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Death and Video Games

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The Future: Sonic The Hedgehog, an Obituary

[Authors Note: Whilst most of this doesn't fit my general opinion of recent Sonic games (I actually think most of the 3-D Sonics were quite good), I figured, given the general opinion on Sonic these days, this might be something quite interesting to write. And hey, interesting articles make the front page, right?]

Today, on Friday the 24th of January, 2020, we mourn the passing of a once great videogaming giant, Sonic The Hedgehog. Many remember him from his glory days from the fourth-generation 16-bit console the Sega Genesis (the last surviving, and working, version of which is now housed in the Museum of Science and Technology), however, many more will probably be knowledgeable of his infamous decline and economic failure within the video game world in the past few years, one which would eventually spell the end of Sonic Team and which almost knocked long-time video game company Sega off the gaming map.

Many will write this failure off as part of a new trend in the last decade of long-standing IPs losing audience and profit after the ninth-generation consoles hit the market, with big names such as Mega Man and Final Fantasy now only long-standing memories in the minds of the oldest videogamers, along with the steadly decline of Nintendo's mega-mascot Mario (Super Mario Galaxy 4 met with horrible sales figures and mixed reviews, most people citing the fact that the promotion of Toad to player character and main protagonist was a horrible decision on Nintendo's part). But others will believe this to be a tragic loss to the world of videogaming, a loss which will shake the industry to its very core and change the face of interactive entertainment forever. Come, as we pay our last respects to Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic the Hedgehog was born in April, 1990, commissioned by Sega and developed as a mascot for the company. The five-man team (known hereafter as Sonic Team) settled on Sonic as the mascot, an anthropomorphic hedgehog with the power to run at ultra-high speeds. The game was built and developed over a period of 14 months, with the end result being Sonic the Hedgehog, the inaugural game in what would become Sega's flagship videogame series. It stood out from other platform games at the time due to its emphasis on speed and style, with the ability to gain bonus points if levels were traversed quickly, and the inclusion of ramps, springs, and loop-de-loops as part of what would be the games signature aesthetic, as well as having a catchy and speedy soundtrack that many fans continue to listen to now. The game was met with critical acclaim and high sales figures, eventually leading to Sega's Genesis to outsell Nintendo's Super Famicom by almost two to one, and giving Sega 65% of the 16-bit home console market during the 1991 holiday season. The game sold 4 million copies, which would made it the second highest selling game on the Genesis ever (only being outsold by its sequel, Sonic The Hedgehog 2). Riding on the huge wave of success and acclaim that followed, Sega released three sequels of the game on the Genesis: Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic and Knuckles, all three of which kept to the first games original formula of high speed 2D platforming, with loops, springs and ramps intact, whilst also allowing you to play as 2 new characters, Miles “Tails” Prower, and Knuckles the Enchinda, both of which had their own special abilities, whilst still reatining Sonic's trademark speed. Many spinoffs of the game were made, including Sonic Spinball, the cart racing game Sonic Drift, and puzzle game Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, along with many 8-bit iterationss of the original games on the Game Gear and Master System. The 32-bit generation also saw many games in the Sonic franchise, including Knuckles Chaotix and Flickie's Island.

When the sixth generation of videogaming rolled around, the Sonic franchise made a move that many consider was an early start to his eventual downfall – the move to the third dimension. Hoping to follow in the wake of the success of Mario's jump to 3-D with Mario 64, Sonic Team released Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast in 1999, again, to huge sales (the game becoming the highest seller ever on the Dreamcast) and critical acclaim. Sonic's trademark speed and innovative gameplay had, according to critics, stuck the landing in 3-D, however, not all fans of the series agreed. Many were of the opinion that this was the worst move Sonic Team ever made with their franchise, with the speedy gameplay being difficult to control over three dimensions. Criticisms were also leveled at Sonic's ever expanding group of friends, with new characters like Amy Rose, Big the Cat, and the robot E-102 Gamma joining Sonic for the ride. Despite this, the profits and acclaim for the franchise caused them to develop Sonic Adventure 2, a game which, again, received critical acclaim and high sales figures, with many calling it “the last great game for the Dreamcast”. But again, hardcore fans of the original Sonic games found the same faults, with high speed platforming not working in 3-D, and the cast of characters being expanded still more.

