This column originally ran on September 21, 2009.
Sonic the Hedgehog got a shiny new HD trailer recently, teasing a return to the series’ 2D roots. So Checkpoint asks: what made the original trilogy of Sonic games so successful? Where has the series gone awry? And what does a new game need for Sonic to star in a good title for once?
Lee: The first games succeeded because they brought a new twist to the side-scrolling game. They allowed for a faster, smoother platformer.
Shaun: It was simplicity. The first three were based on giving the gamer a sensation of speed that was unmatched in any other games of that time.
Chris: Sonic also thrived because he was Sega’s answer for Mario, who already put his mark on the platforming genre. He was Mario, but faster, hipper and blue-er.
Lee: He wasn’t something lame like a plumber. He was an animal that could create sonic booms by running.
Shaun: Mario was the main competitor at that time, and Sonic’s levels succeeded because they were constructed so differently than Mario’s levels.
Chris: And let’s face it: the early chracter additions were a huge success. Tails is a pimp, Robotnik (and yes, that his name) was a great villain, Knuckles brought in some much needed chaos…all great choices.
Shaun: Even the health structure was simple. Hurt while you have rings? You lose them. Hurt without rings? You die.
Chris: So where did it all go wrong?
Lee: Well, there were a couple of things that went wrong. First, there were times when you couldn’t see the ground below you. And robots powered by animals? I don’t care how smart you are, that technology is impractical.
Chris: It wasn’t even hamsters running those machines. They were like rabbits and birds and stuff. That doesn’t make sense.
Shaun: The shift to 3D did it. Sonic Adventure was serviceable; everything else was horrible. The developers never could figure out how to translate the game effectively into three dimensions.
Chris: It’s amazing to me that Mario 64 set the stage for 3D platforming, while that same idea just ruined the Sonic series. Absolutely destroyed it.
Lee: Sonic wasn’t about looking around at the environment. It was about speed, and you don’t run so fast when you have to change camera angles.
Chris: And the default camera in most of the 3D Sonic games was pretty bad.
Shaun: Apparently, the developers could not replicate the levels from the old games. According to them, the combination of speed and level length just couldn’t work. Levels could only be like two minutes long, and could not justify a full game. Of course, that’s according to them, but they sound like whiners. How about you don’t make the level a straight shot then?
Shaun: And just because you can’t quite figure out how to translate those levels, it doesn’t mean silly gimmicks will work. No one likes Shadow the Hedgehog. Nobody.
Chris: Why does he have guns?
Lee: Self defense? The Second Amendment? You decide.
Shaun: And what’s with the cross-species relationships? Creepy. So much went wrong.
Chris: True. Amy was creepy enough in a stalkerish way, but then things got all interspecial. Some things just aren’t meant to happen.
Shaun: And no one wants to play as a character named Cream the Rabbit. Who thought that was a good idea?
Lee: Porn directors, that’s who.
Shaun: Exactly. And unless porn directors are actually the developers of Sonic and we didn’t know, this is a problem.
Chris: Well, Sonic as a series was lacking in the porn department. Super Mario Strikers: Charged took care of that for our favorite plumber — obviously Team SEGA had to answer.
Lee: Worst of all, we didn’t get the satisfaction of purposefully drowning any annoying characters like in the original games. Cool music and retribution at the same time.
Shaun: For me, it all started going downhill at the very beginning of Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, when the first level starts with Sonic fighting robots in the real world with the police. WTF? What happened to the crazy fantasy levels? Why is Sonic in the real world? This has been done before — the Mario Bros. movie — and as far as I know, it didn’t work there either. As in it was the worst movie ever made.
Lee: They could have made the games a little better by giving you a Chaos Emerald at the end of each level, instead of making you look for them. After seven levels, you get to be Super Sonic. Bam, that easy. Although I’ll always regret not seeing Super Tails. That could have happened at the end of Sonic Heroes, but it didn’t.
Chris: The premise of those emeralds being on random planets or at the end of half-pipes was dumb, but man those bonus stages were fun.
Shaun: It’s a bad sign when the only good Sonic games of the past decade were the side-scrollers on the PSP.
Chris: And the DS had Sonic Rush, which was okay. It’s worth pointing out that it was also a 2D game.
Lee: Don’t even mention the Sonic racing game. That didn’t happen.
Shaun: That’s right.
Chris: And Sooooooniiiiiic Heeeeeeeerooooooooooooooooooes.
Lee: The only good thing to come out of more recent games was the music. And even then, only a select few tracks.
Chris: Even those tracks pale in comparison to most of the music from the original three games. Especially Sonic 2.
Lee: We haven’t talked a lot about Dr. Robotnik. What was his motivation? Why did he turn toward the dark side?
Chris: Probably a bad experience with the color blue. So him and his tight-ass mustache rolled out 900 machines of mass destruction on the suburban Sonic world.
Shaun: What a disaster he has become. One of the worst villains in gaming. And he used to be pretty good.
Lee: I’ll bet he created Sonic. And he saw what he had wrought — a gerbil that could burst your eardrums by running in place. It had to be stopped.
Shaun: Robotnik as a misunderstood hero. I like it.
Lee: He’s just trying to make the world a better place. He takes the entire population of a forest and encases it in protective robots.
Chris: …protective, spiky, laser-shooting robots.
Lee: Robots that can defend against blue tyranny.
Shaun: Exactly. And then Sonic comes around destroying their protection. What you don’t see at the end of the level is Sonic massacring all the animals.
Chris: He probably ate each and every one of those little penguins.
Lee: He let them go, but when it faded to black he chased every one of them down.
Shaun: It’s just too violent for an E rating.
