Sum of Its Parts: 3D Sonic Sequel

I always find it somehow comforting when things come full circle. The first article I wrote for the Sum of Its Parts series – as long as you don’t count what I’ve retroactively folded into this little category – was my attempt at designing a new 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game. When I wrote that article, the Sonic series seemed to have found its footing in the 3D realm but struggled to make headway in the sub-genre in which it originated. My, my, how much has changed in four (almost five) years. 2017’s Sonic Mania was developed by several key figures in the Sonic fan game community and has taken the world by storm, effectively declared as “the best Sonic game since the Genesis era” by a vocal majority of reviewers and fans alike. Meanwhile, Sonic’s 3D renaissance has since fizzled out: while the (criminally underrated) Sonic Lost World was torn apart by a majority of fans, Sega’s following two efforts didn’t fare any better. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric’s poor quality was as memetic as Sonic ’06 and while reactions to Sonic Forces were mixed overall, it was generally considered a letdown in terms of being the long-awaited follow-up to the beloved Sonic Generations.

While Sonic’s future in the realm of 2D has been all but secured – so long as Sega doesn’t decide to cut Christian Whitehead and his collaborators loose without at least giving us Mania 2 – its future in the third dimension has once again fallen into question. Sega’s winning formula has finally gone stale and it’s time to reevaluate the way things are done with their 3D titles. Maybe the best way to look into the Blue Blur’s path forward would be to look back at how they transitioned into the three-dimensional space in the first place.

There are effectively two main schools of thought when it comes to 3D Sonic games: the “Adventure” and “Boost” formulas, both with their respective die-hard (and by extension, irreconcilable) fanbases. While Sega themselves advertised Sonic 3D Blast as one of the fastest thing alive’s first forays into the third dimension, it was more akin to isometric platformers of old, on par with earlier titles like Marble Madness, Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll or even earlier Sonic titles like SegaSonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Labyrinth. The Adventure style originated with (what else?) the Sonic Adventure games for the Sega Dreamcast and inspired later titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as well as Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U. This early style of 3D Sonic game relied more on exploration, effectively allowing players to run through expansive levels that were far less linear than the 2D games in the franchise. They would also often rely on multiple playable characters, generally with unique playstyles – though this gimmick would deteriorate in further titles. The Adventure games relied on a free running mechanic which was clumsy at its worst, leading to unfair deaths, but offered the kind of freedom that the 2D Sonics thrived on. In order to compensate for these growing pains, Sega introduced the homing attack – which allows Sonic to home in on nearby enemies – which would become a staple in both future 2D and 3D Sonic games.

The Boost formula is a bit more recent, making its first appearance in 2008’s Sonic Unleashed. This style would also appear in Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations and most recently, Sonic Forces. While the Adventure-style titles focused on trying to recreate all of the elements of past 2D Sonic games in a totally 3D environment, Boost games generally shift between two different perspectives. There are 3D-perspective running segments that are essentially auto-runners where the player’s main input is either choosing to use the Boost mechanic – a metered mechanic which allows Sonic to run faster, surrounded by a blue aura, that can smack enemies out of the way with ease – or aligning Sonic’s path, either manually with the analog stick or using the quick-step to keep him properly aligned with the shoulder buttons. Occasionally, these running segments may be broken up with some obstacles that need to be dodged with jumps, but the bulk of the game’s platforming takes place in 2D segments that take cues from the later Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush titles.

Of course, there were other 3D Sonic games that didn’t adhere to either of these formulas directly. Sonic R could arguably be considered the true first 3D Sonic game, though it was developed by Traveller’s Tales and recontextualized the Sonic gameplay into a racing setting. There was also the Sonic World mini-game present in the Sonic Jam compilation for the Sega Saturn, supposedly built from the remnants of a scrapped fifth-generation 3D Sonic title. Likewise, Christmas NiGHTS contained “Sonic Into Dreams”, which allowed the Blue Blur to run through the game’s levels on foot. Sonic Heroes implemented 3-character teams with various formations based on each member’s attributes and had stage designs that clearly attempted to recreate the conventions of the classic Genesis games in a strictly 3D space to mixed results. Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight – the two releases in what was meant to be at least a trilogy of “storybook” games – are effectively first drafts of the 3D running segments of the Boost games, albeit with their own unique gimmicks to keep things interesting. Finally, there’s Sonic Lost World, which was experimental in its own right. The game was still broken down into 3D and 2D segments like the Boost games before it, but the former now allowed players more freedom to explore. To manage Sonic’s speed, a controversial run button was added, but even that wasn’t nearly fast enough for those speed freaks. On top of that, a new parkour mechanic was added to emphasize the level design, which was said to be inspired by Nintendo’s own Super Mario Galaxy games – but die-hard Sonic fans often compared it to the cancelled Sonic X-Treme, originally planned for the Sega Saturn. New variants of the homing attack were also added to the Fastest Thing Alive’s repertoire, allowing him to attack armored enemies with a kick or outright charge it by holding down the button to deal extra damage.

