Hey it’s Sonic the Hedgehog’s birthday today. Yep, 21 years of Sonic goodness and as I sit back I think back to what made the little blue hedgehog so great.
I got to admit that when it comes to Sonic games, I’m pretty strange. I want to see more of Sonic’s friends and the cool ways stages can be adapted to fit them, I don’t want classic Sonic to ever overtake the rollercoaster action of the modern Sonic, and I love it when Sonic team does new things with this historic franchise. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to run fast like everyone else, but to simply say that Sonic is just about going fast is missing out on a large part of what makes Sonic unique.
If you take a step back and remember the original Sonic the Hedgehog, he was fast, but not that fast. I’ve only gotten so far in that game but I do remember it having it’s fair share of push blocks and careful platforming. Even Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which was first Sonic game, had moments where things could slow down, but really, this game is what set the precedence for what Sonic games were going to be about, at least, from my perspective. Sonic games aren’t about speed, but flow. Yes Sonic runs fast, but you aren’t running fast when you run into an enemy or get poked by a spike trap. Instead, you get through the stages the fastest by knowing where thing are ahead of time and knowing what to do. In retrospect, it seems like keeping Sonic in 2D presented challenges for the developers, as certain parts of Sonic 3 and Knuckles moved things to a snail’s pace and the only really fast parts were the areas that were on auto pilot, but some of that may be because I’ve only as recently as a few years ago ever beaten that game.
The 3D Sonic games though were where I really got into Sonic games and cared about actually completing them. Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast was not only a fun game, but also had a pretty epic story, something new to the Sonic franchise. They managed to get the same fast paced nature of the Sonic levels, and added in new elements such as racing, shooting, escape, hunting, and sadly fishing. In fact, one of the biggest flaws in Sonic Adventure is them trying to add too much in and it really shows as you go down the roster of characters and see how much shorter and recycled the stages are. Big the Cat himself only gets a couple of stages and a boss fight that lasts only 6 seconds. Still, it was definitely on the right track and proved that the Sonic Team writers could write something pretty epic that dealt with various themes of heroism, duty and loneliness, becoming independent, etc. etc.
Seriously though, my favorite Dreamcast era Sonic game has to be Sonic Adventure 2. Once again they introduced the epic storylines and narrowed down the gameplay options to the three best ones from Sonic Adventure, racing, hunting, and shooting. Just replaying the original City Escape and you can probably notice how not only does a replay offer the player more abilities to keep flow up, but it almost seems like it’s required. Some of the levels are designed so well that the first play through is often gentle to the player who doesn’t know what to expect, but still offers a challenge for anyone trying to speed through it. It’s really easy to see with power-ups like the bounce watch and how differently Sonic and Shadow play once Sonic picks up that item. Sadly, I think this was the last game where people accepted Sonic to be accompanied by other characters and where Sonic Team was starting to run out of steam.
I don’t know what quite happened, but Sonic Heroes wasn’t quite up to par with the older 3D Sonic games. I definitely enjoyed team mechanics and it allowed for levels to be designed more dynamically and even branch out for some extra re-playability. Still, the amount of recycling was worse than Sonic Adventure, with all four teams having the same level layouts, and only things like objectives or enemy difficulty was changed. I remember really enjoying the action of Team Sonic, and I enjoyed the plot to Team Dark even more, but Team Chatoix lost me in it’s unique objectives and for anyone going in order, Team Rose was a waste of time as they were the “easy mode” and yet placed after Team Dark, the “hard mode”. The storylines also fell apart, with more of straightforward story with a pretty weak plot twist. The most enjoyable aspects of the game were the continuity references connecting Sonic Adventure 1, 2, and eventually Shadow the Hedgehog into one storyline.
Speaking of which, I’m probably the only one who liked Shadow the Hedgehog on sheer potential. Yes it was Sonic with a gun, but while too many people saw this as Sonic Team only being desperate (I will admit it definitely looked that way), even back then I saw it as a way to make Sonic fresh again. Running and gunning was by far one of the coolest ways to keep action flow high for both beginners and veteran players and while the branching stories didn’t amount to much, even the imaginative consequences of the choices made in the game were enough to keep me playing more and more. I think Shadow the Hedgehog could have been an under-appreciated classic Sonic game if Sonic Team had more time. This was around the time where Sonic games were just coming out left and right and nothing was destroyed more than Sonic the Hedgehog 2006.
I didn’t even finish this game, it was just so incomplete and all thanks to a rushed Christmas release. But, a part of me thinks that the game would have been a wreck regardless, since it took everything that Sonic Adventure had and up it to 11. A large open world that seem relatively pointless, stages that mixed up characters that only stopped the flow of each stages, and an overly dramatic story that didn’t seem quite as epic as older titles. I firmly believe that a fun mechanic can be fun even if it’s not polished up. All of the extra stuff in the game just served to slow down the action and overall really emphasized everything that was wrong with the 3D Sonic games.
But, in the darkness shined a beacon of hope. The Sonic Storybook series and Sonic Unleashed strived to reclaim what made Sonic games fun, mainly by throwing all of the old formulas out the window. Sonic Unleashed introduced the Hedgehog engine that allowed for seamless 3D and 2D action as well as more streamlining mechanics that made it easier for Sonic to maintain flow. The Storybook series took a different approach, placing Sonic on rails. Now both had their flaws, but they both have led to greater things.
From Unleashed we got Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations as the basis for the new modern Sonic and it’s probably never been a better time to be a Sonic fan. These games really capture what it means to have non-stop flow in not only how fast and smooth Sonic runs, but also in how the levels are designed to reward players with shortcuts but not punishing the players by forcing them to come to a ceasing halt. Then there’s Sonic and the Black Knight. My God was this game never given a fair chance. Unlike Generations or Colors, the Storybook series had items that made Sonic better. In Black Knight, a lot of these items included ways to increase your score, which made it all so more addictive. It never ceases to sadden me people saw Sonic with a sword and compared it to Shadow the Hedgehog. Again, Shadow had a lot of problems completely unrelated to the gun mechanic, but nope, I guess this is when Sonic fans become pretty shallow. After a few hours of playing, Sonic and the Black Knight became one of the fastest, hardest, and most rewarding Sonic games to date, too bad only a handful of people knew how to play it properly (to be fair, it didn’t have a great tutorial, but that’s a whole other discussion).
So what is the future for Sonic? To me, it’s not really clear. Like Mario, Sonic games have become more about the level designs than the player mechanics, and I’m fine with that. Sonic Unleashed’s daytime stages, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Generations modern stages have proven that Sonic games can change very little in how they’re played but still feel fresh and interesting. Now, I haven’t played any of the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 games, so if anyone wants to give their two cents that would be great, but for me, I’m going to enjoy looking at the Sonic games from both the past and present and eagerly await the future.