Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stuck In Neutral: Sonic The Hedgehog


Sega Sammy to Fans: "This is how we view your precious, beloved characters that aren't named Sonic the Hedgehog. Complain all you want but Sola Sonica shall reign!"
I have spent some time gathering up the brain power and the courage to write an article like this one, and surely some Sonic fans will get mad at me for voicing my honest opinion, but honest journalism is the closest thing to professional journalism.

Let me come out and say this regarding the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. I, Steven Vitte, happen to be a Sonic fan and I have had a bumpy ride with this franchise ever since I started firmly associating myself with the franchise. Ever since Day 1, I could get the sense that something was off about the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and I got this sense as a young little kid. However, I didn't bother to talk about that at the time because I was still going through my naive stages as a kid. I was wishing and hoping and dreaming of a better tomorrow with this franchise for as long as I can remember, but at some point, reality needed to settle in and introduce itself to me.

I have been a fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise dating back to as early as 1997 when the old Genesis games (Sonic, Sonic CD, Sonic 2, Sonic 3&K) were still in style and this was a fun time to be a Sonic fan. Gamers of this time were still optimistic about the future prospects of the Blue Blur, an energetic hedgehog who had hung his hat on the fact that he was the fastest thing alive, running up to speeds that no other character can reach (except for maybe The Flash from DC Comics). 1997 represented easier times, at least easier compared to what we see now in 2014. 1997 was more care-free for gamers all around and we were allowed to dream as much as we wanted to.

Times have clearly changed in the span of 17 years, apparently.

What was made obvious to me in 1997 when I started getting my hands on things Sonic related was that there was a direction being mapped out for the Blue Dude With An Attitude. Sega knew back then what they wanted to do with Sonic because the Genesis games were generally well received, accepted by gamers and critics alike. Way back in the beginning in 1991 Sonic himself was introduced to start a gaming "boom" (pun intended...) for gamers to experience. Sonic exploded onto the scene with his own game, giving gamers the option of sticking with beloved overalls wearing plumber Mario and his games or jumping ship to Sonic's party.

"Sega does what Nintendon't" I am sure many of you remember that marketing ploy. The early 1990's were rough times for Nintendo because they had a console making rival staring them right in the face in Sega and the ad campaigns from both sides were admittedly funny, similar to that of smack talk getting a wee bit out of hand. Sega surely had a game plan in mind, and that was to ride on the super fast bullet train that was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic served back then (and still serves now) as Sega's mascot so he had to look good at all costs. Reasons had to be given as to why Sonic was the better choice than Mario and the execution was put out there in the games.

Before long, times changed from the cute 16-bit pixels and to the mind blowing 64-bit polygons and Nintendo surely adapted well to keep Mario going. Sonic, on the other hand, didn't fare as well. Sega transitioned from one console to the next, appearing to be seamless on the surface but at its core, very sloppy. Remember the Sega Saturn, the Sega 32X and the Sega CD? Looking back at this, we'd have to question the legitimacy and wisdom of such moves Sega made to stay relevant, and especially when 1999 rolled around, things got more interesting for Sonic.

9/9/99 was when the Sega Dreamcast was revealed to the masses and Sonic Adventure 1 was right around the corner. We were introduced to what Sonic the Hedgehog looked like in full blown 3D and he brought with him some dialogue and fleshed out storytelling to boot. We heard Sonic and his friends talk and we were given a different feel of our favorite character and his world. It was certainly different and it was definitely an adjustment period, but fans of the franchise adapted and welcomed this new Adventure Era Sonic in with open arms.

While Sonic's standing as a character was never really in doubt at this time, Sega's future as a console making company was. The Dreamcast wasn't received as warm as the Nintendo 64 to start and by the time the writing was on the wall, the Dreamcast got punched in the gut by Sony and the Playstation 2. Japan was a big target for Sony and the company pounced on this gaming territory real quick. Sega fumbled about with its marketing campaign of the Dreamcast and eventually raised the white flag. Console making was over and Sega knew it, so the company had to go back to the drawing board and plan anew.

Sega needed to establish a presence as just a company that makes games and they soon found their turf as a 3rd party developer, making games for all consoles. The 2000's represented the adjustment period for Sega as a whole, and Sonic naturally had to follow.

