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Where Sonic Went Wrong

by Brian Shea on Nov 14, 2016 at 05:39 AM

In the late 1980s, Mario ruled the platforming genre. With the flourishing NES dominating the console market, it seemed as though no legitimate challenger could emerge to take on Nintendo's juggernaut. That all changed when Sonic the Hedgehog launched on the Sega Genesis. Sonic quickly rose to threaten Nintendo's mustachioed plumber as the face of the video game industry. Sonic was so popular that Sega's mascot – not Mario – became the first video game character to receive a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. At one point, Sonic was on a trajectory to be more recognizable than Mickey Mouse, according to former director of marketing at Sega Al Nilsen, who cites the mascot's Q-Rating at its peak.

The popularity of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand aided Sega in rising up to face Nintendo. "Sonic really helped demonstrate what the power of 16-bit was versus an 8-bit system," Nilsen says. "It was kind of a game changer. It was the first product that became a 'must-have' product and the product that drove Genesis hardware sales. It really got us noticed and helped us to go and build a strong base as Super NES was coming out."

Since the blue hedgehog's initial release 25 years ago, Sega's mascot has fallen from grace. Inconsistent quality and brand mismanagement have caused Sonic to go from a video game character that was as recognizable (if not more) as Mario to a character that is known more for his appearances in other media.

We spoke with several prominent people from Sonic's past to determine exactly what happened. Over the course of the discussions, several factors and potential tripping points arose. It's impossible to pinpoint one fall guy or a circumstance that stood apart as a cataclysmic event for the franchise; it was instead a confluence of events that led to Sonic's departure from the video game elite. Here's how Sonic took a wrong turn and how Sega hopes to get its Blue Blur back on course.

Bungled Transition to 3D

Factor 1: A Bungled Transition To 3D

Sonic had runaway success in the 2D realm, but with new consoles on the horizon the industry was heading toward a 3D future. The Genesis titles kept pace with Mario's biggest entries, but the true test of endurance would come in the mid '90s with the leap to 3D. Sega hoped to have a revolutionary Sonic title for the Sega Saturn when it launched in May 1995, but the game was stuck in development limbo.

Sonic X-treme was under development by Sega Technical Institute, a studio that worked on games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Unfortunately, much of the STI team that worked on Sonic's greatest hits had either departed Sega or was working on Sonic creator Yuji Naka's new IP, Nights Into Dreams.

While much of Sonic's core team was away from the franchise, word reached Naka that Sega had licensed his engine for the development of Sonic X-treme. He was unhappy with the decision and fought to disallow STI from using his engine.

Though this created a hurdle for the team, Christian Senn, co-lead designer on Sonic X-treme, saw far more problems with development than Naka's objection to them using his engine. "The target platform was changed many times, which involved a lot of redesign, technology changes, redeployment of code, and a number of other significant changes to and effects on the project, the team, and morale," he says. "Engineering leadership/staff changed a number of times, which involved code changes, or even starting from scratch each time."

Senn says this rotating-door style of leadership caused the pressure to mount, as the lead of the project departed a year into development and the lead engineer and co-lead designer was demoted two years in.

Sega canceled the game, and the Saturn failed thanks in part to a lack of software in the face of more robust PlayStation and Nintendo 64 libraries. Firmly entrenched in third place, Sega and Sonic fell into the backs of gamers' minds. The future of the series was in doubt as rival platformers like Mario and Crash Bandicoot thrived in the new 3D space.

Sega had turned to a less experienced studio during a pivotal moment in the series' history, and the gamble did not pay off. The failure of Sonic X-treme meant that the series missed its chance to become a leader in 3D gaming as it had in 2D platforming. This proved to be a major setback, and Sonic was left playing catch-up.

In 1999, the Sega Dreamcast launched alongside Sonic Adventure. This represented the first time the series was presented in full 3D, which brought even more challenges thanks to Sonic's speed. Series producer and current head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka says that while they could recycle many of the assets in a sprite-based title like the Sonic games on Genesis, 3D environments don't allow for that. "Sonic's a really fast character, so we spent all this time making this huge, long, elaborate map, and then we'd run through it in like 10 or 15 seconds," he says.

