Critical Distance is proud to present the latest in its new series of Critical Compilations, focusing on Sega’s iconic Sonic the Hedgehog series, brought to us by Waverly. Waverly (she/they) is a game artist and freelance writer who studies alternative game histories and poetic relationships in play. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones and other websites like Uppercut, Fanbyte and more.
Sonic the Hedgehog has been adapted to comics, movies, and television shows. The titular blue rodent is an icon that has connected with contemporary internet culture’s ironic post-humanism; a site for many misunderstood individuals to explore their identity. As Zolani Stewart states, “Sonic as a media object is fluid.” Or as I once put it, Sonic is an apparatus.
There have always been many different perceived Sonics. And because Sonic is not just a game series, but a front-line, long-lasting, mascot game series, the fervor for purity is constantly at the front of critical discussion. When Sonic is written about, it is either in clarifying retrospect of what came before, or it is infatuated with it.
The Sonic (Blue)print – The Original
Sonic was originally the product of Sega struggling to respond to the North American home console market after a period of success in arcade cabinet production. Alex Kidd had failed to create a recognizable brand for the Master System. So instead of trying to create another similar title to Mario, Sega created something that pushed hardware and did everything they knew to be different from him.
Tevis Thompson distinguishes Sonic’s character:
While Mario is an ordinary man in a fantastic world, Sonic is clearly of his own posthuman universe (whether an amnesiac mutant or just a precocious native). Both avatars are empty vessels, but only Mario has an interior that can be actively inhabited, filled up. Sonic is all surface and attitude, a style to be passively performed. It’s the difference between playing and being played.
Sonic had explicit messages of attitude and political ideas in the creation of his character, something very different from contemporary Mario. Jack Grimes argues:
Sonic the Hedgehog is, at its (his?) core, a game about radical climate action. Not content to try voting away the destruction brought on by Robotnik’s capitalist means, Sonic takes to occupation and sabotage. He doesn’t stay home and buy a more efficient car or start recycling. He acts.
And it wasn’t just the character that was unique. Sonic‘s audio/visual style was also notable. morgankitten:
All the levels look excellent, and their handmade 3D computer art-inspired graphics and several background and foreground layers make other games look incredibly flat in comparison. The graphic designers’ experience in that hardware really pays off as there were very few other console games prior to its release with the same level of graphical pizzazz.
Trent Wolbe at The Verge reiterates this point: “Do you remember how amazing it felt to score a whole shitload of rings zooming through a corridor in a small amount of time?” Allyssia Alleyne at Mel Magazine recalls that some of these songs were so intense, they were not only memorable moments of childhood, but also traumatizing.
It wasn’t just in the audiovisual department that made Sonic popular. Sonic design was a new direction of momentum and scaffolding. Caleb Compton draws attention to this: “Sonic levels are full of slopes, loops and curves, whereas it’s predecessors consist almost entirely of blocky right angles.” This design was, as Aevee Bee points out, “a much looser approach, because the expectation is that the player will experience what they missed on subsequent playthroughs.”
The 2D Sonic games, while not immediately fast, was a designed playground that offered the capacity to experience the visceral emotions of traveling at incredible speeds. Kimimi writes:
…these older Sonic games (and select others further down the line) only really come to life when you try to match the exuberant enthusiasm of the fastest thing alive. It’s the same sort of pleasure as learning how to weave your way through a storm of bullets in a tricky shmup – you could have passed through the same section with less fuss simply by hammering the start button whenever you died, but it’s more exciting when you play it as intended.
Important to note as well that Sonic did not immediately make a giant splash on the games market. In the years of the Genesis’ release, people couldn’t just go and buy any game that released like the online market allows us today. Sonic was the big push for the Genesis and for many it was one of the few Sega games they could own. Blair Farrell,
Locally speaking, Sega’s in your face marketing seemed to have little effect on the stores in my area. Woolco carried the Genesis and its games, but there was only one rental store that carried any Sega product, First Stop, and that was largely the first and second Sonic games and the first spin-off, Sonic Spinball, a game where Sonic became a pinball in a labyrinth laid out like a pinball table. There just simply wasn’t enough interest it seemed to carry Genesis software, which is what I gathered from my classmates at school.
