Sunday, February 07, 2010
Videogame Classics - Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic Team for Sega
March 12, 2005
Sonic the Hedgehog belongs to that select group of videogames that is more famous for what it achieved than the the game itself. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Street Fighter 2 - these are the landmark titles that redefined the medium and influenced everything that followed.
I'm not too sure how to convey to younger readers just what it was like to discover Sonic in that summer of 1991. It was the year underground rock and Seattle grunge finally toppled contrived pop and hair metal; the closing days of the Cold War; the beginning of the end for Reagan-Bush. Not to get too political here, but '91 was the year for change.
When Sonic arrived, it was a rush of fresh air. We were accustomed to Mario and countless wannabees, but this was different. This was modern, flashy, new. Here was a game practically bursting at the seams, eager to prove itself. For anyone with a Genesis, it was a dream come true.
Most gamers are familiar with the story of Sonic, of how hardscrabble Sega, desperate to compete against Nintendo's impending steamroller into the 16-bit console market, pooled their best talent to create a mascot game that would embody their rebel spirit and sell systems. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations; the resulting shock waves are still being felt.
You've seen it in boxing once or twice, as when Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston or when Buster Douglas knocked out Tyson. Those champs weren't defeated, they were ended. Their careers were over the moment their faces hit the canvas; immediately reduced to rubble, to irrelevance. Sega delivered that blow to Nintendo. Sonic the Hedgehog destroyed Nintendo, finished them.
At one time, they were king of the hill, untouchable. Hell, Nintendo was videogames. Now, they're nothing. Genesis took away half the console market in one punch. Then Sony swept away the both of them and finished the Console Wars for good.
Nintendo doesn't even make games anymore. They've spent the last five years on the gas fumes of nostalgia, hoping the old fans will return for another Mario, another Zelda, another Metroid. But those few gems are few and far between, and the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube consoles have the dust to prove it. All Nintendo really has left now is their Gameboy, and now Sony's Playstation Portable will take that away. Nintendo is over, and it all comes back to that blue hedgehog in the summer of '91.
It goes without saying that Sonic is a great game. If you gave me the opening Green Hill Zone and discarded the rest, you would still have one of the great videogames. It's bold, abstract checkerboard patterns, it's trees and robot animals that resemble the computer animation of its day, those collapsing cliffs and shining rings; everything just jumps out at you. These levels have that perfect mix of speed and mystery, of turns, tunnels, and buried surprises just off the page.
It's really in Green Hill that Sonic the Hedgehog earns its mythology. This is where we're promised all the roller coaster thrills and bad attitude, and it delivers. The early levels in Sonic CD and S3K may have refined and perfected the formula, but this is where they stole all the ideas.
Now that said, I'm going to write something that really needs to be said: the rest of the game isn't as good. Sonic's other five worlds are varied and carry their own theme - volcanic temple, underwater ruins, city construction site, industrial wasteland - and they're a lot of fun. But that reckless speed that was promised at the beginning is almost entirely abandoned. Poor old Sonic is stuck in mid-tempo, or worse, left waiting around for something to happen.
Why was this done? There's something of a creative tension between Sonic Team's two top talents. Naoto Oshima, who designed the characters, preferred intricate level structure, while Yuji Naka, the lead programmer, wanted the speed. You can see this play out as they were both given their own Sonic sequels: Oshima with Sonic CD, Naka with Sonic 2 and S3K.
I happen to think that Sonic CD and S3K are both superior to the original, but there's no denying the appeal of that first discovery. Time has given it a unique flair, warts-and-all.
With its triumphant release, Sonic the Hedgehog quickly became the Genesis system-seller, and spawned an endless stream of mascot-tinged platform games. For the rest of the 16-bit era, it seemed every software publisher had to have its own smart-alecky mascot.
Aero the Acrobat. Awesome 'Possum. Bubba and Stix. Bubsy the Bobcat. Chester Cheetah. Cool Spot. Dynamite Headdy. Earthworm Jim. Mr. Nutz. James Pond. Pulseman. Socket. Radical Rex. Ristar. Taz Mania. Tinhead. Treasureland Adventure. Vectorman. Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel.
That's only a partial list of games that appeared on the Genesis. I haven't even begun on the Super NES, to say nothing of every game system to come after. Even today, most action-platformers star cartoon heroes who try to be "cool."
The key word here is "try." None of them can still touch Sonic. Sure, he stole the toe-tapping bit from the character in Boulderdash, but so what? The hedgehog was always cooler.