The way Sonic Team worked around this was to have six distinct characters featured, each with his or her own storyline. The game was a success, garnering high praise from critics and fans, and becoming the highest-selling Dreamcast game of all time. However, the success was short-lived thanks to Sega's troubles establishing the Dreamcast. This raised new issues for the franchise.

Harsh Business Realities

Factor 2: Harsh Business Realities

With the PlayStation 2 on the horizon and the Dreamcast failing to meet Sega's goals, Sega knew its system was in trouble. While Sonic Team began development of Sonic Adventure 2, the project scope was dramatically altered due to staff downsizing. "Our team of 120 got pared down to 11, sent to America, and told to go make Sonic Adventure 2," Iizuka says. "Part of what we had to resolve was 'How are we going to make the same game with 11 people when we have less than a tenth of the staff on-board?' I was really tasked with trying to make the impossible possible."

A move like that after the release of a well-received game is one of a company in tumult. Handcuffing a flagship franchise in that manner hinted at bigger changes. Despite this, Sonic Team overcame the hurdles to deliver a critically acclaimed release with Sonic Adventure 2. The developers coped with the change in team size by telling two stories rather than six, shifting to feature two teams of characters rather than one story for each featured character.

However, internal strife at Sega combined with a lack of third-party support from publishers like EA and Squaresoft, as well as the impending launch of Sony's console to kill Sega's system just before the release of Sonic Adventure 2. In 2001, Sega announced it would abandon hardware manufacturing in favor of third-party publishing. The restructuring led to about a third of its Tokyo-based workforce being laid off, leading to a massive transitional period for the company.

As a first-party developer, the team behind the Sonic franchise enjoyed the benefits of working closely with the hardware team to get the most out of the system. This collaboration led to such innovations as the lock-on technology with Sonic & Knuckles on Genesis, and the Visual Memory Unit for the Dreamcast. With the Dreamcast's discontinuation and Sega's decision to restructure as a multiplatform third-party developer, the luxury Sonic Team had enjoyed since its inception disappeared.

"That was the hugest hit to not only my team, but a lot of the software development teams, where we no longer have the ability to control what we need to make our games," Iizuka says.

Struggling Creative Vision

Factor 3: Struggling Creative Vision

Following its transition to third-party, Sega and Sonic Team began experimenting with different gameplay mechanics amidst a developer carousel, as leadership changes continued and the franchise struggled to find solid footing. Time and again, we saw Sega deviate from the Sonic formula to inconsistent results.

From Shadow the Hedgehog, where players control a gun-wielding Shadow as he blasts away aliens and rides a motorcycle, to the motion-controlled Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sega's stable of developers struggled to nail down a consistent formula for the series.

With Sonic Unleashed, the speedy heart of the franchise was alive and well with the blisteringly fast (and well-received) day stages, but as the sun set and night descended, the blue hedgehog became a brute werehog and the game became a slow-moving beat-em-up for half of the stages.

As developers continued to try different formulas with the series, fans' tolerance of the gimmicks began to wear thin. "I'm not sure if always trying something new is a good thing or a bad thing," Iizuka says. "Maybe it's kind of both sometimes."

The series began attracting more ire from its fan base, including a meme known as the Sonic Cycle (see above). As Sega plotted the next path for Sonic in 2014, it revealed dramatic character redesigns for Sonic Boom. Fans adamantly rallied against the redesigns of the characters, mocking Sonic's new scarves and Knuckles' overuse of athletic tape.

When asked his thoughts about the character redesigns for Sonic Boom, Iizuka, who was not involved with Sonic Boom's development, laughs and puts his face in his hands. "There were a lot of heated discussions and passionate debate between 'This is what we want to do' and 'This isn't right' and trying to make sure that Sega of America had this idea of what they wanted to do," he says.

