Sonic boom: gamer icon turns twenty

He's been a hero to millions of gamers since he was created. Now, Sonic the Hedgehog is 20, and is to be relaunched – but have gamers outgrown him?

Way back in June 1991, a struggling console manufacturer called Sega launched a character who would define gaming for a generation and who propelled the company's consoles into the mainstream.

At the time, the home console market was dominated by Nintendo, whose popular Mario character had captured the imaginations of gamers eight years earlier. Super Mario Bros., for the NES gaming system, sold more than 40 million copies and is still known as one of the best games of all time.

While Mario kept the NES system selling in the millions, Sega's Megadrive console just couldn't penetrate the market. The console itself was powerful, but the games weren't up to scratch. A team of top game designers were set to work to find something – anything – that could steal Mario's throne.

Their answer was Sonic, a bright blue hedgehog with red shoes and a feisty attitude. Until then, games had been relatively slow-paced. The Sonic games aimed to take the old model of the 'platformer' and turn the intensity up to 11. Sonic was Mario at 100 miles per hour.

And it worked. Out of nowhere, Sega emerged to take 65% of the games market. Sonic the Hedgehog became the face of a series of Sega consoles, with cartoon spin-offs and endless sequels.

Now, on his twentieth birthday, Sonic is being relaunched for the new generation. But times have changed. Children who played Sonic in the 90s are in their twenties now, and the average gamer is 37. Gamers are growing up.

These older players demand more from their game characters than bright colours and a fast pair of heels. 1996 saw the introduction of Lara Croft, famous for her personality and sex appeal. In 2001, the Halo franchise brought in Master Chief, a faceless but charismatic hero living in a richly detailed fictional world.

In 2008, older gamers met Niko Bellic in GTA 4 – a character who brought real depth and ambiguity to video games. A troubled soul with a dark past, Bellic's story played out as a tragedy, far removed from the bright, colourful worlds of the old Sega and Nintendo consoles.

The next art form?

The top studios now talk about their games as if they were blockbuster movies rather than casual pastimes. Now, some game designers are thinking about the next step: can games, with complex characters and deep, involving storylines ever rise to the level of art?

For the moment mainstream critics are dubious. Gaming, they say, will always fundamentally be an idle diversion for children, and immature men. However hard it tries to escape from its roots, they argue, Sonic the Hedgehog will always sum up what gaming is about: all style and no substance.

You Decide

  1. Can video games ever be art? Do you think they should try?
  2. Is playing games – of any sort – really a waste of time? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Sonic the Hedgehog was a brilliant piece of character design. Can you do better? Design your own video game character.
  2. What is art anyway? Try to write a list of 5 qualities something has to have in order to be art. Add more if you can think of any.

Some People Say...

“A good video game is just as valuable as a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play.”

What do you think?

Q & A

When were the first video games?
There's a lot of debate over this but gaming didn't really take off until the 1970s, when simple games likePong and Space Invaders began to appear. Graphics were very basic, and gameplay was simple, with no storylines or characterisation.
And then Mario came along?
Yes, in 1983. It was a big moment for video games, which until then had been seen as a fad. Mario made millions buy games consoles, and laid the foundation for gaming today.
So what happens next?
Games consoles today are thousands of times more powerful than back when Sonic was launched, which gives developers amazing freedom to tell stories and create rich visual worlds. That doesn't necessarily mean the stories will be any good though.

Word Watch

Console
A special computer system, specially designed for playing games.
Platformers
'Platformers', or 'platform games' were popular in the early days of gaming. Mario and Sonic were both platform games in which players guided characters through a sort of obstacle course, jumping from platform to platform to avoid obstacles and dangers.
Turn it up to 11
This expression comes from the film Spinal Tap. See the clip here.

Diversion
Something that passes the time but is essentially pointless.

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