Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’re spin-dashing into the spinoffs of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from Sonic Retro. Where two years are present, the first is Japan and the second is North America. I have tried to use the North American version of game and console titles after first identifying international variants – consequently, Genesis will stand in for Mega Drive and Sega CD will stand in for Mega-CD; writing both simply became too messy after a while. The one exception is Eggman/Robotnik, since that localization changes midway through the series; I have generally used Eggman exclusively for games released exclusively in Japan before 1998 and games released worldwide from 1998 on unless they used the old North American localization. Please let me know if I’ve mucked this scheme up somewhere!
Specific sources will be cited as they pertain below, but three key general sources inform much of the following text:
- Sonic Retro
- Blake J. Harris – Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (2014)
- Alex Wiltshire and John Szczepaniak – Japansoft: An Oral History (2020)
Table of Contents
Puzzle and Puzzle-Platformer
Coverage of core Sonic the Hedgehog games and Sega’s history is available in earlier articles. Please review these more for details on the series’ history:
- Franchise Festival #85: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991-1996)
- Franchise Festival #86: Sonic the Hedgehog (1998-2007)
- Franchise Festival #87: Sonic the Hedgehog (2008-2017)
For ease of reference, I’m going to be subdividing spinoffs here based on rough categories rather than strict chronological order. Bear in mind that, while I will try to cover all of them, these are so numerous that one or two might inadvertently remain unremarked upon. Please also note that the division between categories can sometimes be fuzzy, so search the other sections if you don’t see your favorite game where you expect it to appear.
While this column is generally confined to the interactive spinoffs of any given franchise, I would be remiss if I did not mention a handful of significant Sonic the Hedgehog adaptation to non-video game media. The first of these, a serialized manga published in Shogaku Ninensei from 1992 to 1994 under the direction of Sega of Japan, depicts an anthropomorphic hedgehog boy named Nicky who can transform into a super-powered version of himself called Sonic; it is noteworthy for debuting recurring characters Amy Rose and Charmy Bee, though the absence of an English translation makes this lighthearted series comparatively unknown among Western fans.
The late 1992 release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 presaged an abundance of new franchise tie-ins over the following year. The first of these, a comic book produced by Danish media corporation Egmont under its United Kingdom division, was called Sonic the Comic and ran for 223 issues from 1993 to 2002. Though this publication initially included characters from other Sega properties, an original mascot named Megadroid, and sections covering game reviews and industry news, it shifted more or less entirely to narrative content focused on Sonic and his friends by 1998. In the world of Sonic lore, Sonic the Comic is unique for its conceptualization of Super Sonic as a sentient Dr. Hyde-esque figure at odds with the body he inhabits.
Two animated Sonic the Hedgehog series by DiC concurrently appeared on North American televisions in 1993. While a slapstick-heavy weekday program led by Ren and Stimpy director Ken Butterworth called The Adventures of Sonic ran for over 65 episodes, its serialized counterpart would retain a stronger reputation among fans. Known as Sonic SatAM due to its airtime on Saturday mornings in the United States, DiC’s darker Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon introduced fans to a dystopic storyline focused on a group of underground rebels called the Freedom Fighters. Sonic’s Freedom Fighter allies, led by a squirrel named Princess Sally Acorn, are locked in a seemingly perpetual struggle to overthrow Dr. Robotnik’s oppressive mechanical regime. Family Matters’ Jaleel White famously voiced Sonic in both shows.
Sonic SatAM ended on a cliffhanger in 1994, but was succeeded by an Archie Comics series which shares characters and overall narrative beats with the television show. Sonic’s hugely popular Archie Comics adaptation would run for an impressive 290 issues from 1992 to 2017. While the SatAM and Archie Comics universes bear little in common with its source material aside from a handful of core characters, an unreleased video game prototype using its setting was produced for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in 1993. IDW Publishing’s 2017 successor to Archie’s series, which secured the participation of longtime Archie Sonic writer Ian Flynn, artist Tyson Hesse, and penciller Tracy Yardley, has received widespread acclaim by fans and is being published monthly at the time of writing.
A third DiC cartoon called Sonic Underground, which shared little in common with its predecessors aside from its eponymous character and voice actor Jaleel White, debuted in France in 1999. The show’s 40 episodes then made their way to English-speaking regions over the following year. Influenced by the success of Alvin and the Chipmunks (1958-present), the series centers on a punk band formed by Sonic and his siblings Sonia and Manic as they fight to overthrow Robotnik’s tyrannical government.
Two more cartoons associated with the property were produced in the 2000s and 2010s. Respectively created by TMS Entertainment (Japan) and Sega of America in collaboration with Technicolor Animation Productions (France), Sonic X and Sonic Boom were both more successful than the shows during the franchise’s 1990s peak. The first, an anime adaptation that follows Sonic and his friends’ adventures on Earth alongside human child Chris Thorndyke, ran for 78 episodes from 2003 to 2006. The computer-generated (CG) Sonic Boom, which was part of a wider sub-series including games for the Wii U and 3DS (see below), produced 104 episodes from 2014 to 2017.
Sony Pictures’ announcement of a live-action Sonic the Hedgehog feature film piqued fans’ curiosity in 2014 following years of rumors. The project – produced by Sega Sammy Group, Original Film, Marza Animation Planet, and Blur Studio – rapidly became mired in development hell before its acquisition by Paramount Pictures and revival in early 2017. Unfortunately, leaked promotional images showing Sonic’s uncannily realistic CG physique provoked intensely negative fan responses and delayed the movie from its planned 2019 release window. The final version, which starred Ben Schwartz as the voice of a redesigned Sonic and Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, was released to a largely positive critical reception and massive box office sales in Europe, North America, and Latin America in February 2020; a release in the character’s home region of Asia has been indefinitely delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of writing.
Sonic’s video game spinoffs are equally varied. The first major category consists of titles which appeared exclusively in arcades. As discussed in Franchise Festival #85: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991-1996), Sega’s rigid internal split between its arcade and home console teams resulted in comparatively few Sonic titles appearing on arcade boards even while that game format remained commercially viable. Still, at least three 2D Sonic the Hedgehog titles did make their way to communal game parlors in Japan.
The first arcade Sonic the Hedgehog title, Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car (1991), narrowly predates the character’s home console debut. In this simplistic children’s game, the player controls Sonic from a first-person perspective as he enforces traffic laws. The cabinet itself is designed to resemble a cartoon police car and features buttons to blare a siren or have Sonic leave the vehicle and jump on Eggman/Robotnik when the devious doctor is caught engaging in unlawful behavior. Though an English language version of this cabinet was produced, Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car was never released outside of Japan.
Sonic’s second arcade outing is an isometric action game co-starring Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. In SegaSonic the Hedgehog (1993), Sonic, Mighty, and Ray are trapped by Eggman/Robotnik and must escape an island by completing seven obstacle-filled zones. The game’s distinctive interface – three trackballs and three buttons, respectively used to move characters and make them jump – permits three-person cooperative multiplayer. A 32X port was cancelled prior to release, while the game’s planned inclusion in 2005’s Sonic Gems Collection was nixed due to problems reproducing its trackball control scheme on a home console.
The third and final 2D Sonic arcade title at the time of writing is SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter (1993). This Japan-only cabinet’s vehicular seating area, which takes the form of a cartoon spaceship, enhances the game’s interstellar setting. A single player takes on the role of Sonic in a top-down bullet-hell shooter as he pursues Eggman/Robotnik through the solar system using a spacecraft. SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter’s simple presentation belies a surprisingly impressive technical gimmick, as adjusting Sonic’s in-game trajectory using a joystick tilts the entire cabinet in the corresponding direction.
