How Sonic the Hedgehog Explains the Internet

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Photo: SelectAll

The internet is a paradox. It’s both permanent and ephemeral. Every blog post, every status update, every photo upload is logged somewhere. Data is rarely truly deleted. At the same time, events, ideas, people are forgotten immediately. The global hive mind goes through collective stages and waves. Memes rise and fall at an ever-increasing speed. Interests shift.

But one thing will remain on the internet eternally, from now until the end of time, when the sea swallows us whole and drags us into the murky dark. In a rapidly accelerating society, it is fitting that one of the internet’s original pillars is a creature dedicated to speed and ferocity, unceasing momentum as we push toward an uncertain future.

I am, of course, talking about Sonic the Hedgehog, who turns 25 years old today.

Sonic is everywhere you look on the internet, genuine beloved by some fans, ironically praised by others, and often a mix of the two. Sonic is the web’s id at work, a fascinating emulsion of nostalgia, scorn, schadenfreude, and hope.

To understand Sonic in the context of the web, you need to analyze the character himself. On a base level, Sonic’s popularity is a result of being in the right place at the right time. The Sonic franchise first appeared on the Sega Genesis video-game console in 1991, two years before the World Wide Web even existed. That meant that at the very beginning of the Web, Sega was in the midst of a protracted battle against Nintendo for domination of the video-game market and heavily pitching what would become one of the most popular franchises of all time. In the early- and mid-’90s, Sonic was one of the most recognizable pop-culture staples in the world.

While Mario, iconic as he is, is a simple plumber with few personality traits other than a peppy demeanor and a bushy mustache, early Sonic is probably best-defined as “Gen-X edgy.” This is not unintentional. Sega, hoping to distance itself from its rival, baked this sort of gritty personality into the core of the Sonic character.

As Blake Harris recalled in his book on the rivalry, Console Wars:

Sega needed to redefine itself as hip, cool, and in-your-face. Doing so would not only speak to older generations but present video games as a mainstream form of entertainment, no different from books, movies, and music. Toward that end, [CEO Tom] Kalinske proposed to increase Sega’s advertising budget and create edgy advertisements that mocked Nintendo and appealed to teens and college students rather than younger kids.

What Sega ended up with was Sonic, a character that in its initial construction “looked villainous and crude, complete with sharp fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar, and a human girlfriend whose cleavage made Barbie’s chest look flat.”

Sonic’s imposing look and personality were eventually scaled back, but Sega still had high hopes for his quote-unquote “mature” attitude.

Again, Harris explains:

Sonic wouldn’t just become the face of the company but also would represent their spirit: the tiny underdog moved with manic speed, and no matter what obstacles stood in his way, he never ever stopped going. Sonic embodied not only the spirit of Sega of America’s employees but also the cultural zeitgeist of the early nineties. He had captured Kurt Cobain’s “whatever” attitude, Michael Jordan’s graceful arrogance, and Bill Clinton’s get-it-done demeanor.

This idea is still central to how we use the web and interact online today. To cast it in more recent terms, Sonic was snark; Mario was smarm. Where Mario was unflinchingly nice and positive, Sonic called it like he saw it. He was good, but not kind. Respected, but not respectable.

If you were a young child in the ‘90s, as I was (NINETIES KIDS WHERE YOU AT???), Sonic might have been the personality that you modeled yourself on. You might have thought, as I did, that Sonic and his pals — Tails the flying fox and Knuckles the gliding echidna — were rad. And maybe, as I did, you carried that identity online with you. In the late-’90s, my older brother convinced our parents to let us sign up for AOL screennames. His screenname was Sonic1288, and following his lead, I made mine Tails1221. Yes, the very first username I created online was a Sonic the Hedgehog reference, and it was for the wimpy sidekick.

Alluding to Sonic in your screenname or avatar spoke volumes: “I’m not perfect, but I’m authentic. Through this blue anime hedgehog, I am conveying my humanity.”

A simple search for Sonic groups on Deviantart turns up more than 5,000 results. Some of them go way back, predating the rising of social media. The-Sonic-Catclub, which is meant solely for drawing of cat characters, was established in 2007. Even further back, Sonic-Chara-Club was founded in 2003. Now boasting 5,832 members, the group is still very active. Another group, devoted to drawing Sonic characters as if they were human, was also founded in 2003, before Facebook, before Twitter, before Tumblr. Many of the groups are dormant, and as new young fans log in to take the place of older ones, they create their own groups rather than trying to join existing ones.

