The Sega Mascot History Tour

by Arthur B

A cross-section of games on the Mega Drive Flashback HD offers an interesting tour through Sega's history.
People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off - but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself - ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish - giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many - but not all - Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility - one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch - in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection - why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history - and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

The Forgotten Mascot: Opa-Opa

Fantasy Zone and Fantasy Zone: The Maze

Some people claim that the first Sega mascot character was Opa-Opa. I’d argue that there is a difference between a character being a mascot for an entire company and merely having a line of videogames dedicated to them, but for completism’s sake I’ll cover Opa-Opa here: Opa-Opa is a tiny living spaceship who grows little feet when they use to stroll about on the ground when they land, residing in a bizarre pastel-shaded realm of whimsy called the Fantasy Zone. The original Fantasy Zone is basically Defender with really nice, incredibly cute graphics, monster-spawning bases instead of little people to rescue, and extremely difficult boss fights to the point where I kind of can’t be arsed with them. Fantasy Zone: The Maze is basically Pac-Man except the maze has mini-shops in which you can buy items from like guns and lasers and whatnot.

Both of these are fun, but as arcade-type games they’re more suited to dipping into on a whim rather than any sort of sustained play. Ultimately, Opa-Opa is a bit alienating as a mascot because they’re, well, a tiny spaceship. The games do an excellent job of wringing as much character as they can out of said spaceship, mind, but ultimately the concept is a bit too weird for mainstream global acceptance.

Mr. Master System Himself: Alex Kidd

Alex Kidd In Miracle World

Alex Kidd was Sega’s first conscious attempt to produce a corporate mascot, rather than an accidental one, and he ruled the roost for the duration of the Master System era before being unceremoniously ditched when the Mega Drive came in and the powers that be decided that something fresh was needed. Debuting in 1986, Alex’s first game has a mix of monster-bashing, block smashing, powerup-collecting and endearing pastel colours.

Alex is a little fellow in a red jumpsuit-type costume who likes jumping around and collecting powerups. You'd be forgiven, then, for interpreting this game as Sega trying to hop on the Super Mario Bros. bandwagon, but whilst Alex Kidd In Miracle World was absolutely developed as a response to that monster hit, it also manages to offer a bunch of fun, original gameplay ideas of its own.

The concept of the game has Kidd as a young martial artist who has to save the land from the evil Janken and his rock-paper-scissors themed henchmen. This involves Alex navigating various levels, using his mighty punch to beat enemies, smash blocks, and find treasure, and occasionally using special powerups or vehicles that enable alternate approaches to levels.

So far, so rudimentary platformer. However, it's actually on a technical level a much more varied and ambitious prospect than the original Super Mario. For one thing, there's shops where you can buy powerups, a greater variety of powerups, and the aforementioned vehicles. For another, the levels are very varied right down to their basic design. The original Mario levels all required you to just progress from the left side of the screen to the right. Alex Kidd offers levels which scroll like that, or which go up and down, or which present a maze of rooms you have to find your way through, or which offer completely alternate routes (like there's a level where you can either use your pedicopter to fly across the level or drop onto the water to navigate an entire underwater level instead). Whilst subsequent Mario releases would catch up in this respect, the Alex Kidd line got there first.

There’s also much more in terms of plot and supporting characters, the former largely conveyed by the latter informing you of who you are and what's actually going on at the end of levels. The game also has a really rich aesthetic of its own - nice bright colours and character designs stuffed with personality and, perhaps, a little Akira Toriyama influence (Alex’s character design feels like a riff on Goku’s then-current appearance in Dragon Ball; recall that when this game was developed Goku was still a child in the story and the whole saiyan thing hadn't kicked off.) Combine that with more subtle technical points (I’m pretty sure the scrolling is smoother and potentially faster than any of the NES-era Mario games) and you end up with a game which actually feels remarkably ahead of its time. It's no surprise that it eventually got built into the Master System, because it really showcases that console’s capabilities.

That said, some levels and sections I can see being much more frustrating without the aid of a rewind button. For instance, boss battles involve literally playing rock-paper-scissors with the bosses, which seems a very arbitrary way of impeding progress (especially since you lose a life if you lose the best-out-of-3 match). It's not enough to spoil the game’s charms, but it does show room for improvement.

The Decline and Fall of Alex Kidd

The problem is that Miracle World never had a really solid followup. Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars was a port of a 1986 arcade game which, if I had to guess, was developed in parallel with Miracle World without consideration of its mechanics and ideas or aesthetic. It's charmingly bizarre in its appearance and graphically very fancy by 8-bit standards, but the gameplay is frustratingly awkward, even despite the fact that it gives you infinite lives and continues. (For a game of this era to be that generous makes me think they realised it was too difficult.)

