Grumbles of a Sonic Aficionado

I don’t describe myself as a fan of anything these days. “Fan” is short for fanatic, and nothing but God Himself is worthy of fanaticism.

But the fact that I once would have described myself as a Sonic Fan is not a secret.

The obvious clue is my first children’s book:

What happened here is I sat down to read my kid a kids’ book, and I didn’t like the book. It occurred to me then and there that I certainly possessed all the component skills to make my own kids’ books, and so I set out to see how that would turn out.

I decided I had better pander to my kid, so that if the book was bad, at least the intended audience would like it. My kid loves sea animals, so I set it underwater.

I decided I had better pander to myself, so that if the kid loved the book and requested it every single night, I wouldn’t get sick of it. Also so I would feel motivated to finish the book. So I plucked Jump the Shark, a character created to parody Sonic the Hedgehog, out of my box of characters. That way the book could be 30ish pages of thinly disguised Sonic fanart.

Now, Jump the Shark isn’t the first bit of evidence I enjoy the occasional Sonic game, nor the best. He’s just a side-effect of my enthusiasm that happened to spin off (all puns always intended) and become my best property.

But we’re not here to talk about Jump the Shark. We’re here to talk about Sonic Games.

Onward and Upward

My favorite Sonic Game is a toss-up between 3&Knuckles, and Mania. Mania has the better gameplay by a decent amount. The drop dash is a game changer. The special stages are the best flavor of special stage to exist in a Sonic. And the level design is just a touch more polished. But 3&K has a coherent story that is well told with sprite pantomime. If I play Angel Island Revisited, a fan program that gives 3&K widescreen and modern gameplay options, provided you’ve bought a specific 3&K rom on Steam that Sega no longer sells (more on that later), 3&K probably edges Mania out.

Thing is, Sonic got to 3&K incrementally.

Sonic 1 was a smash hit. It was rushed out to compete with Nintendo, and it succeeded, out-selling Super Mario World. Of the two, Mario World was the superior game. But Sonic was more attention-grabbing, and it wasn’t bad. The first level, especially, was a finely polished gem, and the gameplay had its own unique spin. (All puns always intended.)

The team that created Sonic split into two, and developed Sonic 2 and Sonic CD in parallel. Each of these games iterated on Sonic 1, improving on it, but in different ways.

Sonic 3&K, in turn, learned from Sonic 2, and polished the level design and the gameplay to a warm glow. And Sonic Mania took lessons both from CD and 3&K to polish things further.

But they couldn’t quite make the game they wanted to. Sega rushed Mania out the door. Actually, Sega rushed all of these games out the door. The reason the Sonic 1 team split was the lead programmer was so upset with Sega rushing his work (and then not paying him a penny extra when his game turned out to be a hit) that he quit working for Sega of Japan… and then got hired by Sega of America to make 2 and 3.

Sega is a merger of two companies, one American, one Japanese, that used to work together to put arcade machines on American Military bases (hence the name SE GA: SErvice GAmes). The two halves work together extraordinarily well for companies run by such wildly different cultures. Which is to say, they don’t work together well at all. But they’ve managed to not split up for a long time.

Right. So Sonic 1, 2, 3&K, and Mania, is a story of a constant upward movement that was hampered by a schizophrenic corporate culture. But there are other Sonic games.

The Adventure

Sonic Adventure was an OK transition to 3D. People like to say it was rough, but, nah. It was alright. Not as graceful a transition as Mario 64, but it could be a decent foundation if it followed the same upward trajectory as Sonic 1 through Sonic 3&K.

Sonic Adventure 2 was that very thing. Surely Sonic Adventure 3 would take the new formula to new heights.

And then the presumptive sequel, Sonic 06, landed and cratered the games and the brand.

From all appearances, the reason it hit so badly was, well, because Sega rushed it out the door a solid year or two before it was finished. Quelle suprise!

3D games would eventually come back in a way that fans, desperate for something slightly better than Sonic 06, would eat up. Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Generations, Sonic Colors.

I’ve tried these games. I don’t like ’em. And they don’t grow. Each one is not an improvement on the others, it’s a regurgitation of the others with a new coat of paint.

