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Sonic Boom represents at least the second attempt at a reboot for SEGA’s mascot franchise. Is there really any hope left for the franchise at this point? I think the problem is a combination of SEGA’s aims and the search for development talent for the franchise.
Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles — the last indisputably good Sonic games (others have their fans), will be turning 20 years old this year. I’m done giving and listening to input on how to make Sonic games good again. Maybe instead we should look at other franchises that have faced the same challenges and overcome them, and think about what the problem is with Sonic in comparison.
Sonic is a franchise that failed to overcome what TVTropes likes to call the “Polygon Ceiling.” That is, when console gaming moved from 2D to 3D on the N64 and PS1, a lot of old franchises had to redefine themselves to keep with the times. Pretty much all of Nintendo’s franchises successfully made the leap sooner or later, but many others did not.
Castlevania is only recently finding some success with the Lords of Shadow series which has dragged it from handheld obscurity. Capcom has pretty much allowed Mega Man to fade away completely. Konami just basically put a bullet in Bomberman’s head. Sonic is of course the most famous trainwreck. In many ways you could actually say Japanese game design in general had a rough time transitioning into 3D.
With Sonic in particular I think SEGA tries too hard to parrot other popular games. Sonic Adventure tried to ape Mario 64’s collect-a-thon hub world model with mixed results. Sonic Unleashed kept elements of that outdated system and even threw in a God of War rip-off side to the game. Sonic The Lost World basically tried to be “Sonic Galaxy.” Actually that game brings me to the other problem — Sonic trying to follow the apparent rules of big-budget games.
Lost World tried to introduce this new cast of cartoon villains with their own cut scenes, voice acting, and whatnot. This is basically a continuation of the embarrassingly grandiose storyline of the 2006 Sonic The Hedgehog and the characters Unleashed introduced. Lost World didn’t feel much better to me. Meanwhile, people like to make fun of Nintendo for either repeating the same premise in every Mario game or having basically no storyline at all. For games like these, I’d honestly prefer no story to what SEGA keeps trying to do. Why can’t we just go back to the short character animations and emotes we had on the Genesis?
What I’m saying is, Sonic needs to be Sonic. SEGA even tried this with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which turned out to be a digital-only repurposed mobile game. SEGA seems to believe a retail game needs to “feel big” by having complex gameplay and stories, while Nintendo doesn’t really give a crap. No one criticizes the Mario games for being about platforming and absolutely nothing else. They aren’t afraid to be pure, straight-up platformers in retail boxes with full price tags.
A better model for Sonic to follow might be Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. I had no problem paying the full retail price for both of those games despite their purely 2D gameplay and complete lack of voice acting or deep storylines. I bought and enjoyed them because they included a ton of fun gameplay, and that’s all they need. Sure Origins and Legends didn’t sell insane numbers of copies (they were still profitable), but I imagine the Sonic brand is still more visible than Rayman, and might be a bit more successful under a similar model.
Perhaps the problem is SEGA’s own talent. Mario games still have some of the top designers in the industry working on them. Even the recent Rayman games were helmed by Michael Ancel — for years considered one of Ubisoft’s top men. SEGA hasn’t really displayed that level of talent in a Sonic game since 1994, if even then by some accounts. Actually, the main level designer for the Genesis Sonic games left after Knuckles, moved to Naughty Dog where he worked on Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted, and apparently now works at Nintendo. That’s another difference: Nintendo has managed to retain its game design leads for 25-plus years while the SEGA we knew in the 90’s was gutted circa 2004 when all its development studios were reorganized. For most intents and purposes, the SEGA that made Sonic what it was on the Genesis isn’t the SEGA that’s trying to keep the franchise relevant today. In light of that, maybe hiring western designers is a needed change (some of the Genesis games were done in the US). Sonic Boom does have some Naughty Dog veterans involved with it.