With the rapidly-approaching release of Sonic Mania looking set to take the series back to its roots, it seemed like a good idea to bring you a complete history of the franchise.
However, a quick look around IGDB showed us just how massive and terrifying that kind of project would be.
So in the interest of getting this article finished in time, here’s a brief look at a selection of the series’ highs and lows since it first burst onto screens in 1991.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
A blue hedgehog runs fast and breaks stuff in an attempt to rescue a ton of woodland critters from Dr. Robotnik/ Dr Eggman / that rotund red dude who isn’t Santa. What’s not to love?
Of course, it set up a bunch of major series tropes, from rings to robots and finger-waving. And that’s even before we go on to some stellar tunes and sprite work; shout out to whoever came up with Sonic’s glare and impatient foot tapping if you don’t do anything.
Slower, methodical platforming serves to balance out the break-neck pace of quicker sections (and make them seem faster), and the whole thing boasts some great visual storytelling. It’s a classic, and the game’s enduring popularity has earned it a bunch of re-releases over various platforms since.
Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car (1991)
Oh, that’s right – Sonic’s history of mind-warping genre-hops goes back all the way to the very start.
Here, kids get to ride in a little police car while Sonic plays a police officer trying to keep the streets safe from Dr. Robotnik. It was exclusive to Japan, part of the “Wakuwaku” family of games, and raises more questions than it answers.
How do you top Sonic, a notoriously fast-paced platformer? You go faster. You pop in more insane special stages. And add sidekicks who can do fun things like fly a bit or climb to balance everything out. Of course, the story – while still told in a very visual way – starts to become a bit of a soap opera, but it was Oscar-worthy compared to some later entries.
Then you create a game cartridge that you can slot other game cartridges into. Sure, Sonic & Knuckles’ expansion slot was a solution to the issue of making Sonic 3 too big; split it up. Still, it worked with a bunch of games to open some odd secrets, but it was designed to provide a new spin (pun intended) on Sonic 2, and a more complete version of Sonic 3; the imaginatively-titled Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. Glorious.
Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993)
The Mega CD was also blessed with its very own sonic title. Besides adding characters such as Metal Sonic and Amy, this game is notable for one other thing; it is the first to introduce time travel as a major narrative device.
While it probably seemed like a great idea at the time, this development had a major impact on the series. It opened the floodgates for all sorts of confusing inter-dimensional, timeline-shifting craziness later and the timing of events still causes head-scratching today. Arguably, it is when the series’ story canon started to go a little… doolally.
Tails and the Music Maker (1994)
Remember the Sega Pico? Nah, neither do we. But still, it was home to an early example of a Sonic character getting a major break without the spiky blue blur.
Tails, while not exactly renowned for his musical prowess, teaches kids how to string a tune together in this edutainment title. It must have had some kind of impact though, given the number of bands that have used his various names as monikers since. Seriously. Google it.
Sonic Drift (1994)
Correct – Mario Kart did come out two years earlier. But a racing game starring Sonic and co makes sense… Even if it is one example of the numerous times Sega’s gang just seemed to follow in a certain plumber’s footsteps. It was also far from the gang’s last racing outing.
However, there are two major things to note here that earn it points. A) It was on the Game Gear, so was portable, and B) it was based on Out Run. Noice.
Sonic’s Schoolhouse (1996)
Obviously, Tails can’t be seen to have all the fun. At all. Ever. So, by 1996, Sonic himself was getting in on the edutainment scene.
Which would be fine, if not for the fact that if Sonic was going to teach you anything, you’d want it to be PE. Why in the Green Hill Zone would it be maths?!
Sonic The Fighters (1996)
AKA Sonic Championship, this title borrows a lot from Virtua Fighter and seems to beat Mario to the “platformer hero in a brawler” punch (hur-hur) by a few years.
Best bit’s the story though. Short version? Tails, being a pillock, builds a craft capable of reaching Robotnik’s Death Egg II… and it only has one seat. So Sonic and chums decide to choose who gets to face the big baddie by beating the tar out of each other first. Classic.
Notable for its full 3D, new characters and new moves, these two games also boast expanded stories that refer to some events from previous titles. While they start to make some kind of attempt to put it all into some kind of coherent lore, they also made some questionable additions.
Like having story beats hanging on the involvement of a military organisation. Remember when this franchise was about freeing critters who had been imprisoned in robotic bodies by a crazed man in an attempt to exert control over the region?
… You know what, now I’ve typed it like that it totally sounds like something the military should be helping to handle, rather than a vigilante hedgehog. Ignore this bit.
Sonic Shuffle (2000)
“Guys, you know what’ll sell this Dreamcast thing? A party game with a board and lots of mini-games between turns!”
“Oh, like Mario Party?”
Sonic Advance (2001)
2001 was also a major year for Sonic because it marked a major shift for the speedy blue one; he popped up on a Nintendo console.
The 90s was full of playground “Mario vs Sonic” debates, fuelled by both characters popping up in flagship series for rival consoles. Not only that, but the two mascots had been trading genre-hops for a long time. For a while, it seemed as though the moment one of them was in a racing game or “edutainment” title, the other wasn’t far behind. And 3D titles. And party games. And the list goes on.
