In 1991, Sega had a plan to contest Nintendo's console market dominance with a franchise of its own. It would be cooler, faster and full of attitude.
When one thinks about speed and attitude, "hedgehog" isn't necessarily the first animal that comes to mind, but maybe that was part of the plan – take something weird and unexpected and make it cool.
And it worked, for a while. The speedy, loop-the-looping Sonic the Hedgehog, who zoomed through halfpipes and cut a blue streak across any obstacle, who furrowed his brow and tapped his foot impatiently at idle players, became the hottest thing on the school playground.
Fast forward to 2014, and Sonic remains an icon – but not necessarily in the way anyone might have predicted. He's a mascot for saucy romance fics, comedic fan art and basically anything other than “cool". As a gaming brand, poor Sonic hasn't been competitive in years, as the franchise made weird left turns into role-playing games, cartoons voiced by Steve Urkel, and the addition of tons of other widely-unwanted furry friends for the hedgehog hero. Effort after effort's been made to revive the classic, flashy gameplay people fell in love with in childhood – Sonic even now makes grudging regular cameos in Nintendo games – but it's never seemed to be enough.
Come to think of it, revisiting the old games is actually a wildly disappointing endeavor. Here's a confronting idea: what if the Sonic franchise was never that good to begin with? As he wheels through golden loops and collects rings in our memory, the real-life classic Sonic gets stuck on invisible pixels, makes frustrated leaps endlessly upward among spinning columns that loom just out of reach. The irksome sounds of his repetitive, fruitless jumping – woop, woop, woop – join the rough hiss of his "spin dash" engine revving, weep-weep-weep-weep, in an impotent sound collage.
Sonic gets fired like a shot into the impossible depths of violet liquids and dies, choking open-mouthed. His loyal buddy, the flying two-tailed fox Tails, bumbles off-screen regularly and gets crushed obliviously beneath pillars as the sour-faced Hedgehog struggles uphill, leaps awkwardly toward platforms that lurch away. The primary rival is a mustachioed man who looks like an egg, prancing on tiny legs. Nonsensical robotic machinery and casino lights colonise the natural landscape, jarring.
Today's fans hunger after a memory of something that never really existed in the first place. Yet everyone still seems to care, urgently hanging onto the idea that there should still be some dignity for Sonic, that the radical blue guy with the bright red sneakers deserves a real game, and that every new announcement from a Sega struggling in the modern business environment might finally be Sonic's return to glory. He remains as recognizable as Super Mario or Lara Croft, yet eminently less playable.
Serious fans even see reasons to celebrate where no successful return has been made apparent – this video of a hyper-energetic kid shrieking exhortation for fans to stop picking on Sonic (“SONIC HAS BEEN REDEEMED”) might be sincere and it might be a joke, but the video has 135,000 views because no one really cares either way. Sonic is both a dead-serious topic and a joke at the same time, a curious condition for one of gaming's longest-lived icons.
He is a popular subject for artists and writers involved in the anthropomorphic "furry" subculture, which often sees cartoon creatures portrayed as sincere, smoldering and often kinky love objects. Here is fetish art of Sonic being 'inflated' like a balloon for titillation. Here is art of Sonic pregnant. Here, Sonic appeals to foot and sock enthusiasts.
A new edition of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon that makes his adventures the subject of adolescent drama has helped serve material to such fantasists. Now fans can pair Sonic with his dark, mysterious rival Shadow the Hedgehog, with chipper, endlessly-admiring Tails, or with hot-headed, sullen brawler Knuckles. Knuckles is the buff, brooding one. Interestingly, none of these narratives has created more negative outcry than a 2006 game in Sonic's history where the ageless hero was portrayed in a kiss with a young human girl.
Cynical net art often chooses Sonic as a consciously-ironic central subject, as if in homage to the nerd tragedy of his fall from grace, or in mockery of the fans who do poorly-drawn but earnest Sonic fan art from a place of endless youth. The sassy mascot that was born to signify speed, leaps forward and rebellious attitude has now become something of an avatar of arrested development – maybe that's why he so frequently stars in furry porn, where fans seem to prefer to stick with the intriguing cartoons of their youth even as they exit childhood and develop adult tastes.
Fascinatingly Sonic is nowhere near retirement – it seems there has been a Sonic cartoon of some flavor or other airing continuously since the 1990s, and still a new one is set to launch on Cartoon Network this year. The latest show will be part of a multi-pronged strategy around the newest installment in the franchise, the just-announced Sonic Boom – which looks like a careful, ca-a-re-ful attempt to entertain a modern, new young audience without alienating Sonic's somehow still-essential, finicky "older fanbase".
The recent reveal of Sonic Boom was met with predictable buzz and ridicule. The redesign of the games’ characters is actually fairly subtle – the designers have mostly just added a scarf and some athletic tape – but the reaction resonated so wildly that Kotaku did an article just to collect the quips and parodies.
It’s surreal: the distinctive and particular fate of a character whose relatively grown-up image and attitude helped Sega’s Mega Drive get a leg up in the console wars of the 1990s, but image is all Sonic has these days, with fans feeling free to imprint their own definitions of “rad”, cool, sexy, grown-up and weird all over him. The new design was critiqued for making Sonic’s legs longer than they’ve ever been – it must be so that he can have one foot in our distant past and the other one who knows where.
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