There was a post on NeoGAF recently about "that game" from your childhood. We all had "that game", the one that basically turned gaming from a casual hobby in to something we dedicated a significant portion of our free time to. The response I wrote on there was actually fairly long and involved, so I figured I'd transfer it over to here because it'd probably make a good blog. If you've known me long enough, I've probably told this story before, but every couple years I find myself retelling it for one reason or another...
For me, "that game" was the original Sonic the Hedgehog, to a certain extent. It was Christmas 1991, and my brother got a Model 1 Sega Genesis. I wasn't really well educated on gaming at that point in time - I grew up in my toddler years with the family having an Atari 2600, then in '89 we upgraded to a NES with Super Mario Bros. I enjoyed games, but they were an ancillary part of my life. Though at this point I've most likely played a Sega Genesis in store demo kiosks, I never put 2 and 2 together - I thought what my brother got was just a piece of stereo equipment that I wasn't allowed to touch. New Years Eve rolls around and we have some relatives in from out of town. They're watching Citizen Kane, and since I'm 8 years old at this point, I'm told that I probably won't like the movie. Since I'll only be a distraction I'm sent to my room to play. For a kid with a short attention span at 7 in the evening, that of course doesn't last long. To keep me out of their hair, I'm sent to the forbidden zone: my brother's room. My brother is a distant 14 years older than I am. In some regards, he's almost old enough to be my dad. At this point in time, he is a working adult of 22 years old. Being an adult, he largely kept to himself, and his tiny bedroom was a collection of very kid-unfriendly stuff: No toys, only a bed, a dresser, his own TV and a shelf full of pets he kept - snakes, tarantulas and other critters of that nature. You can imagine why was never allowed in there (or perhaps simply never had the guts to go in there). This, however, is a special exception, and I was sat down in front of his TV and handed a black game controller with three buttons. Sonic the Hedgehog begins to play.
To an 8 year old in 1991 who still doesn't even own Super Mario Bros. 3, Sonic the Hedgehog is just about the most amazing thing ever. Fast, unique, and absolutely gorgeous. Even though I struggle to make it past Marble Zone, I am absolutely enamored with the game, and after the movie is over and the night winds down, I can't stop talking about it to my family. I never play my brother's copy of Sonic ever again. Not only because I never go in to his room, but because within the next few months or so, my brother moves out, and with him goes the Sega Genesis. Despite this, I'm hooked. I need to play more Sonic the Hedgehog. Every opportunity I get, I sit on store demo kiosks playing Sonic. I ask for a Sega Genesis for my birthday in '92 and am rebuffed. I ask again for Christmas, and come December 25th I tear the wrapping paper off a large box to reveal... a Super Nintendo. Not even a month prior, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has landed on store shelves, and "hedgehog madness" has been rekindled in my heart... yet here I am, holding the competition. I try to do that thing where I don't want to seem ungrateful for the $200 gift I've been given, but all I can think of is that I'm missing out on the new Sonic.
This became something of a trend. I've recently come to understand that the entire reason I became such a fierce Sonic fanboy in those early days is because of this repeated cycle of need and denial. Ahab hunted his white whale, and I sought a blue hedgehog. My obsession was growing. It certainly didn't help that when I did finally get a chance to play a little bit of a Sonic game, it was never more than a few minutes - I never really had an opportunity to sit down and actually immerse myself in it. I made the best of my SNES. My Mom had bought it for me under the pretense of how much I liked Mario on the NES, and that was most definitely true of the SNES, as well. Super Mario World was a hell of a game, and sending away for Super Mario All-Stars finally provided me with the opportunity to experience both SMB2 and SMB3. The SNES was a great console - one of the best ever made. Even so, I was constantly trying to find Nintendo equivalents to Sonic. Aero the Acrobat, Bubsy, Rocky Rodent, Konami's Tiny Toons game, even tangential stuff like Alfred Chicken were under my purview. But, as I embraced the "Mascots With Attitude" fad, none of them even came close to replicating the Sonic experience.
I enjoyed my SNES for nearly two years. It was 1994 now, and a certain blue hedgehog catches my eye on the cover of Gamepro magazine. They proudly proclaim they have a full color "ProStrategy" guide for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. A third Sonic game?! That issue of Gamepro ended up being the first magazine I ever bought. I poured over the strategy guide, memorizing every inch of the game. By the time I go play Sonic 3 on store demo kiosks, I know every stage inside and out, backwards and forwards. In retrospect, it's actually kind of sad. My mother must've thought so too, because she finally took notice that this Sonic "thing" wasn't going away, and that year I was finally graced with a Sega Genesis to call my own, complete with my very own copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Of course, by now, Sonic & Knuckles is already on store shelves, and the mighty, Voltron-like power of Sonic 3 & Knuckles was within my grasp. Spring break 1995 was a glorious time for me and my best friend. Given that we both owned our own copies of Sonic 3, we'd take turns renting S&K from the local video store. When one of us took it back, the other would head out and rent it. We'd even coordinate over the phone so we knew the moment it would be in. That lasted for what felt like weeks. Not because we had difficulty in beating the game, mind you, but because we quite literally wanted to see everything. We'd beat the game in every configuration possible; Sonic with all Super Emeralds. Sonic with just Chaos Emeralds. Sonic with no emeralds at all. Would there be another secret level like "Doomsday Zone" for us to discover? What changed about the ending? What happened when you did this with other characters? We played it so much we practically made ourselves sick of it. It may have been the original Sonic the Hedgehog that began "hedgehog madness", but it was Sonic 3 & Knuckles where it really blossomed and came in to its own. There was no escaping it at that point.
Which is ironic, given that Sonic 3 & Knuckles marked the end of an era. Occasional spinoffs aside, it would be nearly five years before the next major Sonic game. The cycle of need and denial was beginning all over again. Despite purchasing a Sega Saturn (with my own money, too - the first game console I ever did that with), Sonic X-Treme got the can in 1996. Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Jam, and Sonic R were decent diversions, but nothing substantial (or terribly qualitative). By the time Sonic Adventure rolled around, I'd like to think I had matured to the point where I could start evaluating the quality of these games beyond simply "Yay It's Another Sonic" (and by 2006, I was seriously considering throwing in the towel for obvious reasons). Nowadays, though, Sonic finally seems to be struggling back to his feet - starting with Sonic Unleashed, this franchise has pulled itself up by its boot straps, giving us the legitimately wonderful Sonic Colors last year. Sonic Generations, set to release in a little over a week, looks to be the best, most polished implementation of the "cinematic"-style Sonic games originally envisioned back on the Dreamcast. Only time will tell - but rest assured, I'll be there.