Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sonic the Hedgehog - Bad Attitude
Why couldn't he be more like that nice boy Mario?

When you really think about it, becoming acquainted with a video-game system is a lot like striking up a new relationship. There's that introductory phase where you curiously assess the character of your potential companion as it flaunts its alluring physical attributes and works to make an indelible first impression. There are those months in following, where you spend a lot of time with it and learn much about its natural disposition--its full range of strengths, weaknesses, and personality quirks. As the years fall off, you develop feelings for it, associating fun times and great memories with images of its frame. You watch on as it matures and begins exhibiting capabilities far beyond what you originally thought possible. You enthusiastically applaud its growth. You lovingly celebrate the longevity your bond. You shower it with every single bit of praise you can muster. And then you fall over in a bloody heap when it unexpectedly plunges a knife into your back.

Well, that's how it was with me and the Sega Genesis, at least. Ours was a relationship more tragic than most.

See--in those early days, when I'd go over to my friend Dominick's house to play a few rounds of Altered Beast or Golden Axe, I was always somewhat in awe of what the Genesis could do. I didn't feel that I needed to own one for myself, since I was happy enough having constant access to it via my friend, but you could say that I was a bit envious of fact that Dominick owned a machine that was capable of displaying arcade-quality graphics right there in his home. But you know what? Though it would have been a natural thing for him to do, Dominick never thought to boast about holding console superiority over a lowly 8-bit cretin like me, so by association, I didn't perceive the Genesis, which was somewhat antagonistic in how it proudly advertised its "16-BIT" power on the face of its cartridge slot, to stand as an affront to the things I liked--mainly all of those 8-bit games I was still enjoying on our Commodore 64 and NES.

The Genesis, to me, was simply "the next Sega," a graphically superior followup to the unassuming Master System (the original "Sega," as we called it) I'd occasionally play at my friend Mike's house. Until it had visible competition a few years later, I didn't realize that its "16-bit" status was indicative of a "generation of hardware" or that the console landscape was about to change. I viewed the Genesis as more or less a unique stand-alone console--"the beat-'em-up machine" as I referred to it--whose entertaining action games we enjoyed in accessory to our NES favorites.

That's what the console was to me until the later months of 1991, when things started to go sour.

So one day that summer, as the scene often unfolded, I wandered my way over to that white and red house on 85th Street where Dominick was excitedly immersed in a brand new Genesis game he couldn't wait to show me. It was called Sonic the Hedgehog, and it was apparently the next big thing. Me being me, I wasn't aware that the machine was all that viable two years after the fact, and I was pretty shocked that it could produce a game like Sonic, which even on its title screen displayed a level of shine and polish far greater than anything I'd previously seen on the system. Truly, its every sight and sound from the title screen's attention-grabbing music, as punctuated by Sonic's audacious finger-waving animation, to the sparkling visual presentation to the boingy sound effects made for one of the most aesthetically distinct games I'd ever observed. 

I was particularly impressed as I watched him play through that first stage, whose name I didn't even catch as it quickly faded from view. No--my eyes were more focused on all of the activity happening onscreen, both in the background, where some breathtaking scrolling-layer effects were on display, and in the action scene that was moving so fast that it all seemed like a colorful blur. I didn't even have a second to conjure up thoughts of a close analog to what I was seeing in Sonic, which defied classification; I could think of no other game where an anthropomorphic animal could curl into a ball and absolutely rocket his way across terrain, around loop-the-loops, through twisted tunnels, and come out clean at the finish line. I thought it was innovative how Sonic deviated from the traditional limited-health formula found in most every other platformer and allowed its hero to continue enduring via the retention of rings, which he could frantically recollect anytime they were strewn about after enemy contact.

