In the first part of our look back on Sonic the Hedgehog’s 20 year history, we examined Sonic’s birth and glory days on the Genesis, and now, in part 2 of our 3 part retrospective, we take a look back at Sonic during the Saturn and Dreamcast years, when Sega’s fortunes turned and Sonic was transformed from the darling of the industry into the underdog hero of a company struggling to survive. Get comfy, cause this section is going to be a long one, as this period of Sonic’s history has more ups and downs than the Green Hill Zone.
Hibernation on the Saturn
While Sega’s reputation was undeniably hurt by the failure of both the Sega CD and the 32x, they still remained one of the most popular and critically respected videogame companies of the era. The Genesis was still popular, but as much as Sega wanted the 16-bit generation to go on indefinitely, it was becoming obvious that the next generation of consoles was coming sooner rather than later as 3D graphics began to capture the public’s attention. Sega, of course, was already well into development of a new console, the Saturn, but there was a problem– their new system was designed as a 2D powerhouse, capable of producing high resolution 2D graphics on par with the arcade machines at the time. While this dedication to creating arcade quality 2D games would eventually give the Saturn a hardcore cult following, mainstream audiences were clamoring for new 3D technology, and both the upcoming Nintendo system and the system from then-newcomer Sony promised to bring 3D graphics into eager gamers’ homes.
Sega panicked and retrofitted the Saturn’s hardware with additional parts that allowed it to create 3D graphics that, while not as advanced as good as the 3D graphics that the Playstation or the Nintendo 64 were capable of, at least put it within roughly the same league as its competitors. While this hardware change was necessary, it came at a cost: the Saturn would launch at a higher price than its competition ($399, compared to $299 for the PS1 and $199 for the Nintendo 64,) and the new system, with it’s awkward mix of specialized 2D hardware and the last minute addition of extra 3D graphics chips and processors, was infamously complicated and difficult to program for: Sonic creator Yuji Naka once famously commented that only “1 out of 100 programmers” could get optimal performance out of the system.
Further compounding the Saturn’s problems was Sega’s infamous “surprise” launch for the system: expected to launch in September of 1995, Sega instead chose to release the system immediately after announcing their yearly press conference at E3 in May ’95, a full six months ahead of schedule. Sega intended this surprise launch as a secret strategy that would allow them to get the jump on Sony’s upcoming Playstation, as well as generate hype for the new system; unfortunately for Sega and the Saturn, the move completely backfired: third party game developers were unprepared for the early launch date and the system was released with very few games. Meanwhile, game publishers and retailers, whom Sega neglected to inform about their plans, were incensed that Sega had excluded them, with some companies electing to cut off ties with Sega for the entirety of the generation. The move failed to generate the consumer interest that Sega had hoped for as well, scaring off most gamers with its high price tag and initial lack of games.
Sega was in a bad position following the tepid reaction to the Saturn, and the new console was desperate for a big hit, and many expected that Sega would use Sonic to revitalize their struggling new system; after all, he had turned the company’s fortunes around once before, and despite Sega’s problems, he remained a hugely popular character. But while Sonic would appear in Saturn games, there would never be a “real” Sonic game for the system.
Sonic Team, the development group within Sega in charge of handling all the main entries in the Sonic franchise, decided to take a break from the Hedgehog and branch out into two new original IP’s: the now legendary NiGHTS into Dreams and the futuristic fire-fighting based action game, Burning Rangers. While both games were reasonably well received critically and lauded for their innovative traits (with the absolutely brilliant NiGHTS going on to become a cult favorite,) neither title was the sales blockbuster that the Saturn sorely needed.