Original characters illustrated in the Sonic style, many created as Mary Sues, are likewise ubiquitous online. Newgrounds even has a Sonic OC creator for you to use. There is also a fun impromptu social-media game in which you type “[your name] the hedgehog” into Google Image Search and post the first result.

Sonic OCs often factor into role play and fanfiction that people write, and expanded universe fiction like Sonic television shows and comic books add to the cast that fan creators can draw on. It’s not much of a surprise that Sonic’s character designs resemble popular fursuits, with anthropomorphized figures and large cartoon eyes. Sometimes this role play takes odd turns, such on election night 2012, when — in response to Romney’s loss — the account then called @JustcallmeSonic infamously broke kayfabe and tweeted “Hell has come to america.”

Sonic still pervades online, decades past his prime, in original meaning “fan-made”) characters and fanfiction and Tumblr memes, because it’s really a fandom celebrating mediocrity. Everyone online believes that they are the underdog. This attitude is further exacerbated by the fact that there hasn’t been a good Sonic game since the last millennium. Sonic is continually striving to reclaim a peak that he never will.

A fan’s love for Sonic throughout his ‘90s heyday makes sense, but as the franchise expanded into the new millennium, game quality started to decline rapidly. Whereas the Super Mario games had made a seamless transition into the third dimension in Super Mario 64, Sonic struggled to do the same. The mix of precision platforming and uncontrollable momentum, which worked along a two-dimensional plane, did not transition well to 3-D space. The games Sonic Adventure and its sequel for the ahead-of-its-time flop, the Sega Dreamcast, were well-regarded, but subsequent iterations like Sonic Heroes and the spinoff Shadow the Hedgehog were more dubious affairs, earning Metacritic averages around 70 and 50 percent, respectively.

Along the way, the Sonic franchise became bogged down with an awful supporting cast. In addition to Tails, Knuckles, and the series’s main villain, Doctor Eggman, there was now Amy Rose (pink hedgehog, Sonic girlfriend); Shadow (like Sonic, but more pop-punk than Gen X; he has a gun); Silver (hedgehog from the future with psychic powers;, and a whole host of other anthropomorphic travesties. They are cartoons, so they appealed to children regardless, but they are also objectively garbage.

As Levi Buchanan wrote for IGN in 2009:

SEGA just kept stuffing new faces and names into the game, pulling attention away from their hero. Vector the Crocodile. Cream the Bunny. Rouge the Bat. The list keeps going. These characters started suspiciously seeming not like organic additions to Sonic’s buddy list, but try-outs in hopes of finding the next would-be mascot, such as Shadow the Hedgehog. Or catch-up to the changing tastes of a fickle gaming public without abandoning the Sonic brand.

Sega wanted to have it both ways — a cast of characters positioned as outsiders who were nonetheless also meant to appeal to a broad audience and sell millions of video games. This is not unlike the central paradox of social-media performance. Everyone wants to seem unique and interesting while also appealing to hundreds or thousands of diverse followers.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when Sonic fandom tipped from earnest to ironic, but if I had to make an educated guess, it was in 2006. That year saw the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, unofficially referred to as Sonic 2006, and the game is a nightmare any way you slice it.

The game itself was not fun to play, with long load times, a myriad of technical glitches, and control problems. The game also drew upon the franchise’s corpulence, filling it with characters that few cared for.

And it had Sonic, a cartoon hedgehog with a massive cranium, enter into a romantic tryst with a realistically rendered human female.

More than a decade later, the franchise has yet to live this down.

From then on, every new iteration of Sonic has followed with fandom chatter about how “this next one will be a return to form.” For a decade, since the franchise fell to its nadir, fans have been waiting for Sonic to reach the unreachable heights of his prime. The games have settled on a level of quality that generally reads as serviceable.

In 2007, evaluating a preview build of what would later become Sonic and the Secret Rings, Gamespot wrote, “Based on what we played, Sonic Wild Fire is shaping up to be a shiny showcase for the Wii … the visuals offer a striking assortment of eye candy that places the game among the best-looking games we’ve seen for the system.” It holds a score of 69 on Metacritic. Good, not great. In 2008, Sega tried again with Sonic Unleashed, getting decent preview buzz but releasing a similarly mediocre game.

This pattern — prerelease hype dashed against the rocks of reality — is now self-sustaining, mostly due to the fact that Sonic fans hold the Genesis games to unattainably high standards (go back and play them; they probably don’t hold up as well as you think). And because of this never-ending cycle, Sonic on the internet is constantly debated, and therefore constantly present. Fans have been buzzing about the Next Great Sonic Game for as long as people have been fighting for a second season of Firefly.