Less exciting than the IP’s arcade releases are nominally educational side projects produced during the height of the medium’s edutainment trend. Sonic’s two spinoffs of this type which bear a 2D aesthetic – Sonic the Hedgehog’s Gameworld (Aspect Co., 1994/1996) and Tails and the Music Maker (Appaloosa Interactive, 1995/1994) – launched on Sega’s short-lived Pico handheld console. The former involves Sonic and his friends completing minigames through the player’s use of a stylus, while the latter teaches players music skills using puzzles and visual assets adapted from 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games.
The franchise’s third piece of edutainment software was developed by Orion Interactive and released on Windows PC in 1996. Sonic’s Schoolhouse, which perhaps inexplicably articulates as a first-person pseudo-3D exploration game in the style of id Software’s Doom (1993), sees the title character guide a player-selected mammal avatar through a maze featuring quizzes and educational videos. The poorly received game is most noteworthy for repurposing otherwise-discarded character models from Sega’s canceled Sonic X-Treme.
Two final edutainment titles were published by LeapFrog Enterprises in 2005 and 2008. The first, Sonic X, was developed by Torus Games for Leapfrog’s Leapster platform and teaches math skills through the use of characters from the Sonic X anime series. Realtime Associates’ Sonic the Hedgehog (2008), on the other hand, aesthetically apes the core series’ 16-bit entries but requires players to complete spelling minigames rather than engage in precision platforming. The latter was published on LeapFrog’s edutainment-focused Didj handheld device.
Perhaps due to their mascot’s ability to roll into a sphere, Sega seems to have seen Sonic as a natural fit for pinball mechanics. The first such title, Sonic Spinball (1993), was developed primarily by third-party studio PolyGames with support from Sega Technical Institute’s (STI) North American staff during a grueling nine-month sprint while Yuji Naka and the studio’s Japanese employees worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994). The game is noteworthy for its unique combination of platforming and flipper-based pinball mechanics, as well as the cameo appearances of characters from the aforementioned SatAM cartoon series, but features only four stages and shaky technical performance. In what may be the most telling example of its rushed development cycle, Sonic Spinball’s theme song was rewritten in two hours by composer Howard Drossin when Sonic Team’s Hirokazu Yasuhara confirmed at a launch party that STI lacked the rights to its remixed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 title track.
A second Sonic the Hedgehog pinball spinoff, Sonic Pinball Party (2003), was produced by Jupiter Corporation; this studio was likely hired for the project based on its work developing Nintendo’s popular Pokemon Pinball (1999). Sonic Pinball Party eschews the rudimentary platforming of Sonic Spinball in favor of more traditional pinball tables. Characters from other Sega properties like NiGHTS and Samba de Amigo appear, though the game’s strongest emphasis remains on Sega’s flagship IP.
A similarly natural fit for the character is the racing genre. The Game Gear’s Sonic Drift (1994, Japan-only) and Sonic Drift 2 (1995) both allow the player to take part in competitive go-kart races using a combination of speed and power-ups. The original game features Sonic, Tails, Eggman/Robotnik, and Amy Rose as playable characters, while the sequel adds Knuckles, Fang the Sniper, and Metal Sonic. Each character has unique stats and a distinctive special move that can be used when the player collects two rings during a race.
The 3D era of racing spinoffs began with the Sega Saturn’s Sonic R (1997). At the request of Sonic Team, second-party British studio Traveler’s Tales adapted a planned Formula One racing game into a Sonic tie-in following their work on Sonic 3D Blast (1996) in early 1997. The result is a bare-bones polygonal racer in which players can choose between five initial avatars (Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Eggman/Robotnik) as they compete against other players or the AI across five tracks and unlock bonus characters Metal Sonic, Tails Doll, Metal Knuckles, Eggman Robo, and Super Sonic. In spite of poor critical reception, an impressive PC port the following year improved the game’s presentation and quirky Saturn-oriented visual design; this PC port was later included in the sixth home console generation’s Sonic Gems (2005) compilation.
