People of the Year 2017: Christian Whitehead

Sonic the Hedgehog is relevant again, thanks to the indie developer who succeeded where Team Sonic repeatedly failed

It's safe to say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had a troubled past. While each new Mario game is awaited with eager anticipation, Sonic's offerings are frequently met with scorn and derision, and 2017 is a perfect example of this unfortunate paradigm.

This year Super Mario Odyssey burst onto the scene with critics throwing perfect review scores at its feet like so many roses. Sonic Forces meanwhile was batted around like a mysterious bucket emitting an array of strange odours. Some of the more generous comments made about Sonic Forces came from our colleagues at Eurogamer who were kind enough to say that Sonic Forces "isn't an utterly abysmal game by any means" but remains a "profoundly empty experience."

Of course, Sonic Forces wasn't the only entry into the franchise this year. Sonic Mania's surprise announcement in 2016 caught the world off-guard and when it was eventually released this August, it received the kind of critical reception Sonic Team could only dream of, earning the highest Metacritic score of any Sonic game in the last 15 years.

Unfortunately the dreamers at Sonic Team must keep on dreaming because while Mania is the best entry to the franchise in years, it was actually the product of indie designer Christian Whitehead who served as lead developer and programmer. It says a lot about the state of the franchise that the first good entry since 2011's Sonic Generations (arguably longer) had nothing to do with Sonic Team.

So how did this Australian-based indie achieve first-time something which Sonic Team has failed at with such aplomb as to make the whole world think a good Sonic game was no longer possible?

This is where the Mario comparison once again serves a purpose. When you pit Sonic the Hedgehog against Mario it quickly becomes clear why one is a timeless classic and the other is Sonic the Hedgehog.

Mario was designed to be fun whereas Sonic was designed to be cool. Mario isn't held back by the trappings of the era in which he was born, whereas Sonic is constantly hamstrung by the fact that not only is he a product of the 90s, but he positively exudes the worst possible traits the decade.

As Ian Danskin from Innuendo Studios commented: "[Sonic is] a time capsule of early '90s adolescent cool. A bright blue, anthropomorphised animal mascot with sneakers and a bad case of the Dreamworks face, somehow still trying to remain relevant... something Mario continues to do effortlessly."

"It says a lot about the state of the franchise that the first good entry since 2011's Sonic Generations (arguably longer) had nothing to do with Sonic Team"

This has left Sonic in the awkward position of always trying to remain cool but cool is, by its very nature, ephemeral and ever changing. So how does Sonic remain relevant? It's a near impossible question, and one Sonic Team has repeatedly failed to answer, opting to constantly reinvent not only the character and his ever expanding entourage of anthropomorphic animal friends, but the fundamentals of what a Sonic game is.

There was a simpler time, long ago, when Sonic had attitude and went fast. Since then he's been a werewolf/hedgehog abomination, a medieval knight, and whatever Sonic Boom was supposed to be, plus countless other ill-fated expeditions into gaming territory that never should have been explored through the lens of a cocky anthropomorphic hedgehog, namely that one time he became embroiled in a human-hedgehog romance subplot that skirted uncomfortably around the edges of beastiality.

With the gradual attenuation of Sonic's cultural relevance, the likelihood of a game which broke free of the mascot's desperation to be "cool" seemed less and less likely. Sonic Team had taken the franchise in every conceivable direction and each had been a dud. Even Sonic 4, which attempted to re-imagine classic Sonic with all of the edge and glamour of modern Sonic, was ultimately an awkward patchwork. Its only real achievement was quite how spectacularly it missed the mark.

From the heady days of the early '90s when Sonic could shift over 22 million units, to Sonic Boom which failed to break a million, the blue blur's condition looked terminal.

Retro, however, is very much in vogue and a faithful recreation of classic Sonic, brimming with all his original '90s pomp, right down to the Sonic CD-style intro cutscene, made more sense that it has ever done before. A recreation, rather than re-imagining, stuffed with fresh ideas but staying faithful to Sonic's origins, Mania feels like a game from 1993 in the best possible way.

"Whitehead succeeded in doing something Sonic Team repeatedly failed to do. He recognised that if Sonic changes with the times, he changes beyond recognition"

Not only are there remixes of classic levels which scratch that nostalgia itch in ways you wouldn't imagine were possible, but it also offers entirely new zones that feel completely at home in the pantheon of classic Sonic games.

Sonic Mania is a ultimately a fan game and its origins reflect that, but that's not to discredit its validity as an entry into the franchise. It's a celebration of the series made by the people who tirelessly supported Sonic, even in his darkest hours.

Whitehead began developing fan games based on the Sonic franchise in 2009. His relationship with Sega began when the publisher ported his version of Sonic CD onto Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iPhone, and Android in 2011. It was a real coup, especially considering Sega reportedly slapped him with a cease and desist for a video he uploaded as a proof of concept for the port two years prior.

From there, working with his friend and colleague Simon Thomley, Whitehead was commissioned to port Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to Android. The pair also put together a prototype to bring Sonic 3 and Knuckles to mobile but, for whatever reason, the pitch was rejected.

Undeterred, Whitehead pulled together a crack team of Sonic fan game developers with the goal of making an entirely new 2D Sonic title. Alongside himself and Thomley he also recruited designer/artist duo Jared Kasl and Tom Fry from indie studio Pagoda West, plus musician Tee Lopes whose work on the soundtrack is nothing short of superb.

After developing the phenomenal Studiopolis Zone as a taster, Whitehead pitched the game to Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka who took the idea and ran with it, envisaging it to be bigger and better than originally conceived by Whitehead and his team.

Iizuka saw the potential of Whitehead's pitch as more than just another addition to the franchise, but a celebration of Sonic's glory years. After getting the greenlight from Sonic Team, Whitehead pulled in more luminaries from the fan game world, including artists and level designers. The end result was Sonic Mania, one of the most inspired additions to the franchise's long, complicated, and uneven history.

Whitehead succeeded in doing something Sonic Team repeatedly failed to do. He recognised that if Sonic changes with the times, he changes beyond recognition, leaving him a hollow fabrication, completely devoid of what made him special in the first place. While Sega frantically scrambled around trying to make lightning strike, despite being completely unversed in the fundamentals of meteorology, Whitehead and his team were making something special. Their work is to be commended for revitalising one of gaming's greatest and most misused cultural icons. For the first time in years, I'm excited to see what Sonic does next.

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