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Look, Sega. I’m not here to tell you how to save Sonic.
The truth is, despite my love for a series that I grew up with (I used to sleep with a Sonic the Hedgehog doll), I’m not a marketing wizard. I’m not even a game designer. I’m just a journalist with lots of nostalgia and a bit of anger. How could you have let Sonic fall so far? The latest games in the series, Sonic Boom on the Wii U and 3DS, only sold a meager 490,000 copies combined. That’s a new low for the franchise.
Again, I don’t claim to have a magic wand that can save all of Sonic’s problems. But can’t we at least learn from past mistakes? Sonic Boom isn’t the first horrible entry in the franchise. It might not even be the worst. So let’s look at the bottom of the Sonic barrel and see what lessons we’ll find.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)
Stop trying to complicate Sonic’s world. The original game had a simple, charming story. Dr. Robotnik has kidnapped Sonic’s friends and put them inside robots. Sonic needs to save them. Bam. Good to go. Just like Mario going to save the princess, it gives us motivation without boring us with unnecessary plot.
But while Mario games still use simple narratives, Sonic insists on bloating its stories. Things really began to get bad in 1999’s Sonic Adventure, when all of a sudden Sonic and his friends began living in a modern world filled with human civilians. Still, even then, the story was kind of simple (bad man is trying to destroy world with ancient monster, stop him).
Sonic in 2006 is when things got ridiculous. The opening cutscene looks like something out of a Final Fantasy. The story involves time travel, an item actually called the Scepter of Darkness, and a human princess that — in maybe the franchise’s creepiest moment ever — kisses Sonic.
No one cares about the plot of a Sonic game. Well, maybe some people. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should suffer, especially when the story is as poorly written and voice-acted as it is. But even with better production values, it’s completely unnecessary.
Stop releasing buggy games. All of the 3D Sonic games have had their fair share of bugs, but Sonic ’06 makes Assassin’s Creed: Unity look like a paragon of smoothness. Characters fall through floors, the camera constantly gets stuck, and the load times are so long they’re actually funny.
The bugs were so numerous and horrible that it’s impossible for Sega to not have known about them. We’ve heard excuses before. Development was troubled, they had a deadline to meet, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t matter. Shipping a broken game permanently damages your brand, and the franchise still hasn’t completely recovered from the bad taste Sonic ’06 left in fans’ mouths.
Sonic Unleashed (2008)
Sonic shouldn’t be an action game. The classic Sonic games are platformers. It’s what they did well. All of the “action” was just jumping on people. You knew a bad guy was extra-tough if you had to jump on him more than once. Still, for whatever reason, Sega keeps trying to make Sonic some kind of an action series.
It even started before Unleashed. A third of the stages in Sonic Adventure 2 had Tails and Dr. Robotnik walking around in slow mechs while they slowly shot lasers and missiles everywhere. Sonic Heroes gave enemies health bars, so simply jumping on them once and moving on with your life wasn’t an option. Instead you had to keep bouncing on them or punching them until they finally exploded. Sega made the player stop for repetitive, simple, and boring fighting sections. What could be more fun in a speed-based platformer?
Sonic Unleashed took things too far. In half of the game, Sonic transformed into a werewolf-like creature that played more like Kratos than a speedy hedgehog. Sega seriously turned half of a Sonic game into a combo-based God of War clone. Not even a good one.
Sonic doesn’t always have to go so fast that you don’t know what’s going on. Sonic Unleashed’s other levels are much better. They’re speed-based platforming stages that mostly take place in 2D planes, with the camera occasionally moving behind Sonic. Still, even these levels have problems.
Now, everyone knows that Sonic is fast. But that doesn’t mean that he should move so quickly that we can’t possibly control him fast enough to avoid certain death. If you go back and play the original Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s smart about when it lets Sonic let loose. It’s usually in areas that aren’t dangerous and with loops, so you get the thrill of the speed and the fun visuals of spinning around a level, and they almost always end by stopping Sonic with a small spring or a dead-end.
In Sonic Unleashed, you’re always moving at a blistering pace and the level is usually leading you into harm’s way. You barely have any time to react. You’ll often run straight to your death, and your only real chance of progressing is by memorizing a level well enough that you know what’s coming. It’s victory by memorization instead of skill.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (2014)
Stop trying to modernize Sonic. The original design for Sonic is perfect. Like classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, he’s predominantly made up of appealing, round shapes, but the pointy sneakers and spikes on his back give him a sense of his speed. In 1999, Sega redesigned their mascot for Sonic Adventure. They made him longer, taller, and more stylized.
And he’s been closer to Poochy than Mickey ever since.
Sonic used to be cool. He would stare at you impatiently if you took to long pressing a button. But once Sonic started talking, his previously effortless hipness became painful. The once likable character became annoying, like a cute kid entering his awkward, know-it-all preteen years.
In Sonic Boom, the entire cast received one of the weirdest redesigns in gaming history. Sonic became even lankier. Knuckles was suddenly a top-heavy brute. When they really needed to bring these characters back to their more likable, simpler designs, Sega instead sent them off the deep end and into the realm “are you kidding me?”
Maybe just quit. The more I look at Sonic Boom, the more depressed I get. Any other lessons I can think are already discussed above. That means you’ve already made these mistakes numerous times before, and instead of learning from them,you decided to walk into a commercial disaster than anyone could have seen coming.
Sonic Boom is a buggy mess. It has way too much plot, and the story stinks. You turned Sonic into a boring action game. How many times can you repeat these mistakes?
I can’t imagine ever having confidence in a Sonic project again. Sega has had two decades to learn how to handle Sonic in 3D. 2011’s Sonic Generations is the only entry in the series that came out after the Clinton administration I could comfortably call good. And, surprise, it features a minimal story, the classic Sonic design, and gameplay based on platforming.
You know what, maybe I do know how to save Sonic. You know everything you want to do for the next one? I know you have a room full of marketers staring at concept drawings in some board room right now. Sonic probably has a jetpack and a bazooka or something. All of that stuff, just trash it. Do the opposite. What the hell, it can’t get much worse.
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