Walking with a Dimp Leg

Sega subcontracted handheld 2D Sonic games out to company called Dimps, and.. they aren’t the worst. Sonic Advance is okay. Not as good as Sonic 3, or even Sonic 2, but it’s in the same ballpark as Sonic 2.

In my opinion, Dimps was trying too hard to be Sonic Adventure 2D. Some of this works out for good. Even though I prefer the old Sonic artstyle to the new, the new isn’t bad, and Dimps captures it with beautiful sprites and gorgeous tiles. However, their level design game never, ever lives up to Sonic Team’s 2D level designs, let alone the work in Sonic Mania. And some of the mechanics are a throwback to worse mechanics than the existing 2D Sonic games

For instance, Sonic 3 introduced a shield system that should have been standard or improved upon in every 2D Sonic after. But Sonic Advance didn’t use it or iterate on it. They used the shields from Sonic Adventure, which had to be a step back from the 2D Sonic shields in order to deal with the complexity of moving in 3 dimensions.

Dimps did iterate though. Sonic Advance 2 was better than Sonic Advance. Sonic Advance 3 tried some crazy unique stuff.

And in Sonic Rush, they created in 2D the boost formula that would come to dominate 3D Sonics. And it works in their system. Far better than it works in 3D.

The less said about “Sonic 4,” the better, other than, hey, look what happens when competent developers who have a proven track record of making good games work for Sega, and Sega decides to force a game they were building onto a different platform, rebrands it, and rushes it out the door!

Enough Whining! What do I even want?

Ideally, I want Christian Whitehead and the rest of the Mania team to just dump Sega, and build a game with a character of their own invention. Crowdfund a “spiritual successor.”

Aside from that, there are some fangames out there that look brilliant. Specifically, Sonic Utopia, and Sonic Freedom.

I want the creators of these games to scrape off the serial numbers, invent their own characters, and make full games.

Sure, Sega has ignored their copyright infringements, and will likely continue to ignore them. Although companies change management and policies all the time, so there’s no reason to be too trusting here.

Well, Sega hired fangame creators before, and that’s how we got Mania. So maybe they’ll hire these guys, right? Right?

Yeah. And rush the game out the door a year before it’s done, with invasive DRM and overpriced DLC. No thank you.

I want these guys to announce they are reskinning the games, and move forward with their own IP and produce wonderful games and be rewarded handsomely for it. But I suspect this is not going to happen.

If you want something done right

Sonic Freedom, in particular, is interesting to me. The creator has two goals he’s working towards:

  1. Making the opening cutscene in Sonic CD playable.
  2. Making a Metroidvania.

1 is the gold standard of gameplay for me. I love Sonic 3&K and Mania because they come closest to making that cutscene playable. You would think one of the 3D games could do it better, since you are interacting with a more filled out world in 3D, but no. Nothing has come close.

Most of them try using scripted set pieces or quick-time events. But that’s either A) watching a movie, or B) watching a movie that I can screw up by not memorizing some arbitrary button combo.

If want to watch a movie, I’ll just watch the Sonic CD animation on YouTube. I want to play the cutscene. That means I want to make those things happen with my decisions. By choosing to press buttons that make a character act in a consistent way.

2 is controversial. Exploration exists in Sonic games, especially 3&K. But it’s always been auxiliary to the experience. You explore to find the fastest speedrunning path. When the freedom guy explained he was trying to make a metroidvania, the groans were palpable.

Not from me, though. Action Adventure is my favorite genre. I’d buy a hand-animated Sonic metroidvania in a heartbeat.

Not from Sega though. Sega will install a virus on my computer to keep me from pirating the game I paid for. Up theirs with a cactus.

But it can’t be Sonic if it’s not Sega.

Yeah, well.. I’m not going to talk a fanboy into giving up his pet project on the basis of my rancor towards the company that owns the property.

But I do have an established character who can be used to make an Action Adventure game, a so-called “Metroidvania,” of my own. If I so desire.

Who knows where it will go. Maybe nowhere. It’s certainly not my first priority this moment, or even this month. Maybe next month, though.

I’ll keep you posted.

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