The Sonic the Hedgehog series comes with a lot of existential angst these days. Angst that began in earnest, fittingly enough, with the angstiest Sonic game ever — 2003's Shadow the Hedgehog.
That was the point at which SEGA fans and detractors alike stopped and asked, "Wait... have they really lost the plot that badly?" How had a plucky rodent best known for his speed, love of chili dogs, and having an "attitude" so mild it would barely register with your super-religious schoolfriend's uptight parents come down to running around with a pair of jarringly realistic guns shooting at policemen? Things only spiraled down from there, with every attempt to right Sonic's course inevitably dragged down by a series of poor choices. Like Sonic making out with a semi-realistic human lady, or attempting to star in a Bioware RPG. But just when things looked their darkest, an unlikely savior came along to rehabilitate Sonic's reputation: Social media. Which has given us things like this:
...along with, well, a whole lot of terrible, try-hard memes. But even as Sonic's official Twitter account churns through advice animals and "don't talk to me or my son ever again" variants, it strikes gold far more often than pretty much any other corporate account out there. (Only Arby's comes close, which seems fitting, as Arby's is basically the Sonic the Hedgehog of fast food. Sorry, Sonic.) Yeah, it's trying a little too hard, but it lacks that dreadful stench of steve-buscemi-hows-it-going-fellow-kids.jpg that most "fun" corporate social media accounts give off like day-old summer roadkill, driving away the very millennials they so desperately hope to court.
I think the point at which most people took notice of Sonic's social media team came when they broke the cardinal rule of game publishing ("Thou shalt not be a jerk to other game creators") and posted this snarky jeer about Mighty No. 9's troubled launch:
A bit crass to be sure; but, given Sonic's own troubled history, it straddled the line between "mockery" and "commiseration" more than it might have coming from any other brand. More to the point, it seemed to coincide with a sincere, systematic effort to rehabilitate Sonic's reputation, to reposition the character as the fun, irreverent gaming mascot alternative. In the ’90s, that meant Sonic's sprite throwing the player a severely raised eyebrow or tapping its foot impatiently; these days, it means Sonic mocks himself and others on the internet. It's not exactly the high road, but as strategies go it sure beats making a game about an evil version of Sonic who carries twin .45 pistols.
And it's the games that will ultimately make the difference here — the elephant-sized hedgehog in the room. SEGA has struggled to deliver good Sonic games on a regular basis ever since the 16-bit era ended, leading to the so-called Sonic Cycle, the endless circle of disappointment > announcement > hope > disappointment Sonic fans experience with almost every new game release. But it's here that SEGA seems truly determined to reposition Sonic as the fun alternative. For the upcoming Sonic Mania (which inspired the informercial above), the company has tapped a respected fangame creator and modder, Christian Whitehead, to help guide the game to creative success. Where Nintendo has gone on a cease-and-desist spree over the past month to shut down every derivative fan game it can find online, SEGA has recognized the enthusiasm and talent that drive its most creative fans and elevated one of them rather than simply erasing his online presence.
To be fair, we've heard the basic pitch behind Sonic Mania many, many times before — "Finally, a Sonic game like the old ones!" That was Sonic the Hedgehog 4's entire schtick, and that game turned out... OK. Not great. And Sonic needs a great game. Will Sonic Mania manage to bring back the old magic? Early impressions have been optimistic, which sounds encouraging. At the very least, though, it should make for no shortage of zany memes. These days, those may have more currency than a good game.