If Sonic is going downhill, it usually means you’re doing well as the speedy hedgehog has forged a legacy out of racing down steep hills, loops and rails. Despite being created by Sega as competition to Nintendo’s own mascot, Mario, his relentless speed, rip roaring game soundtracks and cool exterior are what ultimately set him apart from the ponderous, slow moving plumber cautiously traversing a mushroom kingdom and until recently has enabled him to stand up as an iconic gaming icon in his own right.
Unfortunately this legacy of travelling downhill carries a poisonous irony when describing the recent spate of incarnations in the franchise. Beginning with Sonic Heroes (2004) and continuing through the Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) reboot, Sonic Unleashed (2008), Sonic and the Black Knight (2009), and Sonic: Lost World (2013), Sega’s once illustrious mascot has found himself mired in the wrong kind of downhill spiral. Blogger Jeff Rivera described the reaction to these recent Sonic titles as “being met with derision, mockery and downright bitterness from once Sonic supporters and fans.” While there have been many reasons cited, the most persistent is Sonic’s move into 3D with Sonic Adventure in 1999. Many critics have argued that the fast paced, rhythmic motion of the franchise’ gameplay does not translate well into 3D leading to widespread camera issues, awkward platforming resulting in unreasonable difficulty and a generally decreased sense of speed.
The result is a far cry from Sonic’s propitious beginnings.
In 1991, Japanese developer Sonic Team released Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) to critical acclaim. GameSpot called it “one of the best platformers of all time” and is credited with generating popularity for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. It provided an alternative not just to Mario but to all platformers that were prevalent at the time including Duke Nukem and Ninja Turtles. As a character, Sonic was designed as a rebellious, freedom fighter striking a smart Alek pose on the game’s box art. Combined with his fast, gravity defying movements, Sonic the Hedgehog was ultimately responsible for imbuing platformers with a sense of cool.
Over the following years, the game received two direct sequels and multiple spin offs on various platforms including the introduction of Knuckles who possessed gliding and wall climbing abilities. Sonic Team also brought their mascot into other genres releasing pinball, puzzle and racing games. But despite the introduction into new genres and the creation of new characters many of whom played differently, the core mechanics of creating a fast paced 2D platformer remained unchanged until the late 90s.
In 1999, Sonic Adventure became the first 3D title to be released for the franchise. The game was blessed with the enormous commercial advantage of being a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast. The console itself spearheaded the sixth generation making it one of the first games to showcase the potential of advanced 3D graphics for platformers. Sonic fans and beyond watched in awe at the killer whale chase sequence which has now become one the defining images of the Dreamcast’s tragically short lifespan. Illustrating the new dynamic camera angles, the view swung in front of Sonic as he outran the Orca and zoomed out for a wide look at a fully 3-dimensional loop. Another key new feature was the introduction of ‘adventure fields’ – an enclosed area that existed outside of the game’s levels and could be explored at leisure. They served as an example of the dramatic shift from 2D that enabled an entire world to be created for Sonic to inhabit instead of being restricted to linear ‘zones’.
So the 3D incarnations of Sonic games started off strong and were showing a lot of potential. Unfortunately the transition wasn’t as seamless as early footage suggested and the end product was marred by basic but potentially crippling problems.
The most common area of complaint was the game’s deceptively attractive new camera. While the use of dynamic views during the killer whale chase, loops and jumps was impressive, they were largely scripted and beyond the player’s control. Outside of these moments, the camera would frequently shift away from the player’s intended destination, vital springs and items would be out of view and enemies that could be easily avoided were obscured behind trees and rocks. The Dreamcast controller had no method of manipulating the camera beyond a slow turn from left to right which was impossible during Sonic’s high speed dashes. The result of these difficulties would generally be a swift plummet off a cliff that would have otherwise posed no threat.
