Retro gaming

How to fix the Sonic franchise

I was pretty much raised on SEGA games, and playing the New Super Mario Bros. game on the Wii this week has been a bit of a minor revelation for me – it’s a fantastic game, and it got me thinking why hasn’t Sonic team pulled out all the stops and made the next gen Sonic game we’re all waiting for.

I don’t hold out much hope for Sonic anymore like many others. But if Sonic Team is to have any chance of winning over us old school fans, they have to tap back into what made Sonic great.

A likeable cast of characters

And by cast of characters I mean Sonic. All other characters are largely superfluous. Tails, Knuckles and Robotnik work because in previous games new characters had a purpose. Tails became the personification of the new multiplayer aspect of the series (an aspect that foreshadowed the latest Mario game by some 17 years) and he positively improved the dynamic of the Sonic series in doing so. Knuckles became the classic anti-hero and a contrast to Sonic’s speed, a direct result of complaints that the Sonic was all speed and no brain.

And Dr. Robotnik was a proper badguy, power mad but deeply inventive, the embodiment of the changes that the Sonic levels go through, from dazzling casinos to scrapyards all popping out of his need to invent his way around his hedgehog menace. This allowed Sonic to go above and beyond the elemental and season based level designs of other platformers, because behind the scenes there was a crazy but insanely bright evil genius preparing your next hell-sent obstacle course.

Sonic in the Special stage and stuck between the bumpers in the Scrapyard Zone.

A developer to die for

Over the years Sonic Team have created a wealth of well-regarded games. But when they started out Nintendo had a major headstart, so Sonic the Hedgehog became the masterpiece that would allow this tiny new developer to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nintendo’s Mario. Creating the first Sonic game was a labour of love and the results of that first creative struggle are obvious. The first Sonic game was not only a technical marvel, but a deeply engaging platformer which could be sped through or completed fully by carefully collecting each of the six chaos emeralds.

But recently Sonic Team has struggled to maintain gamers attention in a vast ocean of big platforming talent. The various fractures of the team working in two different regions (America and Japan) over the years may have taken their toll, as has the pressure to create more and more successful games franchises. Despite several key members moving on to pastures new, Sonic Team still proved a capable developer creating unique and engaging games right up to the late 1990s, titles like Phantasy Star Online, ChuChu Rocket!, and NiGHTS Into Dreams.

Based on the calibur of games that Sonic Team has made in the past, there’s no real reason why they couldn’t pull out all the stops and give Sonic a reimagining similiar to what Nintendo have achieved. The 2D/HD remake idea is starting to catch on as developers start to tap into gaming nostalgia in a big way. The Zelda series played with this idea with Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube, mixing 2D fun with beautiful up-to-date 3D moments. Most recently Komani’s Rocket Knight seems to be following a similar route only with the action taking place in HD.

Sonic and Tails in the Casino Night Zone and flying using a biplane.

The right perspective

While I am not a huge fan of the 3D games, I imagine this is where a lot of Sonic fans lost their way. It wasn’t just the change from 2D, but changes to the character design and platforming structure that put some gamers off. The original Sonic games used perspective carefully, limiting 3D elements to special zones or bonus levels where the change in viewpoint had a context.

And now the increasing focus on speed make the more famous level design choices in Sonic rather obtuse. The spiral rings and jumping sections made rather redundant by the changes in camera angle. Despite the impressiveness of Sonic’s first foray into 3D, it has become increasingly more difficult to notice any massive improvements that each new 2D Sonic game added to the series.

For me Sonic works best with the old formula of the original games; two or three zones with a boss, with each zone becoming progressively more difficult. Saving wasn’t an option until Sonic 3, so you had to rely on the most part on skill and repetition to improve enough to master your personal best. Maybe that’s where the more recent games have fallen down – increasingly rewarding players for speeding through zones quickly rather than learning how best to actually play them.

The intro and special stages to Sonic 3.

A decent soundtrack

There’s simply no beating the 16-bit Sonic soundtracks. Each one is instantly recognizable and conveys the message of each zone perfectly. The music that the Sonic composers were able to tease out of the limitations of the Mega Drive is nothing short of astounding, and this is where I think the modern Sonic games have fallen down the most. So much of that original music was open to interpretation, a reminder of the fun you were having just as the games were beginning to tax you. The Sonic music did so much more than accompany the level, it emulated the mood of each zone, and established the sort of pace you should tackle it at, as a result Sonic games quickly become very flat without the right music.

Newer Sonic games seem to deviate from this using music with lyrics for the key points of the games. While the new music is catchy, soundtracking a game in this way gives a target audience to the sound moving it away from the universality of the 16-Bit tunes. This is the main reason I don’t think voice acting works particularly well for the series either, with silent protagonists the developers had to work that much harder to create ways to indicate how characters were feeling, and it mostly worked, just look at Knuckles’ badass introduction to the series in Sonic 3, it was quite clear that a serious vendetta was forming and it developed without a word being spoken.

Two of the later stages from Sonic and Knuckles.

Not losing sight of the USP

It’s easy to forget Sonic’s special ability simply because it is so well known. If recent Sonic games are to be considered then apparently running at the speed of sound just isn’t exciting enough anymore. In the last few years Sonic’s name has been associated with sports events, racing games and he’s even had a curse to deal with. While the 1990s were full of spin off Sonic titles they were seldom at the expense of Sonic’s reputation. I’d like to see a new Sonic game make continued use of the characters best asset: his speed, and only his speed.

And this means knowing when it is appropriate to use it. Following the Sonic franchise of late means playing a game of mixed signals, including design decisions that seem to reek of profiteering, darker plots that aim at older gamers, with confusing side-stories aimed at adolescents. Losing all of these cutscenes and gimmicks would get the series back on track helping to move the focus of the franchise away from telling a story and back to creating an enjoyable, memorable game filled with dynamic zones and imaginative badniks, more like the sort of Sonic games we’re used to.

