The speedy rodent is reduced to playing catch up nowadays. How do you solve a problem like Sonic?
It gives me no pleasure to give the new Sonic game a kicking you know. Up until the age of 12 I was a Sonic guy, all thanks to the Mega Drive I’d play at the Minister’s son’s house (true story). When you’re young, controlling a hedgehog that wears cool trainers and has attitude seems much more appealing than loafing about with an overweight, friendzoned plumber with a mushroom dependency, and a neurotic brother who’s insistent upon having his own year (Editor's note: I preferred Mario as a child. It's a 1992 argument all over again).
Of course, you wise up. Something clicks. You grow up and realise that Mario had the best ideas all along.
Judging by what’s happened through the years, Sega realised this too, though they’d never openly admit it. Every time Nintendo have made a bold new step with their mascot, Sega have desperately scurried behind whimpering ‘Look! Me too!’.
Sonic: Lost World is maybe the most blatant example of this yet. It’s no coincidence that the best moments in the game are the ones that riff heavily on Mario Galaxy, like the part where Sonic uses a juicer to slice up giant bits of fruit, riding the resulting smoothie geyser to another section. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the bits in Nintendo's opus where Mario travels from planetoid to planetoid via giant caterpillars.
Of course, while Mario Galaxy was a tour de force all the way through, Sonic: Lost Worlds sprints for a bit then stumbles blindly down a manhole.
The main problem with Lost World is that it overcomplicates things with a rubbish parkour system and an unreliable homing attack. They’d be fine if they were implemented properly, but they’re not. Sonic feels floaty and… off too, despite being easier to control than he was in other 3D adventures.
Things were fine in the earlier Sonic games when running and jumping were all you had to worry about - Sonic felt like he had a bit of weight to him. So why constantly add things in - badly - and break something that wasn’t broken? It’s like getting Phil Spector to produce a Leonard Cohen album.
Then we get to the grind rail levels. Why the hell Sega insists on grind rail sections I’ll never know, but they’re so awful they absolutely bring down the whole experience, eliciting much cussing.
Sega’s mascot is hopelessly outgunned from all angles nowadays basically. Not just from Mario, but from the likes of Rayman, The Puppeteer and Donkey Kong Country. Even underappreciated gems like Alice: Madness Returns and Psychonauts have the hedgehog beat.
The sad thing is, there are flashes of excellence in Lost World. A particular snowball level is wonderful, and sometimes you’re convinced Sega have finally sussed things out. But you can’t convince somebody to part with their hard earned cash for mere flashes.
For every part where Lost World seems to have its act together, there’s an abysmal boss fight, a tedious 2D level, or the aforementioned grind rail level filled with unavoidable insta-kills. It’s basically the same stuff that’s blighted pretty much every modern Sonic.
It’s not gone unnoticed. Sonic obviously isn’t the idol he used to be now, and he’s constantly lagging behind his moustachioed nemesis. A slew of average (and some completely awful) games like Sonic 2006, Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Generations have ensured that people temper their expectations of a new Sonic game. There isn’t the anticipation anymore, only trepidation.
So how can Sega save their cash cow/hog?
Firstly, maybe they should stop releasing them so frequently. Obviously it’s unlikely, given that Sonic is Sega’s main source of income (lest we forget, Nintendo had to dive in and save Bayonetta 2, as Sega decided to concentrate on ‘main’ franchises), but interest is just going to whittle away bit by bit if they continue down this road.
Yes, Mario games are released frequently, but Mario games at least change things up and are of a consistent excellent quality. Besides, every new game featuring the plumber is something of an event. Sonic? You’ll get the odd murmur perhaps. There have been too many naff entries, too many useless spin offs to muster up anything more than a lowly growl of ‘oh, him again.’
This needs to change. Sonic is Sega’s flagship character, he’s synonymous with the brand. As such, he should get a game that reflects this, and one that’s worked on extensively.
Give him a break for a few years maybe, whittle out HD versions of the first games to keep fans aware and then… BOOM. Hopefully a glorious return, one that irons out all the kinks and provides a truly wold class experience. It’s not beyond Sega, after all. Once upon a time Sonic was in games that could easily compete with Mario on level pegging, and Lost World has a good game screaming to get out at times.
This is where the real frustration lies. There are signs that Sega is learning in Lost World. There's no useless humans to ruin things, apart from Robotnik (IT’S NOT EGGMAN! IT’S ROBOTNIK). None of Sonic’s increasingly bamboozling circle of idiot friends are in it either, like Cream the Rabbit (which sounds like a cruel invocation more than a name), Rouge the Bat or Viktor the Axolotl. Despite the terrible free running, Sonic is a lot easier to control too.
If Sega properly concentrated on making a focused Sonic game that excels at the one thing it does best rather than frittering about trying to do a bunch of things, they’d be on the right path again.
Alternatively they should just think ‘Sod it’ and just do Shenmue 3. Imagine the goodwill they’d get?