GameCrank: Has Sonic Been Saved? Part 2

Patrick

Welcome back.

I believe that the Sonic franchise is currently at risk. It’s stagnating. While his recent games have been great, they haven’t been too bold, and mostly they’ve just been building off of previous failures. I respect Sega for attempting to make quality games and putting in the time and effort for what has mostly turned out to be below-average results, but at the end of the day, they could still do a lot more.

Now, let’s look at the pros; or, more exactly, let’s look at what Sonic has been doing wrong so that we can try to get it fixed.

#1: No more wretched gimmicks. One of the biggest problems with Sonic over the last decade is a severe case of creative overload. Every game in the series has some sort of twist or hook to the regular running and spin-dashing. The “Adventure” games and “Sonic ’06” let you play as multiple different characters, and “Sonic Heroes” let you play as 3 characters at once. “Sonic Unleashed” let you play as a stretchy Werehog and fly in a plane, and it introduced major hub-world exploration. All of these games (with the possible exception of “Sonic Heroes”) have been detrimental to the core fundamentals of the franchise. The pureness of running really fast as a cartoon hedgehog has been drowned by alternate characters, pointless hub-worlds, mini-games, and unnecessary gimmicks. The original Sonic Genesis games didn’t really have any big explosive gimmicks, and that’s what made them great: they were so raw and focused that you never felt like you were wasting time or weren’t having fun.

I must mention that I did enjoy the Wisps in “Sonic Colors.” Why, when it was a gimmick, too? Well, there’s a difference between a gimmick and an integral gimmick. In all the other Sonic games, you had no choice but to play as Big the Cat and the Werehog and wander around hub towns. The Wisps are barely noticeable; there were only a few times where you actually have to use them in order to progress. In “Colors,” you have the choice whether or not to utilize these extras. Nothing is ever forced in your face. That, everyone, is how you handle a gimmick. The point is to be as unobtrusive as possible with your player and allow them as much freedom as you can–a fitting theme, too, considering Sonic’s free-spirited flippancy.

#2: No more pointless characters. I’ll go on record by saying that Sonic the Hedgehog has one of the worst and most useless cast of characters in video game history. I hate them. Just about all of them. They’re the reason why I didn’t like the “Adventure” games, a reason why I didn’t like “Sonic ’06,” and a reason why I only sort of liked “Sonic Heroes” (at least you didn’t have to use all of them). They’ve been nothing but superfluous annoyances for years, and they’ve never been given any real development–unless you count a burgeoning desire to kick them in the teeth (Cream the Rabbit, I’m looking at you). Now, pretty much all of them have almost disappeared. No more Big. No more Cream. No more Chaotix. No more scantily-clad bats. No more emo black hedgehog (though I do actually like Shadow the Hedgehog in concept).

Tails is still a stand-by, which is OK. His voice actor (which I am always happy to remind everyone happens to be a woman) still shreds my ears like a cheese-grater made of wasps, but at least he never has a major role in the story. Other than that, it’s been the simple Sonic storyline: hedgehog vs. fat scientist who wants to take over the world. There’s no out-of-place dark prophecies, branching and convoluted story-lines, or anything overbearing in “Sonic Colors.” It sticks to the gameplay and leaves the story as a bonus.

The only exception so far is in “Generations.” Since this game is pretty much a tribute to Sonic fans and the history of the franchise, it inevitably leads to all of Sonic’s buddies gathering around for some fan-service. However, I really like how Sonic Team presented them. Sonic (the modern one) often makes suggestively mocking faces when around other cast members and even outwardly makes fun of them. It’s an affectionate self-parody as to how the series has spun out of control in the last decade and I think it would be a great way to send off these characters to the Netherrealm.

#3 The on-rails gameplay actually works. Probably the biggest problem with integrating Sonic into 3D has always been deciding which form it should take. The “Adventure” games and “Heroes” tried to have him have mostly three-dimensional movement by allowing him to run in every which way with the focus on moving forward. It worked, but that freedom inevitably led to some questionable level design and camerawork. “Shadow the Hedgehog” and “Sonic ’06” tried integrating full 3D exploration into the mix, but ended up as huge, steaming piles of failure. So, the next step was to make the game truly focused on forward movement by creating an on-rails game engine. The challenge of the levels was now, instead of running everywhere and trying to find the right passages, to run in a mostly narrow path straight forward while dodging obstacles, smashing bad guys, and uncovering alternate routes. If you ask me, this turned out to be the best possible move Sonic could have made.

The result of on-rails gameplay is always more focused and compressed level design. Instead focusing on combat and exploration, the “Unleashed” engine was more hard-bend on living up to what “Sonic the Hedgehog” was all about: fast-paced platforming. The camera has been placed in such a way that you can actually see most of what’s coming towards you, which has been a consistent problem in many games in the series (including the Genesis games). There’s really nothing here that I would deem as necessitating any major improvements.

However, like I’ve said in the past, that’s the biggest threat to Sonic right now. While I’m kind of grateful that the franchise hasn’t taken any radical new directions recently or tampered with the winning formula, I still fear stagnation. It’s nice to know you’re getting something you like, but if Sonic doesn’t innovate soon, then I think he’ll start slumping again–at least in my eyes.

Still, I’d prefer an unoriginal game to a rotten one.

GameCrank is written by Patrick Pontes.

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