The Adventure Continues (2000 - 2002)
We began the decade still knee deep in the joys of Sonic Adventure, particularly if, like me, you were lucky enough to get a Dreamcast for Christmas in 99. This is the game that valiantly broke the Sonic drought of the late nineties, kick starting this new generation of Sonic that reminded everyone of the once adored blue icon. It would run rampant in the noughties with its new emphasis on dialogue heavy cutscenes, a larger cast of characters (who all now looked older and funkier) and large, slightly more realistic worlds. Speaking personally, I liked SA1, but by its release I'd lost touch with Sonic somewhat, and though this new game was still Sonic, at the same time it felt quite different and alien, and as such the couple of small releases in the year 2000 passed me by. Dreamcast's Sonic Shuffle was a party game game akin to Mario Party that saw Sonic and co do battle with the Void through the deadly medium of a large, life-sized board game. I caught up with it in 2003 and have played it about twice since. Sonic Pocket Adventure meanwhile was a handheld platformer sitting very quietly between the Game Gear titles of yesteryear and the Advances, and defying the new age of Sonic by essentially providing a shrunken down, portable version of Sonic 2. Its appearance on the Neo Geo Pocket meant that it was technically the first proper Sonic game to appear outside of a Sega console.
Sega had officially been defeated in the console wars, with the Dreamcast unable to recoop the losses of its older sibling Saturn and the various Mega Drive add-ons, and the strength of Sony's Playstation and the shadow of its successor left the company no option but to admit defeat and become a software-only company, leaving Sonic a free agent. He could now go where he pleased and has subsequently managed to set up a home on every single games console, not to mention many phones and other games-playing devices that have since been released. This would become an exciting - albeit expensive for fans - opportunity for the series to explore new ideas and interactions. First, identifying a similar nostaligic ethos compared to the realism and maturity of Sony, Sega turned to their once rival to bring that which no one ever thought they'd see - Sonic on Nintendo consoles. Not wanting their great new masterpiece to die a quick death, it was ported with a few bells and whistles as Sonic Adventure 2 Battle for the Gamecube. A little later on, the console hosted a fine collection of all of the classic Mega Drive titles in the form of Sonic Mega Collection. Nowadays we do nothing but groan at yet another re-release of these titles, but back then it was a welcome treat and an opportunity for everyone to catch up with true favourites from their youth, especially as it was later ported and enhanced to the Xbox, PS2 and PC.
Before we get ahead of ourselves though, the new Gameboy Advance also offered another opportunity in 2001, as Sega recognised that we were taking a bit of a departure from the old times, and so enlisted the help of a company called Dimps to work on a new classic styled 2D platformer to save that particular legacy from extinction. Sonic Advance was born, the first in a line of 2D handheld titles to sit alongside the larger 3D series, to ensure that there was something for everyone. It wasn't quite as big, level-wise, as any of the classic four Mega Drive titles but it's still the most similar game to them of this decade, with a great choice in multiple routes and a no-frills story. A sequel was on the cards and Sonic Advance 2 burst onto the scene, at first in late 2002. It was sprite-based 2D as we all knew and loved but in response to concerns that the first game lacked speed, this one certainly didn't. Its levels are long and filled with gradually downward sloping paths, curves and loops all designed to get you running fairly constantly. While its predecessor was firmly routed in tradition, some of Sa2's levels such as Music Plant took on a unique, very abstract style all of their own. It was different, but fairly popular and with its relentless pace, Dimps had unwittingly sowed the seed of a mechanic that would later on be developed, and gradually transformed into something that could eventually be said to revitalise and save the series.
Need a Hero? (2003 - 2004)
The year saw a cavalcade of announcements for new Sonic games too. Sonic Adventure followed the success of its own sequel by reappearing on the Gamecube in the form of Sonic Adventure DX. With improved textures and character models, it looked great but the translation was not as smooth as was hoped for, as annoying bugs weren't fixed, several were added, and the game had a puzzlingly inconsistent framerate, jumping between 30 and 60 by the second. Its still playable and enjoyable but its quality left a concerning sense of fallibility to the series. There were gaps to fill of the non-platformer variety as well, so Sonic Pinball Party was released for the Gameboy Advance, following the lead of 'ol Sonic Spinball except Sonic didn't have to be the ball this time. Sonic Battle, also for GBA, was a more adventurous take on the fighting game genre, placing the characters on a 3D board and allowing them to knock the crap out of each other. It had a surprisingly involving storyline, even a fairly well written script, that helped to alleviate the fairly monotonous fighting but the computer AI you fought against was often merciless, and I never got more than about half way through if I'm honest.
2004 was a relatively quiet year for announcements, as Sonic Team got busy with the next wave of games for the following year. It did however see the release of Sonic Advance 3. The twist here took its cues from Sonic Heroes, by allowing any one of five characters to follow any other of the five, as only Tails had traditionally done before. This was a pleasant novelty that actually influenced what moveset your main character had, however the levels didn't accommodate this variety particularly inventively so it didn't really matter anyway. The only thing I feel that holds this game back is its rather slippery controls, which it inherits from its predecessor, but while Sa2 kept you going forward, the more interesting level design here pushes and pulls you in various directions, so more grip should have been considered. That said, it had a range of interesting new design ideas, like Heroes, and the best soundtrack of the three, and I would still recommend it. It is, in many ways, the last truly traditional 2D Sonic game in terms of things like badniks and classic, complex level structure.
Guns Don't Kill People, Hedgehogs Do (2005 - 2007)
By 2005, the Sonic community was a force to be reckoned with, keen to try and make Sega pay attention to them. With all the Mega Drive titles now easily accessible and even both Adventure games living on, there were a few in between that have managed to slip out of the net, and we couldn't have that. Most wanted was 1993's Sonic CD, so, in what to most players outside of the community was essentially just a vehicle for it, Sonic Gems Collection, a kind of sequel to Mega Collection, was released. This was one very much just for us, as it contained other misfits such as racer Sonic R and Sonic the Fighters, plus the remaining six Game Gear games that weren't on Mega Collection Plus. These outdated, odd relics weren't enough for the general public, but it is nonetheless useful for the Sonic collector.
All was not lost though, as an alternative Sonic experience, Sonic Rush was released on the very same day over here in Europe. Dimps hopped over to the new Nintendo DS for their next 2D Sonic, and it actually, perhaps somewhat embarrassingly to Sonic Team, turned out to be probably the most critically acclaimed Sonic game of the whole decade, proving to most that 2D Sonic ruled over 3D. Rather than attempt to do something fancy with the style, it instead had Sonic or new character Blaze burst between the two screens throughout the level, a beautiful idea. They also took on board the speedy style of their Sonic Advance 2 and built on it with a new, instant boost move, single-handedly creating an entirely new type of 2D Sonic game that combined relentless, crazy speed and, in contrast to Sa3, really tight controls for the occasional slower platforming bits. I was a bit unsure of this game at first, it seemed a bit too different to me, with an odd, unorthodox soundtrack and slightly uninspired levels, not to mention the fact that it was really hard too. I slowly grew to accept it though and its more frenetic gameplay inspired a whole new way forward, and a new niche for a hedgehog struggling to remain relevant and make his mark on ever evolving gaming community. Sonic Riders, for home consoles followed soon after in early 2006. This was a fairly exciting return to the racing genre, one of the few that really makes sense for Sonic, and set in a kind of alternate futuristic world where everyone has to wear big shoes and sunglasses, and of course race on hover boards. It almost tries too hard to be cool in a way, and gameplay mechanics go out of their way to be interesting and unusual, leaving them all a bit too confusing. It definitely doesn't have the pick-up-and-play appeal of a Mario Kart or any mascot racer really, but it was fairly successful with fans. I quite liked it.
Shadow the Hedgehog left fans and non-fans alike very unconfident about Sonic Team's ability to make a truly solid 3D Sonic game, which we were really needing by this point. The franchise was down, but not out, it could still be saved, and in early 2005, a behind-closed-doors viewing at E3 showed off what they were capable of in the upcoming next generation of consoles - a movie of a Sonic sequence in next gen graphics. This gradually transformed into an exciting new Xbox 360/PS3 game, the next true big primary title set to make us forget about past mistakes. It was billed as a re-imagining of Sonic's world into something new, and as such, was bestowed the simplistic, honoured title Sonic the Hedgehog, aimed to commemorate the 15th anniversary of its namesake original. This one is commonly differentiated as Sonic '06. It appeared to follow the blueprints, very religiously as it would turn out, of Sonic Adventure, with adventure fields and action stages. The plot was deep and the environments, serious. A human princess that required saving, and a new rival, Silver the Hedgehog from the future set to destroy Sonic in order to change time. Fans were cautiously excited as it reminded them of the carefree Adventure days, in essence this was Sonic Adventure 3, and it was set to be the start of a return to form. Limited previews leading up to the game's release only made the shock of its colossal failure more powerful. We didn't see it coming.
I remained in denial. I knew there was good in there somewhere. Indeed, someone in the level design department had flashes of brilliance when they actually did what no other 3D Sonic game has done and provided areas of three of the levels with interesting, diverse multiple routes heading in all directions and with great complexity. Silver's new telekinetic gameplay was actually quite well made and innovative and I think it remains the most entertaining form of combat in the series. Sonic's speed sections are completely mental, but if you learn them well enough, they can provide an amazing glimpse of his speed not seen anywhere else. There was no denying its overall shortcomings though, they just proved too much for most people. Sonic's once mighty kingdom was crumbling around him, after all the hope and optimism of the early years of this decade, the king had well and truly been dethroned and it was a stressful and depressing time to be a Sonic fan. If Sega had relied on him any less, and if he didn't have such a long and storied history, this may have seen him off completely, but fortunately they already had an alternative game. Coming up fast behind was Sonic and the Secret Rings, our debut for the Nintendo Wii that attempted an entirely new method of control. The camera was set behind Sonic and the player, holding the remote on its side directed his motion left and right as he ran automatically through the linear, though colourful, very unique and appealing stages. This works great when avoiding obstacles in a corridor, but in my opinion is pretty useless for anything else. Despite this, this is quite a popular game that faired better in reviews, and gave us some saving grace. Also around at this time was Sonic Rivals for the PSP by Backbone entertainment. They provided a more classic-centered experience, this time in 2.5D, with 3D graphics on a 2D plain of control, which seemed to feel right. Furthermore, they blended it with a racing game, placing emphasis not on getting through a level, which was straightforward, but actually beating an AI controlled opponent to the end. It doesn't make for the definitive Sonic experience but for an alternative little game with an interesting idea, it doesn't fair too badly.
It's interesting though that despite several minor successes and games that were reasonably well received in this period, it was the failure of two big ones that lost all of the patience with critics and general gamers. The 21st century has become a different place for games with the evolution of graphics and methods of interaction. People either seem to want realistic, gritty cinematic experiences from highly sophisticated games, or very simple pick up and play party games for their granny, and Sonic can't quite fit into either. However, the Sonic community has remained sturdy. Regardless of their own individual opinions, few desert the franchise entirely. There's something about the character and the nostalgic experiences we've all enjoyed that makes us stand our ground and support Sonic in his hours of need, and it's this loyalty that allowed him to survive triumphantly into the final chapter of the decade...
The Long Road to Redemption (2007 - 2009)
Sega remained quiet for a few months to regroup and create a plan for recovery. I don't think they had cotton wool in their ears, they knew exactly what their situation was and they needed to restore excitement into the Sonic brand for both developers and consumers. They quickly reached for the most recent success, Sonic Rush, and whipped out a sequel, Sonic Rush Adventure. Despite this haste, Dimps pulled out a real cracker here and though it may not have attained the same critical success as its predecessor, in my opinion it improves upon it greatly with more interesting (albeit dramatically easier) levels and bosses and well made additional minigames and a rich set of challenges. The maritime theme really gives it a special sort of personality. Sonic's return to glory was underway, and what followed was a defiant pummeling of Sonic games and appearances to prove to the world that you cannot keep a good hedgehog down, all building up to the next big title. First stop: the casual gamer. In an incredibly unlikely move, the hedgehog and once sworn plumber rival teamed up in Wii party game Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. It sold fantastically well, allowing Sonic to get his face back in front of the normo's and stand alongside Mario as they defended the honour of the videogame mascot. To improve Sonic's image amongst the more seasoned gamers, an appearance in multi-series cartoon fighter Super Smash Bros Brawl paid off very well as Sonic used classic trademarks in a Green Hill Zone arena to great crowd-pleasing effect. Not forgetting the fans who stood by him, Sonic Rivals 2 also popped up around this time providing more of the same 2.5D racing hi-jinx with more characters and some great levels. Another big surprise in 2008 came from RPG developer Bioware who announced work on their first DS title for Sega, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, an exciting first foray into the RPG genre that made use of the rich story heritage and characters of the series. A new Sonic story handled by professionals? It would seem so - Bioware had done their homework (except perhaps when it came to the scale of Angel Island) and brought characters to life with glowing personalities and an intricate, focused plot. I'm yet to see what actually happens in the end, but I'm sure I will one day, and it was perfect for the long time Sonic fan hungry for this sort of thing. Lets briefly gloss over Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, a racing sequel that did away with all of the confusing elements of its predecessor and replaced them all with its own entirely new ones. It's easily forgettable.
