Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

 



Sonic the Hedgehog

 In my early childhood, I was a "Nintendo Kid." It wasn't entirely by choice. Like most my age that grew up in the 1980s, Nintendo was about the only option for videogaming for a vast majority of it. Sure, there was the Atari, but even in the 1980s people knew the Atari wasn't the end-all, be-all of videogames. Most far preferred spending time at the arcade for the "real" games but an arcade wasn't something you took home with you and stayed up late with. So when the Nintendo Entertainment System burst on to the scene, the marketing machine churning so much it gave Disney a run for its money, it launched the popularity of videogames into the stratosphere. For all sakes and purposes, Nintendo was videogames. The names were hand-in-hand in a synergistic, synonymous, symbiotic relationship. If you didn't own an NES and at least a half-dozen Nintendo related merchandise on top of that, you probably didn't grow up during this era.

So why did I take the leap into this new thing...this device that came out in 1989...this...Genesis? Well, that's easy. As it turns out Sega, the creators of this Genesis thing, took a book from Nintendo as well and marketed the hell out of it. I can remember the commercials vividly, especially this one:

 

 

I bet I was sitting on the floor in front of the television, playing with some action figures after school and waiting for Ducktales to start. The commercial was certainly cool, called out Nintendo by name even, but I didn't jump aboard right away on the Genesis tugboat, it needed to turn into the Titanic for me to commit (and then have it hit an iceberg around 1997 or so and spend five years slowly sinking). Not until this commercial began to be aired on television about a year or so later:

 

 

A lot of people, including myself, forget that the Genesis wasn't some massive, overnight success. Yes, it took the mantle from Nintendo and made Sega a household name...but not until Sonic came out. That commercial, along with the lower price, all combine with a very specific memory for me: I walked into the local mom-and pop store with my best friend one Friday, this being one of those places that seems stuck in 1983 type of video stores, planning to rent a couple of games for the weekend we could play.   Along the back wall near the videogames, they had a television and usually a Nintendo hooked up. This time, there was no Nintendo. On the "test station" there was Sonic the Hedgehog, spinning around and looking amazing. It was one of the bonus levels. It was bright. The music was great. The colors popped off the screen. It was fast. Slick. Smooth. It had everything that Nintendo and Mario didn't.  I hadn't seen anything like it outside of an arcade cabinet.

I was happy with my NES, but at the time I did want a new system. The lower price was more tempting to my parents to get me one as a gift (incidentally, that was the last gaming console they bought, all others after I bought myself). I knew then and there that I was going to own one.

 

 Loops and pretty bonus levels? Fast and flashy, that's the way of Sonic.

 

The thing is, I don't quite remember (purpose of this title) how or when I got one. I know Sonic was the catalyst for it, but did I get it for a birthday? I don't think it was a Christmas gift, so I have to assume it was for a birthday, I suppose. It's odd that I remember when and where I either bought or was given all of the game systems I owned except the Sega Genesis (and the Gameboy, now that I think about it...and I got both around the same time). I do know it had Sonic the Hedgehog packed in, though. I was one of those that had the "Not for Resale" banners on his box. Of course if you go into any used game store at the time, they had a ton of those. I know this because that mom and pop store was a place I would eventually work at and we had dozens of them.

Oh, and by "mom and pop" I don't mean some nice old couple owning a store. It was ran by a shrewd, weird, possibly ovelry perverted asshole (the overly perverted part being possible, not the asshole part...that one is confirmed) and wasn't part of a chain. My town didn't even get a chain store until Hollywood Video opened in the 1990s.

Sorry, I'm digressing here. By this time, my best friend had a Genesis as well. So instead of renting NES games, we began to rent a ton of Genesis games. Early games like Dick Tracey, Splatterhouse, Streets of Rage, Joe Montana Football and Quackshot I remember playing at his house quite a lot. Sonic, though, was more on my end. We both had it therefore we didn't need to rent it, so my playing it was pretty much at my house, in my room, probably with a bag of cheetos and a Dr. Pepper at my side as I laid back in a bean-bag. I loved everything about the game, especially the music. In fact I remember plugging my headphones from my walkman into the headphone jack on the Genesis and just getting lost in the music. Sometimes not even paying attention to what I was doing in the game. 

