Sonic's New Friend "Sticks" and the Flipside of Nostalgia

Gamers have a real complex about Sonic. It doesn't have to be that way though.

Article by Kat Bailey, .

Nothing gets the gaming community tittering quite like the announcement of anything related to Sonic. And that goes double for new characters like Sticks; a new female character as it happens.

Jason Schreier over at Kotaku snarked, "It's not really clear whether that's hair on her head or just some unfortunately large badger ears, but I have no doubt that people are already writing fanfiction about it," while DeviantArt couldn't resist pointing out that, yes, Sticks already has fanart. It's like that pretty much everywhere on the internet. The narrative is no longer, "Will Sonic games ever be good again?" It's now, "Sonic fans sure are weird."

Sonic's newest friend. At least she's sort of thematically consistent.

It's not hard to see why. Sonic is at the unique crossroads of being an iconic, almost universally recognizable figure from the 16-bit era while also being geared almost entirely toward kids. I mean, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still gets plenty of love, but it wasn't what you would call a pillar of 80s television. Sonic was one of the most important games of its day.

Now we're all grown up though; and unfortunately, Sonic hasn't really grown up with us. It's much the same as it was back in the early 90s, though with a few more friends. And while Sonic Generations is a lot better than most people give it credit for, the design hasn't evolved much either. Sonic has long since been exposed for what it is: A fun but kind of shallow platformer that doesn't translate very well to 3D. Kids still love it, but adults understandably want something a little deeper (even if "deeper" often translates to "Call of Duty").

Sonic continues to hang around though, mainly as a vessel for kids to get into gaming. If Mario is the gaming equivalent of Pixar or Frozen, then Sonic is a little more like Hotel Transylvania or Despicable Me—strictly kids stuff. It's more a guilty or nostalgic pleasure than anything else these days. Nevertheless, a fairly vocal contingent of adults continues to follow the series; and while not all of them like to write Sonic x Tails slash, it's still a deeply weird community that tends to mix a childlike obsession with Sonic with various sexual... uh... activities. Making fun of Sonic cosplayers is practically a cottage industry at this point, mainly because they're such easy targets.

In a way though, I think the targeting of Sonic fans speaks to the gaming community's deep discomfort with its own identity, with Sonic cosplayers serving as a kind of funhouse mirror representation of the gaming community's own deepest fears about itself. As much as we all rail against the mainstream media's silly portrayal of gamers as overgrown man babies living in their parent's basement, it's easy to feel self-conscious about the hobby at times. Just today, Deadspin's Garrett Kamps wrote in reference to Titanfall, "Perhaps this is a generational thing, but I still feel a tinge of embarrassment that video games are my preferred mode of home entertainment here in my mid-thirties," before going on to compare the typical online shooter denizen to Red Sox fans ("And we all know how embarrassing it is to associate with fucking Red Sox fans").

Modern Sonic is here to stay, but it doesn't necessarily invalidate what's come before it.

Hardcore Sonic fans have kind of come to represent the medium's id in that respect. They are passionate about a thing that a lot of us liked growing up, and still kind of want to respect, but they're also completely over-the-top about it. Sonic fans are hardly unique in that respect—every classic gaming series has its cosplayers and fanfic writers—but they tend to get the worst of it in part because the games aren't really that great anymore, and because there seems to be this feeling that they have somehow corrupted a great franchise by their mere presence. They have become an outlet for the frustration over both Sonic's unwillingness to evolve and the sadness that comes with the realization that we're not kids anymore and the world really has moved on. It certainly doesn't help that they are frequently conflated with furries, who remain the Internet's favorite punching bag.

I expect the only way that the "Sonic fans are weirdos!" storyline will go away is if the games get substantially better and win themselves a crossover audience, at which it will be a little "cooler" to like Sonic. But at this point, I don't know if that's possible. Sega seems comfortable with focusing the series towards kids; and honestly, I think that's okay. It's really hard to create a piece of media that can appeal on both kids and adults, especially when it stars a blue hedgehog with '90s attitude (and a scarf). Better for Sonic to know what it wants to be than to try and force some misguided attempt at "maturity." It's those sorts of decisions that result in the likes of Shadow the Hedgehog.

