You see, there's a new Sonic The Hedgehog game in the works. You might've seen the trailer for it - Sonic Mania, they're calling it, rather insensitively; Sonic Mania is a genuine psychological condition suffered by trumpeters, whereupon they repeatedly fill up their bell (that's the end of a trumpet) with pecans, and blow them into their bandleader's face.
Still, Sonic Mania is defiantly retro, 2D with a 16-bit aesthetic; it even features the classic look for Sonic. He's round and dumpy, and there isn't a try-hard wrist/ankle bandage or bandana in sight. It's clear that Sega has listened, and will be delivering exactly what every Sonic fan has been asking for.
Which is this: an old-school, side-on, Sonic the Hedgehog game, that looks as if it could've been released for the Mega Drive. It appears to be everything, in fact, that I've demanded whenever I've written about Sonic and Sega's woeful mismanagement of the character.
Unfortunately, I watched the trailer and I just felt a bit sad, and disappointed... and then I felt a bit guilty. Because they appear to have finally done exactly what I thought I wanted from a Sonic the Hedgehog game... and actually... it's probably not what I want at all. What I want is something that I'm never going to get, no matter what Sega does.
I know, right? It's like a three year old who complains she's hungry, and then when you make her a sandwich she doesn't eat it, because "it tastes funny".
I find it very hard to think about the past with any sort of cold, clinical detachment. The past is a dinghy full of memories, floating on a sea of feelings. And if that sounds overly romantic or sentimental... well... let's say for the sake of argument that there's a load of dog poo in the dinghy too.
Some people whine that you shouldn't live in the past - indeed, in the 17th Century nostalgia was actually considered a mental disorder (Swiss doctors described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause")” - but psychological studies have shown since that it's healthy and beneficial to wade occasionally, in our memories.
Doctor Constantine Sedikedes - an actual person with that name - is a professor of social and personal psychology from the University of Southampton, who has spent years researching the power of nostalgia.
His studies, he told the New York Times in 2013, were inspired by his own personal experience: “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”
Sedikedes found that while nostalgia could be bittersweet, the overall net result was beneficial. He proposed that it works as a way to counterbalance anxiety, loneliness, even boredom. It can make people kinder to strangers, more tolerant of others. It brings couples, families and friends together, and can be used to make us quite literally warmer. In short, it can make us feel a bit better about where we're at, and strengthen our relationships.
Music can be a particularly powerful trigger for me. No song can make me feel the way the way David Essex's 'Gonna Make You a Star' does; I don't even have any specific memories associated with it. Just a sense of place and time, of cosiness, and safety. Its effect has dulled over the years, but I still remember being in my 20s, and hearing it for the first time since my childhood. It was like a form of emotional time travel, and it hit me like a ton of photo albums.
'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree' by The Brotherhood of Man, or 'Bye Bye Baby' by the Bay City Rollers, or Jimmy Osmond's 'Long Haired Lover From Liverpool', all have a similar effect. Which should tell you that sound - for me - is probably my biggest nostalgic indulgence, irrespective of the terrible taste in music my family had.
When I get that fuzzy buzz off an old game, it's the sound which causes it - far more than the images or gameplay do. The screech of a ZX Spectrum loading screen, or the weird popping sound effects of Underwurlde. The first level music on Alex Kidd in Miracle World. "Rise from your grave!" in Mega Drive Altered Beast. F-Zero's Mute City theme. These are powerful drugs.
As are the spoken "Se-gaaaa" at the start of the first Sonic the Hedgehog, the Green Hill Zone music, and that sound when Sonic bounces on one of Robotnik's vehicles, or when he drowns. Going back to it, though, few of the sounds in Sonic give me a special trouser tingle. I don't know why. Admittedly, beyond that first stage, the music is pretty generic and forgettable. And yet... and yet...
I really loved the first couple of Sonic games, but everything the character has done since has been a disappointment. Now that Sega has gone back to the source, I'm willing to argue that Sega did the only thing it could do by trying to diversify and move forward with a character who, unfortunately, only really works in 2D. Now that they've done a proper 2D Sonic, I'm realising that maybe what I've been pining after all these years wasn't a new Sonic game, but something deeper.
I wanted a Sonic game that could work as a gateway drug to my memories.
There's only one way I'm going to get close to the feelings I got from playing the first Sonic the Hedgehog... and that's to play the original, on a Mega Drive.
I need to open up that plastic packaging, and shove the cartridge in the console's slot, and hold a Mega Drive joypad in my hands. I need to hear that hollow rattle of the Mega Drive's plastic casing.
And then I need to let that Green Hill Zone theme, and Sonic's desperate breaths, as his lungs fill with water, wash over me.
Potentially, the only thing I wanted from a new Sonic the Hedgehog game was the feeling I got from the first Sonic the Hedgehog game. And that feeling was wrapped up in whole bunch of other stuff; where I was living, who my friends were, who I was at the time...
There's no way any game is ever going to be able to replicate that. The best it can manage is being a reasonable facsimile, or being a decent game in its own right. And 25 years of trying - and failing - to make a decent Sonic game, that is worthy of the character's iconic status, might suggest that it is never going to happen.
Where does this leave me and Sonic Mania? If I can, I'll try and separate my nostalgic attachment to the original Sonic games from whatever this new incarnation offers. I'll try to take the game as I find it, and judge it on its own merits. However, stripping the nostalgia out of the equation leaves me wondering how good Sonic The Hedgehog - the original - actually was in the first place. I find myself questioning whether it was all style and branding over substance. Maybe Sonic has never been that good.
Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, but it can also blind us to the faults of the past.