Retro gamers took great delight in Sega's announcement of Sonic The Hedgehog 4, and with good reason. If the early teasers are to be believed, then Sega is finally giving the fans what they want—a return to the simple, 2D sidescrolling platformer that made the franchise so popular twenty years ago. Since then, there have been a lot of missteps for our favorite hedgehog, and with the impending release of Sonic 4, now's the time consider where the series went off the rails and what Sega will have to do to put their once-beloved mascot back on track.
The trend of adding sidekicks and new nemeses started early in the franchise, with Tails popping up in Sonic 2 and Knuckles debuting soon thereafter in Sonic 3. At this point though, the additions weren't too objectionable since the formula was still more or less intact. After all, partners aren't necessarily bad; Mario had Luigi, so naturally the thinking was that Sonic needed a sidekick too. The inclusion of Knuckles was even sort of cool because being a lot like Sonic, he represented a capable villainous foil. Even better, the combination of the two as playable characters in Sonic & Knuckles augmented the game's already dynamic gameplay, convincing us that Sega had hit upon the perfect number of characters.
The problems began when the cast kept growing to accommodate an unmanageable number of secondary and tertiary characters no reasonable person could ever care about. Yes, Amy was the annoying "love interest," but in addition to her, many other throwaway characters were added like Big the Cat, Froggy, Rogue, Silver Sonic, Shadow and more. If you search the list of recurring characters in the Sonic franchise on Wikipedia, you'll find twenty-five of them listed. It's gotten to be too much, and don't even try to tell me there's a single gamer out there who gives two hoots about Cream and Cheese. Thankfully, the Sonic 4 website shows bio slots for only two main characters, the only one currently revealed being Sonic himself.
Streamline the Gameplay
If the sidekick strategy was bad, the move to 3D was even worse. The company first dabbled in the third dimension with Sonic 3D Blast, but that wasn't true 3D so much as an illusion of it created with isometric camera trickery. The true 3D revolution came with the Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure, unfortunately for us.
A huge problem with Sonic Adventure and its sequel was the fact that Sonic's speed was effectively hamstrung by poor camera angles and exceptionally frustrating platforming. What made the side-scrolling Sonic games a thing of beauty was when Sonic got up to speed and started ripping up the scenery. Unfortunately, what made the 3D games such a mess were the moments when poor camera work made players run headlong into walls or off of cliffs. Though that aspect of the franchise has been cleaned up considerably over the years, in the early days of the transition to 3D, it really broke the experience and left Sonic fans frustrated and hurt by their old friend.
Another way in which Sonic Adventure signaled the beginning of the end was the inclusion of its adventure stages. Where Sonic games had once been about speed and precision, players now found themselves slowly strolling through towns and conversing with NPCs who sported some of the worst voice acting this side of Resident Evil. Fans who were used to a blistering-fast, linear experience found themselves dumped into this quasi-open world game and were forced to go through entire segments controlling characters like Amy and using a hammer to bash at baddies. Who signed up for that?
As if all this weren't enough, in recent years developer Sonic Team decided to start including pointless mechanics like swordplay (Sonic & The Black Knight), guns (Shadow the Hedgehog) and even a Werehog (Sonic Unleashed). Needless to say, none of these ideas worked. There was never a need to change Sonic's fundamental nature, as Dimps—the development studio behind Sonic 4—seems to realize. What we're seeing with this new game is a return to the basics; spins, dash jumps, loop-de-loops and ring collecting all appear to be the focus, and that's precisely what the franchise needs in order to win back jaded and bitter fans. (Unless of course, Dimps throws in a water level with those horrid air bubbles. If that comes back, forgiveness is revoked.)
If Sega is truly serious about recapturing Sonic's former glory, they should look to a couple of other recently revitalized classic franchises for inspiration. Mega Man 9 took that series back to its roots and fans ate it up, so much so that Mega Man 10 is being released in the exact same style. Nintendo has seen similar success with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that is ingenious in its simplicity. The lesson here is that when it comes to the classic characters of our gamer childhoods, all we really want is to remember the good ol' days.
What gamers most fondly recall about Sonic is the fact that he's always had just the right amount of attitude and edge to make him stand out from the crowd. His annoyed toe-tap from the original Sonic The Hedgehog game was the first shot fired in the hip, edgy, in-your-face 90s mascot revolution. Sonic's "too cool for school" persona inspired legions of copycats, from the good (Earthworm Jim) to the awful (Gex). In a sea of interchangeable protagonists, Sonic was the first character who really defined a franchise.
After Sonic & Knuckles, Sega began the process of fundamentally redefining Sonic's demeanor, trying to make him more kid-friendly and appeal to an audience that really knew nothing about the character's origins. Over the years, Nintendo has been able to constantly rewrite Mario's persona basically because he's never really had one, he's just a mild-mannered guy who's as happy playing baseball or racing go-karts as he is saving a princess. Sonic, on the other hand, always had that bit of swagger that said his sole purpose in life was to ruin Dr. Robotnik's day, and his character is diminished without it.
After all the ways the franchise has gone wrong, the good news is that Sonic The Hedgehog 4 appears ready put the Blue Blur back in his element and erase the previous half-hearted attempts to make him family-friendly.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is slated for this summer, and with only a few short months until its release, Sega, Dimps—we entreat you—strip out the unnecessary elements that have hindered the franchise all these years and help us remember what made us fall in love with Sonic in the first place. In return, we promise to forgive our hero his sins and welcome him back into our living rooms. We missed you buddy, and we hope this time you're back for good.