In the past week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog and the 20th anniversary of Super Mario 64, two games that were hugely influential alongside their iconic systems. They were notable when they first launched not just for being excellent games, but for their impact on the industry and the trends they set. Some of the key evolutions they brought to the market are still felt to this day.
Sonic the Hedgehog, as I've mentioned in the past, was important to me as a young gamer. When I was 6-7 years old we got a Mega Drive (Genesis for those of you in North America), which was the first 'proper' games console in the house. Prior to that we'd had a ZX Spectrum as the main gaming machine, which ran off cassette tapes and was similar in concept to a Commodore 64 (for those of you in North America). The move to SEGA's 16-bit machine was a huge leap, and the first game we fired up was Sonic's debut. To say it blew my young mind is an understatement; I'd never seen graphics like it, and it kicked off a lifetime of following Sonic (for better and worse) and truly got me excited about gaming. My brother and I sunk all of our pocket money and Birthday / Christmas gifts on Mega Drive games - I still look at all the games we accumulated and wonder how on Earth we pulled it off.
Beyond those personal reminiscences, however, Sonic's debut was a key moment for the games industry. After the crash of the industry in the early '80s Nintendo was able to seize the US market, in particular, with the NES. As has been well documented, Nintendo was particularly dominant in the US in the late '80s, securing a lot of third-party content to supplement its own products and hits. What SEGA achieved with its 16-bit machine, after the NES had established itself as the dominant force, was to differentiate itself not only on graphical power (initially), but also as a 'cool' and slightly more grown up gaming option.
Sonic, as the mascot, was key to that. In the initial window when SEGA could boast of bit-based superiority, and even after SNES arrived, Sonic's speed and attitude were vital in the battle against Nintendo and Mario. Interestingly that first game wasn't, objectively speaking, particularly fast, but Sonic's look and pixelated swagger gave the impression of speed and a 'modern' feel. Nintendo maintained its overall global lead in sales - especially once the SNES came along - but SEGA made notable inroads that ended the overwhelming dominance the NES had enjoyed in its early days. In the UK, which was my reference point, SEGA was arguably number one in the early to mid-'90s, with its raft of arcade-like ports and greater availability in stores helping its cause - Nintendo's UK distribution wasn't at its peak when I was young.
Sonic the Hedgehog and its 16-bit sequels were early trend-setters in targeting the cool sector of the market, in terms of trying to attract an older audience or to give that perception. SEGA unabashedly pitched itself as the rebel, the upstart bloodying Nintendo's nose, and the foot-tapping speedster 'blue blur' was at the core of that message.
By the time Super Mario 64 and the N64 came around SEGA was already making peculiar decisions and embarking upon a period of self destruction. It was also a very 'Nintendo' way to shake up the market - not through 'attitude', a perception of speed and clever marketing, but through refined and outrageously skilful game design.
Both that launch title and its system changed the way we thought about 3D gaming, taking that form from experimental and frustrating and transforming it into something special. With the N64 controller's analogue stick, the camera control on the C buttons and Mario's smooth, flowing movement, it should not be underestimated how significant Super Mario 64 was at the time.
I was still relatively young when I played it, only just hitting my teens, and I was initially baffled. I'd grown up on a diet of 16-bit gaming and some PC titles, and the idea of smoothly running around a 3D space was unfamiliar. It was difficult initially, simply due to the lack of experience with that style of gaming, but it was also thrilling; my eyes were widened whenever I played it.
The N64 had some disappointing 3D games, but Mario 64 was the first of a golden group of titles from the likes of Nintendo and Rare. That whole era, with the PS1 bringing Sony huge success and polygons becoming ever-present at the expense of pixels, was truly definitive for the industry. Suddenly the look of games and how we controlled characters was evolving rapidly, as the traditional 2D perspectives of the past became less prominent. You can see the ongoing legacy of that period to this day, of course.
With both Sonic and Super Mario 64 / Nintendo 64 reaching notable landmarks, I wonder what the next game changer will be in the game industry. In recent years we've seen an explosion of open-world gaming, with freedom increasingly important in that genre. Titles like No Man Sky put the focus almost entirely on the player and procedural generation, it seems, and Nintendo is even modernising its approach with greater player control and autonomy in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Other prominent trends right now also seem to include the creeping increase of free-to-play or microtransaction-driven online games, while mobile gaming continues to increase its revenues year after year. Then there's the big one in some eyes - Virtual Reality.
All of these areas, and more, are certainly prominent in current-day gaming and could be defined as 'game changing'. Perhaps there's something else to come though, another major change in how we play games that will influence the industry for decades to come. Nintendo likes to summarise the mysterious NX as a new way to play; that's vague enough to be exciting while we wait for its reveal.
I doff my cap, ultimately, to both Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario 64. In the ever-evolving history of video games their places are assured.