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Feature: 30 Years Of Sonic The Hedgehog – The Many Faces Of Mario’s Biggest Rival

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Image: SEGA / Nintendo Life

Over the last three decades, many types of Sonic fan have emerged and evolved. The type of fan you are often depends on where you jumped aboard the platforming franchise. You've got your 2D purists, your handheld advocates, your 3D defenders, your Werehog worriers, your people who say the 8-bit games were better than the 16-bit ones… and that's just the tip of the Green Hill.

Today self-described 'long-suffering Sonic veteran' Stuart Gipp takes a chronological look back over the entire series 'til now…

Sega’s great blue hope seems to go through incarnations like he must wear through pairs of socks. One has to wonder what on earth got him in such a hurry, but given the patchy quality of the series as a whole we suspect he might be trying to outrun himself.

Having looked at the many faces of Donkey Kong in honour of the gorilla's 40th anniversary, the recent – and typically catalysing — release of Sonic Colors Ultimate in the hedgehog's 30th anniversary year seems as opportune a time as any to have a look at a selection (although not quite the full gamut) of Sonics. A brace of Sonics. A snifter of Sonics. A Sonic aperitif.

We begin with a draught of the genuine article; the only Sonic that pleases the 'purists'…

Proper Sonic: The Mega Drive years (1991-1996)

Image: SEGA

Now, some will dispute the assignment of the label “proper Sonic” to this little lot, but they are all wrong – this is Sonic at the very apex of his powers. 2D platforming utilising momentum that’s never been equaled, or even convincingly imitated.

The original Sonic the Hedgehog and its two-and-a-half sequels (Sonic & Knuckles only sort of counts as a full game) still look and play great to this very day, hence the excitement for the upcoming Sonic Origins – which also includes misunderstood masterpiece Sonic the Hedgehog CD.

It’s telling, we think, that it took a direct lift of these classics in Sonic Mania for the series to achieve unanimous critical acclaim again following its early-'90s heyday.

8-Bit Sonic: The Master System / Game Gear years (1991-1996)

Image: SEGA

It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the rather underrated 8-bit Sonic games, especially their Master System incarnations which we'd argue are, at the very least, thoroughly playable and aurally (or should that be sonically) wonderful.

While still speedy, the focus in 8-bit Sonic and Sonic 2 has been shifted to more linear, precision based platforming; an approach brought into focus by the series’ MacGuffin, the Chaos Emeralds; here, hidden in an obtuse location in each zone rather than locked behind Special Stages…

Until Sonic Chaos and Sonic Triple Trouble, that is, at which point they, erm, locked them behind Special Stages again.

Extremely Confused Sonic: The Saturn years (1996-1997)

Image: SEGA

The promise of a future Sonic probably sold Saturns, which is a bit of a shame considering it never got one.

Yes, you’re screaming, it did get a version of Sonic 3D as well as the racing spin-off Sonic R, but the best Sonic title in this era was the Sonic Jam compilation of classics. Which isn’t exactly a great advertisement for your overpriced, easy-to-break new console. Aficionados are aware that planned and bizarre fish-eye lens title Sonic X-Treme had a very troubled development at this time, but it looked a hot mess and it never saw the light of day.

Outside of the Saturn, there was bizarre arcade fighter Sonic the Fighters, but that one didn’t exactly scream “Hi, I am the Sonic franchise. I know what I am doing”. It ran on the Fighting Vipers engine (which was also the Virtua Fighter engine) and was surprisingly good, though.

Confident Failure Sonic: The Dreamcast years (1999-2001)

Image: SEGA

Do you remember that scene in The Simpsons where Mr Burns’ doctor is demonstrating the fragile equilibrium of his patient's health with squidgy toys representing illnesses getting jammed in a mini doorway? Sonic Adventure is basically a game version of that, in that it’s a game which is completely falling apart and fundamentally broken, but somehow just about hangs together in a way that sees its wobbliness register as charmingly free-wheeling, rather than disgustingly unplayable.

