Vertical Slice: For The Kids

Vertical Slice: For The Kids

by January 17, 2014

I’ve always felt as though the evolution of the Sonic the Hedgehog series has matched up almost perfectly with my own growth through childhood, adolescence and beyond. Let me explain:

  • Mega Drive released in Japan – Michael Westgarth is born
  • Mega Drive era – Childhood years
  • Dreamcast era – Childhood’s end
  • Shadow the Hedgehog – Overly dramatic adolescence
  • Sonic 2006, Secret Rings, Unleashed etc. – Lost interest in games and, evidently, so did Sega
  • Sonic Colours, Generations & Lost World – Got back into games, embraced the child within

The purpose of this rugged, unsophisticated timeline is to show that, for the most part, Sonic games have always appealed to me. Yet in recent years, my mindset when approaching new Sonic sequels has changed.

As a teenage Sonic fan, I expected new Sonic games to cater to my needs and was disappointed when they didn’t. As an adult I realised my disappointment stemmed in some part from my frustration at not being able to recreate those glorious childhood days of playing the Mega Drive for hours on end.

That’s not to say that Sega didn’t try to add maturity to Sonic games alongside the “maturation” of the series’ fanbase. Sonic Adventure, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Sonic 2006 are all evidence of Sega’s experimentation with different tones and target audiences – games which, ironically, turned me off the series as a young adult. But it’s clear that Sega have brought Sonic round full circle and are once again attempting to market their games directly at children, as was the case in the Mega Drive era.

But even if you strip recent Sonic games of their tone, their narrative and their general aesthetics, a problem still remains: they’re so very easy. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

Vertical Slice For The Kids 1

Practically everyone plays videogames, but not everyone perceives them in the same way. It’s in this way that I can better understand certain aspects of the games I enjoy through people who aren’t familiar with them. To put it another way, I love witnessing the reactions of non-gaming family or friends to videogames I’m very familiar with. But during a visit to my girlfriend’s family soon after the Christmas holidays, I found myself in the company of a demographic I’m certainly not familiar with – a seven year old boy.

A family friend on my girlfriend’s side, the young fellow had received a brand new Nintendo 2DS for Christmas. He had but one game which – thanks to the ill-informed magic of grandparents – was New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS.

For me, the game conjured only fleeting memories due to my beating of the entire title in two sittings over a single day, before casting it aside for other videogame adventures. But for the energetic young chap, passing even the second level was a genuine challenge. In fact, in the days that he’d owned the game since Christmas, he’d never managed to get any further than the first castle – the fourth level in the game.

“This is up, down, that way and that way,” He told me, pointing to the d-pad “and this button jumps.” I’d already told him that I was familiar with the game, but perhaps, seeing as he was seven years old, the idea of a adult taking a videogame as seriously as he did was an alien concept.

“Nudge question mark bricks to get coins and mushrooms.” He informed me “Mushrooms make you big. Then you can jump on baddies. Oh, get that!” He said, as a fire flower appeared from a “question mark brick” that I had just “nudged”. I asked him what it did, but he didn’t know, so I showed him.

Now, most of the “quotes” I’ve used so far are approximations due to my fading memories of that day, but there’s one thing he said to me that I won’t forget anytime soon.

“I told my mum that I knew everything about this game, but it looks like I’ve still got things to learn.”

I showed him the benefits of running, I showed him how to wall jump, I showed him how the turtle-shell power up worked and I showed him where the secret exit on the second level was. Together, we beat that first castle and he was finally able to save the game; and the sheer awe and wonder that was plastered across his over-excited face was more nostalgic than any modern Mega Drive compilation could ever be.

When I was his age, getting to the first boss Sonic the Hedgehog‘s Green Hill Zone was a challenge. When I was seven years old my brothers and I couldn’t even get past the sludge in Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s Chemical Plant Zone, nor could we get past the first boss in Altered Beast, or past “Smooth Criminal” in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

But on those rare occasions where the stars aligned and my brothers and I managed to catch a glimpse of a new, unseen part of our beloved Mega Drive games, well, that’s really what it was all about.

So I can’t help but wonder that if the same scenario is at play with my seven year old, Nintendo 2DS co-pilot and his challenging Mario game, then the same may also be happening with children around the world with what we, the Sonic fanbase, consider “unchallenging” new Sonic the Hedgehog games.

What I do know is that for me, witnessing the excitement of a seven year old find a secret in New Super Mario Bros. made my day, and it’ll be extremely difficult for me to complain about a children’s game being “too easy” in the future.

Vertical Slice For The Kids 2

Like I said at the start of the article, Sonic Lost World, Sonic Generations and Sonic Colours – when I initially played them – all lacked a level of challenge proportional to that found in the games of my youth, at the age I originally played them. But I don’t hold the games’ child-focused difficulty against Sega in the same way I did with the more “mature”, yet similarly unchallenging Sonic titles of the 2000’s.

It seems to me that Sega have finally stopped focusing on the unfulfillable needs and wants of the older, nostalgia seeking Sonic fans and are attempting to make games that will capture the imagination of a younger generation. If that genuinely is Sega’s intention, then I can only respect that.

Whether or not the current “soft reboot” of Sonic the Hedgehog has been carried out by Sega with a younger audience at mind isn’t definitively known. But it’s certainly the case that there are Sonic fans out there who are concerned about the current change in direction the Sonic the Hedgehog series is being taken in, both aesthetically and in terms of its narrative.

But to the older Sonic fans worried that Sega is no longer interested in you, ask yourself why you’re a Sonic fan in the first place. Do you really wish to take those fandom forming elements away from the younger generation in future Sonic the Hedgehog games?