SEGA has two upcoming Sonic games: one is Sonic Forces, and the other is Sonic Mania.
Sonic Forces is a new game in the style of 2011’s Sonic Generations, and Sonic Mania is a new game in the style of 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles. And if you think about it, that’s really weird.
Sonic is a bit of a troublesome entity in gaming. For a long time now, he’s had no direction and no real focus, and SEGA have been experimenting with him much too much. As a result of all this, Sonic games are very hit or miss, and his fanbase is one of the wildest and most tiresome gaming fanbases I’ve ever seen.
It will take a bit of a history lesson to understand how Sonic ended up in such a situation, so I’ll try to make it brief.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Simply put, Sonic is a cool blue cartoon hedgehog with a laid-back yet confident attitude, and he has the ability to run fast.
This character design on its own is excellent. He’s charming, slick, positive, and full of energy. He appeals to kids and adults alike, and he’s somehow managed to stay timeless despite very much being a product of 90’s design trends.
Everyone who gets to know Sonic ends up loving him, whether that be by the games, the anime, the cartoons, the comics, all the merchandise, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of the quality of the games, the character itself has so much appeal. SEGA has truly made an amazing mascot for themselves.
At the beginning, Sonic’s games were designed as platformers that gave the player a lot of freedom in terms of their speed and jumps. The levels were also designed with many different branching paths and hidden secrets, making each playthrough different and interesting. This, combined with the game’s good physics system, meant that Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive allowed for a lot of creativity in character movement that just wasn’t seen in many other games around the same time.
Sonic enjoyed universal popularity for his four main Mega Drive (Genesis) games, and at this point, it was looking good for the future.
After about 4 years of SEGA struggling to come up with a 3D concept for future Sonic games, they eventually created Sonic Adventure and, later on, its sequel Sonic Adventure 2, which were the first fully 3D Sonic games.
And even though the games are generally considered good by most fans, they did introduce a lot of problems that would stick with the series from here onward. Most notable were the abrupt gameplay shifts into things that didn’t exactly fit the theme of Sonic running fast and exploring through environments – a particularly infamous example was when you had to go fishing in Sonic Adventure, which incidentally had one of the most frustrating and flawed fishing systems I’ve seen in any game.
But despite all this, I really do love the two Adventure games. Even though it was a brand new take on the series in 3D, a lot of the freedom and exploration elements remained strong: The games allowed you to make cool jumps, take tricky shortcuts, explore the levels in your own way, and had movement physics that made sense (when it wasn’t glitching out) and were fun to mess around with. Overall, I’d say that the Sonic Adventure series was a successful translation into 3D of many of the fun elements from the old classics.
The games that came after Adventure, however, were becoming less and less well-received by fans and critics: Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog and most infamously of all, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, all received poor reviews, getting worse and worse with each new game.
Though Sonic did have some decent games on the GBA and DS at this point, it seemed that SEGA had forgotten how to treat their hedgehog right when it came to his main, high profile releases. They were experimenting all over the place, coming up with new ideas, ditching them immediately, and overall not having a clear direction or vision for the Sonic series as a whole.
Some games were light-hearted and cartoony, while others were dark and gritty. The series also started getting more and more ridiculous in terms of its plot and cutscenes, and they also curiously started including realistic-looking humans into the games that clashed with the designs of the cartoon animal characters. It just felt like the series was all over the place. It no longer felt cohesive.
I personally like playing Shadow, 2006, and to a lesser extent Heroes – I do think there is some fun gameplay to be found in these titles, at least for me. But it’s clearly obvious that they were losing sight of what made Sonic gameplay appealing to begin with, and I will admit that these three games were just straight-up not very good, with Sonic 2006 in particular being a glitchy, unfinished mess of a game.
So, it became clear at this point that SEGA has a problem. Their problem is that they don’t know what the fans actually want from Sonic, and they keep trying to reinvent the wheel with each new game. But this isn’t because they aren’t listening to the fans – that couldn’t be further from the truth: I’d say that SEGA is actually listening to the fans WAY too much.
For instance, ‘Shadow the Hedgehog’ was created because of a few fans writing to SEGA that Sonic games should have guns. Instead of dismissing the idea as not fitting the Sonic universe, SEGA actually went with it and created Shadow the Hedgehog. The game has a ridiculous premise and art style that definitely does NOT mesh well with the Sonic universe, but if you ignore the frankly bizarre image of a giant cartoon hedgehog shooting at human military people, it can actually be quite a fun game to play. They game’s style didn’t sit well with many fans though, and that makes sense because it’s such a weird and misguided direction for the series to go in.
