This week sees the launch of Sonic Lost World on Wii U and 3DS. Two of the most anticipated Sonic games in years, these new instalments have been subject to the usual level of hype which seems to surround any new adventure starring Sega's popular mascot. I've been swept up in this excitement too, and it has reminded me of just how significant the blue hedgehog has been in my own personal development as a gamer.
Back in the early 1990s, I was a gamer almost by accident. My dad was — and still is — massively into gaming, having lived through the days of the Atari VCS, Colecovision and Atari ST. It was he who purchased me a Japanese Sega Mega Drive system for Christmas, 1989 — the entry point for my unhealthy preoccupation with interactive entertainment.
The early years of ownership were typified by brilliant arcade-quality titles like Golden Axe, Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Strider, ESWAT, Super Monaco GP and After Burner II, but despite the opulence of the visuals and the incredibly engaging gameplay, I still recall being vaguely jealous of my NES-owning chums. Having witnessed the unveiling of Super Mario Bros. 3 via the movie The Wizard — and having sampled the prequels when visiting friends — I was keen for my console to have a title capable of besting Nintendo's famous franchise. Aside from the likes of Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure — released in the west as Decapattack — there was little on the Mega Drive to challenge Mario's supremacy of the platforming genre.
Turns out I wouldn't have to wait long for that to change. The early screenshots of Sonic which appeared in magazines such as Computer & Video Games, Sega Power and Mean Machines kick-started a hype train which would gather a scary degree of momentum as the release approached. Back in the '90s, the time between a game's announcement and its release was much shorter than it is now, but even so, I recall the wait being almost unbearable. Sonic was everywhere you looked, and even before I had the cartridge in my hands I knew instinctively that I was going to fall head over heels in love with this new creation.
When I did eventually secure my copy — a second hand PAL version traded in by someone who had presumably finished it in the space of a week — my world contracted. I cared about nothing but playing Sonic endlessly, beating all of the levels and grabbing all of the Chaos Emeralds in the magical rotating bonus stages. I would gleefully invite my NES and Amiga-owning companions around so they could gawk jealously at the stunning visuals and incredible speed. My adoration bordered on obsession; I hooked up the Mega Drive to my stereo (thanks to that wonderful 3.5mm headphone socket on the MK1 machine) and recorded the audio while I was playing; I would then force family members to listen to the cacophony of beeps as if it were one of Mozart's lost works.
At school, my undying dedication to Sonic manifested itself in deranged doodlings; exercise books were covered in his likeness, and art projects usually revolved around the hedgehog hero. It must have been slightly bewildering for my teachers — almost all of which would have been blissfully unaware of Sonic's existence were it not for my enthusiastic pencil-and-paint renderings — but there was an added benefit to my actions at the time. My affection for the character undoubtedly helped me get through the first difficult few months at a new school (Saint Martin's RC High School, Stoke Golding — in case you were wondering), where I knew nobody yet managed to forge friendships based almost entirely on video gaming.
I struggle to remember the exact period of time now, but I remember Sonic the Hedgehog keeping me occupied like no other game before it. I played it for weeks on end and whenever we had distant relations over to visit it was always played on the TV in an attempt to impress them — which no doubt resulted in polite bemusement on their part. To me, Sonic represented everything that was appealing about video games and I couldn't comprehend why everyone else wasn't totally potty about him; he was cool (so cool I daydreamed about actually being Sonic, and fantasised about how much people would admire me if I was a three-foot blue animal with spikes and red shoes) and the game in which he starred was fast, exciting and seemingly a million miles away from the plump, moustached hero seen on Nintendo's consoles.
After such a whirlwind romance, it was almost inevitable that my affection would wane. Sonic 2 caught my attention — as did Sonic CD — but by the time Sonic 3 arrived I had well and truly lost interest. Super Mario World had forever changed my perception of what a 2D platformer could be; while it lacked the visual impact and sheer pace of Sega's offering, it was arguably a deeper and more rewarding experience overall. With the character largely sitting out the 32-bit era, it would fall to Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast to briefly resurrect my lapsed devotion — when it wasn't annoying me with its many bugs, of course. Since then, I've watched Sonic's career with casual interest rather than deep dedication; Lost World will hopefully change that, as I now have children of my own and will hopefully be able to see my past degree of obsession mirrored in their relationship with Sega's speedy protagonist.