Today, June 23, marks the 31st anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega's mascot since his first appearance on the Mega Drive / Genesis console back in 1991.
Since then we've seen the blue blur jump to 3D, become a surprisingly successful movie franchise, and inspire a world tour in the making, where an orchestra will be playing music from past games in the series.
However, with the launch of the remastered edition of the first four games, Sonic Origins, Sonic 3 has finally seen some fresh attention too, having been absent on current systems for years.
I spoke to the vice president of product development for the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Takashi Iizuka, about his history with the franchise – beginning as a designer on Sonic 3, leading the series since, and now heading up Sonic’s first foray into open-world gaming with Sonic Frontiers.
"It was an incredible feeling to be able to return to where everything started for me all these years later," Iizuka says. "I have such great memories of working on Sonic 3 and am proud to have the game included in Sonic Origins.
"Of course, it brought back many memories of when we were working on developing Sonic 3,” he continues. “Sonic 3 is an extremely memorable game for me personally, since it was the first Sonic title I worked on. When porting Sonic 3 & Knuckles this time, I dug up specification documents I wrote in 1993 to check some things. We’ve included some of those in the museum mode for Sonic Origins."
Though, even as it dives into the past, Sega is keeping the scope of Sonic Origins controlled. Fans were surprised when the recent Sonic Symphony included renditions of the music from the Master System editions of Sonic 1 and 2, which I’d hoped meant Sega was open to returning to those older games – potentially within Origins or as future DLC. "It is fun to look back on the Master System versions of Sonic, especially as Sonic 2 was such a different game to the Mega Drive release." Iizuka says. "Right now, though, we are focused on Sonic Origins and looking ahead to the future of Sonic with Sonic Frontiers."
A jam of ideas
Sonic Origins isn’t the first time Sega has returned to the series’ beginnings. Back in 1997, the publisher released Sonic Jam, a compilation of the first four games, adding an easy mode to the titles. But Origins shouldn’t be mistaken for a rehash, Iizuka assures me.
"There isn’t an easy mode, but there is no game over in the Anniversary mode we included for all titles, so people who weren’t able to complete the games before can play through to the end," he says. "Sonic Jam ran the games as-is using an emulator, in part because not many years had passed since the Genesis versions were released, but Sonic Origins features various improvements."
Even after all these years, the final fights of Sonic 3 and Knuckles stand out to Iizuka for their sheer scale and ambition. "But of course, there are others too," he says. "Running through the burning forest at the start of the fight on Angel Island Zone feels iconic even today. I feel like the team did a fantastic job at delivering some great boss fights in Sonic 3 & Knuckles."
Sadly, Sega isn’t taking the opportunity to implement new routes or scrapped content in Sonic Origins, as it did in the 2013 remasters of Sonic 1 and 2. "For Sonic 1 and 2, adding the ability to play as Tails and Knuckles (which you couldn’t do in the originals) allowed us to add new routes that take advantage of their abilities," Iizuka explains. "For Sonic 3 & Knuckles, you could already use these characters in the original game so we didn’t add new routes in Sonic Origins. The routes for Tails and Knuckles that were in the original are still there, of course. I think it offers even more to enjoy than Sonic 1 and 2."
While the 2013 remaster of Sonic 2 added cut areas, such as Wood Zone, Sand Shower Zone, and Hidden Palace Zone, this Sonic 3 remaster won’t do the same for the simple reason that, as far as Iizuka knows, "there wasn’t a single stage or element from Sonic 3 & Knuckles that was scrapped back then. Of course, there were a lot of ideas that weren’t approved, but that’s different."
Sonic Adventure and Sonic Heroes are not available on the Nintendo Switch, while Steam Deck owners can play these games on the go. Rectifying that discrepancy could be a great way to introduce Switch players to the Dreamcast era of Sonic, rather than more releases of the classic Sonic games. I asked Iizuka if there were any plans to make this a reality soon.
"Although the Sonic Adventure games are available on PC and via backward compatibility on certain hardware, it is becoming increasingly difficult for modern players to play those games," Iizuka says. "I will always have fond memories of working on these older titles, and am particularly proud of how Sonic Adventure laid the foundations for later games. However, right now we are focusing on the future of Sonic with the open-zone gameplay of Sonic Frontiers."
On the subject of a sequel, Iizuka is diplomatic. "The Sonic Adventure games hold a very special place in my heart, and it makes me incredibly happy to know that they are cherished by so many fans," he says. "Right now, my time is focused on Sonic Frontiers."
The next frontier
The announcement of Sonic Frontiers, the upcoming 3D Sonic game that sees the hedgehog move into an open world for the first time, wasn’t met wholly positively. In part, that might be because the reveal trailer gave so little away. Iizuka is quick to say there’s a lot more to see.
"The work we are putting into the open-zone gameplay of Sonic Frontiers is very exciting," he says. "Being able to bring Sonic into the modern age with this new style of gameplay is a fun and exciting task, and we cannot wait to show players more of the game as we get closer to launch. There is definitely a lot more to be revealed, and we are working hard to ensure it is a title that fans love."
For the moment, we will have to take his word and reserve our opinion until we’ve seen more.
Though, of course, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask about the future of Sonic Mania, the best 2D Sonic game in years. Released back in 2017 and developed by a team of dedicated developers who made their start in the Sonic modding scene, Mania breathed new life into Sonic. Iizuka recognizes its place in Sonic’s legacy, saying, "The critical and fan reception to Sonic Mania was incredible, and we were very happy to see the excitement for that title." He wouldn’t say if there were plans for a sequel: "It certainly helped assure us that new 2D Sonic titles could still be successful even today, and hope that those players will enjoy revisiting classic Sonic in Sonic Origins."
It’s an exciting time for Sonic fans. After more than 30 years, yes, we’re seeing Sega return to Sonic’s origins, as other publishers are doing with their venerable franchises, but the publisher is also set on continuing the character’s future and trying out new genres. Better still that that future is being charted by people like Iizuka who have worked on the series for decades.
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Daryl had been freelancing for 3 years before joining TechRadar, now reporting on everything software-related. In his spare time he's written a book, 'The Making of Tomb Raider', alongside podcasting and usually found playing games old and new on his PC and MacBook Pro. If you have a story about an updated app, one that's about to launch, or just anything Software-related, drop him a line.