From the beginning, Sonic was always a well known character to even casual observers. It was hard not to notice him in the 1990's on TV when he had his cartoon shows. The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Sat AM and Sonic Underground kept Sonic's name out there for fans to remember. The kids especially got into these cartoons and they would grow to love Sonic as a character. Sonic captured the imaginations of folks back then. He was unique, something people hadn't seen before, and he had a personality that at least some people could relate to.

Sonic games could be found on any console platform, from the Nintendo Gamecube to the Xbox to the Playstation 2 and he would keep running through the gauntlet of the next gaming generation. However, a shift had started to develop when it came to how well Sonic games would be received by the masses and some people would argue that it began with Sonic Heroes, a game for the Gamecube.

I have played Sonic Heroes on the Gamecube and I can say in my honest opinion, without writing a review on it, that it isn't that bad of a game at all. Is it an awesome, spectacular game? No, but it does have a few redeeming qualities that I can look back at and admire from a game design standpoint. I generally liked the concept of teamwork (Sonic, Tails and Knuckles) and I think the Level Up system was good, but the execution was missing at times. You sometimes didn't know where you had to go to advance the level and that was problematic. I just don't think that Sega ever realized the true potential of a game like Sonic Heroes if it had more polish and development.

Then came a spinoff game where Sonic wasn't the main playable character. This game was called Shadow the Hedgehog, a game based on the travels and experiences of an anti-hero black and red striped hedgehog with a complicated backstory Needless to say, this game was panned by critics and wasn't received well by fans as the game simply didn't play a Sonic game. The one thing people will remember this game for would be the fact that Shadow could use guns. That's right. A Sonic character using guns as weapons. That and perhaps the fact that Shadow dropped the "D" word in foul language sealed the deal for this spinoff game.

So it couldn't have gotten worse, right? If you're new to the scene of Sonic, then you'd be wrong.

Let's put in some dramatic agony of defeat music for this next part. Sonic 06 made its presence known in a variety of ways, and 99% of those ways weren't positive. Fans and critics (well, mostly critics) still look back at this game and hate it with every ounce of their being, calling it the worst Sonic game in the franchise by far. It is easy to see why that would be the case. The story of the game felt detached and distorted, as in everyone's gameplay mechanics were not only different but too rough around the edges. The actions the characters were supposed to perform in the game were not programmed well enough and the environment that surrounded Sonic and company wasn't appealing at all. Good to look at? Perhaps, but not fitting for a Sonic game, according to know-it-all critics.

I am glad to say that I haven't played Sonic 06 but it appears as though I was wise in not bothering with this game seeing as how a strong majority of gamers really don't like it. All of the glitches, the loading screens that are a pain to get through due to length, the horrid storytelling progression (with the exception of maybe, surprise, Shadow), and the gameplay mechanics make this game a black eye for the franchise.

In truth, the years 2005-2007 can appropriately be called the Dark Ages of the Sonic franchise because these times represented a huge lack of focus on the part of Sonic Team. Game development went sour and it became poorly managed by Sonic Team. Changes were made in 2000's when Yuji Naka stepped down as the head of Sonic Team (he would be just fine in forming Probe soon after), and in his place stepped in Takashi Iizuka, the man who has been the brains of the operations ever since.

Let's not forget about the fact that another Sonic cartoon on TV would be released and it was called Sonic X, a show in which artwork-wise looked amazing, but in everything else was lacking. Sonic X was an attempt to recapture the momentum that the Sonic cartoons of the past had done, providing fans with an outlet to expand their imaginations of their beloved Blue Blur and to appreciate the storytelling that came with the shows.

Unfortunately, Sonic X missed the mark and failed in this mission. You don't need to look any further past the one character that was specifically made for this show. Chris Thorndyke. Who? Good question. I had never heard of such a fellow before Sonic X, and now all of a sudden the fans had to learn to accept this random human character as the main focal point of the show? This show was called Sonic X and yet here comes this Chris kid consuming all of the focus, taking it away from Sonic and his friends. This is what we call a big no-no. The main point of a Sonic cartoon show is that we watch it for Sonic and his friends. We don't watch it for random characters, humans or animals, to spew their nonsense and then see Sonic and company.

