Thoughts on... The Sonic the Hedgehog Fandom
Although a millennial (born 1991), I was introduced to Sonic the Hedgehog in the mid-nineties thanks so my two older sisters; the eldest had a Sega Megadrive and a range of cartridge games, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 being two of them. They never used to let me join in, but I often watched them take turns to play, battle each other in the two player levels, bemoan Tails' ability to make you die at every turn, and fiddle around with the console whenever the cartridge got dusty. Those days turned into a quiet obsession that was evinced by Sonic ice cream lollies, Sonic the Comic perusals in the corner shop, and a punctual observance of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Underground on TV. Because of these fond memories, those early games will remain forever precious, and to me, they are the pinnacle, the golden age of Sonicdom.
Years went by and other fandoms took my fancy, but shortly after the Neopets craze of the late nineties, I stumbled across the online Sonic fandom, and rekindled all my old loves. In my humble opinion, the Golden Era of the sonic fandom was from 2001 to about 2008. These years saw the launch (or mounting popularity) of some of the best Sonic fansites to grace the internet: The Green Hill Zone, Team Artail, Sonic Wrecks, The Sonic Stadium, Sonic HQ, Knuckles Haven, The Echidna Enclave... it was also a great time for webcomics, with the webcomic boom often incorporating Sonic-inspired characters (Exterminatus Now comes to mind, and VG Cats often parodied Sonic, too), not to mention the copious fan fiction that threatened to crash fanfiction.net, which led me to the amazing Ellie-Za's longform Knuckles the Echidna fanfic on her personal site. The Archie comics were really popular then, and much discussion took place on the popular Mobius Forums about the plots, new games, and incoming cartoons on Jetix and Toonami.
This was the era when the fandom was the most coherent and homogeneous, for better or for worse. It was heavily influenced by Generation X, which had spent its formative years playing the early Genesis/Megadrive games, and who also happened to be the main pioneers and founders behind many of the sites and online hubs which the fandom frequented. Back then, everybody thought that Sonic 1, 2 and 3(& Knuckles) were the best Sonic games; everybody thought that Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was the last great Sonic game, everybody thought that Shadow should have remained dead and legendary at the end of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, and all anyone wanted was for Sega to return the games back to short levels, simple storylines centred on running fast, a major culling of the cast to reduce it to the main trio, or perhaps stick to Sonic only, and to return them to the simple game play of the nineties. And the fandom was largely ignored.
It was instead treated to a slew of okay-to-god-awful games: Sonic Heroes was okay, albeit disappointing at the time, Shadow the Hedgehog was a farce and Sonic '06 was the nadir of the franchise. Things became so dire that Sega finally listened to the fans, and from Sonic Unleashed till now, they have been going through a self-flagellating apology in the form of desperate nostalgia ever since. Since Unleashed, every game has to have a Green Hill Zone, every level is short, and all of the characters, save Sonic and Tails, have disappeared. And it's now got to the point where the younger generation, the one that most likely played Heroes or Unleashed as their first Sonic game, have become tired and annoyed. The reason why the fandom is often labelled as ungrateful and picky is because it is comprised of two very distinct generations with two different expectations, that have spanned almost three decades worth of gaming, culture and trends. The Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fan is a totally different creature from the Sonic Colours fan, and Sega has tried to be the bridge between old and new, and often falling short.
The games struggle to satiate the fandom because in one sense, Sega is committed to please the fans of the nineties, whilst keeping hold of all the worst aspects of the modern games. So even with a game like Forces—whose name implies multiple characters with complex and interesting storylines—Sonic is the only playable character. After a while, the Knuckles and Shadow fans will get annoyed that their faves are being sidelined. And despite the elimination of favoured characters, they've introduced randoms that we don't need, like Sonic's sidekick Chip in Unleashed, and Eggman's two robot cronies whose names I don't care to know.
