It’s a story you’ve heard a million times before. How on June 23rd 1991, the gaming world was forever changed when Sonic the Hedgehog, the original 16-bit classic, was released. For the first time, Nintendo had competition. The 16-bit wars had truly begun. And a company that had been started in the aftermath of World War II whose only goal was to entertain had a bona fide hit on their hands. But no matter the impact Sonic had on the industry, he had a far greater impact on the childhood of millions of gamers. Starting with that first game, what child of the 90’s didn’t demand their own Mega Drive? Who didn’t want their own version of Sonic’s shoes, even though none would ever be sold? Who didn’t wake up early every Saturday just to catch a glimpse of Sonic and his awesome catch phrases? Save their pocket money to get the latest issue of whatever comic was released on their side of the world? Dare to read the junior novels? Fall asleep holding tightly onto that Sonic plushie?
Let’s be honest here. Anyone associated with this site, we stick around because of the impact Sonic had on our lives. Yes, we can admit that there are far more important things than talking about a speedy blue hedgehog. Sure, perhaps the games aren’t as big a part of our lives anymore. We’ve grown up just like anyone must, out of childhood, through those awkward teenage years and into our own 20’s. Even those of us who edit the wiki, write on the message board, or even the passive who just casually read the site or follow us on twitter feel some sort of attachment to “the fastest thing alive,” even if he is only a small part of our current world. Even so, who here can say that haven’t been inspired, even slightly, by the invention of three Japanese fellows who only wanted to make the best game they could?
The work of Naka, Ohshima and Yasuhara still resonate today, entertaining each new person who picks up a controller and plugs into the worlds of South Island, West Side Island, Angel Island, Little Planet, and Station Square. For what could have been just a footnote in the gaming industry has now lasted a full two decades, with games still being made on a regular basis, still being sold, still appealing to a far wider audience than a group of fans who became obsessed with the missing levels of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Even now, new generations of gamers come across Sonic with the same wonder as those who began playing on day one. The fans who found out about Sonic only when it was ported to the Nintendo Gamecube, whose animated series was Sonic X, who have no idea what the Sega Pico is – those kids are just as much a part of the fandom as those who were around when we didn’t realize there was a difference between the Western and Japanese canon. Be it green, black, brown, red or orange eyes, deep down exists the core of Sonic. The desire to do the right thing. To not waste your precious time, as it were.
Sure, it hasn’t always been the smoothest road. Even looking back on the previous celebrations of Sonic’s anniversary shows that. The first major anniversary Sega celebrated was his fifth, back in 1996. It was a strange time not only for the Sonic franchise, but for Sega as a whole. Gaming was changing, with 3D worlds becoming the norm and the company not seeing eye to eye between its branches. The story of the Saturn launch, and all the failed and unmade systems and ideas that preceded it has become the stuff of legend, when drunk industry types try to one-up each other on stories of Sega’s follies around a pitcher of their favorite beer. The story of Sonic X-Treme‘s development, the game that was meant to come out that year, has been well documented, and it’s cancellation a symbol of Sega’s internal struggle. The year wasn’t to go without Sonic, however. Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island was released on the Mega Drive as planned, but was hastily ported to the Saturn to fill the gap caused by X-Treme‘s demise. With G-Sonic on the Game Gear, Sonic CD hitting the PC and Sonic’s Schoolhouse rounding out the cast, Sega triumphantly declared “Blue is Back!,” even though Sonic hadn’t really disappeared yet.
The tenth anniversary went much better, with Sonic Adventure 2 coming out along with a deluxe “birthday pack” featuring a Best-Of music CD, a history booklet and even a commemorative coin. Along with a 3D recreation of the Green Hill Zone within the game itself, it was a celebration of both the old and the new. But even this, the sequel to the game that helped truly relaunch Sonic, was met with a dark cloud, the final major Sonic the Hedgehog release on a Sega system. It was this point in time that Sega announced their removal from the console market, ceasing production of the Dreamcast and turning their sites into becoming a third party studio. It was a time of uncertainty for all of Sega and its franchises, least of all Sonic.
