Ooooh sit right back and I’ll tell a tale
A tale of a sinking ship
What started in a cartridge port
In the days of 16 bit
Sonic the Hedgehog was a god damn revolution in gaming. It was a whole new kind of platformer designed to replace the prior mascot Alex Kidd. A game where instead of collecting powerups and jumping on heads and/or swinging swords, you charged ahead at full speed, plenty deadly from the start, rolling around and impaling anything in the way like a self-propelled pinball. Instead of mushrooms, you grabbed rings, which gave both gave and saved lives. Get hit? Grab your rings, and charge forward again. Once in a while smash a monitor which lets you go even faster, saving time on the limited clock(though rarely did one hit the dreaded 10 minutes), granted a shield to prevent ring loss on the next hit, or sometimes full on invincibility(unless you get crushed, too bad then). The formula was amazingly simple, and very effective, especially considering the platforming conventions of the time, and the first time a player ran a loop, that was an instant love for a new mascot.Sonic himself has evolved over the years, as have the games. Later 16-bit era games would find new mechanics like fire and electric shields, snowboarding segments, new characters, and for the top Sonic players, Super Sonic. The essence, though, aside from a few spin-offs of varying success, remained the same. Speed. Run fast, avoid crushing, spikes, lava, and other general bad things, then at the end of a zone, kick Robotnik’s ass.
So what happened? Where did it all go so wrong, leading us to the abortion of a game called Sonic the Hedgehog, played on Xbox 360 or PS3? The seeds were sewn in Sonic 3d Blast. The focus on speed and whoosh and rolling changed, it become homing attacks and jumping, and speed got you killed. The next big jump which brought the opportunity for ruin was Sonic Adventure.
This isn’t to say Sonic Adventure was bad. Hell, I bought it on Dreamcast and Gamecube. It was a lot of fun, the Sonic levels particularly were excellent, what with their high speed whooshing about, the boss fights which were creative but classic Sonic anyway, and some fun, easy enemies, along with lots of platformy bouncing around on springs. But it introduced new characters to be playable beyond those that played like Tails or Knuckles. Characters who really weren’t platform action types. Amy, E-102 Gamma, and Big the Cat, while fun in their own way, weren’t Sonic characters with gameplay. But, unless you’re the obsessive type, you didn’t have to play them. Ever. You could just go about as Sonic and finish the game’s main story, all is well, there was plenty of it. Beyond that, you had some exploration, tearing about the city/countryside at a high speed. It all looked great, and was fun. Even when you weren’t in a stage, you had room to explore and things to do. And you could even still die if you ran off the wrong edge.
The real problem began in Sonic Adventure 2. Suddenly, you MUST play as other characters. Sonic style levels had gotten worse, and while there was some decent ones in terms of speed, the magic wasn’t there. The Knuckles type levels, similar to the ones in Sonic Adventure, were more prominent. But they were smaller and certainly not as enjoyable by any means. And to cap it off, the new Tails levels, which were poor shooters in essence. The world itself still felt like a Sonic game’s setting, but the fun was diminished too often. It wasn’t a bad game yet, but it wasn’t the fun Sonic Adventure was. There was, in fact, no adventure. There was a very linear story, played a level at a time, without a break to explore the world.
And then came Sonic Heroes, an objectively bad game, even to a huge Sonic fan like myself, which I had to force myself to finish. In an attempt to get away from the problems of Sonic Adventure 2, every level was a Sonic level. But wait, suddenly they’re also Tails and Knuckles levels, everyone is involved at once! The idea was something akin to the old Chaotix game it seems. A team of Sonic characters runs through at high speed, working together. But it didn’t work at all. The game wanted you to change characters on the fly, but it didn’t work out that way. Uninspired levels, an unabashedly awful camera, and no real sense of why it’s a Sonic game instead of any other platformer. A few Sonic ideas showed up, but it never clicked. Too much bad control in a game that requires precise control resulted in a failure.
And finally, we come to the new Sonic the Hedgehog. I saw this one myself at E3 2006, and I was worried then, particularly when I couldn’t get a good answer to “How do I know this won’t suck like Sonic Heroes?” The best I heard was “Well, the camera system is much better now.” While a big chunk of the game went back to being Sonic, the inclusion of Shadow was a bad sign, as was the new character Silver.
