10 September 2009

Sonic: Do We Dare to Dream in HD?

"Sonic is back!"

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard those three words, I'd have at least eight dollars by now. Here's another quote for you:

"Once bitten, twice shy; three times the fool - anything more than that and you must be a Sonic fan."
I'll admit, the Dreamcast's anniversary has refreshed my optimism, and interviews around the traps indicates Sega has an inkling of what made the machine so great in the first place, BUT--

The real question here is whether anyone at Sega has an inkling of what made Sonic so great in the first place. And the more frightening question is whether the Sonic fans they've supposedly been listening to have a clue either. Trawl through the comments thread of any given Sonic game review - if you handed any one of these people the reins, the results would be disastrous (Frankensteinian, even).

One thing that rings alarm bells to me is the opening two words of the 'Project Needlemouse' trailer:

Did it ever really leave?

I don't recall anyone complaining about the lack of speed in a Sonic title over the past fifteen years, do you? That didn't seem to stop those games from sucking, though, did it? Don't think for one second that I'm actually advocating a slow Sonic the Hedgehog title [Exhibit A: Werehog]. What I'm saying is that speed isn't it. It's not what made the Sonic games great. It's the most popular misconception about the series, and one that I believe has been perpetuated by latecomers to the party, and outsiders looking in on the original experience.

If Sonic was *just* about speed, or even mostly about speed (which again, it was not), then there'd effectively be nothing wrong with any of them. And yet, I'm sure we all agree they're missing something [or somethings] vital.

What's missing is Sonic's 'Lone Ranger' coolness. Even Tails was an unwelcome addition to the formula in my books - he's without a doubt the Robin of the Sonic series, albeit without any conceptual merit whatsoever [except perhaps a counterpoint to Sonic's seriousness?]. His appearance in Sonic 3 had merit from a co-operative gameplay standpoint, but ultimately he was just another hurdle to the game's momentum, and the true test of a Sonic player's skill was to see if Sonic could reach the same areas Tails could without the aid of flight. Sonic Team seem to have had recognised and remedied this in Sonic & Knuckles (for the record, though, Sonic 3 remains my favourite game of all time).

What's also missing is Sonic's 'silent ninja' demeanour. Just look at his facial expressions in-game - sure, he's got attitude, but he's no smart-ass - he's deadly serious about what he has to do. The biggest mistake Sega ever made was to let Sonic open his apparently Steve Urkel mouth in the cartoons, and then allowing that 'attitude' to feed back into the videogame series. The voice just killed it. Sonic went from cool to '
the cool kid at school' in one fell swoop. And that's not cool.

Of course, the transition to 3-D hasn't helped. Jonathan Blow said it himself - the mechanics of the platformer were designed to operate on a 2-D plane - and even Nintendo seems to have realised this with New Super Mario Bros. Wii on the way. The satisfaction of precision jumping is lost in a 3-D platformer, and that was a BIG part of Sonic's gameplay. There have been many glamorous transitions from 2-D to 3-D, but you will find that it's the atmosphere and audiovisuals that have supplemented any design compromises that were necessary to accomodate the extra dimension.

But probably the number one thing that's been missing from the Sonic series is secrets. Let's have a show of hands, veteran Sonic players - did you breeze through every level at breakneck speeds on your initial play-through? Or did you try to collect all the rings, search for secrets, and enter all the special stages for Chaos Emeralds? Yeah, I thought so. Nearly all of this has been lost, not just in the 3-D outings, but all Sonic titles from DS to PS3. Exploration - real, on-the-run exploration. Multiple routes - vertical as well as horizontal scrolling, breakable walls, burrows, springboards hidden in trees, water/fire/electricity shields, bonus stages - all of these intricacies have been lost on the post-Megadrive Sonic game. I'll be interested to see if they make a return in Project Needlemouse, but I'm not holding my breath.

Needlemouse: fingers crossed it won't sting too much.

One encouraging thing was Ken Balough's acknowledgement that the daytime levels of Unleashed were the game's strength. Here's my thought on just about every single 3-D Sonic title ever released: Sonic Team would carefully craft some brilliant speed runs for Sonic, and worrying that the game was not long enough to warrant full price, padded out the experience with ancillary characters, arbitrary story, and menial tasks for Sonic and friends to perform. They practically crammed a fishing game in there, folks! If Sonic Adventure was just the levels strung together, it would be shorter, but it would undeniably be a better game. Sure, it had collision detection issues, the lock-on jumping kind of sucked, and it lacked the elements I've already mentioned, but the levels themselves were quite well-designed. I'm sure the same thing occurred with Unleashed - the Werehog was added because Sega felt that the core game was too short. Perhaps that was the result of extensive focus testing - by the way Sega, can you please stop doing those? I feel crazy dangerous saying something like this, but go with your gut, Sega. These uncertain afterthoughts have been ruining your games.

The inference here seems to be that Project Needlemouse will be a downloadable title on Xbox Live and PSN. If so, it won't matter how short the experience is, so long as every moment is golden. When people pay $10 for a downloadable title, they're not expecting a 10-15 hour game; they're expecting a polished, streamlined experience. If the intended audience is indeed the older gamers who grew up with the 2D Sonics (which seems to be the case), then digital content will reach that audience. If I'm correct in my assumption, this is the smartest move they could have made.

My skepticism is still well and truly alive, but I will be watching the progress of Project Needlemouse with keen interest.


  1. Have you ever emailed SEGA? Your ideas are excellent. I'm intrigued by your comment on Sonic's dead set seriousness. I never really thought about that before, but its true. Lone Ranger Silent Ninja is badass.

  2. I disagree with what you said about Tails, but I agree what you said about Sonic being uncool these days. You're also right about the 3D, it's just not as fun anymore.