At a breakneck speed thematically appropriate for this genre, four separate Sonic racing titles were published between February 2006 and February 2008. The first two, Sonic Riders and Sonic Rivals, were respectively produced for sixth generation home consoles and the PlayStation Portable (PSP) by Sega’s Japanese and American studios in collaboration with Japan’s Now Production and the United States’ Backbone Entertainment. The former is a relatively traditional 3D racing game themed around extreme sports that includes bonus characters from other Sega properties like Space Channel 5 (1999) and Super Monkey Ball (2001) alongside Sonic newcomers Jet the Hawk, Wave the Swallow, and Storm the Albatross. A Game Boy Advance adaptation influenced by Sega’s OutRun and developed by Backbone Entertainment rather than Sonic Riders home console co-developer Now Production was canceled when Sega requested that its game engine be entirely rewritten to integrate more 3D elements late in production.
In contrast to the conservative Sonic Riders, Sonic Rivals is a comparatively experimental 2.5D one-on-one racer overseen by Yuji Naka in his last role at Sega. The player can choose between five playable characters – Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow, Silver, or Metal Sonic – as they race against a rival through Story Mode stages or one-off challenges. Even boss battles feature the two racers competing against one another in an attempt to defeat Eggman before their opponent does. This fusion of the franchise’s 2D heritage with racing mechanics is an interesting idea, though poor contemporary reviews suggest that it was not wholly successful. Sonic Rivals would receive a PSP sequel and Sonic Riders would receive a follow-up on the PlayStation 2 and Wii in November 2007 and January 2008, respectively titled Sonic Rivals 2 and Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, which refine the underlying mechanics and expand character selections of their predecessors without fundamentally altering their premises.
The Xbox 360’s Sonic Free Riders (2010), which serves as the third entry in Sega’s Sonic Riders sub-series, was actually the result of a failed seventh generation home console port of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. This Kinect-based game features hoverboards rather than Sonic Riders’ snowboards, as had been the case in Zero Gravity, but was developed exclusively by Sonic Team with no support from Now Production. While it expanded the local multiplayer capabilities of Sonic Riders and Zero Gravity to include online play, inconsistent motion controls ensured that the game was a critical and commercial disappointment.
Another Sonic sub-series, oriented around kart racing rather than Sonic Riders’ extreme sports aesthetic or Sonic Rivals’ side-scrolling mechanics, made its debut between the release of Zero Gravity and Sonic Free Riders. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (2010) was developed by the United Kingdom’s Sumo Digital, built on the reputation they had established by producing seven earlier Sega-published titles including two in the crossover Sega All-Stars software line, for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Nintendo DS, Android, iOS, Blackberry, and even arcades. The portable and mobile ports necessarily differ from the game’s home console, PC, and arcade versions due to technical limitations, but all feature Sonic and characters from other Sega IPs racing against one another in cars, bikes, and hovercrafts; though an early build had included some racers moving on-foot, ensuring consistency of character sizes and level design forced Sumo Digital to reconsider while prototyping.
The sheer scale of content offered instantly sets Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing apart from earlier Sonic racing titles. 24 stages reference Sega franchises well-known and comparatively obscure, with highlights of the latter category including Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (2003) and Jet Set Radio (2000). Avatars are similarly varied, consisting of Sonic heroes as well as characters drawn from throughout the studio’s lengthy history: all versions of the game feature Sonic, Tails, Amy Rose, Knuckles, Shadow, Eggman, Big the Cat, AiAi (Super Monkey Ball), Billy Hatcher (Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg), Amigo (Samba de Amigo), Ulala (Space Channel 5), Beat (Jet Set Radio), B.D. Joe (Crazy Taxi), Zobio and Zobiko (House of the Dead EX), Ryo Hazuki (Shenmue), Jacky Bryant and Akira Yuki (Virtua Fighter), Chuih, Chubei, Chupea, and Chubach (ChuChu Rocket!), Robo and Mobo (Bonanza Bros.), Alex Kidd (Alex Kidd), and Opa-Opa (Fantasy Zone). Platform-specific characters include Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie and the player’s Xbox Live Avatar in the Xbox 360 version and Mii Avatars in the Wii version, while Metal Sonic and an alternate version of Shenmue’s Ryo Hazuki were made available as downloadable content on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Planned characters that didn’t make it into the final release include Mario (Super Mario Bros.), Segata Sanshiro (Sega Saturn mascot), ToeJam and Earl (ToeJam and Earl), Gilius Thunderhead (Golden Axe), and Vyse (Skies of Arcadia). Each character drives a unique vehicle and can make use of a flashy All Star Move if they lag behind their rivals.
