You don’t stay on top of the world by standing still, but merely running fast won’t keep you there either. Just ask Sonic the Hedgehog.
The speedy blue mammal became one of the most iconic mascots on the planet when his games began appearing on Sega systems in the early 1990s. The console war between Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s NES and SNES came to be personified in the figures of Sonic and Mario, and it catapulted them both into massive pop culture fame.
But fame is a fickle thing. Despite a constant stream of games from both franchises over the decades, only one mascot has managed to stay relevant. Hint: It’s not the blue speedster.
Neither Sonic nor Mario would have become household names if their games weren’t any good. Almost without exception, the early Sonic games are classics that earned their place in the gaming pantheon. They’re colorful and charming, with expert level design and a sense of speed you won’t find anywhere else outside of racing games. Go ahead, boot up Sonic 2, Sonic and Knuckles, or Sonic CD, and you’ll find that they still hold up today.
But as time went on, Sega began to struggle. In 1995 it put out expensive but ill-conceived Saturn, a console that gamers didn’t seem to want. That same year, Sony entered the console market with the PlayStation, which sold in droves over the coming years, leaving little room for an the struggling Saturn and its successor three years later, the Dreamcast.
Sega was in bad shape heading into the new millennium. Although it was the most high-tech console of the time, the Dreamcast was still being trounced by Sony and Nintendo, leaving Sega with an estimated 15% of the console market.
In 2001, Sega threw in the towel and discontinued the Dreamcast, scrapping any plans it might have had to continue making video game hardware, and switched its focus solely on software.
You might think that with a renewed focus on software, the Sonic brand would become one of the company’s most valuable assets, worth protecting at all costs. Unfortunately for fans, that’s not what happened. Sega kept releasing Sonic games, relying on the character’s popularity for sales rather than the quality of the games.
Not all Sonic games of the past 15 years have been failures. Sonic Colors (2010) was well received, as was Sonic Generations (2011). But for every worthwhile title, you can find several duds marring the lineup. Games like Shadow the Hedgehog (2005), Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007), Sonic Unleashed (2008), Sonic and the Black Knight (2009), and Sonic Free Riders (2010) have tarnished the speedster’s reputation.
Which brings us to the latest two Sonic games that came out late in 2014: Wii U’s Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and Nintendo 3DS’s Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal. Not only are these bad games, but they sold terribly as well. According to Sega’s latest financial report, the two games combined have sold only 490,000 copies. Those numbers are pitiful. It’s the lowest-selling Sonic launch in the history of the franchise.
According to Wikipedia, around 80 distinct Sonic games have come out over the past 24 years. Clearly, Sega has over-saturated the market and is reaping diminishing returns. From my perspective, it looks like the company has struggled to remain relevant since the downfall of the Dreamcast, and so it pumps out Sonic games to stay alive.
If those Sonic Boom numbers didn’t make it clear, this plan is no longer working. Sega announced recently that it will close its San Francisco office and focus on mobile games. And guess what: Sega has already put out numerous Sonic games on mobile.
It’s been a long slow decline for Sonic. The comparison to Mario is relevant because Nintendo has taken the opposite approach with its most famous character. Each Mario game released over the years has been carefully thought out and polished to a high sheen before being released. Nintendo’s dedication to quality has paid off in that fans look forward to new Mario titles and trust that they’ll offer something special. Not so with Sonic.
Sega has run Sonic into the ground. Unless it can begin producing nothing but good Sonic games — which it doesn’t seem capable of doing — it should just stop. The hedgehog hasn’t been relevant since the ’90s. It’s time for Sega to move on and create something new.