Being a Sonic the Hedgehog fan is hard.
I’m one of those people who lived and breathed the classic Sonic games when I was younger. When I was eight I was a loyal subscriber to the UK’s Sonic the Comic (none of this silly Sally Acorn Archie Comics rubbish for me, thank you) and probably put hundreds of hours into Sonic 1 through 3 & Knuckles plus Sonic CD. I even had time for Sonic 3D Blast, and I’m one of those people who will go so far as to very lightly defend Sonic Adventure and its sequel.
Things went off the rails fast soon enough. I remember Heroes being the first ‘major’ Sonic game I thought was truly crap, and then the hits just kept coming: Shadow the Hedgehog, those dubious Wii games, the hugely misguided Sonic 4 and, of course, 2006’s infamous Sonic the Hedgehog. Bad, bad, bad. Times were grim apart from a briefly wonderful turn on DS with Sonic Rush.
“Buried somewhere deep in Sonic Forces is a strong idea for Sonic’s future. It was nowhere close to being expressed in the demo I played, however.”
Over the last few years things started to look up a bit. Sonic Unleashed was half a good game, and then Sonic Colors doubled down on those ideas in a strong way.
Sonic Generations was the culmination of the efforts: against all odds, SEGA seemed like it’d found a way to split the difference between old and new Sonic – and that was by quite literally splitting the game in two. Both sides of the game were better for it, and even the modern Sonic levels in that game were strong.
Sonic Lost World felt like a stumble but not a disaster, and while those Sonic Boom games were an incredible mess that side-reboot actually ended up pretty good – the cartoon was quite successful, and it’s actually pretty funny, believe it or not. Its self aware, slapstick nature has the most in common with the best nineties Sonic cartoon, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s on Netflix. Check it.
But, alas, I’m meandering. I’m meandering, I suppose, because getting to the heart of this article is a bit of a bummer: I’ve played a bit of Sonic Forces and, hoo, boy… I’m disappointed.
On paper it should’ve been a no-brainer. Sonic Generations was good, and so a simple sequel to that game seems like a strong idea. The idea to finally let Sonic fans create their own characters in-game is a stroke of genius considering how fans have been doing that for years already (google your name the hedgehog and check the results). But somehow, inexplicably, Sonic Forces so far feels worse than Generations.
In the classic Sonic level I play there’s something floaty to his jumps and generally loose to his movements that doesn’t feel right. The modern Sonic gameplay seems less finessed than Generations, back to some of the pitfalls the series was making back when it first tried this format of gameplay in Unleashed.
The level I play of the new avatar character is guilty of some of the worst enemy design I’ve seen in ages, presumably thus to facilitate the fact the avatar character might have one of a few different abilities depending on how players choose to kit it out.
We weren’t allowed to capture footage of the level, but a quick scrape of SEGA’s YouTube channel reveals a video of the level that demonstrates part of my problem: line after line of enemies just standing there, designed for you to use a flamethrower power-up to blow up in one go. There’s no threat to these enemies – they just sort of stand there, waiting for you to either run straight into them or pull the trigger to blow them into oblivion.
There’s no threat. The enemies are an obstacle in the most literal sense – rather than being there to menace, they’re just there to slow you down. In the modern Sonic levels the enemies either serve this same purpose or serve as homing attack combo pathways to new areas, much the same. At least in Sonic Adventure those police cars that chased you down in Speed Highway actually felt like a threat.
In a way this is a 3D replication of the worst habit of the Sonic Advance games – throwing enemies in your way so that you can hit them, forcing you to slow down. I wonder if I’m nuts for thinking the old games didn’t do this, and when I get home I replay the first few levels of Sonic 3 to check.
“I have to step back and ask if this is the impact of the rose-tinted spectacles of a ’til I die’ Mega Drive kid, but no. This is just objectively rough.”
Part of me has to take a step back at a point. I play all three levels offered in the demo and then stop. I’m turning to the people either side of me from Nintendo-specific press with an exasperated expression. One of them is just laughing in disbelief at the game’s performance, which on Switch shoots for 30fps but in places chugs like it’s GoldenEye split screen.
Okay – so it’s not just me, then. I have to step back and ask if this is the impact of the rose-tinted spectacles of a ’til I die’ Mega Drive kid, but no. This is just objectively rough. It’s astonishing to see the same mistakes repeated with this series over and over again, but here we are.
Somehow, this is a step back from Generations, which I can’t quite believe. I sincerely hope the final game is better.
And yet there are aspects of this kids will love. Sonic and his friends are still a vibrant bunch of characters, and there is something pleasing about the frenetic pace of the modern Sonic levels that appeals. All at once, though, I think this is just a mess. Buried somewhere deep in Sonic Forces is a strong idea for Sonic’s future. It was simply nowhere close to being properly expressed in the demo I played.
The flip side of all this is of course Sonic Mania. Built by hardcore fans who spent their childhoods ripping the Sonic games apart to learn their secrets (do you know at one point in development, Sonic 3’s intro had Sonic riding a surfboard?) it seems to truly understand what made Sonic great and seems to be doing an excellent job at recreating it through a mix of old levels and mechanics mixed with all new locations, moves and other additions.
I actually once upon a time frequented the same message boards as these guys, read about their hacks and played the same fan games reverse-engineered from the Mega Drive physics. I trust them, and you really only need to watch a video of Mania in action to see that they’re obviously on the right track.
This baffles even more – how can SEGA get it so well and misunderstand so thoroughly all at once? Maybe it’s an East/West thing? Mania appears to be a SEGA of America-led project while Forces is coming out of a seemingly lost and confused Sonic Team in Japan. Maybe that Western input is helping to recreate the heyday, when Sonic creator Yuji Naka and other Japanese staff flew out to San Francisco in order to work alongside future PlayStation guru Mark Cerny, future Spyro the Dragon creator Craig Stitt and others in the US to create Sonic 2.
Whatever the reasoning, there continues to be a battle for Sonic’s soul, it seems. Sonic Boom continues to be a pretty funny and successful cartoon attached to a catastrophic game, Sonic Forces seems ambitious but muddled, and Sonic Mania has all the heart in the world, but is still a recreation of everything old from before. Quite where Sonic will ultimately go has never seemed more unclear, but I know I’ll be playing at least one of his games later this year.