The fifteenth anniversary…well, it was quite like anyone’s fifteenth birthday. Trying to act much older than you are, but still feeling incredibly awkward in your own skin. Matching up perfectly with the dawn of the HD console era should have spelled success, but with its own troubled development history, it didn’t matter how nice a preorder statue was or how cool someone might think having Akon remix a DREAMS COME TRUE song would be. Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 was a failure critically, commercially, and in every respect imaginable. Sure, underneath might have been a good game, but covered in layers of problems that were never given the chance to be ironed out, Sonic’s 15th was nothing to be happy about. Even if Sega wasn’t feeling uncertain as it did the previous anniversaries, the fans of Sonic certainly had to.
But now here we are. On the dawn of his 20th year. Sonic the Hedgehog, with over fifty titles and millions of units sold worldwide. Having some of the greatest, and worst, games ever made in the history of the industry. And Sonic Generations, a game that looks to celebrate every generation of his gaming history just beyond the horizon. Seeing the Green Hill Zone fully remastered is more then just a nod to the old fans that demand the quality they grew up with. It is a look back on how the entire franchise started, the Green Hill Zone being one of the first items ever worked on when it came to Sonic. The loop-de-loops, the speed, the rolling. It was the one level that the team demanded be perfect, that was worked and tweaked upon for over six months. And the music which has become synonymous with the character, the very first piece ever composed by Nakamura for the game, playing right alongside. Even if the level has been revisited in the past, even if other games have lifted set pieces and art design from it…it is still the purest form of Sonic. The very essence put together by the original Sonic Team. Even if they didn’t expect the game to be as big as it turned out to be or the cultural phenomenon in the west that defined the early 90’s, they knew how important that first impression was.
Looking over the history of the franchise, sometimes it is amazing to believe the games were as good as they turned out to be, when taking into account everything that went on behind the scenes. The pressure the original team felt as they put their all in the first game. The cultural confusion inherent in the second. The lofty goals of the third. The effort to relaunch Sonic in the third dimension. Even the stories for the production of games such as Sonic CD and Adventure 2, if not as rife with trouble, just show how passionate the creators of those games were, and how far the industry has evolved in the years since.
Sure, we might laugh or smile or wink at all the buzzwords that have come since that first game in order to sell the latest installment. Blast Processing. Lock-On Technology. But we do so out of love. We do so out of fondness. We do it for that inner child, who couldn’t wait to overcome Carnival Night to finally experience that ice-capped zone for ourselves. We all have our favorite moments in the franchise, favorite zones or music or lines of dialogue. But whether you’re a fan of the classic games, the modern ones, the Saturday morning show, the Fleetway comic, or any of the rest, the love for the hedgehog remains. Regardless if you groan at seeing Knuckles getting tricked yet again, feel unexpectedly hungry as Sonic starts scarfing down chili dogs, or confused as you read about Uncle Chuck running a tractor into a teenaged Dr. Robotnik, the fondness for the franchise endures.
Sonic, Sally, “Tails”, Antoine, Amy, Vector, Knuckles, Johnny, Geoffrey, Breezie, Porker, Scratch, Sonia, Grounder, Chris, Manic, the Owl and the Eggman. To the the hundreds of characters that have appeared in five animations, two comic books, numerous manga, books and of course the games: If we’ve loved you or if we’ve hated you, thank you. Thank you for being there when we needed you, and thank you for sticking around as long as you have. But most of all, thank you Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and the rest of the staff who made that first game twenty years ago. Yes, even you “Papa.” Whoever you may be.
So today, if you’ve got it, pull out that old Genesis, dust it off, and blow into that cartridge. Feel that classic three buttoned controller, and turn up the volume. Let yourself escape to a world we’re all familiar with, even if it’s only for a handful of acts. So to the last twenty years, and to twenty more, happy birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog. And if the sun laughs today, it will certainly be with you.