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It’s no secret that Sonic hasn’t done so well in more recent years. We all know of the Sonic cycle, a three step waltz of excitement, optimism, and disappointment. While some of the recent Sonic titles could be heralded as decent or okay, that’s not something the second most iconic video game protagonist in history, behind only Mario, should have to settle for.
The downfall of the Sonic franchise comes from his jump into the realm of 3D platforming. Sonic Adventure was a good leap into the world of 3D platforming, it wasn’t perfect, but it had the wow-factor. However, it began some trends that quickly brought the Sonic games down. It tried to make a large, engaging story out of a 2D platformer, and as time went on Sonic’s stories became a giant convoluted mess with more useless or annoying secondary characters than you could shake a stick at. With these extra characters, Sonic games seemed to have lost their focus. Instead of just being a high-speed platformer, games started including slow treasure hunts, or levels where you shoot enemies.
Sega should take a look at how Nintendo has handled Mario. Instead of adding more and more types of play to the Mario mainline series, Mario’s platforming is refined further with every iteration. He’s not given tons of annoying sidekicks with opposing play styles. When something is added to Mario it means it’s there to further the core concept of the games, which is get from here to there by using creative jumping related abilities. Sonic games seem to add things because they can, regardless of whether they enhance speed or platforming and often times hampering the speed Sonic fans crave.
Another problem is that speed and 3D platforming simply do not mesh as well as speed and 2D platforming did. Yes you can make it workable, but 3D platformer games need to be slower because you must account for more variables and they have more complex controls. In the past, Sonic has tried to make shortcuts to allow for more speed in 3D environments, and it has backfired. These shortcuts are essentially cutscenes in the middle of play, as you have virtually no control whatsoever during these events. How often does 3D Sonic go through a series of springs and loops where the player can literally take his or her hands off the controller and watch the game play itself? Too many times is the correct answer here. How do you create a false sense of speed when dealing with enemies in a 3D Sonic game? Well you certainly don’t ask the player to do precision jumping in three dimensions while going at Sonic speeds, so you give them a homing attack. Platforming is a genre defined by precise controls and exacting accuracy, to which the homing attack is anathema. It removes more control from players and instead of upping the need for precision it enables a horseshoes “close enough” mentality.
Why is 2D platforming better for faster paced games? 2D has an advantage in speed because the camera should never be out of position. It can be centered on the character making sure to never obscure the player’s view. On top of that, all the information the player needs is given to them. The designers challenge players to solve the problem with the information and tools given instead of forcing the player to look for the information themselves. By removing the third dimension there is a sacrifice of player freedom, not to be confused with player control, in exchange for faster gameplay. Since Sonic is about platforming and speed, it doesn’t benefit as much as Mario does from the jump to 3D because Mario encourages exploring over speed in its platforming and doesn’t suffer from the slowdown of three dimension movement.
A game that takes the original 16-bit Sonic to the next levels on home consoles is Rayman Legends (I’ve compared Rayman and Sonic in more detail before). Rayman has high-speed platforming with precision controls, almost never playing the game for the player and instead forcing a player to grow and acquire the timing and accuracy needed to advance without implementing homing attacks. It gives the feel of speed you would expect from a classic Sonic game and augments the flow of gameplay by using infinite lives, generous checkpoints, and quick restarts in the event of a death to always keep the player immersed in the action.
Getting back to 2D, dropping excess characters and their slower play styles, returning control to the hands of a player instead of scripted events and homing attacks, and returning to classic Sonic physics are the keys to a new, successful title for everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog. Not energy tethers, slow combat, and a poorly received character redesign.