But even from the beginning, Sonic was a site of conflicting ideas. Because he was a product of collaboration between Sega of America and Sega Japan, there were a lot of different, messy ideas that produced him. As Sean Aitchison notes, Sonic’s bizarre nature has been a part of his character since the beginning.
The many forms of Sonic would only increase in the years to come.
A ‘Hog in Every Household – The Trilogy Era
With the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 at the end of 1992, Sonic as a brand, character, media, and world was expanding. As Matthew Reynolds points out, Sonic was one of the first global releases for a video game between Japan, North America, and Europe. A business decision that resulted in game assets, including entire levels, lost or stolen as noted by Heidi Kemps at The Atlantic. Heather Alexandra at Kotaku: “It was the first real moment of clarity for a series that would go on to have an intense identity crisis.”
Sonic was always a fractured figure between America and Japan, and the same was true at the time of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. At the same time as Sonic 2 was being developed in the US, Sonic CD was being developed in Japan.
On top of this, Sonic‘s branding was completely out of control. Football team sponsorships, popcorn making arcade machines, and famously appearing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, multiple comics and a TV show. Christopher Inoa at Polygon: “With the hedgehog’s surging popularity, it made sense that Sega wanted kids to have their eyes trained on Sonic even when they turned off their Genesis consoles.”
But licensing Sonic to other media globalized media companies meant for a lot of lost communication, and as a result Sonic’s fractured identity became much more prominent across his titles. And not only was he different, sometimes he was just plain weird. Sean Aitchison at Fanbyte makes a point of this. And Bobby Schroeder asks about the initial Ken Penders comics for Archie:
What’s up with the bizarre recurring themes in his stories? The obsession with asshole dads? The weird attempts at mature themes? Dingo firing squads executing civilians? A cartoon bee dying from eating an LSD-laced chili dog? Distasteful allusions to the Holocaust? Implications that teenage Sonic characters were having sex off-screen? Why did any of this happen?
These media would be a strange division in the Sonic character but it would also create a brand loyalty safety net. Patrick Hogan at Kotaku observes, “For all its faults, the Archie Sonic comic [series] was frequently the best thing about Sonic the Hedgehog, as Sega released wave after wave of lackluster games. Sometimes it felt like the comics’ creative team was the only one who knew how to have fun with the franchise.”
Loose interpretations of the original game’s themes would surface across all of these titles. Dr.K notes that oddly enough, the 1994 TV show spin-off Sonic Spinball was a particularly popular element in the decade while much of the original game material was ignored.
As a result of this muddiness and a continued focus of the main series at Sega, Sonic became a painful area for many third-party creators to work with. Jonathan Allen looks at the cancelled Sonic X-treme as an exemplary case, “leaving a wake of disrupted careers, lost promise, and even physical illness.”
Even at Sega, there was an amount of ambition with the developers that didn’t line up with Sega’s monster PR of the time. Sonic 3 would end up being split into two games to fit into the deadline for a partnership with McDonalds, as Angelo M. D’Argenio at Gamecrate explains. This led to not only developer crunch, but also controversial fallouts with musical celebrities of the time that are still whispered about today.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t so surprising to see some of the ways Sonic evolved into 3D. Mechanics, plot, and visuals were changing as hardware and development practices were changing. Satchell Drakes gives a great analysis of how Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the series’ point of “great maturation.” Blake Planty discusses its innovations in character moments:
You ever met someone you knew you weren’t going to like? Ever? Knuckles was like that for me. I didn’t understand what the hell his deal was. He could’ve just walked away and left Sonic and Tails alone on that burning jungle. But maybe Knuckles never saw Oil Ocean Zone before — this was his Anakin moment. But he pushes that damn switch anyways. And he laughs the entire way while you’re tumbling down, down, down. Knuckles is the school bully who will make thinly-veiled problematic comments Facebook in 10 years. And he knows Sonic can’t swim. A complete douche move.
