Ever since I got my hands on Sonic Unleashed at the Tokyo Game Show, I've been Sonic daft. The game looks promising as anything, but even if this is a step in the right direction and Unleashed turns out to be good, it will still be a long road to recovery for Sega's famous mascot.
It seems that Sonic Team misses far more than it hits, and while repeated attempts to revitalize the ailing hedgehog have brought with them plenty of potential and hope, each game has fallen flat on its face, or at the very least, done very little to untarnish the troubled mascot's increasingly damaged reputation.
Let's face it -- Sonic has been over the green hill for a very long time. As someone who adored the speedy woodland creature as a child, it's horrible to have to say that, but it's true. He was introduced as the cool alternative to a "boring" Mario, but looking at the two characters today, it's easy to see which is going strong and which has aged very, very badly. It's a bitter irony, but that attitude-drenched hedgehog of yore has been a desperate, increasingly irrelevant relic for a long time.
He needs to be saved, and maybe Sonic Unleashed will throw him a lifeline. If Sonic wants to permantantly check out of rehab, however, he needs to get his arse in gear and do it right for a change, and I want to help. While some of these points may be fairly obvious, there are a few left-field suggestions in this humble list. Either way, Sonic Team should pay attention. Hit the jump for a list of ways in which Sega could, and should, save Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic Rush was Sonic Team's first attempt to bring the titular hedgehog to the Nintendo DS, and it was a quasi-success at best. While a decent game, it was by no means stellar. However, it did succeed in one area -- it spotlit Sonic's problems perfectly, when compared to another nostalgic DS platformer, New Super Mario Bros.
While Sonic Rush was an average gameplay experience, New Super Mario Bros. was an utter joy from start to finish, and I'll tell you why -- simplicity. New Super Mario Bros. was far from innovative, and never strayed far from the tried and tested mechanics of old Mario platformers, and this is why it worked. Rather than make everything needlessly busy and flashy, the game did what it knew how to do, and did it well.
With its pseudo-3D bosses and pointless tension meter nonsense, Sonic Rush had too much crap going on. Rather than stick to the Sonic Advance route of simplistic, traditional platforming, Rush was trying too hard to be impressive and as such, wasn't impressive at all.
The original Sonic platformers were simple and fun. Somewhere, that very easy concept has been forgotten. Don't even get me started on the 3D console games that are as badly made as they are confusing, which brings me onto my next point ...
2. Sonic works best in 2D:
It's a home truth that everybody knows, but one that Sega seems keen to ignore as much as possible. With Unleashed, it has to be said that Sonic Team is at least compromising and blending 3D gameplay with constantly shifting 2.5D perspectives. It actually works quite well, but most Sonic fans would likely prefer some good old fashioned 2D platforming.
Mega Man 9 has proven that retrocentric videogames are working thanks to digital distribution and a rabid fanbase of nostalgic gamers. A 16-bit Sonic sequel released online would surely do well enough to at least justify its own production, but then a 2.5D game making full use of high-definition graphics and old-school gameplay has potential to be amazing as well.
Either way, each console has its own online distribution platform that a 2D Sonic would be well served on. It's something that Sega should be thinking very seriously about.
3. Stop thinking Sonic's games are about speed:
This is a point that some would believe is erroneous at first, but let me explain. Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Megadrive was not about speed -- period. Yes, speed was a large element of the gameplay, but it was never the sole focus as modern games would have you believe -- in fact, it was barely crucial to the gameplay at all.
The original Sonic games succeeded because of clever level design and a smart use of physics, not simply because Sonic went really fast. Speed was the pudding, not the main course -- every now and then you'd get a series of loops and paths that allowed you to buzz through a level with wanton abandon -- but there always came a series of well-timed jumps or springs to navigate before and after. The fast parts were treats, ones you earned through some solid platforming action.
Modern 2D and 3D Sonic titles have forgotten this, and seem to believe that speed is all Sonic can offer. While the first Sonic Advance was able to re-introduce deft level design, its sequels failed hard and degenerated into little more than "press the move button to win." Even springs became automatically triggered so as not to make Sonic slow down, and the result was a very boring set of games in which you merely hold down a single button and jump occasionally before succumbing to a cheaply placed pitfall now and then which attempt to create the illusion of challenge.
This is another reason why the 3D games have failed so hard. The developers bust their nuts for a sense of speed so much that they forget to craft a decent level, and as such, just throw a really hard-to-control hedgehog into a world of rubbish and hope for the best. Maybe just ... forget the speed for once. Simply make a really good platformer first and think about making him run fast second.
4. Can the anime crap:
Sonic is not fucking Gundam Wing, so let's stop pretending he is, okay? Japan truly reclaimed its hedgehog somewhere at the turn of the century, and the series has suffered as a result. Sonic games don't need shoddy attempts at crafting a "dramatic" storyline to work, and they definitely don't need a bunch of big-eyed human characters who belong in that Naruto bullshit. Whoever Sega hires to write the stinking pap that passes for a Sonic storyline, let me just give this one bit of advice:
JUST STOP IT OKAY!?
Give me a hedgehog. Give me Robotnik. Give me a level full of squirrel-filled robots in between the two. That's all we need. If you absolutely must have a storyline, keep it light and, most of all, keep it in the damn manual. The day a Sonic game deserves cutscenes as story-laden as Metal Gear Solid is the day that McDonald's Happy Meals deserve to be cooked by Gordon fucking Ramsay.