I think the main thing to realize is that classic Sonic and modern Sonic don't have to be one and the same. It's quite possible to acknowledge Sonic's place in history as a pillar of gaming, while also acknowledging that gaming as a whole has moved on. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we as a community can put our complex about Sonic the Hedgehog to rest and move on.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for Damman #1 Damman 4 years ago
    Very thoughtful, Kat. We're always looking for a punching bag in games and entertainment, and Sonic seems to be a perennial one at that. We would do well to question why we put down the people and games within our own hobby.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #2 metalangel 4 years ago
    I must have watched some completely different movies that also happened to be called 'Hotel Transylvania' and 'Despicable Me'.
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  • Avatar for docexe #3 docexe 4 years ago
    @Damman Because, unfortunately, many of us have a lot of insecurity issues and get by making other people to feel miserable about their own tastes and preferences, as if such a thing somehow elevated ourselves. It’s a very shitty behavior, and I just wish we would just grow out of it.
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #4 ShadowTheSecond 4 years ago
    Great, great take away point! Awesome article--I'm really liking the amount of unique content going on in this revised USgamer.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #5 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    @docexe Completely agree. It's a form of bullying plain and simple. And I thought name-calling would disappear after I graduated high school. I didn't think it would get worse.
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  • Avatar for Daikaiju #6 Daikaiju 4 years ago
    "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still gets plenty of love, but it wasn't what you would call a pillar of 80s television."

    Uh yeah, it was. Granted, a late addition, but still a pillar.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Daikaiju By pillar, she means one of the absolute biggest things on TV, the way Sonic was a monster of a game franchise. Even at its height, TMNT was small fries compared to the vast totality of TV!
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #8 CK20XX 4 years ago
    Speaking strictly about the games, the Sonic series isn't bad per say, at least not anymore, and I say that as a 16-bit veteran who memorized Sonic 3 and Knuckles down to a science as a kid. However, having thoroughly devoured the best the series has ever offered, I'm afraid I must also say that you're likely to get the most enjoyment out of it now as long as you don't expect anything great from it anymore.

    Something always goes wrong during production; the games end up rough around the edges or exhibit glitches or otherwise unfair gameplay that might not matter so much if games like Sonic 2006 weren't constantly hovering over the franchise like a dark cloud. Even Sonic Boom leaves me feeling dubious. It'll probably be the best 3D entry into the series yet because of its pedigree, but after seeing the introduction for Sticks, she really makes me feel like the developers are trying too hard to be whimsical and funny. I'm concerned that I'm going to end up finding her very annoying when I play the game and may in fact end up skipping every cutscene with prejudice, which will be a shame because her character concept doesn't sound bad per say either.

    It's just... where's the grace and finesse? What happened to it all? Or did it never have any to begin with and it took me this long to notice because it was all much richer in my head before cinemas and scripted events were telling me the only way I should be seeing things?
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  • Avatar for finchiekins #9 finchiekins 4 years ago
    Plenty of people like some of the newer Sonic games, especially the most recent Sonic & All-Stars Racing game, so I don't think it's completely a problem with the quality. The over 25 crowd at least seems to have no problem separating Sonic 1 from Sonic 2006. Really, people just want something to make fun of and other people to dehumanize, and typing "Jonathon the Hedgehog" into Google is a lot easier than digging around tumblr or accidentally bumping into some of the weirder Mario or Dragon Ball fiction and art. Another factor is that unlike the 90s, people can't see an anthropomorphic character without having fits about furries, making absolutely sure that EVERYONE KNOWS that THEY'RE not a furry, regardless of how innocuous the subject matter is. Dust couldn't escape it, Solatorobo couldn't escape it, and I'm sure if Klonoa was still around, people would be loudly announcing what a furry he is. The world's a different and a little bit meaner place than it was when Steve Urkle could lead a group of cute animal rebels against that ignorant old man Robuttnik, or maybe we're just older now and we have a different perspective about what's acceptable and what isn't.
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  • Avatar for alexb #10 alexb 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Is that the bar we have to compare the impact of TMNT to? The totality of the medium of Television? Sonic was huge in video games, but video games were nearly entirely the domain of children 23 years ago. It would be a fairer comparison to say that the Turtles were huge pillars of kids entertainment back in those days, like Sonic was. Both properties were inescapable for a brief period of time.