An abundance of content and compelling multiplayer – local and/or online depending on the platform – led to widespread critical acclaim for the seventh generation home console and PC variants of Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing. Sequel Sonic and All-Star Racing Transformed (2012), which was published by Sega for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Windows PC, Nintendo 3DS, and mobile devices, proved even more popular by integrating transforming vehicles and additional playable characters including NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. Sumo Digital’s latest Sonic racing title at the time of writing, Team Sonic Racing (2019), scaled down its scope to include only Sonic characters and was consequently less well-received than its predecessors.
Puzzle and Puzzle-Platformer
Less of a natural fit for the property are the puzzle and puzzle-platformer genres. With regard to the former, Sonic’s first puzzle game is a competitive match-four falling block title called Sonic Eraser (1991). Originally released exclusively for the Mega Drive’s download service in Japan, this game remained unknown to North American audiences until a 2004 re-release on Sega’s website. Dr. Robotik’s Mean Bean Machine (1993), the second Sonic puzzle game, is a simple re-skin of Compile’s Puyo Puyo (1991) published on the Genesis in North America and is noteworthy for featuring the only appearance of DiC’s Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog characters in a video game.
Two Game Gear puzzle-platformer spinoffs are more in line with the source material, though each is idiosyncratic in its own right. The first, third-party studio Minato Giken’s Sonic Labyrinth (1995), is an isometric adventure in which Sonic has lost the ability to move quickly. He must instead slowly acquire three keys within each of the game’s maze-like stages in order to advance. This disappointing spinoff was memorably described by USGamer as “a poor man’s version of [1984’s] Marble Madness.”
The franchise’s other 2D puzzle-platformer, Tails Adventure (1995), is a comparatively methodical sidescroller in the style of Super Metroid (1994); the player controls Tails as he unlocks new areas in a non-linear overworld using newly acquired equipment. Tails Skypatrol, a second 1995 Game Gear release centered on Sonic’s young sidekick, takes the form of a 2D shoot ‘em up. This game, which was exclusive to Japan before being re-released on several international compilations in the 2000s, sees Tails piloting his Tornado biplane through swarms of enemies on his way to defeat the sinister Witchcart.
The Dreamcast’s Sonic Shuffle (2000) was developed by Sega in collaboration with Hudson Soft. The latter had recently contributed to the Nintendo 64’s Marty Party (1998) and was recruited based on the popularity of that multiplayer title. Players choose one of eight characters drawn from the critically-successful Sonic Adventure (1998/1999) as they move around one of five game boards and participate in randomly-selected minigames against three opponents while attempting to secure a pre-set number of collectible Precioustones. Minigames vary between free-for-all, two versus two, and one versus three configurations. The player uses randomly distributed Magical Cards, displayed to them in secret on their controller’s visual memory unit (VMU) screen, to move forward on the board or disrupt other players.
Unfortunately, appealing cel-shaded graphics and unique VMU mechanics were not enough to make the game more than the sum of its parts. A development cycle rushed to meet Sega’s 2000 deadline means that minigames are poorly explained, boards can be inadvertently completed without ever encountering a minigame, and a planned online multiplayer mode based on the Dreamcast’s distinctive built-in modem was cut before release. While it was initially planned to appear in 2002’s Sonic Mega Collection, Sonic Shuffle was omitted from the final product and remains without a re-release at the time of writing.
