Sonic Birthday

Endless Possibilities – Happy 33th Birthday Sonic!

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Not many video game franchises last for nearly thirty-plus years. But SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog is one of those legendary franchises.

Spanning game releases across multiple generations, surviving the shift to being a multiplatform icon and even shaking hands with Mario. Sonic is a series that always kept on running and today, Lords of Gaming celebrates the blue blur’s big 33th birthday.

 

Origins of the Blue Blur – The Genesis

The series started its decade-spanning spring on June 23rd, 1991. Releasing on the SEGA Genesis, or Mega Drive, the series rolled through six legendary zones. From the ever-familiar Green Hills to the dazzling night sky of Starlight Zone, to even the dreaded watery abyss of Labyrinth Zone. The first game explored locations explored to this day in the series.

But one theme about the Genesis/Mega Drive games that carried through each installment, was the theme of nature. Or rather, respecting it.

Sonic busts through robots and frees his animal buddies, with each zone getting progressively more industrial until the final zone, where it’s completely mechanical. This theme was further explored in SEGA CD’s Sonic CD.

In that game, Sonic destroyed robot generators in the past. When traveling to the future, the zone radically transforms into a beautiful melding of nature and technology. Zones like the water-covered Tidal Tempest and the striking neon city of Stardust Speedway demonstrated this very well.

New Friends

Across this era of Sonic, his lifelong buddies were introduced. His faithful little bro Miles ‘Tails’ Prowler joined him in Sonic 2,  love interest turned close friend Amy in Sonic CD, to the rougher than the rest of them Knuckles in Sonic 3&K.

Sonic’s friends all have a role and throughout the series, they never left the Blue Blur’s side. Not to mention, they changed up the gameplay in positive ways. While Amy was playable in more recent classic adventures, Tails and Knuckles are mainstays. The former can fly, while the latter climbs walls and gets through walls/rocks, creating new layers for the level design.

While Sonic could leverage the Elemental Shields, giving him unique abilities, they lasted until he got hit. Tails and Knuckles’ core abilities remained, even if they got hit or lost rings. These layers gave the 2D Classic games unique depth that platformers of the era simply did not have.

Opening Your Heart – The Dream Begins

While the series had releases on the SEGA Saturn like Sonic Jam and Sonic R, the series’ first proper mainline adventure was Sonic Adventure in 1999.

The game had a lot to prove for SEGA, following Saturn’s failure in NA and EU. A unique challenge was adapting Sonic’s trademark speed, into the third dimension. While other platformer icons like Mario leaped rather gracefully while newcomers of the era crashed into the scene, Sonic’s problem was more nuanced.

A major ‘hook’ for Sonic is maintaining your speed, but to do that, the control needs to be perfect. Even if you sometimes couldn’t see ahead in the 2D games, when you jumped, that input was instant. When you rolled, that felt responsive. So making that work in 3D had to be a challenge.

Adventurous Level Design

But, I would argue, they accomplished their mission statement with Sonic Adventure. Sonic’s levels have multiple paths, with a main ‘linear’ one players could run through. If you went off the main path, you could find some extra item boxes around an island in Emearld Cost. If you kept your speed while running on the walls in Speed Highway, you could get to an upper route.

What helped this setup, was the fact that Tails and Knuckles’ levels were built with this same format, but with a different ‘end goal’. The former had to race against Sonic or Eggman through the same levels, while Knuckles had to explore the level more slowly to find Master Emerald shards.

Having the same level layouts being used but with different objectives gave their campaigns ‘purpose’. They each had a unique storyline to get through, alongside a completely different objective than Sonic. In the 2D games, everyone’s goal was the same. But in 3D, they may ‘feel’ similar to play, but having a different goal to complete made them feel special.

Friends New and Old

Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles weren’t the only characters in Sonic Adventure. Amy returned and was playable for the first time in the series. Having unique levels, her gameplay involved more traditional platforming using her hammer in creative ways.

In addition, new characters E-102 Gamma and the now infamous Big the Cat also joined the party. The former leaned into similar gameplay that Sonic and his friends had.

But instead of homing attacking or punching through robots, you blasted them to keep the clock from going down. It created genuinely fun levels that while short, never overstayed their welcome.

The latter, however, is a different story. Big’s levels involved re-using the SEGA Bass Fishing gameplay but with a focus on positioning Big in places around familiar locations in the game. Once settled in, you cast your line and hoped Froggy took the bait. In a lot of ways, this was Sonic Team padding the game out for an extra hour or so but fishing fans hopefully had their fun.

Radical Highways – The Dying Dream

Releasing right when the Dreamcast was on death’s door, 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2 took the formula established in Sonic Adventure and streamlined it.

Gone was the overworld and replaced was a linear beat-for-beat narrative that was spread across two campaigns. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles returned with the Hero route, while newcomers Shadow the Hedgehog and Rouge the Bat joined Eggman in the Dark route.

Sonic and Shadow’s gameplay continued where Sonic Adventure left off but with a focus on an even more linear-level design. The result? High-speed romps that encourage fast reaction time to get to the upper routes, rather than a focus on more slower-paced exploration.

