This week’s Throwback Thursday is the original Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy. Widely considered an old-school favorite, the series had a lot going on: colorful visuals, tight gameplay, a jamming soundtrack, and an overall goal of coolness. If you couldn’t tell, Sonic is definitely one of my favorite series of all time (I use it for examples all the time). I hope to highlight a few aspects of it to tell you all why.
For the uninitiated, the story is pretty simple fare. Over the course of three games, Dr. Eggman (or Dr. Robotnik for the diehard fans of the U.S. version name change) attempts to procure the seven Chaos Emeralds to use their unlimited power to fuel the Death Egg, his flying fortress, and take over the world. To do this, he uses trapped small animals to power robot minions. Upon discovering this, Sonic sets out to free his woodland friends and stumbles on Eggman’s plot. To save the planet, he fights through many stages to defeat Eggman’s many army of machines and get the Emeralds back. The second game introduces Sonic’s sidekick Tails, and the plot goes essentially the same way. After being foiled by Sonic a second time, his Death Egg plummets from space and crashes onto Angel Island, home of the Master Emerald which is protected by Knuckles the Echidna. Tricking Knuckles into thinking Sonic is the bad guy, Eggman plans to steal the Master Emerald to relaunch the Death Egg. He nearly succeeds before being defeated for a third and (relatively) final time by a Chaos Emerald powered Sonic.
This might not be Pulitzer level stuff, but it builds enough to set the stage for many diverse stages and gameplay gimmicks. These games were speed-friendly platforming obstacle courses. There were hazards to stop the player, multiple routes to take, power-ups to find, pretty much a polished, yet standard affair. On top of this was a protagonist who was purely designed to be cool (at least in an early 90’s sense): a mohawk type hair style, attitude in his poses, and a pair of bright red shoes that highlighted a devil-may-care style. Peppered in with this was a host of references. Did the Death Egg sound familiar? Well, it’s pretty much the Death Star from Star Wars, albeit with Eggman’s face on the side. The pattern on Knuckles’ chest? It was designed to resemble the Nike swoosh. Lastly, the powered up Sonic who defeats Eggman in the end is a dead ringer for a Super Saiyan. Besides the more direct references, there is also the set of inspirations, with Sonic taking some cues from Bill Clinton, Santa Claus, and Michael Jackson, and the third soundtrack resembling Michael Jackson’s work (if not outright created by him).
Speaking of which, an overview of the series would be totally incomplete without discussing the music. From the bright beginnings of the franchise, to the not-so-glamorous modern area, the music has always been consistently regarded as high quality by the fanbase. If speed is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Sonic franchise, music is often the very next. Being the music fan that I am, this was amazingly appealing to me. I’d describe the tunes as largely a mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop with a “video-gamey” skin. Additionally, and probably most importantly, the music for each stage creates an atmosphere to match the visuals. Again, the aesthetic of cool is maintained.
The idea of coolness and straight up nostalgia play a huge part in the series’s popularity, but I believe there was something more cultural at play. Although mostly anecdotal, I’ve noticed a tendency for Black gamers to have a particularly large passion for Sonic the Hedgehog. I can only speak from personal experience and speculation, but I feel that the Sonic games gave some players a chance to see themselves that other games didn’t. Sonic (and pals) don’t have any specified race. And while one could make a strong case that he is white-coded, this felt much different than his fairer-skinned counterparts — Mario, Link, and Mega Man, for instance. In a similar vein, there is the running joke/argument that Knuckles is Black-coded, but again, this is mostly supported by later characterizations. The music from the series, as stated, did have a “culturally urban” feel to it, and I think this helped separate it from games more attuned with rock soundtracks, or fantasy soundtracks that felt disconnected from reality altogether. For many, video games are an escape, but it’s nice to feel that the escape can be welcoming to the player. In this way, at least on a racial and cultural level, players could be allowed to identify with the characters and game.
Unfortunately, despite that cultural “something”, it is hard to find any insight through the lens of feminist ideology in the initial trilogy. The most prominent female character, Amy Rose, only appeared in Sonic CD, which is typically regarded as a story separate from the trilogy. Even so, she wasn’t playable, and had hardly any role in the story other than being damseled. (The instruction manual mitigates this to a degree by highlighting her importance to the story, but it’s not a whole lot better.) Just the fact that there’s only one main female character in the first few games proves the imbalance of female characters and protagonists in games from that era. Luckily for the series, it added playable female characters who were on par with their male counterparts. Besides this, though, the Sonic franchise could be considered to have somewhat lax definitions of masculinity. Despite solving their problems through violence, Sonic and Tails aren’t muscleheads. But even then, they’re mostly fighting robots to free little animals. In fact, Tails’ major contribution is piloting a biplane (and he is by extension an inventor, but this comes up in later games.)
This series had a huge influence on how I relate to games and what I look for in them. Sure, the games were fun, but they were more than just fun for me. The characters and music resonated with me in a way that would open up the world of fandom to me. It was through these experiences that I realized how much games could matter to fans, even with fantasy settings. Although the series is going through rocky patches, I think this fan-relation is what keeps the franchise alive through both games and fan works. Hopefully the newer entries can find their way back to this spirit and flourish the way that I know they can.