The blue hedgehog is getting slower in his old age, crashing into things that constantly knock him on his butt. Sonic has not had a good decade, with critical flops sales busts, one of gaming’s fastest icons needs a big overhaul.
As a kid, I enjoyed playing as Sonic because of his fast place and cleverly designed levels that were a challenge to learn– and (eventually) beat. Completing those levels was a reward in itself.
But, series entries like Sonic: The Lost World, Sonic Boom and Sonic the Hedgehog have taken the focus away from fast and precise platforming and forgotten what made Sonic great in the first place: speed. Instead, they’ve tried to merge the fast-paced nature with awkward 3D turns and platforming that ultimately end in clunky wipeouts.
Ever since Sonic’s arrival on the 3D plane, new games have explored a number of concepts including treasure hunting in space, sword fighting, Sonic turning into a ‘Werehog,’ and even fishing. It’s bad enough that most of these new ventures are laughably bad all by themselves. It only gets worse as classic levels included in these titles are just as poor.
Take Dusty Desert from the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog release–an abysmal level from an abysmal game. You take control of Silver and Amy as they slowly help each other find a way through the ruins below the desert. And that’s the problem. It’s an incredibly slow-paced level with almost no challenge at all.
Silver can use his psychic powers to float across large gaps in the floor, removing almost any challenge that may have been present without levitation. The worst part of the level is a puzzle that forces you to place large balls into holes with a limited number of hits. It slows the action down even more and becomes both frustrating and mundane.
Sonic knows he’s “gotta go fast,” and yet he gets slower with each 3D installment. In order for the focus of the series to remain on speed, the best way to do that is keep Sonic on a 2-dimensional plane. Most, if not all, of the masterful levels found in the franchise keep things in 2D and use 3D in visually appealing and intuitive ways.
Look at the Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic Generations on the PlayStation 3, a 3D remake of the classic level from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It created a beautiful hybrid of 2D and 3D presentation that brought the level to life.
It’s incredibly fast paced. Rarely does Sonic slow down to take a breather during this 20-minute sprint through tubes, ramps, and platforms. Each jump, boost and enemy is placed for optimal nonstop speed, just like the Sonic we all know and love.
What’s most impressive is how the Sonic Team handled the 3D sections of the chemical plant. They showcase a mixture of quick bouts of combat with multiple enemies that thrust you back into a sprint on a 3D plane, opening up a gorgeous view of a brooding cityscape.
Which of those two levels would you rather play?
The difference between these versions of Dusky Desert and the Chemical Plant Zone is jarring. While they try to achieve different goals within the Sonic universe, it’s pretty obvious which gameplay style is succeeding.
Sonic Generations isn’t trying to emulate Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie. It’s taking what Sonic did best in its early installments and running with it. It’s taking a small part of those platformers and blending it with traditional Sonic mechanics so it feels natural. It’s not giving players time to breathe, it’s shoving running shoes on their feet and kicking them in the butt.
Getting Back to Basics
While Sonic has not been cherished in his adventures over the past few years, Sega and the Sonic Team seem to be getting things back on track. Recently released Sonic Mania footage looks to focus on the blue hedgehog’s addiction to speed rather than his blunders with 3D platforming.
The market for fast paced side scrolling action is still plentiful. Games like Runbow and Super Meat Boy have found critical and financial success that prove a fun Sonic game isn’t too far gone. It’s time for Sonic to take a break from the Olympics and second-tier kart racing. It’s time for Sonic to speed back up.