Friday, August 13, 2010

Game Rehab: Sonic the Hedgehog

While you may not be able to tell it by hanging around deviantArt, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has fallen on hard times.  Regardless of how well the franchise has been doing sales-wise, and it has been doing quite well, almost every game released since the end of the Sega Dreamcast has been critically panned in some way or another.  Game Informer magazine in particular has been harsh on the series as of late.  They have said that the character Sonic is no more relevant than the bee girl from Blind Melon’s music video “No Rain” (ouch), and in their 2009 April Fool’s Day special, they printed a fake article describing series creator Yuji Naka’s (failed) attempts to kill his own franchise through poor-quality games.

N.B.: I started writing this well before the announcement of Sonic Colors and the Sonic IV episodes.  I honestly have a good feeling about these two games, but then again, with the exception of the Wii version of Colors, they're being developed outside of Sonic Team, by Dimps, who did the only *good* Sonic games of the 2000s, including the Advance and Rush series.

Pretty much every Sonic game since Sonic Adventure has had some misstep, whether in design, playability, or both.  Before we discuss how to fix the franchise, let's look at what went wrong with all those games.

  • Sonic Adventure, 1999: The first truly 3D Sonic game (not counting the awful Sonic R foot-racing game for Saturn), Sonic Adventure re-introduced the character to a new generation of gamers.  I also understand it played rather well, unlike the 2003 remake for Nintendo GameCube and PC. [citation needed]  The one thing I couldn't get over, apart from the occasional collision glitches, was the hub world which you had to go through to get to different levels.  It’s too easy to get lost in them and too hard to know where to go next.  Adventure also introduced several game modes, such as Knuckles' treasure hunts and Big's fishing, that didn't fit in with traditional Sonic gameplay.
  • Sonic Adventure 2, 2001: Starting with Sonic Adventure 2, the Sonic games exhibit a bad habit of taking one step forward and two steps back.  Adventure 2 got rid of the hub world, presenting the levels one after the other in two parallel story lines.  However, these levels alternate among three of the play styles presented in the first Adventure.  Of these, the treasure-hunting stages are more long and boring than before, only now the player is forced to endure them to get to the end of the story.
  • Sonic Heroes, 2003: I’ll be honest with you, Sonic Heroes came close to greatness.  This game used twelve characters in four teams of three.  With each team, you controlled one character with the other two trailing behind, like Tails did way back in Sonic 2.  You could change the leader of your team on the fly, and use his/her/its abilities to get past obstacles.  Like Adventure 2, each team had a linear progression of levels with parallel storylines.  And for the first time in two console generations, they brought back the Special Stages!  While this is also the first time Sonic showed up on the PlayStation 2 and XBox, do yourself a favor and only play the GameCube version.  Otherwise you’ll hate it more than you should.
  • Shadow the Hedgehog, 2005:  For my money, this is where the series jumped the shark (or so I thought).  This game stars not Sonic, but his titular doppelganger Shadow, first introduced in Sonic Adventure 2.  In some dubiously crowning achievements in bad decisions, Shadow uses guns and even drives a motorcycle at some point.  You can alter your path in the story depending on which faction you attack the most, but when everyone’s gunning for you, you don’t have time to care about taking sides.  Of course, the lack of any manual aiming function whatsoever did anything but help manners, either.  Having been tagged for violence and mild language by the American ESRB, it’s a wonder the game managed to avoid its Teen rating.  Thankfully, this idea seems to be an offshoot the producers were wise enough to avoid pursuing further.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog, 2006/2007: I’ll admit it, this is the only game out of this list which I have not played in any form.  The development team claimed this to be a return to the basics1, in honor of the franchise’s 15th anniversary, when in fact they have learned nothing from the mistakes made since Sonic Adventure.  To start off, they went back to using hub worlds like in the first Adventure.  It also has pretty much all the problems of the previous titles on my list, *and* the PlayStation 3 version has some horrendous loading issues.  Kinda defeats the purpose of starring "the fastest thing alive".

Long story short, the Sonic franchise has sunk itself from trying to do too many new things – and not doing any them well enough.  From the racing-platformer gimmick of the Sonic Rivals games to the “werehog” segments in Unleashed, each new game seems to have some sort of gimmick and/or new characters tacked on.  Meanwhile, the core gameplay is left to rot.  Perhaps Sonic is just too fast for three dimensions to handle.

Which brings me to how I would go about fixing the Sonic franchise:
  • First of all, stop trying to add new gameplay gimmicks.  Just do one thing, and do it well.  Namely, the platforming action we know and love.
  • Consider bringing the gameplay back to 2D or 2.5D.  You know, like Sonic Rivals, only without the forced racing gimmick.  Many of the problems with being in 3D stem from the camera.  Sometimes it has a mind of its own, sometimes it can’t keep up with all the speed and gets stuck behind a wall on its way back to Sonic; there are a host of related problems.  If they could make a 3D game that played really, really well, that would be cool, but when in doubt, don’t go for that extra dimension.
  • Don’t go crazy with all the characters.  Personally, I don’t mind playing as someone other than Sonic or Tails all the time, but we don’t need to meet a new critter for every new release.  Who really cares about Jet, Wave, and Storm from Riders?
  • On that note, whatever characters are included, they should be worked in to the main mode of gameplay, and not have their own mode a la Adventure.  In other words, they should play just like Sonic, only with different abilities as necessary.
  • For the love of all that rocks, no more songs with vocals.  The lyrics always end up totally inane and silly.  It’s not even worth getting a better lyricist or translator.  Not that there haven’t been some good songs in the newer games as well, but it’s probably no coincidence that all the great music from the old games was instrumental.
  • The composer for the first few Sonic games was Masato Nakamura, from the J-Pop band Dreams Come True.  The later composers, including Jun Senoue, were okay at best, but Mr. Nakamura knows how to compose a background tune.  Or maybe it was the 16-bit synth instruments that did the trick.  Whatever it was, do that.
  • In the old games, the story may have been mostly the same ­– Dr. Robotnik trying to take over the world by turning animals into a robot army – but we didn’t need a serious story to have fun with Sonic.  If there’s anything the Adventure games did right, it was the story; there were some great, if not memorable story bits in both of those games.  So for future games, do whatever you want with the stories, but remember to tailor them to the gameplay – not the other way around.
  • I may be alone in my thinking, but I say that the 4Kids voice actors from Sonic X and the more recent games were better than those from the Adventure games.  I mean, have you heard Tails in those games?  Sheesh!  So whoever does the voice acting, they had better clean up their, well, act. 

Well, I don't usually like wishful thinking, mostly when it comes to exposing poor logic in movies, but that felt good.  Now, where's that DARN fourth Chaos Emerald...?

1 “With Sonic the Hedgehog, we have gone back to our starting point, more than 15 years ago, to reinvent the attitude and speed that made our hero a legend.”  Thorsen, Tor.  “PS3, 360 Sonic leads wave of Sega announcements”.  GameSpot.  9 Sep 2005.  5 February 2010 <>.

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