Thoughts On Where Sonic Went Wrong
I recently read an article in issue #283 of Game Informer that prompted me to think a bit more about a topic from the book Console Wars, which I also recently read. What happened with Sonic the Hedgehog and how can he come back into the mainstream, if he can come back into the mainstream?
It’s hard to overstate how integral Sonic the Hedgehog was to the pop culture fabric of the early 90s. To many gamers today, Sonic is at best a novelty, and at worst a joke. But there was a time when he was perhaps bigger than–definitely as big as–Mario. I know that’s hard to believe, but you’ll just have to trust me.
Part of what inspired me to offer my thoughts is that I’ve long been interested in fads in general, and more specifically whether or not the cultural context that allows a fad to thrive can ever be recreated. Not “can that context ever happen again?”–surely it can–but can a marketing team ever consciously create an environment for a fad to be reborn without the intended audience recognizing the money-grab. See, I just showed my cards. “Money grab” implies that the resurgence of a fad, as supported by a company, is all about the money and not at all about simply trying to let people have an innocent moment of nostalgia, but I still wouldn’t bet on Sonic Mania being one of the top sellers of the year.
I know, usually fads by nature are the product of (or at least supported by) corporate interests. But is there room for simple nostalgia?
Enter the latest installment of Sonic, the upcoming Sonic Mania, which is billed to be a return to a 16-bit, pixelated, side-scrolling Sonic the Hedgehog. The Game Informer article details the many, many, many failed attempts by many different game developers to bring upright the fallen 90s icon. After a while it seems reasonable to dust our hands and say “sorry, they tried and failed. A sonic resurgence isn’t meant to be.”
And I actually side with those hand-dusters. I honestly don’t think Sonic will ever have a true resurgence. He is the product of an era in pop culture that promoted all things x-treme, awesome, gnarly, and blast-processory. Sonic’s personification of early 90s attitude was his charm. And that charm became his downfall. He played a very specific type very well, but as context changes so do the fads that context is able to support.
But Mario has had some shitty games, too, right? Absolutely. So how does Mario succeed? According to yet another book I recently read, How Nintendo Conquered America, Mario took the Mickey Mouse approach in that from the beginning Mario was never assigned to a single, definable role. He was a carpenter, then a plumber, then a tennis line judge, then a golfer, then a race car driver, then a boxing referee, and on and on. But Sonic is such a specific character that to allow him entrance into any other role in any other decade for any other reason (other than nostalgia) just isn’t possible.
Have I pre-ordered Sonic Mania? Yes. Will anyone under the age of 30 pre-order Sonic Mania? I highly doubt it.
Perhaps only when gamers old enough to remember the original 16-bit Sonic games are long dead can Sonic be reborn.
Tell me what you think in the comments below or at this video’s YouTube page: https://youtu.be/H8mtmr98ntI