With all of the pieces in place, I guess it’s time for me to explore exactly what I would personally want out of the next 3D Sonic title. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: while many players just outright associate the Sonic games with “speed”, in reality they rely far more on a related but distinct concept: “momentum”. As such, in order to create a truly satisfying 3D Sonic title, we’re going to have to find a way to recreate the beloved mechanics of 2D titles – new and old, from the 1991 original to Mania – in a 3D space without giving up the same sense of control that one less dimension gives players. I could write an entire diatribe on my distaste for the Boost formula, but let me boil it down to a base concept: for the most part, they seem to be an attempt at recreating the so-called “hold right to win” 2D Sonic titles, focusing more on getting to go fast, without implementing enough of the platforming one should expect in a platformer, relegating that aspect of the game almost entirely to the aforementioned 2D segments. If you can’t – or rather, won’t – bother translating all of the earlier titles’ elements into 3D, then what is the point of moving past 2D in the first place? That isn’t to say that the Boost formula should be completely discarded, but rather that by taking elements from it, as well as other styles that the 3D Sonics have explored in the past, perhaps the Sega’s mascot can finally be properly welcomed to the next level.

…honestly, it was a choice between that line or doing a title drop. I think I went the less cheesy route, but results may vary.

I guess the best place to start would have to be with the game’s storyline. As per usual, I’m not going to go into any specifics, keeping things broad just to avoid stumbling into fanfic territory. One of the key arguments I disagree with coming from the Adventure fanbase is that Sonic needs to go back to doing an outright serious storyline, like the epic stories present in the Dreamcast era. Unfortunately, at this point, these can either come across as pointlessly melodramatic (Sonic ’06), easily mistaken for parody (Unleashed) or illustrate that Sega’s writing staff is no longer up to the task of making a truly serious storyline with any weight behind it (Forces). At the same time, other Sonic stories have attempted to rely on comedy – a difficult objective, especially given the interactive nature of the video game medium.

Attempting to bridge the gap between these two concepts hasn’t really worked all that well in the past – after all, since he first started talking, Sonic’s snappy one-liners have become more and more prominent, which tends to undercut any sense of drama. So, against all logic, I think that Sega should probably attempt to stay the course on blending humor and drama. As much as it pains me to say this, the only advice I can really give is “do it better this time”.

As shaky as that advice comes across, a bad story doesn’t necessarily mean a bad game. Indeed, the primary focus of this article should be on gameplay – just like always. Admittedly, this article will be much more of a challenge than previous ones. Usually, I’d just piece together various base elements of earlier games to present a much better future. This time, I’m going to have to dig a little deeper, specifically focusing on specific mechanics from different games, as opposed to just choosing one game to base the entire engine on.

I guess I’ll start with something simple. 2D segments: yea or nay? Despite my criticism, I’d keep them – with several tweaks. For starters, the majority of the game’s platforming shouldn’t be relegated to them. 2D segments should be significantly rarer in this new Sonic game compared to previous entries. In fact, the gameplay should only revert to the classic style whenever obstacles can’t be properly rendered in a 3D space. The 3D platforming genre has come so far – both during the sixth generation and with the recent renaissance with such games as Super Mario Odyssey and A Hat in Time – that locking any and all platforming challenges to a two-dimensional space seems like an insult to the concept of a 3D Sonic game in the first place.

Likewise, auto-running segments can still remain as set pieces – after all, even the original Sonic Adventure had that bit with the killer whale – but they should likewise remain fairly rare. The majority of the gameplay should be conducted through 3D segments that allow players full control over Sonic the Hedgehog, as opposed to just boosting through what feels like miles and miles of corridors. We’ve actually seen a lot of fan games experiment with this style of concept, with some going even as far as experimenting with full-on open world concepts. If small fan groups can do that, then surely Sega themselves should be able to experiment with more than just simple corridors broken up by the occasional 2D segment.

Another important element to keep in mind would be Sonic’s “moveset” in this new adventure. Personally, I’d ditch the boost mechanic in general: it leads to just mindlessly running through enemies and feels like a slapdash solution to the momentum problem with the 3D Sonics altogether. On the other hand, the run/walk toggling present in Sonic Lost World isn’t a particularly favorable solution either, though it’s definitely a step in the right direction. In my opinion, Sega should just revert to the momentum-based system that they used in Sonic (et al.)’s gameplay from the Adventure games and maybe implement some kind of a braking mechanic, like the spin dash drift in some of the Boost games or even just straight up reverse-engineer the run button from Lost World into a “walk button” or even just a brake. To compensate for the loss of the Boost attack, I’d just suggest bringing back the Spin Dash: if Lost World proved anything, it’s that Sega has finally found a way to balance it out in 3D play as opposed to the uncontrollable iterations found in the Sonic Adventure games and Sonic Heroes.

Keep the homing attack. I’m torn about including the variants found in Lost World: as much as they added strategy to the game, they had a tendency to misfire, so it would probably be for the best to stick to the standard version for now. Aside from that, I’d keep many of the abilities from the Boost games: the stomp and rail grinding still seem like perfect mechanics for a 3D momentum-based platformer. Likewise, bring back the bounce mechanic from Lost World. I’d even consider the double jump from Colors, SLW and Forces as a viable move, just so long as they can be tempered in a way that would both prevent activating it accidentally or cluttering the controls. Likewise, the parkour mechanic could make a return, albeit in a far more limited fashion – stages shouldn’t be built around it but exploiting a hampered version of the mechanic to access risky shortcuts seems like a perfect concept for a Sonic game in general, let alone one in 3D.

This ties in quite nicely with the next segment: stage design. This is one area where the Adventure games truly excelled, even if the gameplay itself wasn’t polished enough to suit them properly. The stages in Boost games generally comprise of three types of segments: 3D corridors, the aforementioned 2D segments and a wider 3D area, generally swarming with enemies. Not exactly exciting stage progression in my eyes. The Adventure games, on the other hand, tended to focus more on open-ended roaming areas that still maintained a sense of linearity – they just lacked the overbearing structure that many modern 3D Sonics tend to revel in. Sonic Heroes, on the other hand, seemed to outright attempt to recreate many of the conventions of the Genesis-era titles in 3D to (admittedly) poor results, though this was mostly a consequence of a Sega’s relative inexperience with 3D platformers in general. Meanwhile, the spherical design of Sonic Lost World’s stages added something that simply wasn’t present in the typical Boost formula games that both preceded and followed it: it allowed for much more freedom of movement as stage designs varied depending on which portion of the level itself Sonic was traversing. I’m not suggesting that spherical levels make a return in the next Sonic game, but emphasizing numerous pathways as opposed to just building straight lines with one fast path to the finish. After all, part of the fun of the 2D Sonic games was exploring the various paths present in each level: while most players tried to find the quickest (which was generally the highest path), others would revel in exploring them, taking in all of the details and quirks that the developers put into each and every level. Having said that, the next 3D Sonic title’s stage design should take far more inspiration from the Adventure titles, Sonic Heroes and Lost World. The best 3D conversions of classic 2D video games focus on the most beloved elements of their predecessors, rather than just trying to recreate them in a superficial manner. This is a problem that has long plagued the Sonic series, ever since it grew beyond the fourth console generation.

Speaking of 2D gameplay, Lost World also managed to retain this element common in the Boost games but with a lot more in the way of variety compared to even top-notch Boost-era games like Colors and Generations. As such, while I’d say that while 2D segments should definitely be present in a new 3D game, Sega should draw inspiration from the ones in Lost World and Colors, as well as the Classic Sonic stages in Generations. That last bit may be something of a cheat, but it is still technically part of a 3D Sonic title. The level design just relied entirely on 2D principles, so they could allow for much more intricate layouts – and that should be the entire point of these segments in the first place. Let me reiterate that Sega should strictly save these for concepts that would be far too difficult to accurately represent and implement in a 3D space. In other words, they should be far rarer compared to most modern 3D Sonic titles.

