Sonic and the Never Ending Gimmicks
Monday, 21st July 2008, 10:43pm (UTC), 2 Comments
If you haven't heard, Sonic and the Black Knight is, now, an official new entry in the series, announced today and hinted at yesterday with a leaked Nintendo Power cover of Sonic with a knight's glove and sword. Just the other day I was thinking that it was unusual to have only two Sonic games in this current 2008 'batch', and surprise surprise, here comes another one. Sega made a press release that doesn't really add much more info other than what could be assumed from the name and the image, but confirms that it is essentially the sequel to Secret Rings, this time set in a medieval storybook as opposed to an Arabian one. I know a lot of uproar against the sword idea has been expressed and I'm not saying I particularly like the concept, but I'm going to reserve my judgement until I know more about it. Evenso, it's hard to envision a game that merges standard Sonic, and presumably Secret Rings-esque gameplay with swordplay that won't drastically change it in any way that is really worth doing at all. The best that anyone determined for Sonic to keep new ideas to an absolute minimum could hope for is that the sword simply offers a few new moves while you're running about the place, but somehow I suspect it'll be a little more complex than that.

Although personally not a big fan of Secret Rings myself, I quite liked the idea of giving the game a whole new theme, and indeed a sub-series of these "Sonic and the.." specially themed games is fine by me, and I suppose they've got the chance to perfect the system that only partly worked well for the original, in my opinion. But then, the best of that system (running fast and dodging obstacles from a behind view) is already being employed in Sonic Unleashed with the added precision of not having to automatically run, allowing for superior platforming, so I wonder if we really need this game at all? Maybe I don't, but anyway, too early to say at the moment.

I just worry about the effect this wacky new idea and Sonic Unleashed's Werehog concept, which is clearly rubbing some people up the wrong way already, will have on the overall public and critical opinion of the series, which, for the last year or so has been building up to a gradual comeback to a state of reasonable respect again. It's almost an ongoing struggle between critics who just want Sonic to be purely Sonic like they knew from the nineties (and don't get me wrong, they do have a point at times), and Sega, who know damn well that they can't just keep churning out modern Sonic 1 clones because the series just won't last. In a way, they're prolonging its life by keeping people in constant hope of a classic style game, instead of just giving them one, then a series until it quickly dries up and everyone's sick of Sonic altogether, as opposed to being sick of Sonic doing new things. I think Sega are damned if they do, and damned if they don't, as they're trying to meet the needs of so many different people, while keeping their most successful franchise alive and well. It's no wonder that Sonic Unleashed is, as IGN put it, like two different games stapled together.

Whereas Mario seems to be built for doing anything from traditional platforming to baseball and golf, etc, Sonic has always had a much more narrow range regarding what people would be happy to see him do, perhaps because of his "attitude" and slightly more serious and action-oriented content, which has always been there, but has evolved moreso down that path, as opposed to one where Sonic doesn't take himself too seriously. I do wonder if the average person who is fairly familiar with playing Sonic in their youth but hasn't really paid much attention since, will see a picture of Sonic with a sword or Sonic as a werewolf beast and think "OMG, that's not the Sonic I know and love! What are they doing??" or will they just simply think "Huh, Sonic as a werewolf.. cool". In other words, do they see Sonic as a more versatile character who can get away with these sorts of ideas, and we're all just too close to the subject matter, or would they agree with the critics and old skool fanboys? It'll vary, but I suspect one of the reasons Sonic still sells well is because of all those people who only pick up a Sonic title once in a blue moon because of old memories, and I think we need to think a little more about the opinions of those people regarding new ideas.

As far as where I stand on new ideas, I just think that we Sonic fans are extremely lucky. We're coming up to 50 Sonic games now, and I think only Mario and probably MegaMan can really top that figure, and over half of them are platformers. That's well over 200 levels, so no matter what happens, we've got 17 years worth of Sonic gaming to entertain ourselves with, and that's partly what this site is all about - a place to celebrate and catalogue that as a shrine and resource to the multi-faceted video game empire that is Sonic the Hedgehog. It just makes you wonder how important it really needs to be to us that every new Sonic game be true to the original concept and avoid all deviation and transformation into other things. That's evolution and after all this history, how can it not happen?

Anyway, what I wanted to talk more about was Sonic Unleashed, now that everything from E3 appears to have emerged and we can sum things up a bit more clearly now. I think by far the most useful piece was Gamespot's exclusive coverage of the game being played live, which answered quite a few questions/concerns about certain gameplay specifics...

I don't know about you, but I felt quite a bit better about the Werehog side of the coin while watching him in action. Sure, I'd prefer the platforming aspect to be a bit more emphasised over the combat than it probably will be, but I really like the stretchy arms with regard to grabbing onto ledges and shimmying across them and I think that mechanic has some great platforming potential, the likes of which are probably nothing new to the genre, but is something that's fresh to the series. Meanwhile, in combat, he does look like he has a number of different moves at his disposal, apparently around 30, and I must say it does look quite fun, at least initially, but may get tiring. On the other hand though, the Subspace Emissary in Smash Bros Brawl is full of hand in hand button-bashing brawling and platforming, and a word against that game is practically unheard of. I particularly enjoyed Streets of Rage in my early gaming days, so to describe the actually fairly comprehensive Werehog combat system as "mindless", as I've heard, is, I think more a problem with its inclusion in a Sonic game more than the actual idea itself. There are any number of equally "mindless" games out there at the moment, particularly among the 105 generic shoot-em-ups released every year these days.