It's not like Sega can even keep the stories straight anymore. So many characters have been introduced, and so many alternate realities and pasts and futures have collided, that you can't keep track of what the Hell is going on. They have this guy called Eggman Nega who is simultaneously an inter dimensional counterpart of Dr. Robotnik, as well as his descendant from the future, his ally AND his enemy. Or something. I'm not sure, it was hard to follow. I don't need plots I can't follow in a platform game. Get your convoluted shite out of my Sonic!
At the very least, get the guy who wrote the old Sonic novels to do it. Sonic the Hedgehog in Castle Robotnik was a literary classic.
5. Let us call him Dr. Robotnik again:
I know, I know. He's always been called Dr. Eggman in Japan. But Japan also has videogames about touching up little girls, so let's not pretend they are the masters of taste now, shall we? When I was a wee lad, he was called Dr. Robotnik, and whether or not that was something Sega of America dreamed up, it was better.
While we're on the subject, whatever happened to Robotnik actually being a real villain? A proper villain. He has been constantly sidelined by other bad guys over the years, and while he's not had his dignity robbed from him quite as badly as Bowser, he needs to reclaim his place as Sonic's nemesis. Even Sonic Unleashed has some big bad monster with the worryingly-anime flavored name of Dark Gaia in it.
A fat man with an egg fetish may not be the most credible bad guy, but he was a right bastard back in the day. Forcing chickens to become murderous cyborgs is pretty hardcore, but his role has diminished as time's gone by. In Sonic Chronicles, he's even an ally. That's not right. I grew up with this man as my enemy and I must finish the fight!6. No more new characters. Please!
We've had enough. I suppose Tails was a grim harbinger of things to come, but this obsession Sega has with stuffing the Sonic cast full of new and stupid gimmicky animals needs to end. So far, only one character introduction has worked, because Knuckles was the tits. Outside of him though, can we please stop introducing another watery, forgettable sidekick with each game?
Cream the Rabbit, Big the Cat, Silver the Hedgehog, Bollocks the Badger, Registered Sex Offender the Anteater -- it's endless and shameless. Most of them never catch on, but once they're part of canon (Sonic has canon. Good lord) we have to bloody deal with it.
I also blame the fans here, for continuing to support Shadow the Hedgehog when he proves time and time again that he's shite. I honestly tried to like Shadow, I really did, but his endeavors to sport 'tude and appear edgy are about as embarrassing as Sonic's. And if Shadow can't succeed, a stupid frigging rabbit called Cream doesn't stand a chance. I mean Cream!? That's a name now?
Still I guess one or two have their good points ...
7. Rouge the Bat needs to do a Playboy spread:
Um. Actually I never wrote that. Moving on ...
8. Bring back good music:
It amazes me how bad modern Sonic soundtracks are when the original Megadrive games had some of the most sublime tunes of all time. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still among my favorite videogame soundtracks, and the rest of the games weren't too shabby in the audio department either. Once again, it was Sonic Advance that seemed to nail it -- with a selection of tunes that rivaled the originals, but it was little more than a fleeting moment of inspiration before all was lost once more.
I guess it's all part of this desperate, grasping attempt to still be cool, but the whimpering faux-rock that has poisoned the console games is absolutely appalling. If I wanted Sonic to be an episode of CD:UK, I'd have asked.
Is a nice, bouncy, happy melody something to be ashamed of these days? It would seem so, and maybe that's indicative of the games industry as a whole, but it's especially cutting when a pioneer of happy, memorable music has resorted to employing the services of floppy haired guitar strummers in order to appear credible.
I want more of the MIDI-quality sax that made up Starlight Zone, or the Hilltop Zone's charming refrain. Give me the foreboding-yet-still-somehow-innocent Robotnik boss battle themes, and I want no more of that "make-believes reborn, myths in mind re-thought" madness!
Sonic Unleashed seems to reintroduced one or two melodies, at least with its Europe level. It's still a far cry from what I've been treated to in the past though and while the theme tune for this particular sequel isn't the worst I've heard, is it too much to just bring back the old theme? The one we love?
Come on now.
9. If you're going to be "cool," be ironic or you fail:
Sonic the Hedgehog's radical attitude and finger wagging stopped being impressive in the nineties. Nowadays, it just looks tragic.
Sonic should take a leaf out of Devil May Cry star Dante's book, seriously. I've praised Devil May Cry's hero many times for his camp, cheesy, self-parodying stupidity, and if Sonic insists on bringing the mid-nineties bodaciousness into the modern world with him, he should do it with his tongue in his cheek, as opposed to the seriousness he currently performs it with.
I was going to suggest that Sonic stop having a voice actor, or at least large chunks of speech, but instead, perhaps keeping the same voice but removing all trace of sincerity might actually work. Make him funny -- genuinely funny -- and have his nonsensical quips uttered with a heady dose of camp stupidity and I'd certainly get behind him.
The modern day Sonic is already enough of a joke, so why not let the blue hedgehog be in on the gag?
Which brings me to my tenth and final bit of advice to Sonic. I think this is the most important tip I can give, one that should secure the future of Sonic the Hedgehog for many years to come ...
10. Make this playable:
Well ... it had to be said.