Sum of Its Parts: 2D Sonic Sequel

Ever since I was a child, I’ve dabbled in the idea of imagining perfect sequels to some of my favorite games. Back before the real one even existed (and damaged the series’ reputation), a childhood friend and I came up with our own version of Mortal Kombat 4 (with the addition of several new palette-swap ninjas!). We scribbled on wooden blocks, pretending they were a game system, two controllers, the cartridge and even the screen as we had many imaginary battles with one another. A fun little childhood memory, but even to this day, I still look at old games I loved growing up and try to figure out just how to give them new life in the modern video game industry. Hell, you could probably tell that if you’ve read “Turn It Up To Eleven”, one of my Megaman Anniversary Rants from last year.

I know it’s pretty arrogant to believe that an outsider like myself could ever hope to run circles around the employees when it comes to handling games that I have nostalgic feelings for, even to this day. After all, that’s part of the reason I’m not employed in game development in any capacity. Then something like the ill-fated 2010 reboot of Rocket Knight happens and my arrogance just starts swelling up: what an insult to the memory of an obscure game that still holds up even to this day! Fortunately, the point of this article isn’t telling the world how much better games would be if I were left in charge. Instead of just dictating what proper sequels would entail, this series is meant to simply build hypothetical sequels in existing series by using elements and aspects of earlier games in the series. Only on rare occasions will I make an entirely original suggestion for new directions. Of course, leaving my own personal biases for new ideas out of the equation will be part of the fun of writing these.

Which brings us to today’s topic: a brand-new 2D Sonic sequel. Listen, I understand why Sega’s been focusing more on 3D Sonic games lately: they finally achieved something great with Sonic Colors and have continued to refine their efforts with Generations and even Lost World (yes, I liked Lost World. Deal with it.). However, I recently replayed Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II and I had forgotten just how fun the game was, especially compared to its mediocre predecessor. Sure, the more recent 3D Sonics have incorporated several 2D platforming segments into their gameplay, but at the same time, Sonic 4 Episode 2 (or Sonic 4-2, for short) reminded me that we haven’t really had a good 2D Sonic in a very long time. Even taking Episode Metal into account, Sonic 4-2 (Episode 1 was really flawed, don’t let the reviews fool you) just wasn’t long enough to satisfy my then-unknown urge for a new, entirely 2D Sonic adventure. Sure, there are plenty of fan games that attempt to recapture that magic, but there’s just something unique to Sega’s releases that even the most polished fan project just can’t match. To make things interesting, I’m not going to even bother mentioning the revered Genesis trilogy (I count Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a single game, deal with it) or their counterpart, Sonic CD. Because, let’s be honest, as good as they were, there were other games in the series that had their good qualities and relying strictly on nostalgia is so passé.

Starting off, let’s discuss the backbone of the entire game: the engine itself. Frankly, while there has been a shaky start, Sega has finally gotten Sonic’s physics working on modern platforms for the most part. So if they take the engine from either the 2D “Classic Sonic” segments from Generations or Sonic 4 Episode 2 (and I specify Episode 2 for good reason), Sega will be off to a good start on that front.

A more important aspect would be Sonic’s set of abilities. First of all, keep Boost out of these games, it’s pointless. Sega’s dropped the boost in more recent Sonic games like Sonic 4-2 and Sonic Lost World, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve honestly always felt that boost was a tacked-on ability, even in 3D Sonic games where it actually works to some degree. It places more emphasis on mindless speed segments than level design, which was one of the cornerstones of the deified Genesis-era Sonic games. Use the spin dash instead, it’s far more versatile. Homing attacks, on the other hand, I think should stay, mainly because there was really nothing inherently wrong with them being in 2D Sonic in the first place. Hell, it’s literally a necessity in the 3D games, just due to the fact that in Sonic games, you literally attack enemies by somersaulting into them. Recent 2D Sonic segments have done a far better job of balancing the homing attack by adding hit invulnerability to boss fights and actually turning it into a platforming tool through clever enemy placement. Hell, Lost World even revamped the homing attack itself, giving it a new charge property that allows Sonic to do more damage based on how long you lock onto your target while in the air. Plus there’s that new homing kick attack, which allows you to kill multiple enemies in one strike. Speaking of Lost World, bring back the double-jump and bounce jump from that as well. Just toss out the run/parkour button.

Next, let’s look at the relatively risky question of playable characters. After a few years of solo adventures, I think we’re about ready for Sonic to team up once again. Of course, we should probably start things slow: why not just start with someone who never went away entirely? That’s right, I think that Miles “Tails” Prower should make his playable solo return in a new 2D Sonic game. Ideally, there would be three potential options: Sonic alone, Tails alone and Sonic w/ Tails (with the potential for co-op), just like in the good ol’ days…of Sonic 4-2. Give Tails’ his traditional set of abilities: flight, the corresponding ability to swim through water and maybe that kick-ass tail slash he had in the Advance games. Maybe give him some new attacks as well, to keep up with Sonic’s homing attack. This would also of course mean improving the level design to the point of providing unique paths for both characters, but I think Sega’s at the point where they can handle an undertaking of that caliber. Also, with Sonic/Tails mode, retain the team-up moves from Sonic 4-2, but reduce the start-up time on them, that was the only thing that made them awkward in my opinion. Of course, bringing in any of Sonic’s other friends without first testing the waters would be suicidal, but seeing Knuckles and possibly Amy come back in future games would be most appreciated. Just start by easing players back into the idea of playing as someone besides Sonic or some clone of him.

