Thursday, June 23, 2011

Happy Anniversary, Sonic!

With his limitless supply of dopey friends, a bizarre appeal to the freakiest of internet crazies and a facepalm-worthy string of successively worse last and current gen titles, Sonic the Hedgehog has fallen on bad times. But 20 years ago today, the original Sonic the Hedgehog game blasted its way onto the Sega Genesis in North America – and for the first time, Nintendo’s fat plumber had a worthy rival.

On June 23, 1991, Sega’ 16-bit revolution forged one of its brightest stars.

YOU CAN'T CATCH WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE. (No, not chlamydia.)

Created by artist Naoto Oshima, programmer Yuji Naka and designer Hirokazu Yasuhara, Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis/Mega Drive featured the speed that had been missing from most other platformers of the day. Instead of plodding along looking for secrets and timing jumps with great precision as players were used to doing in titles like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog encouraged gamers to tear though levels at breakneck speed, stopping for a breather only when a boss appeared. Sonic’s adventure spanned six unique zones, including the lush Green Hill, the bouncy Spring Yard, and the ominous Scrap Brain, home of the evil Dr. Robotnik. Yes, his name is technically “Dr. Eggman.” But that sounds dumb. He’s Robotnik, damn it.

Sonic’s popularity boomed as players all over started noticing Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse for the first time. Finally, Sega had the “killer app” they needed to become a threat to the Nintendo juggernaut; and though the Super Nintendo had yet to hit the market in the United States, it could be said that Sonic the Hedgehog was the first victory in the 16-bit wars that characterized the era. Sonic 1 also planted the seed for Sega’s “gaming with an attitude” campaign, which lasted throughout much of the ‘90s and gave birth to the iconic SEGA! scream.

Notably, the original Sonic the Hedgehog is home to what just might be the worst kept secret in gaming history: The level select code. By pressing up, down, left and right at the title screen, then holding the A Button and pressing Start, players were brought to a screen containing every zone in the game, including the special stage. Perhaps because of its ease of use, the code spread through seemingly every playground and schoolyard in America. Players who used the cheat were likely surprised to find that the zone order in the level select menu was not the same as in the game itself, a curiosity that, we would find out later, was evidence of just how quickly the game was rushed to the market.

I'm out of order? YOU'RE out of... no, wait, you're right.

North American cover art
Sonic’s 16-bit career spanned four titles in the main series on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, such as the massively popular Sonic the Hedgehog 2, as well as Sonic and Knuckles, which featured impressive “lock-on technology” wherein players could piggyback S&K with older Sonic titles to create new experiences. Sonic’s other Genesis/Mega Drive offerings included Sonic Spinball, where Sonic was the speedy stand-in for the typical silver sphere in a giant game of pinball; Sonic 3D Blast – aka Flickie’s Island – an isometric experiment in 3D that pushed the limits of Sega’s black box but ultimately provided lukewarm gameplay; and a host of cameo appearances in other Sega titles.

Sonic’s fall was as swift as his rise, beginning with his second Dreamcast appearance. After Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic titles experienced a massive decline in quality. Sega, it seemed, couldn’t recapture the glory of Sonic’s 2D days. Whether Sonic is an outdated hero from a bygone era or if the franchise was handed poorly for the last decade is debatable, but recent Sonic efforts such as Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Sonic Colors on the Wii were much better received than almost all Sonic games of the mid and late 2000s. Perhaps the upcoming Sonic Generations, for PS3, Xbox 360 and the 3DS, will settle the debate once and for all.

However, this is not the day to think about the future of Sega’s Blue Blur – this is a day to concentrate on his past. Take some time to pick up Sonic’s first crusade against evil today and you’ll see just why a hedgehog of all creatures took the gaming world by storm 20 years ago.

Sonic's so fast, he can run UPSIDE DOWN.

But don’t knock yourself out just yet: The summer of Sega is only just beginning.

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