"It wasn't good for the fans because when it did come out, a lot of people were upset with the Sonic experience that they got from Sonic Boom," Iizuka says. "Not being able to have that voice and say those things from where I was in relation to where development and where the idea was going was what my biggest regret was from what I heard from the fans and what I felt after seeing the game."

Quantity Over Quality

Factor 4: Quantity Over Quality

From Mario Kart to Super Smash Bros., Nintendo's mascot has made his presence known across myriad genres beyond his platforming pedigree. Similarly, Sega has pushed Sonic into other genres like kart racing, sports, and even fighting.

Unfortunately for Sega, many of Sonic's spin-offs have been poorly met, potentially diminishing the impact of the brand. Series like Sonic Dash on mobile devices, Sonic Spinball on Genesis, and Sega & Sonic All-Stars Racing have given fans strong games, but the ratio of well-received spin-offs to poorly received ones is not in Sega's favor.

In addition to spin-offs, Sega stubbornly clung to stringent deadlines despite quality concerns with several Sonic titles. Aggressive deadlines caused Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to ultimately split into two games (Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles). Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 became notorious for its lack of polish due to Sega's aggressive push for it to release in the holiday season (see below).

Iizuka recalls the development cycle of Sonic Heroes, the first multiplatform mainline Sonic console game, as the most stressful of his career, in part thanks to deadlines. He was based in the United States while the rest of the development team was in Japan, and mismanagement took its toll on the team. "The level design for Sonic Heroes was made by two people: me and one other person," he says. "As we got to the later stages of development, this other person got pretty sick and didn't show up to work, so level design was made by one person! So for those very last stages of the game, I didn't sleep at all and I was constantly working. I lost about [22 pounds] because I was just cranking away and it was just work, work, work. I didn't sleep because I had to finish the game on my own. Almost dying!"

Restoring the Faith

Restoring the Faith

After a run of poorly reviewed Sonic games that achieved equally poor sales, Sega finally reexamined its approach. As part of a 2015 restructuring, Sega took a long look at the franchise and discussed how it could improve its standing with fans.

With the restructuring, Sega and Sonic Team moved away from deadline-driven development and began emphasizing the quality of the titles. The first Sonic game to see this in action was Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice for 3DS, which was delayed a full year in order to make it a better game – something that rarely happened with past titles. The decision paid off as Fire & Ice is markedly better than either of the two previous Sonic Boom games.

Sega relocated Iizuka and much of Sonic Team to Burbank, Calif., and brought in a new team to manage the Sonic brand. "We were very clear that if we were coming in, we were going to change things because continuing down that path was not an option for any of us," says Ivo Gerscovich, newly appointed chief brand officer of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.

Earlier this year, Sega unveiled Sonic Mania, an effort from indie developers PagodaWest, Headcannon, and Christian Whitehead. The title returns to the series' roots, striving to look and play like the classic 2D games from the early '90s. In our time with Sonic Mania, it feels just like the classic titles that made the series so iconic in the first place – a huge step in the right direction.

In addition, Sega announced Sonic Team's next game – codenamed Project 2017 – with very few details, but the inclusion of both Modern and Classic Sonic led fans to speculate that it has something to do with Sonic Generations, one of the better-received Sonic titles of the past 15 years.

Sega and Sonic Team appear to be listening to fans, and may finally have the corporate backing to strive for quality instead of pushing an unpolished game out the door. Now all we can do is wait while Sega tries to salvage the fate of its once-great mascot.

"I think there is some natural up and down for any character," former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske says. "We've certainly seen it with the Marvel characters over the years. We've seen it with Barbie. We've seen it with Star Wars. We've seen it with G.I. Joe and Hot Wheels. All of these brands have had their cycles. I think Sonic has had a downward cycle for a while, and it's time to have an upward cycle again for a while."


This feature originally appeared in issue 284 of Game Informer. For more on the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, check out other recent stories: