I found an interesting article today I thought I should blog. Everyone knows I'm a Sonic fan and will always be one but my faith in Sega has waned over the years and after seeing Sonic's dissapointing stand on GameFAQs' "Best series battle" I started looking for something to read about the his downfall. This is what i found and I think the author hit the nail on the head here.
I wrote a while ago that there's maybe one good Sonic game for every two flops. At the time I was halfway kidding, setting up the premise for a silly "top ten" list. Where I wasn't kidding, I was speaking from a historical perspective rather than a contemporary one. As much as I have loved the guy, I'm aware that Sega hasn't done too well by Sonic for a long time – to the point where he's now the butt of dumb jokes on semi-respectable business websites. Since the Genesis we've seen, what, one truly great Sonic game?
When Sonic and Sega came back with the Dreamcast, they did it with a collective bang. Everyone cheered at his return, and at Sega's. Then came a less interesting sequel. Then Segawent out of the console business, and suddenly there didn't seem much point to Sonic anymore. More games kept coming out, each worse than the last, each building on the least compelling parts of Sonic Adventure. People stopped caring about the character, then started mocking him. Sega tried to address the problem with Shadow: a grittier, cooler answer to Sonic. Without even playing the game, people immediately wrote off the character, Sega, and everybody involved with the franchise.
The problem wasn't really Shadow, or his game – even the concept behind it, for what it was worth. Heck, people didn't even have to play it to dismiss it. The problem was that it didn't seem like Sega knew what the hell it was doing anymore. The most fascinating thing about Shadow the Hedgehog is that Sega had once seemed so in touch with... everything, really: with itself, with its audience, with the market. Back when Tom Kalinske was in charge, Sega could practically dictate what was cool.
With Shadow Sega seemed to show – right or wrong – that the only trick it had left was to cling to its old icons, and try to spin them according to perceived market trends. It brought up images of Donald Duck wearing gold chains, speaking like Dr. Dre, and flashing a piece
around. Just, what?
The thing that modern Sega seems not to entirely grasp is that Sonic is not simply a piece of choice IP – a popular character who can be plopped into a game to drive up sales. He's a mascot, through and through. At his peak, he behaved as one. When everyone loved Sonic, the reason he was popular was that he represented an appealing and unique set of options – qualities that happened to correspond with all the things going on at that time, in the industry and in the broader world.
Now: if these elements give a mascot his power, they are also his greatest weakness. Like all icons, a mascot remains relevant only as long as the cause that it trumpets. With no console to herald, with no amazing and exclusive new style of gameplay to proselytize, Sonic becomes just one more Mickey Mouse knockoff with a snarky voice; a relic like Betty Boop or Rosie the Riveter, taken out of his time, place, and anything that ever made him important.
Mascot, Mask Off
The difference between a mascot and a simple character is the difference between a copyright and a trademark. Although the actual content of a registered trademark can also be copyrighted, the primary role of a trademark is as a symbol for its given enterprise. Whereas the Heinz logo and pickle that "57 Varieties" gobbledygook might have some art to their design and layout, their real power and purpose is an associative one: when you see them, you think "Heinz!" – without even reading the words. The pickle tells you these are preserved products, mostly condiments; the "57", though literally meaningless, suggests that Heinz makes a lot of this stuff – and therefore clearly knows its business. The label is bezeled and old-fashioned, giving the impression that Heinz has been around for a long time (which it has), and is thus an enduring and timeless brand. The importance of this symbolism goes way beyond a nice, snappy package.
Although mascots can be characters in their own right – have personalities, have lives, worlds of their own – their primary role is as a symbol for their associated enterprise. When Sonic started off, he was one of the most well-conceived mascots probably in the history of mascotdom. Sega's console was faster than the competition's, so Sonic was super fast. Sega was the scrappy underdog, effortlessly showing up the "big guys", so Sonic was full of attitude. Sega's logo was blue, so Sonic was blue. The Genesis was targeted toward kids who were growing out of the NES, so Sonic was a sleek teenager (compared to the fuddy uncle Nintendo had going, who by comparison seemed to represent the "past generation"). Beyond that, Sonic tied into the environmentalism craze of the early '90s: the enemy was a big fat mustached Mario-like figure who polluted (trendy, modern graphic design-styled) Nature and turned its wildlife into hideous creatures. Unlike most videogame heroes, Sonic's impact on his world was only positive – and his motive was almost entirely selfless. When he smashed a robot, he freed the animal inside it. His ultimate goal was simply to protect the sanctity of nature.
In designing Sonic, Naoto Ohshima did everything right. In programming Sonic's game, Yuji Naka did pretty much everything right, giving Sega a vehicle to show off Sonic's trademark qualities. And his... trademark qualities. Sonic and his game were designed as the embodiment of Sega, so as to give Sega an popular identity (or rather, to advertise the identity Sega saw in itself). In knowing Sonic – an identifiable character – a person would metaphorically know and identify with Sega (and its console), therefore form a personal attachment and loyalty to the company and its line of consumer goods.
Next: A spine in time
I know this sounds cynical, that Sonic's whole purpose in life is to be a shill for Sega's stuff. It isn't, really; it's a hard job, and done well it forms a symbiosis of sorts between mascot and parent company. The problem arises when the company and the mascot begin to drift apart; the mascot starts doing its own stuff that has nothing directly to do with its parent company, and the parent company goes off in weird directions that have nothing to do with either the qualities the mascot was supposed to represent or what it's currently up to, in its own little world. When the metaphor no longer holds up, your mascot is functionally dead in the water. It holds no purpose, except perhaps as a neutered piece of IP. The solution to this problem is simple enough: either retire your mascot and find a new one that represents what you're trying to do now, or somehow re-jig your old mascot to the same end.
Sega kind of did this in 1999 with Sonic Adventure; Sonic was redesigned, placed in a new kind of game, given a new context, and was resurrected at the same time Sega returned to the world stage with its attempt at a neo-Genesis. Both Sonic and Sega were framed as legendary heroes, stepping back into the player's life for the first time in an eon – $#@!y as ever, maybe even cooler than you remember from your youth. The player was put in the role of Tails, looking up in awe and striving to prove his worthiness in the face of his hero – or maybe of Amy Rose, Sonic groupie of old, fawning after Sonic (and by extension Sega), willing to chase him to the end of the Earth. Sonic's world was stripped down to a handful of important characters, each with his or her own perspective, all of which added up to a bigger picture of self-growth and wonder, all inspired by Sonic returning to their lives. And at the end, just like that, Sonic slips away again, leaving everyone just a little better off for his having stopped by. And you just knew Sonic would always come back, he'd always be there when you needed him.
Then, well. Circumstances didn't really live up to that new vision. And none of Sonic's further games did much with that message – or even bothered much with a message. They just built on the engine of the first game, and... existed, mechanically, for the sake of there being more Sonic games in the world (throwing in more and more random characters, while they were at it, in favor of focusing on what they had) – all while Sega was going nuts as a business venture, essentially doing all it could to destroy any public confidence or interest in the company.
Today, who knows what Sega stands for. They're refocusing on outsourced Western games, and downplaying the designers that made them famous. They got bought out, after several near misses, and who knows who runs what now. Most of Sega's real talent has either fled or vanished into the hedges. Even Yuji Naka's splitting. I guess Sega can't afford another Ferrari. So clearly what people want to see is Grand Theft Hedgehog.