I don't remember how long Dominick showcased Sonic for me that afternoon or if I survived more than three stages when he allowed me to take a crack at it, but I know that I left his house that day with images of the game--specifically the "Green Hill Zone," as it were--burned into my mind. And as I made that walk back toward my house on 83rd Street, all I could I wonder was "How did I not know about Sonic the Hedgehog?" While the powerful resonance of its aesthetics, alone, still wasn't enough for me to seriously entertain the idea of purchasing a Genesis--especially now that the SNES was on its way and the prospect of multi-console ownership instilled within me the fear that I'd have to keep up with two libraries at once, which didn't sound financially feasible--I would have loved to have been present among friends during the build-up to its anticipated release.

Now, I didn't have to wonder long about why I was oblivious to the game's existence. Obviously, since my interest began skewing more and more toward Nintendo products as the years went on, I didn't really keep tabs on non-Nintendo Power publications, which had undoubtedly spent the first half of the year splashing images of Sonic all over their pages; bereft of that knowledge, I couldn't have known that the Genesis was about to generate the spark that would power the system to three years of additional success. Frankly, in my ignorance, I regarded Sonic as a highly intriguing game but nothing that could possibly hold that kind of sway.

That all changed a few months later when the months-old Sonic the Hedgehog started appearing in Genesis-themed TV commercials, which I previously hadn't seen from the seemingly passive Sega. Suddenly, Sega, creator of that charming "beat-'em-up" machine, was acting venomously combative; its commercials were constantly attacking the SNES and Mario, trying to paint the two as slow and uncool. One TV spot in particular had a "female activist" (a guy in drag) patronizingly extolling the virtues of the white-bread Mario while portraying Sonic as edgy and full of attitude, which were attributes that for some reason struck a chord with kids from my generation. Commercials like those would play all the time, and I'd angrily grab my remote to switch the channel within seconds anytime I'd catch a hint that one was about to play!

Nope--I didn't like them one bit. I mean, from what I'd gauged about the kids around me, we were all fans of video games and appreciated each platform for the unique experience it offered, so what need was there, then, for Sega to piss on those of us who enjoyed playing game systems in all of their wonderfully disparate forms? "Surely Sega's gonna pay a rather hefty price for resorting to these types of tactics!" I thought. Though, for however negatively I received those ads, the masses didn't seem share my opinion; Sega's was apparently an effective form of advertising, commercial after commercial working to mobilize a new force of system warriors who would spend the next decade of their lives (and much, much longer if you read Internet message boards) tearing down the brands of companies whose only sin was failing to whisper into their ears the proper amount of lies as to how "cool" and "mature" they were for owning one Japanese box over another.

Me? I never saw any first-hand accounts of these wretched "system wars"--mostly, I think, because my circle of friends was pretty small and I was still largely operating from within a tiny bubble of existence. Still, those annoying, frequently airing "Genesis Does!" commercials were reminder enough that a new age of aggression had arrived with a spiny-headed miscreant as its spokesman, and I was certain that I didn't need to see any more of this "Sonic the Hedgehog" character.

All right--so I still very much liked his game and had no actual desire to cease playing it (what do you want from me?), but I'd decided that I wasn't going to make my ill feelings known to Dominick or other close friends; I continued playing Sonic as though nothing had happened, no doubt with a subtle sneer forming across my face whenever I'd hold the controller of the console I'd identified as the cause of all of this unnecessary malice. These feelings didn't damper my interest when, say, Sonic would appear on a show like Nick Arcade as an all-too-easy "Video Challenge," whence I would get answers to my questions of "Is there any kid terrible enough to fail at this stupidly simple challenge?" and "How badly will host Phil Moore butcher Dr. Robotnick's name this week?" (it's not "Robo-Nick," Phil, wherever you are). And even if I were to attempt as much, I could never have erased from my memory Sonic's iconic main theme and the game's strikingly effervescent graphical design, which I had to admit combined to create some unforgettably superior 16-bit aesthetics. 