Perhaps the most inexplicable milieu into which Sega has dropped their mascot is the role-playing game (RPG) genre. The studio hired third-party Bioware, famous at the time for story-driven licensed RPGs Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Knights of the Old Republic (2003) as well as their own IP Mass Effect (2007), to produce a comparatively dark take on the Sonic franchise. Influences included Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time (2005), Elite Beat Agents (2006), and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007). Sonic: The Dark Brotherhood debuted on the DS in North America in 2008 and made its way to Japan the following year.
It features touch-based exploration and turn-based combat augmenting a narrative combining characters and settings from the series’ 2D and 3D titles with the studio’s characteristically cutscene-heavy storytelling. Playable party members include series staples Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, Rouge the Bat, Shadow, Big the Cat, E-123 Omega, Eggman, and Cream the Rabbit as well as newcomer echidna Shade; all are categorized as one of three types (Power, Shifter, or Support) that determines their skills in combat. Environmental obstacles can likewise be overcome only by having certain characters present in the party. The story, which is divided into one act set in Sonic’s home dimension and one in a new world called the Twilight Cage, initially centers on Sonic and his friends’ efforts to recover the Chaos Emeralds from a group called the Marauders before growing to include a multitude of hidden organizations and mystical species.
As with many Sonic projects, a rushed development cycle seems to have undermined Bioware’s ambitious goals. Little has been made public about the production, and rumors that a last-minute legal challenge to Bioware’s original score necessitated the repurposing of MIDI compositions harvested from Sonic fan sites have been disputed by Dark Brotherhood technical designer Graham Scott, but the game’s shoddy production values and heavily compromised sound programming suggest behind-the-scenes problems. A 2008 interview with associate producer Dorian Kierken indicates that adapting Bioware’s typically resource-intensive PC design style to a handheld device was a major hurdle for the team. Still, inconsistent quality seems not to have been a factor in the abandonment of a planned sequel; Bioware’s acquisition by Electronic Arts shortly after Dark Brotherhood’s launch instead left the game’s cliffhanger ending permanently unresolved.
While the vast majority of Sonic games were designed either internally by Sega’s Sonic Team, Sega Technical Institute, or second-party studios around the world, Sega’s arcade-oriented AM2 division did develop one spinoff during the height of the franchise’s 1990s popularity. AM2 luminary Yu Suzuki served as producer while Hiroshi Kataoko, who had recently completed work on one-on-one fighter Fighting Vipers (1995), directed the game. Sonic the Fighters, built on the Fighting Vipers game engine and Model 2 arcade board, was released in Japanese and North American arcades in the summer of 1996.
Sonic’s unassuming 3D debut sees eight playable characters battling one another in small arenas as they attempt to acquire each other’s Chaos Emeralds and use them to defeat Eggman/Robotnik. The roster includes series standbys like Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose alongside rare returning characters (Espio and Fang the Sniper) and series newcomers (Bean the Dynamite and Bark the Polar Bear). Button combinations allow the player to have his or her avatar punch, kick, activate a shield, or perform unique special attacks. While a planned port to the Sega Saturn was cancelled due to that platform’s technical limitations, the game was finally re-released in the Sonic Gems Collection (2005) and as an expanded remaster featuring three additional playable characters on digital distribution services in 2012.
A Sonic Team-produced fighter called Sonic Battle was then released on the Game Boy Advance in 2003/2004. This game, which includes a Story Mode positioned as a direct continuation of Sonic Advance 2’s plot, features up to four sprite-based characters slugging it out in fully polygonal 3D arenas. Playable characters include Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, Shadow, Rouge the Bat, Cream the Rabbit, E-102 Gamma, Chaos, and a sentient ancient weapon called Emerl. The last of these fighters gains access to an expandable moveset based on skill points acquired as the player moves through Story Mode. In addition to dueling one another using linked consoles, multiple local players can also engage in one of five minigames. Sonic Battle was relatively well-received in spite of its sometimes-shallow gameplay and would serve as the narrative foundation for Sonic Advance 3 (2004).