So many a Nintendo fanboy saw Sonic popping up on the GBA as a victory. Still, at least it helped bring Sega and Nintendo a little bit closer; allowing all manner of cross platform “proper” titles for Sonic when Sega stopped making hardware. It also helped pave the way for Mario and Sonic to appear in games together, usually to settle their differences through sport or by beating each other to a pulp.
Also, the sequel to Sonic Advance introduced the unfortunately-named Cream the Rabbit. So there’s that, too.
Shadow the Hedgehog (2005)
You can feel Sega wanting to play with the old formula a bit by the mid-noughties. Promoting a former supporting character to leading role? Check. Branching story? Check. Guns?
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (2006)
“OK, so you guys didn’t like the gun thing? Fine. We’ve got next-gen hardware to play with now!”
“Yeah. And it’ll have a psychic hedgehog from the future or a different universe or something, a messy story and… Well… It’ll be a crippling disappointment. But we’ve used the original title again… This time in ALL CAPS! … That’s good, isn’t it? … Hello?”
“Or you can have ‘Sonic does Arabian Nights’? … No? What if Sonic was Sonic, but became a werehog when the sun went down? Would you guys like that? Oh. how about Sonic does Arthurian legend, complete with sword?”
This title gave fanboys who were still stuck in the ’90s a chance to settle their differences through honourable sportsmanship.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
This title, however, gave fanboys who were still stuck in the ’90s a chance to settle their differences by beating each other senseless, which was ALL ANYONE EVER WANTED.
Yup, Sonic was tucked into an entry into Nintendo’s popular brawler series in a move that was met with tears of joy by some. Probably. You could also take it as a nice nod to Sonic doing the brawler thing first, too. Probably.
Sega Superstar Tennis (2008)
“Guys! Why don’t we do an arcade-y tennis game with Sonic and a bunch of other Sega characters?”
“Oh, like Mario Tennis?”
That’s right. Incredibly, it was 2010 when Sega finally put out a ‘proper’ follow-up to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Never mind 3D, guns, extended rosters of characters, genre shifts, tie-ins, cross-overs, werehogs or swords; people wanted to move fast through well-designed levels, break stuff, save the world, and repeat.
Credit where credit’s due though, it tried to produce a fresh take on the 2D heyday. Even if purists might have balked at the redesigned stages from earlier titles, the homing attacks and the different physics. Still, it was a step in the right direction, and also tried to pull its weight in solving some long-lingering questions from the series’ past.
Sonic Colours (2010)
Happily, after the wobbles of the noughties, Sega got their act together a little bit, with Colours treading a fine line between Sonic 4 Episode 1’s return to more 2D-esq gameplay and some of the previous titles’ expanded gameplay gimmicks.
The cast was stripped back, but with enough scope to provide some interesting abilities and gameplay to provide a breather from the speedier sections. Some also noted that Sonic 4’s slightly ‘floaty’ physics were tightened up a bit, much to the relief of the Internet.
Sonic Generations (2011)
For the franchise’s 20th anniversary, you can forgive Sega wanting to celebrate Sonic. The snag? It was going to have old-school 2D sections as well as parts dedicated to some of the hedgehog’s more recent tropes; homing attacks, grinding, 3D exploration and the like.
Celebrating Sonic past and present at the same time might have been a bit of a bold move for some older fans; after all, the jump to 3D bought a lot of changes with it, and not all good. But then those newer games still had fans, and this was off the back of the well-received Colours, so you can appreciate Sega’s conundrum. At least Generations went out of its way to try and offer up enough fan service for everyone.
Sonic was successfully sprinting his way back to glory between 2010 and 2012. Then he decided to copy Mario Galaxy and… Well… It slammed on the brakes and stopped feeling like Sonic. Then you have Sonic Boom.
Released to tie in with a new kids’ show, the game bought back an expanded cast, ‘humour’, dull combat and questionable 3D platforming. The whole thing ran on a fun-drainingly buggy engine and was not exactly well-received by critics. In fact, one of the producers even felt the need to explain themselves, citing over-ambition as the cause for its failure.
But then the same statement also suggested multiplayer was where the franchise should focus in the future. Debatable, that.
Sonic Mania (2017)
So here we are. After finding something of a new home on mobiles and Nintendo consoles, Sonic’s been out of the limelight for a little while. While Sonic Forces looks like it’ll build on the series’ more recent mix of 2D and 3D sections, Sonic Mania, so far, seems like it is ticking all the right boxes for a major return to the 16-bit glory days.
If the franchise was a rock band, it feels like we’ve gone through their odd, experimental prog and electronica phase, and now – finally – we look like we’re heading back towards the stripped-back, raw garage-based grit and grunt that made their first few albums exhilarating. Here’s hoping it delivers.
Like we said, there have been quite a few Sonic games over the years.
While we can’t cover all the titles and the various endless runner/ treadmill-based/ RPG/ musical edutainment/ fan-made spinoffs, here are some other noteworthy titles for your consideration:
Sonic Labyrinth (1995) | Sonic Heroes (2003) | Sonic Free Riders (2010) | Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012) | Sonic: Before The Sequel (unofficial – 2012) | Sonic Dash (2013) | Sonic Jump Fever (2014) | Sonic Forces (2017)