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The future of Sonic the Hedgehog

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Something old, something new, something Sonic, something blue

Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces are coming out in a couple of months and the success of either (or both) will be a serious deciding factor in the continuing direction of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Sonic has had a tough go of it the last couple of years with the underwhelming (okay, let’s be real; it was fucking pathetic) Sonic Boom, which almost single-handedly doomed the Sonic brand into a future consisting only of bad mobile “runner” games.

Sega shocked everyone with the Sonic Mania trailer last year. We had a real, sprite-based Sonic the Hedgehog game coming out to all the major platforms headed by genius programmer Christian Whitehead, responsible for the amazing mobile Sonic ports, and the excellent release of Sonic CD on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, mobile, and PC. But I noticed something right away that had me a touch worried about this new direction even in my excited optimism for a new, proper 2D Sonic title.

Fucking Green Hill Zone.

Listen; I love winks and nods as much as the last horribly jaded rose-tinted-glasses-wearing manchild thirty-something. But seeing Green Hill Zone, slightly modified (with much nicer looking everything, I might add) immediately put a sour taste in my mouth. It was an endearing callback in Sonic Adventure 2 when it was rewarded to the player for trudging through the rest of that game's sometimes miserable side content. It was a cool treat in Sonic Advance 3. By Sonic 4, seeing some variation of it was starting to get under my skin, and even though it made perfect sense in Sonic Generations, I remember thinking, “Okay Sega, you’ve had your fun. Time to move on now.”


“…Sega? It’s…it’s time to move on.”

Sonic the Hedgehog is about going forward as quickly as you can to the next thing, the next big adventure. But in recent years Sonic has been dragging his ass, taking one step forward and two back. I guess you could say he has been spinning his wheels a bit (har har). Sonic Mania and the recently shown Sonic Forces both have me a bit concerned that Sega maybe just doesn’t quite get it yet. But in order to get a better understanding of what I mean, we have to go back in time, away from the hopeful new titles 2017 is bringing us, way past cool to a much darker period in Sonic history.

Sonic's first real foray into 3D space didn’t come until Sonic Adventure, skipping an entire platform thanks to deadbeat mismanagement and conflict between Sega Technical Institute and Sega of Japan that effectively killed the ambitious Sonic Xtreme, leaving Saturn owners with the snot rag of disappointment that was Sonic 3D Blast, a port of a mediocre Sega Genesis title. Sonic Adventure was a good start from Sonic Team despite being chock full of filler, abysmal second-rate buddy characters, and some annoying glitches and camera issues that hurt the playability of the later Sonic stages.

It paved the way for Sonic Adventure 2 which was a far more polished and competent experience. Hell, I thought SA2 was great. Even the bad parts, the God-awful Knuckles levels, those stupid-ass Tails and Robotnik sections, and that dumb-dumb kart racing garbage were still a lot better than any of the side character crap from the first Sonic Adventure. It was pretty clear Sega was generally on the right track, and the multiplatform follow-up Sonic Heroes gave us a more focused experience even if it still suffered a lot of the same problems of throwing Sonic into 3D. No Mario killer perhaps, but Sonic had more or less cemented his place in those console generations and created a whole new legion of younger fans.

And then Sonic ’06 happened.

And then after that Sonic and the Secret Rings.

Sonic and the Black Knight...


So anyways, being better left unspoken on the whole, the 3D Sonic games were not doing very well at this point. Sonic ’06 was a nightmare to play, and an utter PR disaster. At the same time these games are coming out, Sonic was experiencing a pretty healthy life over on the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS, with several good titles put out on those platforms. Sonic Unleashed would soon follow which was more or less two games smashed into one; a half baked beat-‘em-up with a werewolf Sonic who was about as appealing as a beer stein full of liquid sheep shit, and some really visually impressive regular Sonic levels that had a tremendous sense of speed and were generally exciting to play.

Sega realized they had some spark of ingenuity here. So they took the best components of Unleashed and started working on Sonic Colors, a Wii and DS exclusive. And lord, compared to the buckets of pig swill that came before, Colors was a pretty wonderful game. It had unique and original stages (no Green Hill Zone, thank fuck) even if the art style and general aesthetic was a little derivative and clearly a riff on Super Mario Galaxy. The music was fantastic, and the game played pretty damn well. Sonic has never really thrived in 3D space, and like always there were some frustrating stages and the wisp power-ups could be hard to get to grips with initially, but it was a new and fairly original Sonic the Hedgehog game and remains one of the best examples of 3D Sonic to date.

