Full Screen

Editorial: "The Most Famous Fastest Hedgehog Alive In The World"

1/11 - Written by Mercury


Sonic is described as "the Most Famous Hedgehog in the World" on the original Mega Drive boxart, and as "the Fastest Thing Alive" in the theme song of the Saturday morning cartoon.

When I was young, I watched both Sonic cartoons—Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAM) and Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (AoStH)—at the same time as I played the Sonic games on the Sega (well, not the same time; I'm not that good at multi-tasking!)

I could tell there were marked differences between them all, but I never felt that they were in conflict. They all felt equally "Sonic" to me, and to this day I still like them all equally. (In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I did go through a brief "purist" phase in the early 2000's. It was then that I was first discovering (through Sonic Adventure, the OVA, and information on the Internet) the original Japanese Sonic "canon". Being a big anime nut I temporarily considered it superior—mostly because Sonic was drawn so much cooler in the early Japanese art. This was as I say only a "phase" because after the dust settled I realised that I now had twice as much Sonic than before. There was no need for a false dichotomy that would only reduce it back to half.)

Sure, there were things in one version of Sonic that weren't in the others (most notably, the characters that never crossed over) but the thing that was important to me—Sonic's personality—was consistent across them all. I had no trouble imagining "the Fastest Thing Alive" Sonic in Sonic 2; when he turned toward me, impatient, tapping his foot and looking at his watch ('I'm waaaaaiting....'); as he blazed across hilly landscapes with Tails whirling after ('Up, over, and gone!'). In fact I had no reason at all not to imagine him that way. Likewise, the Sonic in the cartoons was still "the Most Famous Hedgehog in the World"; when he spun into a spiky ball and destroyed robotic enemies; when he used the power of Rings; when he fought to rescue his friends from being turned into robots by the mad Dr Robotnik. He was "the Most Famous Fastest Hedgehog Alive in the World."

I respect the opinion of those who personally dislike the cartoons but love the games (there are many of them) or don't care much for the games but love the cartoons (there are a few). I even sympathise on many points: I'm p.o.'ed that Knuckles never showed up in SatAM, I think Sonic's spines are depicted too much like fins in the American art, I wish my favourite Freedom Fighters had appeared in the games, and so on. Everyone's opinions are different, depending on what they grew up with or what happens to strike their fancy. There's no reason—or need—for me to oppose that.

But there's some things I just won't have said: that SatAM "isn't Sonic"; that it could have been about "any other furry" and been just the same; that the games (and their universe, and by extension Sonic Team's current characters and world) are objectively superior for some reason; or that SatAM just "doesn't count" because it throws out a lot of the games' concepts (or completely reworks them). Sometimes the haters will go so far as to to marginalise the American Sonic—such as the laughably and demonstrably false claim that the name "Mobius" is some sort of mistake—in an attempt to make Sega of America look like careless buffoons.

I don't know why there is so much resistance (in rare cases bordering on bigotry against the fans) to the side of Sonic that I grew up with. It would be one thing if I was talking about some obscure Icelandic version of Sonic that appeared only once on a gimmicky push-button picture book, but this is the portrayal of Sonic that was used in America—you know, that place where Sonic was the most successful? (And was more successful before Sega "internationalised" the franchise. Tcheh, what a filthy euphemism—it's not like they borrowed any Western elements besides the fleeting use of the name "Robotnik".)

Is there hate because a large swath of SatAM fans are furries? I mean, as open as I am to alternative sexualities, BunnieXAntoine porn is just too much... but that's really no excuse to dislike SatAM fans specifically. I mean, there's just as much inflatable Rouge smut in the other camp.

Is there hate because of the Archie comic? It's a katamari ball of turtles, mammoths, and other crap, and it's gone off the rails more times than I can count. There are plenty of good reasons to criticise its many examples of poor art and storytelling, but that shouldn't reflect on the SatAM universe—the Archie comic is a melting pot of all versions of Sonic. They've done just as much damage to Shadow, Amy Rose, and their own original characters as they have to any of the Freedom Fighters. Archie's suckage is equal opportunity suckage.

The only reason that makes any sense to me whatsoever (though it's not a good reason by any stretch) is the one I have personal experience with: the whole "purity" thing. The feeling that maybe this isn't what Sonic is "supposed to be".

If this feeling can colonise and spread in a mind like mine, which was pumped full of Knothole, Robotropolis, Swatbots, and Uncle Chuck at a tender young age, then even the most die-hard American Sonic fan's loyalties can start to drift to a new Sonic iteration—especially when that new iteration is seen to be more "real" or "correct".