Now back to Iizuka-san, he became the head hancho for Sonic Team in the 2000's and he would establish his own vision of what the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise should look like. He began to make his mark with Sonic Unleashed, a game that featured Sonic in two different forms, based in both daytime and nighttime sequences. This marked the end of an era for one facet of supporters; the voice acting. Some fans, in all their wisdom, raised a stink about the voice acting of the previous few games, so after this game, the cast of voice actors were sent packing. Sonic Unleashed was received in a neutral way, neither good nor bad, and that depends on what standards of gameplay you have when evaluating this game.

Sonic Unleashed, released in 2008, was the beginning of experiments for Iizuka and his merry band, but it would be far from over. The Sonic franchise needed to make changes at this time and the changes surely came with the next few games. Next came Sonic Colours, a game that featured Sonic having to deal with aliens from another planet (How creative!), using them as power-ups to help him progress through levels. The game was mostly received well by gaming communities, but it didn't turn out to be the spectacular success that Sonic Team had envisioned. The storytelling of Colours felt off key and detached from the Sonic universe, according to those who have played the game. The dialogue, in all its cheesiness, left plenty to be desired.

Then we would observe the experiment known as "Sonic 4", supposedly an addition to the original Genesis games. Sonic 4 Episode 1 and Episode 2 were both promoted to be paying homage to games like Sonic 1, CD, 2, 3&K and it appeared to be a good marketing ploy as fans on the surface initially bought into this hype. However, as things developed with both Episodes, it quickly became clear that Sonic Team and Dimps were not being honest with what they were promoting. On the surface, it was promoted as "Sonic as you truly imagined it!" but imaginations were dashed once the final product was put on display. Episode 1 and 2 were both nothing like the original Genesis games, featuring Modern Sonic and slapping on generic-looking levels that took little effort to make. Episode 2 was really bad in one particular sense...

Steven: I feel your pain, Tails. I'd facepalm too if I couldn't be playable as Player 1.

Just like it's big brother Episode 1, Sonic 4 Episode 2 did a terrible job of marketing and promoting its product, and not that it wasn't promoting the game, it just came down to how the game was being promoted. In one trailer video for the game, Episode 2 hyped up the return of a sidekick and a curled up orange ball of spin dash awesomeness immediately appeared. However, Sonic fans, and especially Tails fans, had the belief that they would get to play as Tails as Player 1. This didn't turn out to be the case as Tails was playable, but only as Player 2, so unless you had a friend to play with, there was no way to access Tails as a playable character.

This was a quick turn off for many fans and it was only one of many signs as to how fragile the image of the Sonic 4 project truly was. If Sonic Team and Dimps had cared enough to do research, they would have known that in Sonic 2, the player could simply go to a menu screen and switch from "Sonic Alone" to "Tails Alone". Would fans be asking too much for a game like Sonic 4 Episode 2 to pay homage to Sonic 2 in that sense? Again, many things have changed from 1997 to 2014.

Since we're on the subject of paying homage to the past, Sonic Team came back again in 2011 with another exciting installment of the Sonic series with Sonic Generations, a game that celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Sonic's existence. This game featured a variety of elements, bringing back levels that older fans grew to love back in the day, but also bringing back the more recent levels that younger fans hold in high regard. The game was divided into 2 parts, Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic, and the catch was that these 2 versions of Sonic were the only playable characters. In theory there was a foundation for allowing only 2 versions of Sonic to be playable, but in other senses, this was just another attempt to stifle growth on the part of Sonic's friends, characters that almost get instant scorn and ridicule from critics and casual observers.

The theory of Sonic Generations was more sound than the last couple games, but it stumbled in execution. It still made money and sold plenty of copies, but the Replayability Factor fell flat, being nonexistent. The story of the game didn't grab the attention of the fans as it felt like a story that lacked enough substance. The dialogue was still cheesy and detached from the game's reality. There were plenty of elements that other games could simply capture that Sonic Generations failed to capture. Sonic Generations failed to give Sonic's friends credibility as they were just "there", standing around and hoping for Sonic to help them, being at his mercy. The "read between the lines" tones of this game were easily felt by many fans.

