Brainscraps.net

Celebrating ten years of video games and other things.

Brain Scrap House #1 – They Call Him Sonic

BSH - They Call Him Sonic

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural edition of Brain Scrap House, a new column here on Fantasy World XD devoted to gaming miscellany. For those of you who don’t know me (and if so, I don’t blame you, since I’m mainly a lurker ‘round these parts), I go by Reeve Kasahara. When CloudANDTidus sent out a request for a possible columnist, I offered to do the job. I love games, and tend to write about them quite a bit on my regular blog; consider this column a more focused, leaner, meaner version of those blog entries.

As for the name of this column, it comes from a piece of electronic music titled “Sonic’s Brain Scrap House”, found on the Sonic the Hedgehog CD released in Europe in 1996. The company responsible for the CD was Arcade Music, and thusly, this album is informally known as “Sonic Arcade”. However, it has nothing to do with the actual Sonic arcade game, an obscure trackball-controlled escape-a-thon called SegaSonic the Hedgehog, aka, yep, Sonic Arcade. Anyway, the Sonic Arcade album consists of about a dozen Sonic-themed techno tracks, and although some of them are named in part after stages in Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, these are not remixes, but wholly different works, an audio homage to Sonic made to stand on its own. In a way, this album is a prime example of the large and fractured world of Sonic.

I found myself hooked on this world from the beginning. When Sonic the Hedgehog came out for the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive in the early nineties, the character’s design, that of the world (especially the brown checkerboard paradise of Green Hill Zone), the speed at which he moved, and (admittedly) his attitude, appealed to me back in the day. I never owned a SNES or Genesis, but fortunately, I had cousins with both, and while I liked Super Mario World, Sonic was something special. Back then, Sonic was a cool character, one who not only inspired imitators such as Bubsy and Aero the Acro-Bat, but helped Sega launch a full-on console war against the seemingly unstoppable Nintendo.

Later, Sonic 2 introduced the world to Miles “Tails” Prower, and still more games followed: Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and many others, but that wasn’t all. Two Sonic cartoon shows debuted on TV – a cartoony comedy on weekdays and a dark Saturday-morning epic which introduced the likes of Sally Acorn and Bunnie Rabbot into the Sonic pantheon, characters who would never grace the video games. There was also the comic book series. I’ve never read it, but from what I’ve seen, it built up a canon of its own, using the Saturday-morning cartoon as the initial template. Even though these cartoons and comics occupied their own spaces within the Sonic-verse, by the time I started Sonic Adventure, the first Sonic game I played since the Genesis and Game Gear era, I found myself face to face with several unfamiliar characters. I knew of Tails and Knuckes, but not of Amy Rose and the Flickies. I had also once been familiar with an arch-nemesis called Dr. Robotnik, who now went by his original Japanese moniker of Dr. Eggman here in the States, much like Princess Toadstool became Princess Peach, as I would later discover.

Since the 16-bit era, mascot games have largely vanished and Sonic’s biggest rival remains popular through the Super Mario platformers and assorted spinoffs, but what of the blue hedgehog himself? Ever since Sega left the hardware business for good in the early ‘00s, Sonic has appeared on just about every platform there is, in both compilations and wholly new games. Most famously, he has even appeared alongside Mario in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Sonic is still Sega’s mascot, but his current platform agnostic status ensures that that title no longer carries the importance that it once did.

Of course, much has been written about the newer Sonic games – those released within the past ten years – and how much poorer they are in comparison to the Sonics of the 16-bit era. It doesn’t help that during the Dreamcast years, when Sonic Team was at their creative peak, their most loved games were often titles other than Sonic ones: games like Chu Chu Rocket, Samba de Amigo, and Phantasy Star Online. The first Sonic Adventure was problematic in spots (particularly when it came to the camera), but generally solid; however, many old school Sonic fans didn’t like it, and since then, Sonic Team hasn’t made a Sonic that’s as good or better. It’s rather telling when the majority of the most critically acclaimed Sonic platformers of the past decade are not full 3D ones made by Sega’s own, but 2D and 2 1/2 D ones made by the independent developer Dimps (Sonic Advance, Sonic Rush, etc.).

Still, even though the current crop of Sonic Team-developed Sonics have a poor track record amongst both reviewers and devoted gamers, they remain big sellers, often clearing one million units or more sold per title. It’s safe to assume that outside of the hardcore Sonic fans, a lot of people playing these new games are kids. In the meantime, Archie is still publishing the Sonic comic and has compiled many of the older issues into book form, several of the various Sonic cartoons and anime made over the years can now be picked up on DVD, and Sonic merchandise in general, while not as ubiquitous as it once was, is still not very hard to find. What do these younger gamers think of the series, which enthralled me during my own childhood? Did they become interested in the games through the comics and animation, or vice-versa? It’s safe to say that Sonic is no longer “cool” to the original set of gamers who grew up with him – for the most part, we have outgrown him, and, unlike Mario’s world, Sonic’s has changed so much that sometimes we can barely recognize it in its current form – but is he considered cool to this new generation?

It’s worth noting that even some of the old Sonics aren’t as wonderful as they cracked up to be. In my case, I’ve always found Sonic’s leaden movement in Sonic Spinball to be a poor imitation of real pinball physics, even when compared to the pinball sections in Sonic 2’s Casino Night levels. Yet while Sonic games have always had their share of shortcomings, the problems plaguing the series as a whole are far more serious these days. Still, I love the old hedgehog, and enjoy those exceedingly rare gems in the series that come about every blue moon or so, even if I find myself stuck at the final Robotnik – sorry, Eggman – boss battle every time, without fail. Sonic is the best-known relic of a bygone era in video gaming, a time which many people my age have fond memories of, back when some of us believed that Sega really did what Nintendidn’t.