Another aspect that did not survive the transition to 3D unscathed was Sonic’s overall sense of speed which was often hampered by technical issues relating to the environment. One moment that still lingers in the memory was his inability to enter a secret tunnel in Emerald Coast unless doing so at a specific point and at a specific angle. Anything less and he would stop dead in his tracks and for a game that relies so heavily on maintaining that momentum, the abrupt loss of speed is a horrible sensation.
Nevertheless, when the game did succeed, it did so with sheer rhythmic beauty. Sonic Adventure is a triumphant display of movement and music that often borders on a surreal ballet of pure energy. In its 2D form, the design of Sonic’s world was limited to checker patterns and static backgrounds made famous by the now mythic Green Hill stage of Sonic the Hedgehog. With the ability to now render entirely 3D levels, the production design became far more outlandish as if the potential previously encapsulated by 2D was now bombarding the player all at once. One stage that still stands out is Twinkle Park. Set in a psychedelic theme park, the stage opens with a dodgem car race down a track suspended in outer space before launching Sonic via a rocket propelled roller coaster into the park proper. He then finds himself surrounded by golden pirate ships, fluorescent water rides, and castles reminiscent of Disneyland all under the shroud of a vivid multi-coloured star field. It was an experience that was crammed with intrigue and wonder that still represents Sonic Team at their most creative. Other highlights of the game include Speed Highway, a night time dash across a city skyline and Lost World which features an Indiana Jones-like temple complete with giant boulder. The sheer variety of imagery on offer here is another factor that sets Sonic well above most other platformers whose worlds tend to retain the same tried and true flavour – a common criticism beginning to creep up on Mario who has recently been accused of appearing all too often in favour of risk taking.
Having said that, the sudden change in Sonic’s world from bizarre checked landscapes to bustling cities and other human centric environments is never explained.
Of course the dazzling level design would be nothing without the game’s soundtrack. While the gameplay, design and plotting of the Sonic franchise has veered between inspired to banal, it’s music is just about the only element that has remained at a consistently high calibre. Classic Sonic games of the 90s featured an array of catchy upbeat tempos ranging from the carefree jingles of Green Hill to the more techno inspired music of Chemical Plant. To suit the new 3D era’s focus on extreme high speed gameplay, a fully realised soundtrack was created that included full instrumental compositions for each level and theme songs for each of the game’s six characters. Although the music of later titles such as Sonic Colours (2010) have been described as J-pop, Sonic Adventure’s soundtrack is very much rooted in the power metal genre and can be compared to bands like Helloween, Blind Guardian and Rhapsody of Fire as having an emotionally charged, and uplifting symphonic sound.
It seems appropriate then that music has since formed a dizzying counterpart to Sonic’s heroic objectives of preventing world domination.
However, it’s impossible to comment on the music in Sonic the Hedgehog games without acknowledging the contributions of Crush 40 – a heavy metal band fronted by Johnny Gioeli – who have been the driving force of the majority of the series’ soundtracks since the 2D era. They provide the game’s finest hour as Super Sonic faces down ‘Perfect Chaos’, a watery behemoth and the story’s final boss. Having now destroyed the city where a large portion of the adventure is set, the fight takes place amongst the flooded, rain drenched ruins of once proud skyscrapers. The climactic power of this final confrontation is augmented enormously by being set to Crush 40’s song ‘Open Your Heart’. The song’s opening signals the beginning of the fight with two bombastic guitar strikes before launching into a tense, all-or-nothing style heavy metal song as Super Sonic charges across the water towards a waiting Chaos. The ability of Crush 40 to imbue the franchise with a unique sense of power would continue in Sonic Adventure 2 (2001). For the ‘Final Hazard’ boss fight which sees both Sonic and the newly introduced Shadow the Hedgehog battling in outer space, the song ‘Live and Learn’ was written with a more aggressive tone to highlight Shadow as an antihero and rival to Sonic.
With the death of the Dreamcast in 2001, Sonic Adventure 2 became the final game in the franchise to be released for a Sega console. While the move into 3D has been met with growing derision as the series has progressed, these two games ensured the Dreamcast lived with heart and soul by providing some of the most exhilarating moments ever committed to a platformer.