The first of two titles in the Wii’s Sonic Storybook sub-series, both inspired by classic world literature, began development as a port of Sonic ‘06 to Nintendo’s motion control-oriented platform. The Sonic Team crew working on the game soon realized that porting the already-shaky high-definition title to comparatively underpowered hardware would be impossible, and instead opted to develop a new game that took advantage of the Wii’s unique WiiMote input devices. The Arabian Nights-influenced Sonic and the Secret Rings was published by Sega in 2007 to mixed reviews.
The surprisingly cutscene-heavy story involves Sonic entering a book and aiding a genie named Shahra as she attempts to prevent despotic rival genie Erazor from conquering her world. Players control Sonic as he travels through on-rails 3D stages along a z-axis, tilting the horizontally-held WiiMote forward or backward to adjust Sonic’s momentum. Tapping a face button makes Sonic jump and emphatically swinging the WiiMote initiates the character’s homing attack when in mid-air. Sonic accumulates experience points by completing missions and finishing stages, leveling up and gaining access to new skills and attribute boosts. Multiplayer modes round out the experience.
Sonic and the Secret Rings was followed by Sonic and the Black Knight, which uses the same game engine and many of the same mechanics, in 2009. This spinoff sees the title character joined by Knuckles, Shadow, and Blaze the Cat in the respective roles of Arthurian knights Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Percival. In contrast to its predecessor, Sonic and the Black Knight features traditional controls for movement and makes use of the WiiMote’s motion sensitivity for swinging each playable character’s sword. The adventure takes Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow, and Blaze through a host of traditional English settings as they first help Merlin’s granddaughter Merlina defeat a seemingly corrupted King Arthur before discovering that Merlina is the true antagonist. Consistently poor controls and repetitive gameplay scuppered Sonic Team’s noble intent to produce a unique motion-based game for Nintendo’s idiosyncratic seventh-generation console once again, however, and reviews were uniformly negative; the game was delisted from retailers alongside its direct predecessor, Sonic ‘06, and Sonic Unleashed in 2010 as Sega set about rehabilitating the IP amid decreasing popularity.
Thanks to an extensive investigation and interviews by independent video game researcher Liam Robertson, fans know more about the troubled development of the Wii U’s Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric franchise spinoff than many core Sonic the Hedgehog entries. Production began in the early 2010s by Big Red Button, an independent studio led by former Naughty Dog art director Bob Rafei, under the working title Sonic Synergy. Built for unspecified next-generation home console hardware using Crytek’s processing-intensive CryEngine 3 middleware engine, the ambitious 3D platformer featured radically redesigned versions of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, and Eggman and focused on four-player cooperative multiplayer.
Unfortunately, Sega struck an exclusive publishing deal with Nintendo in 2013 and shifted development for Sonic Synergy onto the comparatively underpowered Wii U. The commercial need to promote Technicolor Animation Productions’ upcoming Sonic Boom TV series likewise saw the project rebranded and altered to reflect that sub-series’ distinctive aesthetic style. Sonic Synergy became Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and underwent a profoundly disruptive reduction in scale, performance, and graphical fidelity.
The game as released in 2014 bears little resemblance to the concept art and promotional videos from 2012-2013. Players alternate control between Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose as the four work together to defeat Eggman and an ancient monster called Lyric. Only two players can cooperate in the Story Mode, forcing each to alternate between other members of the team to complete puzzles within nine linear stages accessible from three hub areas. All characters can make use of a whip-like Enerbeam to battle foes. While Rise of Lyric vaguely resembles the gameplay of Sonic Team’s Sonic Heroes (2003), myriad technical glitches prevent the game from being played as intended. Universally poor critical reception led to the franchise’s worst sales in its 23-year history.
