Though Sonic the Hedgehog celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday, the spiky-haired Sega mascot's appeal has always come down to his enduring teenage spirit: He tears through every environment (be it side-scrolling 2D levels or his very iffy forays into 3D games) at a breakneck pace, he aloofly throws innumerable hand gestures at the player to put the accent on each victory, and he'll start impatiently tapping his feet and checking his nonexistent watch if you ignore him for longer than five seconds. Sonic had always served as the edgy antithesis to a certain squeaky-clean Italian plumber, the unruffled cool to offset the loveable buffoon, the Rolling Stones to Nintendo's genial and affable Beatles. And while bridges have since been built between the two, a collaborative effort between Sonic and Mario would have been unthinkable at the peak of the early-'90s console wars. To declare your childhood allegiance to Sonic over Mario spoke volumes, and hinted that your next 10 years might be spent listening to Beck and watching Tarantino films.
Sonic's own teenage years have seen him flying off the rails, perhaps propping up some Mobius bar and knocking back whiskeys with Crash Bandicoot, Earthworm Jim, and Rayman. With the poor performance of the Dreamcast forcing Sega's hand to bow out of manufacturing hardware, Sonic had emphatically fallen off the radar, given there was now no console for him to emblazon as its poster boy. After the undervalued Sonic Adventure, the blue-haired hedgehog limped through countless ports and was prostituted across each console in a series of increasingly poor titles (see the sloppy Sonic Heroes and the monotonous Sonic Unleashed). While Mario went from strength to strength as he ascended through 3D games (scoring cast-iron classics with Super Mario 64 and more recently with Super Mario Galaxy), Sega's flagship character was a spent force. And even when the two rival brands buried the hatchet in 2008 for an Olympic Games frolic for the Wii, you got the impression that the nice-as-pie plumber was throwing a bone to the down-on-his-luck hedgehog. After almost a decade in the video-game doldrums, he needed it.
And while Sega may never be able to capture timeless moments like these again, the trailer for Sonic's 20th-anniversary outing arouses a glimmer of hope that he may yet enjoy a renaissance. Nostalgia is very much a marked selling point for the forthcoming Sonic Generations, which comes as no surprise considering recent memories of the character are flooded with woeful disappointments (including, worryingly, the game that coincided with his 15th anniversary). If there's anyone crying out for a return to form, though, it's Sonic the Hedgehog…and Michael Stipe.
His birthday simultaneously makes me feel old and young again, and a glance at his now-iconic images resurrects many fond memories. Choosing to like Sonic was, for me, my first rejection of convention: His hair was spiky, his sneakers were bright and bold, he threw wanton hand signs that I only pretended to understand the meaning of, and he simply oozed attitude. And while I'll stop short of blaming all the wrong decisions I've made in my life on the rebellious spirit I picked up from a fictitious blue hedgehog, I will propose that choosing Sonic as your video-game idol back in 1991 may give some indication as to your tastes and preferences in 2011. Hooray for the underdog! Happy birthday, Sonic.