The worst offender on this front, at least in my view, is the insultingly-titled Sonic the Hedgehog 4. This was created in order to “bring Sonic back to his roots”, as they say. Some fans wanted SEGA to drop the 3D style that clearly wasn’t working any more, and to instead make another 2D game similar to the originals. What we got was one of the worst and most boring entries in Sonic’s library I can think of: a clunky side-scroller with off-putting, plasticky-looking visuals, and completely broken physics. Sonic is so awkward to control in this game, I can barely have any fun with his movement: if at any point you’re not holding forwards while in the air, Sonic comes to a complete standstill. He has no weight, there is no such thing as momentum, and Sonic has this nasty tendency to constantly unfurl from his rolled-up attacking pose, leaving him vulnerable to getting hit way more often than you’d like.
Sonic 4 certainly did not give me any of the freedom I so loved about the originals. The environments were all rehashes of previous games’ levels, so they didn’t inspire any imagination about Sonic’s world like the previous games did for me. And shockingly, for the first time in Sonic’s life, he now had a game with a bad soundtrack. They did eventually release an “Episode 2” for Sonic 4 which fixed a lot of the issues, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original games, in my view.
The moment SEGA created Sonic 4, it became clear to me that they had completely lost it. They just don’t understand Sonic anymore.
After a few more games with bad reviews (Secret Rings, Black Knight) and some games that even got good reviews (Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colours) SEGA was still being bombarded with fan feedback from all angles. Some loved 3D Sonic, others hated it. Some fans never played the Mega Drive games, while others wanted SEGA to stop making 3D Sonic altogether. Some people wanted Adventure 3. Some people wanted Sonic to go in a brand new direction.
SEGA was trying to please all types of fans, so it eventually created a hybrid game – Sonic Generations. It stars two Sonics: “Classic Sonic” and “Modern Sonic”. They used the gameplay from Sonic Unleashed as Modern’s gameplay, and created a new style of 2D Sonic gameplay for Classic. Thankfully, Classic Sonic’s gameplay wasn’t as horrifyingly bad as Sonic 4, and the game was actually pretty well-received overall.
I personally never felt that Classic Sonic in Generations played very comfortably for me, and the gameplay of Modern Sonic was straying further and further away from what I loved about Adventure and Adventure 2, but I enjoyed Generations nonetheless. I would definitely testify that Sonic Generations is a good video game. Just maybe not the direction I would have personally wanted the series to go.
So Sonic Generations was getting good reviews and everyone seemed to enjoy what it was offering. So what did SEGA do? They decided to ditch everything that went into Generations, and created Sonic Lost World, which was slow and weird and awkward and I just didn’t find it interesting.
And then they created Sonic Boom, which some people are arguing is even worse than the infamously bad Sonic 2006. After having earned peoples’ trust and respect back with Unleashed, Colours and Generations, SEGA had to prove to the world that they still can’t help making crappy Sonic games.
However, despite Sonic Boom being the most recent title, the future is looking extremely bright for Sonic fans like me, and it’s all because of what’s upcoming: Sonic Forces and Sonic Mania.
Sonic Forces shows that they’re again listening to fan feedback: They decided to forget about Lost World and just brought back the fan-favourite Generations gameplay – complete with both Sonics again. It looks promising, and I have no doubts that it has the potential to be another hit, similar to Generations. Though I would personally love a new Adventure style game, as that had my favourite version of the 3D gameplay, I’ll take what I can get at this point.
But to me, the really interesting stuff is coming from Sonic Mania.
If you can’t please the fans, then just get the fans to make the game for you!
Sonic Mania is being created by a group of long-time Sonic fans and ROM hackers that SEGA has officially allowed to create the new entry in the series. The main guys behind it are members of the Sonic fan community who go by the names Taxman and Stealth, and they worked in the past with SEGA on enhanced remakes of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 for mobile devices. Their remakes are the best versions of those games to date, fixing many of the problems that the original had, while also adding extra features such as new characters, time attack modes, and even a new level.
So these guys have proved that they know and understand old-school Sonic, and that they know what they’re doing.
The idea behind Sonic Mania is to have a brand new Sonic game with the same gameplay style and exploration-encouraging level design from the old games. It has some brand new, imaginative levels, as well as some re-imagined classic areas returning from the old games. There’s new gameplay too; Sonic has a new move, and the levels are full of interesting environmental gimmicks and oddities to play around in.
Basically it looks and feels precisely like an old Sonic game, except it’s brand new. And for me, a fan that’s been putting up with SEGA’s nonsense for so many years, it’s extremely exciting and refreshing to see. I definitely feel that SEGA has made an excellent choice in embracing the fan modding scene, rather than trying to stamp them down like other companies might be tempted to do (ahem ahem, Nintendo).
I personally can’t wait for Sonic Mania to release. It will no doubt be the Sonic game that my 7 year old self would have dreamed about. And if it does well, we may very well see these guys make more Sonic goodness in the future too. It’s all very exciting to me.