Big Shoes to Fill – The Adventure era
With the introduction of narrative and lore in Sonic 3 & Knuckles Sonic Team made it a focus along with edginess for the new millennium. Adam Richter:
More than any later releases in the series, Sonic Adventure feels like it’s set in the same world as the Genesis games. It’s fitting that Sonic Adventure was the last Sonic game released in the 1990s. To a degree, it achieves what Super Mario 64 did for Nintendo’s mascot: it filled out a familiar and beloved game world into three-dimensional space. When I first experienced Sonic Adventure at eleven years old, I felt immersed in Sonic’s world which now included lifelike 3D character models, dialogue, and –– most importantly –– environments to explore with secrets to discover.
Blake Hester notes at Polygon, “The game introduced players to a redesigned, edgier Sonic, whose attitude increased as the character was given a voice and three dimensions to explore within. Emphasis was put on the game’s visuals and large levels in an attempt to make the game the breadwinner Sega needed to re-enter the console market.”
This combination of edginess and lore, while doing well for sales at the time, was the genesis of the Sonic fandom’s great division. As Jason Quinn puts it,
Some folks say they’re relics from a bygone era that we only liked because we didn’t know any better. Others say the series was never good to begin with, even lumping the 2D Sonic games in with them. How did SA1 go from demonstrating whole new possibilities with the platformer genre to something whose only merit is in being mocked? How did SA2 go from giving the Dreamcast an amazing send off, to something cringey and embarrassing?
Super Eyepatch Wolf states in his video covering Sonic that there has been much debate whether Sonic Adventure was a good translation to 3D or not — but there is never an agreement. Fans continue to be split to this day.
This disappointment in the translation to 3D can be seen in modern criticism, and it is a valid feeling to have after enjoying the original 2D games. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell at Eurogamer speaks on how the properties of the 2D titles were lost because of its focus on “photorealistic locations based on trips to Central America, voiced cutscenes and a creaky ensemble storyline, plus subgames such as Tamagotchi-style Chao breeding and levels that take inspiration from the likes of Panzer Dragoon.”
As Sonic Adventure works harder to convince us that it is sprawling and expansive, it becomes increasingly insular and recursive. Its attempts to present itself as complex, boundary-pushing entertainment only reveals to us its tragic bareness, how shallow and fruitless of an experience it really is. Sonic Adventure is a surreal mirror rhetoric to Todd Howard’s famous Mountain remark. No, you cannot climb that mountain! As our own is a tiny, mediocre, makeshift replacement. But, God, do we ever want you to act like you can, do we ever want it to mean something.
Opposite to this, Stuart Gipp writes how this very ambition that makes the game so endearing: “Sonic Adventure, like life itself, is a series of moments. It is also much like life in that it can be absolutely bloody awful. But I wouldn’t want to be without it.”
But it’s in the second entry of the Adventure series that many find to be the true divergence in the 3D direction. Whereas many critics saw the 2D games’ themes in Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2 was grounded in real world politics and systems. This has resulted in less formal criticism, and more cultural critique. Cuck Philosophy speaks about the philosophical binaries in the game that create a complex relationship between the characters, life, and death:
The point is that the binary undermines itself, and has within itself the germ of its own disintegration. The point is also not to escape binaries because they are a fundamental part of our thinking. The point is to see that binaries can be reconstructed, rearranged, placed into new and better systems. This is what Sonic Adventure 2 does.
Considering this binary, and how it implicates Sonic‘s relationship with military history, boocanan argues that this evolution of Adventure is “Yuji Naka’s Banksy.”
Zolani Stewart returns to the second game to analyze the expression of the hovering levels:
It’s really important to recognize the way that certain Sonic game stages, Windy Valley, Radical Highway and Route 101/280, Rail Canyon and Frog Forest, isolate settings in floating space. These places never seem to actually touch the ground. Instead, they lie static and suspended, becoming objects in themselves that are slightly contextualized by the skybox. Radical Highway’s spacial isolation allows it to become its own visual essay; a representation of social/material decay under extreme statist militarism. This is something not even the German Expressionists could do.