Alex Kidd BMX Trial was, as the title implies, a bicycle racing game. It’s not on the Flashback, perhaps partly because it was a Japanese-only release but I suspect mostly because it used a special peripheral. Alex Kidd: High-Tech World is a bizarre mashup of not especially compelling adventure game and equally unconvincing platformer which was never meant to be an Alex Kidd game in the first place - it originally was an adaptation of the anime Anmitsu Hime, and in that respect seems to be a reasonable approximation of the general plot and style of the anime, but it’s incredibly incongruous as part of the rest of the Alex Kidd series and the hunt-the-clues section feels tedious (and is let down by some fiddly controls).

Finally, 1989 brought around Alex Kidd In the Enchanted Castle, an actual sequel to Miracle World - in that it applied the same gameplay principles and the plotline actually paid attention to what the original had established about Alex and his world rather than contradicting it gleefully because it didn’t fit the premise of an unrelated anime. Unfortunately, whereas the original was a joy to play, this new one is kind of horrible. For one thing, someone seems to have made the decision that everything got to be huge now, which means that the screen real estate is used much less efficiently - leaving you seeing far less of the screen at any particular time, and thus largely robbing you of a lot of the tactical choices to make on how to proceed that the original Miracle World offered.

The rock-paper-scissors system now also is mandatory in the shops, which offer a random selection of a single item whenever you go in rather than a catalogue of prepared choices, and perhaps the most annoying thing is that as well as playing rock-paper-scissors to buy everything you still have to pay for it if you beat the the game (and if you lose, you lose the money you put up). Someone at Sega didn’t know that “bet” means usually that when you win you get the money you put up in addition to your winnings.

The biggest failing of this game, though, is the platforming controls. The controls on Miracle World, whilst they took a bit of getting used to, were pretty decent by the standards of 8-bit platformers. By comparison, the controls here are absolutely horrible by the standards of 16-bit platformers. It’s like Alex has been coating his shoes in a thick layer of butter. Between that and shonky collision detection, it’s hardly a good showcase for the technical capabilities of the Mega Drive, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t an emulation issue - reviewers using the original hardware report exactly the same problem. On top of that, there’s the fact that the game seems, if anything, more simplistic than the original Miracle World, and completely fails to compete with then-current Mario titles. If Miracle World put Sega ahead of Nintendo, in terms of depth of gameplay Super Mario Bros. 3 blows this out of the water.

The Flashback annoyingly doesn’t contain the final Alex Kidd game - Alex Kidd In Shinobi World, a cutesy parody of the Shinobi games. That, too, seems to have originally been developed without Alex Kidd in mind before he was added to the game, based on early development materials that have recently come to light. It’s a shame the Flashback didn’t include this because it’s considered to be quite fun, and certainly seems to have been a much better swansong for the series than Enchanted Castle. Either way, Alex Kidd seems to have suffered from the fact that Sega didn’t really have a solid idea of who he was or what he was like, leaving consumers with no idea what any particular Alex Kidd-branded game would be like. (Except for the BMX one, that is - the title’s pretty much a giveaway there.)

What Sega don’t seem to have understood is that Mario worked as a mascot in part because he acted as a sort of seal of quality - Nintendo wouldn’t put Mario on a game they considered subpar. (Indeed, the same’s true of many of Nintendo’s secondary mascots.) Alex Kidd was not the same sort of indicator of quality by a long shot, and thus inevitably failed as a mascot.

Hey, speaking of characters whose franchises have so many bad games in them that they’ve ceased to act as an indicator of quality…

Mega Drive, Mega Mascot: the Sonic Era

Sonic the Hedgehog

When Sega dragged Alex Kidd out behind the wood shed and put him out of his misery, it was because they’d developed a brand new mascot for the 1990s. To give Sonic his due on that front, he certainly seems to be much more original than Alex Kidd - there’s no sense that he’s Goku wearing Mario’s dungarees. He is, if you will, an original character, and Sega would rather you not steal him.

Having been 9 years old when Sonic came out I was slap in the middle of the target audience, and I remember the advertising craze and range of tie-in merchandise which accompanied the whole shebang. I also remember how quickly the lustre faded once the mid-1990s came and went and the sense sunk in that actually the franchise was kind of naff.

There’s lots of reasons for the decline of Sega and the Sonic franchise with it. For one thing, releasing the Mega CD, the 32X, and the Sega Saturn in such rapid succession was both confusion to customers and, given that the 32X and Sega Saturn weren’t mutually compatible, effectively put Sega into the absurd situation of trying to support two different 32-bit home consoles at once, with the result that they didn’t serve either one particularly well. For another, Sega have been incredibly lax over the years about quality control on the Sonic franchise. For Mario’s major game on any particular Nintendo system to be substandard would be considered a major upset - for that matter, it’d be a bit of a controversy if a Legend of Zelda game ended up being mediocre.

