Feature: Sonic: The Nintendo Years - Part Two

The second instalment of our look back at gaming's favourite blue dude with attitude

Sonic: The Nintendo Years — Part One detailed the hedgehog's first few years on Nintendo consoles, but by the end of 2005 it was clear that Sonic games had changed very drastically, and nowhere was that more evident than in the next two 'hog-related outings.

First came the debacle that was Shadow the Hedgehog, another notorious low point in the hedgehog's career. Putting a gun in the hands of a Sonic Team character was a terrible decision, and it was sadly followed up by another, with the appalling airboard racing game Sonic Riders. You'd never have had to put up with this in 1994.

2006 saw Sonic's last hurrah on the Game Boy Advance, yet it was hardly the swansong the console deserved. Confident following the strong sales of the previous Sonic GBA games and the Gamecube compilations, Sega converted the very first Sonic the Hedgehog game to the pocket portable, which ended up as a new low point for the series. Horrendously slow compared to the original with countless bugs and glitches, this was a black mark on Sonic’s revered debut. As some consolation, it wasn’t just Nintendo owners who had a bad time with Sonic games in 2006 – it also saw the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 released on Xbox 360, an even more broken game than the GBA release.

Reclaiming the old magic

No doubt wishing he could erase 2006 from memory, Sonic persevered into 2007 with Sonic and the Secret Rings for Nintendo Wii. Taking its cues from the Arabian Nights series of books, Sonic and the Secret Rings greatly simplified previous 3D Sonic experiences by placing him on a preset path which required the player to steer left and right, brake and jump. Such a brave decision could have gone either way, but thankfully it greatly reduced the number of accidental deaths and camera issues by always keeping Sonic on the straight and narrow. Secret Rings probably got more stick for introducing a level-up and skills system, which saw you gain experience for completing levels quickly, which was then used to unlock enhanced speed, jumping distance and other abilities.

On the one hand, making Sonic his slowest at the start of the game was probably not the most crowd-pleasing move to make, but it did let players adjust to the new style of gameplay, and allow them to improve their best times and scores by equipping higher level skills, balancing out the lack of available routes. Although the heavy-handed tutorials deterred some players, those who persevered with the game discovered one of the best-looking titles available on Wii, with bursts of unbelievable speed, sizeable levels and some superb graphics. It continues to sell well at its current budget price, proving very attractive to new Wii owners.

Nintendo owners undoubtedly got the two best Sonic games for many years in 2007, with DS fans receiving Sonic Rush Adventure, which took the boost-based original and added in extra touch screen-based sea navigation sections with a shoot-'em-up slant. With hidden islands to explore, online multiplayer and fewer bottomless pits, Sonic Rush Adventure was a big improvement over its prequel, though in no way perfect owing to its increased reliance on storytelling and the introduction of an raccoon named Marine, whose language is so stereotypically Antipodean you want to stick her on the barby and toast her with a few tinnies.

The following year Sonic showed us more of his familiar recent form with the release of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity on Wii, a sequel to 2006's poor airboard racing game that featured a new gravity mechanic, allowing players to race along walls and ceilings, creating an even more chaotic experience than its predecessor. Quite why Sega continued allowing Sonic to feature in games like Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is a mystery to Sonic fans and gamers everywhere, although it's presumably something to do with making lots and lots of money.

The match-up of dreams

Then, just as we were all becoming accustomed to the idea that Sega and Nintendo were friends now, we all got a shock when their iconic mascots teamed up for the first time in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. M&S may have seemed a strange and frightening prospect at the time, but combining the overwhelming success of Wii Sports and the universal appeal of the two most recognisable faces in gaming gave Sega its biggest hit since Sonic Twosday all the way back in November 1992.

For all its sales – somewhere over the region of ten million units shipped worldwide – it’s easy to forget that it’s actually an enjoyable game that’s as much fun for long-term gamers as it is newcomers to the cause. Admittedly not all the control schemes are as intuitive, but very few events fall below a decent standard, and with Mario and Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games you can bet there’ll be even more red vs. blue sporting action finding its way into millions of homes across the world this year.

If the sight of the two old adversaries joining forces was enough to boil your blood, Super Smash Bros. Brawl let you get rid of some of that frustration by pitting Sonic against Mario, Luigi and some of Nintendo's most famous characters. While Sonic is one of the last characters to be unlocked, his Green Hill Zone stage, remixed music and moveset are worth the effort, and kicking Mario's head in with Sonic proves every bit as satisfying as you'd expect.

Following Sonic's dabble with Mario's crew, he returned to his own fold with Sega Superstars Tennis on Wii and DS, engaging in a few rallies with Ulala, NiGHTS and more. A decent tennis effort from Virtua Tennis veterans Sumo Digital, the game hardly set the world alight but offered some enjoyable fan service: taking down Kong from Virtua Cop with nothing but tennis balls ranks as one of the game's best moments.