Knuckles running through the Mushroom Hill zone, and Sonic 1's pass screen.

Invention not reinvention

Most of all I am tired of the reimaginings of Sonic – the endless takes on his character designs and that of his nemesis Robotnik. The numerous changes to gameplay in order to fit in another tenuous link to another new game world. Dr. Robotnik’s inventiveness allows for grander and crazier game designs, but instead we seem to get endless promises about the next great Sonic game and not much of a reward for waiting. Suspending our disbelief based on the games that Sonic Team have made in the past has led to increasingly more disappointing current gen titles. While other developers learn from the mistakes made from deviating too much from the style guide, Sonic Team just seems to be doomed to repeat each critical failure by trying to throw too many ideas at the problem.

The next Sonic game could be a return to form, the proper Sonic game we’re all waiting for or more likely a quick disappointment. Sonic was a great series but somewhere along the line they made it a pastiche of itself, doomed to embody the mediocre platform market that it once soared above.

Sonic Team needs to go back to basics, back to those wondrous colour palettes, the captivating music, the perfectly-paced 2D arena and make a game worthy of being sold next to the newest Super Mario Bros. game. There are no major reasons why this Sonic era can’t be one we can look back on and laugh at, because let’s face it that’s the only situation in which the Sonic series should be a laughing stock.

The first two zones from the original Sonic game.

7 replies on “How to fix the Sonic franchise”

Project Needlemouse promises the return of 2d gameplay. but even that I am skeptical of. As for the the soundtracks, I think prolly 90% of modern Sonic music is utter crap, but Sonic Rush on the DS had Hideki Naganuma (of Jet Set Radio/Jet Grind Radio fame) and had pretty awesome music (though extremely strange in his trademark way).

Sonic needs a lot of help, as you’ve detailed. His friends are leading him down dark paths, the developers appear to be unsure what market they’d like to target and the tensions between the different divisions of Sega haven’t made things any easier. I’d say that your suggestions are a good place to start. Sega would be wise to join the recent retro revival movement by releasing a HD, downloadable edition of the Sonic series. I’d love to see HD 2D art, but it’s probably too expensive and risky to attempt. Sonic Team would probably go with 3D art on a 2D plane, which could cut costs and limit risk enough to make the venture an appropriate one to consider.

I think the worst thing about recent Sonic games isn’t that they’re irredeemably worthless, but that they promise the kind of experience that people remember from the 16-bit games, only to shoehorn in gameplay that, frankly, no-one asked for. I remember when the initial trailers for Sonic Unleashed were released; one of them was almost mocking the viewer in showcasing the bright energetic Sonic stages before immediately following them with ponderous dark “werehog” levels. I’m not a great fan of the Dreamcast, but I maintain that the hedgehog stages of the Sonic Adventure games were as close as anyone’s got to a half-decent 3D Sonic; there were levels that encouraged exploration as well as speed (much like, say, Labyrinth Zone in Sonic 1 held a slower pace), there were levels that were more linear and stopped the camera from misbehaving…and yet, there were five other characters who frankly didn’t need to be there. Adventure 2 opted for more linear stages and a camera that was much better as a result, but it still interrupted the core Sonic experience with pedestrian gem-hunting sections for TWO of it’s characters. That said, I still dream of a “Sonic Adventure Remix” that takes the best of the Sonic and Shadow levels, cuts out the godawful cutscenes and proves that a decent 3D Sonic game is possible.

Thanks for your comment hun! I’ll send your love along. I’, not much of a gamer, I don’t tend to be able to keep up with games, but I have found memories of the old NES/SNES games,and would love to see a new ‘classic’ sonic game (as I have loved the ‘new’ mario games)

I think they should just can the blue bastard and come up with something else. Something new. Just keep Sonic doing cameos a la Sega Tennis, SSBB and Sonic Kart. Sonic Rush was good but just not as memorable as the old skool versions but since you can get those older games on virtually every platform going does it really matter?

I have high hopes for Project Needlemouse if it truly is what it teases to be. I completely agree with the idea that a proper Sonic game needs a likeable cast of characters. Enough has been said about the size of the Sonic cast spiraling out of control that I don’t need to rehash it, but enough is enough with the precocious raccoons and and flaming cats already. Sonic Unleashed’s daytime levels nailed the speed aspect for the most part, but the add-on DLC went in the completely wrong direction: it’s all jump/twitch puzzles! I want to run and run, not make pixel-perfect (er, polygon-perfect) jumps with a character not designed with those acrobatics in mind.

I for one have some faith in Project Needlemouse. I think the difference between Nintendo and Sonic Team is the cause of their change – following a string of great-in-their-own-right 3D Mario titles, Nintendo bucked their own trend and developed New Super Mario Bros. for the DS because 2D was the right format for the device. It was simply the right decision to make. When that worked so very well and was pretty universally loved, they’ve followed it up with a 2D Wii game because we wanted it. Sonic Team, on the other hand, have had their hand forced because of criticism and attack for their recent output. Depending on your view it’s either a very sensible return to the well, or it reeks of desperation, but Nintendo have shown with the ‘New’ Mario franchise that there is a veritable thirst for 2D. Maybe it’s because we need an antidote to Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto and Fallout, or maybe, deep down, we all long for a simpler time, but whatever the case – Sonic Team are doing the right thing. Whether they stand or fall by this decision really depends on how good Project Needlemouse is, and how true to its roots it can stay. Whatever happens, they’ve made the right decision, and I hope they’re rewarded for it by developing a great new Sonic title.

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