Some Sonic games age worse than others, the blue blur’s soundtracks keep him alive and well.

What’s fueling Sonic the Hedgehog? Canonically, he is is powered by chili dogs, which on occasion, are adorned with a ribbon. But what’s keeping the Sonic series going after 29 long years?The Blue Blur has one of the more tempestuous existences among long-lived mascot characters.

The most obvious parallel is Mario. Nintendo’s portly plumber is the beacon of stability. 35 years of Mario games have proven the jump man can sell anything. He sold us 3D platforming. He sold us motion controls and the Olympics and an ill-fitting game about the power of the subconscious mind. He’s the world’s most recognizable gaming mascot for a reason: no matter where Mario goes, he just fits in.

That’s why it made total sense for an Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe to appear dressed as Mario in the unveiling of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. That’s also why it would have been curious to see Abe donning a Sonic fursuit. Sonic has plenty of games, but unfortunately all of them come bundled with a loaded legacy that spans subcultures that exist in contrast to the wholesomely crafted image of Mario.

Thankfully, Sonic is self-aware. In recent years, Sega’s mascot has been at his best when he dives headfirst into the madness. The official Sonic Twitter account pokes fun at the character’s history, like last week when they retweeted a Phantasy Star Online 2 video with the simple caption, “Sonic Man, is that you?” It’s a reference to Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) one of the darkest games in the series — both in tone and fan reception. Sonic Man is a mission giving character who, as his name implies, cosplays as Sonic.

Sonic Man shouldn’t be interpreted any differently than Il Piantissimo from Super Mario Sunshine, a humanoid character who masquerades as Isle Delfino’s inhabitants to unsuspectingly challenge Mario to race. But in reality, Sonic Man, who stands at least a foot taller than most of the game’s furry cast, is a representation of why Sonic falls flat where Mario thrives: suspension of disbelief.

See, I’ve played nearly every game in the Sonic series, dating back to 1991s Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m the proud owner of three Sega Genesises (Genesi?) and two Dreamcasts. And while this might be my first time vocalizing my love for the series, I can wholeheartedly say that, on occasion, Sonic suffers from being put in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sonic ’06 was a bastardization of the idea of a series reboot, placing Sonic in the fictional kingdom of Soleanna and foisting him into a (lightly) romantic relationship with a human. (What was wrong with crafting a story around fellow hedgehog Amy Rose?) Sonic Unleashed inched toward the speed-friendly pace of the original games in a three-dimensional, HD world, but it was plagued by the horrendously out of place “Werehog” sections. It’s unsurprising that Sonic’s best selling game, not including the 1991 original which was a pack-in with the Genesis, is 2007s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Mario can even sell Sonic.

The inconsistencies that plague Sonic games are the opposite of why fans clamor for new Jak and Daxter or Crash Bandicoot or Rayman titles. Unlike Sonic, those games are consistent to a fault (except Rayman 2 and its wonky 3D-ness), garnering support for tried and true gameplay systems like Crash’s brutal difficulty or Rayman’s replayability.

What, then, has helped Sonic stay relevant amid a myriad of missteps (like having to postpone a feature length film because the character’s fanbase hated his movie design)? It’s certainly not the gameplay, which has ranged from electrifying and frenetic to nausea inducing. If anything, it’s the music.

One thing you won’t find on YouTube Music, at least officially, are soundtracks to Super Mario games. Nintendo is particularly stringent around its intellectual property. The Kyoto-based company cracks down on piracy, going as far as destroying entire websites to prevent the sharing of their ROM files.

Sonic Team, however, relishes its communities. In 2017, Sega released Sonic Mania, which was effectively a licensed fan game. Where Mario represents corporate hierarchies and bureaucratic red tape, Sonic is the free-wheeling, fight the power renegade looking to upset the status quo.

Musically, that means Sonic soundtracks don’t mind straying from the ornate orchestrations that drive modern Mario games or the chiptune bleeps and bloops of the 8-bit era. Regardless of how poorly a given Sonic game is received, the general fan response is usually captured by the sentiment, “at least the music’s good.”

Sonic’s musical prowess dates back to his origins on the Sega Genesis. The console relied on a pair of sound chips, Yamaha’s YM2612 and a replica of Texas Instruments SN76489. While the latter was implemented to ensure auditory backwards compatibility with Master System games, the former was a technical marvel.

