There were a few notable anniversaries in 2015, yet this year looks set to be even more significant. Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda are among the major celebrations still to come, but it's also the 25th Anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. Once the sworn enemy and rival to Mario, leading the SEGA charge in the 'Console Wars', for a number of years the mascot has had some highs punctuated by grisly lows, and seen his reputation rise and fall just as dramatically.
At the end of 2014 this writer, a lifelong fan of Sonic since the first Mega Drive blew his young mind on the Mega Drive / Genesis, practically gave up all hope for the franchise. Positive steps and glimmers of quality were swept away by Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, not just because the game was a mess, but because it was another example of a franchise that couldn't figure out its path. To go from the promising but flawed Sonic Lost World to Boom was painful to see, and another example of SEGA taking one step forward and two back.
A suggestion made in that late 2014 editorial was that SEGA should slow down with the franchise, take a step back and really decide what kind of game it wants to be the key representative of the IP. Actually, it's done that, which is a pleasing first step. There have been re-releases - such as the 3D remasters on the 3DS - and continued updates and a new entry in the mobile-only Sonic Dash series, but 2015 passed with SEGA keeping its powder dry on the next 'main' entry.
Perhaps anniversaries, by their very nature, get the best out of SEGA. Unlike Capcom's hit-and-miss attitude to Mega Man (mostly miss), SEGA at least takes its most-loved IP seriously when a major landmark is around. Sonic Generations wasn't exactly perfect, but it was definitely decent, and could be argued as being very good in some areas. It catered to nostalgia, included 2D and 3D elements, and showed respect for 'old' and 'new' Sonic. When we contemplate Sonic Colours and the aspects of Sonic Lost World that actually worked, then add them to Generations, there was a spell where the blue blur was entertaining if not exceptional.
Just recently marketing and merchandise notes emerged that gave some insight into the big year that's planned for Sonic, and aspects of that gave us optimism. For one thing it seems to recognise that different areas of the character's 'universe' cater to different demographics, clearly differentiating the Sonic Boom IP - which, to be fair, was always described as a spin-off - from the classic or 'pixel' Sonic, and then the comic book Sonic. Partly by accident, we suspect, SEGA finds itself in a position where it can target the youngest demographics with Boom - with Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice coming to 3DS and the TV show performing well - but do something entirely different to target fans with a sense of history and entirely different expectations.
Sonic can be the slightly annoying, scarf-wearing boaster in some cartoons and even mobile games, but still be 'classic' Sonic in a tentpole release. Sonic Boom as a TV show will do well regardless, as will free-to-play mobile games, so the next major console game doesn't need to follow their lead.
We get the sense that SEGA knows this, and we could have a more old-school Sonic experience to enjoy this year. Exhibit A is the lead image at the top of this article, which is the 25th Anniversary logo released on an official Japanese Twitter account in late 2015. Exhibit B is the banner recently posted on the official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account. You can see this and the accompanying message below.
In celebration of Sonic's 25th Anniversary, we've uploaded a new profile pic and header! Goodbye, scarf.
That Twitter account is brilliant in terms of self-awareness and poking fun at the brand, but that official artwork certainly points to a reverence for the series' origins, and the potential of blending that with a modern touch. We've been here before - as mentioned above - with Generations, but returning to that approach wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. If the core Sonic Team has spent time since Sonic Lost World assessing what has and hasn't worked in the last decade of releases, it could find the right formula. We pretty much know it's going to try, in any case.
A lot of this has, of course, been said before. Yet in the interest of looking ahead with optimism it's worth recalling those examples of Sonic games in recent years that flirted with a return to form, that showed flashes of good ideas. We'd also hope that SEGA and the Sonic Team has been learning lessons from around the industry, even from the 'Indie' scene. There have been arguments in the past that SEGA should entrust its franchise to developers in the more rebellious download industry, yet its own staff only need to look at the likes of Freedom Planet to see what can be done with the right approach. Assuming the next Sonic game is multi-platform, SEGA could target Generations-level sales while also giving Sonic's most passionate fans the sort of game that brings a smile to their face.
Optimism for the next great Sonic game can be argued as one of a gamer's ultimate follies. Yet let's remember some positive moments in recent times, look at the direction SEGA's taken with its anniversary artwork and have a little confidence; maybe the Blue Blur is ready for a comeback after the bust of Sonic Boom.