Many feel that SA2 is a revealing game for its characters. In a tumblr post, taromarshmallow observes how SA2 mistreats Amy:
As a character, Amy doesn’t usually get the “pat on the back” that other characters tend to get for helping out. Tails’ and Amy’s stories in SA1 have a similar theme of learning how to stand and fight for yourself (and others). Tails is rewarded for this in SA2 by Sonic having an even greater respect and belief in his abilities. Amy, on the other hand, is brought along just to be left behind. Repeatedly. She gets to Prison Island (on her own), and Sonic leaves her in the cell as soon as she releases him.
The title is also considered to be the peak of soundtracks throughout the series. Morgan Troper at Vice:
Sonic Adventure 2‘s soundtrack represents the perfect amount of zeitgeist pandering. And while it may sound grandiose, it was also something of a gateway: As a prepubescent youth with only a passive interest in contemporary popular music, this was my first extended exposure to anything in the vicinity of punk or hip-hop.
As Allegra Frank revels at Polygon, “‘City Escape’ — man, “City Escape” is unforgettable.”
Dedicated Disquisitions – Sonic 2006 and Mania
After Sonic left the Dreamcast, the vision of the character shattered completely due to the fanbase fracturing anew with every iteration. General public reception of the franchise decreased due to rushed development, and nostalgia for a monolithic Sonic. Because of this, there is only so much games writing around certain parts of Sonic past Sonic 2006 and much of it revolves around “where Sonic went wrong.” Wolfman_J at Source Gaming notes on this ‘06 stigma:
Sonic 2006 was built as a paean to Sonic the Hedgehog, and in a twisted way it was: it highlighted not the hero’s highs or triumphs, but the terrible creative decisions that led him to being an industry joke. The oppressively large cast, pointless mechanics, broken gameplay, ridiculous storytelling, and a lack of interest in being entertaining? Those were all established [tenets] of the brand long before this game came out; 2006 only brought them further to the forefront.
However, as Zolani Stewart argues at ZEAL, there is a depth of literary themes and world building that is rather nuanced:
Sonic The Hedgehog‘s story is defined by an existential tension, a sort of internal rupture that it never resolves: it is, on one hand, an actual text about Actual Things that is focused on specific ideas and themes, and makes very specific critiques and assertions regarding its world and its characters. But on the other hand, Sonic The Hedgehog is a Sonic game, as in, it’s a next-gen (7th gen) installment of a major AAA franchise. Sonic 06 wants to be artistically assertive but it can’t do it reliably or consistently if it has to uphold Sonic‘s shallow brand values. Although Sonic 06 clearly rejects Sonic‘s brand values there’s visible struggle in doing so, and the game as a whole suffers for it.
From ’06 onward Sonic criticism became an unbalanced dichotomy. Much of it falls under a header of “good old days” writing: why people don’t love Sonic anymore, where Sonic went wrong, and how Sonic needs to die. This style of critique became especially saturated in the raging nostalgic fervor of Sonic Mania.
If the 90s had never ended, Sonic Mania is the follow-up we would have had instead of making do playing Big the Cat fishing mini-games in Sonic Adventure. All those horrid secondary characters we’ve grown to hate over the years are nowhere to be seen…
Sonic Mania is essentially the best possible version of nostalgia. It’s nostalgia that’s not been weaponized by corporate culture against those of us who do have rosy feelings about times since gone. It’s grassroots nostalgia and that’s fine.
But Sonic Mania also created a larger conversation about the design of fangames and the way that fandom production exists alongside games. hrrrrrrrrrr writes:
There are some recurring trends across fan games, largely down to the fact that the sort of person who is dedicated enough to sit down and attempt to build upon the work of an entire salaried team of people tends to have specific beliefs and views about the work they’re a big fan of. In videogames, a nice go-to example is the difference between the developers’ approach to mechanics, and the dedicated fan’s approach to mechanics. The latter tends to revel in their use, and endeavours to utilise them as much as possible, often out of a drive to truly wring out the potential of each with the goal of creating something either more difficult, or more engaging and in-depth, than the work they’re a fan of.