Sonic was less jumping around and more running until you stopped, then figure out how you could run again. It was never about solving something or planning, it was just speed and anticipation. It's like driving a car down a highway, suddenly reaching congestion, then looking to find a way to get back up to speed again. It relied more on reaction than perseverance, and there wasn't another game quite liked it. It had style. It had crisp graphics. It changed a lot of things.

 

 Would a Genesis make me as cool as these guys? The short answer: no. The long answer: no.

 

Of course I also have a bit of a bad memory with Sonic the Hedgehog. I was sitting in my bedroom playing it on my small color television. I had just finished up the pesky water level, Labyrinth Zone. For a week, I would play Sonic the Hedgehog and never make it past this level. Anyone who's played Sonic knows why. It's the left field type of level that's not like any other level because a) it slows everything down and b) you have to keep running up to bubble to get air. It, and every Sonic the Hedgehog game with a water level since, is some of the worst gaming out there.

Anyways, I had just beat it. I was excited. Then my step-dad came in. I remember saying "Look! I finally got past this level." My excitement was short-lived as he went on to tell me my dog had just died. Hey, I was eleven. It was my first dog. I knew she was sick but she was still only a year or so old. In my mind "she would go to the vet, get better, then be back home."

It didn't turn out that way. I didn't bother playing more of the game despite getting the furthest I had ever been. My step-father left, I sat for a moment, then just flicked off the power button on the Genesis and went outside. I don't recall what I did after that. One thing I do know is I didn't play Sonic again for months. Not only did I have a bad memory of an awful level to begin with, but now it's associated with that bit of personal childhood bad news as well.

 

 Yes, Sonic, my thoughts exactly about those goddamn bubbles.

 

Despite the bad memory attached to Sonic the Hedgehog, I still remember it fondly. There was simply nothing else quite like it and it made me a Genesis fan for the duration of the system's life, even when I was playing my Super Nintendo more which I bought years later. I know there are better Sonic games. Sonic 2 was a little smoother, Sonic 3 incredibly well-designed and Sonic CD the reason I bought a Sega CD - a memory that is pretty comparable to the memory of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game as the demo of Sonic CD at that very same mom and pop store is what made me get add-on...and regret it about a year later. 

I never regretted Sonic, though. From the moment I powered up and started through Green Hill Zone, Sonic's feet moving as I try and keep up and bounce around like a pinball, I loved the game. I still do. I can't think of any NES games I really played after that. Of course the Super Nintendo was starting up by then so the NES game releases were minuscule at best, but the Genesis and Sonic The Hedgehog had me. After a few years peddling around the fringes, I was hooked. I loved the style, I loved the idea of Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman as he's sometimes known), I loved the sound effects which I can remember as well today as the first time I played it. Like that sound when you git a robot and it explodes with a little "bloop" noise and little furry creatrues run out and...

...wow, who came up with this again? That's weird now that I write it down. Wait...it's from Japan, it all makes sense now.

 

 Classic title screen image, even if I never understood exactly what Sonic is doing there (#1?) and the villain, Dr. Robotnik - a more creative and odd version of Dr. Wiley to me.

 

The Genesis was a great system and its defining game pretty high on the pantheon of major impacts in the industry. Sega has certainly fallen from graces since then, now struggling to simply make games at all. Sonic, the Genesis and gaming in the early 1990s was their day in the sun, which more than what a lot of companies can claim. Sonic dominated Mario during this era. Think about it: the Genesis managed three Sonic games, all damn good, and there was only one actual Mario game for the Super Nintendo. Only until the very end of the SNES did Nintendo manage to put out another original Mario game, Yoshi's Island, even though you didn't control Mario in it. I'll be honest, despite my love of the Mario franchise, the Sonic games were my preference during this time.

It had nothing to do with the marketing this time, though. Even though I put up those two commercials, I simply liked Sonic more at the time because it was just a damn good game, was fast, and there was nothing else like it. Even in hindsight I can honestly say I like the Sonic the Hedgehog games more than the Mario games of this 16-bit era. Like the Mario games on the NES, the Sonic games were the seal of quality of a console. By this time Mario had become a bit of a joke as Nintendo loaned him out to educational game makers and he only had one original Mario title to lay claim to. Mario World, and Yoshi's Island if you wish to count it, are damn good games too, so it's only a matter of preference on my part. Of course Nintendo and Mario got the last laugh in the long run, but for those brief moments, Sonic the Hedgehog was at the top of the world and I was in gaming heaven.

 

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