The Sonic the Hedgehog Film is the Culmination of 20 Years of Bad Decisions
So here's the thing: I never grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog.
As a millennial through-and-through, I was born in the tail end of the I-hesitate-to-call-it "Golden Age" of Sonic games. Further, I wasn't really into gaming in my childhood. It wasn't until my later teens that I properly submerged myself in the interactive medium.
So take this critique as someone who is a self-avowed outsider who has neither nostalgia for Sonic the Hedgehog nor bitter hatred toward him and his ilk from the Sega Genesis as a citizen of the SNES like other survivors of the great 90's Console War.
The critique in question being, of course, that Sonic the Hedgehog has been a joke for over 20 years and the Sonic the Hedgehog 2019 film isn't so much a punchline as it is a flatline for this shambling Frakenstein's monster of a franchise.
Sonic the Hedgehog hasn't had a genuinely good game in what is now decades. Trying to revisit the main line of so-called "proper" Sonic games is like taking a course on Detroit's economy in the latter half of the 20th century: namely, a conga line of failure. And that's not even including the countless spin-offs and side games, which in this analogy is like deciding to take an additional seminar on the rest of the Rust Belt in the 80s.
Sonic the Hedgehog has three good games: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) and Sonic & Knuckles (1994). Ever since then, the series has declined, spiraled, roller-coastered, and finally just face-planted into abysmal awfulness with an occasional nod back toward mediocrity.
There are three key factors to understanding why Sonic the Hedgehog as a franchise is borderline incapable of succeeding in the new millennium: the identity of the franchise, the core gameplay structure, and its stagnation as a 90s time capsule.
First and foremost is that Sonic the Hedgehog as a game was aggressively built and tailored to suit a 90s audience with the intention of directly competing against Nintendo's flagship mascot and platforming king Mario. It's even evident in the character design: note the inversion of Mario's colors from dominant red with blue accent to dominant blue with red accents, the similar white gloves and the shared structure towards level design.
And of course, because Mario is a bland vaguely-good everyman, Sonic was tailored to appeal specifically to what 90's kids thought was "cool." Every bit of Sonic's design drips with that market-researched "cool" aesthetic: a smart-mouthed talking animal who's all about going fast and talks like a tween who just learned sarcasm, whose default image gives him the snarky eyebrow DreamWorks would later make iconic, and of course wears sneakers and has a spiky, sharp aesthetic compared to Mario's family-friendly roundness.
All of that made him seem extreme and hip in the 90s, but now just looks painfully passé. And while the plethora of cartoon cereal mascots have shown that there can be some charm in cheesy, dated, unadulterated camp, the thing about Tony the Tiger is that he just needs to be attached to an edible cereal. Sonic, meanwhile, has to be saddled with unplayable games.
The thing about platformers is that they work best in two dimensions: the addition of a third axis makes the genre extremely tricky to operate. There's a reason it fell out of popularity as the dominant gameplay model.
In the modern gaming world, Mario is the only franchise that has survived as an old-school platformer, and it does so through virtue of star power and its staunch refusal to incorporate precision platforming in its 3D games: all surfaces are broad enough to allow plenty of wiggle-room in terms of accuracy.
Sonic, meanwhile, built its identity in terms of speeding through 2D platformers and the addition of a third dimension did to its gameplay model what smallpox did to the Americas.
The mere existence of Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Unleashed are tacit admissions from Sonic Team that they have no clue what to do with their game anymore and instead are desperately borrowing from whatever's popular at the time, be it third-person shooters like Tomb Raider or action hack-and-slash like God of War.
It's unsurprising, then, that they also aspired to try and mimic those game's tones as well, trying to update Sonic the Hedgehog's '90s "tude" into 2000's dark and edgy grit. Which ties into the last issue with Sonic.
Sonic the Hedgehog is painfully dated, and he and his franchise were designed to be so. Hence, any and all attempts to update his character would require such wild deviation that the bizarrely-dedicated hardcore fanbase decry the alterations.
So instead of simply scrapping him and starting over completely, Sonic Team constantly try to make compromises that only compound the issues by adding more and more elements that simply don't work with the core idea of a smart-mouthed talking hedgehog that runs fast.
See his expansive list of sidekicks and side characters who serve nothing but to bloat the world with an ever-expansive menagerie of tonal nightmares, covering the range of comically over-the-top anti-hero Shadow the Hedgehog to agonizingly twee Jar Jar Binks equivalent Charmy Bee.
All of this culminates in the trailer for the 2019 Sonic the Hedgehog film, which is the apotheosis of every bad decision Sonic the Hedgehog has made in its direction over the past 20 years culminating in what can only be described as cringe-inducing.
With its character-in-real-world premise, hilariously misused backing track of Gangster Paradise and a slumming James Marsden, the Sonic the Hedgehog film is so quintessentially 90's that it's even dug up Jim Carrey in the most unwelcome reminder of that decade's quaint tragedies since Dumb and Dumber To.
Still, if nothing else, I am confident that the Sonic the Hedgehog film will be faithful to its source material and recreate that classic Sonic experience.
By that, I mean Jeff Fowler seems to have as little clue on directing the damn movie as Sonic Team does in developing Sonic games.
Cover image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega