Sonic the Hedgehog was just about the most iconic character in gaming during the '90s, but Sega's mascot has fallen on some hard times lately. Still, a good character is hard to keep down, and Sega has big plans for the blue hedgehog in 2014.
Tom's Guide attended a panel at New York Comic Con 2013 where some of Sega's veteran designers met and discussed the company's history and future plans. Sonic the Hedgehog featured prominently in the proceedings, and fans will be glad to know that the plucky insectivore is not disappearing anytime soon.
When Sonic debuted in 1991 on the Sega Genesis, Nintendo's Mario was essentially the face of console gaming. A fat mustachioed plumber with a big, dopey grin on his face, Mario was safe, family-friendly and perhaps just a little bit stodgy.
Sonic changed all of that. Sporting a sly grin and waving his finger in warning, Sonic was clearly not your daddy's console mascot. While Mario ambled through stages, stopping now and then to munch a mushroom or crush an enemy, Sonic had no time for such luxuries.
He blazed through multitiered levels, curling himself into a ball and launching himself into foes en route. Instead of fighting winged turtles, Sonic had to do battle with an army of evil robots and their Soviet analogue taskmaster (Sonic's nemesis, Dr. Ivo Robotnik, was very much a product of the Cold War). If you paused for too long, Sonic would glare at you through the TV screen and tap his foot impatiently.
The Sega panelists admitted that while Sonic has never been quite as successful in Sega's post-console days (its last home gaming console, the Dreamcast, was discontinued in 2011), there's no reason why Sonic can't succeed in the modern market.
"'He's blue and he's fast' transfers to any console," Ethan Einhorn, Sega of America's director of online operations, said.
Einhorn also explained that Sonic today is very different than the Sonic of the 1990s, even though his character progression has been relatively subtle.
Unlike Mario, Sonic usually has dialogue and a storyline that varies extensively from game to game. Sonic still has some edge, although he now has a more fleshed-out character to back up his recognizable affectations.
Designing levels for Sonic in "Sonic Adventure," his first outing on the Dreamcast, was particularly difficult, according to the panelists. Because Sonic's primary gimmick is speed, designing entire 3D worlds that Sonic can breeze through in mere minutes was more difficult than designing a 3D world for a more measured protagonist, like Mario or Link.
Sonic games in 3D have had their ups and downs (mostly downs), but the mascot is ready to give it another go with "Sonic Lost World," which Sega showed off at NYCC 2013. The game aims to offer players a choice of high-octane platforming or slower-paced exploration. Both approaches will yield valid paths through a level.
Sega also wants to continue Sonic's presence on mobile devices. "Sonic Dash" is an endless runner in the style of "Temple Run," which is available now for free on iOS and will come to Android by the end of the year.
A mobile-optimized version of the original "Sonic the Hedgehog" is also available for $2.99 on iOS and Android. In addition to presenting a faithful port of the title, "Sonic the Hedgehog" on mobile devices allows you to play as Tails or Knuckles, two Sonic sidekicks who would not come along until later games.
It's difficult to say whether Sonic will ever again attain the same kind of fame he enjoyed in the '90s, but Sega is doing its damnedest to ensure that the blue hedgehog never leaves gaming's collective consciousness.