Live and Learn... Hanging On the Edge of Tomorrow
Sonic’s history is a troubled one. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I do need to tell you that’s what this blog is focused on today. At first, the little hedgehog seemed to be destined for success, with a series of consistently successful games that captivated fans all over. But after technology brought him into 3D, things… changed. His games were no longer consistent. Not in quality, not in style, not in… much anything, really. I’m not one to condone experimentation in game design - I usually commend it - but in Sonic’s case, it seems to have led to an identity crisis. It’s hard to say what a typical Sonic game is anymore. Exactly what lead Sonic down such a weird road, and where he’s going? I’d like to explore that by glancing through Sonic’s history since his leap to 3D, the most notable qualities of his games, and their places in the grander scheme of Sonic’s current trajectory.
I loved the blue blur ever since I first donned his shoes in Sonic Adventure DX and Sonic Adventure 2 Battle for the Nintendo Gamecube, which were mostly just Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. The controls, the cheesy presentation, the physics, the soundtrack… it’s all extremely dated and I bet I’d have a much less radical time if I replayed them all today, but the Adventure duology is often regarded as some of Sonic’s best 3D games for a reason. Sonic’s control scheme in Adventure is one of the biggest reasons why I always rave about momentum in platformers. It’s a joy to toy around with his various moves, to experiment with tricks of the environment, to exploit physics to create unexpected but thrilling shortcuts. These games got something right, and did so in a way I’d never want to forget. Fair warning, I have a heavy nostalgia bias in favor of these two games and you can expect me to draw comparisons to them throughout this entire blog.
Once Sonic ditched Dreamcast-era ports for actual new games, Sonic Heroes inched away from prolonged cheesy theatrics in favor of brief cheesy snippets, placing more emphasis on an overarching structure a tiny bit more like the classic games. I’m down with that! Heroes was also defined by teams of 3 characters tagging along and switching between each other. By itself, this gameplay was pretty alright, albeit slipperier than the games before it, but it was marred by repetitive design. The team mechanic was just an experimental gimmick from the start, one that I thought was fun and useful. But given how quickly it wore out its welcome thanks to the forced replaying of every stage four times with little changing other than difficulty, this formula quickly became the first to be abandoned.
The next game stuck a little closer to Sonic’s classic Adventure gameplay… Shadow the Edgehog. Oh dear. On one hand, this game marked the return of a control scheme I was familiar with and loved, with some new moves such as Shadow’s Chaos abilities that made for welcome and enjoyable additions. On the other hand, literally everything else about this game was a horrible idea. The physics were slipperier, the atmosphere was darker, the music was bland, the guns were… guns, the level design was too spacious, the writing was edgier, the mission structure was tedious, and the emo was overwhelming. Shadow the Hedgehog was, quite literally, a black sheep of the franchise.
While Sonic’s TV console lineup grew sketchier, another series of 2D platformers lined up on the Game Boy Advance. I’ve never played the Sonic Advance games myself, mostly due to ignorance from the time they came out, but I hear consistent praise out of them. The fact that Sonic actually got an entire subseries to reach three titles says a lot about SEGA’s trust in their quality and in their game formula. That’s good, I just wasn’t too excited for them myself. I was too busy being a smart kid who mostly used his GBA to play exciting titles such as Shrek 2 and Camp Lazlo and Mario Party Advance… yeahhhhhh...
In 2005, that handheld series spun off further into Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS, and this one I actually did get my hands on! Gameplay-wise Rush was mostly like the Advance games, with a single big addition; the boost mechanic. This rapidly spun off into one of the biggest points of contention in a Sonic game in recent history. On one hand, it’s a huge adrenaline rush, a simple but thrilling joy in any game! On the other hand, it makes it extremely difficult to react to obstacles ahead; not just because of the incredible speed boost, but because it forces your momentum in a single direction, given it’s in a 2D game with a relatively small screen. I enjoyed its inclusion at the time, but it got somewhat tiring after several repeat playthroughs. It didn’t help that in order to accommodate for the difficulty of controlling the boost mechanic, levels in Sonic Rush were relatively simplistic. But regardless of my personal thoughts on the mechanic, Rush was received exceptionally well at the time.
My nostalgia-tinted eyes were still waiting for a real sequel to my favorite Sonic games. After what felt like a century without a Sonic Adventure 3, lo and behold, my wish was finally granted…
By Sonic the Hedgehog 2006.