While there are some who may look back on Sonic Adventure as not having an enduring quality, this is almost certainly due to its association with more recent and far more severely flawed entries in the franchise. As the years have passed, Sonic Team appear to have either become negligent or simply forgotten that speed is the defining characteristic of their blue creation. The introduction of various gameplay mechanics - the vast majority of which are focused on removing that sense of movement in favour of more rudimentary platforming - gives the impression that Sonic Team have become bent on distancing the game from the exhilarating design that made Sonic Adventure so enjoyable.
Sonic Unleased (2008) saw the introduction of the ‘Werehog’ mechanic in which Sonic transforms into a monstrous alter-ego when playing levels set during the night. While playing as Sonic during the day, the game almost resembles a return to his high speed roots with the beauty of the environment being rightly praised by critics. Unfortunately this is also what makes it truly frustrating. Once the player has to shift into playing as a Werehog, the gameplay takes a jarring lurch into mundane platforming territory as the 768mph capable hedgehog suddenly becomes a slow, plodding ape-like creature. Completely at odds with what Yuji Naka’s creation was intended to represent, these combat focused sections could easily be mistaken for another game entirely. Sonic Unleashed also represents a worrying move into more juvenile territory with the introduction of ‘Chip’ fuelling concerns of a departure from the cool of Sonic’s origins.
The most recent entry in the series, Sonic Lost World, is something of a misnomer. As a Nintendo exclusive along with Sonic and the Black Knight and Sonic Colours were for the Wii, it represents a growing interest on Nintendo’s part to recruit Sega’s mascot into their ranks. Nintendo Power commented in 2010 that while Sonic was originally Mario’s arch nemesis, he seems at home on Nintendo consoles. So much so that Forbes Magazine announced last May that Nintendo had inked a deal to bring a number of future Sonic games to the Wii U With Sonic: Lost World being but the first.
The influence of Nintendo is clearly to be seen in Lost World as Sonic once again becomes platforming centric while drawing a number of comparison’s to Nintendo’s own Super Mario Galaxy (2007). Levels are filled with free floating puzzles, floating islands and boss fights that include an encounter where Sonic must dodge fireballs that has been described as almost identical to a fight with Bowser atop a small planet. The platforming itself is largely lifted from Galaxy with spiked tubes to navigate through and slippery surfaces during a visit to a frozen world. The issue with such blatant copying is the fact that the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog games is incompatible with the slow, tactically driven platforming of Super Mario. While trying to remind gamers that Sonic is the character present in Lost World as opposed to Mario, the fast paced gameplay of previous titles is hindered by the unreasonable difficulty level present in trying to avoid spike traps, obstacles and navigating gravity defying worlds while having virtually no time to react to the given situation. The result is a tedious, excruciatingly slow experience where levels must be reloaded time and again. GameSpot’s Mark Walton commented in his review, “Sonic: Lost World desperately wants to be Mario Galaxy, but in overtly coveting the great Italian plumber, it smothers the talents of its blazing blue hedgehog.” Lost World is sure fire indicator that while Nintendo may have made clear their desire to offer Sonic a new home after Sega’s exit from the hardware industry, that home does not include Mario’s own world and should be a reminder that the original game was created as a departure from that very world to begin with.
So it’s been a difficult road for Sonic of late. At this point it’s important to remember that while the failings of recent titles can be laid squarely at the feet of Sonic Team, it’s hard to stay angry at a company who has put so much emphasis on attempting to bring innovation to its flagship series. From the move to 3D, the introduction of new gameplay mechanics, an entry in just about every genre known to exist and dynamically changing game worlds, there can be no doubting their bravery and efforts to keep Sonic the Hedgehog new and exciting. And at one time, they got it almost exactly right.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a character whose world used to be invigorating, full of life and constantly evolving. Given the chance, and the right kind of free thinking that made him so likeable in the past, he can be again.