Friday, June 23, 2017

How to Fix Sonic the Hedgehog

First off, a caveat: I am by no means the first person to bring up ways in which the Sonic series has been less than perfect. The issue has been addressed in multiple ways. Simply Google the phrase “How to fix Sonic the Hedgehog” and you’ll get a number of hits and discussion boards all geared towards the ways in which he can be improved. I’ve heard of ideas such as going back to world-building roots or getting rid of the unnecessary edge to some of the characters (looking at you, Shadow) to simply sticking with the 2-D model that the game series first launched with. What I’m going to cover today has, in all probability, been talked about before. In other words, what I’m going to tell you probably isn’t a novel idea. It’s one I haven’t come across myself, but it surely must have been discussed in some forum board or late-night breakfast joint somewhere.

An additional caveat: I haven’t exactly played the newer games. The furthest I managed to bring myself (yes, effort was involved in getting myself to buy the later games) was in playing Sonic Heroes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. I’ll be blunt now: I didn’t care for the former and enjoyed the latter, as well as its prequel. But, all the same, I couldn’t bring myself to continue purchasing the new games. Sonic Colors, Sonic Unleashed, Shadow the Hedgehog (ugh): I knew all of them would have the same core problem. Shadow probably had a few more (ha!), but at their core, the newer games all have the same issue.

Every segment of demo I see coming from a new Sonic game, every screenshot of a fan’s playthrough on Facebook, every mention of the different features and designs that the newest game in the series will incorporate--they all fail to address a basic issue.


Sonic is too fast. There, I said it.

"Behold my legacy!"

But let’s back up a bit. Let’s go back to what I said a moment ago. I mentioned that I liked Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I liked it because it was like the old games. It featured very similar sorts of levels and bad guys to beat up. It managed to touch on nostalgia without becoming dependent on it. And, most importantly, Sonic’s speed didn’t actually hinder the game play. Just like in the old games.

Back in the days when playing a game meant overcoming a challenge instead of just being immersed in a world (see my post on Dark Souls and Zelda for more), Sonic gamers knew that it took a few playthroughs to memorize a level and then blast through it once it was fully memorized. I myself can remember getting through several levels on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 without taking a single hit. Because this was naturally a function of the game, speed was allowed. Or, to be more precise, controlling Sonic’s speed was allowed. Higher scores were granted to the faster players, but knowing when to jump, when to duck, and where to go were more important bits of info to the players than just running to the right real fast. The point of the game became controlling Sonic’s speed so that the fastest playthrough could be found. Add to this different paths through which one could reach the end of a level (as well as hidden traps and goodies along the way) and the fun of Sonic becomes apparent: getting to the end in the fastest, funnest way possible without losing rings or dying.

You poor children will never know the joy!

Fast forward to the newer, 3-D games. We’ll take Sonic Adventure for instance. While a large portion of the game involves playing levels that have nothing to do with speed (such as the Casino stage or any stage played with Big the Cat), those stages that use getting to the end as fast as possible as the mechanical basis for the level design leave something to be desired. The reason is that Sonic’s playstyle is at odds with how humans function. Before, during the 2-D era, Sonic was not too fast to be playable. He operated at a good speed and when he did go fast, that speed didn’t interfere with a player’s attempts to go through the level. The level could still be enjoyed. The mysterious backgrounds and hidden items and special stages (a glorious invention in gaming) could all be appreciated as they were meant to be.

But now? Now the focus is on making Sonic so fast that the games nowadays actually have to help you play them in order to maintain Sonic’s speed. From utterly boring single-lane movement to auto-controlled camera sequences, the 3-D games began letting the tail wag the dog. Cool level design and player experience was all hindered (or worse, sacrificed) to keep up the appearance that Sonic and his games are about speed.

The sad thing is that the cool parts of the old games were never about the speed. What drew me to the Sonic games were the music, the level designs, and the wonder of knowing that a whole world was out there for Sonic to save without being told much about it, which creates a sense of wonder and awe. We get none of that now. We get awkward controls that are either too sensitive to be used well or are so sensitive that the game has to take control away from the player to maintain the illusion that Sonic’s speed is the real name of the game.

I get it, though: speed is Sonic’s schtick, and in the comics and TV series, that schtick works, but it doesn’t work in the games.

So what would work? Athleticism.

Sonic games need to emphasize more of Sonic’s athleticism. The level designs could be revamped so that the platforming action happens via jumps, flips, slides, somersaults, wall-jumping, and all those sorts of things. Things that made Maria Robotnik and the God of War games fun. Speed needs to be taken out. We don’t need to prove that Sonic is faster than Mario (especially since he actually isn’t). We need to show the Sonic world again. We need compelling level designs with intriguing, minimalist storytelling and special stages. And so we need to stop pretending that speed is what the game is about. Having fun exploring the world is what the game is about and has always been about.

Well, maybe he can be a liiiiittle faster.


We can do one of two things. We can keep Sonic sequestered in the realm of 2-D side scrolling. Or we can take Sonic in a whole new direction, one that doesn’t involve streamlining the level designs so that it's easier for players to match their reaction time to Sonic’s. While I certainly want to see more 2-D games for Sonic to dash through, we can do better in the 3-D platform. We can let Sonic be his Sonicky self through the more standard platforming mechanics that have made several series the hallmarks that they are today.

Let’s agree to slow Sonic down before he crashes into yet another gaming blunder and give the blue blur a better way to be a snarky, rebellious freedom fighter.

Let me ask, intrepid, young speedsters,

What critical flaw have you found in the design of a great game or game series?


How else have you seen a 2-D game fall short when transitioning to a 3-D platform?


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