“Speed returns, in an all new 2D adventure built from the ground up.”
Ten years ago, on September 8th, 2009, mere hours before the 10th anniversary of the Dreamcast, SEGA dropped a teaser trailer for “Project Needlemouse.” Catching the gaming community by surprise, this mysterious project promised to bring Sonic the Hedgehog back to its 2D roots with a new 2D platformer in the style of the Mega Drive games. This project would later be officially titled Sonic the Hedgehog 4, an episodic download game that hoped to please the older Sonic fans who grew up with the classics.
Sonic 4’s two episodes have since been filed away as a mediocre experiment on SEGA’s part, with very little love and fondness in its legacy. The entire Sonic 4 saga left disappointed and bickering fans in its wake, with the general gaming community and even some newer Sonic fans wondering what the fuss was all about. For these people, Sonic 4 delivered point-blank on it’s promise of providing a 2D Sonic game in a style similar to the older games. To the target audience however, Sonic 4 was an insult, and they made sure SEGA knew that.
The story behind SEGA’s Project Needlemouse is an interesting one. The way it was marketed throughout its lifespan and its impact on the Sonic fanbase, and even the gaming community at large, is noteworthy. While the games themselves are generally considered to be mediocre at best, the development and release of Sonic 4 may very well be a watershed moment of the franchise, impacting how SEGA would handle the series and its fanbase moving forward. Making the narrative of Project Needlemouse even more intriguing is how the context of which it was released, sandwiched between other Sonic games doing similar things, would impact audiences’ expectations.
In this special multi-part series, we’ll take you back in time to a world where 2D Sonic only existed on Nintendo handhelds, Classic Sonic was nothing more than a tee-shirt emblem, and the Sonic Twitter as we know it didn’t exist. We’ll see how fan feedback impacted the course of Project Needlemouse, we might get a sense of why many Sonic fans are so judicious about everything SEGA releases starring the blue blur himself, and we’ll better understand why SEGA markets Sonic the way that they do now. This is the Needlemouse Debacle.
The “Retro” Age
Prior to Project Needlemouse’s first teaser, there had already been a ‘retro renaissance’ of sorts in the gaming industry. The New Super Mario Bros series was raking in cash on Nintendo’s Wii console, and Mega Man 9 set the bar for retro throwbacks. Surely, Sonic was also entitled to participate in this trend. It made sense, after all. Sonic’s origins were 2D, the past few 3D releases were received poorly, or at least had a mixed reception between fans and critics, and Sonic Unleashed’s integration of sidescrolling elements could be seen as the harbinger of the franchise’s focus on going back to the basics.
When Project Needlemouse’s teaser trailer dropped with the promise of “an all new 2D adventure built from the ground up,” it was a delightful, if unsurprising, event. It was also a little nerve-wracking for fans. Did SEGA really have the chops to pull it off? There was a sneaking suspicion that they would hand development onto Dimps, who at the time was responsible for a majority of Sonic’s modern 2D outings on handheld consoles. The Advance and Rush series were all developed by Dimps, and while they were generally well-liked, they didn’t exactly nail the “classic” feel, either in controls or level design.
Certainly enough, Dimps was indeed responsible for the bulk of Project Needlemouses’ development, with some oversight from Sonic Team. Meanwhile, SEGA’s marketing team soon began to promote this mysterious project of theirs. Taking advantage of their burgeoning social media presence, they would do anything from trivia contests to concept art teasing to raise awareness that old-school 2D Sonic was coming back. There was even an “elimination round” that featured the names of popular Sonic characters that would be gradually crossed off, until only Sonic’s name remained; this would be a title where only Sonic was playable. Notably absent from this tournament were Tails, Knuckles and Dr Eggman, implying that they could make an appearance.
SEGA Announces a Saga
In February of 2010, Project Needlemouse was unveiled to be Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, and it would be a downloadable, episodic saga for consoles, PC and mobile devices. A short teaser with no more than 3 seconds of footage of Sonic running along a Green Hill Zone inspired level proved to be everything the fanbase needed to form an opinion. This footage would be dissected and scrutinized to hilarious lengths.
Along with the trailer was a press release reiterating how Sonic 4 would be the crucial “first step” of bringing Sonic back to his roots, and that it would be “Sonic 4 as you truly imagined it.” Sonic 4’s public advocate would be Ken Balough, digital brand manager for SEGA at the time. He would interact with the fans on SEGA’s official (and currently defunct) online forums as well as with the press to give details and drop hints on what Sonic 4 would be all about.
Some concerns were raised on the nature of the game being download only, as well as episodic. It seemed to be taking cues from the New Super Mario Bros series in terms of its presentation as a modern game, but it also appeared to look to Mega Man 9 for inspiration in it’s naming convention as well as the decision to be distributed digitally rather than physically. It would certainly not be a conventional release. It was a concern for fans that it be treated with the respect a game called “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” demanded. There was also discussion about the use of Sonic’s modern design rather than his short, stocky “classic” look. At the time, Classic Sonic wasn’t a major pillar in the franchise, yet the debate raged on and petitions were signed to include him in “Modern” Sonic’s stead.