By contrast, innumerable Let’s Play channels on YouTube have built their reputations on justifiably ripping apart equally innumerable sub-par Sonic games. The teetering pile of dubious fanfiction and original characters that the Sonic fandom has littered itself with is one thing - any sufficiently franchise would have the same - but when ideas which sound like parodies of the most bizarre excesses of the fandom, like “Sonic is a werewolf” or “Sonic fights King Arthur and the various supporting characters from the franchise show up in bit parts, like Knuckles is Lancelot and Amy Rose is the Lady of the Lake and Tails is a blacksmith or something” end up being actual instalments in the series (and end up totally horrible), it feels like if Sega just handed the series over to the fandom and said “Here, go nuts with it” it’d actually end up a little more consistent than the wild variation in product quality, aesthetic, and overall approach we currently get.

Arguably they’ve done exactly that. Sega has basically been happy for its various licensees to take whatever bizarre interpretation of Sonic’s universe they like - and by golly people have taken advantage of this lassaiz-faire attitude. Just compare the various cartoon series people have tried to make. (In some cases, the exact same licensee has had a ragingly incoherent take on the property - see the Game Grumps’ astonishing discovery of a hidden archive of comic covers from the Archie Comics Sonic tie-in line, where they don’t seem to have had the same idea of what Sonic’s aesthetic is from month to month.) It’s like Sega had absolutely no fucking idea what to do with Sonic after his first few games, and desperately hoped that the creativity of others could come up with an answer.

What’s particularly strange is the way that Sega have been so astonishingly careless in their handling of Sonic after they went through an extensive internal process to come up with his original design - as though somehow they imagined that once they came up with the right character the marketing and management and oversight of the franchise would sort of look after itself. The best counterexample to this is, in fact, the very character who was at the back of their mind when they were trying to come up with a new mascot - namely, Mario himself.

Whereas Mario’s marketing has been just as calculated over the years, Mario’s creation was pretty much by accident, Miyamoto needing a placeholder character when Nintendo couldn’t get the rights to make Donkey Kong a Popeye game. His runaway popularity after that was basically an accident which Nintendo were canny enough to recognise and throw their weight behind. Audiences fell in love with Mario and wanted more, which Nintendo delivered, whereas Sega cooked up Sonic and then tried to make us fall in love with him.

The upshot of this is that, in retrospect, it feels like there was something a bit off about Sonic from the start. Realising that he was cooked up as part of an intensive in-house brainstorming process to deliberately make a mascot for the company, you can almost see the logic behind his creation. Mario is all smiley and friendly and family-friendly, so Sonic’s going to have this badass scowl and we’ll make a lot about how he’s got some nebulously-defined “attitude”, because that’s what kids these days like. At the same time, we don’t want him to be so threatening that parents won’t buy Sega games for their kids, so we’ll make him a cuddly blue hedgehog. Whilst the logic behind that combination can be discerned, the amalgam itself is absolutely self-contradictory and ridiculous - early 1990s “attitude” is the sort of thing which conjures images of grunge rock, 2Pac, ECW, and all the stuff which kids at the time latched onto because it made us feel grown-up and annoyed our parents, smiley anthropomorphic animals pretty much imply the opposite of any of that. (Note that this is before the furry fandom became widely known.)

I’m not saying that I want Sonic to be all dark and edgy - after all, Shadow is probably the most outright ridiculous character in the Sonic universe - but what I am saying is that there’s a basic incompatibility between being friendly and cuddly and unthreatening on the one hand and claiming to have “attitude” on the other; ultimately, if a children’s character isn’t upsetting the more square and uptight parents, then they don’t really have that much in the way of attitude. More specifically, 1990s-brand “attitude” needs to feel like it’s off the leash - that it’s doing its own thing and it doesn’t care what stuffy authority figures might think. Sonic is too obviously designed by people worried about what parents will think to pull that off. Ultimately, something has to give - either you end up with an incongruously dark and edgy take on cute cuddly cartoon characters, or you end up with an entirely family-friendly character who just sort of scowls occasionally. Either way, it feels amazingly Poochie.

Using Poochie as a shorthand for ‘90s characters with artificial and unconvincing “attitude” might be overdone at this point, but part of that is because of how perfect a parody Poochie is of that whole cultural moment - and in the case of Sonic, it’s particularly apt. The creative process behind Poochie, when you break down the relevant episode, finds the out-of-touch cartoonists trying to use focus groups to regain their grasp on the zeitgeist, only to find that they really have no idea what their audience wants, their audience has no idea what it wants, and they might not even have a single unified “audience” with a distinctive set of preferences.

