A Love Letter to Sonic the Hedgehog, on the Occasion of his 20th Birthday

Bad motha-shut yo' mouth!

In the early 1990s, boys of a certain age were suddenly faced with a difficult decision, one that could lead them to question everything they believed was true: Sega or Nintendo.

In the 1980s, you could play video games on something other than a Nintendo Entertainment System, but why would you ever want to?  The NES had Mario, and everyone wanted to play Mario.

But by 1990, a lot of us were having our faith shaken.  The Genesis was out, and while it looked cool and the games undeniably had better graphics [which was all we cared about back then] it didn’t have the killer app yet.  I mean, Altered Beast wasn’t exactly a system seller.  Plus, the Super Nintendo was on its way, with a shiny new Mario game packed in the box.  For many of us, that made the decision for us. But Sega was ready to fight dirty.

I should not feel such affection for a blue animated rodent.  He certainly hasn’t done anything to deserve my devotion in recent years.  And yet, I will always pledge fealty to the 16-bit days of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose first video game appearance came 20 years ago.

When his first game dropped,  Sega positioned Sonic with one idea in mind: be the Anti-Mario. Nintendo wanted to be the family friendly console found in every middle American living room.  Sega didn’t care.  They put themselves out there as the rock and roll system, the underdog with a bad attitude. They did, as the ad campaign put it, “what Nintendon’t.”

And call me a sheep, but it worked.  My generation is unique in that for the first 20 or so years of my life, video games grew with me.  The NES was perfect for me when I was in the seventh grade; Mario, Link and Mega Man were all I needed.  As I became a teenager, I started developing my teenager attitude, and the Genesis preyed on those developing tendencies, and it was the only thing on my Christmas list that year.

I’ll tell you how bad I wanted this thing when I was in grade eleven:  Friend of a friend had a system and had taped his sessions, like the actual video feed.  I borrowed that tape and would lie on the couch watching that footage, hypnotized.  The tape ran four hours, it had a full playthrough of Sonic, a playthrough of Shinobi III, and a lengthy session of the proto-Bejeweled Tetris rip-off Columns.

People.  I wanted this device so badly, I watched video footage of someone else playing Columns.  For an hour!

The nostalgia I and so many others feel for that first game would be for nothing if the game hadn’t actually been good, which people forget looking at the bumbling Sega’s done with the property in recent years.  But it was good.  Better than good.

The graphics were clean, the colours were bright and the music was awesome [Sonic 1 special stage still my favourite, Green Hill close second], but the thing that blew my mind as a kid was the levels were massive. The fact that you could replay them multiple times, choosing different paths, seeing which one yielded the best scores or fastest times…that was unheard of back then.  For all the deserved praise heaped on the level design of the Mario games, they always moved left to right in a clearly defined path.  Sonic didn’t do that.

Sonic also broke the fourth wall in a way I’d never seen done before, in a trick that’s been aped by countless rip-off mascots since.  If you’re playing a Mario game and move to a different chair or grab a drink without pausing, Mario will still be there where you left him, happily bouncing in place.  You tried that shit with Sonic, you’d come back to find him with his arms folded tapping his foot at you impatiently, snapping his fingers and making ‘let’s fucking go!‘ motion.  I remember laughing like a fool the first time I saw him do that.  The game was so focused on speed it didn’t even want to wait for the player.  Get your mind on the task at hand kid, we got shit to blow up.

Much has been written of all the dirt done to Sonic over the years, and one can’t really argue that Sega’s made some disastrous decisions with the character.  So every new announcement is received with a bit of an eyebrow arch.the announcement of Sonic Generations being no different.  The crown jewel of the anniversary celebrations, Generations finds the blue blur going back in time, meeting his younger self.  Favourite moments will be recreated, and the game plays two ways: modern day, behind the back camera 3D style, or classic 2D.

The demo for the game went live last month [and will only be available for 20 days] and already it feels like a winner.  The little rat moves like he’s supposed to, the controls are responsive, the screen whips by so fast at times you can’t see what’s happening.  Occasional fixed camera rotations only add to the sense of momentum as you tear up the grass in your wake.  It does everything Sonic 4 should have done.

There’s still ample time for Sega to muck it up, but at this early junction, Sonic Generations could be the game my inner 13-year-old still cries out for. You can still find the demo available for download on XBox Live and the Playstation Network, but you best hurry. It’ll be gone in a blink.

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