If two games featuring old rivals Mario and Sonic shocked fans, what happened next must have caused heart attacks for the longest-serving Sonic devotees. Sega announced it was enlisting Bioware to create a Sonic RPG for DS called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, which saw the light of day in October 2008 to predictably mixed reviews. One thing everyone agreed on was the fantastic artwork and atmosphere Bioware created in tackling an extremely difficult property – how to turn something so fast into a slow-moving story-based game? By making the turns-based battles fully interactive with plenty of touch screen actions, of course. Bioware succeeded in creating an engaging and exciting battle system that took the best elements from classic Sega RPGs such as Skies of Arcadia and Shining the Holy Ark and mixed them with aspects from the Mario and Luigi series.

With a surprisingly complex storyline involving Knuckles’s ancient race of Echidna and the reappearance of Gizoids, a large cast of playable characters each with unique skills and plenty of side missions and objects to collect, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is probably the best first attempt at a Sonic RPG anyone could have expected. It didn’t sell brilliantly, so the sequel that’s already been set up may never materialise, but Bioware should still be commended for creating not only a decent Sonic game but also a great use of the DS hardware for a first handheld game.

When the night falls

Having taken it slow for a year, Sonic broke his own speed record with Sonic Unleashed. Glossing over the regrettable Werehog fighting sections, the combination of 2D and 3D in the Sonic platforming sections made for some of the most exhilarating action the old chap has seen in many years. The Wii version doesn’t quite exceed the next-gen versions: Nintendo's console lacks the 3D cities and the ability to level up Sonic's skills, and the graphics lag behind the much-hyped Hedgehog Engine.

And then they went and buggered it all up with Sonic and the Black Knight, the second in the Storybook Series following Sonic and the Secret Rings. S&BK largely retains the on-rails system introduced in Secret Rings, but its big innovation is in giving the fast and spiky Sonic a large, cumbersome talking sword he must swing to dispatch countless generic enemies in the time of King Arthur. With none of the fluidity of Secret Rings or the 2D appeal of Unleashed, S&BK gives Sonic’s recovering name another good kick in the privates, prising the inauspicious title of worst Sonic game on a Nintendo console from Sonic the Hedgehog on GBA. You can check out our Sonic and the Black Knight review if you don't believe us.

The long road uphill

After the disastrous Black Knight, Sega brought us more sports action with a winter slant, as well as another attempt to cram the hedgehog into a car with Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing on Wii and DS. While easy to dismiss the game as a Mario Kart clone, it has enough quirks of its own to justify a purchase, and although it's hardly brimming with new ideas it works well as a celebration of Sega franchises including the much-loved Shenmue.

DS owners got a taste of the hedgehog's 16-bit heritage with Sonic Classic Collection, offering irritatingly imperfect emulation that caused some games to run less smoothly than in their original 16-bit forms. While nowhere near as bad as Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis on GBA, the quest for a perfect portable port of Sonic's original outings continues.

It wasn't just DS fans getting some 2D Sonic action though, as Sega announced Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I for WiiWare, an attempt to take the hedgehog back to the events following Sonic & Knuckles in true Mega Drive style. Those expecting a game that played and felt like the original games were disappointed by the game's homing attack and inconsistent physics, but others were pleased by the wide array of homages to the adventures that originally stole our hearts. It's certainly not a perfect attempt at a 2D Sonic game, but hopefully the follow-up due this year will make the necessary improvements.

By far the biggest Sonic games of 2010 however were the Nintendo-exclusive Sonic Colours on Wii and DS. When first announced the games would only place you in control of Sonic, the much-quoted Sonic Cycle kicked-in, but the games broke free and proved to be among Sonic's best outings in years.

Whereas the DS release is essentially Sonic Rush 3, Sonic Colours on Wii plays like Sonic Unleashed without the Werehog fighting, cramming in more speed and set pieces than before, but its main new feature was the inclusion of differently-coloured Wisps. When activated these give Sonic various powers, turning him into a drill, laser, rocket and more, opening up different routes in each stage. Graphically superb, musically excellent and critically well-received, the Wii version proved that 3D Sonic games can work and has hopefully paved the way for a prosperous future for the 'hog.

Good Future or Bad Future?

With this year marking Sonic's 20th anniversary, Sega is honouring its mascot's milestone with Sonic Generations on 3DS. A celebration of the hero's past exploits, players take on iconic zones in gameplay that merges the classic 16-bit stages and more modern Rush-style action. We got to play the game at E3 2011, so expect to see our first impressions soon.

Generations aside, Sonic fans have the second downloadable episode of Sonic 4 to look forward to, as well as more Olympics shenanigans on 3DS and Wii. With Sega recently confirming it will be bringing high definition Sonic games to Wii U it looks like the special relationship between the two old rivals is stronger than ever.