I remember playing those first three acts of Green Hill Zone endlessly until I understood how this thing worked, always getting stuck at the first boss battle, with Dr. Robotnik swinging that checkerboard ball back and forth. I remember getting home from school one day and one of my older sister’s friends revealing that the secret was to hit Robotnik eight times.
Sonic is the game I was playing the first time an older family member asked me, “are you winning?”
Sonic the Hedgehog taught me video games.
I devoured the subsequent Sonics 2 and 3, asking my parents to rent them endlessly from the local Hollywood Video until they finally bought them for me when the store no longer wanted to stock Genesis games.
My friends and I played pretend Sonic on the playground in grammar school, making up our own characters, powers, storylines, and membership cards.
In middle school, an older cousin-in-law gave me their old Sega Dreamcast. It came with a handful of sports games. I mowed the lawn until I could go out and buy Sonic Adventure 2 from Game Crazy.
I’m two years younger than my little blue friend. I’ve seen him at his best, his worst, through everyone thinking he’s a joke, through a rebound.
As an adult, I love Sonic not just because of all these memories, or the special place he holds as more or less the first video game I ever played. It’s all of that and the fact that…well… he’s the underdog. His games are weird. The Nintendo v. Sega mascot war didn’t break his way. He’s not as instantly and unquestionably beloved as Mario or Link or even Crash Bandicoot. Conversations about Sonic always come tinged with irony or sarcasm or caveats. It’s important to me, for a lot of reasons, to love Sonic for who he is, despite the modern games’ tendency towards jank, both perceived and actual.
Sega and Sonic may have lost out to Nintendo and Mario in some ways, but Sonic is still hugely popular. And as the perceived “second fiddle” to Mario, he can do much more interesting things than Mario can. People don’t have the same expectations for Sonic games that they do for Mario.
Sonic has been in a band, he’s been to space, he’s fought genetic copies of himself, he’s skated around a military base while listening to ska. He’s a freedom fighter who loves chili dogs a lot and loves his friends more.
But I also unironically love Sonic for the same reason a lot of people are embarrassed by him: he always earnestly says what he believes, and always believes in the cheesy things like his friends and the power of goodness over evil. Sonic is always 100% no thoughts, head empty, running headlong into danger for what he believes in, for better or for worse.
Sonic isn’t just about going fast, it’s about what it feels like to go fast. It’s freedom. It’s truth. It’s self-acceptance. It’s unconditional love for yourself and those around you.
Sega could’ve changed Sonic any number of ways over the years. They have made minor changes to his look here and there, and he’s certainly been in as wide a variety of games as Mario, but he’s still Sonic. Sega could’ve rebranded, updated Sonic, made him edgier, but they didn’t. They couldn’t (That’s why they made Shadow). Through a million and one different scenarios, planets, bad guys, good guys, whatever, Sonic is still just rolling around at the speed of sound all, “whoa-oh Eggman! Chili dogs!”
Sonic doesn’t show off, doesn’t criticize, he’s just living by his own feelings. He won’t give in, won’t compromise, cuz he only has a steadfast heart of gold.
Sonic the Hedgehog is an invitation to look deep inside yourself, reckon with what you see, what others might not want to see, what might be embarrassing, and embrace it anyway.
At the end of the day, every time I look at him, calling back to me from those first video game memories, Sonic’s message is this:
Open your heart, it’s gonna be alright.