Sonic the Hedgehog seemed to entirely scrap the previous ideas of character design. While Sonic himself has always been getting sleeker and spikier, the world around him hadn’t. Mobius itself had stayed reasonably cartoonish, but not anymore. Now, humans were too human. Even Robotnik was realistic now, and it didn’t work. Sonic himself looked wrong, he stood out like a hard penis in a lesbian bukkake video. He didn’t belong in the world he was in anymore.The control was a mess, unresponsive at best, and at times, when you’re supposed to let go of it and let springs and launchers take over, got you killed. As Sonic, there are a ton of surprise deaths that just can’t be predicted, and get very frustrating. And then, you’re suddenly not Sonic. You’re Tails, who throws fake rings in fake monitors now. Or Knuckles, who doesn’t even handle the same as he normally has.
Not only that, but the failure of control extends to the adventure sections. Sonic is left to wander aimlessly about a large-ish city with no landmarks whatsoever, bumping into any small object and stopping on it. Talk to someone with a side mission, say yes, load screen. This, of course, doesn’t actually load the mission in the city. It loads the dialog, after about 45 seconds. Press the button to advance a few times, and oh, loading again. Yes, you just loaded 45 seconds for a 10 second bit of dialog, then have to load again for the actual event. The city itself, even beyond that, is a miserable mess of design failures, with fun features like shadows that are only visible within 10 feet of an object, and not in their entirety then. Shadows reach out and retreat before your eyes, visibly disconnecting from the object they’re coming from.In this new game, death doesn’t come from screwing up. Death comes from not being overtly psychic. If you didn’t know already that not jumping at the end of a hill, for example, lands you in instant death spikes, well that’s too bad, and you’ll see a lot more of that soon. Of course, jump at the next hill, and you’ll overshoot and land in yet more death spikes. Good luck guessing what’s what. It honestly feels like the game was designed by matching levels to some random button inputs pressed by a designer, not around what would be fun.
If, somehow, players survive this, they get to play a section where Sonic just runs forward. Really, really fast. It’s almost like driving a bus. Sideways. Turning barely happens at all, and running into a wall means lost rings. Running into ANYTHING means lost rings, even if during any other part of the game you’d just stop. It all adds up to an absolute mess of a game with nothing to keep players interested.
Everything that made the original Sonic great seems to be gone. Responsive control, fast pace, and a focus on the rush made the games what they are. From the very first game, player inputs were met with immediate response, precisely, up until Sonic 3d Blast. Sonic Adventure, despite the 3d jump, kept the responsiveness for the most part, excepting for a few small moments where your best option was to let go. It was still about players being in control. Even Sonic Adventure 2, as rough a game as it was becoming, kept this. Sonic Heroes and Sonic The Hedgehog lost this entirely, and while dying was always likely in Sonic because you had to react so fast, you didn’t have to be a fucking psychic to play the game. It has, truly, become easier to stare into a crystal ball and look for directions like you’re playing DDR with your thumbs.
At this point, I’ve no hope for the next game on console. As a handheld game, Sonic has kept to his roots. Sonic Rush was great, and Sonic Rush Adventure, pretty damn good. But the consoles have pushed too far toward innovation, hit diminishing returns, and dropped right off the feature creep cliff.
If the series doesn’t return to its roots, it might be over. New fans aren’t being gathered by the way the game has gone, and old fans are dropping like flies. The next Sonic game needs to be all about running forward, fast. Collect some powerups, run faster. Forget about fighting enemies as a requirement as the new games have done, they were only there as hazards originally. Mobile hazards, just like moving spikes or fireballs, except you could kill them. Stop with the sections where players lose control, focus first and foremost on crisp response. And stop with the sharp turns or times the camera loses view. Sonic is all about top speed, and hard turns don’t do that. Big, sweeping turns are where that is, for the sharp ones, put players on a rail. It’s fine for visual effect, but not controlling as the camera never keeps up.
Take away all the new special things. Ring dash? Drop it. Homing attacks are okay, but shouldn’t be needed too often. And it’s very important to have a button to roll since pressing down doesn’t do it anymore in the 3d world.
If anything is to be added, put in some runs presented from a side view, pieces on long, narrow ledges. Disable up and down(except for rolling, of course). Put some old school Sonic design in the new games, use these pieces for the sections that are more about jumps and timing than speed.
Bring back the sense of excitement, and the cartoon feel. Realism and blue hedgehogs don’t miss.
I hope you’re paying attention here Sega. Because we really want a new Sonic game to blow our minds, and it shouldn’t be so hard. It’s a simple design, and the portable team has done a good job, perhaps due to inherent limitations of the platform. So why is the most exciting game with Sonic in it Nintendo’s next Smash Brothers game?