It feels like the creative process behind Sonic became a very similar ordeal. The end result of the design work is a character who is supposed to stand out and be vivid but actually ends up astonishingly bland, because his creators have been so anxious about not alienating anyone that they’ve made it impossible for them to really impress anyone. Ultimately, taste being what it is, if you are going to make a creative product distinctive and memorable you need to put your weight behind some aspect of it which some people may end up hating, but which the right people will love; that didn’t happen with Sonic. Oh, sure, Sonic does have his share of fans - but outside of that hardcore fanbase he’s become a character that many people at best like but few love. That’s the sort of foundation you can build a small-scale game franchise on, but not something you can make into one of the tentpole franchises you build your big media empire around.

How does this absurdly long preamble relate to Sonic the Hedgehog the video game, as opposed to Sonic the character or Sonic the franchise? Well, the thing is the original game is sort of a microcosm of the issues baked into the character from the beginning. It’s a good game, a charming game even, but there’s a certain shallowness to it; attempts at giving it some hidden depths feel tacked-on and irrelevant, and whilst it was technically and aesthetically impressive at the time its innovations have not stood the test of time as well as Mario’s outings from around the same time.

Sonic is a game where the central conceit is that Sonic goes fast, but except for the purpose of making a few particular leaps here and there the game design almost never rewards you for going fast; generally, being slow and cautious will leave you better off, but at the cost of noticing how uninspiring the level design actually is. Recall that around this time games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World are presenting you with these extremely expansive levels that are stuffed to the gills with little secrets, but set you a time limit for their exploration. Conversely, Sonic the Hedgehog’s level timer counts up, not down - it’s not measuring a time limit, it’s just providing a basis to calculate a small, meaningless bonus at the end of the level, so there is absolutely no reason to go fast.

That said, odds are you will get through the level reasonably quickly anyway. Sure, a few of the levels get a little twisty and turny and have a few out-of-the-way features here and there, but they are still orders of magnitude simpler than most Mario Bros. 3 or Mario World levels. The fact that there is no actual time constraint involved means that this becomes very obvious; the only way the illusion could be conserved is if you got invested in zooting across the level as quickly as possible, rather than exploring the nooks and crannies.

Exploring these nooks and crannies is exactly what the game attempts to encourage you to do, however, both with bonuses hidden away in obscure spots as well as the offer of the special stages where Chaos Emeralds may be obtained if you beat a level whilst carrying over 50 rings. This is clearly an effort to add a little replay value to the game, though to be honest the benefits you get from following this route ultimately end up minimal - you get a few seconds of Sonic juggling the Chaos Emeralds at the end of the game if you collect them, if you don’t you get Robotnik taunting you with them on the final screen, and that’s kind of it.

Now, it’s not all bad - not at all. Sonic was a technically very accomplished game in its era, with the speed at which levels can scroll being stunning compared to the more sedate paces that the limitations of 8-bit platforms had imposed and the game offering more moving objects onscreen than many prior systems would have been able to handle - the best example of the latter being the sheer explosion of rings that happens when Sonic gets hit whilst carrying a large number of rings. The ring game mechanics is actually, to my mind, much better and more compelling than the whole “gotta go fast” thing - in particular, the way you can go from being comfortable and confident when carrying even a single ring to fearing for Sonic’s life if you have zero rings allows for some really dramatic turns of fortune.

The aesthetic style of the game is rather charming, though I’m with the Game Grumps in noting that the most appealing level is the opening Green Hill Zone, with its polygonal folded leaves on the palm trees and the surreal chessboard pattern on the earth; the other levels seem to have been thrown together in a hurry in terms of aesthetic appearance and look a lot less appealing. But here we start running into another problem: Sonic is just kind of boring as a character here, his emotional range going from “eyebrows furrowed, smirking slightly” to “eyebrows furrowed, frowning slightly”.

By far the more emotive character is none other than Dr Robotnik, AKA Eggman, AKA a rejected character design from the mascot-design process who ended up getting repurposed as Sonic’s arch enemy as a sly nod to that. Robotnik’s glee as he gets the upper hand on you in a boss battle, his dismay when he gets hit, his panic when Sonic finally gets a clear run at him, his frustration on the end game screen - it all demonstrates a greater emotional range than Sonic, which tends to make him more enjoyable as a character than Sonic. That isn’t fatal by any means - if you’re going to be fighting a character lots, it might as well be a very expressive character who you enjoy defeating because of the schadenfreude it provides - but it does show up just how much of an empty enigma Sonic is. Mario is somewhat guilty of this too, mind - but Mario wasn’t sold to us on the ground of some much-vaunted “attitude”, but Sonic was and more or less fails to deliver on that in anything but the most shallow possible way.