Now fast forward a little bit further to another heavily hyped Sonic game, the first Sonic game to be released on the Nintendo Wii U. Let's talk about Sonic Lost World and the opportunities that were easily fumbled away the deeper one got into playing the game.The hype and promoting behind this game was immense in some ways, and we mainly have Sonic Team to thank for that. A brand new gameplay mechanic was introduced by Sonic Team to further progress the experiments, and this time it would be the addition of parkour, an already popular physical activity people perform in reality. Parkour itself is an interesting way to develop a video game character and it has its benefits.

Sonic Lost World introduced us to the Zeti, a group of baddies that went by the name of the Deadly Six. Sounds intimidating, right? Well, you would be surprised at how ineffective these guys proved to be. On the surface, fans were introduced to these 6 characters and reactions were positive. However, you get to playing the game and you go through the cutscenes of the story and you realize just how shallow these villains really were. They lacked the punch that characters need in order to stand out. These villains were uninspired stereotypes of villains we have seen in years past.

To make matters worse, the story of Lost World itself fell very flat as it lacked the depth to keep a player engaged. The characterizations of the story suffered a great deal. The dialogue of Sonic and Dr. Eggman both felt detached, carried away in the illusion that important moments needed to be made funny more than anything else. Tails was a far cry from what he was in past games, acting like a complete jerk or brat in the eyes of many fans. Tails was a sarcastic know-it-all who tried too hard to impress Sonic in scenes, and this hurts because of the fact that many were looking for proper development of Tails's character.

How do we explain the fumbling of Sonic Colours, Sonic Generations and Sonic Lost World? One avenue we can take in this would be the game writing. See how this connects to this blog? Sonic Team had put their trust in a dynamic duo of guys who wrote for Happy Tree Friends, but the red flag was sure to raise on this approach. In an interview with Roger van der Weide, Ken Pontac openly admitted that he had no prior knowledge to any parts of the official Sonic the Hedgehog canon (as if that was ever truly defined by Iizuka...), and that the only way he could know about Sonic and his world was through reading Wikipedia articles online. Yeah. How far have we come from the better days of Sonic?

You can't blame Ken Pontac nor Warren Graff for taking an opportunity that was basically given to them by Sega and Sonic Team, but on the same hand there is no excuse for them to not even try to do research and learn and understand the world of Sonic the Hedgehog. There is no excuse for them to intentionally disrespect the characters, especially Sonic's friends, and put them in negative lights just to bolster Sonic's image and make him look good and untouchable. There is no excuse to detach the fans from Sonic's world through the cheesy, conflict-free dialogue that serves no other purpose than to make an incomplete joke.

If I may elaborate a little more, Pontac's and Graff's handling of Miles "Tails" Prower in particular has bothered me a great deal. I have never been more annoyed and frustrated with this part of the game writing for this series than with this particular issue. It happened not once, but twice that Tails ended up being the victim of a poorly managed plot just so that he can be made useful in the plot. Look at Sonic Colours and Sonic Lost World and watch two scenes closely. In Colours, Dr. Eggman uses the Wisp Energy laser device, aiming for Sonic but ends up hitting Tails, temporarily "mind controlling" him. In Lost World, Tails is captured by the Deadly Six and he's taken back to their hideout to be "reprogrammed". Tails supposedly became a "mind controlled" cyborg, although Tails ended up playing possum afterwards.

Anyone noticing a pattern developing? So from what I see the only way that Tails can be made useful for a plot in a main Sonic game would be to use him as a mind controlled punching bag? Is the only use that Pontac and Graff have for Tails is to make him a "Woe is me! I got captured again!" sidekick who needs to hold Sonic's hand or else he can't make it?

What kind of message are we sending to gaming communities here?

What kind of message are we sending to the Video Game Industry as a whole?

What are we doing to influence the opinions of Sonic's friends with these messages? IGN, Game Informer, and GameSpot I'm looking at you...

What does this say about other characters if Tails is going to be handled this way by writers like Pontac and Graff in the main series? Who is to say that this won't happen to Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Rose, Shadow the Hedgehog, Espio the Chameleon or anyone else? Maintaining Sonic's image is one thing, but sacrificing and demoralizing the images of Sonic's friends crosses the line.




