He may have been cock of the mock back in 1992, but things have never been quite the same since his good-but-not-outstanding 3D debut in Sonic Adventure. Although the quality of individual releases has varied wildly since then, it’s probably fair to say that the overall trajectory has been a downward one. Recently released Wii U exclusive, Sonic Boom, has been critically panned, seemingly representing a new low for the series and causing some critics to propose such radical solutions to the ‘Sonic problem’ as handing the reins to an indie developer or abandoning the franchise entirely, at least for the foreseeable future.
Such cynicism towards modern Sonic is not a recent development. Although I cannot recall the source or to which particular game it referred, I remember reading a rather negative review of one of Sonic’s more recent tropes a few years back arguing that the whole idea of Sonic in 3D was completely fallacious, and Sega would never ever, ever have its elusive Super Mario 64 moment.
I think all of these points of view are flawed; Sega will not relinquish control of what they consider a top tier asset to one of the industry’s small fry, and them simply giving up trying to make Sonic relevant again after years of trying looks equally unlikely. Furthermore, a good 3D Sonic game is not an impossibility, as is evidenced by occasional, frustratingly brief flashes of brilliance observable in even the ‘hog’s most dire outings. As somebody’s who’s stuck by his childhood hero through thick and thin, over the years I think I’ve gained a little perspective on what needs to change. I’d assert that, ultimately, Sonic has three things holding him back from tri-dimensional greatness.
The first, and arguably single most important of these is a fundamental misunderstanding, by Sega, of why classic Sonic worked. Back in the series’ Mega Drive heyday, velocity was earned by zipping down steep inclines and successfully negotiating hazards, but Sonic Adventure began a trend of instead liberally applying speed pads that would automatically jump Sonic to full pelt for the purposes of a predetermined set piece, such as one of the series’ trademark loop-de-loops. The problem is that such sequences are often all smoke and mirrors, and doing anything other than simply holding down forward and enjoying the show will shatter the illusion, condemning Sonic to a fatal fall through half-finished scenery.
To be fair, back in the Dreamcast’s day, physics emulation was smoke and mirrors pretty much across the board anyway, but in the years since, console processing power has grown exponentially, and realistic, or at least game appropriate representation of, physics has become not only possible, but the norm. Yet, Sega are still stuck in their old ways, oblivious to that fact that earning Sonic’s trademark speed is what made the classic iterations so fun, and laying it on a plate atop a metaphorical, easily toppled house of cards robs modern Sonic of its forebearers’ key appeal.
Second is forcing a superfluous supporting cast on an audience that is really only interested in the main man himself, with the possible exceptions of Tails and Knuckles. Big the Cat? Cream the Rabbit? That bunch of clowns from Team Chaotix? I don’t know exactly how many anthropomorphised mammals is too many, but I suspect we’ve been looking at that figure in the rear-view mirror for a long time now. The original intention; offering a variety of gameplay styles to keep things from getting stale, was noble enough, but execution has, to date, ranged from passable to laughable, so it’s probably high time to abandon such distractions and focus on getting Sonic himself’s fundamentals in place before muddying the waters with tertiary characters. And maybe not even then.
Finally, those silly scripts have to go. The gaming world winced collectively the first time Sonic opened his mouth, and has done every time since. Some of the narratives themselves weren’t terrible, but the Nickoloden-esque presentation and delivery sent them far beyond cheesy, often into the realms of utter torture.
In short, Sonic shouldn’t speak, and a modicum of dialogue spoken by the aforementioned barebones supporting cast used to advance the plot through exposition instead, a la the Zelda and Half-Life series’. Such an approach not only prevents drawn out cutscenes that nobody really wants to be subjected to anyway, but also means we’re spared Sonic opening his mouth and offending our ears with pre-pubescent drivel.
As to whether Sega will wise up anytime soon, or simply push on regardless in the vain hope that a hit falls into their laps by chance through some unlikely realisation of the old ‘monkeys writing Shakespeare’ metaphor, that’s anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure; given that Sonic has now spent far more time in the gaming wilderness than he ever did in the limelight, in the context of history, things aren’t looking too good.