Shaun: So, they tried it in 3D. Whether it was because the developers are inept or the formula doesn’t work, all these attempts failed. Why not ditch 3D altogether?
Chris: At this point, having tried every gimmick in the book, Sonic should be banished from the third dimension. Period.
Shaun: Try a Sonic game on a next-gen console with 2D, but render all the models in 3D and give it a vibrant artistic style. I would buy that.
Lee: Yeah, something like Street Fighter IV. Maybe kick it into 3D every time he goes through a loop or meets a new boss. Nothing fancy.
Chris: Lee’s got a point. Even the original trilogy had those moments in every level where you were just kinda watching Sonic go through nine loops, where your control didn’t matter. Those could easily become little cinematic moments.
Shaun: The old Sonic games were 2D with pseudo-3D bonus stages. Those worked great.
Chris: So can Sonic succeed in the hi-def era simply by returning to 2D stages? Will nostalgia be more of a factor than how good the game actually is?
Shaun: That could be a factor, but I would hope they’d take the time to make another solid side-scroller. They did it before.
Lee: I would really like to see a better multiplayer aspect in the next Sonic game. Not just Tails saving Sonic’s ass every time he falls into a hole. Some co-op side-scrolling would be interesting — maybe split up the path and use teamwork.
Shaun: I agree, but levels built with co-op in mind. Not like in the previous entries when one player controls Tails and flies Sonic through the whole level.
Chris: Mario’s got New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii coming out in a couple months with four-player co-op, but if the Sonic series did something like that, I can’t think of a deserving fourth. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles…and…uh…
Shaun: That’s it. Just those three. I want to kill every other character that has ever been introduced in the series. Make two Sonics (like the two Toads) or try introducing a new character, but scratch the old ones. There is a special place in hell for those guys, especially Shadow.
Lee: I did not mind Shadow. But I preferred him before the whole guns era.
Shaun: He wasn’t always the worst character ever. He made an interesting dynamic for Sonic once upon a time.
Lee: He showed up and got Sonic arrested.
Shaun: Yeah. I remember being so excited for that game. So excited, then so disappointed. And he has let me down ever since.
Shaun: Any new game, co-op or not, needs to put the control back in the player’s hands. Even the early games were guilty of huge portions of the levels that moved on cruise control.
Chris: Right. But back then, if you jumped or something during those rail parts, you could end up killing yourself or bouncing somewhere random.
Shaun: Half the time I didn’t know where the hell I was going. I was just bouncing off crap, and then I would discover I actually died 20 seconds before. As much fun as that was, it’s unintuitive when player input accidentally causes you to die. It’s like the game telling you to back the (expletive) off and let it handle things.
Lee: That happened a lot when you were playing the level for the first time. Fall off a cliff, die. Run into an enemy, die.
Shaun: And who put those spikes everywhere? So dangerous.
Chris: Why does almost every damn enemy have spikes on it somewhere? That’s not how nature works.
Lee: Where do the spikes come from when you’re underwater?
Chris: The spikes come from the same hell the guy who invented Cream was sent to.
Lee: At least you would expect spikes in a place like Casino Night. They push you on those when you’re doing too well at the craps tables.
Chris: And don’t ever get three Robotniks on the slots, or you’re eating 100 spikes. In your mouth.
Shaun: I loved Casino Night. That was my favorite. Number one.
Chris: Great music, great look, great concept. Best level in the series.
Lee: The music was legendary. The one problem I had was toward the end of the level. That one platform you had to jump on — but you actually had to push down on the D-pad to make it work. How the hell was I supposed to know that?
Shaun: Ha ha, yes, that one platform. I don’t actually remember that, but I believe you.
Chris: That screwed with all kinds of people when the game came out. No GameFAQs, no good guides at release — you had to figure that out on your own.
Lee: And Tails would always make it.
Chris: Because Tails was awesome.
Lee: The little bastard would laugh at me when I died after 10 minutes of being stuck.
Shaun: Tails broke those games, but he was awesome to play with.
Chris: So what do you want to see in this new Sonic game, supposedly set for release in 2010?
Shaun: Not primarily 3D. A story that is not trying to be ridiculously serious, yet works within the Sonic universe.
Chris: I’d like to see Tails do something other than sit in robots and whine like a little girl.
Lee: Tails used to be cool. He made Sonic 2 and 3 what they were. Then he turned into a mechanic and a scientist — like anybody would certify him.
Chris: I think the Chao things need to come back as well. YOSH.
Shaun: Yes, for sure. And Super Saiyan Sonic. That was awesome.
Lee: Except Sonic was slightly lamer, because his super state didn’t require the tears of children.
Chris: Or Krillin exploding. What else…no Cream. No 3D. Music like Sonic 2, level design like Sonic 3.
Lee: No Shadow with guns. Everyone gets a super state. No storyline.
Shaun: No storyline? I could go for a small one. With events more implied than spelled out, and no cutscenes. Only 2D cutscenes that situate levels, like in Sonic 3.
Chris: No Tails in a robot. He can pilot an airplane, and that’s it. No shopping malls. No duck hedgehogs.
Lee: I would rather run for the sake of running. No running for cancer or world peace — just old-fashioned running.
Shaun: No big stupid slow cat that fishes in his levels. If there were ever an antithesis to Sonic, that’s it.
Chris: And no Dr. Egghead. Dr. Robotnik, sure.
Shaun: So, in our ideal Sonic game, it combines a fleshed-out multiplayer aspect with traditional 2D gameplay — gameplay that is infused with the graphical capabilities of next-gen consoles, but with 100 percent less 3D.
Chris: Maybe then Sonic can be an important figure in gaming once again.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.