If you played video games in the nineties, you know Sonic the Hedgehog. You know how Sega dreamed up its spiky, slightly rebellious hero as an answer to Nintendo’s moustache-wielding, mushroom-chomping Mario character. You also know this was very much the Blur vs Oasis of the gaming world, dividing a whole generation along pixellated battle lines. Were you Sonic or were you Mario? School playgrounds around the world were bitterly divided.
Over the following twenty years, Sega has updated its mascot for every new generation of hardware, providing fresh enemies and revised environments, and bridging the gap between the character’s 2D origins and the three-dimensional worlds of modern games. According to Rated Gamer Gear, there have been notable successes: the first four brilliant, revolutionary titles, Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS, Sonic Adventure 2 on Dreamcast. There have been depressing failures, too (we’re looking at you, extreme sports travesty, Sonic Riders, and you Sonic Unleashed, in which Sonic turns into a, ugh, werehog). But the original creators of the game –Sonic Team – have usually been in full creative control, prodding their progeny forward with little tweaks here and a few graphical flourish there. A gradual evolution, then.
But that is about to change.
Sonic Boom is – Sega claims – a bold new take on its hedgehog icon, a sort of side-universe to the main series. David Corless, the global brand director for Sonic, likens it to the way Marvel and DC often have multiple comic book titles for each of their major super heroes. Developed as part of Sega’s current publishing deal with Nintendo, the game will launch only on Wii U and 3DS in the autumn. Who could have imaged a deal like thatwhen Sonic arrived to challenge the Mario hegemony in 1991? Meanwhile, leading French animation studio OuiDo has been brought in to create a companion animated series to coincide with the launch – it’s the first new TV outing for Sonic since the anime series Sonic X ten years ago, and the first to to be developed in CGI. Sega has also inked a deal with Tomy to produce a range of tie-in action figures and playsets. This is a true cross-generation lunge at Sonic’s still vast fan base.
At the heart of it all is a co-op action adventure, allowing two players to team up and take on Sonic’s archenemy Dr Eggman and his hordes of metallic minions. Early teaser trailers, however, hint that a major new enemy is being added, although Sega is of course, remaining tight-lipped for now. What we do know is there are four familiar heroes to choose from – Sonic, naturally, and his friends Knuckles, Tails and Amy, each with their own specific moves and abilities.
What will immediately strike veteran fans is the pretty radical re-design of these familiar platforming icons. Sonic now has a dashing scarf (yes, hedgehogs accessorise) and athletic tape wrapped round his wrists, like a boxer. Also… he has completely blue arms now. Blue arms! They were sort of flesh coloured before – and have been since the beginning. He looks grown up. Which is the point. “The objective was to make the characters instantly recognisable as being from Sonic Boom,” says Bob Rafei, the creative director at LA-based studio Big Red Button, which is handling the new title. “We explored various costume options and quickly found the limits of what works and what doesn’t. Since we wanted to push the characterisation of Sonic and friends to fit our narrative, I thought it more appropriate to make them a touch older by adjusting their head, hand and feet proportions. The athletic tape hints at a team that is ready for any action – it is about practicality rather than vanity. Given they have very clean graphic lines, it was important not to clutter their silhouettes, so any little addition had to be carefully considered. They are designed for an epic action adventure.”
The emphasis of the game will be on how the characters collaborate through each level. Sonic has speed (duh), but Knuckles has strength, Tails has his gadgets, and Amy wields her usual gigantic hammer. On top of this, the studio has added a new mechanic, the ‘ener-beam’ a sort of elastic force that links the two player characters together. This is clearly a way of preventing players from straying too far apart on screen, but it can also be exploited in useful various ways – for example, stretching the link to its limit in order to catapult one character over a chasm or into an enemy. It’s a weird concept, it sounds sort of awkward, but at least it is new.