As far as playing the game on the flashback goes, the rewind and save state functions take out a lot of the frustration of the later levels, which sometimes work in pedantic fiddliness as a means of amping up the difficulty. It’s a fun way to kill time for an hour, but little more than that.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

This is the game which started the process of cluttering Sonic’s world with a range of additional original characters (who should not be stolen) with the introduction of Tails. Incorporated as a way to provide a basis for two-player functionality, Tails doesn’t add a whole lot to the single-player game beyond very occasionally giving you hints as to which direction to go in and sometimes hitting enemies for you. (I’m pretty sure he accidentally beat one of the boss fights for me.)

Whilst Tails is the most visually obvious of the new additions, the game also sees some tweaks and updates to the game engine. In particular, Sonic now has the ability to charge up some speed by crouching down and then spinning in place, buzzsaw-style, which is particularly handy for when you want to build up a bit of momentum to get yourself over an especially awkward obstacle. Unfortunately, I needed to use this more often than I’d have liked in this game - whereas in the previous game most obstacles seemed comparatively well-judged, some here are downright awkward to get around, as though the designers, having given the player that tool, then allowed themselves to get sloppier in the obstacle design.

Frustration also creeps in with the annoyingly perfectionist special stages and with some of the later boss fights - the difference between a hit that does damage to you and a hit that does damage to the boss in the final fight seems to be extremely fussy - and some of the level designs, with Robotnik’s sprawling airship being particularly annoying. On the subject of boss battles, there doesn’t seem to be a middle gear here - either they are enragingly difficult or they are annoyingly simple. (The much vaunted “Metal Sonic” boss is outright trivial to beat.)

The most imaginative feature of the game is the Casino Night Zone, which is a giant pinball table where the various features like the flippers and the plungers and so on activate when you press the controller button, paving the way for later Sonic-themed pinball games.

Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve kept a careful log
Of all the pinball games I beat
You bet it was a slog,
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
Not man nor cat nor dog,
That blue, spikey, furry kid
Sure is a fast hedgehog...

Sonic Chaos

This is one of the 8-bit line of Sonic games which came out for the Master System and Game Gear in parallel with the Mega Drive releases. There’s little technical limitations here and there - the most obvious being that when you get hit you don’t get a great big burst of rings happening, just the one - but graphically it manages to be quite impressive for an 8-bit system.

The major problem is that the version presented here is the Game Gear version, optimised for the Game Gear’s pokey little screen. Between this and the large sprites that the various Sonic games traditionally use, this means that there’s barely any screen real estate, and a lot of it is taken up by Sonic himself and by your life, ring and score counters. You can only ever fit a fraction of the terrain features and enemies that the Mega Drive games fit onto your television into this cramped space, and whilst that’s doubtless useful for making sure the 8-bit machines the game was designed for can handle the demands on them, it also means it feels like you’re playing a Sonic game with severe tunnel vision, with only the world immediately around Sonic visible.

There just isn’t scope under such circumstances for any particularly challenging gameplay, because there just isn’t space to cram anything especially challenging onto the screen. It’s particularly stark when you compare how contemporary Game Boy platformers like the Mario Land and Wario Land games make vastly more effective space of a comparable amount of space.

Sonic Spinball

The development process of Sonic 3 was a long and arduous one, and it eventually became apparent that the game would not be ready for the 1993 holiday season. To avoid having no Sonic-branded new Mega Drive games out for the season, Sega quickly slapped together Sonic Spinball in a couple of months. It’s essentially a pinball game with minor platforming elements, inspired largely by the pinball level from Sonic 2 and working on largely the same mechanics.

Peter Morawiec, the game’s lead designer, admits that it doesn’t have the polish it might have, and that’s certainly true - the controls are often fiddly, it’s regularly hard to suss out what you are trying to achieve and even harder to actually accomplish it, and in general the game is a difficult and unforgiving prospect. The major problem the game has, however, is conceptual. The Casino Night Zone was undeniably a popular level in Sonic 2 and the pinball schtick was clearly a large part of that - it’s arguably the only level in that game which managed to simultaneously do something original with the format and was actually genuinely enjoyable. (The airship was a bit of a departure for Sonic games, but was more frustrating than fun.)

Unfortunately, taking that one level and then making an entire game out of the concept wasn’t necessarily a good idea. In particular, what the development team don’t seem to have realised is that whilst the pinball stuff in Casino Night Zone was fun, you didn’t actually have to be a full-on pinball wizard to progress in the level. Conversely, progress in Sonic Spinball is based entirely on pinball skill, and it’s hard to demonstrate that with a platform game engine which has very obviously been roped into running a pinball game it was never originally intended to cope with. The result is like trying to play a real pinball machine whilst wearing oven mitts.

Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine

This is essentially a reskin of the colour-matching puzzle game Puyo Puyo, with the characters swapped out for Robotnik and his various robot sidekicks from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon. (The endearingly silly one people keep making YouTube parodies out of, not the dark and edgy one which, bizarrely, came out simultaneously with it.) The idea is that they are oppressing a planet of colour-coded beans, and you as the heroic (and weirdly rabbit-like) Has Bean have to stop them by sabotaging the aforementioned machine. The decision to do the reskin may, considering that this came out alongside Sonic Spinball, be part of the desire to put out Sonic product to fill the gap left by the lateness of Sonic 3.

The way you do this is by facing off against the various sidekicks in progressively more difficult games of Puyo Puyo in which you have to make groups of at least four identically-coloured beans in order to score points and clear beans. As in Tetris or Dr. Mario you get a game over if your bean pile reaches the top of the screen. A complication arises where whenever one player score, there's a chance of dropping a bunch of transparent beans onto their opponent's pile - the odds of this and number of transparent beans is based on how impressive a chain reaction was involved in scoring. These clear beans do not contribute to any sets, but pop whenever a set is completed adjacent to them.

As a fun little two-player game it's pretty decent, and the one-player “exercise mode" where you get to practice without a human or AI opponent is fun time-wasting. The “scenario mode" where you face off against Robotnik and his goons, however, is kind of awkward, particularly since the purported difficulty levels don't really seem to affect the enemies very much. A big issue is that you don't seem to have much control of when those transparent beans drop, so when playing against the AI it inevitably feels like you're having shitty luck compared to your opponent in that respect. Completing the game didn't feel like much of an accomplishment because it felt like the result of bad luck on the AI’s part rather than good play on mine.

Still, it's fun and visually amusing and has lots of endearing characters and generally supports my view that Robotnik is actually more expressive and interesting than Sonic.

Sonic and Knuckles

Developed originally in parallel with Sonic 3 before it became apparent that they'd start hitting up against cartridge capacity limitations, Sonic and Knuckles was originally released with fancy “lock-on" technology which allowed the cartridges of Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 to piggyback on the Sonic and Knuckles cartridge, allowing you to play through the previous two games as Knuckles. A major limitation of the Flashback is that they don't seem to have added any utility which lets you implement that; sure, Sonic 3 isn't included in the bundle (why?), but the data for Sonic 2 is right there.

Sonic and Knuckles largely takes its approach from the Sonic 3 project, the main thing on offer being a choice of whose storyline you want to play through, Sonic’s or Knuckles. It's set in the immediate wake of Sonic 3, with Robotnik’s Star Wars ripoff Death Egg having crash-landed (again) on Angel Island, a floating island which was once home to a lost civilisation of echidnas. The last of the echidnas, Knuckles, is just trying to protect his home as Sonic and Robotnik continue their feud, and over the course of this game Knuckles and Sonic eventually realise that they’re broadly on the same side and end up becoming buddies.

Beyond the undeniable cleverness involved in the lock-in concept, the process of making this and Sonic 3 seems to have largely revolved around making the levels busier and more intricate and adding Knuckles and his accompanying backstory to proceedings. The latter can be marked as the point where the franchise started rolling down the slippery slope of just adding another Sonic reskin (perhaps with a different hairstyle or other accessories to distinguish them) and claiming it's a new original character (who should not be stolen), as though any character added to the heap after Tails has really been particularly refreshing or interesting in terms of their gameplay role.

As far as making the levels more intricate, this actually prompted me to give up the game midway through act 2 of the first zone, because I’d gotten stuck somewhere and couldn't work out what I was supposed to do to get out of the limited run of the level I was stuck in. For a game franchise which markets itself on the idea of going fast, the Sonic series sure loves to bring your progress to a juddering halt frequently, and putting in an area that difficult as level 1 of the game was a really annoying move on the part of the developers. It doesn't even entail providing the player with an interesting challenge - I just got stuck somewhere where I couldn't get the right amount of momentum to climb my way out no matter what I did.

Possibly this difficulty comes partly from this game effectively being the second half of a much longer game, but it still annoyed me enough to make me give up on it.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble

The inevitable Knuckles-themed game for Game Gear, though it doesn’t actually let you play Knuckles (you do get the choice of Sonic or Tails, though). It’s got much of the same issues as Sonic Chaos, though I think its use of its limited screen space is somewhat better. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that it’s prone to a lot of random slowdowns during play - and these aren’t even slowdowns when anything obviously complex or unusual is happening. I’m fairly sure this isn’t an emulation issue, since it’s noted in contemporary reviews on the original Game Gear hardware; as with the next game we’ll be looking at, this game just tried to get too much out of the Game Gear, greatly overestimating its capabilities.

Sonic Drift 2

This is an early 1995 Game Gear release and, as the title implies, it’s a sequel to the original Sonic Drift - also a Game Gear release, but one which never saw a release outside of Japan. For Sega at this stage to pass up on releasing the original Sonic Drift internationally suggests that they seriously lacked confidence in it (particularly considering the Sonic-branded tat they’d put out internationally), and to be honest they could have probably afforded to leave this sequel a Japan exclusive too.

