Sonic the Hedgehog, and How We Rank Video Games

Are Sonic games “good”?

This seems to be the question on everyone’s mind whenever this long-lasting series is brought up in conversation. Defenders will make a case for it, listing off the ways that the games have meant a lot to them. Detractors will roll out a laundry list of critiques, arguing that the glaring flaws make the game an inappropriate entry to be ranked in the pantheon of great video games.

But what exactly does make something appropriate to be ranked like that?

What are we even talking about when we say something is a “great game”?

Why do some factors indicate greatness, and some factors hold little weight in our minds?

I HATE THAT HEDGEHOG

If you clicked this hoping that I would either valorize or dunk on Sonic, I have disappointing news: I don’t think there’s anything I can say that those defenders and detractors haven’t already passionately laid out a million times.

That said, I think about the Sonic games constantly. For years it has been a persistent “shower thought.” I can’t go for a jog without thinking about this dang hedgehog.

And with all this thinking, my opinion of the series has flip-flopped back and forth many times. I’ve tried to examine it from every angle, I’ve tried to go back and replay games that I’m nostalgic about, I’ve watched footage, I’ve perused the supplementary media.

I have a lot of personal enthusiasm and nostalgia for the series, but instead of running you through my history with the character, I’ll keep things short by just listing off the things that I now, in 2020, feel to be true about this series.

Consider these my four pillars of Sonic hot takes.

I. The game design is, most of the time, bad

Alright, just kidding, clicking this did mean you were gonna see me dunk on Sonic. But only for a second!

Folks, I don’t know what else to say. I’ve thought about it long and hard and I’ve played and watched the games enough to tell you that they’re not great. Some chunks of them are quite bad. As people more eloquent than me have observed, the game design and level design just don’t make much sense.

They tell you to go fast, but then levels are littered with enemies, dead-ends, spikes, and frustratingly tedious puzzles. There’s seemingly no way to navigate the levels in a smooth and satisfying way without memorizing them. The levels aren’t short enough to encourage focused Time Trial speedruns for a casual player. The health system is frustrating and not fun. The physics can get confusing and slippery. Levels are either too easy (hold the Forward button and watch cutscenes) or convoluted wastes of time. Enemies are either incredibly annoying obstacles or are meaningless cannon fodder that you blow to smithereens.

I don’t take joy in saying these things. I’m not trying to be obnoxious or elitist. But I can’t really go to bat for these games on a gameplay level with a straight face. Even my favorite Sonic games only have like 2 levels each whose quality and layout I could truly vouch for.

There are so many incredible games in the world, and it would be dishonest for me to pretend that Sonic is as elegantly designed or as fun as they are.

Especially when you compare Sonic to his supposed competition: Mario, Megaman, Street Fighter, Donkey Kong, Castlevania, and all other famous series that have enjoyed a line of sequels.

Which leads us to…

II. …but it shouldn’t be compared to other iconic series

After years of thinking about it, I don’t think it’s fair to actually compare Sonic’s gameplay to those games I just listed.

Because it’s somewhat of a no-brainer.

The idea of which games are “better”, Mario or Sonic, is a ridiculous debate under the usual lens.

Mario, as a game series, has a much, much more respected track record than Sonic. Among critics, among fans, and among developers. It feels cruel to take a Sonic game and line it up next to a Mario game to see which is better designed.

Pictured above, a gameplay comparison of those two franchises.

In my mind, I’ve stopped comparing the Sonic series to those type of series. It just doesn’t have the gameplay to stack up against them, especially if we’re talking about games that hold up in 2020.

But as I get older, none of that matters to me anymore.

III. …because the art and music is incredible

Say what you want about the Sonic games, and I’m sure most fans will tell you the same thing.

“You gotta admit though…they’ve got great art and music.”

And I feel like, in most cases, this is pretty undeniable. Especially comparing each game to the year it came out and technology it ran on. What the hedgehog lacks in game design, it makes up for in pure style. The environments, the soundtracks, the concepts, they always strike a chord even when they tilt into the ridiculous.

The music does more than just hold up. It’s no surprise that fans hold it in such high regard. It’s really unique, draws from a variety of genres and inspirations, and adds so much emotion and energy into the games.

And take a look at the art over the years and tell me that Sega’s track record with this property isn’t impressive when it comes to style and presentation.

