I remember a time not too long ago where one could wake up to find out that their favourite blue hedgehog had taken up the hover board, had decided that swords were cool, or had a accumulated another new friend to add to the already brimming roster of colourful critters. At the time, Sonic had suffered a spate of mediocre to down-right poor titles, the most notorious being Sonic ’06. The prevailing morale of the online community was pretty low and on the morning of the announcement of Sonic Unleashed, images of the Werehog did nothing to inspire or reassure fans that a title of note was in the making. Forums lit up with debate, sites quizzed their audiences with “will it be good, won’t it be good?” polls and comment boxes became an arena for conflicts of opinion.
Many fans at the time, including myself, were certain that the train of thought implemented in the making of Sonic titles had become intrinsically flawed, with focus on graphics and sheen, rather than gameplay. Many desired to see a return to the roots of what made the classic Sonic titles so good, which ironically backfired somewhat with the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. The last thing we were interested in was another gimmick, and this is what it looked like SEGA were about to present us with. On this occasion however, I couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong. I love Sonic Unleashed, from the diverse soundtrack, to the lush worlds, to the level design to the Pixar feel of the characters. While not a perfect game in many respects, it was fun, and had elements to please both old and new fans. Not only that, Night of the Werehog was a fantastic little bonus; ten minutes of distilled genius and beautiful animation.
Fast forward six years and we seem to be back at this juncture once more.
Sonic the Hedgehog fans have had a lot of new information to assimilate over the last 48 hours with regards to the announcement of Sonic Boom, which will hit screens later in the year in both TV show and videogame incarnations. Scanning through my facebook feed, the general vibe from a lot of the younger members of the community is one of excitement at the prospect of another TV show, after all it has been a decade since Sonic X premiered on western screens (has it really been that long?). However, these announcements have been completely eclipsed by the news and images of the new character designs, which have in the cases for some characters, been fairly drastic.
But haven’t we been here before? If so, what is all the fuss about? Well, a few months back, we were all given a glimpse of some familiar shadows set against a wall. It was obvious that the main characters of the franchise were looking to get a makeover, and internet speculation about whether or not Knuckles had been hitting the gym exploded onto every Sonic-themed forum.
It seems almost seems surprising therefore, that the community has reacted in the way they have, given there was fair warning substantial changes to the character models were on the horizon. Indeed, Knuckles looks like he has now swallowed the Master emerald in a last-ditch attempt to prevent it from getting nicked. Other characters seem to have been less drastically altered, in most cases proportions have been subtly tweaked, and many would be forgiven in suggesting the team have had a recent run-in with the Andrex puppy. Admittedly, I’ve had a good giggle at some fan parodies and interpretations of these changes. Fortunately, fan reaction has been tempered by a follow up announcement that Sonic Boom would remain an isolated “sub franchise” and that these changes would not be canon.
So again, we come back to the question: what’s the big deal? Why has something like a change in the colour of Sonic’s arms hit such a nerve amongst fans?
Well, the likely answer to that is probably many fold. Firstly and most obviously, many fans probably fear that SEGA are back on down the gimmick route to promote new games. Sonic Lost World didn’t quite achieve the accolade many thought it might, and it’s understandable that there is apprehension over whether this is the dawn of the second era of the so-called “Sonic cycle”. Secondly, and more importantly I think, is the change in the base properties of the franchise. There aren’t many other fandoms that command such a loyal legion as Sonic does, and many are invested in the characters, the stories and the universe on the whole. So when something fundamental is modified, no matter how trivial it may seem to someone on the outside looking in, fans are going to react negatively; after all, why change something that isn’t broken? Indeed, most fans are questioning the necessity of equipping a hedgehog with a scarf and a copious quantity of sports bandages. Perhaps in some cases it is purely personal opinion. More curiously, many have noticed how pedantic SEGA have been in the past with regards to attention to character models, what they are allowed to be doing, and how they are represented in any media. Many perceive this as an almost complete U-turn on this previous ethos, and has opened up speculation to whether or not this is the result of a shift in those who call the shots when it comes to the franchise globally (although a recent statement from Iizuka picked up on TSSZ News announced that Boom will only be available to western markets).
The counter opinion of course, is that sometimes, change is good. You probably wouldn’t be seen dead in the clothes you were wearing a decade ago, and indeed, it could be seen as logical in this sense that over time, some things will inevitably update in order to remain fresh, keep with trends, and of course, interest a new generation. Back in 1998, Sonic underwent his transformation from a short fat spike-ball to a more athletic, green-eyed iteration of himself; that metamorphosis seemed on the whole a successful transition. Examining the timescales between those character models, it does seem like Sonic is well overdue a cosmetic overhaul.
Those of you who, like me, pine for another title with the same DNA as Unleashed, will no doubt be as giddy as I to see stunning pieces of concept art of environments, and some extremely amusing facial expressions from the cast, which lead to believe we will be getting a game with rich worlds to explore akin to Unleashed. Those worried about the game have had some reassuring news in that the development is in the hands of those behind the Uncharted and Jak and Daxter franchises (now developing under the name of Big Red Button), and if the quality of these titles are a reflection of what the next Sonic game will be like, we have nothing to worry about. The attitudes of SEGA have also markedly changed in the past half-decade, with the growth of an extremely competent and capable community team who have been receptive of fan feedback. On top of this, the connection to fans has been reinforced through events such as Sonic Boom in the states and Summer of Sonic in the UK, which have both received an incredible reception from attending patrons.
I think as a community we have matured in many aspects; after all, many have now been fans for over twenty years; some are now employed in the video game business and are more able to understand the intricate nuisances that go into making a video game. That said, I think we shouldn’t fall into the trap of becoming grumpy old women and men, and forming opinions on changes purely because they “aren’t as good as they were back in the good old days”. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to whether or not you think the new direction Sonic is taking will be good or bad, as after all the main component at the end of the day is personal preference. I hope as an older and somewhat wiser community, we can hold final judgement of the “Sonic Renaissance” until we’ve seen the final product.
After all, we’ve only just read the first page of this new chapter of Sonic the Hedgehog.