Sonic
Sonic Generations

Mech and Treasure Hunting

E-102 Gamma’s gameplay got a facelift, with Eggman and Tails using heavy-duty mechs to blast through levels. The speed is gone, but the trade-off is a focus on chaining score chains and your shooting having a heavier impact.

Lastly, Knuckles and Rouge have levels focused on the Emerald Shard hunting once more, but with a reworked Emerald Radar. Instead of going off for all the pieces, it only picks up one at a time.

It’s a change I am more personally mixed on, but I get why they made it. Sonic Team made that decision to encourage replay value, as the placement of the shards differs every time you enter a level.

Visually and musically, Sonic Adventure 2 is one of the most iconic games in the franchise. As someone who went to both the DC and NYC Sonic Symphonies, whenever music from this game is played, everyone knows the music instantly. From the iconic tune of Escape from the City to the legendary Live and Learn, the music from Adventure 2 is celebrated to this day.

Bunking with the Pumbler

When the Dreamcast officially died, Sonic needed some new homes. Thankfully, his rival Mario is a generous fellow and graciously lets him and his friends boldly sprint to the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. Kicking off the partnership with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle and Sonic Advance, the series found a new legacy with Nintendo fans.

Mario and Sonic make a truce following the Dreamcast's death in 2001.

Lord Sonic’s Introduction to the Series

This is how I, Lord Sonic, experienced the series for the first time. I got Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Adventure 2: Battle with my GameCube, with Sonic Adventure DX and the other Advance games not long after.

The ports on GameCube were good enough at the time and I loved the series from that point onwards.

And I’m not alone with this, as many current-day Sonic fans could point to the GameCube as their doorway into the series. The series found homes on Xbox and PlayStation 2 with Sonic Heroes and Sonic Mega Collection Plus not long after.

Ready…. GO! – The Modern Boost

Following releases like Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Shadow the Hedgehog, the series needed a proper jump into the HD era. So in the year of 2008, Sonic Unleashed was released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Taking the Super Speed concept from Sonic 06 and adding on the Boost mechanic introduced in games like Sonic Rush and Sonic & the Secret Rings, Sonic’s core gameplay received a complete face-lift.

The core foundations of Sonic’s level design remained, trying to find the best routes to get the fastest level-clear times. However, the focus on raw speed became paramount.

Using familiar abilities like the light-speed dash, alongside new ones such as running across water and sliding, Sonic kept the pace.

Inspired Level Design

Levels stretched miles long, utilizing a striking art direction that properly melded stylized characters with the realistic worlds of Sonic 06. The result was levels that had the spectacle you would see in Sonic Adventure 2 but you had more control over it.

Instead of simply running down a highway to avoid a massive truck running you over, how about avoiding a series of robots shooting at you with careful quick stepping? Or having to run over massive bodies of water, all the while keeping an eye on any rings in your path to keep the boost meter high?

To this day, I still replay these levels, and playing the 360 version on Modern Xbox platforms is a treat, leveraging 60FPS support and auto-HDR to clean up the image quality.

Closing Thoughts – A Good Future for Sonic

Being a fan of this franchise since the early 2000s and growing up alongside it, I am beyond happy to see the Blue Blur stand tall. But it’s not just myself that wanted to celebrate Sonic’s big day, fellow scribes and editors kindly offered some words about SEGA’s mascot as well.

Senior Writer & Co-Community Manager, Chris Jones – SEGA Kid at Heart

I don’t have many sonic memories but I do remember one thing. The thing I remember is my dad was right. You might ask what do you mean Chris? Well, the first at-home console I got was a Sega Genesis, which I got for Christmas one year. I got three games Mrs Pacman, Sonic 2, and a third I can’t remember.

Sonic Origins gameplay

Might have been NBA Jam or Golden Axe. Well, when I hooked up the system my dad would only let me have 1 game at the time and I was like why. He said too many could be too good of a thing.

Well, what he meant is he didn’t want me to have all three and be able to switch between them and get bored too easily. Well, the game I played first was Sonic 2. And let me tell you that when I say I didn’t need the other 2 for a while I’m serious.

I put so many hours into it, that my parents had to make me go outside. “Kid Chris” struggled on the water map, constantly falling into the water and drowning. I remember always trying to get the secret end-of-level map cause I enjoyed it most. Sonic has been and always will be a big part of gaming history and a big part of many people’s gaming journey.

Happy Birthday Sonic.

Joseph Repko aka Flame, Editor – A Birthday Worth Celebrating

Sonic is one of the longest-running franchises and despite some of its missteps in the past, the fact SEGA only continues to double, and at times triple down on the series is a testament to just how much they care about it.

Not only SEGA but the long-time Sonic fans who have been through thick and thin. From side-scrolling to 3D. To linear levels that mimic the side-scrolling in 3D environments with epic gimmicks, to full open worlds and epic bosses and soundtracks that just never miss.

sonic frontiers screenshot

I will admit I have not played Sonic much these days, but I can take a look at Sonic Frontiers, and see just how far the series has come. How much pride SEGA has in their mascot to keep pushing themselves to newer territories. Even shows and movies, like the recently released films not only still have fun but have a whole team of people who take it just as seriously as SEGA does for the games. For a series going on 33 years strong? It has earned not only its success over the years but the right for everyone to celebrate its anniversary, even me.