Boss fights are another fairly important element of the Sonic games at their best. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for me to choose any particular standout examples from the 3D era of games. I mean, the majority of games in the series had at least a few fights I enjoyed, but these didn’t seem to reflect the entirety of the game. As such, it’s difficult to draw from any particular games for a method to follow – all I could really write up here would be a list of boss battles I particularly enjoyed from previous games. That wouldn’t really do much in terms of building new fights, let alone an underlying concept that could be used to frame them. I guess the best advice I would really have would to draw from the various styles we’ve seen in previous games: the arena-style fights that originated in the Adventure games, the endless runner fights that outright embodied the Boost era, and even the 2D boss fights. Though ideally, if the latter end up returning, they’ll end up better resembling those from games like the Sonic Advance trilogy, the Sonic Rush games and the Classic Sonic fights in Generation and Forces, as opposed to the somewhat lame fare present in Colors.

Aside from that, there are a few miscellaneous suggestions I have. Just like in my last article, I definitely think that the Red Rings should return in any new 3D Sonic. They add a certain element of replayability, at least when it comes to completionists. Likewise, I’d like to relegate any Super transformations to an endgame state – likely a “true” final boss – like previous games, though I’m torn on whether the Chaos Emeralds should just be obtained through the story, relegated to a bonus for collecting all of the aforementioned Red Rings or even hidden in special stages. Hey, that’s what Sonic Heroes and the 3DS version of Sonic Lost World did. Though admittedly, that would probably be a poor choice. What I’d really like to see would be hiding the emeralds in stages themselves, but no 3D game has ever attempted anything like that before – just the first two Sonic games on Game Gear. Aside from that, I’d probably stick to traditional power-ups: shields (both standard and electric), speed shoes, ring boxes and 1-Ups. I don’t particularly have anything against the Wisps, they just kind of felt like they were intended to be the special gimmick in Colors, so cramming them into future titles almost seems to dilute their importance. Maybe they could be brought back in further titles, but it’s probably best to just leave them out until Sonic finds his footing once again instead of trying to rely on gimmicks from popular games. Which brings me to my final point: leave Classic/Mania Sonic out of this game. I honestly feel like trying to shoehorn him back in not only hurts the 3D games, but his own reputation. Treat him as a totally separate entity, exclusive to the 2D games.

The graphics and art style don’t really offer me much to go on. Honestly, the main question just sort of comes down to whether this new game should utilize the standard “Modern Sonic” look or go with unique designs to differentiate them from the mainline series. On the one hand, segmenting the franchise even further seems like it would just backfire. However, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric utilized an entirely new (albeit controversial) set of designs and the backlash against that game didn’t seem to translate to the rest of the series in general. In the end, given the franchise’s need for redemption after Sonic Forces’ tepid response, it’s probably for the best if Sega just goes with the now-traditional look: there’s very little left to protect with regards to Sonic’s reputation at this point, so a new artstyle could dilute any goodwill if the game itself ends up beloved by fans.

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of those series that is renowned for its music: even if the gameplay is abysmal, the sound team always seems to put in their all. Tomoya Ohtani has been taking the lead lately when it comes to the Blue Blur’s musical exploits and he’s been doing an excellent job as of late. In the previous Sonic article in this series, I suggested that Richard Jacques be allowed to take the lead, but since then, he’s managed to head the soundtracks for all three games in the Sonic Boom series, so he’s certainly gotten his due – well, to some extent, anyway. Considering their collaborations in the past have been limited, I’d love to see the two of them collaborate on a new Sonic game. That doesn’t necessarily preclude other Sonic composers from joining in the fun but giving Ohtani and Jacques equal billing in a mainline Sonic game just seems like too interesting of a concept to pass up.

I have to admit: this article was probably one of the more difficult ones to write in this series. It seems like the best path for Sonic’s 3D titles may be a full-on reinvention, discarding what have become familiar gameplay concepts in exchange for ones that are both new and evocative of the series’ 2D halcyon days (past and present). However, maybe if Sega were to attempt to bridge the gap between the Adventure and Boost formulas – using aspects from some of their more experimental titles to smooth over particularly incompatible elements – they could find a way to please both fanbases with a single title. That seems like a far less risky experiment than potentially splintering the Fastest Thing Alive’s fanbase across yet another brand-new formula. Regardless of Sega’s decision for future games, it seems that staying on their current course is primed for disaster, so whether they refine the current formula with elements of earlier titles or build something entirely new from scratch, change is necessary for the Blue Blur’s continued longevity.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s