The History of Sonic on the Series' 25th Anniversary

Sega's classic character has seen its ups and its downs

Sonic 4 Episode 2
Screenshot of Sonic 4 Episode 2 for Android. Sega

The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise turned 25 in June 2016, and it is honestly kind of a wonder that Sega and the franchise have made it this far. Once the counterpart to Mario back in the day, Sega's failings with the Sega Saturn, including the inability to make a flagship Sonic game for the system, led to the eventual downfall of Sega as a hardware manufacturer, and to them becoming a third-party publisher for other systems. Since then, Sonic has cavorted with his once rival Mario in crossover games, with titles even exclusive to the platform! What was once blasphemous is now commonplace. Sonic now lives as a character willing to go on any platform that has him and his friends.

The Good Old Days

The Sonic franchise started off great, with the original Sonic the Hedgehog game featuring a fast character with an attitude that stood in opposition to Mario. But also, the game took a vastly different tack to Mario, featuring levels that had exploration to them, with secrets to find and multiple paths. Experts were rewarded for blazing through levels. And the Chaos Emerald collecting was a great way to encourage people to come back again and again for completion's sake. Sonic 2 added a partner for Sonic in Tails, with improved level design and game flow helping to make this series continue on in an amazing fashion. While spinoffs like Sonic Spinball didn't live up to the first 2 games, Sonic 3 and its second half, Sonic & Knuckles, which combined formed the true Sonic 3 game, Sonic 3 & Knuckles game, was a massive experience that remains tremendous, with some of the best levels and music of the entire franchise.

Sonic Struggles in Modern Times

But unfortunately, Sonic has seen better days. The last defining Sonic experience might have been Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, and even that was a portent of ill things to come. Part of the problem is, quite honestly, that the franchise might have just run out of gas after Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Sega failed to make a Sonic game for the Saturn beyond the Sonic Jam compilation, as  Sonic X-Treme became vaporware. Sonic Adventure is an undisputed classic, from its amazing opening level with the orca chase sequence, and an interesting use of levels that felt like they were part of massive worlds, much like what the original games were great at doing. 

Unfortunately, Sonic Adventure's bumps into the 3D transition wound up being issues that Sonic Team just couldn't get through. Camera issues, an overabundance of bottomless pits, and terrible stories led to games with ever-diminishing returns. The series might have cratered at Shadow the Hedgehog, which gave its villain protagonist a gun and an angst-ridden storyline. But then Sonic the Hedgehog '06 hit, and not only did the game have more of the issues that previous games had, but Sonic kissed a human princess, and there was clearly no bottom to be reached. The franchise had officially become a joke, though the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS games were solid-but-flawed titles. Then, Sonic Unleashed hit, and its 2.5D levels showed some promise for future games, though the "werehog" sequences showed that modern Sonic games were 1 step forward, 2 steps back.

Sonic Generations was a tick upward, as it fully embraced the fact that the series' strength was in celebrating its history, featuring new 2.5D and 3D levels built around classic levels. Sonic 4 was designed to be a new 2D series of the franchise, but unfortunately, despite some of the original talent from the Genesis games returning, the spark just wasn't there. Dimps, the developer, knew how to make Sonic games, keeping the franchise afloat with the 2D games, but their flaws were readily apparent: an over-reliance on speed and bottomless pits led to games that were increasingly problematic, despite having promise. Sonic 4 Episode 1 had a tumultuous development, getting a major overhaul before its release that actually didn't hit the mobile version, with 2 levels left in the mobile versions that were cut from the console versions. Sonic 4 Episode 2 was an improvement, as it introduced Tails and some new elements, but this was seemingly where this new set of games was set to end. 

Right now, the franchise is cranking out new games with the Sonic Boom games on Nintendo systems with maligned character designs to go along with poor gameplay quality, though. There are hints that new games are in the pipeline, and a Twitter account that shoots out some nasty burns, but whether the franchise will ever recover its former glory is yet to be seen. 

