For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.
The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.
Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.
Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.
Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.
Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.
The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.
This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).
For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.
Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.
When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06' was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.
Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn't much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.
The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?
This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo's market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.
Sega's faults have been that they've been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).