The root idea isn’t bad - it’s basically a Sonic-themed riff on Mario Kart. Mario Kart was a much loved home console release, so putting out the Sonic Drift games as a handheld release which could be played in two-player mode using the Game Gear’s interconnection capability was a good opportunity for Sega to do what Nintendidn’t - by having a go-cart racing game which could be played multiplayer on the go would be a major coup for them. (A handheld Mario Kart game wouldn’t emerge until Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance in 2001.)

The basic problem is that the technology just wasn’t quite there yet. In order to produce a game of the graphical quality the team were clearly aiming for (something at least comparable to the delightful presentation of Mario Kart) and with the requisite gameplay, all within the bounds of the capabilities of the Game Gear and within the limited resolution of the Game Gear’s screen, something had to give. In this case, it was the draw distance; the horizon seems like it’s only a few car lengths away from you, comparing very poorly even to the original Mario Kart, and the result is that it’s almost impossible to deploy any real tactics in the game - you only see your opponents when you are either right in front of them or right behind them.

The fact that Nintendo waited until the Game Boy Advance to do a handheld Mario Kart pretty much says it all: as fun as the idea of a handheld kart racing game is, the technology just wasn’t ready to deliver it in the mid-1990s.

Tails Adventure

So Tails has been introduced to us as a little fox with abilities comparable to Sonic, plus the ability to fly. Naturally, this meant someone made a Game Gear game in which he strolls around very slowly tossing bombs and not flying. It’s got all the “too tiny screen, too large sprites” issues as Sonic Chaos too.

Sonic 3D Blast

In 1996, Sega was staring down the barrel of losing the console war it had sparked against Nintendo to a mysterious newcomer called Sony, whose Playstaiton was gaining momentum and about to completely overshadow the Sega Saturn and shunt the Nintendo 64 into second place. One of the issues the Saturn had was that it didn’t have a major Sonic game released for it. Though Sonic games had already by this point gained a patchy track record in terms of quality control, it still created the impression that Sega didn’t necessarily care all that much about the Saturn - the division of their attentions between the Saturn and the ill-fated 32X peripheral for the Mega Drive exacerbating that issue.

Sonic 3D Blast, as a foray into 3D, was Sonic’s Mega Drive swansong. It was developed in parallel with Sonic X-treme, which was supposed to be his Saturn debut; when that project fell through, 3D Blast was released on the Mega Drive and Saturn simultaneously, with a port to the Saturn quickly completed - though the upshot of that was that it inaccurately gave the impression that the Saturn just wasn’t that much of an upgrade from the Mega Drive.

To come up with a premise for the game, Sega made the bizarre choice of digging into their back catalogue to unearth the main character from Flicky. This was a charming little platform game which resembled a somewhat more technically advanced take on the original Mario Bros. arcade game, and had you cast as the titular bird in an attempt to collect chicks and guide them to the level exit whilst chased by various enemies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly charming little game to fiddle with, but I think by 1996 it was largely forgotten and didn’t really have anyone desperately clamouring to see more from the character.

Anyway, apparently Flicky was part of an entire species called Flickies, and Robotnik is hassling them on their island and Sonic is there to help out. The basis of the adventure involves you controlling Sonic as he strolls about trying to free the Flickies from the robots they’ve been trapped in and gathering them together so they can help you open the portals out of the level.

The basic problem with the game is that it controls like an absolute dog turd. It doesn’t even have the “people didn’t really know how to provide intuitive controls for a 3D game at this point in time” excuse it might have, because it’s an isometric 3D game and those had been about for about a decade or so when this came out. Indeed, Sega’s own Zaxxon arguably invented it in 1982 - but apparently nobody on this team learned the lessons of that one, because here it’s consistently hard to work out what Sonic’s aiming at, plus he slips and slides around like his feet are soaked in butter and the floor’s coated with ice.

Ristar the Reject


As the Mega Drive era ground towards its end, Sega started glancing in the direction of the slush pile of rejected mascots cooked up in the brainstorming sessions that yielded Sonic, putting out games based on them to see if that could help them make up the gap between them and Nintendo (which, due to a stronger portfolio of exclusive titles, had slowly but surely pulled ahead). One of these characters was Ristar, whose self-titled videogame had him platforming around various levels that you navigate through a frustrating process of working out how to use your stretchified little arms to pull off various tricks. It’s extremely pretty - I’d be unsurprised to learn the designers had a brief to produce something that competed with Donkey Kong Country because the aesthetic feels somewhat similar - but the controls are just annoying enough to make me lose patience with it.