But this pernicious perception is only an illusion, and it doesn't do the victim any favours (I'm certainly not proud of the era I spent as a snobbish purist). I didn't quite alienate my friends who also liked SatAM, but I must have afflicted them with a fair amount of confusion and frustration. It was as if I wasn't doing my own thinking. Like some mind virus that makes one superstitiously and obsessively eat only white foods, I was restricting my Sonic "diet" arbitrarily.

What's that actually mean in down-to-earth language? It means I was not watching the show anymore, I was getting rid of old merchandise, and I wasn't drawing those characters. Also—since I've been designing my own Sonic fan games since I first had the physical strength to pick up a pen—it meant not including what used to be some of my favourite characters and concepts in my own creations.

On the other side of this, with the sobered hindsight of one who is no longer an angry teenager trying to fit life into neat partitions, I wish that I had seen the myth of purity for what it was. This is just about Sonic, but human nature is a continuum—I recognise this as the same "in-group, out-group" mentality that fuels racism and inspires atrocities. I'm very glad to be wiser.

All of the arguments I had used to assert SatAM's inferiority to the "real" universe of the games, as well as all the ones I hear bandied about online, fall apart on closer scrutiny—that is to say, even a brief second glance.

The first—and perhaps most important—thing to keep in mind is that the classic games don't even have a universe in any strong sense. There is a handful of events, less than a dozen characters, and no dialogue. Of course, the classic games are awesome, and Sonic Team did an amazing job of making Sonic compelling and cool with what they had. Sonic's personality oozed from his sprites, something we take for granted in today's world of fluid cartoon graphics and motion-captured acting. I'm certainly not going to argue in favour of SatAM by turning around and sh**ting on the games' world.

But there are some clear reasons why Sonic's world is far less developed in the games as opposed to the cartoons. Video games are not necessarily a more limited medium than cartoons, but the particular type of game that Sonic was—action platformer—is certainly more limited in terms of telling story. In fact, the whole reason why there's a SatAM universe in the first place is that very fact! If the creators of Sonic's first game had filled in all the blanks, the cartoons would have been a 1:1 copy and paste job.

Adapting an action video game to a story-based medium is fraught with difficulties, for the nature of early video games makes creating a compelling serial adventure saga out of one nearly impossible without great changes and total shifts in focus. Unless you want to have a show with a lot of jumping and gathering floating objects with the occasional interjected bonus round, something drastic need be done.

Take Pacman, for example. How does one tell an engaging story about running around and chomping Power Pellets? How about a new story each week? Hanna-Barbera actually took on this challenge, producing a Pacman cartoon in the early 80's. When I first learned of it (by watching re-runs on Boomerang a few years ago; the original show was a bit before my time) I was incredulous that such a thing was attempted because the Pacman "universe" was just so narrow in scope. (I really shouldn't have been surprised - television managed to scrape together Carmen Sandiego and Rubik's Cube cartoons as well, so I guess they'll try anything.) But I found the Pacman cartoon to be boring and silly precisely because it retained too many of the game's abstract gameplay elements.

The problem is the mentality that the show has to be about the actual video game. This is what leads to the Pacman problem that sees your show full of things that frankly don't make any sense to a television audience (unless they're the Scott Pilgrim consuming, canny audience of today). But let's shake the mentality by flipping it around. If one were to adapt a TV show to a video game, they'd never make it one long digital cinema scene! They'd work to add the elements that make a video game a video game, and worth playing instead of watching. Sonic doesn't gather Rings or jump on floating platforms in the games because it's something Sonic as a character must do to remain unmistakably himself—they're things he does because they're fun to do in a game. But they aren't much worth watching. In the same way, in a Home Improvement video game, Tim Allen fights dinosaurs—because (as we all know), that's what video games are for. Fighting dinosaurs.

So the trick is to picture the Sonic games not as the be-all, end-all perfect template that all other Sonic iterations must slavishly adhere to, but as video games adapted from some hypothetical story—the Platonic Sonic, if you will.

Seen like this, it's obvious that things like SatAM can't be denigrated for not being just like the games, any more than the games can be denigrated for not being just like SatAM. Which came first is irrelevant—they are both windows to a grander whole, in the style of their own particular medium. Clung-to ideas like "Sonic should be a silent character" because "he never talked in the games" are revealed as silliness—it would be like arguing that Final Fantasy Advent Children should have exclusively employed blue text boxes to impart its story (though, in fairness it might have made more sense that way!)

One might fairly say that this is no excuse for Sega (or a fan like me) to justify making a Sonic game full of tedious story, exposition, or a preponderance of SatAM characters to the exclusion of what makes the games great. But no one would want story to get in the way of their game in the first place, no matter what universe it took place in. It's fine to not want a heavy-handed Sonic game (none of the good ones have been, after all), but why should it really offend if the side characters are from SatAM, new folks like Chip and Professor Pickle, or even a mix suited to the tastes of the developer? I know some would scream foul if Sega ever had the nerve to give a nod to what's fast becoming the "lost" Sonic of the west, but would it really hurt? Wouldn't it finally patch the gaping divide that every Sonic fan has to deal with? They've taken the first step with chili dogs in Sonic Unleashed. I for one would be happy if they went even further, perhaps even half-and-half.