With Yuji Naka and team unwilling to create a new Sonic game for the Saturn, Sega instead farmed out production of the next two Sonic games to the UK-based development studio Traveller’s Tales (best known these days for the Lego Star Wars series of games,). Both games produced by the outside studio attempted to take Sonic into 3D, but neither was very good: the deceptively named Sonic 3D Blast was actually a 2D, isometric platformer, and the 3-quarters camera angle of the game made for troublesome platforming, as well as limiting the sense of speed that was so integral to the franchise. The game was released for both the Genesis and the Saturn, and did little to utilize to the newer system’s power. Sonic’s 2nd Saturn appearance, Sonic R, wasn’t much better; intended to be the Sonic equivelant of Mario Kart, Sonic R suffered from loose controls and a lack of content (with only 5 race courses, the entire game could be completed within an hour or two,) and the game is probably best remembered today for it’s unintentionally hilarious 90’s-eurobeat style soundtrack.
Sega had attempted to develop a Sonic game themselves, but without the involvement of series creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima; rather, this ultimately doomed project was headed up by members of the American based Sega Technical Institute. The very 90’s titled Sonic X-Treme was to be the flagship Sonic game that the Saturn badly needed, but the game languished in development hell due to a lack of overall direction and internal company politics. The game was to use a weird, fish-eye lens style camera angle and would have taken place in 3D circular, tube-like stages, and was to feature at least four playable characters, all of whom had wildly differing play styles (an idea that would resurface in the series later.) The team behind the game was ambitious to say the least, and that ambition is probably what lead to the game’s downfall: dissatisfied with the low quality of early demos and the slow pace of the game’s development, Sega unceremoniously cancelled the game and the Saturn generation came and went without a quality appearance by Sega’s prized mascot.
While the Saturn period was almost a comedy of errors for Sega in terms of marketing and management, one very good change did come out of it: while Sega had always split their development groups into distinct divisions (the various “AM” teams, of which “AM2”, creators of the Virtua Fighter series, is probably the most well known,) they still operated under the management of the Sega corporation itself. Hoping to foster an environment of creativity and friendly competition, in 1998 Sega split off it’s various development teams into independent, second-party companies; although still operated with some oversight from the heads of Sega, each development team essentially became it’s own autonomous company, free to create the games they wanted to make without having to worry about pleasing some clueless execs or marketing people back at the home office.
It was a decision that paid off, ultimately creating one of the best periods in gaming history: the era of the Dreamcast. Sega went all out to make sure their new, 128-bit system didn’t follow in the Saturn’s troubled footsteps, and their development teams likewise stepped up and created the best games they’d ever made. Allowed unbridled creativity, Sega’s now independent development teams entered their most prolific period of game development, crafting beautiful, original, and most importantly of all, fun to play games like Jet Grind Radio and Crazy Taxi, that gave the Dreamcast its legendary reputation that persists even to this day.
Sonic Team flourished during this period too; while they continued to experiment with different franchises, creating the addictive puzzle game Chu Chu Rocket, the maracas-based rhythm game Samba De Amigo, and also the fantastic, nigh-perfect online action-RPG Phantasy Star Online (a personal favorite of mine,) they also went back to the franchise that earned them their name: Sonic was back, and he would finally appear in the 3D adventure that fans had been waiting for since the Saturn launched.
The first Sonic Adventure will always be a special game for me. Like most people, I was skeptical about the Dreamcast when it was first announced; after the quick and unceremonious death of the Saturn, most gamers were understandably hesitant to support another Sega console… but my lack of faith quickly faded the first time I walked into a video store and played a Dreamcast demo kiosk with Sonic Adventure. The game’s at-the-time impressive graphics, with it’s relatively high polygon models and crystal-clear textures, looked leagues beyond the blurry and pixelated games of the previous generation, and even looked comparable to the pre-rendered tech-demos that Sony was using as propaganda to promote the then-upcoming PS2. By the time I finished running through the Emerald Coast for the first time, I was sold. I knew then and there that the Dreamcast, and Sonic Adventure, were going to be something special.
