You might want to sit down for this because we have a nasty feeling that we’re about to make you feel very old. Sonic the Hedgehog, everybody’s favorite pointy, blue, golden ring collector, is thirty years old next year. Your happy memories of listening to that iconic theme music and crashing headlong into walls full of steel spikes while doing battle with the evil Dr. Robotnik come from three decades ago. Sorry to break that to you. If it’s any consolation, Sonic’s Nintendo-based friend Mario is a full 35.
Anniversary years are important for well-known video games and video game characters because they provide an excuse for the companies behind them to come up with a range of brand new features and attractions. We’ve already seen Nintendo trying to push the boat out for Mario’s 35th anniversary this year, which is a strange anniversary to celebrate when you step back and think about it. As you might expect, Sega is also going to go big with 30th-anniversary celebrations for its most famous creation – and those celebrations might go a lot further than you expect. If you think releasing one brand new game would be a good way to mark an anniversary, you need to raise your expectations. From the information we’ve seen, we’re looking at a whole ‘year of Sonic’ from Sega.
Before we get too excited, it would probably do us some good to remember what happened the last few times anything new happened in the not-always-excellent world of Sonic the Hedgehog. The most recent significant Sonic event was the release of the first-ever Sonic movie in February 2020. Nobody seems to know why it took this long to give the character a film to appear in when you think about the fact that Mario managed it in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t a triumph. In fact, Roger Ebert’s website gave it a one-star review and called it ‘the worst kind of bad movie.’ We know there are people who enjoyed it, and it made a reasonable return at the box office, but it wasn’t the unqualified hit that it probably needed to be if it were going to generate a sequel.
Before the movie, Sonic’s last trip beyond the confines of a traditional computer game was when he showed up on the reels of online slots websites during Sega’s shot-lived ‘Sega Slots’ experiment. Having seen the amount of money that online slots websites are making and believing that there was space for them, Sega dived headlong into the market in 2018. They used their full range of well-known characters to create a variety of slots, including Shinobi, Golden Axe, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. Given that you’ve probably never heard of Sega Slots, you can probably guess how this went. Success in this industry generally means releasing games to existing online slots websites rather than trying to oppose them, and Sega backed out of the market barely twelve months after ending it, shutting down all of their slots in the process. To put it another way, they took their ball and went home.
Those two missteps have one thing in common; they involved doing something with the intellectual property of Sonic that wasn’t a standard video game. The character was designed to appear in video games and is at its best when it’s in its natural environment. That’s why you’ll probably be happy to hear that new games are the focus of what Sega has up its sleeve for 2021. Tantalizingly they’re also promising ‘major announcements’ to go with their new games, but at the time of writing, we have no idea that those major announcements might be. The precise wording of the announcement comes from the summer 2020 edition of the European Licensing Source Book, which spoke of a ‘tailored licensing program’ as well as ‘new digital content’ to run alongside the games. Licensing programs go hand in hand with sponsored or approved products, so perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Sonic at online slots websites after all.
The success of recent ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ video games has been varied. The franchise struggled for years after moving from two dimensions to three dimensions, with almost no genuinely good Sonic games appearing during the first ten years of the 21st century despite more than a dozen games being released during that period. The intended relaunch of the character and the franchise with ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2006 proved to be a particular lowlight. There was a brief revival of fortunes in 2007 when Sonic finally teamed up with Mario for ‘Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games’ for the Nintendo Wii, but the 2011 follow up ‘Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games’ sold barely a quarter as many copies, and the series was discontinued outside Japan.
Things finally started looking up again for our favorite hedgehog when he moved back into two dimensions for 2018’s ‘Sonic Mania,’ managing to delight the nostalgia audience and younger players at the same time, but that’s the last time a Sonic game was made available for major platforms. It was confirmed toward the end of 2019 that a new Sonic game had entered production, but nobody knows what format it might take. If the team responsible for the game’s development had learned anything from ‘Sonic Mania,’ it ought to be a two-dimensional platformer. If they haven’t, it will most likely be another 3D effort in the vein of 2017’s abomination ‘Sonic Forces.’ Given that this is a big anniversary year, though, it doesn’t have to be an either-or decision. As Sega has been specific about saying ‘games’ rather than ‘game,’ we suspect we’ll see Sonic arrive in more than one format, and probably more than a few platforms, too.
Most gamers have a favorite ‘Sonic’ game, and so we hope that over the course of the twelve months of celebrations, Sega comes up with something for everyone. We’d love to see a genuinely great three-dimensional Sonic game, although every effort to make that happen has failed in the past. We’d also be happy with a brilliant 2D game and an enjoyable mobile game. Whatever happens, we hope that Sega gives the little critter the birthday party he deserves. After sticking around for this long, he deserves it.