It’s 2022, an eye-watering 31 years since I first encountered the little blue bastard. I’m in the midst of a noisy trade show, and the latest Sonic the Hedgehog game is telling me how to open a switch gate, in a tutorial level that looks worryingly like Death Stranding – a post-apocalyptic Kojima game about delivering Amazon packages to Geoff Keighley, or something. Is this what 31 years as a sexless mascot does to a mf?
Yet, somehow, Sonic has prevailed. Against the insurmountable odds of multiple decades passing, the console arm of SEGA that he originated as a mascot of disappearing in a puff of bad management, and (perhaps most astoundingly) a general sense that the games have been a bit bobbins since, well, 1998 if you’re being charitable or 1994 if you aren’t.
Having survived all that, he shines brightly as ever. Because despite all the missteps, fumbles, and what looks like a dogged commitment to never quite hitting his mark, we love Sonic. We’ve loved him since we were children, during what remains the most optimistic decade we’ve ever lived through: we loved his spiky 90s ‘tude, which made him a Dennis the Menace that actually belonged to us and wasn’t a cultural hand-me-down from Scottish pensioners.
We loved the fact that he solved a significant number of his problems by running really fast, which made him a superhero like The Flash, but sans the intrinsic naffness of a WWII “Buy War Bonds” poster that those old DC characters all had at the time (this was a decade when Aquaman’s biggest cultural cachet was as a punchline in a Chris Rock routine, long before he’d be played by the sexiest man on Earth).
Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t just a SEGA mascot – he’s a totem for the boundless electricity of youth, and this is why he has endured much longer than the knee joints of those who were there to witness his birth. My kids adore him, and couldn’t care less what a Mega Drive is or was (and nor should they).
The media franchise and meme economy that emanates from him remains in rude health, having been the star of several hit cartoons and now two against-all-odds beloved film adaptations. Who would have thought that it would be Sonic the Hedgehog – Sonic the bloody Hedgehog – that would finally break the curse of terrible video game movies? But, having said that, who else could it possibly have been?
Sonic has a knack for defying expectations.
He prevails in spite of the games he stars in, not because of their quality, which is a notoriously mixed bag. But every now and then the franchise produces a new game that wildly bucks this trend of stagnant mediocrity: often by deftly evoking nostalgia, but remixing the best and most beloved elements of the old canon into something new and exciting. The much-acclaimed Sonic Mania was a great example of this: it was, on the surface, a direct continuation of the Mega Drive games – but in technical and design terms, it was so much more than that, pulling off many tricks that would have been simply impossible on that old hardware.
Similarly, Sonic Generations mixed old and new back in 2011 to great success. It combined the modern gameplay of the previous year’s Sonic Colours, with the character and level design of those vaunted originals, and borrowed elements from almost every game in between to create the perfect ‘Greatest Hits’ package for lifelong fans. It is to this day my eldest daughter’s favourite video game of all time (in fairness, she hasn’t yet played Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, a visionary masterpiece that improves with every playthrough).
Sonic Frontiers comes off as very much 2022’s equivalent of Generations. It pulls Sonic kicking and screaming into an era where everything is an Open World Action Game With RPG Elements, and has taken a lot of stick for doing so, but in practice the Starfall Islands region is a perfect Sonic playground and a hub-world rammed with portals to levels past: remixes of stages from previous games with new licks of paint, altered layouts, and so-forth.
SEGA’s approach to making Sonic open-world isn’t remotely the slap in the face that some disgruntled fans have feared it to be. In fact, in much the same way as Generations, it seeks to honour and celebrate the past while giving players something fresh and new to sink their teeth into.
And, here’s the fundamental, important thing: it feels good in the hands, like Sonic games should. The sense of raw speed is there. The acrobatic homing attacks, the rail sliding, the easy-to-learn hard-to-master movement where you bounce around pre-planned areas like a pinball collecting power-ups: all present and correct. And much of the additions to his basic moveset make perfect and brilliant sense.
The Cyloop attack, for example, where you hold Y (or triangle or whatever, it’s on everything) and run literal rings around foes to inflict damage, stun, or break defences, is a master-stroke. It’s one of those rare moments where your control of a videogame character feels as cool and powerful as how they’re depicted in cutscenes, or cartoons, or major motion pictures. Your speed is a weapon now, not just a means of traversal, and when you pull off a successful Cyloop assault on an enemy whose attack pattern gives you just nanoseconds to execute one? It’s exhilarating, as things should be when you’re a mad wee blue guy who runs fast and does cool flips all the time.
So far, admittedly, there has been precious little for us to go on beyond a short hands-on and a few trailers, but that hands-on has been critical for those of us lucky to have experienced it: in many cases (mine included) completely reversing our impressions of a game we had initially written off as an Obviously Bad Idea.
As Alex and I discuss in the above video, Frontiers is cursed by being a difficult game to showcase. It has a variety of biomes, some less vibrant than others, and Sonic’s characteristic speed makes long tracks of empty land a necessity of level design. So, it doesn’t screenshot or trailer as well as SEGA would surely like it to. But, the proof is in the pudding, and from what we’ve managed to play so far, Sonic Frontiers is pretty damn sweet.
Sonic Frontiers will release on November 8th for PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.