Sonic the Hedgehog would remain a constant presence in my life whether I liked what he stood for or not. He occupied a space in my consciousness whether I had access to his game or didn't. For the first few years of his existence, that's what the Sonic character represented to me: He was a brash mascot of an appealing platformer but otherwise a symbol of one company's contempt for the types of game systems I liked.

It wasn't that my feelings on the matter ever changed but rather there were a special set of circumstances that started a reconciliation between Sonic and I. Sometime in the middle of 1994, you see, I got myself a Sega Genesis! Well, no, silly--I didn't actually go out and buy the thing (besides--I was running out of couches to dig through); it just kind of fell into my lap. I've mentioned in the past that my father is a very generous man who goes out of his way to help people financially or otherwise. Well, one person he helped get started in life was my brother's friend Eric, who remained eternally grateful to my family. As a small token of his appreciation, he showed up at our house one day with his Genesis, for which he apparently had no further need (he never explained why, but we believed that he had his eye on the upcoming Sony PlayStation), after deciding that he wanted to give it to us for nothing! Better yet: He also wanted us to take his copy of Sonic the Hedgehog

My brother didn't care much, really, since he was currently more invested in other activities (his girlfriend and his band, mainly), but I wasn't capable of feigning the same type of disinterest; oh, no--I was silently ecstatic about it. Getting a whole new system without any in the way of entry fee was like a dream, and I was primed to take advantage of the opportunity. (It's a situation I feel bad about in retrospect, because the story ended with us selling it back to the forgetful Eric a year and half later when we were saving up for an N64. I have no idea how he didn't notice that we were selling him back his own system, and my only hope is that he did realize it but just didn't care.)

My first more-personal session with the Genesis was quite revealing. For one, since I'd never inspected the system up close, I was shocked to learn about the true nature of one its primary functions. "Wait I minute," I said to myself upon seeing that familiar trapezoidal shape. "Are those 2600 controller ports? Are you tell me that you can operate this thing with 2600 controllers?! That's crazy! How did I not notice this before? Who am I--Eric?!" First it was the Commodore 64 and now this. I couldn't say for sure, but the ubiquity of this particular controller port was a sign that either Atari's spirit was refusing to die or the company had secretly taken over the entire industry. I'm always talking about how I perceived these machines to hail from entirely separate universes with no obvious aesthetic compatibilities, and that's the reason why I was so amazed that this modern console came bearing a symbol of a long-dead pioneer (assuming, of course, they hadn't taken on that aforementioned role of the video-game Illuminati). "What world is this?" I wondered.

So for the first time, I found myself playing Sonic the Hedgehog from the comfort of my own home--for some reason in our basement, which was perennially my brother's restricted domain. As I expressed in my inaugural Super Mario Bros. piece: There's always something magical or surreal about having a first experience with a console within the confines of your own home, even if you've played it plenty of times elsewhere, and same held true for my first session with the Genesis. Suddenly, in a scenario I couldn't have envisioned when I woke up that morning, the boisterous music of Sonic the Hedgehog was now rebounding between the familiar walls I never imagined would know such reverberance. It's true that part of me felt that investing time into this belligerent black box was tantamount to being unfaithful to my beloved Nintendo systems, which had been the target of Sega's wrath for so many years, but I believed then as I do now that being a true enthusiast meant that you couldn't ignore the best games for petty reasons.

So for about a year a half, I was a Genesis owner, and Sonic the Hedgehog was my main game (most of the other Genesis games I played during that time were Blockbuster rentals). We had a lot of fun in our short time together, and it was my regret that I sold away the console and the game when there so many other ways I could have accumulated $100.

"So how 'bout the game itself?" you ask. "Ever gonna talk about that, Captain Rambly?" Well, certainly--at least part of it.

