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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Thursday Night At The Arcade: Sonic The Hedgehog (Or How I Learned To Love The Genesis)

After a week's hiatus, we're back with Thursday Night At The Arcade, and today's choice is all about one of the most popular video game mascots of the last couple of decades.  A character that helped the Sega Genesis grow in popularity against the powerhouse known as Nintendo.

Before we launch into that, you may have noticed a couple of changes to the Pop Culture Addict blog.  Nothing too major, but I figure that since it's a new month, it's time to add a couple of things.  Let me explain.

First things first, you may have noticed that I have added a couple of links on the right hand side of the blog.  These are actually links to the fan pages for the blog on both Facebook and Twitter.  I've decided that one of the best ways I can promote this blog is through the use of social media sites, so I'm taking advantage of it.  On a side note, while I am comfortable enough using Facebook pages, I am a newbie at Twitter, so for all you Twitter freaks out there, don't be surprised if my tweets are more like whimpers.  I am new to the whole Twitter craze.  But, fear Twitter feed will only be used to promote this blog, and not to tell everyone what I had for breakfast. 

Because, really...I don't think anyone cares.

Secondly, you may have noticed that the blog actually has a logo now (albeit a really shoddy hand-drawn one).  When I get a decent computer program that allows me to colour online, I'll spruce it up a bit, but I really wanted this place to have a logo for some reason.  What that reason is, I don't know.  Regardless, we have one.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can continue on with the first entry for September!

Growing up, I was largely a loyal Nintendo consumer.  At 30, I still have some loyalty to the company, as I have a Nintendo DS that I sometimes play on occasion (usually during periods where I have writer's block and I need to unwind a bit).  That's not to say that I haven't owned other game consoles (I did have a PlayStation and PlayStation 2), but for the most part, I had always been a Nintendo kid.

Part of that reason behind it was that everyone else in my school had Nintendo and Nintendo themed merchandise.  From Super Mario, to The Legend Of Zelda, to Mike Tyson's Punch-Out...everyone in my school seemed to play Nintendo games.  I remember saving up all my money for a whole year between grades three and four to buy a Nintendo console.  At the time, they cost a whopping $160, which was more money than I had seen in my whole life at the time (I was nine years old, and my idea of a splurge purchase was a $2.25 Archie Double Digest Magazine which now cost $4.59...damn inflation).  Prior to that, I used an old hand-me-down Intellivision console that all the kids made fun of.  But that's fine, because unlike everyone else, I actually worked hard to save up for mine.

Sadly, I no longer have the Nintendo console that I worked hard to save for, as a lightning storm caused a power surge and fried it beyond repair.  But shortly after that, I managed to get the Super Nintendo, and all was right in the world.

However, I learned from the kids at school that having an old Intellivision console that was made before I was even born wasn't the worst thing that I could have owned.  In fact, the kids at school were even more disgusted by a new console that had just hit the market called the Sega Genesis.

I heard so many derogatory comments about how terrible the Sega Genesis was.  It sucked, they said.  It blew, they said.  It had crappy games, they said.

Basically, you were deemed 'uncool' if you had a Sega Genesis. 

So imagine my surprise when my eldest sister (who I honestly thought HATED video games) ended up buying a Sega Genesis console for her home!  How could she?  She bought the devil's console!  She bought the console with all the crappy games!  Had she lost her mind?

Of course, I had to see for myself if the kids at school were right.  As it turned out, much like the Super Nintendo systems, the Sega Genesis came with a free game inside of it.

The game was Sonic The Hedgehog 2, the sequel to the original game, released twenty years ago, in 1991.  It was your basic premise of a game really.  You had to control Sonic, a spiky blue hedgehog through a series of courses that best resembled roller coaster tracks at an amusement park, collecting rings and power-ups in your quest to stop Dr. Robotnik from acquiring the legendary Chaos Emeralds so that he can achieve world domination.

Dr. Robotnik will try to stop Sonic every step of the way by transforming innocent forest creatures into robotic enemies, determined to have blue hedgehogs for lunch.  However, over the years, Sonic will get some assistance from Tails (a double-tailed fox) and Knuckles (an echidna that acts like a frenemy to Sonic).

Anyway, when I first started playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2, I was completely taken in by how addicting a game it was.  The levels were brightly coloured, the music was quite good, and the gameplay was simple, but complicated at the same time.  Before I knew it, I was already in the fourth world (the one with all the slot machines and neon lights), and I couldn't believe how much fun the game was.

Yet, according to everyone else, I was supposed to hate it.  Could they have possibly been wrong?

The answer of course, is yes.

Granted, playing Sonic 2 wasn't enough to get me to buy a Sega Genesis and throw my Super Nintendo in the trash.  I still kept playing my Super Nintendo (which I still have, by the way), but admittedly, I liked Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and wondered what the original one was like.

It wasn't until I bought my PlayStation 2 console a few years back that I got my chance.  Since I bought one of the PS2 consoles that came without a game included, I had to purchase a game to go along with it (even though original PlayStation games could play on the PS2 without any problem).  So, when I saw the Sega Genesis Collection in one of the bargain game bins, I jumped on it.

The collection was a pretty decent one, as it had a total of 28 games for Sega consoles that I had never played before.  It was really neat to be able to have such an assortment of games to play.  Some were fantastic, and others were duds, but that was the risk that one took.