Recapturing Old Glory on Mobile

There have been several Sonic games released on mobile. Both episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 have released for the platform. The first episode is a bit rough since it lacks a few of the changes that came to the console versions later on, where the physics were altered based on criticism of an early version of the game. Also, two levels that were criticized in the early builds remained on mobile because they were considered a better fit, at least that's how the story goes. Episode 2 is a much better game, though developer Dimps' long-running design decisions in Sonic games come into play, particularly with the use of the homing attack, introduced in the 3D games, used here in 2D. Sonic Dash is a Temple Run-style runner that has some cool moments but is largely inessential. Sonic Jump is a weird game, based on an earlier featurephone release brought to later mobile platforms, that's centered around jumping and vertical progression in the name of high scores, seemingly to chase the Doodle Jump fad.

It's entertaining, but again inessential.

What are essential games to play are the mobile versions of Sonic 1, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD. The history of these ports is quite fascinating. They're spearheaded by Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley, also known as Taxman and Stealth in the Sonic fan community. They are part of a community of researchers and obsessed fanatics who have decompiled classic games collected leaked beta builds of games and uncovered all sorts of information on the franchise that just doesn't exist in the same capacity for the Mario series. They worked on an engine known as the Retro Engine, which was designed to create classic 2D games on a cross-platform development kit that could adapt them to modern platforms. Sonic CD, originally released for the Sega CD add-on to the Sega Genesis, was a proof of concept made in the engine.

Then, amazingly, Sega contracted Whitehead and Thomley to make a port of Sonic CD for mobile, console, and desktop. And it wound up being the definitive edition of the game, as it added in characters not seen until later versions of the franchise, had both the Japanese soundtrack and Spencer Nilsen's American soundtrack. Later, they brought the original Sonic the Hedgehog to Android, introducing new characters and the spin dash move into the classic original. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 didn't have much to add that hadn't been added already since Knuckles was added to Sonic 2 via the lock-on cartridge of Sonic and Knuckles. Tails got the ability to fly, which wasn't available to players in the Genesis version. What was added was a really cool easter egg: the Hidden Palace Zone, only seen in beta builds of the game, was finished with a secret entrance added in Mystic Cave Zone. Perhaps the true purpose of Hidden Palace in Sonic 2 was lost at some point, but it's still undeniably cool to play through this lost piece of Sonic history.

Unfortunately, the final of the Genesis trilogy, Sonic 3 with the Sonic and Knuckles continuation (the save data for the combined Sonic 3 and Knuckles exists on the Sonic 3 cartridge, and there are Sonic and Knuckles zones in the Sonic 3 level select, evidence for the hypothesis that Sonic 3 was rushed), is unlikely to ever release. Whitehead and Thomley have released a proof of concept, but beyond there not being much that could be added to the game, there are also potential legal issues. Significant portions of the game's music are composed by Michael Jackson in a uncredited capacity, around when his legal troubles began. Now that his music is in the hands of his record label, licensing issues around the music may exist. Sonic 3's PC port back in the late 1990's had music replaced, and while emulated versions of Sonic 3 and Knuckles exist, legal issues may preclude a Whitehead and Thomley port from coming to fruition. As well, there may just be less nostalgia for Sonic 3 than other games – it sold dramatically fewer copies than Sonic 1 and 2 did, though those had the benefit of being pack-in games with the Genesis, and released earlier in the console's lifespan.

Other classic Sonic games have less love for them. Nobody's really clamoring for a Sonic Spinball or Sonic 3D Blast enhanced port.

New Sonic games are in the pipeline, and whether mobile will play a role remains to be seen. The dream of many Sonic fans is for Whitehead and Thomley to get a crack at making a Sonic game for themselves. Talented studios like Galaxy Trail, who make the Sonic-esque Freedom Planet series would be high on the list. But we'll see what Sega has cooked for the blue blur. The series flew high once – with the right developer at the helm, Sonic could recapture some of his former glory.