Platform games in general feel like they’ve aged badly; for every Sonic the Hedgehog or Alex Kidd In Miracle World there’s a swathe of franchises which went nowhere because the base games were just kind of dull and unpleasant. Ristar I tend to feel is an example of the latter - unless you were there at the time and got keen on it when it was fresh and novel, it’s unlikely to grab you in this day and age.

Sonic the Albatross

For better or worse, Sega is stuck with Sonic as a mascot. His original impact was large enough that they’ll always be associated with him - and the fact that he does have a fervent fanbase still suggests that he’s not without his merits as far as videogame company mascots go.

The big problem Sega has is that, as I discussed earlier Sonic isn’t a badge of quality - and hasn’t been since fairly early in his franchise’s lifetime. The result of this is that the Sega name itself isn’t a badge of quality either - and that extends beyond Sonic games. People just don’t treat Sega’s games developed in-house with quite the same reverence as they do the various major Nintendo lines. Whilst Nintendo’s victory over Sega isn’t total - the Master System’s been a major presence on the Brazilian market for a bizarrely long time - it’s comprehensive enough, and to my mind it comes down to one simple principle. To yank a quote out of the depths of the 1990s and mangle it a little: “It’s the games, stupid.”

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Comments (go to latest)
Helter Shelter at 03:56 on 2018-09-05
The really frustrating thing about Sonic's conception is that a lot of the base ideas seem like the right call, both from a business perspective and artistically. For the former, your competitor has cornered one market, so you just make the market bigger (this was Nintendo's strategy with the Wii/DS era, and it paid off enormously). For the latter, you're carving a new path, taking a genre in a direction nobody's seen before, which can pay off with something that's simultaneously of tradition while breaking it in a cool way (point of comparison: Elric the Not-Conan). Even the idea of "edgy, but within a specific set of parameters" is something that I think could work if you chose to commit to it, but unfortunately Sega, for what sounds like a variety of reasons, just weren't willing to commit to any part of Sonic's identity.
Arthur B at 12:46 on 2018-09-05
Yeah, it feels like you should be able to do something with him - except his handling has been so inconsistent over the years that whatever you do will inevitably alienate part of his fanbase. ("It's too cutesy!" "It's too edgy!" "It's too serious!" "It's too funny!") at 02:28 on 2018-09-06
Weirdly when I was a kid the Master System "mascot", IE: The one who everyone seemed to have the game of, was Psycho Fox. For some reason everyone I knew who had a Master System owned that game, while only a few owned Alex Kidd or Sonic.
Helter Shelter at 06:37 on 2018-09-06
@Arthur B

You're right about the fanbase, though if anything I think one of the side effects of Sonic's inconsistency is that, paradoxically, there's not enough consistent to him to allow you to do anything. Mario is one point of comparison - no matter what you do to him, he's going to be a cheerful Hero with middle-of-the-road stats, so while there has to be some level of silliness you can at least play with the tone and genre a lot - but Batman, as an actual character, is an even better one.

He has a few defined personality traits - he's grim, intelligent, methodical, not overly showy with his emotions, and doesn't kill people - and you can spin a wild number of tones out of that combination, and in fact I've seen convincing suggestions that half of any new Batman story's appeal at this point is 'how is this person gonna do Batman different?'. Sonic, by lacking any consistency, also lacks that flexibility.
Arthur B at 11:15 on 2018-09-06
@Arilou: Interesting! I wonder if that's a regional thing?
Arthur B at 11:19 on 2018-09-06
Wait, on second thoughts I have a potential explanation for that: apparently on a lot of Master System models Alex Kidd was actually built into the system, so you wouldn't have necessarily noted the packaging lying around (and if your friends didn't realise there was a built-in game they might not have accessed it).

As for Sonic, whilst there was a Master System port of the game, I seem to remember at the time that 8-bit ports of games for 16-bit systems tended to have a (justified) reputation for being severely compromised versions of the real deal.
Ronan Wills at 00:00 on 2018-09-09
Man, reading this article gave me a real nostalgia blast.

I was a Sega kid growing up and loved the Sonic games, but replaying them years later (and playing Sonic Mania) revealed that they just weren't that good. The entire idea of Sonic being fast is at odds with a platforming game; in order to stop you just zooming past the entire level, you're constantly getting halted by obstacles or crashing into enemies. I feel like this fundamental problem with the character has never been addressed.

I actually feel like you could make a good Sonic game now, if you were willing to completely disconnect from the legacy of the older installments. I'm picturing a game with wide, expansive levels where using speed and momentum is encouraged, with controls that feel more like a racing or even skiing game than a platformer (picture something like the shield sledding from Breath Of The Wild).

Even still, I have intense nostalgia for Sonic and Knuckles with Sonic 3 attached; playing through both games combined and unlocking hyper Sonic felt like this mysterious, epic adventure in a way that I had never experienced before, probably because I had never played an RPG.

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