Amr Al-Aaser observes at Kotaku how fangames, like those Sonic Mania lead Christian Whitehead made his name on, are a reflection of fanwork histories. Matt Leslie writes that it’s because we can reflect on the relationship between fans and history that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to canon:
Let’s get over our obsession with iconography or logos or who owns what, fan works warts and all are essential to the future of this industry. They give people a window to learn how to code or write or draw by starting work on something they already love and are familiar with, they let people practice and improving their work by creating something that’s more likely to get attention, and in a rare case like Sonic Mania they might even fill in a few potholes on a beloved franchise and contribute to our understanding of design and culture from a particular era.
Surpassing the Memento Mori
It isn’t that modern Sonic is necessarily bad; it’s just not a series largely designed for the original players anymore. Yet, these nostalgic opinions made dominant by homogenized publication practice continue to neglect engagement with the current state of Sonic‘s evolution. This continues in the wake of the internet culture and fandoms, some even exploiting and objectifying the exploration and healing these communities process because it is so different from their own.
Caty McCarthy at USGamer writes: “Sonic games have largely disappointed most critics and general audiences, while finding niche fans in corners. For a while, the Sonic series looked like it was in turmoil to the outside world. In an identity crisis. But in the fandom, Sonic was anything but. Nothing dampened Sonic‘s spirit, nor the community’s.”
Contemporary Sonic has been remade in many fan’s image. He’s a fashion icon, and a foodie. This continued love for Sonic comes in different ways, fan art/fictions, fan games, and ironic memes. As William Moo writes at SyFy about “Sanic”: “Sonic has always been made a punching bag for his looks. Sanic is, in fact, perfect proof of the twisted love and appreciation many have for the character.”
And then, on a much more genuine side, many Sonic fans just find themselves relating to Sonic‘s values themselves. Sonic has been designed around acceptance and friendship that endures through hardships and mistakes. Jose Cardoso writes at Paste Games:
Friendship is seen throughout the Sonic series beyond the developed focus on support characters, in both common forms and odd—of the latter, Big and Froggy lead, along with the connection Eggman and Tails share as fellow inventors and the underlying message of Sonic Unleashed. These key moments and relationships are not strictly to deepen story layers; they reflect the high-spirited, personable image of Sonic’s character that echoes in most outings. We can thus always count on Sonic games to accentuate this climate of friendship with the same power as themes of retribution, teamwork, restoration and freedom. In so doing, we find parallels to our present and future selves, the friendships we build in the real world and virtual friendships that have endured for a quarter of a century.”
Blank Planty also writes on his connection with Sonic’s masculinity and relationships:
Even though I’m in my early-twenties now, I still wish I had a cool older brother figure like Sonic. I wish I could’ve been a “real boy” crushing on other boys rather than awkwardly falling into my gender identity. But now I see myself finally gaining ground, playing “catch-up” in this world of masculinity I’ve been trying to mimic my entire life. Have I succeeded? Of course not. I never said I felt like a failure — only that like my favorite character’s love for playing the hero, I love playing the role of a guy, no matter how badly I supposedly fail.
Sonic is a mess, if this compilation doesn’t make that point clear enough. But I hope I have shown that throughout each era of messiness that fans, new and old, find deeply genuine meaning in each of these messes. As Amr Al-Aaser writes,
Sonic the Hedgehog is painfully, wonderfully sincere.
Sonic is earnest in the way only a teenager can be — where novelty is king and your expectations haven’t yet been weighed down by the cynicism of adulthood.
Sonic is an emotional reality where every feeling exists at its maximum expression.
Know a great article that should go in this compilation? Let us know!
Disclosure: Zolani Stewart, in addition to being a total rockstar and leading expert in Sonic Studies, has previously contributed to Critical Distance.
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