Adding to fans’ concerns was the presence of the “homing attack,” a targeting move that was never present in the original games. Such a seemingly innocuous design choice would prove to be a major point of contention in the ongoing discourse. Although seen as one of Sonic’s signature moves in the 3D games where jumping on an enemy can be difficult at high speeds, it was almost never featured in modern 2D games as it wasn’t seen as a necessary addition. The presence of this move alone would provide enough fuel to the already kindling fire of fear and fury that fans were stoking: would the homing attack dictate the nature of the level design? How would that interact with Sonic’s momentum-based physics? A few of the more seasoned “retro” fans were already convinced the game would be a disappointment from the short teaser alone. Many questions were raised, but weren’t immediately answered by SEGA’s PR.
Then, the “PartnerNET” leak happened.
Of Leaks and Dying Cats
Not too long after Sonic 4’s official reveal, footage of the game in its entirety was leaked. Xbox Live Arcade used PartnerNET, a system used for game developers to test products, and unfortunately it was not a tightly run ship in regards to security. What started off as blurry screenshots effectively turned into footage of the entire game being leaked. This would be the catalyst that changed the course of Project Needlemouses’ life.
Many of the retro fan’s fears were confirmed, and then some: the level design centered around the use of the homing attack as well as featured automated and linear level design with an overabundance of boost pads. It was extremely common to see “Bubble Chains,” where the badnik “Bubbles” would be laid out as stepping stones for Sonic to dash into, especially over bottomless pits. The renowned momentum-based gameplay of classic Sonic was rendered inert with a physics engine that gave Sonic no sense of inertia. Sonic’s “spinball” mechanics were totally inert: he didn’t gain speed while rolling downhill and didn’t bounce off of enemies or item boxes.
The game was so poorly programmed that it was possible for players to stand sideways along curved walls. It was frighteningly reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006’s disregard for the laws of physics, and it was embarrassing to witness a game that bore the title “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” to err in so many ways. It was speculated that this wasn’t even a new engine at all, but the same gameplay engine used in Sonic Rush, which had similar issues.
There were other strange design choices as well. Although the well-loved Jun Senoue would compose the music, the overabundance of synth instruments and muffled drum snare samples gave rise to a plethora of “dying cat” jokes which would be a hallmark bullet point on why the game was not up to standard. The game would boot players out of the campaign to a level select screen after completing a single act to where they would need to select the next one, rather than the expected level-to-level transitions. Sonic’s iconic “blurry feet” were rarely seen, even when at top speed. There were strange “gimmick” acts that utilized unconventional controls or otherwise had weird clear conditions; mainly a score attack pinball level and a level where Sonic is trapped in a mine cart and the stage needed to be tilted to progress.
Finally, the decision to re-use level concepts from Sonic 1 and 2 caused a stir all its own. It was strongly contended that a game billed as a sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles ought to follow suit in introducing unique new places to explore. The starting Zone, Splash Hill, was considered harmless enough as a Green Hill callback, but lined up alongside knock-offs of Casino Night, Metropolis, Labyrinth and Death Egg Zones, it started to feel less like inspiration and more like unimaginative copying.
Damage control was put into place, and the game was delayed to the latter half of 2010 to incorporate fan feedback from the leaked footage. Ken Balough reiterated their intention of pleasing the targeted audience of old school fans and continued to state that it would be “Sonic 4 as you truly imagined it” by the game’s release. Unfortunately, despite the fact that this was an early build of the game, this did little to ease the concerns of fans. Debates on the forums and the heckling of Ken Balough would continue onto the game’s release.
Poor Pilot Episode
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I would release to generally positive feedback from major gaming publications on October 7th, 2010. “Sonic is back, baby!” Declared IGN. Most were pleased with its gameplay, highly saturated graphics and chiptune soundtrack (cats and all), but unfortunately the target audience failed to be impressed. While some would argue it was a fair attempt at a modern sidescroller, it was nearly unanimous among critics that they failed to replicate a traditional Sonic experience.
This wasn’t Sonic 4 as you truly imagined it.
The game was very much unchanged from its early leaked development build. The physics weren’t fixed. The automated level design remained unchanged. Players were still booted out of the campaign after every level (unless they pressed a button to opt otherwise). The only major changes would be the removal of the two “gimmick” acts which were replaced with more fully-featured platforming levels, and the implementation of Sonic’s blurry feet animation at running speed. Curiously, those gimmick acts would remain in the mobile version, raising speculation that Project Needlemouse may have started off as a mobile spin-off before turning into Sonic 4 altogether.
Sonic 4’s first episode would compete with Sonic Colors that same year, and it was not uncommon to find comparisons between the two platformers. Despite being targeted to a younger, presumably easy-to-please audience, Sonic Colors would be cited as the main game that allowed the series to finally break the so-called “Sonic Cycle”. It would appear that the first attempt at reviving classic Sonic gameplay was less than successful, but this wouldn’t be the last we would hear of Project Needlemouse.
Stay tuned for The Needlemouse Debacle: Episode II, where we’ll cover SEGA’s attempt to appease the criticism from their target audience, and the impending release of Sonic 4’s second entry.