I’m glad I didn’t own a PS3 at the time that game came out. But we don’t need to have played it to remember the clear message it gave to the Internet; that game and everything attached to it has a stigma. Sonic became the laughing stock of the game industry. Any design choice that so much as resembles this irredeemable game’s framework would be met with skepticism. And much to my chagrin, Sonic 06 really did have the framework of a Sonic Adventure game, and stuck more closely to it than any game since Adventure 2. It was an overly ambitious game that tried to please everyone without knowing how to please anyone.
Sonic’s future became a blue blur. Nobody was sure exactly how the once world-renowned series would continue, if it even could. Sonic Team’s drawing board was going to receive a lot more visits.
Secret Rings and The Black Knight happened. They were built specifically for the Wii’s motion controls, and as such, were spinoffs. They weren’t intended to define what future Sonic games would be like from the start, and their poor reception was more than enough to cement that fact. Moving on!
Sonic also revisited the DS in Sonic Rush Adventure. Despite the name, very little resembling the Adventure games were present; it mostly just provided more of the same 2D-boost formula gameplay, but with a lot of cutscenes, mini-levels, and sea-traversing minigames sprinkled in between. I still enjoyed it, but there’s no denying that most of these additions were side-attraction filler. Rush Adventure’s reception was slightly lower than that of the first Rush, which still put it far better off than Sonic’s recent fiascos. SEGA tasted success again, thanks to Rush Adventure’s core gameplay. They must have known that Rush had something good going for it that the rest of Sonic’s recent games lacked...
In 2008, Sonic Unleashed was unleashed; technically called Sonic World Adventure elsewhere, and this game was much more befitting of the Adventure moniker. It brought back hub worlds, it brought back character upgrades, it brought back multiple gameplay styles (although, the Werehog was… not a great thing, to say the least). Yet oddly, Sonic’s signature moveset from the Adventure games was not intact. Instead of a spin dash, he had a boost. The Rush duology’s core mechanic had crossed into the home console Sonic games. Here, I find the boost formula to be a much more welcome addition! With the ability to see much farther ahead, there’s more room to recognize and react to your surroundings, to control that mechanic and learn to master it. As such, levels are built more around doing as much as possible to maintain your boost in the face of multiple hazards and obstacles.
But, I’ll be honest, even if this game was the Sonic Adventure 3 4 I’ve been waiting for, I didn’t fall in love with it the same way as the Adventure games. The night stages were a big factor, but I wasn’t loving the daytime stages as much as my peers did, either. It was, by far, the best Sonic gameplay we got since then, and I enjoyed playing it a lot. But I can’t help but nitpick how the controls differ, how they feel… stiff, in a way? They were tight and accurate, in that sense they were great. But thanks to the constant boosting, I felt like there was very little, if any room to explore, stop, smell the roses, experiment with the physics, swerve stylishly, or anything else which I loved about the controls in the Adventure games (Disclaimer: this is where that nostalgia bias becomes very relevant). I was also dumbfounded by the emphasis of 2D gameplay sections, since I felt like the boosting and platforming at this game’s core were at their strongest in 3D. Supposedly, this was a move to inspire nostalgia? That didn’t do much for me personally. Regardless of my preferences, the consensus was loud; when excluding the Werehog, Unleashed was Sonic’s rise from his grave. And I was happy with that, since still I enjoyed the Wii version of the game a lot myself.
Soon after, Sonic attempted to get back to the basics with a downloadable title called Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, a direct sequel to the classic trilogy I had barely touched at the time. I never played this game either, so I only have videos and word of mouth to go by here, but the general reception to it was… a big step down from all of Sonic’s other 2D ventures. The controls were stiff, the physics stilted, the level design boring, and the visuals bland. Sonic 4 eventually got its teased second episode, with a drastic visual upgrade, but many of the original’s gameplay complaints remained intact. Despite teasing a third and final episode as well, the prolonged lack of news on such a title suggests that Sonic 4 has been abandoned too.
Thankfully, the blue blur struck back with Sonic Colors. Aside from having a solid presentation and a more acceptable control scheme than Sonic’s previous Wii ventures, the gameplay was more or less built to be like Unleashed’s daytime stages. But a gimmick was thrown in; the colorful Wisps, tiny companions that imbued Sonic with a wide array of superpowers. These were received extraordinarily well. Wisps varied up the gameplay and level design a lot, while also being built around levels that usually made them only optional; a solid compromise between the gimmick and the core gameplay. It gave the game a unique identity while mixing up the boost formula gameplay in a satisfying way.