I’ve always felt that one of the most important aspects of any Sonic game would be the quality of the boss fights. That was one of the areas that Sonic 4-2 really shined in, especially when compared to the hit (Metal Sonic, Silver, Egg Dragoon) or miss (Shadow, Time Eater) bosses found in Generations. Lost World also had some pretty good 2D boss fights, like the second bosses in Silent Forest and Sky Road or the game’s penultimate boss fight. Seems like some of the best boss fights I’ve encountered have a few common attributes: there are usually patterns at certain points that somewhat resemble a puzzle, they tend to deviate from the traditional “8 hits and you’re dead” formula commonly seen in Sonic bosses and they tend to put measure in place to prevent spamming attacks to kill the boss in seconds. Keep these design elements in mind when designing 2D Sonic bosses in general, Sega.

Of course, the most important part of any platformer would be the levels themselves. Don’t worry, I’m not really going to go into great detail here, as long as there’s a plethora of stage themes (as opposed to mostly just city themes, looking at you again Generations) and Sega keeps up their emphasis on real platforming over mindless boost “hold right to win” segments, I’m sure they’ll be fine. I’m more worried about the breakdown of each Zone (or Level/World/etc., I call ‘em Zones). One of the things I didn’t really like about Colors was the breakdown of levels: sure, they had 7 Acts per zone, but some of them were pathetically short. Stick to the distribution of either the Sonic 4 games (3 Level Acts, followed by 1 Boss “Act”) or preferably, the Wii U version of Sonic Lost World (4 Level Acts, two of which have boss fights at the end).  Of course, extra levels wouldn’t hurt: just bring back either Colors’ Game Land stages, Generations’ mission mode or Lost World’s unlockable bonus acts.

Finally, here’s a few miscellaneous suggestions for the gameplay itself. First of all, I’d like to divulge a theory that my fellow writer SNES Master KI has regarding the Red Star Rings in the recent Sonic games. They first appeared in Sonic Colors, which we both consider a great game, and we’ve both loved every game they’ve appeared in since: Generations, Sonic 4 Episode 2 and Lost World; I loved them all. So I would suggest bringing them back, even if just due to superstition. Sonic 4-2’s method of hiding one in each level would probably work the best. Speaking of the red star rings, I think that as with Colors and Lost World, collecting them all should unlock Super Sonic, as opposed to the traditional “collect 7 Chaos Emeralds in special stages” method. Also, I don’t care how many people whined about it: bring back the rail-grinding stages from Lost World. They were like superior versions of the mine cart levels from Donkey Kong Country and I loved those. Also, bring back the competitive multiplayer race mode from Colors and Lost World and do some free DLC stages like Lost World is currently doing.

So with gameplay out of the way, let’s move onto some less important but still necessary aspects this new 2D Sonic should also include. First up, the game’s storyline: I’d like something a little more substantial than the pantomime “Genesisesque” story we got in the Sonic 4 games. I’ll be honest, there was a time where I would’ve been okay with this. From the time the original Sonic Adventure came out, I had nothing but disdain for the voice acting in Sonic games (“I’d better get going!” comes quickly to mind) until Sonic Colors came along and fixed most of my major problems with it. I’d like a more substantial story that stays somewhat comedic and episodic, not unlike the stories from Colors, Generations and Lost World. Trying to turn Sonic the Hedgehog’s story into a serious, grimdark epic rarely works out well, even when done in jest. Aim for a Saturday Morning cartoon atmosphere, put cutscenes between stages and make them skippable.

The graphics, I honestly don’t care that much about. Keeping it 2.5D should be fine, but what would really be amazing would be if you tried for some 2D high-definition graphics, not unlike those in Rayman Origins or Legends. Sure, this is pretty much just shooting the moon, but seeing more classic series attempt this type of graphical style would be nice. At the very least, it would help to set it apart from most modern 2D games, which tend to prefer 3D models used on a two-dimensional plane. It would also allow for the designers to have a little more fun with various characters’ designs, which have, with a few notable changes, remained fairly stagnant since the Dreamcast days.

And what’s a Sonic game without a good soundtrack? Even the worst of Sonic’s outings have shined in the music department. While Jun Senoue handled the soundtracks for both episodes of Sonic 4, I have some other people in mind for this one, both of whom I think deserve a shot acting as main composer for one of the Blue Blur’s adventures: Richard Jacques and Fumie Kumatani. Richard Jacques composed the amazing Sega Saturn soundtrack for the otherwise mediocre Sonic 3D Blast and recently worked on Sonic Generations and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, while Kumatani has been providing some of my favorite Sonic songs since the original Sonic Adventure, going for more of a jazzy style compared to her contemporaries. As far as I can tell, both still work for Sega. Whether either of them work on it or they both do, I’d love to hear their takes on a full Sonic soundtrack. Also, please don’t use the synths from the Sonic 4 games in any capacity ever again. They were so awful that they managed to completely obscure the quality of the compositions from those games and I’ve heard some rearrangements that can prove it.  Either use something close to the Genesis’s actual sound chip (if not the original thing itself) or the instrumentation you’ve used in the 3D games. A combination of the two would work pretty well too.

In the end, I can kind of see why Sega has sort of forsaken development of 2D Sonic games in favor of focusing solely on 3D. The Sonic 4 series, despite undergoing significant improvement in its second episode, proved to be a dead end due to its unpopularity, leading to future episodes missing out on being greenlit. Meanwhile, Sega has finally found success with 3D iterations of the franchise, ironically enough by incorporating well-designed 2D segments that resemble the best parts of the games of old with sections in 3D that attempt to recreate the same feeling. In spite of the 3D games’ newfound popularity and success, I feel that 2D Sonic games still have a place in the industry. If Mario can occupy both styles, there’s no reason Mr. Needlemouse can’t do the same.

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