During my childhood dominated by the 16-bit pixels of the Genesis, it seemed as though Sonic was everywhere. From him promoting the terrible Tiger Electronics handheld in commercials, to dashing across the screen in two animated shows, Sonic appeared to be there in every aspect of my young life. Not long after Sonic experienced an incredible renaissance within 90’s popular culture, however, his appearance in media quickly began to fade. Whilst the character still enjoyed reasonable success in many licenced areas (toys, apparel, comics and animation), his being far removed from the spotlight was perhaps further confirmation of just how irrelevant his franchise had become.
For years, Sega has been trying to re-launch Sonic as the sales powerhouse he used to be, but very few them were as ambitious as Sonic Boom is. Labelled as a ‘fresh initiative’ for the Sonic brand, Sonic Boom is a totally new branch of the Sonic universe developed by Seag of America – and when I say ‘new’, I mean NEW. Complete with a fresh look, a CG-animated series debuting simultaneously on Cartoon Network, and a toy partnership inked between Sega and TOMY, Sonic Boom may just be the largest global campaign the blue blur has ever seen. A multicultural effort from plenty of creative driving forces, it seems as though Sonic Boom is intended to engage with both new and existing fans across a variety of different platforms.
Sega’s multimedia blitz with Sonic Boom is obviously not an entirely Westernised effort, though. It appears that Sonic Team is still giving Sega of America guidelines on how the TV series and the tie-in video game will take ideas from each other. For examples, bosses from past Sonic games will be supposedly carried over into the show, in order to maintain consistency. Other than these details, though, the project is still shrouded in mystery.
Perhaps what surprised me the most about the announcement of this new initiative was the enormity of the reactions it garnered. Not so much the pedantic whining from fans, but more how the redesigns themselves evoked a sense of hidden passion for a series well past its’ prime. Gamers everywhere had an outcry over how Knuckles looked, and how these characters should have been left untouched. It seems as though, regardless of how the state of the franchise is, Sonic remains an icon in people’s hearts. The reactions were strangely poignant, as gamers seem to still care about these faded Sega characters.
As exciting as all this sounds, one cannot help but be reminded of the early 2000’s. Back in the Dreamcast era, Sonic went through a very similar franchise re-working. The blue-tinted speedster had a redesign: green eyes included, a new multimedia strategy involving an anime series and toy line tacked on, and even a new universe crafted for him. Then, whilst Sonic X managed to turn in solid viewing figures, and the merchandise sold well, it still left Sega at the exact same position they are slowly recovering from now. Sonic remains a one-time icon from an age now past, still alive, but adrift and directionless.
An eyebrow is raised on one issue in particular. Why would Sega be spending a huge amount of money on merchandising, television rights, and high-profile game development for a project that is clearly an experiment in the franchise? Instead of a mere spin-off, Sonic Boom is a whole new continuity that runs in parallel with the established Sonic universe, meaning that the show runs one particular risk. Will the young audience embrace the change? In Japan, there is no such risk, as Sonic Boom is a primarily Western effort, only debuting on American television networks. Yet it’s possible that the two separate universes may eventually become one shared mythology.
Indeed, when thinking about the new franchise strategy, one thinks that Sega may be relaunching Sonic at an awkward time. Even though the series is slowly regaining trust from its most jaded fans, with both Colours and Generations receiving favourable reviews and selling impressively, it’s clear that Sega still has a ways to go before the series can be considered truly relevant again. In that sense, it feels like Sega are trying to do a little too much at a very early stage. Whilst Sonic is still enjoyed by the non-discriminating taste of his younger fans, this presents a clear challenge Sega will face.
The biggest challenge Sega has with Sonic Boom is trying to ensnare both the eight-to-eleven demographic the show is aiming for, and the middle-aged fans that have been begrudgingly sticking with the franchise since the Genesis days. By effectively splitting these two audiences down the middle, Sega has to both reinvent the gaming icon for a new generation, whilst keeping the essence of the series intact. This is a huge challenge, and we’ve seen too little so far to know how it has been met. There’s a lot of weight on the project’s shoulders, even if the multicultural collaboration could add a lot to a series lacking in creative direction.
Adversely, the new universe could allow Sega to expand the Sonic series to places the franchise has not been to before. According to Sega, there will be no Chaos Emeralds, a staple of the series, in this universe, hinting that Sega is planning to develop a broader world. This could allow Sonic Team to follow in tandem with the Western reboot, and start reinventing the classic Sonic universe themselves. Very much like how the Sonic Archie comics told a different story to the Genesis games, whilst allowing for more character development from our blue spiky hero, Sonic Boom could also expand the series on a larger scale. If Sonic Boom is a successful endeavour, it could be a helpful way for Sega to introduce new characters and settings in a way that is unobtrusive to the series.
As a sceptical Sonic veteran, still deep in the throes of my blind love for Sonic, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been here before. Sega has promised great things from previous reinventions, but the series has still always been anchored to the character’s 2D origins, therefore feeling like a relic of the bygone Genesis era. Whilst Sonic Generations conceded this, by combining 2D stages with 3D environments, there is no denying that Sonic as a series is lodged in the memories of middle-aged Sega fans, whilst perpetuating an ongoing cycle of forgotten comebacks. Even though Sonic has had moments of greatness during his dark time, it has been only a gradual evolution.
Strangely, I’m hopeful for Sonic Boom. Even though the project still feels like an overly-ambitious offshoot – the redesigns do look like they have been churned out from focus groups, and as always with modern Sonic universes, it all feels like history is repeating itself – I’m hoping it shoots in the right direction. Whilst the fabled Sonic vs. Mario arguments on school playgrounds are officially over, some of us are still hopeful about Sega’s icon.