The Deterioration of the Sonic Franchise

Most would agree Sonic Boom’s sequel is as anticipated as the violent dry-heaving following a bout of food poisoning. Despite this, Sega’s confusing production decisions may pay off for once.

Once unthinkable, the title provided viable competition to 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog for worst 3D title in the franchise. The sad truth is that fans have calloused themselves to this sort of disappointment. With more foul-ups than triumphs in recent history, it’s safer to expect mediocrity from the blue hedgehog than competency. But why? It’s not although the cartoon-mascot genre has died off. Mario consistently brings in revenue and a demand for the return of vibrantly designed games has shown evident in recent years. The answer may be a basic lack of fundamentals.

Remember when Sonic wasn't a laughingstock?
Remember when Sonic wasn’t a laughingstock?

Let’s look at a timeline of the 3D Sonic games. Although the works have aged questionably, it’s safe to say that both Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 were received with open arms in their time. Sonic Heroes received moderate commendation, although the recurring demand for a Sonic Adventure 3 indicates that the title proved inadequate. Sadly, this was a sign of things to come. The following sequel, Shadow the Hedgehog, took the franchise’s iconic engine and cobbled it together with shallow elements of Grand Theft Auto. Rather than hybridization, we were left with anemia.

Then came the nightmare of all rushed game-schedules. Shadow The Hedgehog could not hold a candle to the catastrophic mess that was 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog. In an attempt to bring the franchise into the next-gen, Sonic Team attempted to include as many different gameplay elements as possible. With each of Sonic’s now innumerable ‘friends’ providing momentary changes in gameplay, in addition to three separate campaigns (one of which featuring Shadow toting meager GTA offerings), the team’s attempt at diverse mechanics translated to a complete lack of polish on any one of its supposed selling points. Combine this with a premature release and you have a buggy, broken, FUBAR game that remains as big a joke now as it was then.

Things this moment isn't: 1.) a frozen screen, 2.) scripted animation, 3.) fun.
Things this moment isn’t: 1.) a frozen screen, 2.) scripted animation, 3.) fun.

Then, something strange happened. A half-decent, mainline, 3D Sonic game was released. Sonic Unleashed featured a new gameplay element wherein night and day cycles would determine the mechanics being used. Day stages harkened to days of yore with their blistering speed and emphasis on reflexes. Night stages were God of War beat-em-up segments. How anyone sitting down at that board meeting managed to convince everyone else that this was a good idea is anyone’s guess. Needless to say, day stages were celebrated while night stages provoked a wide array of emotions, although the general sentiment was that they were inferior to their sun-blessed kin.

Things really seemed to be looking up with Sonic Colors. The title had all the face-melting speed that fans craved with the inclusion of power ups (of which the series is no stranger to) which changed the way that Sonic blazed through stages in subtle ways. It was a return to form with some light experimentation tossed in. Reception was warm and although it didn’t receive the praise of some of its contemporaries such as Super Mario Galaxy, the game was generally considered a solid entry.

That moment when you've been abused for so long that it feels weird when you get into a healthy relationship.
That moment when you’ve been abused for so long that it feels weird when you get into a healthy relationship.

Sonic Generations took the principles that made Sonic Colors a success and injected a healthy dose of nostalgia to whip fans into a frenzy. Having refined the 3D Sonic model from Unleashed and Colors, it’s implementation in Generations was definitely the best in years. Mix in classic 2D platforming ala the games everyone grew up with and you have a wildly successful title. Many fans decreed that this entry marked the true revival of the Sonic franchise. In fact, its biggest criticism has been that it was too short. Did you catch that? For the first time since the Dreamcast’s fall, Sonic Team was actually able to leave their audience wanting more.

Then they threw it all away.

Sonic Lost World implemented a different engine from its predecessors with the inclusion of a parkour system and rotating playing field. While novel, the deviation from functionality led to a whole new host of growing pains. Thankfully, the transition held some merit as reception was at least luke-warm. It’s too bad that Lost World became a bad omen just as Shadow the Hedgehog had.

Re-using a scrapped project from the Sega Saturn days probably wasn’t a great idea.

Sonic Boom sought to re-vitalize a franchise that had already been successfully restarted. By drastically changing its art direction, gameplay, and entire lore, the development team effectively threw away a decade of accumulated polish. It’s arguable that this title is actually worse than Sonic 2006: a glitch-fest of unfinished code not fit for the conscience-bearing consumer. The best thing to come from this reboot is its accompanying cartoon. Likely, this was the biggest determiner in Sega’s decision to double down on a failed investment.

Really though, that’s the root of the Sonic franchise’s missteps: an emphasis on novelty over fundamentals. Every game that has come out on the mainline Sonic series has introduced a drastic change in gameplay with superficial characters tossed in. It isn’t a poor decision to vary mechanics in the interest of freshness, but a team’s divided attention is bound to result in neglected design.

There's nothing wrong with a classic.
There’s nothing wrong with a classic.

There’s something to be said about discipline and repetition. Many criticize Nintendo’s handling of Mario for its repetitive iterations. When examining the plumber’s track record from 64 to 3D Land however, there’s no denying that level design has only improved throughout the years. Does doing the same thing over and over again get boring? Maybe, but there’s really no other way to achieve greatness. Concert violinists rehearse pieces over and over again, not until they get it right, but until they can’t get it wrong. There are nuances to be found in any craft that come only with repetition.

All this this isn’t to say that innovation is unhealthy, but maybe experimentation is best in small doses.

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