Sonic Adventure remains extremely fun to play, arguably more so than any of its more rigid follow-ups. Sonic Adventure 2, for example, which is a far more polished and attractive title, but also a bit boring and rubbish, if you ask us. Many disagree, of course, but we find it rather homogenous.

The most interesting thing about the Adventure games is their complete (and somewhat admirable, in a way) refusal to trade on past glories – not only are these not classic Sonic games, they’re absolutely nothing like their forebears in almost any way besides the obvious loops, rings, etc. There’s something to be said for going from the most accessible platformers ever made to the sheer complexity and constant feedback of the Sonic Adventure series.

Throwing-Stuff-At-The-Wall-And-Seeing-What-Sticks Sonic: The multi-platform wilderness years (2003-2009)

Image: SEGA

Then, the unthinkable: Sega dropped out of the console business and began bringing its most famous brands to its former rivals’ systems.

And Hell followed: Sonic Heroes is toilet, but it’s a mere skidmark compared with some of the absolute rinse that saw the light of day in this very, very choppy period; Shadow the Hedgehog, for goodness’ sake; ports of the Dreamcast games that were, in Adventure’s case, even more broken; the wretched Sonic Riders and sequels; the awful Sonic Storybook Series with Secret Rings and Black Knight; and the interesting Sonic Unleashed created a portrait of a series that truly had no idea what it wanted to be or what on earth it was doing.

Thankfully, throughout this period, there was a solid core of 2D titles for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS keeping things a little more on track – all three Sonic Advance games were a good time, not to mention Sonic Rush and Rush Adventure, which both offered high-quality running action. That said, even handhelds weren’t entirely safe, with Bioware’s appalling Sonic Chronicles wafting over the format like the gaseous aftermath of a plate of chilli dogs.

Oh; and a little something commonly known as Sonic ’06 damaged the series’ reputation forever.

Boost Sonic: The multi-platform wilderness years part II: some semblance of coherence (2010-2021)

Image: SEGA

Thank god, this deluge of crap came to something of an end with Sonic Colors, then, a title with a shocking level of purity and focus in a series that seemed to have long-forgotten what those things even were. Far be it from us to call Sonic Colors perfect, it was (and is) still a well above-average take on 3D Sonic; one that finally recognises the strengths of the games – that is to say the 3D Sonic traditional platforming stages you’d think would be the focus of preceding titles, without any alternate playstyles or pointless diversionary minigames to waste time. It’s just straight-up Sonic action, something that was taken from the “Day” stages in the otherwise mediocre Sonic Unleashed and expanded upon here as well as in celebratory follow-up Sonic Generations, a title that inarguably trades on nostalgia while still offering a good deal of meat on its bones for players to get stuck into.

There are some mis-steps in this era – Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was tantamount to a war crime for the gall of its name alone, the Sonic Boom games are best left unmentioned, and Wii U console exclusive Sonic Lost World was a misfire in most ways – but for the most part this consistency carried through to Sonic Forces, a widely-derided game that this writer contends is pretty much fine, particularly when you consider the vast waves of dross fans had to navigate before it.

And then came Sonic Mania, of course.

Future Sonic (2022-????)

Image: SEGA

Of course, many will disagree with the conclusions drawn here about what, statistically-speaking, are probably some of their favourite games. And that’s totally fine. We’re looking at the series here in a more detached way than enthusiasts would do. And we’ve missed a lot out, too – Sonic’s not just about the games, what with multiple beloved comic book universes (Archie, Fleetway, IDW), TV cartoons (Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic SatAM, Underground and later Boom), as well as many other deviations within the franchise (not to mention the huge hit movie), each of which is chronicled more exhaustively by the fanbase than we realistically have space for.

We like to think that Sonic’s success comes in waves and the upcoming Sonic Rangers has a chance of once again offering a consistent experience for fans, though it’s quite likely to be yet another brand new direction in a series that’s really struggled for identity at times. Nonetheless, we’re still quite fond of the silly blue sod and we just want what’s best for him. Which means we really must insist that he pick a lane.

What's your favourite Sonic era? Let us know in the poll below and feel free to let us know the exact type of Sonic fan you are in the usual place.

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