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Sonic the Hedgehog: What went wrong?

3 July 2007

Sonic the Hedgehog is remarkable. It’s a hard thing to deny if you’ve played the original games from the early 90s. Simply put, I love Sonic the Hedgehog as much as a man can love an anthropomorphic blue hedgehog without it bordering on bestiality.

I have spent countless hours playing and debating every major Sonic game released (and a lot of the obscure ones too) over the past 16 years. The only thing I can draw is Sonic. The very first thing I did on the internet was look at Sonic stuff. In fact, on my death bed you will see a black, 3 buttoned game pad clutched in my hand and a look of content on my face.

So with that wealth of information about my past, I think I can properly convey to you, the reader, how sincere and knowledgeable I am about this statement: Sonic the Hedgehog games of late have sucked. Hard.

Back in 1991 when the original Sonic the Hedgehog was first released on the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis if you lived in the United States), the game rocked the world, and established Sega as a major competitor to Nintendo and their SNES.

The concept was simple – run fast, get rings, and roll into bad guys.

Consequently, the sequels didn’t add much to this formula. Sonic 2 added the Spin dash move and the ability to transform into Super Sonic. Sonic 3 & Knuckles introduced a few types of shields to the mix. Sonic CD had Sonic moving backwards and forwards in time every now and then.

But the main formula stayed the same. Go fast. Have fun. And it accomplished this with the greatest of ease. Everyone loved Sonic, everyone loved to play Sonic.

And although the Mega Drive still lost out in the end, people still enjoyed it, primarily because of Sonic. It was shortly after this overnight success that things started going sour for Sega, with the Sega CD and 32X add-ons to the console not being very successful.

The only notable games on each were Sonic games (Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaotix respectively), but despite such great games, and even with Sonic CD having been voted the best Sonic game ever, they ultimately failed.

This is where the seeds responsible for the decline of Sonic were sown. After Sonic and Knuckles was released, completing Sonic 3, no new ‘real’ Sonic game was made until 1999. This is when Sonic Adventure was released on the ill-fated Dreamcast, skipping out on a whole generation.

Although praised at the time, looking back at the game now, the glitches and flaws are very apparent. While they were originally glossed over by the initial amazement over the title, said awe has had time to pass.

To put this into perspective – Super Mario 64, when it came out, revolutionized the platformer genre. The game was fantastic, and without it, 3D platformers may not be the same today. If you went back to it now, you’d be hard pressed to start noticing flaws and bugs, and certainly none of the enormity that plagued Sonic Adventure.

Despite these apparent issues, the game was still fun. The introduction of the homing attack was genius, keeping the flow of the game fast. And the sequel was decent as well, even if the introduction of Shadow did seem a bit ‘moving with the times’.



I am teh anti-hero

 


However, after the failings of the Saturn, the public eye wasn’t so easy on the Dreamcast, and it was dropped by Sega halfway through the previous generation as the media’s attention shifted to the all-dominating PlayStation 2. Which is a shame, as the console had many other fantastic titles other then Sonic, notably Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Chu Chu Rocket and Power Stone.

After this happened, Sonic games eventually went multi-platform… and downhill as fast as the titular super-sonic hedgehog can run.

Sonic Adventure 2 was slightly redone and re-released on the GameCube, and although topping GameCube sales charts, was poorly received by critics. Gripes mainly centered on both the dodgy camera and lack of good (read: Sonic) levels.

Subsequent Sonic games failed to fix these initial, glaring problems, sometimes exacerbating them. The ‘Directors Cut’ of Sonic Adventure fixed some control issues from the original game, but added far, far more bugs then apparent in the original title. Sonic Heroes’ level design was perfect to exploit the quirky controls of the game, with teams falling off the edge of the map numerous times in the later levels. Shadow the Hedgehog had similar glitchy controls and poor level design.

And now we come to the new Sonic the Hedgehog game on the PS3 and 360, which Sega promised would be a return to form and fully exploit the core aspect of Sonic: speed.

This game is the worse of the lot. Horribly sluggish loading times, dreadful use of extra characters, major framerate issues causing slowdown, and hugely expansive areas with little or no indication on where you need to be going. Sounds fun, right? Oh, was it mentioned that the player is given less control than ever before over Sonic? We’re dead serious.

 


Get used to seeing this...

 


So is Sonic a game best suited as a ‘pull’ to get a console? The main game to advertise? The much coveted ‘killer app’? Not if you look closer.

Our attention now shifts to an unlikely source: the GameBoy Advance and the DS. Both Nintendo handhelds have been home to incredible Sonic games, namely the Sonic Advance games and Sonic Rush. Both stick to the basics that made Sonic good. Run fast, jump on robots.

And they were great. Similarly, Sonic and the Secret Rings on the Wii is good; it’s quite simple, having you just steer Sonic around the levels. You end up choosing a few upgrades, like the ability to run even faster, slow down time, speed up time, and they add to the overall experience, letting you access more in previous levels.

So if Sonic Team can make such great ‘side’ Sonic games, why are the main games in the series so bad it’s making a devote Sonic fan complain about them?

Here's a quick list of issues that should be resolved:

• Fix the controls – revert back to the way they were in Sonic Adventure 2: run, jump, homing attack, ground attack, grind, spin dash, ring dash. No guns or vehicles. Snowboards, maybe, but again, as long as it’s like it was in Sonic Adventure 2.

• Fix the level designs - make it so that going where you want us to go won’t include the possibility of falling off the edge of the map because of invisible holes. Or because doing the exact same motion to overcome recurring obstacles doesn't work on one particular object. Or when you have no control during a loop.

• Fix the camera – Super Mario 64 was released in 1996; does it really take more than 11 years to copy its camera system effectively?

• Keep the character selection small – for the love of God, we do not want to play as a mech, hunt down emeralds, or bend beams with our minds in Sonic games. All we want to do is run fast and blow up robots as Sonic or Shadow, and possibly fly co-op as Tails.

• The ‘on-rails’ approach of Sonic on the Wii was great, but the similar levels on Sonic on the PS3/360 were not. The idea of using them to ‘break up’ the gameplay was solid, but the implementation was terrible. Giving us no control whilst jumping (which, again, causes a lot of falling off of edges) and making us lose rings for hitting anything made them a chore.

Oh, and if the Wii can get Sonic the Hedgehog games from days gone by, so can the people in the Sony and Microsoft camp. It would please us to be able to play the Golden Age of these Hedgehog games, and surely Sega will get some money from it, hopefully to be used to actually test the games before they’re released.

Come on Sega, give us our Sonic back!


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