For his 20th Anniversary, Sonic kept up his momentum with Sonic Generations. This game was built from the ground up to be a nostalgiafest, melding together Sonic’s past with his most recent experiences, and that is one of the game’s greatest strengths. The boost formula was further fine-tuned, and I found the level design to be much more explorative and varied than any boosting 3D Sonic game before it! Classic Sonic was also a welcome addition, bringing traditional Sonic gameplay far more finely crafted than Sonic 4’s; a perfect selling point for a game built to celebrate a milestone anniversary. It might technically be a rehash of old material, but every bit of that material has been polished and iterated upon to fit modern standards. It is, undoubtedly, the best 3D Sonic game released since the Adventure games. That bar might not be especially high, but it’s an important one for the hedgehog’s future nonetheless. The one design choice I had to question; if Classic Sonic was entirely 2D, why did Modern Sonic need 2D sections too?
After a brief hiatus from new platformers, Sonic jumped onto the Wii U with Sonic Lost World. For the first time in half a decade, Sonic put on a new gameplay formula’s shoes; something slightly less fast, without boosting, and emphasis on running across environmental features. Yet again, I’ve not played this game myself, but I tried out the demo. My impressions? The controls are fine, but are somehow more complex and less nuanced than Sonic Adventure’s control scheme. There’s a lot of buttons to do slightly different things, such as running faster, many different homing attacks, and the return of the spindash, but it doesn’t feel like most of them are necessary or engaging additions. The physics still don’t feel as involved as they do in Sonic’s earlier games. The parkour felt like it could possibly be fun, except it only really had any use in scripted moments. The Wisps from Sonic Colors came back despite the ending of Colors, oddly enough, but they all required motion controls and became mandatory in many areas. On the Wii U gamepad. That made them go from fun to kinda obnoxious (though patches eventually gave them standard control schemes months later).
But the biggest reason I chose not to buy the full game is because the level design was so linear and uninspired. It’s just a bunch of shapes floating out in the middle of space; little to no remarkable scenery, no memorable set pieces, few engaging thrills or tricks to maneuver around with. There are still things to enjoy about Lost World’s Super Mario Galaxy-esque level design, and if that’s up your alley, awesome! I enjoyed Super Mario Galaxy, maybe one day I’ll play and enjoy the full Lost World myself! But Galaxy was one of my least favorite 3D Mario games for similar reasons, and in Sonic’s case specifically, it didn’t mesh well with his moveset in the eyes of many players and critics.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric happened. It was developed by a third party as a tie-in to a spinoff cartoon from a different continuity. Aside from the fact that its quality didn’t do Sonic’s reputation any favors, I’m not saying anything else about it. Those details alone indicate how unimportant Rise of Lyric is to his future games. The same goes for the handheld Boom games.
Even so, fans begun to fear that Sonic was entering another dark age. Thankfully, just a little while ago, Christian Whitehead--developer of widely acclaimed Sonic mobile ports--graced us with Sonic Mania. I still haven’t set aside the time and money to play Mania yet, so I’ve been avoiding information about it beyond the early trailers like the spoiler plague. But I can reiterate what what everyone else has said about it already; it’s an excellent Sonic game in the style of the classic games, in every sense of that definition. It sounds great, it looks great, and it controls great. It’s what Sonic 4 should have been. It’s possibly the best Sonic game ever made. It was developed by a third party who specializes in Genesis-era Sonic games. And that gives me pause for the blue hedgehog.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for Whitehead’s team’s success! It gives me warm and fuzzy feelings to see an indie developer’s work be so much more acclaimed than the main developer’s work, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Whitehead’s future for more projects of similarly awesome calibur. This game has done a lot of good for Sonic, and I hope the best for Whitehead’s continued success! But putting these facts into perspective makes me worry about Sonic’s history and future. To think that Sonic has been gradually building a foundation less acclaimed than his distant past’s. To think that Sonic Team doesn’t know how to handle their own IP as well as a passionate and skilled fan’s studio. It gives me more suspicion towards Sonic Team’s capabilites. If we’re lucky, Whitehead may continue to work with SEGA to produce more Sonic games… or perhaps he’ll head off towards greener pastures. Who can say?
Which brings us to Sonic’s newest game. On the same day of Mania’s announcement, we got a teaser trailer of Sonic’s next modern adventure. Featuring a ruined city, dramatic music, the blue blur himself, and… the blue blur himself? Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic are teaming up again? What is this, Sonic Generations 2? Everyone called the game Generations 2 for the longest time. It was only months later that we learned the game’s name had nothing to do with Generations. Sonic Forces. Also, the Wisps came back yet again, because… they can, even though they struck so hard last time. Forces is only releasing next week, but I have to say, I have mixed feelings from its early impressions. Most of which aren’t so solid.
