Eruditorum Press

Beneath the stones, the beach; beneath the beach, Cthulhu

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

6 Comments

  1. arcbeatle
    August 23, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

    I’ve been annoyed by throwing the rest of Sonic under the bus as well. I quite loved the two Sonic Adventure games back in the day, so yeah.

    Mania looks, and from everyone I know who has played it sounds, fantastic. I can’t wait to play it. But liking one thing doesn’t mean hating another.

    All of this being something very present for someone whose favorite Star Wars movie is Episode II: Attack of the Clones :P!

    Reply

  2. Sean Dillon
    August 23, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

    As I’ve mentioned before, my experience with Sonic has mostly been with flipping past Sonic X to get to the next episode of Yu Gi Oh and watching Sonic Underground on weekday mornings. With the games, I played a newgrounds port of the original Sonic game (mostly just the first and second areas) and read about the rest. I have fond memories of seeing trailers and clips of the one with the werewolf hedgehog and the one where the black hedgehog has a gun (though, looking at what gameplay I saw of it, it looked like the game was harder if you used the gun).

    (Also, the one time I tried to play Sonic Generations, by checking it out from the library, the disc was missing. In fairness, this is still a better experience than trying to play Saints Row The Third where the disc won’t sodding boot up.)

    All told, I have mostly fond memories of the franchise (even if I find certain… aspects of the fandom to be a bit weird, but what interesting fandom isn’t a bit weird). Also, something about my personal history with the games that’s more related to the article: prior to finding the site via the AV Club, I had a different source for Doctor Who criticism (I haven’t watched the guy in years). Said source did a list of the top 5 worst Sonic gimmicks (the werehog, the mini games, etc.) where number one was Big the Cat. The video claimed that the Big sections of Sonic Adventures (and the character himself) were the start of the “infection” that led to werehogs and other things that dilute the “pure” Sonic experience. Rather mean when you get down to it.

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  3. Harmen
    August 23, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

    Just popping in to say how much I’ve liked your posts Josh. You’re a breath of fresh air compared to so many other game journalists.

    I’d be sad to see you leave gaming aside, considering I’ve had some great ‘aha!’ moments with your writing. Moments where you put into words what i’ve been struggeling with myself for so long. This post is another example of that.

    Reply

    • Josh Marsfelder
      August 24, 2017 @ 8:30 pm

      Thanks for saying so: That means a lot for me to hear.

      If sharing my perspectives through my writing can help other people, then that’s reason above my own hobbyist interests to keep going.

      Reply

  4. NR
    August 24, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

    I was obsessed with Sonic as a kid. With the Master System games, with Sonic the Comic (ask me for a list of my favourite comics artists and Richard Elson is likely to make it in there, on the strength of STC rather than his 2000AD or Marvel work), with the Mega Drive games, with both the “AoSTH” and “SatAM” cartoons, with the four “Martin Adams” Virgin Publishing novels.

    Like every other fan who grew up in that era then got an Internet connection around the time of the Dreamcast’s launch, I went through a brief period of embracing the Japanese manuals’ storylines as the One True Sonic Canon, wishing that more of Sonic Team’s original intentions could have been brought across to the west instead of so many spin-offs, and was pleased when that they started to unify things with Sonic Adventure. Thankfully that mentality didn’t last long for me, and now I think that the diversity in interpretations of the character across his numerous cash-in spin-offs was quite remarkable for a licenced character, and a good thing.

    But I didn’t play many Sonic games released between Adventure 2 and Generations (Sonic Advance, Sonic Racing Transformed, the Sonic CD re-release, and the Sonic 4 demo are the only ones I can think of). I liked Generations, but I wish the physics of the Classic Sonic levels had been a bit closer to the Mega Drive games. Today my main involvement is replaying the Mega Drive trilogy via emulator, and watching Mike89 doing speedruns of them. That is, until next week, when Sonic Mania comes out on PC – it’s been my most eagerly-anticipated game ever since that glorious first (nostalgia-baiting!) trailer.

    So if anyone’s likely to be on board with the argument that Sonic games got less appealing when they jumped to 3D, it’d be me! I think that it’s become the consensus with good reason. I loved Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, racked up over 100 hours on each, even had fun with the shooting and treasure hunting levels, but in retrospect they they were jack-of-all-trades but master of none, and frustratingly buggy (the number of time attack records ruined because of an inexplicable camera angle change, or because Sonic decided to fall off into the void when I wanted him to hop between two parallel rails!). In comparison, Sonic 1,2 CD and 3&K are extremely polished games; they definitely have bugs (zips exploited by speedrunners etc) but generally keep them pretty well-hidden to a player going through them for the first time (the Sonic 3 manual’s warning about running too fast into “Robotnik’s traps” notwithstanding).

    For all I know the later games I haven’t played (Heroes, Secret Rings, Black Knight, Unleashed etc) might be more polished and solid-feeling than the two Adventures. But they don’t seem to have been consistent about it, if the general response to the Sonic 1 GBA port, Sonic 2006, Sonic 4 and Sonic Boom is anything to go by.

    There was never any “series bible” or style guide made for the franchise: SEGA was incredibly lax about brand messaging (in fact, I don’t think they ever did any), so anyone who touched Sonic pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with him.

    Sega Europe sort of did. They retold Sega of America’s “Kintobor origin” in various publications (most comprehensively in the book Stay Sonic), which was then used as the backstory in my beloved Sonic the Comic and the Martin Adams novels.

    Everyone’s childhood was different and formative in its own way, and nobody gets to say theirs was more important, meaningful and substantial than somebody else’s.

    I don’t think it’s treading on anyone’s childhood to to argue that one personally finds the franchise’s games better-executed in one era than another; or finds the Naoto Oshima funny animal era of its character design more appealing than than the Yuji Uekawa graffiti era. It’s reasonable for someone to argue that they were turned off by the voice acting and would have preferred it if the games could have continued to convey character and story solely through animation (as described here in this excellent breakdown of the animation in the Sonic Mania intro), by the incorporation of humans into Sonic’s cartoon world, by gameplay elements (e.g. stretchy werehog limbs) that were less fun than rolling around at the speed of sound, by the OTT angst and sheer Poochieness of Shadow. All of that, I think, is what that Eurogamer review extract is conveying – although I agree that it does so with a dismissive “if you think otherwise you are Wrong” tone that is representative of the adversarial attitude between cliques within the Sonic fandom, and within gaming culture as a whole. (I think “screaming cosmic abyss” is quite a funny little phrase though.)

    (Incidentally, although the quoted reviewer only seems to refer to the sidekick characters introduced in the games, I have a strong feeling that he’d count all the cruft in all my beloved ’90s spin-off cartoons and comics as “accumulated bullshit” too!)

    That “screaming cosmic abyss” has a lot of defenders: Characters like Shadow and Silver are extremely important to generations of kids who grew up on their games. You cannot disregard that history by mocking it just because you didn’t grow up on or care for them, lest you unleash the Newton’s Sleep of Hedgehogs upon us all.

    It’s possible to criticise those characters in insightful ways without dismissing the fans who like them. You can discuss issues with their designs, argue that they are not fitting with the tone that makes for an appealing Sonic character, or their unique traits could have been used in more interesting ways in gameplay. You can make specific arguments along those lines, as long as you’ve played the games they appear in. Which I haven’t, so I won’t. 🙂

    And someone hearing such criticism – even if it’s conveyed with hyperbole involving cosmic abysses that scream – can take it in and think about it rationally without feeling intimidated into silence.

    (Not that I practice what I preach. Often, when I encounter quite reasonable criticism of a pop cultural product I hold dear, my first response is to feel irrationally threatened, and I struggle not to let it get to me.)

    I’m trying to think of a good analogy to a different medium outside of gaming. OK, here goes, and I admit this is far from perfect: there seems to be a consensus that the band R.E.M.’s albums were at their best on their first record label, and that at some point afterwards (either when they signed to Warner, or when they started printing the lyrics, or when the drummer left, or some other time), they jumped the shark/sold out/went crap. Now I love Fables of the Reconstruction as much as anyone, but those later albums contain some of my favourite songs by that band, so it does bug me when people treat it as a given that everyone must agree that they put out nothing worthwhile after 1996. (See, for example, the short piece Stewart Lee wrote about them for The Quietus in 2011.) But I don’t feel like my enjoyment of those later tracks is threatened by this majority consensus in favour of their ’80s work. (In this analogy, I wonder if Around the Sun is equivalent to Sonic 2006?)

    The new Master Narrative about Sonic seems to be an explicit declaration that he was only ever good for a few short years in the early 1990s on the SEGA Genesis, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply Wrong. If you grew up on a Sonic game that wasn’t Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, (or indeed took something different away from those games than the people currently peddling reviews of Sonic Mania), how does that make you feel?

    I imagine such a person would feel like arguing back against hearing their favourite thing dismissed. And they can do that, since there’s probably a comment reply form somewhere nearby. 😉

    Maybe this is just because the style of game criticism that I’ve been seeking out recently tends to be focused on mechanical analysis (the likes of Matthewmatosis, the Crit Points blog, Edge magazine Time Extends etc), but recently I seem to have come across more and more people arguing not that Sonic games were only good for a brief period in the ’90s, but that they were never good in the first place. See, for example, this Twitter thread by Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit: https://twitter.com/britishgaming/status/890625474942033920

    In fact, the main argument that such critics have against Sonic – that with Sonic dead centre in the screen, you can’t see far enough ahead – tends to be brought up as something that was actually fixed by the 3D games’ camera angles!

    Phew, that post took a while to type! I hope the Captcha doesn’t eat it and the HTML doesn’t break. (TL;DR: I take issue with the assertion that the nostalgia-built received wisdom surrounding the early stuff is drowning out or bullying other fans who prefer the later stuff.)

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  5. Matteo Teagan
    September 11, 2017 @ 10:19 am

    that with Sonic dead centre in the screen, you can’t see far enough ahead – tends to be brought up as something that was actually fixed by the 3D games’ camera angles!

    Reply

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