Unlike the Super Nintendo’s chip, which worked with compressed samples to create its tunes, the YM2612 was essentially a synthesizer, capable of creating unique melodies without a preexisting musical framework. So, while the Genesis struggled to recreate authentic sounding instrumentation, it also had a signature “twang” that powered its soundtracks.

That sound font is ubiquitous with Sonic. Load into Green Hill Zone and it is immediately recognizable — the steady, pounding bass, the flowing keyboard melody, the high-pitched, otherworldly synths. Each component adds up to an iconic song while being entirely incomparable to an actual instrument. Is that supposed to be an electric guitar? Trumpet? The YM2612 broke the video game sound barrier, and allowed Sonic’s soundtracks to mirror his snarky personality.

The freedom to experiment, both with Sonic as a character and with his music, is the lifeblood of future soundtracks.

In 1997, Sonic Team released Sonic R, the Sega Saturn’s only original Sonic game and the series first to feature 3D graphics. (No, Sonic 3D Blast doesn’t count). The cover art, which features a big, red “R” that probably stands for running or revving but definitely not racing, looks like a mockup for a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. In actuality, the game is a Mario Kart style racer, except without the go-karts.

Love it, hate it — I don’t have a deep opinion since I was too busy playing my Playstation in 1997 to have time for the Sega Saturn — the longest lasting gem this game created is its soundtrack. Composed by Richard Jacques, it’s a foray into deep house-slash-neo-soul sung by Teresa Jane Davis. The songs sound nothing like the fast-paced riffs found in the 2D games. They are futuristic. They belong in a movie score. Maybe not an Oscar-nominee, but, like, an animated film like that Sonic OVA from 1999. I can’t think of another mascot platformer from the 90s that utilized songs with lyrics. That’s something not even Mario would do until 2017.

Less than a year later, Sonic Team would embrace the musical wild side again on Sonic Adventure. Seconds after watching the Dreamcast logo spiral around, players are punched in the face by the emphatic guitar work of Crush 40. The intro track, aptly titled “Open Your Heart,” sounds like open heart surgery, except the surgeon has a vengeance against the patient. It’s an unrelenting instrumental driven by Sonic 3 composer Jun Senoue’s handiwork.

Wait, one of the Sonic 3 composers wrote this song? You mean this is one of the guys who worked with Michael Jackson and created the incredibly catchy Ice Cap Zone theme song?

Just as Sonic Team is panned for being over-ambitious from a gameplay standpoint, their willingness to embrace a variety of genres and composers for Sonic OSTs has helped the character stay relevant.

In 2001, Sonic Adventure 2 debuted a series of rap songs for Knuckles the Echidna performed by rapper Hunnid P. The tracks were a exploration into the series’ new found obsession with character tracks. Amy Rose had a bubblegum pop track with nonsensical lyrics like, “I do understand the feelings of a Persian cat, (But the Sphinx looked so cute I had to shave it).” Tails had the punk-rock pump up jam, “Believe in Myself.” (Apparently Tails’ biggest problem was his lack of self-esteem).

But Knuckles’ rap songs pervaded time and space. In the decades since their release, they’ve been called “guilty pleasures” the lyrics about finding pieces of the Master Emerald melding perfectly over boom bap instrumentals. Even the artist responsible finds the tracks inescapable. In 2017, Hunnid P dropped the “K.T.E. Cypher” which pairs an Illmatic-adjacent beat with lyrical praise for the vermilion echidna.

The series and its creators have come to embrace the fandom around Sonic soundtracks. 2017s Sonic Mania was essentially composed by a fan, Tee Lopes, whose hobby of remixing game soundtracks led him to creating the soundtrack for the best reviewed sonic game since Sonic Adventure 2. More recently, the team has uploaded an entire, official DJ mix spanning Sonic’s entire career to YouTube.

There inlies the magic of Sonic’s music. Sonic has always represented some sort of counterculture. While Mario was hoping to get a slice of Princess Peach’s cake, Sonic was dating Madonna. He would tell kids to avoid guns in his cartoons, and then help out trigger-happy Shadow in Shadow the Hedgehog. If there were a guidebook on how a video game mascot is supposed to act, Sonic would write and do the exact opposite.

Sonic’s music, like the hedgehog, keeps us guessing. No matter how many times we see Green Hill Zone or Chemical Plant Zone (too damn many) we eagerly await the scores that accompany them. Sonic soundtracks keep the series afloat. Which is good, because Sonic can’t swim.