An accompanying 3DS game by Sanzaru Games, a North American studio that had recently developed Sony Computer Entertainment’s Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (2013), fared little better. Though a side-scroller in the vein of classic 2D Sonic the Hedgehog titles, Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal emphasizes slow-paced exploration and weapon-based combat rather than speedy platforming. Like its development, Shattered Crystal’s plot is independent of its Wii U contemporary and replaces Amy Rose with series newcomer Sticks as its fourth playable character. Collectibles called crystal shards must be located to progress through stages while parts can be acquired to improve character abilities. Though it avoided the technical problems of its home console cousin, poor pacing and monotonous gameplay doomed Shattered Crystal to obscurity following its December 2014 release.
In spite of poor reviews and abysmal sales for its first two titles, Sonic Boom managed to produce a second 3DS entry in 2016. Sanzaru Games returned to the franchise with 2.5D side-scroller Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice in an attempt to improve on their last effort; producer Omar Woodley confirmed in a 2015 USGamer interview that the studio had learned important lessons from the negative response to Shattered Crystal, opting to reduce stage size and improve options for players to either speed through the middle of a level or explore around its edges to find hidden secrets as they preferred. Amy Rose was also added in as a playable character following her absence in the previous portable sub-series entry. Amusingly, the prosaic narrative focuses on a disaffected Eggman henchman named D-fekt rather than the series’ historically large-scale antagonists. Fire and Ice’s reception was more positive that of its predecessors, if still not especially strong, and the Sonic Boom brand was quietly discontinued following the conclusion of its second cartoon season in 2017.
The final category of Sonic the Hedgehog games, mobile phone releases, is also the most extensive. In the interest of brevity, these can be further grouped into two sub-categories. The first, Sonic Cafe, was a subscription-based service available on NTT DoCoMo devices in Japan from 2001 to 2007. This service included ports of previous platforming titles as well as simple minigames based on traditional sports, card games, and puzzles. A handful of these minigames were later localized for mobile phones in North America.
Standalone titles primarily designed for iOS and Android devices constitute the second major category of mobile releases. The first of these, Sonic Jump (2012), is a remake of Sonic Cafe’s vertical platformer of the same name. Sonic jumps upward automatically and the player must navigate him onto ascending platforms lest he die by touching the bottom of the screen. Story Mode takes Sonic through 11 acts and boss fights in pursuit of Eggman while an Arcade Mode allows the player to encounter endless remixed stages in a random order. Additional playable characters and power-ups can be unlocked using rings either acquired in-game or bought using real-world currency.
Sonic Jump developer Hardlight’s next spinoff, 3D endless runner Sonic Dash, launched in 2013 on iOS and Android devices before making its way to arcades and Windows smartphones in 2014. Like other entries in this popular mobile genre, the player taps the screen to make their avatar jump or dodge obstacles as they move constantly forward through a linear stage collecting rings. Characters include Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, Blaze, and Rouge. Long-term support for the game has been surprisingly robust, as Hardlight has patched in new stages and time-sensitive events like a promotional tie-in to Paramount’s 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog feature film. Sonic Dash 2: Sonic Boom (2015) and Sonic Forces: Speed Battle (2017), mechanically-similar sequels respectively built around Sonic Boom characters and Sonic Team’s 2017 core series entry, were equally well-received by fans and critical outlets.
Two more mobile releases, Sonic Runners (2015) and Sonic Runners Adventure (2017), were developed for iOS and Android respectively by Sonic Team and Gameloft. These side-scrolling endless runners see Sonic or another playable character moving constantly right as obstacles and enemies come into view; the player taps the screen to make their avatar jump. Both feature numerous stages and characters drawn from the series’ long history, though the latter is significantly more expansive due to its status as paid premium software rather than a free-to-play app. While Sonic Runners was delisted from digital marketplaces in 2016, its sequel remains available at the time of writing.
If you want a conclusion, check back on Franchise Festival #87: Sonic the Hedgehog (2008-2017).
Which is your favorite Sonic spinoff? How about your least favorite? How about the weirdest one you’ve played? Why doesn’t Tails get his own adventures anymore? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #89: The Witcher – May 1
- #90: Mortal Kombat – May 8
- #91: Masters of Orion – May 15
- #92: Mega Man Zero – May 22
- #93: Panzer Dragoon – May 29
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