Then Sega announced Sonic Generations. It was pretty exciting. The idea that we could go back through a lot of the best stages of the original games (including Green Hill Zone of course) as both Classic and Modern iterations of Sonic was a cool idea. The game was gorgeous, packed with content, and fun to play. In the back of my mind I was a little disappointed; I kind of wanted to see another unique new Sonic game. But that desire would be met when Sonic Lost World arrived on Wii U (and later PC) OR WOULD IT?

The answer is no.

Here’s the thing; I absolutely adore the aesthetic of Sonic Lost World. It’s a bit like Sonic Xtreme with the rotating worlds, has the color palette and cartoony look and personality of an older Sonic game, including recognizable badniks from older titles instead of those personality-barren drones that started becoming the norm in Sonic Adventure 2. But the game was a lackluster experience. It favors more precise input and execution, so once you really get to grips with a stage, Sonic can get around it pretty quickly. But the style of Generations, Colors, and the Sonic stages in Unleashed was just up and abandoned in what seemed like a really strange move, completely antithetical to Sega intelligently taking the best parts of the games up to that point and expanding upon them. They threw away the kitchen sink all over again and tried something new, and it was just perplexing.

Oh yeah then Sonic Boom came out and it was fucking terrible.

What the hell was going on? Diehard Sonic enthusiasts, the kind that draw pictures of Tails pissing in Sonic’s face while giving Knuckles a footjob may have been accepting of new direction, but the more general crowd of casual Sonic fans were just confused and disappointed by now. Sega smashed it out of the park one minute and dropped it on the bathroom floor with a *plat* like an Ikea meatball the next. The popular opinion was that Sonic was officially dead in the water, flushed down the drain like so many sleeping Betta fish.

Now, we have two Sonic games on the way. One of them is as old school as it gets, and as exciting a concept it is, seems like a desperate last gasp of Sega to really listen to feedback and rebuild their reputation, embracing the idea of the retro reboot. Conversely, Sonic Forces is following in the wake of Generations’ success so closely that it can smell its farts, inexplicably tossing Classic Sonic into the mix once again, and appeasing the fanboy urge to be able to create custom avatars to live out their escapist fantasies.

Both games look pretty solid. But they also look incredibly safe, almost fearful, as though the mere idea of straying out of the realm of what has been successful in past games terrifies Sega.

And it should, perhaps. They’ve fucked it up so many times before. Mania and Forces seem to be a test; they are throwing two things at the wall, and seeing what sticks. And I would predict that whichever is more successful will determine the future of Sonic games going forward. If Mania blows Forces out of the water, expect to see a whole new line of games just like it, and vice versa.

That brings me to my last point: the future of Sonic.

I really don’t think Sonic the Hedgehog can go forward by regurgitating and re-living the glory days. It might work for Mania after the tremendous failure of Sonic Boom, but if it does, we really need to see new ideas consistently replace the safe familiarity of recycled assets. No more older levels, for one. Green Hill and Flying Battery Zone might elicit a giggle the first time through. But if a Mania 2 follows suit and tosses in Mushroom Hill Zone, Hydrocity Zone, or whatever else, it’s going to get old quick. 

Sega needs to pick a direction and follow through with it, taking it as far as they can and adding in little bits of polish along the way. We could have a decade of really solid Sonic games if they don’t do another incomprehensible 180 after one or both of these titles is a success. What Sonic needs, what he has never really had past his Genesis/Mega Drive days, is consistent refinement. Sega seems to be convinced that reinventing the wheel is acceptable with Sonic, but it very seldom works. They need to lock in on what does work, and do that - do it better than they ever have.

And they need to stop living in the past at the same time. Putting Sonic in 2D is not necessarily a derivative action as long as they keep doing new things with him. Give us the creativity of the stages in Sonic 3. But don't emulate them. Keep the mechanics the same with the odd change or improvement, but give us all-new content, a new story, and even new characters. And please, for the love of fuck, let this be the end of fucking Green Hill Zone. I'm begging you, Sega. The new stages in Mania look fun! Roll with that, embrace them, don't be afraid to take a vacation from the established locales. It's important.

If they can pull off a success and revitalize the blue blur, and stay on the track, keep their face to the race, there may be a very good chance to break the sound barrier and out of the Sonic cycle. Otherwise they will just be left in the dust all over again. Sega needs to send Sonic into overdrive, burn rubber, crank the speedometer up to eleven, and run full throttle across the finish line.

And other bad wordplay involving fast things because Sonic the Hedgehog.

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Joel Peterson
Joel PetersonContributor   gamer profile

I write the things other people don't write, with liberal fart jokes thrown in for good measure. I like old games, old computers, old consoles, and old pizza. Here are some blogs what I done d... more + disclosures


 


 


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