‘Cool, timeless and enigmatic’: Sonic the Hedgehog’s creators on taking him back to the 90s | Games
For the first time since 1992, this month we have seen the release of a new Sonic the Hedgehog game and a new Mario game. The sass-spouting hedgehog has also enjoyed a new lease of life on the big screen, thanks to Hollywood blockbusters starring Idris Elba and Jim Carrey. But on the games front, even as Mario leaped and sprinted his way gracefully across decades of brilliant adventures, Sonic’s appearances since his 1990s heyday have been … mixed. From a misjudged sword-wielding Sonic on the Wii to the baffling adventures of Sonic the Werehog in 2008’s Sonic Unleashed, the poor old hedgehog stumbled and fell into something of a midlife crisis.
Like all struggling artists trying to recapture their former glory, Sonic’s caretakers have taken their hero back to his roots. With their new release, Sonic Superstars, Sega has rejected the sprawling open-world freedom of last year’s Sonic Frontiers and returned to the side-scrolling of old. And who better to help rediscover the unbridled joy of the blue blur than designer Takashi Iizuka, one of the creative leads on such beloved entries as Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1 and 2.
“Those games stand out in particular – not only because they were amazing games, but because each of them felt epic or were a milestone moment for the franchise,” reflects a cheery Iizuka. “Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles really refined that classic Sonic experience and took it to a scale previously unseen. And of course, Sonic Adventure was a fantastic game that was also the first fully 3D Sonic experience. But ultimately it’s [always] about getting the ‘Sonic feel’ right and creating a unique and memorable experience, which those games absolutely did.”
Still, if you’re going to truly channel the classics, you’ll need the original lineup. For Sonic Superstars, capturing that classic Mega Drive gameplay was critical – and so Iizuka enlisted the help of acclaimed game designer Naoto Ohshima. He was a character designer on Sonic’s first outing, and has played a pivotal role in every 1990s release from the franchise, but Ohshima has been absent from Team Sonic since 1998’s Sonic Adventure. Bringing him back into the fold was crucial to recapturing that lost magic.
“I’m really grateful for what Ohshima-san has brought to Sonic Superstars,” says Iizuka. “It is great to be back working together again – it’s like an old family coming together. Sonic has a certain appeal and once you’ve worked on one, I think it’s hard to get that fully out of your system. It will always be part of you.”
Despite its pedigree, the reveal of the all-new Superstars raised a few eyebrows. After the critical and commercial success of 2017’s 2D revival, Sonic Mania (which was developed by other studios) a lot of fans were expecting a sequel from Sega. “I can understand how it might have been unexpected,” Iizuka says. “Sonic Mania was very popular with fans, and we are proud to have returned to a classic pixel Sonic experience with that game. With Superstars, however, our ambition was to create a new standard for 2D Sonic games by enhancing Sonic’s familiar gameplay with a modern presentation that is only possible with 3D graphics.”
Pick up Superstars, and it’s the most credible rival to Mario the series has produced in decades. Balancing classic locations with new stages to zoom across, it’s a clever mix of retro and modern gaming sensibilities, boasting a level of invention and playfulness rarely seen in modern Sonic. How much, I ask, did Mario’s recent outings inspire Superstars?
“We always pay attention to other titles in the genre, but we are focused on what we can do to keep the Sonic franchise feeling fresh,” says Iizuka. “For me, I think it’s combining that Classic Sonic experience – the flow, the momentum, the physics – into a game built around modern 3D graphics. It feels how players expect it to feel. And while that sounds simple on the surface, in game development, it can be a challenge to get it absolutely right.”
While Superstars hasn’t received rave reviews, it has nonetheless garneredfrom fans and critics alike. For this long-troubled series, it’s a step in the right direction. Many fans online have grown to dread what is known as “the Sonic cycle”: excitement at a new game’s announcement, followed by disappointment when it comes out. This is something that Iizuka himself is all too aware of, having been rehired as Sega’s frontline defender against subpar Sonic games.
“After I worked on the development of Sonic Adventure 2 in the US, there were many Sonic titles produced in Japan by multiple development teams. That led to a rich variety of titles, but it also resulted in different levels of quality,” he says, diplomatically, “To address this, I started working as the producer of all titles beginning with Sonic Colors.”
The pursuit of perfect platforming has obsessed Iizuka for most of his career. While players immediately know whether a side-scroller “feels” right, from a developer’s side, it’s not easy to achieve. “The number one priority is always gameplay and getting the feel of the game absolutely right. We know how important the feeling of speed and momentum is,” he says. “I think there are multiple ways that you can approach a platformer, whether it’s an ultra-challenging, precision-based game, or something that is designed effortlessly around flow and momentum. Balancing the two approaches is something that some of the best games in the genre do. But at the heart of it is the satisfaction and enjoyment of progressing through each level; the surprises along the way, the way the character feels to control, and the excitement of actually playing it. There is a lot that goes into achieving those reactions from the player.”
While Sonic’s interactive adventures have been hit-and-miss in the 21st century, the blue blur has taken Hollywood by storm. Sonic’s second movie is one of the highest grossing video game movies of all time, though it was ironically overtaken this year by. Super Mario Bros Movie. For Iizuka, it’s a strange but ultimately inspiring feeling.
“It is great to see Sonic doing so well and to see new generations of fans discover the franchise,” he says. “Video games that are adapted into movies have a long and interesting history, and it’s not always easy or guaranteed that you’ll have success … [but] our partners there have done a fantastic job at delivering on Sonic’s personality and charm.”
Despite spending decades with Sega’s mascot, Iizuka isn’t going anywhere soon. “There is so much that can still be done,” he believes. “As a character, Sonic is cool and likable, timeless and enigmatic. It’s not often that you come across a character like that. One who looks equally at home in history as he does in the future. Imagination and creativity are infinite, I always say. We plan to continue to surprise players for many years to come.”