While Sonic Adventure has been subject to a lot of retroactive hate in the decade or so since its release, it received glowing reviews at the time of it’s release, and I still adamantly believe that at it’s core it’s a good game, even if it is a bit rough around the edges. Yes, the limited camera controls make playing some sections more difficult then they should be, and yes, playing through new character Big the Cat’s (who’s just as lame as his name suggests,) fishing minigame is tedious and boring, but Sonic Adventure still manages to recapture the qualities that made the original Sonic such a hit: the sense of speed was unparalleled at the time of the game’s release, and the gameplay manages to recapture the simple-yet-challenging charm of the original, along with its clever, memorable level designs.
But while Sonic Adventure could be considered a return to form for Sega’s iconic hedgehog, it was also the start of Sonic’s downfall; all of the bad design decisions of the original Sonic Adventure– from the focus on multiple characters and play styles, to the embarrassing story and cut scenes, and the atrocious vocal themesongs– would not only not be fixed in future installments, but would actually be expanded upon and become exponentially worse with each new installment.
Sonic Adventure 2 was the beginning of this trend, and while it isn’t necessarily a terrible game, it does somehow manage to be an even more uneven experience than it’s predecessor by amplifying all of it’s strengths and weakness: the 3D platforming stages with Sonic and newcomer emo-hedgehog Shadow (who is considerably less annoying in this game than he would be in later appearances,) are even better than the ones in the original Adventure… unfortunately, the other characters, whom nobody liked to play as in the original game, are even worse, and unlike the original, playing through their parts of the game are now mandatory. The soundtrack also became substantially worse, with even more of the terrible vocal themes from the original game now being played throughout the entire game instead of just during credits sequences. Did we really need to hear Knuckles do a gangsta-rap about diving for emeralds in a mine filled with ghosts? No Sega, no we didn’t.
Still, the Sonic and Shadow stages were good enough to compensate for the general terribleness of everything else, and while it isn’t overall as good as it’s predecessor, Sonic Adventure 2 is still leagues ahead of the games that Sonic would appear in in the coming years: while the two Adventure games certainly have their issues, they were the last decent, if not good, Sonic games that Sega would make for almost a decade.
Sonic Adventure 2 also marked the end of an era, as it was the last Sonic game to appear on a Sega system (as well as the first Sonic game to appear on a non-Sega console, but more on that later.) Faced with mounting debts incurred during the last generation, along with the sobering realization that, despite producing some of the best games they’d ever made for the Dreamcast, they just couldn’t compete financially with Sony’s unstoppable marketing hype, as well as the prospect of even more competition from Nintendo’s upcoming Gamecube and Microsoft’s Xbox, Sega decided to exit the hardware market and pull the plug on Dreamcast support, a scant two years after the system launched. The Dreamcast’s life was cut short, but in the two-to-three years it was around, it managed to accrue a sizeable library of amazing games, garnering a loyal, dedicated fanbase that still hold the system up as one of the high points in gaming history, even to this day. The Dreamcast may have only been around for a few years, but its selection of games rivals that of consoles who received full 5 year cycles.
With the Dreamcast gone, Sega would now be a third party, developing games for the new Xbox console as well as games for their former rivals at Nintendo and Sony. Initially, I was optimistic that this would ultimately be a good thing for Sega: I had long been a proponent of Sega’s games, evangelizing games like Sonic, Shenmue, and Phantasy Star to my Nintendo and Sony loyalist friends, and now, I thought that everybody, regardless of which console they owned or what pointless fanboy allegiances they held, would be able to experience the unparalleled quality, style, and fun that had defined Sega’s games for the last decade.
I was wrong.
In the final part of our Sonic 20th Anniversary Retrospective, we’ll take a look at Sonic’s more recent history, where Sonic becomes a bestseller on a Nintendo platform (!), before devolving into the star of gaming’s saddest examples of shovelware, appears in some of the worst games ever made, then redeems himself on the DS and Wii, and hopefully, returns to his former glory with the upcoming Sonic Generations. Check back soon for more.