What Is It With Sonic?

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So. Sonic the Hedgehog and all his friends are getting redesigned and rebooted. Again, with a new game and TV series. Is there really any hope left for the franchise at this point? I think the problem is a combination of SEGA’s aims and the search for development talent for the franchise.

This is at least the second time Sonic has gone through a major redesign. Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles — the last indisputably good Sonic games (others have their fans), will be turning 20 years old this year. I don’t have much hope for the new Sonic Boom game, and I’m done giving and listening to input on how to make Sonic games good again. Maybe instead we should look at other franchises that have faced the same challenges and overcome them, and think about what the problem is with Sonic.

Sonic is a franchise that failed to overcome what TVTropes likes to call the “Polygon Ceiling.” That is, when console gaming moved from 2D to 3D on the N64 and PS1, a lot of old franchises had to redefine themselves to keep with the times. Pretty much all of Nintendo’s franchises successfully made the leap sooner or later, but many others did not.

Castlevania is only just now finding some success with the Lords of Shadow series which has dragged it from handheld obscurity. Capcom has pretty much allowed Mega Man to fade away completely. Konami just basically put a bullet in Bomberman’s head. Sonic is of course the most famous trainwreck. In many ways you could actually say Japanese game design in general had a rough time transitioning into 3D.

With Sonic in particular I think SEGA tries too hard to parrot other popular games. Sonic Adventure tried to ape Mario 64’s model with mixed results. Sonic Unleashed kept elements of that outdated system and even threw in a God of War rip-off side to the game. Sonic The Lost World basically tried to be “Sonic Galaxy.” Actually that game brings me to the other problem — Sonic trying to follow the apparent rules of big-budget games.

Lost World tried to introduce this new cast of cartoon villains with their own cut scenes, voice acting, and whatnot. This is basically a continuation of the embarrassingly grandiose storyline of the 2006 Sonic The Hedgehog and the characters Unleashed introduced. Lost World didn’t feel much better to me. Meanwhile, people like to make fun of Nintendo for either repeating the same premise in every Mario game or having basically no storyline at all. For games like these I’d honestly prefer no story to what SEGA keeps trying to do. Why can’t we just go back to the short event scenes we had on the Genesis?

What I’m saying is, Sonic needs to be Sonic. SEGA even tried this with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which turned out to be a digital-only repurposed mobile game. SEGA seems to believe a retail game needs to “feel big” by having complex gameplay and stories, while Nintendo doesn’t really give a crap. No one criticizes the Mario games for being about platforming and absolutely nothing else. They aren’t afraid to be pure, straight-up platformers in retail boxes with full price tags.

Furthermore, Nintendo was willing to change the workings of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid at near fundamental levels with the move to 3D. In the process Nintendo wrote the book on 3D platformers and 3D action adventure games while still maintaining the spirit and structure of their franchises. Even Capcom managed to re-think Mega Man into Mega Man Legends, though it wasn’t commercially successful. SEGA hasn’t really tried to do anything new with Sonic that some other developer hadn’t done.

Though maybe that’s because Mario games still have some of the top designers in the industry working on them. SEGA hasn’t really displayed that level of talent in a Sonic game since 1994, if even then by some accounts. Actually, the main level designer for the Genesis Sonic games left after Knuckles, moved to Naughty Dog where he worked on Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted, and apparently now works at Nintendo. Huh.

Actually, some Uncharted veterans are working on Sonic Boom. Maybe hiring western designers is a needed change (some of the Genesis games were done in the US), but I still don’t know about the approach they’re taking with that game.

Maybe franchises like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid being able to transition into 3D with such immaculate results just shows how damn good Nintendo is. They’ve been able to retain their game design leads for 25+ years while the SEGA we knew in the 90’s was gutted circa 2004 when all its development studios were reorganized. For most intents and purposes, the SEGA that made Sonic what it was on the Genesis isn’t really the SEGA that’s trying to keep the franchise relevant now.

All I can really hope for now is that this “renaissance” SEGA’s talking about doesn’t flow back into the Archie comic which has recovered greatly in the last couple years and is going through a reboot as we speak. The last 20 issues or so in particular have been some of the most exciting I’ve read in a long time and I hope its new writers can keep this going.

BULLETS:

  • My custom cover art for Bravely Default. http://t.co/vimC0DAalH
  • My Steam user reviews for Spec Ops: The Line and Dishonored are now up through the link above under “My Work.”
  • Nice descriptive video on FRACT OSC. http://t.co/2hoS87RWaL
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