Sonic's friends deserve much better treatment, or the future is bleak.
 


Now the picture you see above is that of Sonic with his friends Tails, Knuckles and Amy, 4 characters who represent the beginning of the franchise. Tails made his debut in Sonic 2, Amy made her debut in Sonic CD (although not as a playable character), and Knuckles first appeared in Sonic 3&K, all with the specific purpose of providing Sonic the Hedgehog help in some way. This was the original intent of these other characters, and yet, as time went on, they slowly lost their purpose. They slowly lost what made them stand out in the first place. They slowly lost credibility because of what Sega and Sonic Team did to them and because of what video game reviewing companies keep reminding us about almost annually.

As time has gone on, Sonic has had to change and adapt with the times. He has had to bring along friends to help him in his adventures. He has had to learn how to deal with different environments, challenges and character redesigns. Sonic 06 brought out the worst of everybody but one question remains on the table that video game critics like IGN, Game Informer and Gamespot refuse to answer.

Was Sonic 06 really so bad that you had to mentally place a lifetime ban on the use of other optional playable characters in the main Sonic series?

Let's not forget about the other woes that the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has had to endure, and not involving video games. The comic book variations of the Blue Blur haven't had much stability to speak of, both in Fleetway's Sonic the Comic and in Archie Comic's Sonic the Hedgehog. The issues that surrounded one and still surround another can come across as pretty jarring. Sonic the Comic had a lengthy run as a published product, and then made the switch to being a webcomic series. For the most part, Sonic fans in the UK have been pleased with these comics, though fans everywhere else haven't been as pleased. Archie Sonic, on the other hand, has been a series of unfortunate and unpredictable events.

How does a lawsuit filed by former writer of the Archie Sonic series Ken Penders sound? By far one of the most unreasonable and laughable reasons for wanting to file a lawsuit, Penders claimed that some characters that were in the comics officially belonged to him via copyright loophole. How did he have any basis for claiming copyright on characters that he made specifically for something Sega-owned, and these character creations would become Sega property anyway? Needless to say, Archie Sonic has had to do a great deal of damage control on this front, and so much so that it had to reboot the series altogether, creating a New World for readers to accept by force. There is no real good way to look at this in the long run.

Now this is where we are caught up to speed in the state of the Sonic game series. As of this blog entry, Sonic Boom is now the new cool kid in town as far as games go and it is yet another new approach being tossed by Sonic Team. Sonic Boom carries an immense amount of hype for not only being a spin-off video game series, but also as a line of toys and as a cartoon TV show that will be aired on the Cartoon Network. For the first time in seemingly forever by the series' standards, Sonic's friends have returned to being playable characters in Sonic Boom, a game that is separate from the main series and is the debut of a new sub-series specifically for American Sonic fans and younger gamers in general.

This new approach is very methodical with specific targets. Sonic Boom is being aimed towards a younger audience, trying to pull in potential new fans of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand. The cartoon show will not have any canon whatsoever from episode to episode, meaning no continuity that has the world rebooting at the beginning of each episode. The toy line obviously aims to be appealing just like back in the day when kids went after Happy Meals toys at McDonald's. Understandable.

 The Sonic Boom games, the Wii U and the 3DS versions, are supposed to be brand new takes on the Sonic characters themselves, providing more depth to characterization and development, having dialogue that is more tolerable than Pontac and Graff can ever dream of making, and showcasing a unique combat system that allows for bursts of speedy platforming to take place. There has been reason for optimism surrounding the hype for this game. However, there is also legitimate pauses for concern.

Release dates have been set for November 2014, so it won't be long for us to wait and find out just what Sonic Boom is attempting to sell us. From the looks of it, the games seem to put a strong emphasis on combat more so than on speed, but perhaps we can let that slide since this is a spin-off? There are features such as the Tetherbeam, an electric system that propels Sonic and company forward. The characters have been redesigned and not everybody has liked these changes.

