Sonic the Hedgehog’s Renaissance is Happening Now

Luke Hinton

The world of video games has changed a lot since 1991. Back then, Sega and Nintendo dominated the landscape, and if you uttered the phrase “in-game purchase” to someone on the street, they’d have no idea what you meant. The industry has changed substantially, with Sega out of the console business and Nintendo focusing on family-friendly hardware, no longer competing with the PlayStation and Xbox.

One thing has remained static since 1991, though—the presence of one Sonic the Hedgehog. Since his humble beginnings on the Sega Genesis three decades ago, he’s endured all the highs, and lows, that one would expect in their first thirty years of life. But crucially, the supersonic hedgehog has evolved, from the 16-bit era all the way to the eighth generation of consoles—and despite some bumps in the ring-strewn road, he’s certainly come out on top. Yes, the future is looking very bright for everyone’s favorite spiny blue mammal.

A Flying Start

Despite having racked up well over 80 games, Sonic is still most fondly remembered by gamers for Sega Genesis and Dreamcast eras. This writer’s first encounter with the little hedgehog came with the Megadrive—the British name of the Genesis—watching my dad sprint around, collecting coins and bashing grunts, in a rapid-fire style of gameplay I’d never witnessed before. It was like the beloved Mario games on acid, with Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay hugely outpacing anything the Italian plumber and his green brother could muster. Sprinting across the glittering world, rollicking around the hoops, brought an unhinged and high-octane veneer to platforming that simply hadn’t been seen before.

It was this era, in the early ’90s, where Sonic really hit the stratospheric highs of worldwide fame and acclaim. 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog truly changed platformers, and gave Sega a mascot to rival Mario’s worldwide recognition. The key in the ’90s was the consistency of Sonic releases; just a year later, Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which built on the formula by introducing his sidekick, Tails, and shaking up gameplay. Verticality was the key focus – Sonic could ride bubbles to access higher areas in levels, and harnessed a hang-glider to skim across maps. With the same timeless good-and-evil grapple between Sonic and Dr. Robotnik, it was concrete proof that 1991’s Sonic was no fluke, and that a new pixelated icon was here to stay.

The continued success of Sonic releases throughout the ’90s, from 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3—deemed by fans as the franchise’s best entry upon release—to more varied world-builders like racing game Sonic Drift and the handheld entry Triple Trouble, which launched on the Game Gear. It was in these years that Sonic truly became a multimedia titan, with an animated series, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, broadcasting in 1993. Our blue hero was genuinely unavoidable in these years—he even made an appearance at the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the first video game character to ever do so. If the late ’80s were the era of Mario and Luigi, the ’90s truly belonged to Sonic.

Running Out of Steam

Of course, though, nothing good lasts forever—no matter how much Sega wanted it to. The early Sonic games were such hits due to their remixing of the 2D platforming structure, introducing neck-breaking speed and precise controls like gamers had never seen before. But as the early 2000s ushered in the era of 3D graphics and more expansive worlds, Sonic was left in a realm that didn’t suit his brand of platforming. Sonic Heroes was the first example of this: released in 2003 on the newly-launched GameCube, Xbox and slightly older PlayStation 2—the first time fans could play Sonic outside of Sega consoles. The 3D platforming wasn’t entirely new to the franchise, first introduced in 1998’s Sonic Adventure, but players were quick to notice that the high-velocity gameplay, combined with tricky camera controls, made for an unsavory experience. The previous Adventure games pushed the boundaries of what a Sonic game could be, with a focus on exploration and—you guessed it—adventure, but Heroes reverted back to the ring-chasing formula that was such a hit in the ’90s, but didn’t land in the 2000s.

The early aughts was a period of complete overhaul for Sega, and it reflected in the inconsistency of their output. In 2001, they made the decision to get out of the console game, after the [editor’s note: extremely underrated] Dreamcast failed to compete with the absurdly successful PlayStation. The late ’90s and early 2000s were a period of significant financial struggles for Sega—peaking in 2001, where they reported losses of over $460MM. This was combined with widespread staff layoffs; almost a third of their Tokyo workers lost their jobs. This lack of stability is mirrored in the games of the era.

One notable case is Shadow the Hedgehog, a 2005 release that focused on Shadow, Sonic’s evil counterpart, created by Eggman’s grandfather in an experiment. The speedy gameplay of the original Sega Genesis days was long gone, with Shadow the Hedgehog introducing a gamut of weapon-based combat, with everything from submachine guns to rocket launchers. Far from the days of levels ending when Sonic reached a Chaos Portal, now you completed levels by killing all enemies, or taking out vehicles—proof of the darker, less recognizable trajectory the game took. It also marked the first time a Sonic game received an E10+ certificate from the ESRB, the clearest pointer that the series was heading well away from its Green Hill Zone origins.

A year later, Sega took a turn in the complete opposite direction—back towards the franchise’s roots, with the now-infamous 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot. But something was dreadfully wrong. Game director Shun Nakamura wanted Sonic to align himself with the fledgling popularity of superheroes at the time, leading to Sonic 2006 adopting a more realistic tone. In much maligned cutscenes, Sonic has a human sidekick, Elise, the Princess of Soleana, hunted by Dr. Eggman. In a dark turn of events, the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, after a monster called Iblis lays waste on the planet—and a Mad Max-style dystopian narrative isn’t something that often comes to mind when you think of Sonic. Seeing Sonic hold Elise in his arms and carry her to safety is nothing short of bizarre, and while we’ve seen Sonic interact with humans many times before, this felt like a case of totally mistaken identity. Nobody, not even the diehard fans, could recognize the Sonic of the 2006 game.