Over the years I just keep asking myself: how does Sonic of all game series still have a powerful, resonant, lasting legacy? Yes, of course, I understand its massive importance (both culturally and financially) in the games industry in the 90’s. But after the death of the Dreamcast…what keeps players coming back to this? What brings new players in?

And what makes us keep talking about it as if it were Mario or Megaman?

The more I think back on it, the more obvious the answer becomes. The art, music, and presentation have a lasting legacy because they just rock that hard. And yes, most famous video game series also have great art and music, but their aesthetic and execution will never be identical to Sonic’s. It has its own, very odd identity.

I could gush more about specific bits of art, music, and such that won me over as a child, teenager, and adult, but I think anyone who has enjoyed these games can fill in the blanks with their favorite aspects of them.

It all just leads me to one conclusion.

IV. …and Sonic deserves its pedestal, because nobody has toppled it

For a series with so many flaws you can easily point out, Sonic has an unstoppable appeal. Something about it just cuts through the cynicism and evokes charm. Something makes it impossible to ignore and impossible to forget. Especially for young kids.

I think the pure, bursting style I mentioned carries a lot of the weight here. But I think there’s also something else.

Sonic fills a niche that no game has successfully conquered.

In other words, Sonic is the center of a very elaborate venn diagram.

Imagine circles labeled “family-friendly”, “colorful”, “exciting”, “anthropomorphic animal heroes”, “adventurous”, “cool”, “stylish and slick”, “cute”, “iconic, mascot-proportioned characters”, “narrative”, and “featuring rock, jazz and hip-hop.”

Can you even think of another video game that fits in the intersection of all these things so perfectly? And if you can, is it a game that’s famous and beloved?

When it comes to winning our hearts over, there is no direct competitor in Sonic’s niche. There’s Mario, Bomberman, and Megaman, but those heroes aren’t animals. There’s Crash Bandicoot, or Ratchet and Clank, but that aesthetic, tone, and vibe is completely different. There’s Pokemon, Digimon, and Yo-Kai Watch, but those animal characters are seen as collectable, not heroes with their own personality and focus and agency. There’s Fortnite, but it doesn’t have the iconic cute mascot proportions. There’s Kingdom Hearts, but there’s more of a narrative focus that outweighs the quick, platformer-action.

I think some recent popular games are coming closer to this kind of appeal. Cuphead, Hollow Knight, The Binding of Isaac, Ori and the Blind Forest, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Shovel Knight, and more. But each one also hits a few of those categories, not the bullseye.

You might be wondering: “Does it even matter that Sonic fits all of those criteria? They’re really specific.”

And the answer is yes, I do feel like it matters, because it’s the combination of these wild traits together that are what make Sonic unique. And Sonic being unique is what makes him strike a chord. If no other game is going to strike that chord for you, you’re going to come back or have fond memories.

The games, combined with the comics, TV shows, merchandise, movies, social media accounts, and fan community, create something that is unique to itself and hasn’t been replaced. None of the animal protagonist imitators in the 90s games space were able to take its crown, either.

In Sega’s defense, it wasn’t so easy. They had to take some pretty wild swings to get here.

Unlike Nintendo, Sega never seems to prioritize “timelessness.” Instead, often to their own detriment, their games and marketing have honed in on things that are cool and appealing at the time of release. Take a brief glance at the Dreamcast’s acclaimed line-up to see how they successfully captured the Y2K era for all its glory and perhaps cheesiness.

If Nintendo is like early Pixar, aiming to make all-time classics, then Sega is early Dreamworks. They want to be modern, they want to be now, and they’ll chase what they find appealing (or in Shrek’s case, what they find funny) in the moment because they feel confident it will resonate in the moment.

It’s not about being the greatest of all time, it’s about being yourself, even when people laugh at you or call you cheesy.

The developers at Sega have taken their swings, no matter how ridiculous. And even if they don’t knock it out of the park a majority of the time, hey, 40% isn’t so bad.

Without taking their swings and being themselves, would people think of Sonic so fondly? Would people associate this franchise with hip-hop, or with extreme sports, or with mythology? Would they associate it with memorable (and ridiculous) plots like hopping into the President of the United States’s limo and fighting against the cops and military? Would they associate it with a soundtrack of vocal songs where the main characters are seemingly singing in the first-person about themselves? Would they associate it with one of the most delightful and well-designed virtual pet games to ever see release?

