Sonic Forces was officially announced last week and it looks like it’s going to take a handful of cues from Sonic Generations, arguably the last half decent Sonic title. Combine that with Sonic Mania, also on the way this year, and you have just about every conceivably important angle covered for Sega’s at times vulnerable mascot. Vulnerable to bad game design, to clarify.
Sega have tried on more than one occasion to take Sonic in different directions, leading him into RPG’s, top-down puzzle games, slower platforming or combat types … and very few have hit a high note. It begs the question, is Sonic adaptable? Or does he need to be?
To answer that, let’s look at his greatest rival; Mario. Nintendo has had a solid run with the plumber over the years, expanding him out into various genres and mixing things up within his standard getup too. Of course, Mario is far more about precision and timing than it his going fast, but it’s quite clear that (with the right ideas in mind and a solid development studio behind it) Mario can adapt to many different situations. So why not Sonic?
Do you want the easy answer or the hard one? Let’s start easy. Sega doesn’t know what to do with him, or at least, they didn’t know for a long time. There’s been a number of instances where Sega have attempted to reboot or relaunch the character, the most obvious failures of which came with the 2006 Xbox 360/PS3 Sonic and, of course, the most recent Sonic Boom series. On both occasions, the character was taken in an altogether different direction that seemingly had the best of intentions but largely fell flat.
In-between that, Sega have done their best to try to diversify the character to mixed results. Werewolves, swords, pinball, kart racing … it’s not too far from the plumber spectrum when you think about it. Mario has been a painter, a kong wrangler, a tennis player, a golf ace, a doctor … yeah, not sure how he pulled that one off. Here’s the thing, though. In every occasion that has Mario in a different guise, trying something altogether beyond his roots of jumping things and saving the world, it … largely works. The ideas are fleshed out enough that it’s more than just who he is from face value, but how well the world around him looks and feels.
Which leads me to the second answer (or, at least, a possibility); Sega’s quality has let the Hedgehog down, not the character himself. It’s not altogether easy to understand where a studio goes wrong or why an idea falls flat. Low budgets, not enough time or quality assurance, maybe an outside influence that comes in but doesn’t gel (anyone remember the Bioware Sonic RPG?). Sonic Team has spent the most time within this world, and for every hit they may have there’s at least two or three failures to go along with it.
The story behind Sonic 2006 reads as closest to development hell as you can get. Studio head and series creator Yuji Naka left a year after announcing the game, the studio was split in two once the Wii came into being (and the discovery that Nintendo’s console wouldn’t be powerful enough to run it, leading to half the team splitting off to create Sonic and the Secret Rings), a rushed development time to meet the PS3 launch window … the results left the character broken, buggy and far from his overall potential.
Since then, Sonic has been wavering between decent and unwarranted sequels and spin-offs. Both Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations came mighty close to delivering an above-par experience, but the reality of the situation comes down to time and effort. So many Sonic games have been rushed, ideas not fully fleshed out or new ideas thrown in that just weren’t warranted (*cough* Werehog *cough*). Where as Mario can run around with a water pack or ride a dinosaur and it somehow sticks the landing, Sonic just can’t catch a break when it comes to broadening the concept.
The reality of the character is thus: Speed + Speed = Entertainment. That’s especially true if the levels are designed to match that potential. There’s nothing more enjoyable than timing that jump just right, skimming past a bad guy or flying through a loop past a dangerous drop. Both the original adventure and Sonic 2 are considered the pinnacle of the franchise in that regard (with Sonic CD not far behind), both emphasising the fast tempo without compromising on well put together levels. I know many people who prefer to have a Sonic game stick with its 2D roots, though many (including my partner) prefer the even faster 3D levels of Sonic Generations too. Modern Sonic has his issues, but there have been moments (yes, even in Sonic Unleashed) where the best levels bring out some smiles.
I’ve always wondered; if Nintendo were to design a Sonic game, what would they do? The Big N have that knack of taking existing concepts and twisting them just enough to make a new game fresh and appealing again. On that note, just look at the results of tinkering with the Zelda franchise in Breath of the Wild to see how good they are at evolving a product when the time is right. Perhaps that’s something Sega could look up to; here’s a 30+ year old franchise that has evolved to new heights when it seemed like it couldn’t go any further, reinventing things we didn’t think we’d ever see in a Zelda game and somehow making them work.
Sonic has had a mixed history, there’s no doubt about that. Every time there’s promise around the corner, the dream has been quickly shattered. I’m quietly confident that at least one of this year’s releases will hit a high mark, but that’s tempting fate. Mania goes back to the good old days, with two indie studios heading up development but in a way that respects what came before instead of mixing up the formula too much. Forces looks like it will take the best out of Generations and run with it, though I worry that this ‘third perspective’ (the first two being classic and modern Sonic levels) Sega has been talking about will bring in a concept that sucks the fun out of the experience again … I do hope I’m wrong about that.
That’s the ultimate problem with Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s never really followed through on the direction he wants to go, leaving him at times stranded in the poorest regions of video game history. Speed can only do so much if it’s a selling point, yet speed is exactly what the blue blur does best … it’s almost as if Sega backed themselves too much with that initial concept and have been struggling with it ever since. Perhaps out of irony, Sega needs to slow down in order for Sonic to speed up, whilst following in Nintendo’s ‘it’s ready when it’s ready’ footsteps.