Super Mario has never been cool. Yes, he’s probably the most beloved videogame character in the world, and yes, he’s the star of some of the best videogames ever made. But Mario is beloved because of his goofy nobility: He’s a regular blue-collar dude with a Deadwood mustache, and he always does the right thing, whether that means rescuing a princess or providing financial support for his tragic brother, Luigi. He’s the Jimmy Stewart of videogame heroes.
In the late ’80s, upstart Sega knew that they had to differentiate their new home entertainment system: the Mega Drive, known in America as the Sega Genesis. They didn’t want another Mario. They wanted a mascot with pizzazz, with swagger, a hero who was gnarly, radical, totally tubular; a guy who was so cool he was hot, and yet simultaneously so hot that he was cool. If Nintendo had their James Stewart, then Sega needed a James Dean. Thus: Sonic the Hedgehog, he of the sardonic smile, the blazing red shoes, the anthropomorphic mohawk cut, and the sheer overcaffeinated speed.
Sonic the Hedgehog was released 20 years ago today, on June 23, 1991. The years have not been kind. Sonic had a run of fun games in the early ’90s, but he never became a utility player like Mario; there was no Sonic Kart, no Sonic Party, no Dr. Sonic (although there was Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine). The introduction of Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic and Knuckles was a Poochie-level low point. Sonic made a well-received jump into a 3-D universe in Sonic Adventure, the bestselling game on the Dreamcast, but that’s sort of like being the richest man in an empty ghost town that is at the base of an active volcano. Sonic has had a nice retirement playing alongside his old rival in Super Smash Brothers Brawl. (Sega got out of the console business altogether after the failure of the Dreamcast, which proves that life imitates mascots.)
Here’s the question: Is Sonic just an embarrassing ’90s relic now? I’d be willing to bet that young videogamers today haven’t even heard of him. Even if they had, the whole notion of Sonic’s coolness seems to come from an adorably G-rated era: Just imagine him in a room with Solid Snake, Marcus Fenix, or any character from a Rockstar game. (It doesn’t help matters that Sonic’s trademark smirk also looks uncannily like the DreamWorks Face.) Then again, you could argue that Sonic’s era-appropriate specificity might be his strength. Unlike Mario, who doesn’t really seem to belong to any era (besides maybe neon-musical vision of the 1920s), Sonic seems uniquely well-placed to ride the oncoming wave of ’90s nostalgia. Hey, there’s a reason why we put Sonic on our list of the coolest videogame characters ever, but that was a legacy pick.
What do you think, everybody? Is Sonic still cool? Or is he willfully out of date, like Right Said Fred, Reality Bites, or the notion that Bart is the star of The Simpsons? Also, am I the only one who, as a kid, kept waiting for them to release Sega Exodus? Anyone else a nerd in Sunday school? Anyone?
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