Sonic's New Friend "Sticks" and the Flipside of Nostalgia
Gamers have a real complex about Sonic. It doesn't have to be that way though.
This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.
Nothing gets the gaming community tittering quite like the announcement of anything related to Sonic. And that goes double for new characters like Sticks; a new female character as it happens.
Jason Schreier over at Kotaku snarked, "It's not really clear whether that's hair on her head or just some unfortunately large badger ears, but I have no doubt that people are already writing fanfiction about it," while DeviantArt couldn't resist pointing out that, yes, Sticks already has fanart. It's like that pretty much everywhere on the internet. The narrative is no longer, "Will Sonic games ever be good again?" It's now, "Sonic fans sure are weird."
It's not hard to see why. Sonic is at the unique crossroads of being an iconic, almost universally recognizable figure from the 16-bit era while also being geared almost entirely toward kids. I mean, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still gets plenty of love, but it wasn't what you would call a pillar of 80s television. Sonic was one of the most important games of its day.
Now we're all grown up though; and unfortunately, Sonic hasn't really grown up with us. It's much the same as it was back in the early 90s, though with a few more friends. And while Sonic Generations is a lot better than most people give it credit for, the design hasn't evolved much either. Sonic has long since been exposed for what it is: A fun but kind of shallow platformer that doesn't translate very well to 3D. Kids still love it, but adults understandably want something a little deeper (even if "deeper" often translates to "Call of Duty").
Sonic continues to hang around though, mainly as a vessel for kids to get into gaming. If Mario is the gaming equivalent of Pixar or Frozen, then Sonic is a little more like Hotel Transylvania or Despicable Me—strictly kids stuff. It's more a guilty or nostalgic pleasure than anything else these days. Nevertheless, a fairly vocal contingent of adults continues to follow the series; and while not all of them like to write Sonic x Tails slash, it's still a deeply weird community that tends to mix a childlike obsession with Sonic with various sexual... uh... activities. Making fun of Sonic cosplayers is practically a cottage industry at this point, mainly because they're such easy targets.
In a way though, I think the targeting of Sonic fans speaks to the gaming community's deep discomfort with its own identity, with Sonic cosplayers serving as a kind of funhouse mirror representation of the gaming community's own deepest fears about itself. As much as we all rail against the mainstream media's silly portrayal of gamers as overgrown man babies living in their parent's basement, it's easy to feel self-conscious about the hobby at times. Just today, Deadspin's Garrett Kamps wrote in reference to Titanfall, "Perhaps this is a generational thing, but I still feel a tinge of embarrassment that video games are my preferred mode of home entertainment here in my mid-thirties," before going on to compare the typical online shooter denizen to Red Sox fans ("And we all know how embarrassing it is to associate with fucking Red Sox fans").
Hardcore Sonic fans have kind of come to represent the medium's id in that respect. They are passionate about a thing that a lot of us liked growing up, and still kind of want to respect, but they're also completely over-the-top about it. Sonic fans are hardly unique in that respect—every classic gaming series has its cosplayers and fanfic writers—but they tend to get the worst of it in part because the games aren't really that great anymore, and because there seems to be this feeling that they have somehow corrupted a great franchise by their mere presence. They have become an outlet for the frustration over both Sonic's unwillingness to evolve and the sadness that comes with the realization that we're not kids anymore and the world really has moved on. It certainly doesn't help that they are frequently conflated with furries, who remain the Internet's favorite punching bag.
I expect the only way that the "Sonic fans are weirdos!" storyline will go away is if the games get substantially better and win themselves a crossover audience, at which it will be a little "cooler" to like Sonic. But at this point, I don't know if that's possible. Sega seems comfortable with focusing the series towards kids; and honestly, I think that's okay. It's really hard to create a piece of media that can appeal on both kids and adults, especially when it stars a blue hedgehog with '90s attitude (and a scarf). Better for Sonic to know what it wants to be than to try and force some misguided attempt at "maturity." It's those sorts of decisions that result in the likes of Shadow the Hedgehog.
I think the main thing to realize is that classic Sonic and modern Sonic don't have to be one and the same. It's quite possible to acknowledge Sonic's place in history as a pillar of gaming, while also acknowledging that gaming as a whole has moved on. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we as a community can put our complex about Sonic the Hedgehog to rest and move on.