Everyone seems to forget this, so I’ll take this moment to remind you: Sonic the Hedgehog is a millennial. A child of the ’90s, he was told from the very beginning that he’s “gotta go fast,” and for a moment, it seemed like he could: Fueled by the attitude of the ’90s and a booming ring- and emerald-fueled economy, Sonic blazed through the Clinton years with a radical ’tude and a pair of signature kicks.
The good times, however, wouldn’t last, and the Blue Blur would soon find himself with the rest of his generation: burned out, overworked (he has starred in over 30 games, not including dozens of spinoffs) and forever falling short of the success befitting a corporate mascot.
Like all victims of Millennial Burnout, Sonic is finding solace in ’90s nostalgia. Sonic Origins is the latest of several compilations gathering games from the hedgehog’s 16-bit heyday, namely Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. A cynical soul would see this as a shallow attempt to extract $40 (or more!) off perennially available games and the surprise success of a burgeoning film franchise.
A more charitable way of looking at Sonic Origins, with its inclusion of both classic and “Anniversary” (HD, in other words) versions of the classic platformers, is simply Sega making sure a vital part of its history is available on the latest platforms, performing to modern standards. But is that something anyone really wants? Should the average person revisit Sonic’s early games, or is the mascot better off thriving as the chaos god of memetic strangeness he’s become, even as every new game seems primed to disappoint?
Let’s flash back. (This is where the soundtrack would cue up Beastie Boys, or perhaps Fugees, to let the viewer know we are in the ’90s.) The original Sonic the Hedgehog games were my gateway drug to the world of video games — the first games I ever loved, of which I mentally mapped every pixel. As someone with strict parents who didn’t really approve of video games, I was only permitted to play them for short bursts, and I spent that time getting better and better at Sonic 2 until I could finish it in those brief windows. I had become one of the youngest speedrunners alive entirely by accident.
Few games are better for this style of play. While most games of this era chased Super Mario with thoughtful design that encouraged player exploration and experimentation, Sonic games were brasher, arguably braver — each level is full of things for you to ignore. Like an interstate highway, a good Sonic level rarely presents more than two options at a given moment, and the most interesting path is almost always the one that will let you keep going fast. Stopping to explore a Sonic level feels wrong on a fundamental level — enticing items, carefully hidden just out of reach, are just scenery to be blown past, with a mental bookmark made to try and find a new route next time.
Playing Sonic Origins again as a grown-ass man, I am shocked by the muscle memory that I still have — how I know that if I hit a certain ramp at top speed in Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone, I can soar high over the map and land on top of a robot bee to continue my momentum forward. I know that Chemical Plant Zone still freaking sucks, because it stops you in your tracks to platform over rising toxic water. It also features slow-moving ladders that are more likely to crush you than lead you to the platform above. I am still frustrated by the faux-3D special stages, which are easy until they are not, and also far more nauseating in HD.
Revisiting these games last week, I began to wonder if the only reason I still like them is because they’re familiar, and perhaps the only way to enjoy Sonic is nostalgically. It’s hard to imagine someone learning these levels for the first time and feeling like any kind of speedster — or at least one who makes it through with all their rings intact. Even if the franchise transition into three dimensions didn’t feel like playing Sonic with the parking brake on, I would have stopped having the time and energy to play these games at such a pace a long time ago. Perhaps good new Sonic games are rare because so few incentivize their audience to be good Sonic players — and instead try to reproduce the imagined feeling of the old games.
Instead, Sonic has been grafted onto other things. Video games fetishize novelty, and in the decades between these classic games and Sonic Frontiers, Sonic has chased novelty at top speed. What if a game gave him a sword? Made him a were-hog? Placed him among real-looking humans? As a fellow millennial, Sonic must wonder: Must I really ‘gotta go fast’? Or is it merely capitalism that makes me?
By the way, if you’re feeling burnt out, might I recommend playing Sonic Origins? It’s quite soothing.