For me, Sonic the Hedgehog was all about the Green Hill Zone, whose three stages were brilliantly constructed and featured unmatched aesthetic flair. The game was a must-play for everyone, I felt, simply for the unforgettable experience of blasting across Sonic's lushly toned, specially contoured landscapes in an attempt to uninhibitedly speed toward the end goal in a symphony of motion. The exhilaration of soaring high through the air at super speeds without knowing for sure where your flight would carry you. The thrill of hitting all of the correct angles, barely clearing the most dangerous obstructions, and safely arriving at a serene endpoint that might even hold a surprise or two.

The first stage, on its own, did incredibly well to hit all of the high notes early on, its basic action working to effortlessly explain what Sonic was all about: You collected rings, whipped around loop-the-loops, bounced off springs, rolled through tunnels, and collected power-ups that granted limited shielding and invincibility. The open level design allowed you to experiment with the range of Sonic's momentum-based abilities while demonstrating that you weren't confined to taking a single path through a stage, though you could stick to the obvious path if you were too uncomfortable with the idea of exploration. Its best musical track, the iconic Green Hill Zone theme, could be heard right out of the gate, its high energy working to shine the greatest illumination the stage's luscious greenery, its checkered textures, and those engrossing backgrounds with their scrolling waterways, endless woodland, and pointy mountain ranges.

That first act of Green Hill Zone also offered players their best chance at earning access to the special stage--a whimsically crafted version of those marble-maze games where you rotate the entire field to get the ball to its goal. Honestly, I hadn't faintest clue as to their true significance or what the Chaos Emeralds were supposed to be, so I assumed that procuring one netted you an extra continue; that's the only reason I'd make a token effort to clear a special stage whenever one would mysteriously appear. I could never get Sonic to move around the mazes as intended, anyway, so I it was never too upsetting to me when a giant ring wasn't there waiting for me at the end of a stage.

That's about where my deepest admiration for the game ended. From that point forward, Sonic's slopes trended downhill, and the zones in following offered nothing nearly as memorable. This is why I focus so much on the exemplary Green Hill Zone whenever I talk about Sonic the Hedgehog.

Take the Marble Zone, for instance: It exhibited much of the same aesthetic spirit and even added more in the way of traditional platforming elements like oscillating pillars, protruding platforms, and crushing spike beds. But even though I continued to enjoy relishing its delectable background work, the zone's cramped construction only served to severely hamper the game's established pace, which is what made it so much less interesting to me than Green Hill Zone; the proceeding Spring Yard Zone was even worse with its scores of closely aligned, oscillating platforms whose movements you had to wait out. To its credit, the game was always inventing new ways for Sonic to toss himself about the stages, but it slowly began shifting too much toward precision platforming, which wasn't its strength. The controls were simply too hyperactive to handle it: Sonic would slip off blocks; unavoidably plunge into those overly lengthy lava bed and spike pits following even the most seemingly well-calculated jumps; and take damage from enemies because I was one pixel off from bumping its tiny weak spot.

The major stumbling block, though, was the particularly dreaded Labyrinth Zone. Mainly, these were the game's "underwater stages," which under normal conditions were the worst part of any platformer but were made much more troublesome here because (a) I felt I had little control over Sonic when he was submerged, and (b) they introduced the sadistic mechanic of having to constantly inhale air bubbles to stay alive, which discouraged exploration and required a lot of standing around and waiting for correctly sized bubbles to appear. It was bad enough that I could never seem to find a bubble-spawner when I needed one most--when that that terrifying countdown music would begin blaring and grow more dire with each passing second--but it was absolutely exasperating when I'd have only a few seconds left and the damn thing would refuse to spawn a large bubble! The correctly advertised labyrinthine nature of these stages only made them more intimidating and not fun in any way.

By the time I'd reach the third act's Robotnick segment--an infuriating chase sequence through a zigzagging tunnel loaded with stabbing spears and wall-mounted, fire-spewing statue heads--I was ready to check out and never look back.

