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With 'Sonic Generations,' Sega races back to its roots

Mark Milian, CNN
In
In "Sonic Generations," the familiar blue mascot sprints through levels in both 2-D and 3-D modes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sega is looking to revive its flagship franchise with "Sonic Generations"
  • Sega has not released a stellar Sonic game in about a decade
  • "Sonic Generations" celebrates the series' 20th anniversary

(CNN) -- Age has slowed Sonic, the beloved blue hero from an earlier generation of video games, but Sega may have finally rehabilitated the venerable hedgehog.

"Sonic Generations," which arrives in stores Tuesday for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, comes at an opportune time.

With a crucial holiday season imminent, Sega Sammy Holdings hasn't produced a stellar Sonic game in about a decade, and the company's game division has performed especially sluggishly this year.

But "Sonic Generations," coming on the 20th anniversary of the franchise, looks like a promising candidate to buck these trends. The first batch of reviews have been positive, and the game has received more preorders than any previous Sonic game, which is an early barometer for success.

Sega also managed to build some buzz for the game at video game expos like E3, although those conventions have not been particularly kind to other Sonic games.

Sega\'s popular video game character, Sonic the Hedgehog, at a 2006 launch event for Nintendo\'s Wii.
Sega's popular video game character, Sonic the Hedgehog, at a 2006 launch event for Nintendo's Wii.

Encouraged by the favorable feedback, Sega is throwing its marketing weight behind the game. These initiatives include traditional advertising, constructing a Sonic-themed playground in East Oakland, California, and a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The original "Sonic the Hedgehog" debuted on Sega's Genesis game system in 1991. Since the heydays of Sega going head-to-head with Nintendo for home console domination, the company has ceased selling hardware, started developing for multiple systems and merged with Sammy, which makes pachinko slot machines in Japan.

Perhaps as a result, Sega's flagship franchise, which is developed by the aptly named Sonic Team, has slumped. Sonic's and Mario's "platformer" genre -- in which cartoonish characters navigate increasingly challenging maze-like levels -- was once a blockbuster seller, but it's been surpassed by first-person shooters such as "Call of Duty" and "Battlefield." Nintendo has managed to maintain the high quality of Mario games over the years, but Sega has struggled to remake Sonic for the fast-paced 21st-century game industry.

"Sonic Generations" is designed to "take Sonic back to the pure elements," Yasuhiro Noguchi, a senior producer who led development on the Western version of the game, said in an interview.

Some previous games in the series became preoccupied with elaborate story lines and slower-paced exploration. American and European players may have been put off by elements of the plots that were geared toward audiences in Japan, where Sonic Team is based.

"The team tries very hard not to bias it for a particular territory," Noguchi said. "They don't necessarily do stuff that is very, very specific to, say, their home territory. That's one of the learnings that has kind of informed their development DNA in the last 20 years -- that Sonic is loved internationally."

For "Sonic Generations" and its predecessor, "Sonic Colors" for the Wii, Sega recruited writers from the television show "Happy Tree Friends." They pen straightforward scripts that they hope will resonate with players outside of Asia, where Sonic's market is bigger. However, the writers must also adhere to standards set by Sega's Japan-based Sonic Committee, which is tasked with upholding the integrity of the Sonic brand.

"Sonic is a beloved franchise," Noguchi said. "Disney has Mickey, and we have Sonic."

"Sonic Generations" is looking to polish the franchise's legacy and reverse the recent decline of Sonic's popularity, said Patrick Riley, a U.S.-based development director for the company. "I think that fans recognize that as far as the quality, Sonic is moving in the right direction."

The game melds the classic two-dimensional action with three-dimensional exploration.

"We're truly bringing the 'A game' on 'Sonic Generations,' " Noguchi said. "In some ways, it is sort of a celebration and a sendoff for the first generation of Sonic."

"Sonic Generations" will dip into past successes in its attempt to rebuild the franchise. Levels from classic Sonic games, such as the memorable Green Hill Zone, have been remade in 3-D. A dash of nostalgia may be just what Sega needs to reinvigorate its aging hedgehog.

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