As videogaming traveled through its seventh-generation, Sonic Heroes was the next game to be released in the franchise, and was the first in the series to be released across multiple platforms (what with the production of the Dreamcast having long since stopped). While the high sales still held, the critical acclaim had taken a slight dent, with the game receiving mixed reviews across all platforms – this game was where even fans of Sonic in 3-D were seeing the franchise go astray somewhat. This was not helped by next main releases in the Sonic series, namely, Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006. Both games received, again, reasonably high sales figures, but both were critically panned, notably Sonic 2006, which was criticized for its horrible controls and outrageous plot. Fans screamed for a new major 2-D Sonic release, claiming that handheld iterations, which stayed true to the original series, were far better experiences, and pleaded with Sonic Team to see the error of their ways. And Sonic Team listened – a bit. New release Sonic Unleashed featured both 2-D and 3-D section to the main Sonic levels, and was met with high acclaim, with some claiming the gameplay as “the funnest Sonic experience in years”. But, what Sonic Team gave with one hand, they took with the other, with the addition of duel-world gameplay and the introduction of the near-universally hated Sonic the Werehog. The game switched between normal speedy Sonic play and slow, sluggish Werehog play, and whilst the faster Sonic sections were praised, the addition of the Werehog levels cause reviews of the game to be very much mixed.

Keeping with the seventh-generation, Sonic Team's next big release was Project Needlemouse (which was claimed to be a code-name, yet ended up being the actual title of the release.) The game went through heavy marketing pre-release, with emphasis that the game was a “fully 2-D adventure built from the ground up”. Its release in June 2010 signifies a landmark moment for Sonic fans – critical acclaim of the game was the highest of the entire franchise and was one of the most well-received games of all time, tying with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with a Metascore of 99 (with Jim Sterling of Destructoid keeping the game from a perfect 100 with the only non-perfect score of 9.5). Reviewers universally agreed that the old-school gameplay mixed with the picturesque HD-graphics was a flawless combination, with one reviewer saying: “Think of the best combinations that mankind has produced. Gin and tonic, peanut butter and jelly, fish and chips. All of these things pale in comparison to the flawless concoction that is Project Needlemouse.” Fans and critics alike agreed that this was the game that would reinvigorate the series, and that Sonic would again reign supreme over the videogaming world.

However, they were wrong. Despite overwhelmingly good write-ups, Project Needlemouse suffered from very poor sales, with many thinking that the generation of gamers that made up 80% of the market at the time wouldn't even consider a game that only worked in two dimensions, and would rather “not waste” their expensive console on such an archaic game. Others think that the fact that the game was overshadowed by the surprise announcement and release of Activision's Modern Warfare 3, which was released the day before Project Needlemouse. After a month on shelves, Project Needlemouse had only sold 50,000 copies worldwide, and eventually only sold 200,000 copies before SEGA stopped printing of new game discs. In the end, SEGA announced that the next game in the Sonic series would be back in 3-D, and not long after, nearly all employees of Sonic Team retired from their positions, leaving many to wonder as to whether SEGA had given the Sonic Team the ultimatum of “make it in 3-D or find new jobs”, a theory which was confirmed by ex-Sonic Team illustrator Yuji Uekawa in an interview with Gamespot: “Project Needlehouse was special, almost everybody who played it loved it, yet its poor sales caused the hot shots at SEGA to think that 3-D is the only thing that would sell. They said our funding for the next Sonic title would be cut unless we agreed to do it in 3-D, and many of us were very unhappy with that, so we left.”

In the end, SEGA replaced all of the missing workers from Sonic Team and work began on a new title, Sonic Rampage. In order to win back their lost fanbase from Needlemouse, heavy marketing was deployed, emphasising Sonic's return to 3-D and the introduction of five new playable characters, elements which correlated with the games previous high sales. In response to this, hardcore fans of Project Needlemouse organised a boycott and petition, which nearly 400,000 people signed (oddly, twice as many people as there were copies of the game sold). In March 2012, Sonic Rampage hit store shelves, and as SEGA had predicted, the sales figures improved upon Project Needlemouse, but not by very much. 150,000 copies were sold in the first month, with 400,000 being sold overall, again, one of the lowest sales figures for a major Sonic title. The game was also critically panned due to substandard gameplay, horrible plot, voice acting and new characters, the return of Sonic the Werehog, and a bad soundtrack which many reviewers considered was the first overly bad soundtrack to a Sonic game ever. Many reviewers also commented in their reviews about SEGA's stupid decision to force the development of a 3-D title just to improve sales, especially considering the overwhelming critical response to Project Needlemouse.