As it happened, both Sonic and Sonic 2 were included in this compilation, and playing both of those games made me appreciate the game series, and the console that both games debuted on more.

So, how did Sonic The Hedgehog come to be?

The origins of the video game character began as the 1980s ended.  In the early months of 1990, Sega was planning on coming up with a new mascot to represent Sega, as their previous representative of Alex Kidd was too stale of a character by the time the 1990s arrived.  With Mario and Link achieving global success financially for Nintendo, Sega knew that they had to come up with a mascot that could compete with them.

There were several ideas brought forth for a new mascot throughout 1990.  Some suggestions included an armadillo (which became a character in Sonic Vs. Knuckles), a dog, a Theodore Roosevelt sprite in PJ's (which became an early character sketch for Dr. Robotnik), and a rabbit who could use his ears to grab objects (a game mechanism that was used in the 1995 game Ristar).

It wasn't until Naoto ƌshima's design (which was initially called Mr. Needlemouse) that things started coming together.  The original drawing was of a hedgehog that was coloured teal, and after a few minor modifications (including darkening the colour of the hedgehog to a cobalt blue shade), Sonic The Hedgehog was born.

The original Sonic The Hedgehog game was first released in stores on June 23, 1991, and immediately became a huge breakout success for Sega.  Players were impressed by the supersonic speed that Sonic managed to exhibit during the game, and his ability to kill enemies by curling up into a ball was quite handy.  Even the bonus levels were quite fascinating, with flashing lights and rotating screens, adding to the level of difficulty.  The only weakness Sonic seemed to have was his inability to breathe underwater.  If he stayed under for too long a time, this could happen.

Hey, every character happens to have their weaknesses.  For Mario, it's lava.   For Sonic, it's water.

In some ways, the mechanics of the Sonic The Hedgehog series match the ones found in Mario games.  Just like one would have to collect 100 coins in Mario games to earn an extra life, Sonic could do the same by collecting 100 rings.  But, unlike Mario games, Sonic really had to be careful navigating each course, for one false move made Sonic lose EVERY SINGLE RING.  And, if Sonic got hit while his ring count was zero, that was an immediate loss of life.  This made the Sonic series a bit more challenging.

But hey, I love a challenge.  In fact, I find the Sonic series so challenging that unlike a lot of the Mario games for Nintendo, I have yet to beat a Sonic game.  I'm sure if I kept at it though, I could.

Sonic The Hedgehog became an immediate success in the world of gaming, and Sonic himself has had quite a legacy.  Because of the success of the game, Sega made the decision to change the free game offered with its consoles.  Originally having Altered Beast as the game included, the decision was made shortly after Sonic's release to put that game in place of Altered Beast in all future Genesis console packs.  The resulting decision lead to huge sales of Sega Genesis consoles during the Christmas season of 1991.  By January 1992, Sega Genesis sales were higher than sales of the Super Nintendo system, with 65% of the sales of all 16-bit game systems at the time.  It was the first time Sega (or any console system for that matter) had managed to kick Nintendo off of the top spot in sales since December 1985.  For that to have happened, it had to have been one hell of a game.

Since Sonic first arrived in 1991, dozens of sequels and spin-offs have emerged based on the Sonic series, including a couple where Sonic and his rival Mario end up in the same game (such as the example up above), and while Sega ceased console manufacturing in the early 2000s, they have managed to carve a niche in the market of software design, and currently design games for all three current video game systems (XBOX 360, Wii, PlayStation 3).

Still, Sonic The Hedgehog is one of those games that could be declared as an instant classic.  The game was ranked #63 on IGN's 2007 list of all-time best games, and was one of three video game characters to be first inducted in the 'Walk Of Game' (the other two being Link and Mario from Nintendo).

In the fall of 1992, Archie Comics began to release a Sonic The Hedgehog comic book series under its Archie Adventure Series banner.  The comic proved to be just as big of a success as the video game, and as of September 2011, it has reached 227 issues and counting, as well as a couple of comic spinoffs.  The following year, in 1993, the Sonic cartoon series premiered with Family Matters star Jaleel White as the voice of Sonic.

Not bad for a blue animal with spiky things on his head, eh?

In the end, the lesson that I suppose I could take from my experiences playing Sonic the Hedgehog is this.  Sometimes, people will try to tell you what is cool and what isn't cool.  At times, it can be hard to go against what everyone else is doing because you run the risk of standing out in a bad way.  Certainly when I was a kid, and everyone was into reading Nintendo Power and sharing tips on how to defeat Bowser at his castle, nobody dared talk about Sega.  Sega was considered bad.

But then I ended up playing Sonic the Hedgehog, and after a while, I couldn't figure out why the kids were against the system.  It was a great game, as were the other games that I played within the Sega family.  What I learned was that those kids didn't know what they were talking about at all.

So, that's the message I leave with all of you today.  That message is, don't let other people influence your decisions into what you think is fun.  I certainly kept an open-mind, and grew to admire Sonic as much as I did Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, or any other mascot Nintendo had to offer up.

Now, where was I?  Oh, yes.  I remember now.

Sadly, this is NOT me playing.  I'm not THAT good.  ;)

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