It’s no secret that the Sonic: The Hedgehog games haven’t exactly been all-time classics in the last 10-15 years. On consoles, the last really good one probably was Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast. I’ve been watching the current Retsupurae run-through of Sonic ’06 and it’s just startling how bad the series was at that point. It hurts a little because Sonic was at one point talked about in the same way that Mario is. And he still has some air of significance – see his appearance in Super Smash Bros. and the reaction to that. But have the days of good Sonic games passed us by? I actually don’t think so – SEGA just needs to step back and re-evaluate them.
The biggest issue with most, if not all, of the real bad console Sonic games was the sheer speed they had. It wasn’t a rare occurrence for Sonic or any other character to get moving so fast that the game just couldn’t keep up. That’s a pretty major issue. In some games, it was more camera related – Sonic moved along fine, but the camera just couldn’t keep up with his movements. In others, Sonic just moved too fast – I’ve noticed it a few times with slowbeef’s run in Sonic ’06. Whether that’s an issue with 3D Sonic games as a concept or not, remains to be seen. Now that we’ve gotten to the current console generation, maybe the power is there to make one that doesn’t breakdown and can actually present that sense of speed that Sonic needs.
That alone isn’t the only concern though. Around the time of Sonic Adventure SEGA started throwing all kinds of characters into the games – much like Mario games have. The problem is that, for the most part, Mario’s side characters don’t feature heavily in the “main Mario games.” They stick with a standard cast. SEGA shoehorned in as many characters as possible, and put them into the major Sonic games. That partially is because SEGA stopped making consoles, really limiting how much they could branch the franchise out, but still, I don’t know how many people needed to see Big the Cat appear in every Sonic game out there. It really starts to show in Sonic ’06 – three hedgehogs, with multiple support characters that are all playable, with limited stages to play in. It’s a development nightmare, making an engine that works with all the different playstyles, and ultimately doesn’t work with any.
I give SEGA credit for at least continuing to try to make it work – see last year’s Sonic Boom. But they keep focusing on issues that either don’t need to be addressed – Sonic’s design – and ignoring the major issues – actual gameplay concerns. And what kills me is that the answer is unbelievably simple. If we’ve learned anything in the current world of gaming from the rise of Indies, it’s that simple, retro styled games are back, and that they work perfectly. That’s what SEGA needs to do with Sonic – go the Indie route. Trim out all of the fat – go back to the roots, playing only as Sonic and maybe Tails; make it a 2D platformer; and go with retro graphics. The success of games like Shovel Knight, Spelunky and Guacamelee show that 2D games totally work today, just as well as 20 years ago. Plus retro or classic graphics work with those style games just as well as hand-drawn sprites do. And the best part here is that we know that Sonic games work like this – the best games in the series are those first three games after all.
What kills me here is the simplicity of the solution, combined with SEGA flirting with it over the years. I mainly have been talking about console Sonic games here because on handhelds – the Game Boy Advance and DS in particular – his games have generally been much, much more playable. Sonic Advance, which came out right around the same time as his 3D dark days, is a much more enjoyable game to play than any of the console games from the same era. SEGA has to know this. I would be curious to see the data on the classic titles that are on the digital marketplaces now – Xbox Live, PSN and Virtual Console. I want to know if the classic games – Sonic The Hedgehog, 2, and 3 – outsell the more modern games – Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. My gut tells me that’s probably the case – with the possible exception of Sonic Adventure, just because it’s probably the last good Sonic game.
In the end, SEGA really has no one but themselves to blame here. They took a much beloved franchise and their company mascot and ran him into the ground, and kept going. As a longtime fan of the Blue Blur I’d love to see them pull back, re-evaluate the series, and make something right by the fans. They were on the right track with Sonic Generations, but keep forcing in 3D parts. Just keep it simple, make something that hearkens back to the Genesis days and I think Sonic can live again.