This past weekend I attended the Summer of Sonic 2016 convention at the ILEC Conference Centre in London, a day of celebrating all things Sonic the Hedgehog – organised by the fans, for the fans. This was actually my sixth time attending the convention over the years (out of a possible seven!), and though I missed out on the very first event in 2008, I’ve seen it grow from small and humble beginnings to becoming one of the community’s most prolific achievements. With Summer of Sonic’s “one more run” now over and fond memories left in the minds of many, I’d like to take a look back – not just to this year, but to all the years – to remember the good times that have always made it such an enjoyable fixture in the Sonic calendar.
Unlike many conventions, Summer of Sonic has dared to be different in each of its iterations – though the basic foundations and structure of the event have remained the same, the venue has changed every single year, and even the location itself moved in 2012 from London to Brighton to make way for the Olympic Games. While some might argue that the event could have done with a bit more stability, it needs to also be considered how much Summer of Sonic has grown over time, and how it’s subsequently been forced to adapt due to increasing demand. The 2009 event that I first went to only held about 500 people and was still seen as a relatively small unofficial gathering… but by 2016, the attendance had practically doubled and was essentially being billed as the UK’s answer to SEGA’s official Sonic birthday party. Need I say more?
The unpredictability (if you want to call it such a thing) of Summer of Sonic has helped to keep things fresh and every outing has felt uniquely distinctive from the last, but there were still some elements you could absolutely depend upon no matter what the year. In no particular order, here are the reasons I just couldn’t resist coming back again, and again, and again…
The New Games
Of course, what would a Sonic convention be without the opportunity to actually play some Sonic games? There’s always been a selection of older titles on display, whether it be the original classics or more recent 3D outings, but one of the real draws of Summer of Sonic has been the exciting chance to get a first-hand look at some brand new upcoming games. Across the six events I’ve attended, I’ve been able to play demo builds of (*deep breath*) Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, Sonic 4: Episode I, Sonic Generations, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic Lost World, and most recently Sonic Mania (check out my preview here!) – something I would otherwise never have been able to do, except if I’d have forked out to visit a larger gaming expo like E3. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as there’s also been demo booths for the likes of Sonic Colours, Sonic Free Riders, and Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice which I simply couldn’t try out due to time constraints.
Even in cases where the finished products haven’t lived up to initial expectations, it’s always been a thrill getting to try them out in advance. Some have even left me with some interesting stories to tell – at one point I feared I was cursed because every Summer of Sonic demo I seemed to play found a way to glitch out on me! Whether it was literally falling through the floor at the start of a race in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (prompting the developer to cover up the screen and say: “you didn’t see that!”) or the level itself failing to load properly in Sonic Generations’ Green Hill Zone, there’s never been a dull moment. Thankfully, it seems that curse has lifted in recent years… but it certainly caused some hilarity in the past!
The Special Guests
Summer of Sonic hasn’t just been about getting to spend the day in the company of like-minded fans, oh no – it’s also been a rare opportunity to meet some of the biggest names in the Sonic business! Each event has had a different line-up of special guests in attendance, and rather unsurprisingly, the queues to get an autograph or photo with them have always been daunting affairs. Nevertheless, it’s a chance that doesn’t roll around very often, and even though you’re inevitably going to ache from standing around in line for ages, you’re left with a lasting memory to forever cherish in your collection.
Thanks to the opportunities provided by Summer of Sonic, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Crush 40 members Johnny Gioeli and Jun Senoue (who signed my copy of Face To Faith: Sonic and the Black Knight Vocal Trax), Sonic the Comic artists Nigel Kitching and Nigel Dobbyn (who signed a couple of my old STC issues – including one that I had a letter printed in!), and head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka (who signed my copy of my favourite modern Sonic game, Sonic Colours). At this year’s event, I got the chance to meet Iizuka-san for a second time alongside “father of Sonic” Yuji Naka, who both signed my copy of 20th anniversary title Sonic Generations. Mike Pollock, the current voice of Dr. Eggman, was also at the 2016 convention but time constraints meant I had to forgo his signing session – however, I’d previously bumped into him completely by chance five years earlier at Summer of Sonic 2011, so I’ve at least got some photographic evidence of meeting a member of the voice cast!
Other special guests across the years have included Bentley Jones, Sumo Digital, and various other talented folk from Sonic the Comic and Archie Comics. Even excluding the signing opportunities, their Q&A sessions have always been fun and informative, and frankly it’s just nice to be able to mingle with the people behind this iconic game franchise.
There’s a popular saying that, even when Sonic games are bad, their soundtracks still manage to be pretty good. Music, therefore, is one of the key ingredients in any Sonic success story – and Summer of Sonic has delivered it in spades.
There’s such a wealth of great material to work with, from the 16-bit melodies of the Mega Drive trilogy to the hard rocking OSTs for the 3D generation. Throughout the day, Sonic music plays in the background and at times even takes the spotlight, such as when Jun Senoue takes to the stage for one of his trademark “Jam with Jun” sessions in the early afternoon – there’s nothing more endearing than everyone singing along to Escape From The City. Even better is when he’s joined by his musical partner Johnny Gioeli for a rousing performance of Crush 40 classics, which honestly feels like being at a rock concert where everyone in the audience knows all the lyrics. I’ve proudly fist pumped along to the likes of Live and Learn, and sometimes all but lost my voice in the process – but it’s been worth it!
Music has played an even bigger part in more recent Summer of Sonic events in the form of Club Sonic, notably in 2012 and 2016. Serving as a warm up to the grand finale that is Crush 40, these hour-long sets make you feel like you’re in a night club bouncing around to remixes of catchy Sonic tunes, and it’s been one of my favourite new additions to the usual line-up of SoS stalwarts. If you’re feeling a bit tired and worn out from all the earlier excitement, you can count on the end of the day to perk you right back up again.
My only regret is that I missed out on Richard Jacques and TJ Davies performing the Sonic R soundtrack at Summer of Sonic 2008. Now that would have been a show to remember!
In the grand scheme, however, the games and the special guests are just the icing on the cake to what really makes Summer of Sonic such a special event – its community spirit. You can really feel the love and care that’s been poured into every single event, and it’s something that simply wouldn’t be possible were it not for the passion and devotion of the fans. I’ve been to other conventions, like the MCM Expo, which – while still perfectly enjoyable in their own right – lack the same heart and focus that Summer of Sonic has. Sure, they’re bigger, but that doesn’t always mean better, and it’s this intimate connection between the organisers and the attendees that makes everything click firmly into place. I tip my hat to everyone who’s worked tirelessly behind the scenes on any of the events over the years, chief among them my fellow Sonic Stadium staff members Svend “Dreadknux” Joscelyne and Adam “T-Bird” Tuff – you’ve done a fantastic job time and time again.
What’s more, Summer of Sonic has served as a great opportunity for me to hang out with others and maybe even meet a new face or two in the process. It’s nice to be gifted a chance like this to see old friends and really embrace the nostalgic novelty of the occasion, something that seems to become increasingly more difficult to do as people’s lives move on over time. It’s even been an unexpected source of common ground between myself and my girlfriend – believe it or not, we both separately attended the 2011 event before we had ever properly met, and ended up unintentionally appearing in some of each other’s photos from the day! I’m happy to say we’ve attended every subsequent Summer of Sonic together since.
So, six events and seven years on from my first visit, I just want to conclude this retrospective by saying: thank you Summer of Sonic, for the many years of happy memories that I, and hundreds of others, will never ever forget. As the blue blur himself would say: you’re way past cool!