    Besides, the Turtles have come back twice since those days and have been pretty respectable both times. But Sonic? Well... Sonic's definitely got an image problem, but it's been well earned with bad games, poor cartoons, and a supremely cheesy vibe.

    Me personally, I'll cop to having a nostalgic fondness for Sonic, even in his modern form. Colors didn't give me cancer and I thought Generations was actually a pretty entertaining ride, Eggman boss fights aside. I was very willing to give Sonic Boom a chance when the first stuff appeared, even that freakish homunculus take on Knuckles.

    But this new character's voice and personality are completely obnoxious. "Let's combine the voice of a cartoon Yiddish grandma on methamphetamine with the political ideology of a paranoid schizophrenic 9/11 Truther. She's so wacky and random!" It's just something that renders the entire prospect a nonstarter to me.

    I know it's not as fun of a narrative, but maybe people dislike Sonic because it's simply not very good entertainment for people without certain predilections. I mean, the fans don't help. They really don't help. But I think the real problem is the core product tries to be cool and all ages but misses the mark and ends up as generic, instantly forgettable fodder with smarmy, unlikeable characters.
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  • I really don't get all the hate aimed at so-called "furries". They're not hurting anyone, so why harass them and single them out?
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #12 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    @alexb Sonic's never really gone away though, while there have been definite lapses in TMNT's popularity.

    Plus, Sonic is definitely one of of the most recognizable video game character. I'm not sure how high comparatively TMNT works.

    Ultimately, this is kinda of a minor quibble all things considered.
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  • Avatar for pennybags #13 pennybags 4 years ago
    Why exactly is Sonic "strictly kid stuff" and Mario isn't, other than the particular preferences of the author of this piece?

    Personally I've enjoyed almost all of the 3D Sonic titles and continue to do so. What's amazing is if you look back a bit you can find people going crazy praising Sonic Adventure, which is essentially the basic formula all the following games (which have largely been panned by gaming reviewers even as they sold quite well) have used as a basis to tweak.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #14 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @pennybags Mario isn't trying to pander directly to kids. He just does what he likes and gains universal acclaim for it. Sonic deliberately tries to aim for that demographic though and waters himself down to reach it. What's especially ironic is that diluting yourself for kids often leaves you unable to reach them, since children are way smarter than we generally give them credit for and do not appreciate being talked down to. Try comparing the humor in any Sonic game to, say, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, for example. It's no contest.

    The situation is similar to the one in the old joke about how only children play Call of Duty while only adults play Pokemon.

    As for Sonic Adventure... there's actually been a lot of backlash against that game in the years following its release. While not bad per say, a lot of its initial praise was due to its novelty rather than any real substance it had, and the seeds it planted (scripted loops and speed sequences, over-reliance on the homing attack, fishing and other weak gimmicks, awful camera controls, dreadful voice acting, etc.) ended up helping to spell doom for the series later.Edited June 2014 by CK20XX
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  • Avatar for pennybags #15 pennybags 4 years ago
    @CK20XX So the problem is lame jokes in the cutscenes? That hardly seems to explain the scorn people are heaping on this series. I'd argue even the Genesis titles get a little carried away with giving Sonic an "extreme" attitude, but that's part of the fun.

