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Why did 3D Sonic struggle?

Why are Sonic’s eyes green in Sonic Adventure, the franchise’s first serious crack at a fully 3D polygonal platformer? It turns out there’s a lovely little story behind that. Ristar creator Yuji Uekawa was the man tasked with revamping Sega’s mascot for his debut on Dreamcast. Some of his decisions were practical: shrinking Sonic’s enormous, swept-back skull and elongating his limbs, for instance, so that he doesn’t look like a fuzzy joystick when viewed from the rear. Others were a touch more poetic. “He is always seeing these green pastures around him, like in Green Hill Zone,” Uekawa explains in an interview conducted for Sega’s 25th anniversary artbook. “I thought it would be nice to reflect that in his eyes.”

Sonic still has green eyes in Sonic Team’s forthcoming Sonic Forces, decades later, but we’re a long way from those green pastures. What terrible scenes those eyes have beheld! Popping your hips at Kinect in Sonic Free Riders, for instance. Charlie Sheen-grade sitcom sketches in the recent Sonic Boom, an attempt to do for Sonic what the Teen Titans did for DC Comics. The entirety of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, a game that wants to be Final Fantasy so much it has Sonic snog a princess, as if in hopes of a magical transformation. The Green Hill Zone stands resplendent across its various reincarnations, an Eden from which Sonic is always rapidly departing, but the landscape is otherwise that of D-Day, strewn with dropped rings and the bodies of interchangeable sidekicks or rivals. Perhaps that’s why in this year’s wonderful Sonic Mania, an officially unofficial fan remake largely content to forget Sonic Adventure ever existed, the blue blur’s eyes are black as coal.

I called Sonic’s 3D period “20-odd years of slowly accumulating bullshit” in my Mania review. In hindsight that’s a little harsh – whatever else he’s responsible for, Sonic has given us several decent, generously proportioned 3D action games plus one terrific racing title, and the wider universe thrashed out in novels, comicbooks and cartoons enjoys an impassioned following. But good lord, there has been plenty of rain to go with the shine. Where arch-nemesis Mario broke the mould with Super Mario 64 – then did it again with Super Mario Galaxy – Sonic has never really had that transcendental hit, the game that establishes an irresistible vocabulary for Sonic games in three dimensions. Instead, the hedgehog has staggered from lousy reinvention to lousy reinvention, with Sega obliged to de-list a large number of Sonic titles from Metacritic to cleanse the brand ahead of Sonic Colors and Sonic 4 in 2010.

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