These poor, inconsistent sales led SEGA and Sonic Team to question the appeal of the orginal Sonic format, and whether they should experiment with the forumla. After these discussions, they announced Sonic: Code Blue, the first in a planned series of four Sonic RPGs. The press release talked of an “action RPG battle system in which Sonic and two of his friends fight enemys, with weapons such as swords, guns and explosives,” and “a mature, emotional plotline which might appeal to the now older patrons of the original Sonic games”. Response to the announcement was mostly negative, however many people were curious as to how the game might play out, whilst aware of the fact that the last time Sonic was presented in a more mature manner (namely, Shadow the Hedgehog) was a sizeable failure. Sonic: Code Blue was released on the 8th of November 2015, to mixed reviews and medicore sales, with the general consensus being that, while the RPG system was solid, it had been done far better in other games. However, the new plot was universally hated by fans and reviewers alike, as was the fact that Sonic's trademark speed was almost fully omitted, with only the addition of a “Quick Dodge” during fight sequences hinting that Sonic was ever fast in the first place. The next installment in the series dropped the Sonic moniker altogether, being released exactly a year later, simply called Code Yellow. The battle system underwent a complete overhaul, switching from action RPG to turn-based combat. The game was critically detested, scoring a pitiful 24 on Metacritic, one of the lowest in history. GameSpy were noted as saying “again, the RPG fighting is fine, but totally generic, but the criticism is why we're playing an RPG in the first place! Sonic's speed is not here, the plot is terrible, this is really just a standard JRPG with anthropomorphic woodland creatures replacing androgynous teenagers. And you know, if had just been a JRPG with androgynous teenagers I would probably be far kinder to it, but as it stands, its a testament to the phrase: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” And Sonic has fallen. Hard.”

Sales of the game nearly rivalled the economic failure of Project Needlemouse, and thus, SEGA decided to cancel the whole series entriely. Two years passed with no word from neither Sonic Team nor Sega, leading many to believe that the company had long since given up on the Sonic franchise once and for all. However, on Christmas Day 2018, Sonic Team announced that they had indeed been working on a new Sonic title in deadly secret, officially announcing it as Sonic Forever. Over the next few weeks, screencaps and viral videos depicting the new gameplay were leaked by the company, and from the footage and images, many believed that Sonic Forever would simply consist of levels not unlike the fast, daytime levels of Sonic Unleashed, and that this could possibly be the moment that Sonic claimed back his throne. However, a month after the announcement, the steady flow of screencaps and videos stopped, and Sonic Team again went silent for over two years. Then, on the 10th of January, 2020, Sonic Team had announced, that, due to staff lay-offs and lack of money (due to the economic recession of 2019), that Sonic Forever had been cancelled, and that the studio were to drop the Sonic series altogether, saying that “Sonic just doesn't have the same appeal that he had a decade ago, people are bored of him now. In the end, its just not economically viable to make any more game featuring Sonic anymore.”

Reception to this news was, like to many of the later Sonic games, very much mixed. Anticipation for Sonic Forever and love for the old Sonic fans led many to believe that this was the turning point that could kill the videogame industry, however, many other believed that this was the best decision SEGA ever made, and that Sonic was doing nothing but holding the company back. A week after the announcement, Sonic Team disbanded, and SEGA's dwindling funds almost sent them the same way. However, SEGA had gambled and pooled all of their resources into Bayonetta 3, which, after being released a week after the end of Sonic Team, went on to break sales records worldwide, saving the company from the brink of collapse.

So, after thirty years, half of glory, and half of shame, we pay our last respects to Sonic the Hedgehog. He will most certainly be remembered by the entire videogame community, for better, or for worse, and his influence on the medium of gaming is almost certainly rivalled by no other.

R.I.P. Sonic The Hedgehog, 1990-2020
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About Boatzone of us since 2:39 PM on 04.07.2009

Good hello.

I'm Milo, and I'm here to rant at your faces about video games. These days though, things like Maths studenthood and snorting cocaine from whores are keeping me from having ANY console at all. One low end lappy that barely plays TF2. Sadness occurs.

But meh, I can still whine a good one.


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