    I realize some people have retroactively decided SA isn't a good game but despite some serious camera/control/clipping issues I still had a blast playing it last year in the HD re-release. The newer games are essentially that same formula, but with improvements in the technical issues I mentioned and with usually one unique gimmick per game (e.g., Were-hog, Wisps, Silver and his telepathy, Shadow with vehicles, etc.), so I'm happy to essentially "subscribe" to each new release.

    I'm not sure why "over-reliance" on the homing attack is an issue, any more than "over-reliance" on jumping is a problem in the Mario series. I'd agree that some of the non-Sonic characters were less fun to play as in SA (in particular Knuckles stages weren't much fun, for me), but that's an issue fixed in the newer ones. Camera controls and voice acting are much stronger in newer ones and I think some of the scripted sequences are fun.

    Anyway, I'm not sure the series is really "doomed;" I like it, plenty of other people do, and it's one of Sega's most consistent moneymakers. Of course, it isn't popular with most critics, but this is one where the buying public and critics seem to be going different directions.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #16 CK20XX 4 years ago
    Humor is but one example! The original games were never that extreme either; there was no gruesome 90's fashion or extreme sports apart from a snowboarding section at the start of Ice Cap Zone. All Sonic really had was narrowed eyes and an occasional smirk. His attitude was mostly a marketing gimmick, just like his blast processing.

    Sonic Adventure is inoffensive, I guess, but its averageness is partly why some people take offense to it in the first place. They look at it and go, "What the heck happened to the juggernaut that used to go toe-to-toe with Mario? He really let himself go! He used to stomp mustachioed guys in red, now he gets stomped by them! Why is it that Mario has broken his own mold and earned universal praise over and over while Sonic has just stumbled and staggered? It didn't have to end like this!"

    I've always seen the Homing Attack as a crutch for shoddy game engines, personally. It's always seemed like a move that exists because the games are never designed well enough to make moving in 3D smooth or comfortable, so Sega always straps this auto-aiming move onto it to compensate. Mario has never needed a move like that. His games have never needed help playing themselves because they're consistently high quality even when they turn out to be a little bit bland.

    Sonic's huge cast of friends is more of a symptom than the problem itself. We learned that with Sonic 4 when it was revealed to have no characters other than Sonic and Robotnik, then went on to become one of the most disappointing games in the franchise.

    Liking the Sonic series as it is now doesn't make you a bad person or anything, but the franchise doesn't do anything special or amazing anymore, and that's really depressing for people who used to play with him all the time during his glory days. I just wonder for how much longer Sonic is going to be critic-proof. Colors and Generations did enough right to create a hope spot that hadn't been seen since Adventure 1 and 2, but Sega is in such bad shape that something's got to give eventually. Just take a look at what all these former employees have said about the company:
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  • Avatar for pennybags #17 pennybags 4 years ago
    @CK20XX I wouldn't call Sonic Adventure "inoffensive;" I think it's the best 3D platformer among its contemporaries (I'd rate it significantly higher than Mario titles) and as far as I'm concerned the series is still among the best. I, like everyone else who owned a Genesis, obviously played the originals hundreds of times, but I think SA does a good job bringing their spirit into three dimensions.

    You have an interesting point on the homing attack, although I don't agree. A lot of the game is built on the homing attack (to cross chasms and so on) so it doesn't really seem like a crutch, any more than, say, Yoshi's Island putting in puzzles meant to be solved with eggs. Mario has all kinds of gimmicks, although I guess most of them don't last the whole game. I still prefer Sonic.

    Also, I agree with you that Sonic 4 Episode I was disappointing, but Episode II dares to make original stages instead of poor facsimiles of old ones and it is excellent.

    Lastly, yes, Sega has an unhealthy relationship with its foreign arms, but Sonic is pretty much SoJ's show anyway.
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  • Avatar for MightyJAK #18 MightyJAK 4 years ago
    @CK20XX You make some good points, but I have to ask you to please stop spelling "per se" as "per say".
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