping (and coincidentally the last installment developed by Sonic Team), only sold 90,000 more copies. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed broke one million copies sold in 2012, and you could go all the way back to 2011 to see how numbers have steadily declined in the past five years—Sonic Generations and Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games sold more than four million copies between the two of them. Comparatively, Mario games from 2011-2015 have sold a total of 43 million copies, and that character is almost six years older, first appearing in 1985 on the NES.
Did Nintendo Kill Sonic?
Like Nintendo with Mario, Sega has also pushed yearly helpings of Sonic, and that hasn’t worked either. While Mario enjoys success with spin-offs like Mario Kart, Tennis, and Party, Sonic hasn’t quite found interesting ways to change the experience from the core 2D/3D platformer for revitalizing spin-offs (Sonic Boom is, in fact, considered Sega’s attempt at one of these). Yet, that hasn’t stopped the company from releasing at least one new Sonic platformer a year since 2001.
That’s where Sega has clearly missed the release model for Mario, whose main installments (the Super Mario platformer series) have usually been treated like big gaming events. Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine were six years apart. Sunsine and New Super Mario Bros. were four years apart. And although Super Mario games did come out more frequently from 2009 to 2013, we haven’t had a new installment since. Which means that the next Mario platformer will be a big deal just due to the fact that there hasn’t been one in a couple of years. In the meantime, Nintendo has killed it with spin-off games like Mario Kart 8, which coincidentally was our 2014 Game of the Year, and Super Mario Maker, which is on our list of the Top Games of 2015. Comparatively, Sonic’s most successful spin-off has co-starred Mario…
Sonic is suffering from a terrible case of franchise fatigue, one that’s only going to get worse without any new ideas or embrace of the original formula that made the series so great in the first place. One thing is for sure: a new Sonic game isn’t really that big a deal to the general audience, and that’s a problem if Sega ever hopes to sell more than a million copies of the franchise ever again. Saturating the market definitely isn’t going to help. The classic formula might.
It’s never been a secret that Mario, who has always been Sonic’s biggest competitor, all the way back to the SNES vs. Genesis days, has aged much better than Sega’s greatest hero. Part of it is certainly that Nintendo ultimately defeated Sega in the console race, as the latter company exited the console market in 2001, leaving the Blue Blur without the exclusivity that, at least for a little while, tore the gaming community in two. Without his own console, little Sonic has ultimately found himself renting space on Nintendo platforms (under an exclusive deal), the final blow to the franchise.
Modern Sonic vs. Classic Sonic
The franchise was also a little late to the 3D party, arriving two years after 1996’s Super Mario 64. Of course, that was not due to any lack of vision from Sega, who also had a 3D Sonic project in development (to release in 1996, in fact) for the Sega Saturn called “Sonic X-Treme,” which never made it to market. Instead, there was 1996’s Sonic 3D Blast, which was actually a 2D isometric platformer with pre-rendered 3D sprites. Sonic finally made it to 3D in 1998 with Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. But the death of Sega’s last console ultimately stifled its long-term success. Adventure did break 2 million copies sold for the first time since 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
The Sonic franchise has never quite acclimated itself to the changing landscape of gaming, and many might even consider the coming of 3D as its death knell. Although Adventure was a success for all intents and purposes, and fans remember it fondly, it didn’t quite usher in a new era of creativity at Sega. Instead, Sonic offerings since 1996 have mostly been rehashes of that first 3D game with minor tweaks and some kind of new feature—like team-ups between the characters in Sonic Heroes and the “werehog” in Sonic Unleashed. Some Sonic games have featured 2D sections as part of their gameplay, such as in Sonic Colors, but these sections have mostly been contextual and not the main focus of the game.
Sonic Generations, beloved by many fans, featured equal parts 2D and 3D, with levels containing two acts each, one for “Classic Sonic” and the other for “Modern Sonic.” It was a return to form for Sonic on consoles, even though he’d enjoyed a nice 2D career on handheld platforms, with critically-acclaimed hits like the Sonic Advance series and Sonic Rush. After the news broke yesterday about the rumored anniversary game, I read plenty of comments from fans asking for a Generations sequel, one that would mix the old with the new (well, maybe not that new), taking the classic 2D platforming formula of fast-paced scrolling and smart, loopy level design, and splashing on a new coat of paint. This seems to me like a fair compromise, even for Sega, who has been stubborn about releasing another Sonic adventure in that vein, even though Generations has been its best-selling Sonic platformer in five years. Coincidentally, it was also the game Sega released to commemorate Sonic’s 20th anniversary in 2011.
When Sega released the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog onto mobile devices in 2006, it sold 8 million copies. Up to that point, it had been the biggest success Sega had had with Sonic (in terms of copies sold) in years. And it was the nostalgia, a return to a simpler time, and the comfort of playing the Sonic you knew and loved that made that release an instant hit. (Just you wait until Nintendo unleashes the real deal on mobile in the next few years.) Of course, one could also argue that it was a popular name on a device that virtually everyone who possibly cared about Sonic already owned. How could it fail? But the terrific sales also speak to the countless casual players, who might never have played a Sonic game before it was readily available on their phones on the train ride home. This was an event.
(A proper Sonic the Hedgehog 4 2D side-scrolling platformer arrived in 2010 to generally good reviews, but sales have never been released on the game, which was meant to be released episodically and digitally. If the game didn’t do so hot, it’s probably due to the way it was released. Believe it or not, episodic games weren’t so popular six years ago. And it doesn’t make much sense for a platformer, anyway…)
My point is that, for Sega to bring Sonic back into the fold, it has to take the franchise back to its basics of fast-paced 2D side-scrolling platforming and smart level design. Ditch what isn’t working—the 3D approach it has never quite mastered—and give us a good ol’ Sonic game. That’s something it has refused to do in the past five years, since Sonic Generations commemorated the Blue Blur’s 20th. In terms of climate and what else is out there, a retro-style Sonic could work right now, in light of games such as Shovel Knight and Super Mario Maker, two titles that have made 2D side-scrollers look incredibly cool recently. But has Sonic’s reputation already been too tarnished by things like Sonic Boom and franchise fatigue? I’d rather see Sonic the Hedgehog go out quietly than with a final boom on his 25th anniversary.