Knuckles the Echidna's redesign has received the most buzz, for good, bad and indifferent. Knuckles is now buff like Arnold. Amy Rose's redesign has been minimal as she just changed dress styles. Miles "Tails" Prower's redesign has only featured him putting on aviator goggles, a belt buckle and a shoulder strap. Only a minimal change, but it works for Tails. Sonic's quills have shortened a bit, he wears a bandana and he has blue arms here. Wait! Did you say blue arms? The horror! Nah. Not really. That would remind you of the green eyes shenanigans, right?

The sports tape is visible on the redesigns of everybody and that has been a questionable design choice. Obviously a lot of thought was put into the designs of Boom's world and it does catch the eyes of gamers and viewers alike already. Dr. Eggman has changed in his redesign as well, looking more physically fit. Good for him since he needed to hit the gym anyway. Plus, we have a new character to look forward to seeing in Sonic Boom, and her name is Sticks the Jungle Badger, a comic relief character.

The real big question that will stand out for everybody here is; Will this gameplay be the kind that gamers can hang on to and appreciate? Will Sonic Boom's gameplay be sustainable for years to come? Will it be something that people can give positive pause to and nod in approval?

Regardless of how well Sonic Boom performs as a whole, there are a few questions that I can't help but keep deep down inside as a fan since 1997.

When will all the dividing and conquering of the Sonic fanbase ever be enough for Sonic Team?

When will the pandering to nostalgia for the main Sonic series ever come to an end? 

When will Sonic Team lift the ban of playable character status on Sonic's friends in the main series? Will we have to wait another 10-20 years for development in this area?

Is Sonic's image so incredibly important to Sega that they will go out of their way to generate the Hype Machine for the Sonic brand every single year? Is this a sustainable model of success that they can lean on? 

Does Sonic Team (and by extension Sega Sammy) truly have a long term vision for all Sonic material? 

Is Sonic Team operating out of fear for what all of the video game critics (IGN, Game Informer, GameSpot, etc.) are going to say about main Sonic games deviating from the norm? And about Sonic's friends ever becoming playable in the main series again? 

Do we really have the right leadership in place for Sega Sammy and Sonic Team?

Is the bottom line of all of this really just about one thing? The Money?

In recent years, watching his actions closely, I have often wondered about the tactics that Takashi Iizuka and his peers on Sonic Team have used and I have wondered what is truly motivating him to make all these sudden changes to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. It makes me wonder just why certain things are happening in different facets of the franchise and it leads me to believe that not all is truly well with Sonic Team in general, contrary to what they want the Sonic fanbase to believe. Can I prove such things? No. It is only a theory, but I do know one thing.

If you have to make sudden knee-jerk moves every year, if you have to constantly change the gameplay formula every 2-4 years for the main series with the excuse of "experimenting", if you have to resort to hiring writers who don't know what your game's world is about and have one writer file a copyright lawsuit against you, if you have to intentionally dodge humble fan questions at Summer conventions about their favorite characters, and if you have to operate out of fear of public ridicule, then what does that all say about you as the head of a team?




Sonic The Hedgehog's Future: Where will it be 20 years from now?


Seeing that it's way past cool time for me to wrap this article up, I have to say that as a fan of Miles "Tails" Prower in particular, I have been deeply offended and disgusted by the actions of Sonic Team, and I have no trust in Sonic Team whatsoever at this point. From micromanaging the comics to setting up ironclad mandates on the characters' personalities to giving poor excuses as to why Sonic's friends just can't be playable in the main series to just being flat out oblivious to what fans all across the board really want, it leads me to believe that changes are long overdue to be made at the very top, beginning with Takashi Iizuka and his teammates.

Carrying on this charade of doing what's best for the whole Sonic franchise, but really just for Sonic's image alone, for another 20 years would be detrimental for everyone involved. In fact, I believe it would be suicide for the Sonic brand to carry on and assume that everything will be okay with the Sonic fanbase being as fractured and hate-filled as it is now because aside from filling up the bank accounts of Sega's employees and pouring into Sega Sammy's stock, it just doesn't seem to make a lick of sense.

I will always be a fan of the concept of Sonic the Hedgehog and his world, but I have learned to keep myself at a distance simply because of how toxic the situations involving this franchise gets. If an identity is never truly chosen for the Sonic franchise, then it will forever be stuck in neutral -- and going through the motions.

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