The premise’s stakes are high, but the tone isn’t grimdark like Shadow; Sonic and company are still hopeful and rated E. It’s closer to the tone of the Adventure games. The story gives me so many fanfiction vibes I have to suspect the creators are aware of it, but we’ve yet to see them demonstrate that self-awareness or not. Creating a custom character looks fun! The gameplay, for the most part, is more of what Generations did, which is good. But the level design from what we’ve seen doesn’t do a lot to pique my interest. The few new additions to the gameplay in Custom the Character look either very scripted or as if they stiffen the fast-paced platforming. Most importantly to me, the additions of Wisps and especially Classic Sonic don’t appear cohesive to me. Seriously, Classic Sonic in Generations was great, but Generations was also built from the ground up to be a nostalgiafest; why does Classic Sonic need to return as a protagonist alongside his Modern self for something that isn’t Generations 2? My first impulse is that Sonic Team may be attempting to make lightning strike twice by shoehorning in a bunch of elements from their most successful recent games, without thinking enough about why they were successful in the first place. It’s only my gut feeling - I could be, and I hope to be proven wrong come this game’s release - but I still don’t see what strong reason there is to buy this game instead of replay Generations aside from possibly Custom the Character.
Now that we’ve caught up with Sonic in the present day, let’s backtrack to my original questions. Exactly what lead Sonic down his current path, and where is he going?
I said before that the current Sonic games aren’t like the Adventure games, but after reflecting like this, I realize that’s not technically true; Modern Sonic has constantly used the Adventure games as a basic foundation, and iterated repeatedly upon that. Even the most radical and experimental 3D Sonic games have a control scheme that vaguely resembles Sonic in Adventure, excluding blatant spinoffs. After all, the Adventure games were well received when they first launched! He tried to get creative in ways similar to Mario and his many different platforming gimmicks over the years, but Sonic's attempts were marred by many miscellaneous reasons, usually related to bad overarching design choices. Where the foundation gets harder to see is from Sonic Unleashed onwards; thanks to Sonic Rush’s success, which is in part thanks to the Sonic Advance series, I assume Sonic Team figured that Rush’s boost mechanic would be a solid idea to focus on in future games. While Sonic’s core moveset hasn’t changed that much from Adventure to Unleashed barring the exchange of a spindash for a boost, that change introduces a new dynamic that alters everything about how you control and play the game.
What was once a series of obstacles full of nooks and crannies to explore or trick off of became a series of rapidly approaching obstacles you react against with twitch reflexes. Maintaining speed became less about maneuvering around the environment and using physics to your advantage and more about keeping that boost meter full of apple juice and pressing a single button at the right time to evade damage. Both are valid ways to enjoy a game, but they appeal to very different tastes, and in my (nostalgia-tinted) opinion, there’s much more design opportunity for nuance and varying gameplay in the former than the latter. Modern Sonic is settling into the boosting formula because those games have consistently performed well, but the boosting formula also lacks staying power relative to other game mechanics.
This Polygon interview says a lot about SEGA’s current goals and plans for the blue blur. Development head Iizuka believes that creating a Sonic Adventure 3 would be a step back from Sonic’s “advancement”, at least at this point of time. Barring the notion that they already made Sonic Adventure 3 in everything but name, when you looking at the pattern of the series’s reception, he has a certain point; after the original Adventure duology, the boosting games have been received far better than any game that attempted to more closely resemble Adventure. Sonic’s reputation has suffered a lot in the past couple decades. According to sales and critics, it seems as if sticking towards the boost gameplay would be the key to restoring Sonic to glory. But given that my biggest take-away from Sonic Forces thus far is “it’s too similar to past games for the wrong reasons”, I’m worried he’s not advancing the series the way he thinks he is. As long as that doesn’t change, Sonic’s most likely sticking with the boost formula in his future. Maybe Forces will be what changes that. Maybe not. Whatever the case, Sonic needs a significant change somewhere, and soon, if he wants to restore faith in his franchise as a whole. Assuming the fanbase ever would regain faith in it, because... let's be real, it's the Sonic fanbase. Everything and nothing is sacred to them, simultaneously. But I'm getting off topic.
Sonic isn’t dying anytime soon, if ever. He’s too mainstream and popular to stop selling, so much so that even legions of critics against him will purchase his games. That’s why I keep my fingers crossed for Sonic’s games to get back on track for consistently high quality; if people are supporting these games, I hope it's for the right reasons. Generations and Mania happened, that’s plenty of proof that this franchise can and should get onto that track. My nostalgia lens for Sonic Adventure have gotten cloudy lately, so I hope to be proven wrong about my expectations for the franchise’s current direction. If not by Sonic Forces, by whatever game gets announced next year. I hope.