On Sunday we were given a glimpse of the best looking Sonic game since ‘Sonic 3’ – ‘Sonic Mania’ was unveiled to mark the 25th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog and boy oh boy, doesn’t it look to be a real return of form for the titular hedgehog!
I AM HYPED!!!!!
The game looks like a ROM hack of ‘Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ (this is a good thing) and features current pixel-art tech and tricks to successfully create a genuinely modern, retro title. It also features re-imagined zones from Sonic, Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 on top of all new zones and bosses. It is hugely exciting – especially since the last good Sonic game was Generations and the last great one was Sonic 3…
…but why has it taken so long for Sonic to get back into the limelight?
What is it that makes 3D Sonic games so bad?
Where did it all go wrong for a gaming phenomenon?
A year ago I would’ve been at a loss to answer this question, but after an excited frenzy of playing my way through the Mega Drive Sonic games over the weekend I feel like I have the answer. Hopefully SEGA are reading this because it is painfully obvious why they are struggling to recapture the magic that made Sonic bigger than Mario all those years ago…
…they are focusing on the wrong aspect of the game. SEGA have been confusing a character trait for a vital gaming mechanic.
They have devoted their time and effort to speed; in fact this has now become a meme (even the official Sonic twitter account makes jokes about it) – I would argue though that speed was the least important game-play mechanic in the original trilogy. Yes speed was a USP but the inertia, physics and velocity were a reward for the skilled player, it was not the core mechanic that the game was built around. The Sonic series was built around a core of precision platforming and exploration. There is a very deep risk/reward system going unnoticed in the background – often times you will be punished with a needless death for running too fast if you are not knowledgeable of the level design.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the Mega Drive games; we’ll list the levels that can be easily sped through (by this I mean by someone who is new to the game)
Sonic 1 – Green hill Zone, Starlight Zone (2/6 stages)
Sonic 2 – Emerald Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Casino Zone (3/10 stages)
Sonic 3 & Knuckles – Angel Island Zone, Carnival Night Zone, Launch Base Zone, Mushroom Hill Zone, Hidden Palace Zone (5/13 stages)
There is a distinct pattern here; each of the 3 games has less than 50% of their levels being designed specifically for speed – and of those levels 4 of them are the first level in their game (if we consider ‘Sonic 3 and Knuckles’ to be two separate games) so you’d expect them to be easy.
The levels that aren’t designed for speed have varied designs that range from precision platforming, puzzle solving and exploration. In fact as the series progressed the levels got larger and more labyrinthine in their layout which moved them away from speed more and more’. ‘Sonic 3’ encouraged the player to explore every nook and cranny of every route for secrets. It very much is the ‘Super Mario World’ of the series and it is the closest Sonic came to beating the plumber in his own genre.
The point is that THIS is the Sonic we all know and love – and yet when he went into the third dimension SEGA focused fully on his speed – why?
I think that the move into 3D brought with it multiple challenges that SEGA failed to plan for; the first was the larger budget that game making would demand of them – this is a vital point because we know that SEGA were on the ropes in a financial sense after the disaster that was the Saturn.
Making levels larger and more complex than those we have seen in ‘Sonic 3’ would be a huge financial burden on SEGA – making simple roller-coaster levels was much cheaper and made for a much more marketable and impressive game to sell their new system.
Yes Adventure was an immense amount of fun, and yes it had a few complex levels (Icecap springs to mind), but these were in the minority now and it marks the first step away from what made Sonic so popular and his games so good. With every game since Adventure the spectacle increased but the foundations of Sonic were eroded. As SEGA continued to pump out relatively cheap Sonic games (and making huge profits) they moved further away from the precision platforming and exploration until they were non-existent (‘Sonic Heroes’ has literally no precision platforming levels). By removing these aspects of the game they have removed the risk/reward system and created a skill-less system that is the gaming equivalent of junk food.
In their pursuit of pure speed – SEGA has forgotten their design ethos for Sonic and created a game series that is as vapid, shallow and unsatisfying to play as the countless mascot games they crushed in the early 90s.
I have faith in Christian Whitehead and his knowledge of the franchise to bring back the balance that is needed for a truly great Sonic game! I am now eagerly awaiting ‘Sonic Mania’ because this first glimpse looks bloody incredible – I just hope I’m not stuck in the Sonic Cycle!
What do you think is the reason for Sonic’s sad decline?
Are you excited for Mania?
Tell me your thoughts in the comment section!