Levels have been reduced to two or three minutes and are painfully linear. Of course, the ambling repetitiveness of Shadow the Hedgehog was rightly panned, but the Hero/Dark levels in Adventure 2: Battle were refreshing and well-executed. It's a shame we are yet to return to that kind of storytelling. Likewise with the villains; a random chain gang of forgettable and aimless bad guys who constantly become enemies with Eggman weakened the games, from Mephiles to the aliens of Lost World and whatever Lyric was supposed to be. They are no Shadow, and pale in comparison to Knuckles' villain-turned-ally story. And for whatever reason, Eggman is constantly accompanied by the two robots, and their interactions aren't as charming as Sega likes to think. It would be much better to return to villains similar to Shadow, which I assume was their intention behind Forces' Infinite, but due to their commitment to trim the storylines so drastically, Infinite had no real purpose, and he appeared and dissipated from the game with a whimper. Another issue: the levels have been reduced and simplified but the pointless gimmicks have remained, like the wisps, the red coins and that werehog.
I realised the fandom was in trouble when I saw the unanimous negativity directed towards the Forces' gameplay videos, and at the snippet of Green Hill Zone in particular. When Unleashed came out, and the similar Green Hill Zone-inspired levels (with the newly reintroduced 2D platforming) were revealed, there was overwhelming excitement towards the obvious homage to Sonic's roots. The contrast between the two responses was as interesting as it was dire; I never thought I would see the day when Green Hill Zone was met with disdain. Additionally, I too was disappointed to see classic Sonic reappear, and after experiencing Forces, I'm not too sure what his purpose was, and why they decided to include him other than to pay deference to that nineties crew again, and rekindle the hype of Sonic Generations.
I could say more; the terrible Big Red Button Collab and the lacklustre Boom series, which has started to dominate the narrative to such an extent that some fans were wondering why the Knuckles in Forces was "so serious"--to be honest, being a major Knuckles fan, it's angered me that he's been made into a muscle-headed beefcake through the Boom spin offs, and I'm still lost as to why Sega allowed such disrespect. Alongside Knuckles' mischaracterisation is Amy's constant unimpressed demeanour, and Tails' sarcasm and aloofness which gets tiring after a while. I like that the games have decided not to take themselves too seriously (they are just anthropomorphic forest animals, after all, and stories of military conspiracies, Armageddon plotlines and tortured princesses did become a little contrived), but the Sonic/Tails dynamic is less big brother, little brother, and more dumb childish dude and his unbothered sidekick. A return to form in that area would be much welcomed.
But then, like an answer from heaven, Sonic Mania happened, and it was one of the greatest moments in modern-Sonic history. This was the game that finally united the fandom. At first I was cynical; was a Sonic the Hedgehog 1 remake all the fandom really wanted, after all this time? But after seeing the Let's Plays on Youtube I finally understood: the vintage games had been updated with better graphics, longer and more complicated levels, a fun story line and exciting gameplay. It took all the best elements from the first three games and interspersed the modern complexities of the later games, and it worked; we even had varied playable characters. This was only made possible because the Mania developers were from the fandom, and understood the tug-o-war it was going through, and the reviews testify the intelligence of Sega's decision to collab with Whitehead and Co. Hopefully they learn from the mistakes of Forces, which once again revealed some of the issues explored above, and continue to find ways to bridge the fandom's generation gap.
If I had my way, I would create a game that had two or three storylines similar to Adventure 2: Battle, with differing levels, as opposed to the monotony of Heroes which had four teams going over the exact same levels in the exact same order. Adventure 2: Battle worked because the Hero and Dark stories often diverted, were in different orders, and were unidentical (Take Mission Street and Radical Highway; Green Forest and White Jungle; Pumpkin Hill and Sky Rail), so it would be nice to have a plot that follows that model. I would also bring back some of the main cast, the ones who have interesting gameplay specifically, so Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, Rogue and Amy would be present. I would make the levels slightly longer, take away the wisps and red coins, and have Eggman be alone again, unless to collab with another villain who actually has their own story, instead of just ambling around for boss fights and then randomly disappearing, like we've been having of late. The only thing I would never change is Crush 40's involvement. Long may they reign.
Here's hoping for a new Sonic era that is not afraid to experiment, whilst still holding onto the elements that make Sonic such a beloved series with such a dedicated and disparate fanbase. They are lucky to have us, and whilst we're far from the homogeneity of that earlier, golden era, I do think we've come to a point where new ideas are welcomed, and people are no longer shunned for not liking the Adventure games, or favouring the modern games over the classic. I think now, we can start to expect games that appeal to both generations and that evolve and develop, not remain stagnant. So, here's to the Sonic fandom; I hope Sega never forgets us.