These unfortunate design choices may have deterred from playing Sonic the Hedgehog seriously (I beat it one time after many painful attempts), but I still felt that it was a game worth playing just to experience its sterling opening acts, the first of which I'd surely put down on my list for "Most Memorable Opening Stages" alongside quintessential Stage 1s like those from Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Contra, Castlevania and Doom. Dominick and I spent a fair bit of time playing its two sequels, but nothing about their gameplay or aesthetics captured me quite like what I saw in the original's opening acts; they were merely more of the same, no sight or sound so amazing that it could possibly displace those firmly embedded mental images of Green Hill Zone I so lovingly preserved. My only true memories of the sequels are that we had some fun with their competitive versus modes and that I was fascinated with Sega's Lock-On technology, which I regarded as some inconceivable form of sorcery ("How could Knuckles appear in a game he wasn't originally in?!").

In the next 8-10 years, I was mostly a passive spectator to Sonic's exploits, so, really, I'm not entirely sure how his games became what they became or when Sega lost the pot. The Sonic the Hedgehog games made the most sense to me when they placed the Blue Blur in colorful, fantastical worlds and allowed him to interact with landforms, obstacles and characters that were their exclusive creations, but not so much when Sonic was inserted into dark, despotic worlds born from realism and populated with human characters amongst whom he was so desperately out of place. If that's what "growing up" is supposed to mean, then Sega would have been wise to supply Sonic a youth potion. I can't speak as to the quality of some of these games, since I haven't played all of them, but it's been more than disappointing to watch on as the gaming community has used their alleged mediocrity as ammunition to continue dragging the struggling Sega's name through the mud. Now, I'm not interested in taking part in the debate as to whether Sonic is supposed to be more about "speed" or "platforming," but I'm certain that the key to him "returning to his roots" lies somewhere within the creative vision of people who understand why his games became so popular in the first place.

For a long time, what Sonic represented to me was the tribalism his image helped to invoke among those who refused to think. I lay the majority of the blame for that on Sega of America's former CEO Tom Kalinkse, whose well-remembered but destructive advertising campaign is partly responsible for molding the ill-conceived ideology of the so-called "hardcore gamers" who spend all of their time denigrating any company or game that doesn't fit within the narrow boundaries of what both they and their peers consider to be socially acceptable, these "hardcore" idiots proudly displaying their ignorance as a badge of honor. It was this injection of "attitude" that was used as means to forever taint Nintendo's name, and, perhaps karmically, destroy Sega's reputation when Sony adopted the same tactics. I'd revel in the irony of it all had the result not been that very few people who buy consoles today actually give a damn about video games or the medium as a whole. 

What's left of the console industry is now tailored specifically to the primal instincts of angry 12-year-olds, rebellious teens, and other emotional children, none of whom would be caught dead playing a colorful Sega game like Sonic the Hedgehog. How'd that work out, Tom?

I don't, however, hold the same level of disdain for the Sonic the Hedgehog character, who I forgave a long time ago. Even then, whether I was currently applauding his achievements or scornfully cursing his name, there was always one thing about our relationship that remained consistent: I never ceased having a great appreciation for his original Genesis game, which came out of nowhere on that summer day in 1991 and absolutely walloped me with the sheer magnificence of its amazingly rendered Green Hill Zone.

To me, the 16-bit era was never a question of Mario vs Sonic, which is another "debate" I consider a complete waste of time. It was about new experiences and the celebration of wonderfully distinct titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, which, even if its best parts were front-loaded, was a special game that I couldn't stop playing. I might be sad for what the Sonic's games have become in recent times, but I'm delighted to see that his name-value is still intact in this volatile new era--that Nintendo and Sega fans alike now see him as a symbol for a 16-bit era fondly remembered not for all of the destruction it caused but for all of the great games it produced.

For those who lived through it, it was the best of times for gaming. For Sonic and I, it was the start of a long relationship that had more twists and turns than any of the green hills of Mobius. 

It was a wild ride, but our bond emerged unscathed in the end.

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