Genuine Sonic fandom can then give way to zealot-like defensiveness, an unwillingness to admit that Sonic is past his prime. Many older Sonic fans are in this stage, nostalgic for the past and hopeful for the future. They believe that one day, Sonic will return in all his glory and their years of suffering will have been worth the wait. Sega positioned Sonic as an underdog in the ‘90s as a marketing ploy, but now he is stuck as an underdog forever. That makes liking Sonic the sort of counterintuitive, unconventional opinion that people enjoy vocalizing online — the contrarian mode that sites like Slate have ridden for years. The internet is a place where, for the last two decades, you could log on and say “I like Sonic” and it would be slightly risqué. People love to believe that they are unique flowers, and liking Sonic is, somehow, one of the easiest ways to convey this sense. To be a fan of Sonic nowadays is to be a part of a special club of true believers.

Sonic is the perfect storm that happens when millennial nostalgia for the Clinton era and the web’s uniquely militant brand of defensiveness combine, along with the ever-present need that adolescents feel to distinguish themselves in some way.

And that fandom can manifest itself in odd ways online, because the internet has by and large been a safe space for fans to go deep on their hobby. One of the most uncomfortable works, and a personal fascination of mine, is Guptill89’s infamous video, Top Ten Hottest Female Sonic Characters.

It describes Sonic thusly:

Sonic… the Hedgehog. One of the greatest and most attractive characters ever thought up. He can run at sound speed, take out enemies in a flash, and best of all, he’s blue-colored and knows how to handle the females.

There is not a line in this entire eight minutes that isn’t gold.

As memes have reached greater sophistication and a broader audience, irony has crept in, and the lines between genuine fandom and ironic fandom are unclear. I, for instance, was a genuine fan of Sonic, who now engages with the franchise ironically. In many ways, it traces the same path as that of the Shrek films: a strong primary installment, followed by lackluster and then flat-out terrible sequels. To joke about Sonic and the uniquely meme-centric culture surrounding it now is to also acknowledge that you once enjoyed the very thing you now mock. “I liked this once, and now it sucks, and that’s funny.”

This simultaneous nostalgic affection and ridicule make it difficult to know who is being serious.

There is, for instance, the raging and perpetual debate surrounding Sonic and Tails. Do Sonic and Tails kiss? One vocal side is adamant: Sonic and Tails do not kiss. The other side is equally adamant: Sonic and Tails kiss all the time. It points to a rift in the Sonic community. On one side, some declare that the official Sonic canon is the only thing that matters. On the other side, devoted fanfiction authors live out their dreams of a speedy hedgehog and a two-tailed flying fox getting rowdy on each other’s mouths. Both sides are — and I say this with love — equally nuts in there commitment.

The slashfic portion of Sonic gets weird. You might think that a running role play in which Sonic is pregnant with Shadow’s baby is an absurd escalation, but whoever runs the Tumblr called Ask Mpreg Sonic does not.

One infamous ironic Sonic OC is Coldsteel the Hedgeheg [sic], a parody of the in-your-face, Doritos-munching Mountain Dew-debro that Sonic holds genuine appeal with.

Sonic fan art has even become its own running joke outside of Sonic diehards. The Twitter account Bad Sonic Fan Art highlights the endearingly amateur drawings, which repurpose the Sonic aesthetic for everything from innocent fanfic, to jingoistic patriotism.

Four years ago, the blog Dumb Running Sonic began accumulating dozens of bespoke animated GIFs, celebrating Sonic’s need for speed while also ridiculing it. To be a Sonic fan nowadays requires the ability to roast your heroes after placing them on a pedestal.

Even Sonic’s official social-media brand now acknowledges this, giving winking approval to the fact that the edgy posturing of the ‘90s must at some point give way to a post-ironic stance.

On the internet, you’re competing for attention with billions of other people. So long as Sega keeps releasing dogshit-terrible Sonic games, trying to recapture his former glory, people will see themselves in Sonic — so close to glory and yet so far. And they’ll keep writing fanfiction, and drawing original characters, and using Sonic characters as their avatar. The imagery is loaded with layers of signification. Sonic is a cipher, who came of age alongside his most devoted fans in the early days of the web. And that’s why he’ll be around forever.

How Sonic the Hedgehog Explains the Internet