After a splurge of Sonic delights, 2009 remained a pretty quiet year, but started with a game that many feared would send the whole house of cards tumbling back down again - Sonic and the Black Knight. A return to the world of fairy tales that followed Secret Rings this time gave Sonic a sword as he fought through an ancient Arthurian kingdom. Funny that this became an almost exact opposite of the events of 2006/7 - the main title in November was relatively successful while the following, more secondary one in March was less so. The story and overall presentation was nice enough here, with some genuinely new material, but the gameplay was a tedious swing-a-thon as the sword was controlled by, of course, the swing of the Wii remote. The imaginative worlds seen in Secret Rings lacked any presence here, with much duller environments. Finally, the decade was rounded off with casual-ware sequel Mario and Sonic and the Olympic Winter Games ..which I'm yet to play.
It's been fascinating to look back over this turbulent but rather amazing decade, from an age of optimism and new beginnings to a slippery slope that eventually hit rock bottom. There was a time there where the Sonic community was collapsing in on itself and all anyone could do was criticise, but now I think there's definitely been some progression. Things aren't perfect, there's still enough for the odd complaint but generally I think we're all in a more stable and comfortable place with our favourite franchise, especially as Sega end the decade with everyone waiting with baited breath for the tantalizing Project Needlemouse.
It's been a decade of explosion in fandom, from humble beginnings where fans were disconnected and isolated from each other to the first pioneering websites and forums of the community. We started with Japan always getting games first with all the coolest stuff, when support for Sonic in the west has always been so much higher. Now UK fans have a direct connection with Sega Europe and real ties, and as such an annual community gathering in the form of Summer of Sonic has become possible. The hacking and fan-game community has grown and become amazingly sophisticated at providing perfect Sonic physics and designs and is growing all the time. I'm amazed when I look back at my own Sonic interests throughout the decade, from a point whereby it took about two years after first getting the internet to even think about typing "Sonic the Hedgehog" into a search engine, to developing my own fan-game, to considering drawing my own series of comics to eventually settling into the origins of my Zone: 0 guides in 2004. I've loved following the series as fanatically as I have done and it simply wouldn't be the same without the internet and the news and fan creations from the community, which have really kept the franchise alive and buzzing for its most dedicated followers.
Writing this article has almost been a bit like an autobiography of some celebrity who's been through some sort of ordeal of drug or alcohol addiction, but sooner than just give up has come out the other side, all guns blazing ready to rebuild their life and turn over a new leaf. Sure we've been through rough times, but it's made the series what it is today and makes for a thrilling story to behold. Look at it this way, can you imagine how boring a retrospective of Mario's decade would be? Where's the drama?! The truth is that even though Sonic's glory hasn't been fully restored in the eyes of many critics, who still didn't like Unleashed, there's surely no denying that 2007 and 2008 saw some major improvements over where we were, with the relentlessness of good quality and/or successful Sonic games shouting to the world "We will not die!!". I'd like to think that most fans don't even care what reviews say anymore, we're in our own world where Sonic is still king, and if our loyalty can bring him through those lows then he can keep on surviving for so many more years to come.
Here's to a bright and blue new decade and a fantastic twentieth anniversary! Happy New Year.