Since it's beginnings in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog has become one of the most recognisable characters in video games. The franchise has certainly gone through it's ups and downs as it's grown older, but to many it still retains it's charm. The general tone of the games has also shifted throughout the years. Initially, the franchise began as direct competition to Nintendo's Mario franchise, targeting a more edgy, teen audience. Eventually this evolved into a weirdly mature tone and kind of got lost when Sonic made the move to 3D based games. Recently, however, the franchise has taken a turn for the better, with games like Generations, Colours and Lost World getting praise from reviewers and players alike. But I believe that it's more than just the games' designs and gameplay that have changed over the years, the music has shown a strong reflection of the games' tones an has also hinted at their target audience. In this article, we'll be taking a look at the music of the mainline sonic franchise and discussing how it has changed and grown with the franchise as a whole.
The very first Sonic game was released on the SEGA Genesis / Megadrive in 1991. It utilised the consoles sound chip in a way few games had done before. It's utilisation of the crisp drum kit sounds and the clear bass by composer Masato Nakamura gave the game a distinct sound that gave it a strong identity in the video game landscape at the time. A year later, Sonic 2 was released with a similar sound as it's predecessor, but relying slightly more on the capabilities of the FM chip within the console producing sounds less synonymous with 8bit music. 1994 saw saw the 3rd instalment of the Sonic franchise released, Sonic 3 & Knuckles (which I'm going to be tackling as one game because honestly after all these years I still can't wrap my head around how they're different games but the same game in 2 carts that lock onto each other????). Nakamura was reportedly assigned to the project but dropped due to financial disagreements. There are many composers credited to the creation of Sonic 3's soundtrack but undoubtedly the most intriguing name on the list is Michael Jackson, who later denied claims that he had worked on the music for the game, spurring one of the biggest musical mysteries in video game history as there were many tracks which seemed eerily similar to some of Jackson's later work.
However controversial Sonic 3 and Knuckles' soundtrack may be, there was a Sonic game released a year prior which had a much larger affect on the music of the Sonic franchise as a whole. Sonic CD was released on the SEGA CD in 1993 and featured a soundtrack with "CD quality Audio" thanks to the system's new hardware. But the fun doesn't stop there, Sonic CD has 2 soundtracks, one for the Japanese / European version of the game and one for the American version. Most people argue that the Japanese soundtrack is the better of the two, and i can certainly see why, but the American soundtrack did something that would change the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog forever.
Sonic Boom marked an important transition in the music of Sonic the Hedgehog. Following the release of Sonic CD, the blue blur's games would no longer try to compete with the cheerful quirkiness of Mario's instrumental tracks, instead there would be an emphasis on energetic vocal tracks to accompany the games.
The SEGA Saturn didn't see many new releases in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. A Port of Sonic 3D Blast was released in 1996 with a jazz influenced soundtrack from Richard Jaques with the vocal track "You're my Hero" playing over the credits, Sonic X-Treme was set to release the following year but was cancelled, leaving only Sonic Jam (a compilation of the genesis games) and Sonic R, an on-foot racing game featuring all vocal tracks when racing.
In 1998 SEGA released it's Dreamcast entry into the Sonic series, Sonic Adventure. The musical centrepiece for this game was "Open Your Heart" a grungey garage rock song, epitomising the cultural relevancy the Sonic franchise was now striving for. The soundtrack from Jun Senoue utilised a heavy guitar and rock feel throughout, grounding the tone and target audience for the game. Fast forward 3 years and Sonic Adventure 2, SEGA's last 1st party Sonic game is released. Once again the guitar laden rock song, "Live and Learn" stands as the main musical pillar of the game, greeting players as they boot up the game and in the Final battle along with the credits. Senoue returned for SA2 and took much of the same tone as the first Sonic Adventure game, with many vocal tracks throughout the game.
After SEGA left the hardware market, there was a decline in the quality of Sonic releases. Games like Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 06 were just not of the quality players had come to expect. Similarly the music was generally uninspired and largely didn't change. Over almost 10 years, the music in sonic games was the same as Sonic Adventure 2, grungey distorted pop punk tracks headlined a soundtrack that had far too much teen angst in it. But in 2008, a new sonic game burst onto the scene and seemed promising.
Sonic Unleashed finally diverged form the tired old musical formula sonic had become attached to for so long. Sure, the tacky Bowling for Soup title song form Bowling for Soup form Bowling for Soup was still there, but the attitude was different. The main music of the game wasn't all distorted guitars, the lead composer Tomoya Ohtani took inspiration from real world locations and cultures and infused it with the high octane feel that a Sonic game needed. The Werehog sections of the game weren't very well received, but their jazzy, noir tunes fit them to a T. In 2010 Sonic Colours was released to surprising critical acclaim. Continuing the pattern of title songs, the synth pop tune, "Reach for the Stars" accompanied the game, but wasn't seen outside the opening sequence. The composing team for Sonic Colours captured the reckless, and adventurous nature of the game along with it's lighthearted tone. With Colours being one of the best received modern Sonic games, things were looking up for the fastest thing alive.
2013 saw the latest release in the long running series of Sonic the Hedgehog. Released exclusively for WiiU, Sonic:Lost world received mixed reviews for it's new take on gameplay and level design. The music for the game, however was something very special. Finally, after over 10 years of being help captive by a generic title pop tune, Sonic was free. A Fully orchestrated score and well developed themes made the music to Lost World finally feel impactful and not pandering to cultural relevance or marketing effectiveness. Tomoya Ohtani's music finally gave the franchise some respect and it definitely shows. Each environment has fitting music and the themes see development and are reinforced throughout the game. Heck, there's even a track which pays homage to Astor Piazzolla!
The Sonic franchise has certainly been through it's highs and it's lows, but it seems that as of late, the series is finally finding a way to provide exciting and entertaining music without trying to be the cool kid on the block. What are your thoughts? Do you think the music of recent instalments is an improvement on the original genesis tracks? Or do you believe that the sweet sound of the FM synth will always have a special place in gaming? Where would you like to see the music of Sonic go next? What are some other Sonic games you believe shaped the musical landscape of the series? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Of course there are so many sonic games and details that I just didn't have time to cover, so if there are any you'd like to discuss, feel free to bring them up in the comments!
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About Oscarnoone of us since 5:23 AM on 02.25.2014
Hello I am Oscarno and welcome to a rad Video Game Music blog on Destructoid!
I'm way into Video Game Music, and with these blog posts, I hope to provide an investigation into and discussion about Video Game Music and how music affects video games as a creative medium.
I write weekly, usually posting on Thursdays. Most weeks will be OST Case Studies, looking a the music of a particular game and pulling it apart to find why it works so well. Sometimes, however, I'll just post a shorter opinion post or perhaps an article looking into other areas of Video Game Music.
If you wanna talk to me or follow me on Twitter ,you can.(but tbh it's pretty boring)
Also you can check out some of the music I make on my Soundcloud!