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Diving Way Too Deep on the ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Cartoons

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.


Yet another Sonic the Hedgehog video game reboot is high up on the list of things nobody asked for, but there’s a new one coming out anyway: Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice. Curious, I started watching the cartoon the game is based on, Sonic Boom, and I actually think they might have something with that. I still don’t really care about Fire & Ice, but the new show got me thinking about the three American Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons I grew up with.

Sega’s failed mascot has had more attempts at making a show work than any other video game character—even counting a certain pair of mustachioed Italian plumbers I know. Before we write Sonic off as a lost cause in the world of animation, though, I wanted to take a look at the new cartoon in the context of the old ones and see what’s changed. There are lots of past mistakes the new cartoon should take care to not repeat, but I have fond memories of the originals too. (By the way—how the heck did it take them so long to put “Boom” after “Sonic”?).

I rewatched episodes of the three American Sonic shows: The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, which ran for 64 episodes starting in 1993; Sonic the Hedgehog, which also began in 1993 but only had 26 episodes; and Sonic Underground, the “edgy” 1999 version with 40 episodes.

After countless hours of watching I came away with some impressions about where each version succeeded and failed in accurately portraying the elements of Sonic’s universe, from Knuckles the Echidna to Doctor Eggman himself. Was it worth it? I’ll let you decide, but either way, I’ve had enough of this hyperactive teenaged blue streak. I need a break.


SONIC’S FAMILY MATTERS
Sonic the hedgehog is a blue blur who’s too cool for school (and the reason I love chili dogs so much). That’s how he was designed: simplistic, sleek, with a sweet pair of kicks and an attitude. In all three shows he was brought to life with the voice of Jaleel White—yes, Steve Urkel from Family Matters.

You might think Urkel doesn’t know shit about being cool, but White’s Sonic exuded confidence. He knew he was the best and claimed to always have a plan, even if he didn’t. I’m glad to see the new show stays away from Adventures’ goofy version of the hero, so we won’t have to deal with silly costumes and bad overused catchphrases. I miss White’s voice, and I don’t know about Sonic’s new hipster bandana—but this is certainly a Sonic I can live with (hey, not everyone’s idea of ‘cool’ is the same).


THE MANY FACES OF DOCTOR EGGMAN
Dr. Robotnik—a.k.a. Doctor Eggman—is the main antagonist in each of the shows. He’s ingenious, fearsome, and bumbling all at the same time, like many cartoon villains. Adventures had the goofiest portrayal, while the best version of Eggman was hands down in the second version, the 26-episode show commonly referred to as “Sat AM” because it ran on Saturday mornings with the other top-tier cartoons of the day. Jim Cummings did the evil voice there, and Eggman’s glowing red eyes and menacing voice showed perfectly how inhuman he was becoming.

Robotnik—along with his stable of inept sidekicks, including Grounder and Scratch in Adventures, Sleet and Dingo in Underground, and my favorite, Snively in Sat AM—always became a joke in the end. Boom decided to stick with the comedic relief version of the villain, and actually made him somewhat endearing. He has the best comedic timing in the show, and besides, I think the real villain here is his unkempt facial hair.


BUILDING WORLDS
The Sonic cartoons welcomed viewers to Mobius, home of robots, strange architecture, anthropomorphic creatures, and a lot of unused space. Each show had a different take on this world, but it was Adventures that was drastically different and the most unrealistic, to fit its lighthearted tone. The cities are dark, exotic, and alien in the other two versions, inhabited by freedom fighters and victims of the evil tyrant Eggman. Sat AM nails that defeated feeling.

Sat AM made Robotropolis feel large, dark, and ominous, but did little for anything outside of that, where Underground made exploring the world fun. Boom could have benefited from a mixture of those two, but instead restricted the whole world to a couple of islands. All of the shows are unfortunately guilty of one very serious flaw: their side characters were utterly annoying. If I have to listen to Antoine screw one more idiom up I think I might snap, but at least Boom’s second tier heroes seem to have some depth to them. Hopefully they start killing them off by the end of season 1 a la Game of Thrones.


GAMING INSPIRATION
Elements from the Sonic video games are sprinkled throughout all three shows, but the most direct ones surprisingly came in Adventures, where the designs for the characters Scratch, Grounder and Coconuts were all inspired by enemies Sonic actually faces in the games. Many of the vehicles Robotnik pilots in that cartoon are also taken directly from famous boss battles in the series. Remembering how many times I died at the hands of Robotnik’s spiked ball gave me a touch of PTSD while watching the show, but that’s on me.

You can’t really blame the shows for using very little from their source material; looking back over the first three games I realized that so much of them seems cobbled together from different unrelated ideas, from emerald jungles to alien robot cities. This isn’t to say that the games are bad, but that a bigger story and franchise was not considered at the time, leaving the cartoons with little to work with. Game elements can help draw in viewers, but Boom seems to be doing its own thing. Many of the show’s enemies are game-inspired (and bonus points for Tails’ plane finally showing up again), but it ends there.


MOVING AND SHAKING
Music has become integral to Sonic’s character over the years, and that bled through in the ‘90s cartoons. He’s cool, so the music had to be too, and cool kids (like the one above) play the electric guitar. They were trying. Sat AM and Underground in particular did a good job of integrating music, from Sonic’s own shredding on the electric guitar to the formation of a full Hedgehog family band (which I obviously hated).

Sat AM had my favorite show intro music and animation, with its dark and foreboding tones and color palette. Underground was brighter and more vibrant, bringing certain characters and locations to life, as well as having the best depiction of Sonic’s speed, but it dropped the ball with the music video segments (no one asked for the show’s creators to show us exactly why they couldn’t make it in the music video business). Episodes of Boom are only fifteen minutes long, though, so the opener is short and does what it needs to do without overstaying its welcome. The art style is a polarizing point for fans, as the CGI looks good but isn’t really close to the school animation style of past versions.

I like it. Boom is in no way perfect from what I’ve seen, but it could have a bright future for Sonic fans of all ages. I want to see it succeed, mainly so that I can stop hiding the fact that I know so much about this blue ghost of Sega’s glory days.


Writing in the dirty South, recovering internet addict Stephen Wilds wakes up every night wrestling with nightmares of Silent Hill and stray commas. You may follow his exploits on Twitter @StephenWilds.


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