Whenever there is an announcement regarding the release of yet another entry into a beloved game series, most people seem to fall into two camps:
1) Folks who want the game to stay true to the series roots and only make slight updates to an already successful formula (aka the rabid fanboys/girls who make death threats whenever change is afoot).
2)People who want to see these classic series brought to a modern setting through gameplay experimentation and updated character design (aka the snooty naysayers who are quick to damn a company to obsolescence for not being “mature” enough).
Speaking frankly (too late for that), I tend to lean closer to the latter group. I can appreciate that series like the Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda have made amazing games with little change to the usual formula, but I can also recognize when trying to mix up the system produced equally impressive titles. Some of my favorite games are the results of such experiments, like Yoshi’s Island and A Link Between Worlds. I tend to believe that if these IPs were given a bit more slack on their controlling leash, then other developers could make fantastic games that portray the series in a new light. This is probably why I find video game comic books so interesting; they can allow a bit more creative freedom to explore new settings for classic game characters.
One game series that has seen a number of these little experiments thanks to comic book adaptations is Sonic the Hedgehog. Through the efforts of Archie Comics, side characters have taken center stage, heroes have crossed into our world, and old rivalries have been put to rest. Some of the best of these comics have taken potential ideas that could have become games and turned them into special events for readers. Where interesting characters like Mecha-Sonic were only glimpsed on consoles, the comic books took such an idea and turned it into an epic battle for the ages.
After quite a lengthy build-up in the main comic line of Sonic the Hedgehog, things came to a head in July 1996 with the 48-page special Mecha Madness. In the previous issue (Sonic #39), the Blue Blur had petitioned to his friends to become roboticized in order to battle their foes on even ground. Naturally, the Knothole Council rejected this reckless plan, but such decisions didn’t matter in the long run. Sonic is kidnapped by Nack the Weasel and taken to Robotropolis where he is transformed and brainwashed into the actual Mecha-Sonic by the Eggman. Now as a rampaging robot on the loose, Sonic is attacking the very people he swore to protect.
In a last-ditch effort to take down Mecha-Sonic, Princess Sally has asked Knuckles the Echidna to be transformed into a robot as well. Using an old roboticizer that was acquired during a previous battle with Robotnik, the guardian of the Floating Isle becomes Mecha-Knuckles and prepares for battle with his once friendly rival. The metal pair duke it out in the wilderness nearby Knothole Village, each of them using signature attacks like laser blasts from Sonic and magnetic claws from Knuckles. After a rather short battle (only six pages, really?), Mecha-Sonic knocks Knuckles right towards Robotropolis, where a stockpile of nuclear warheads is just waiting to be accidentally detonated. However, Mecha-Knuckles isn’t down for the count, and he uses his magnetic claws to pull Sonic towards the nukes as well.
The pair makes contact with the warheads, and a massive explosion seems to have destroyed everything within Robotropolis. Like the snake he is, Robotnik snuck away to a fallout shelter and avoided the blast. Just as the Eggman is trying to salvage the barely functioning Mecha-Sonic, Knuckles clocks the villain in the face and makes off with his rival back to Knothole. It seems Robotnik’s brainwashing was not as strong as he thought, and Sonic shielded Mecha-Knuckles from the brunt of the explosion right before impact. The duo arrives at Knothole Village, where their friends are eager to transform them back into their organic selves. Unfortunately, Sonic has no memory of the damage he caused as a robot, and lashes out at Knuckles immediately after regaining consciousness. The offended echidna flies off and as a final twist, Sonic is arrested for the treasonous act of being roboticized and attacking the village. Quite an interesting alternative to the usual happy ending with no loose ends.
Looking at the artwork in this Sonic special, it is apparent that Archie Comics pulled out all the stops to make this story visually impressive. The pencils were handled by Pat “Spaz” Spaziante, who normally works on the gorgeous comic covers, while the inking was covered by another Sonic vet, Harvey Mercadoocasio. Each of the characters appears a bit more dynamic and expressive than their usual comic book selves. The battle between Mecha-Sonic and Mecha-Knuckles is especially stunning, with special electrical and plasma effects to highlight every attack. A strong attention to detail is present in every scene, with complex backgrounds and little flourishes like crinkled brows and individual hairs waving in the wind. For lack of a better analogy, this artwork seems more at home with a high-budget animated film than a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Taking a look back at the catalog of games in Sonic the Hedgehog, there has been quite a bit of the experimentation in design that I hope for in a long-running series. Outside of the “run really fast, collect rings, and destroy robots” series core, Sonic and Co. have been in sports games, racing titles, fighting games, and even an RPG from Bioware. Not all of these games have seen critical or commercial success, but the variety of titles has certainly provided something for everyone to try and has kept these characters fresh over the years. Hopefully the same can be accomplished with comic book adaptations of these beloved series. After all, Mega Man hasn’t had a game in years but I still see him on the shelf every month at the comic book shop.
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