What would you do if your childhood video game hero was in trouble? Imagine him in the middle of a dark room, bound and gagged in a chair with an interrogation light beaming down on him. His arch nemesis stands behind him with a can of gasoline, a Bic disposable razor, and a package of uninflated balloons, ready to do god-knows-what. The end seems inevitable at this point, but is it too late?
Of course, the video game hero I am talking about is Sonic the Hedgehog. It seems he has remained on the “continue?” screen since the fall of the Sega Dreamcast. With the recent news of Sega’s budget cuts and huge losses in revenue, you can practically see the seconds ticking away before it’s “game over.” It’s time for Sega to reinstall faith in our blue, downtrodden rodent during these rocky times. It’s time to save Sonic the Hedgehog.
Back to Basics
The Sonic the Hedgehog universe has become a cluttered and awkward mess in recent years. Werehogs, guns, swordplay, town exploration, and annoying sidekicks have diluted Sonic’s world, providing failed and superfluous innovation. The series has become as bloated as its antagonist, Dr. Robotnik, and it’s time to trim the fat. That means no Shadow the Hedgehog or Big the Cat, and the current Eggman returns to the old Dr. Robotnik we all grew up thwarting… Now, I understand Eggman = Dr. Robotnik, but the old version is far superior in name and design.
In a troubled economy it’s best to provide consumers with a sense of comfort and nostalgia, effectively reminding them of “better times.” This could be achieved by returning to the core four characters of the Sega Genesis days; Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. These characters are every bit as memorable as the characters of Mega Man and Mario, and those series have incredibly successful current generation titles that feature their core characters (e.g. Super Mario Galaxy, Mega Man 9). There is no question that by emphasizing the strengths of these incredible video game icons, the corny, kiddy-sweetened pulp that Sonic has become could regain its edge and polish.
3D Minus One
Like many minor league athletes that attempt to make the transition into the major leagues, Sonic just wasn’t ready for the jump to 3D. But, whereas those struggling athletes will slink back down to the minors, Sonic has tried to hold his own among the heavy hitters of 3D action games, and has received quite a bruising. Now is the time for Sonic the Hedgehog’s triumphant reclamation of 2D. If Capcom can understand the blue bomber’s limitations in the 3D realm, and Konami willingly keeps Contra in 2D, Sega should be able to understand the benefits of doing this also. Note that Sonic Adventure wasn’t a terrible game in general, but it simply wasn’t on par with the greatness that was Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and it led to the rubbish that is Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. It has simply been rocky for Sonic in anything but 2 dimensions, with stinkers such as Sonic 3D blast, Sonic R, Sonic Jam, etc.
A shining example of the strength of Sonic in two dimensions can be found on the Game Boy Advance, in the form of Sonic Advance. The game contained the “core four” characters, plus the pink Amy Rose from the fan favorite Sonic CD. If not for the fact that these games had Dr. Robotnik being called “Eggman,” they would be nearly indistinguishable from the Genesis games. The Sonic Advance sequel has been successful in its implementation of the old Sonic formula, and thus several sequels have been spawned. Using these games as a template, developers could implement 2D gameplay with stunning 3D character models and environments.
Teach an New Hog Old Tricks
Speaking of 2D gameplay, when did Sonic the Hedgehog become more of a racing game than a platformer? Traditionally, Sonic games have been a classic jump on platforms and enemies affair, with brief snippets of speed thrown in to break up the pace. Sure, you can fly through most of Green Hill Zone or Emerald Hill Zone at full blast processing speeds, but later Acts in the game require much more focus and careful planning. The adrenaline boosting sprints needn’t disappear, but improving and expanding the platforming to what it used to be is crucial.
As the Sonic series has “evolved” over the years, the control/gameplay of Sonic has become too loose. Controlling Sonic in the Sonic Adventure series feels like the Hedgehog is always running on ice, or has the floaty, lightweight physics of a beach ball when he jumps. It’s time to return gravity to Sonic in order to allow for accessible platforming segments. Namely, no more double tapping the jump button to turn Sonic into a blue heat-seeking missile that boils all combat into a brainless button mashing affair.
In returning to the series’ roots, it is important to reincorporate memorable gameplay like bonus stages, interesting level design, and dynamic boss battles with Dr. Robotnik. Reincorporating the bonus stages will return the Chaos Emeralds to their iconic glory as something that must be earned, not simply gathered through non-interactive cutscenes. Incentive to collect the Chaos Emeralds could be achieved by imbuing each colored gem with stat-boosting properties, such as increased defense, damage, speed, jumping height, and a 2x ring multiplier. Returning the Acts to uniquely themed levels would add variety and unique enemies to the game; think of controlling sonic in Cyber Zone (a virtual reality level with electricity traps and virus-bots), Combat Zone (a war torn level with bombing raids and soldier-bots), Extraterrestrial Zone (Sonic in space with alien-bots and anti-gravity), and the potential list goes on. Even more exciting is dreaming up what contraptions Dr. Robotnik would toss together in his futile attempts to exterminate the blue rodent (Rambo-botnik, a heavy tank, a UFO).
Fire $onic Team
Recently it’s been revealed that the Sonic Team isn’t even close to being the crew of miracle workers that put together the classic Genesis games we knew and loved. It turns out that many of the members have come and gone, and now the development staff uses the “Sonic Team” name as a marketing tool to sell under-developed, uninspired trash.
Ex-Sonic Team employee Ben Andac stated in his famous blog that, “Sonic Team, for all their past accomplishments (long past one should emphasize), are not the development force they once were. They no longer represent that name and ideal they so desperately cling onto now.”
This revealing blog, combined with the fact that the quality Sonic Advance titles were developed by non-Sonic Team development crew “Dimps,” means that Sonic needs to be torn from the leeching hands of Sonic Team. It’s time to stop bleeding the franchise for every last sordid cent and relinquish future big title Sonic games to companies that actually work hard to make decent games. Your time in through, Sonic Team!
S.O.S. Save Our Sonic!
It’s not too late for Sonic. With a return to 2D handled by capable developers, the fun and relevance can be returned to the series. Then, after regaining gamers’ trust with a quality Sonic game, the new development team can slowly wade back into the 3D realm, keeping the old school gameplay close to their hearts. Here’s to hoping the little blue hedgehog has one last life.