Sonic fans in 2006

Nothing about it quite felt right: the story felt unnecessarily gritty, there was no speed to the running mechanics, the jumping felt floaty, and the allure of classic Sonic was dulled by a front-facing 3D perspective that just didn’t click. If Sonic was hovering on the boundary of cultural extinction following Shadow the Hedgehog in 2005, then the year after was almost the final nail in the coffin.

Second Wind

It seemed, though, that Sega—now out of their financial woes and finding their feet as a third-party publisher following a buy-out from Sammy Corporation in 2004—was finally ready to listen to fans. The abhorrent response to Sonic’s 2006 disaster was a turning point, and a realization that continuing to ignore fan responses to the franchise’s direction was no longer a sustainable approach. The two years that followed produced a game that modern the Sonic game series is now synonymous with: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.

If you could attribute Sonic’s survival down to one singular game, it’d have to be Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Incredibly, it was the first time both characters had appeared side-by-side in a game, a surprising fact considering their respective reigns during the ’80s and ’90s. But the allure of these two gaming titans facing off against one another wasn’t lost despite the fresh new decade, and the Wii port sold over 10 million copies. More than just a fun party game with a sporty twist—capitalizing on the Wii’s astounding popularity and motion controls—it introduced younger fans to Sonic in a way that was light-hearted, accessible, and unabashedly fun. In fact, the impact this game had on younger generations of gamers, those only familiar with Sonic through his less-than-savory games, cannot be understated. You couldn’t go anywhere in 2007 and 2008 without seeing Mario & Sonic somewhere, and it’s no surprise that this sports crossover series has continued even to the upcoming Olympics, with Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 releasing in late 2019. While it didn’t follow the classic Sonic formula, his athletic adventures successfully translated the hedgehog into other genres, where games like Sonic Drift had failed.

But perhaps the recent game that best encapsulates this contemporary revival of Sonic is Sonic Mania. Released in 2017, it truly couldn’t get closer to capturing the atmosphere of Sega’s original games. From the classic pixelated graphic design to levels taken straight from the best Sonic games of the ’90s, the whole thing is a love letter to the peak Sonic era, and a stellar return to form. It’s every bit as exhilarating and refreshing as the first time I watched my dad play the original Sonic before I was even old enough to comprehend the whimsy unfolding on the chunky TV in front of me. There’s no dose of nostalgia more fervent and powerful than racing through Green Hill Zone once more, gathering rings galore and dodging the ever-so-hard-to-avoid spikes. More than just a straight remaster of 1991’s original, Sonic Mania builds on the formula by incorporating 3D elements from Sonic CD, levels based on scrapped concept art, and an array of characters and skins spanning the entire franchise. There’s no other game since those early entries that does Sonic quite as faithfully as Mania, and it’s in no small part thanks to that game that the hedgehog is still a staple on modern consoles today.

Hitting His Stride

Of course, though, Sonic is nothing if not diverse. His recent foray in multimedia output is evidence of Sonic transitioning from gaming gem to entertainment superstar. Love it or hate it, 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog movie was—ignoring that hideous original character design—a bubbly ride that many fans thought did the character justice. With a sequel having already wrapped filming, it’ll be hard to keep Sonic away from the big screen now. You could easily argue that if anyone is going to break the video-game movie curse, it could be him; after all, his first movie smashed the record for the highest-grossing video-game adaption at the US box office.

And he’s not going away any time in the foreseeable future, either. Netflix recently announced Sonic Prime, a 3D-animated children’s show due for release next year. Plot details are thin on the ground, but the streamer calls it “a journey of self-discovery and redemption,” suggesting a more nuanced look at the spiky mammal than we’ve seen before. Also in the pipeline are “multiple” new games due for release this year, as Sonic celebrates his 30th anniversary. Again, we don’t know a lot, but Sega licensing material released last year promises “major announcements” for 2021.

Sonic’s journey from unexpected 8-bit icon, to the gaming relic who struggled through the early 2000s, to a media juggernaut once again, is one of resilience and unwavering fan loyalty. Even when the going was tough, the core fanbase stayed loyal—some fans are even working on a remake of the much-maligned 2006 reboot. If Sonic can make it through those rough entries—especially through the weirdly dark tone of mid-2000s games—then there’s no amount of Egg Pawns that can stand in his way.

Sonic has truly gone global now, popular outside of the video games that made him, and it’s impossible to think he won’t be around to celebrate another 30 years. Fans can rest easy on June 23, as they tuck into their Sonic-branded curries, secure in the knowledge that Sonic the Hedgehog hasn’t even hit top speed yet.

Luke Hinton
Luke Hinton is a freelance culture journalist living in Cardiff, Wales. He graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Journalism, Media and Communications, and currently balances his freelancing work with postgraduate studies. He specialises in film, TV and entertainment writing.