Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book Review: Speedrun by Julian Hazeldine

MegaWestgarth Speedrun Sonic Book

Sonic the Hedgehog is a curious creature, known these days for his turbulent history rather than his striking design. Yet despite Sega's decline from hardware giant to mobile app pedlar, its mascot still remains an industry icon. And with the rapidly approaching launch of the blue blur's newest incarnation, Sonic Boom, on the horizon, the release of Speedrun: The Unauthorised History of Sonic the Hedgehog seems expertly timed.

As the book's subtitle implies, Speedrun recounts the creative and business decisions made by Sega that transformed Sonic from a series of anthropomorphic animal sketches in the late 1980's to the sports tape wearing comedian of Sonic Boom. Interestingly, this unauthorised story is told from the perspective of British Sonic fan and MA holder Julian Hazeldine. This gives Speedrun a unique twist over the criminally small amount of videogame industry history books as Hazeldine can freely comment on the oft downplayed period during which the Sonic “brand” differed from region to region, and even from country to country.

Unsurprisingly, Hazeldine's analysis of the aforementioned period makes for Speedrun's most engrossing chapters. No stone is left unturned as numerous European, North American and Japanese exclusive Sonic related media are referenced, and their impact on Sonic's image discussed. Naturally, the large amount of British-born Sonic material is given the spotlight, which Hazeldine covers with great and loving authority. Those with even the vaguest recollections of Sonic the Hedgehog in Robotnik's Laboratory, or non-Brits wondering how and why Fleetway's Sonic the Comic came to be, need look no further than Speedrun's initial chapters.

But as Speedrun moves away from Sonic's Mega Drive successes to Sega's rocky Saturn years, so too does the book fall into a slump. With no insider sources of his own, Hazeldine is dependant on previously published information to help him describe Sega's predicaments with the dying 32X, the cancelled Sonic X-treme, and the company's general difficulty in bringing Sonic, and customers, to the Sega Saturn. The use of publicly available information isn't a problem in and of itself, and chapters covering the Saturn years are as well detailed as every other, but it does highlight one of Speedrun's greatest shortcomings: a lack of citations.

Interviews, sales data and unreleased games are frequently referred to, but in most cases Hazeldine offers no indication as to where such information originated from. This might not be an issue for those willing to accept Hazeldine's authority – a quality that is certainly shown throughout his work – however those wishing to engage in further reading will be left in the dark.

Additionally, the myriad typos, grammatical mistakes, and formatting inconsistencies let down Speedrun's otherwise good quality content. Frustratingly, the majority of mistakes seem to have arisen from a liberal use of a word processor's spellchecker, with entire words being swapped out for similarly looking ones. Other issues include the inconsistent italicisation of videogame titles, and the frequent switching from “videogame” to “video game”. Although you'd be hard pressed to find a book without these kinds of mistakes, they appear in Speedrun far too often.

Sonic's “rebirth” during the rise and fall of the Sega Dreamcast marks a major turning point for the book, as Sonic's image is consolidated into one, and Sega begins looking to other platforms to fill its coffers. Hazeldine does well to maintain a linear retelling of Sonic's history despite the plethora of multiplatform releases following Sonic Adventure 2. As was the case with Hazeldine's treatment of the various Sonic-related media of the 90's, the author considers the importance of almost every Sonic release from Sonic Shuffle, to the original Sonic Jump, and beyond.

This level to detail wavers as Speedrun comes to a close, with recent titles such as Sonic Lost World and Sonic Dash receiving a fraction of the attention given to earlier games. Although the true impact of such games on the future of Sonic and Sega is obviously unknown, a greater amount of speculation from Hazeldine would have given Speedrun a more well rounded ending, rather than petering out as it currently does.

On the whole, Speedrun is a lovingly crafted and informative piece of non-fiction that succeeds in instilling the metamorphic and turbulent nature of Sonic's past upon the reader. It's a relatively short and easy read, clocking in at about 130 pages, however Hazeldine covers all he needs to within that space and covers it well. The book is let down by a high frequency of typos and other technical mistakes, as well as a lack of citations. But those able to look over such flaws will be treated to a mostly objective, yet unique take on Sonic's history – by a fan, for the fans.

A Word on Speedrun's Presentation

While I didn't want to discuss Speedrun's physical presentation in the main body of my review, I felt it may be helpful for me to include a brief addendum for those debating whether or not to go for a digital or physical copy – especially considering the stigma surrounding self published titles.

The physical copy of Speedrun – provided to me for free by the author – is a sturdy, well bound paperback, made up of high-quality, white paper. The book contains no photographs or images of any kind and is, aside from the glossy cover, printed in black and white. The typeset is clean and entirely readable, despite being in the somewhat unconventional “Geo Sans Light” font.

Once again, a copy of Speedrun was provided to me by author Julian Hazeldine for free. Aside from the book itself, I received no other form of compensation for this review.

Speedrun: The Unauthorised History of Sonic the Hedgehog is available for purchase via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Foyles. Julian Hazeldine himself can be found on Twitter @JulianHazeldine.


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