"Modern" Sonic is now well-established, and over a decade old. It's still as maddeningly tight-lipped as ever when it comes to acknowledging a significant slice of Sonic's legacy. For many fans, maybe it's starting to slowly erase how they used to picture Sonic. With time (and repeated beatings) comes acceptance, and learned helplessness. But there's no good reason to take it sitting down—you can stand up for yourself and your childhood and ask "why?" Why be so quick to accept that Sonic has moved on? (It's like the infuriating people who like to say "Classic Sonic is never coming back, so deal with it!", as if they can predict the future or something. PROTIP: They can't.) Most of the latest Sonic games have been crappy, by fan consensus and critical review alike. It's not like Sega has proven they can do just fine and dandy without the American universe, thanks. So let's—amidst the endless barage of those who would love to shout us down with cries of "it's not even really Sonic"—remember what's actually what here.

Am I reacting too strongly? Is there really that much resistance to the SatAM elements in the larger Sonic community? Well, to me it sometimes feels like there's a SatAM mitigation brigade, just waiting for you to mention it at which point they are moved to post, all but telling us we're fools for continuing to consider the show to be Sonic. This happened just recently at Sonic Retro when Richard Kuta (the force behind the nascent Animated Sonic Fan Film) said this:

"However, Sonic is a rare case where Americans made the franchise better! If I was introduced to Sonic during the whole Sonic Adventure/Sonic X era, I would have no interest cause it comes off as a generic, paper-thin anime stereotype. Excluding Sonic Colors, everything beforehand [in the modern Sonic era] was garbage. Sonic had little to no personality and his ballooned cast of friends had no character development. Even though Adventures of Sonic and Sonic Underground were cheesy and campy, Sonic actually had a likable personality."

(For context, the discussion was basically about how Sega of Japan appears to want to have nothing to do with Sega of America's Sonic anymore, even going so far as to attempt to kill Kuta's film.)

But then David the Lurker replied:

"But I guess what I'm saying here is that SatAM was not the be-all, end-all of Sonic the Hedgehog. The main writer of the show, Ben Hurst, took one look at the games and threw out EVERYTHING that made it Sonic. I'll admit that when I was a kid, I loved the show."

Which doesn't refute Kuta's point one bit! He was saying how Sega of America bolstered the Sonic franchise with valuable elements, but he gets this thrown in face as if the improvements don't count because it's not exactly like the games. (Also, to nitpick a little, Ben was not actually "main writer" of the show, just particularly prominent, especially in Series 2. And to lay all the blame for SatAM's format on him is misleading, he and the story team would have been working with Sega of America's production bible concepts that were evolving then. Pressed for time, the writers never were given a grand tour of the Sonic franchise, apprised of each detail by Yuji Naka, and then proceeded to chuck it all out in favour of pet ideas. That's a fantasy.)

It may seem like I'm doing a petty thing here and complaining about the behaviour of an individual from the safety of my blog rather than responding critically in the original thread. This is not my intention; I've got nothing against David the Lurker. I am merely using this (mild) incident from a public forum as an example of what I'm talking about, because it's bad form to complain about a phenomenon without citing a single example of it.

It illustrates exactly the type of thing I mean about folks, not just disliking Americanised Sonic, but actively trying to dissuade others from considering it part of the Sonic whole. And this quote is from someone who professes to have liked the show when younger! Why, then, drink Sega's koolaid and allow your concept of Sonic's universe to be replaced piece by piece until it's nothing like it was when you first fell in love with it?

The lack of Item Monitors, Lamp Posts, and cyclical Robotnik boss confrontations make SatAM no less Sonic than the lack of the "SCORE-TIME-RINGS" counter. On the other hand, the use of samey Swatbots, or the underuse of the Tornado biplane... these are legitimate complaints and I do wish these things had appeared in the show (no more or less, though, than I wish that elements of the show had been in the games, so this in no way reflects badly on SatAM). The fact remains that Sonic the Hedgehog—the real Sonic the Hedgehog—fought for the freedom of his friends and his planet from the robotic tyranny of Robotnik. And isn't that what really counts?

This article originally appeared on the author's blog, In the Shade of a Wave.

« Back

Follow us on Twitter Join our Facebook Group Our RSS Feed
FUS | The Walrus Fan Club | Sallyfans | Sega Addicts | SEGADriven | Solitaire | Sonic Paradox
Sonic Retro | Sonic Scene | Supersonic HQ | SVT Comics | TKA.net | TSSZ News