Sonic leaps down from the sky with the Death Egg in the background.

I was pretty much raised on SEGA games, and playing the New Super Mario Bros. game on the Wii this week has been a bit of a minor revelation for me – it’s a fantastic game, and it got me thinking why hasn’t Sonic team pulled out all the stops and made the next gen Sonic game we’re all waiting for.

I don’t hold out much hope for Sonic anymore like many others. But if Sonic Team is to have any chance of winning over us old school fans, they have to tap back into what made Sonic great.

A likeable cast of characters

And by cast of characters I mean Sonic. All other characters are largely superfluous. Tails, Knuckles and Robotnik work because in previous games new characters had a purpose. Tails became the personification of the new multiplayer aspect of the series (an aspect that foreshadowed the latest Mario game by some 17 years) and he positively improved the dynamic of the Sonic series in doing so. Knuckles became the classic anti-hero and a contrast to Sonic’s speed, a direct result of complaints that the Sonic was all speed and no brain.

And Dr. Robotnik was a proper badguy, power mad but deeply inventive, the embodiment of the changes that the Sonic levels go through, from dazzling casinos to scrapyards all popping out of his need to invent his way around his hedgehog menace. This allowed Sonic to go above and beyond the elemental and season based level designs of other platformers, because behind the scenes there was a crazy but insanely bright evil genius preparing your next hell-sent obstacle course.

Sonic in the Special stage and stuck between the bumpers in the Scrapyard Zone.

A developer to die for

Over the years Sonic Team have created a wealth of well-regarded games. But when they started out Nintendo had a major headstart, so Sonic the Hedgehog became the masterpiece that would allow this tiny new developer to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nintendo’s Mario. Creating the first Sonic game was a labour of love and the results of that first creative struggle are obvious. The first Sonic game was not only a technical marvel, but a deeply engaging platformer which could be sped through or completed fully by carefully collecting each of the six chaos emeralds.

But recently Sonic Team has struggled to maintain gamers attention in a vast ocean of big platforming talent. The various fractures of the team working in two different regions (America and Japan) over the years may have taken their toll, as has the pressure to create more and more successful games franchises. Despite several key members moving on to pastures new, Sonic Team still proved a capable developer creating unique and engaging games right up to the late 1990s, titles like Phantasy Star Online, ChuChu Rocket!, and NiGHTS Into Dreams.

Based on the calibur of games that Sonic Team has made in the past, there’s no real reason why they couldn’t pull out all the stops and give Sonic a reimagining similiar to what Nintendo have achieved. The 2D/HD remake idea is starting to catch on as developers start to tap into gaming nostalgia in a big way. The Zelda series played with this idea with Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube, mixing 2D fun with beautiful up-to-date 3D moments. Most recently Komani’s Rocket Knight seems to be following a similar route only with the action taking place in HD.

Sonic and Tails in the Casino Night Zone and flying using a biplane.

The right perspective

While I am not a huge fan of the 3D games, I imagine this is where a lot of Sonic fans lost their way. It wasn’t just the change from 2D, but changes to the character design and platforming structure that put some gamers off. The original Sonic games used perspective carefully, limiting 3D elements to special zones or bonus levels where the change in viewpoint had a context.

And now the increasing focus on speed make the more famous level design choices in Sonic rather obtuse. The spiral rings and jumping sections made rather redundant by the changes in camera angle. Despite the impressiveness of Sonic’s first foray into 3D, it has become increasingly more difficult to notice any massive improvements that each new 2D Sonic game added to the series.

For me Sonic works best with the old formula of the original games; two or three zones with a boss, with each zone becoming progressively more difficult. Saving wasn’t an option until Sonic 3, so you had to rely on the most part on skill and repetition to improve enough to master your personal best. Maybe that’s where the more recent games have fallen down – increasingly rewarding players for speeding through zones quickly rather than learning how best to actually play them.

The intro and special stages to Sonic 3.

A decent soundtrack

There’s simply no beating the 16-bit Sonic soundtracks. Each one is instantly recognizable and conveys the message of each zone perfectly. The music that the Sonic composers were able to tease out of the limitations of the Mega Drive is nothing short of astounding, and this is where I think the modern Sonic games have fallen down the most. So much of that original music was open to interpretation, a reminder of the fun you were having just as the games were beginning to tax you. The Sonic music did so much more than accompany the level, it emulated the mood of each zone, and established the sort of pace you should tackle it at, as a result Sonic games quickly become very flat without the right music.

Newer Sonic games seem to deviate from this using music with lyrics for the key points of the games. While the new music is catchy, soundtracking a game in this way gives a target audience to the sound moving it away from the universality of the 16-Bit tunes. This is the main reason I don’t think voice acting works particularly well for the series either, with silent protagonists the developers had to work that much harder to create ways to indicate how characters were feeling, and it mostly worked, just look at Knuckles’ badass introduction to the series in Sonic 3, it was quite clear that a serious vendetta was forming and it developed without a word being spoken.

Two of the later stages from Sonic and Knuckles.

Not losing sight of the USP

It’s easy to forget Sonic’s special ability simply because it is so well known. If recent Sonic games are to be considered then apparently running at the speed of sound just isn’t exciting enough anymore. In the last few years Sonic’s name has been associated with sports events, racing games and he’s even had a curse to deal with. While the 1990s were full of spin off Sonic titles they were seldom at the expense of Sonic’s reputation. I’d like to see a new Sonic game make continued use of the characters best asset: his speed, and only his speed.

And this means knowing when it is appropriate to use it. Following the Sonic franchise of late means playing a game of mixed signals, including design decisions that seem to reek of profiteering, darker plots that aim at older gamers, with confusing side-stories aimed at adolescents. Losing all of these cutscenes and gimmicks would get the series back on track helping to move the focus of the franchise away from telling a story and back to creating an enjoyable, memorable game filled with dynamic zones and imaginative badniks, more like the sort of Sonic games we’re used to.

Knuckles running through the Mushroom Hill zone, and Sonic 1's pass screen.

Invention not reinvention

Most of all I am tired of the reimaginings of Sonic – the endless takes on his character designs and that of his nemesis Robotnik. The numerous changes to gameplay in order to fit in another tenuous link to another new game world. Dr. Robotnik’s inventiveness allows for grander and crazier game designs, but instead we seem to get endless promises about the next great Sonic game and not much of a reward for waiting. Suspending our disbelief based on the games that Sonic Team have made in the past has led to increasingly more disappointing current gen titles. While other developers learn from the mistakes made from deviating too much from the style guide, Sonic Team just seems to be doomed to repeat each critical failure by trying to throw too many ideas at the problem.

The next Sonic game could be a return to form, the proper Sonic game we’re all waiting for or more likely a quick disappointment. Sonic was a great series but somewhere along the line they made it a pastiche of itself, doomed to embody the mediocre platform market that it once soared above.

Sonic Team needs to go back to basics, back to those wondrous colour palettes, the captivating music, the perfectly-paced 2D arena and make a game worthy of being sold next to the newest Super Mario Bros. game. There are no major reasons why this Sonic era can’t be one we can look back on and laugh at, because let’s face it that’s the only situation in which the Sonic series should be a laughing stock.

The first two zones from the original Sonic game.

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