It's a shame we didn't get to see more of the standard Sonic gameplay in the video (and we had to see most of the werehog's stuff twice!), but my biggest concern was settled - Sonic isn't automatically set on a forward run at any point, and the control seems fairly tight, although I think we'll need more proof to be sure. I'm wondering how the mechanics of running fast and being able to turn will play out, in this case. When you're on a full blown, boost-powered run down a long road with the camera behind you, presumably you have to hold forward to accelerate, but what if you turn to the top left on the analogue stick? Does Sonic strafe a bit, or does his whole direction shift and just the shoulder buttons are used for strafing? Does this limit the accuracy of the strafe? It seems like at some points Sonic doesn't shift with the road as it turns, and instead runs along the edge at the wrong angle a little bit, and this even seems to be the cause of the second death suffered by the player. Yet on other, slower occasions such as the infamous rotating, multi-floored platforms, Sonic appears to control more or less exactly in the same way he already has in 3D in the past. It all seems to mesh really well together in motion, but I just wonder how it all actually works and shifts from section to section. I thought that restricting your movement to 2 dimensions at any one time would simplify things and therefore reduce the possibility of unforseen glitches occuring, but perhaps things won't be that straightforward.

I'm very confident that I'll enjoy Sonic's sections in particular, it seems like the level designs allow for a very smoothly flowing experience and there's evidence of plenty of variety, I just worry a lot about what would happen if the game isn't the success it really needs to be. I suppose if it at least manages to be relatively glitch-free and all reasonably well designed, it'll be a step in the right direction for most, who will then allow for a similar but more improved experience next time, but I've a feeling the werehog aspect will play a big part in the game's overall success. There will be people who just won't come round to the idea, no matter how well made it is, but also others who are willing to give it a chance. It does seem somewhat unfair to me though to give the game a bad score purely because it contains a mode that the reviewer feels is "un-Sonic-like", especially if they'd be happier playing it in a non-Sonic game. My view is that without the werewolf mode, I think there would be a sense that the game would lack real "meat" to it, I suppose. Straightfoward running fast all the time is fine for smaller games like Sonic Rush, which is clearly a heavy influence on this title, but modern primary Sonic games do seem to require some more substantial variety in gameplay styles and things to do. Speeding through levels without a care in the world is brilliant, but I suspect the slower werehog sections will make the first playthrough much longer and deeper. We shall see, come November.
Comments   2 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Tuesday, 22nd July 2008, 12:42am
This all brings up an interesting point: What is the Sonic name/brand trying to sell?

There is no attempt at a canonical storyline, and the characters, especially Sonic, are given no more than the most basic rudiments of personality. And there isn't even a consensus on the planet or world in which the games take place. So no one buys a Sonic game to "see what happens next", like they would buy Halo to "finish the fight" (or whatever).

The creative forces behind the games aren't consistent, either. There are few, if any, original team members left from the Mega Drive era. So no one buys a Sonic game for that reason either. It's not like buying a Zelda game that you know Miyamoto was definitely behind.

And in recent years, the Sonic brand can't even be taken as a symbol of quality.
Thus, I would conclude that the name "Sonic" is supposed to sell the gameplay. You can always rest assured when you buy a Sonic game, that the speedy, platforming gameplay, will be intact.

Or can you? Ever since Sonic Adventure, Sega has almost comically chucked in countless other gameplay styles to make Sonic more interesting. Many of them are the direct antithesis of speedy platform gameplay. Fishing, digital pet raising, adventuring, clomping around in a mech and shooting stuff, sailing a boat, searching for emeralds with ear-splitting radar, and now this - Werewolf combat.

The question isn't whether the new gameplay is any good - much of it is. I enjoyed raising Chao and sailing pirate ships as much as the next guy. But what all these extraneous play styles seem to suggest is that good old school Sonic gameplay isn't good enough to sell a game anymore. They as much as said flat out that the inclusion of Chao in Sonic Adventure was because the game was too hard and they wanted something for younger players to be able to do with the disc if they got the stuck in the main story.

But it's all bollocks. Not once has Sega released twenty-five Sonic games in a row with classic gameplay and watched their sales slowly sink. In fact, the most classic style games, such as Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush, garner the best reviews. The old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", comes to mind. Why does Sega think Sonic needs other types of gameplay? Are they not confident in the gameplay that sold the Mega Drive, won them the 16-bit console wars, and made their character more recognisable than Mickey Mouse? I don't mind if they have creative ideas and try to install them in their flagship series - but I'm afraid that's not why they include all these gimmicks. I think it's because they don't think Sonic is good enough to stand against other modern games without some sort of crutch.

Well, they're wrong. There are hundreds of games where I can lumber around and smack enemies around. But there's only one Sonic. Putting all this unnecessary stuff in each new Sonic game is like putting catsup on ice cream.

That said, I'm still looking forward to all the new games, and will probably enjoy them. But I don't think Sonic will truly have his fabled "comeback" until someone starts to take the series seriously and stops treating Sonic like a mascot who can just be injected into mediocre environments and stories largely borrowed from other things. Someone might consider putting Sonic in Arabian Nights or Arthurian Legend to be an "original concept", but really, that's not original - it's stepping on someone else's ideas to make your game seem cooler. Suddenly they don't have to do any work to make Sonic cool - cos King Arthur already is!

I guess I'm really rambling now, but I can't help it. One look at any Zone from Sonic CD is all it takes to see what Sonic needs. Not even today, with all their polygons and processor power, can they match the fantastic worlds of Mega Drive Sonic. I played Stardust Speedway when I was 7 years old, and it blew my mind and changed my life. I'm doing what I'm doing today because of those games, and I've never seen anything to match them. I can only hope that this is a temporary state of affairs.

#2. Comment posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, 22nd July 2008, 3:18am
What are they thinking they will achieve with the Dark Knight game ezcept nothing?
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