Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sidequest Corner: Remembering Sonic The Hedgehog

Yes, I am still alive.

Yes, I am still typing my other stuff.

Yes, I have been busy with a few other projects to the point where I can't keep this blog updated with a bunch of cutesy-poo “sorry too busy check back later” nonsense.

So what exactly has been holding me up? Well a combination of being on The Game Fanatics Live show on Twitch, writing several opinion pieces and reviews on stuff like Tacoma, Agents of Mayhem, and Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within, and trying to play through the forty hour monster that is Yakuza Kiwami for review, which you can read here.

Don't worry, things should hopefully even out soon. Hopefully.

But you know what? This week has been a topic extravaganza so let's crank out a quick Sidequest Corner.

Undertale came out on consoles, but I really can't say anything else about that game other than it is still a fantastic breakout hit for Toby Fox and one of the greatest RPGs to have come out in recent memory hampered by a fanbase that is hitting Annie Wilkes levels of obsessive.

There is a lot of discussion to be had by Agents of Mayhem's critical reception in how it does or doesn't adhere to the original series it has been spun off from. My review speaks for itself but to summarize: Saint's Row 4 jumped the shark, nothing was going to top its audacious satire and spectacle, Volition made the right call scaling things back with something in the same spirit but with more manageable stakes and scale.

And of course there is yet another dreary Sonic the Hedgehog game cranked out by Sega. Of course! Finally something I can get all angry about and justify my nerd cred as a Nintendo elitist from the 90s! So what bloated, overdesigned monstrosity have they decided to call the “brand new direction” for a series that crashed and burned and is still going in a farcical tumble down a mountain side?

….what the hell? That Like legitimately fun. Who the hell forgot to give Sonic Team their pills?

It wasn't made by Sonic Team? It was a fan creation by Christian Whitehead and his team of programmers and designers who originally set out to make a remixed version of the first Sonic game and instead of Sega shutting down the fan project they gave them full access to the original assets and helped them make a full on proper installment?

Sega... are you feeling alright?

 Also, what the hell took you this long? Furthermore, why the hell are you making me care about a character and franchise that has been my sworn enemy since my very childhood!?

Yes, I was a child of the 90s and I bled Nintendo grey.

Quick aside, how come 80s kids get to be called Baby Boomers and early 2000s kids get to be called Millenials but we just get to be called 90s kids? Makes me feel a bit left out.

Anyway, my flag was completely planted in Nintendo territory. Super Mario Bros was my absolute jam. It was my cousin who had a Sega Genesis and played Sonic the Hedgehog, and we were in that sibling rivalry phase. She was older and teased me, I was young and innocent. But it was through those occasional visits that I do remember playing Sonic, and in that particular context I was a little bit jealous. It was cool to see so much complex sprites and visual effects flying around, plus seeing the Blue Blur zip through loop de loops made it seem much more exciting than boring old Mario moving at a snail's pace.

Then I got older and kept things going Nintendo strong. Picked up an N64, played Super Mario 64, went to elementary school, and life moved on. Sega dropped out of making consoles and started making Sonic games for the rest of the other machines out there. But I was too busy worrying about martial arts tests, meeting cute girls, and being a neurotic perfectionist at schoolwork while paradoxically being a lazy SOB.

Yet for some reason as a media icon, he kept popping up for me. Sonic Sat AM was a show I remember being into, I was just the right age to think that Sonic X was an anime worth my time, and even in my adult hood, the Sonic Boom show is surprisingly good if you treat it as a dopey animated comedy and not an adaptation of the characters. Even when I wasn't playing the games, Sega's mascot stayed in my head as a continuous challenge to the house that Mario built.

Then I remembered a phase I had where I became academically curious and tried playing a bunch of his recent games. Clearly there had to be something to Sonic's games that made fans love him. It couldn't just be nostalgia for the 90s platformers, could it?

After playing through just about every 3D Sonic game out there, including spin-offs like Shadow the Hedgehog I can conclude that is not the case. It is nostalgia, and being utterly out of their tiny little minds.

I know it's not the hottest take but I remember pouring over these half-baked adventures thinking there was some secret formula to the series' endurance. The shear novelty of it being out of its comfort zone with stuff like the multiple character perspectives in Sonic Adventure, or playing as the bad guys in Sonic Adventure 2, or going to different interpretations of Arabian Knights or Arthurian Adventures or turning into a wolfhog monster or getting two different reboots to shake things up further.

Except that is missing the forest through the trees. Mario kept it simple because it worked, and when something new was introduced it was something simple and was woven seamlessly into the platforming. When the most tedious installment you have involves giving you a water-powered jetpack yet is still a great experience, you are doing something right.

By comparison, the Sonic series post-Genesis has been a long case study in half-measures. Make the game 3D but don't focus on your unique selling point, just obfuscate it with a bunch of other features like treasure hunting, fishing, and elaborate cutscenes. If that stops working, chase trends like morality systems, grimdark angst, and motion controls.

It also must be said that the majority of the Sonic fanbase are dedicated to being part of a sort of video game counterculture. It started off harmless enough by saying how the franchise was pushing new ground with technology – which Sega technically was at the time before the death of the Dreamcast – then it got increasingly troubling with bad guys leaning away from the wacky Dr. Eggman/Robotnik to horrendous eldritch horrors or the soundtracks being full of tryhard hard rock. This is to say nothing about power creep, with adventures always ending with Sonic turning into an offbrand Super Saiyan then having to save the galaxy or something, or the rise of Sonic OC style fursonas.

For the record I'm not knocking the furry community, I co-host a podcast with one for Pete's sake, but even that own community gives the Sonic chapter some sideways looks.

Much like Michael Bay did to the Transformers, the creators of this blue mascot have been trying nonstop over twenty-five years to find some way to make the series “cool” again by throwing every single superficial thing possible at it. Throw in a metal soundtrack, and angry posing, and guns, and military stuff and all of this clutter, nothing is off the table.

Nothing except going back to the core and remembering what made it so endearing in the first place.

Which finally brings me back to the utter punch in the face that is Sonic Mania. As much as I could be smug in thinking that I backed the right horse over twenty years ago, I honestly wanted Sonic to come back, to give the plumber a run for his money. Competition makes us better and adversity can lead to great growth, and Sega was arguably the only company that chose to challenge Nintendo on their own turf and actually hold their own. So to play Sonic Mania wasn't just to experience an old friend clean himself up and start flying right, it was seeing an old sparring buddy kick some bad habits, lace up the gloves, go a few rounds and actually take you down a few times.

No, it wasn't nostalgia. Once again, Mario guy. No, it wasn't just that everything from the concept of the character to the music to the visual direction evoked my 90s childhood. The answer was very simple. They kept it simple. The plot? Eggman and his robots are stealing macguffins and kidnapping animals to power more evil robots, go stop him. Gameplay? 2D platforming with the usual springs, dash plates, TVs full of power-ups, and rings. Level design? The simple rush of going fast coupled with complex levels that reward using speed to your advantage such as wall and ceiling-running, all made even more engaging by an element of exploration thanks to hidden levels. No heavy metal, no voice-acting, no convoluted plots. What was added? The ability to build up a dash in mid-air and unleash it when you hit the ground. That is it.

So yes, for me, remembering Sonic The Hedgehog is a bit complicated. He was competition, then a curiosity, then a sad punching bag and cautionary tale about what can happen when you don't find out that “cool” has a shelf life. Now, for this brief moment, a glimpse of what made this blue guy so enduring for so many people with a game that might easily be one of my top five of the year.

Now I just need to wait for Sonic Forces to come out so he can go back to being a punching bag again.

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