I’m even going to go out on a limb and give the Sonic franchise a lot of credit for narrative. Compared to other colorful, kid-friendly mascot games, there are Sonic entries that have delved headfirst into story. There are a few games that have you playing the story from completely different perspectives, and seeing how those different character’s experiences, wants, and needs conflict with the other playable characters’ experiences, wants, and needs. You get to see what the adventure was like from THAT character’s perspective, often with a different gameplay style too. For what it’s worth, that’s a really appealing idea that a game like Mario doesn’t even touch. It’s just another wild swing that Sega took for no explicable reason.

There are a lot of great franchises out there. Games like New Super Mario Bros, Megaman 11, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Pac-Man Championship Edition are amazing. They are well designed and fun. But they’re games that clearly have a franchise reputation to uphold.

When you chase your own shifting interests from entry-to-entry, even when you land flat on your face, you don’t worry about upholding your old reputation. People are gonna drag you anyway, so you might as well just take your shot.

In conclusion

God, I’m so glad we rarely talk about “graphics vs. gameplay” anymore.

Remember the 2000’s? Remember the pointless console wars and forum threads and articles that constantly tried to assert that one type of game was, ultimately, better than another?

I was a dumb kid at the time, so of course I bought into the idea that I had to pick a side. So with the main choices at that time usually presented as “Nintendo, Playstation, or Xbox”, I felt strongly that I was a Nintendo kind of guy.

And part of being a Nintendo kind of guy has always been the assertion that “graphics don’t matter, only pure gameplay matters.”

Sony and Microsoft have always made it a point to focus on graphical power, and the series that succeed on those platforms have generally followed suit. Many of the players who tend to lean towards those platforms also tend to enjoy games that push graphic fidelity.

Nintendo…has never quite focused on the same approach.

And so it was up to people like me to claim that games are TRULY about the gameplay. It’s really more about the level design, and the fun factor, you know? It’s not about the graphics. Graphics are for losers who like Halo. Right???

I mean, let’s be real, when I saw Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I legitimately said to myself: “This is the peak of graphics, Nintendo games don’t ever have to improve their graphics past this bar for the rest of time, this is amazing!”

And that’s a really dumb claim to make when you look at the beautiful sequels that have followed in those franchises.

When the indie game scene started popping off, I feel like the same mentality was starting to subconsciously spread. Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Braid, VVVVVV, these games deserve accolades because they deliver on a “pure” game design focus. Which…in hindsight…isn’t even true for any of those games? They’re way more a sum of their parts than being pure gameplay masterpieces.

These mentalities have established the wisdom that gameplay is king in this medium, and everything else is less important. The chasing of aesthetics or character appeal or anything else is never as important as the elegance of the core gameplay.

But this…surely isn’t true, right? If it were true, we’d all be playing the Dwarf Fortresses of the world. And visual novels, walking simulators, story-focused JRPGs, etc. wouldn’t be beloved the world over.

Games are more than just the originality, challenge, and perfection of their interactive elements. They’re also made up of what makes a film, a song, a comic, a novel, or an album cover good. Or, say, a cast of character designs.

I said that Sonic’s strength was that it is the center of a very elaborate venn diagram, but what I really mean is that every game and piece of media is the center of its own very elaborate venn diagram. The question is: how much do those traits resonate with you, and has any other piece of media come along to do it better?

I hope that in this new decade of the gaming industry, we will continue to move beyond this idea that the most perfect, clever gameplay is what decides which games should be held on a pedestal.

I hope that we get past a point where games like Florence, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Untitled Goose Game get mentioned in conversations of “Game Of The Year” but get pushed to the side by most so they can get to talking about the “real contenders.”

And I hope that, dear god, we can stop comparing Sonic to Mario, and instead compare Sonic’s lowest lows against its own highest highs and articulate what works. And maybe those “highest highs” shouldn’t even be game design decisions, or controls, or physics, or fun factor.

Maybe the pedestal is just there because those highest highs are elements that resonated with you, and nothing has come to replace it. It can be that simple, if you want it to be.

I’m an artist, writer, and indie game developer who work has worked on various games. You can find me on Twitter, @kylelabriola

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