As a die-hard Sonic fan, it can be hard to defend the series. Sonic the Hedgehog hasn’t necessarily been given the same kind of tender love and care as Mario. And as you look back on each iteration of the series’ 3D adventures, there are some obvious missteps. Judging from some of the early reviews of Sonic Forces, the race track design of the 3D levels hasn’t aged well, and honestly, it’s not hard to see why. However, one 3D Sonic game held more potential than any other, despite being generally viewed as one of the series’ more mediocre entries – Sonic Lost World.
Why Sonic Lost World?
Sonic Lost World was a drastic change in how the Sonic Team approached Sonic’s 3D adventures. Experimenting with a different control scheme and more open levels, players were presented with a new way to play as the blue blur. Yes, the control scheme wasn’t perfect and it noticeably slowed down the famous hedgehog. But for the first time, it felt like you were in control of Sonic, rather than bashing into unknown obstacles at breakneck speeds. Sonic’s new range of movement also allowed players to explore levels, rather than just going from point A to point B. Developers had the opportunity to present unique gameplay mechanics that were never possible in previous iterations of the series.
What holds Lost World back is hit or miss level design. The control scheme does add more variety to the gameplay but some of the levels felt poorly designed, at times flat, and more often than not, frustrating. While some of the levels felt more open, they still felt boxed in and restricted. Even worse are the lackluster boss battles, which provide little to no challenge or enjoyment. It doesn’t help that Lost World had the tough task of following up two of the series’ best entries – Sonic Colors and Generations. Despite all these gripes, Lost World felt different and more like a platformer than past games have.
Don’t get me wrong, Sonic Colors and Generations are some of my favorite games. However, great platforming opportunities are usually left to the 2D sections of those game. While it is fun to move around at the speed of sound, the 3D sections of recent Sonic games feel more like the player is just along for the ride. You just basically move forward. What Sega and Sonic Team had the chance to do was build on the Sonic Lost World formula and iron out the edges. Unfortunately, that’s not Sega’s way of handling the Sonic franchise. When the going gets tough they fail to flesh out any of their ideas.
The Problem With Going Fast and Sticking to the Same Ol’ Formula
While the original Sonic Adventure games were able to translate the breakneck speeds that the series is known for, it never quite matched the fantastic level design of its 2D predecessors. There are moments in the early Adventure games where platforming took priority. Levels required Sonic to battle enemies and take part in classic jumping on platforms to reach parts of the level. However, going fast soon become the mandate, and Sonic began moving towards the finish instead of moving on platforms.
Sega lost sight of the core of its mascot’s games. Look no further than Sonic Mania to see that the Genesis era games in the Sonic series were more than the “gotta go fast” persona that it’s taken on. In fact, the original 2D games prided themselves on an exploratory level design. Exploring the hard-to-reach areas of levels granted players access to powerups and special stages. Not to mention some of the levels presented players with interesting platforming sections that revolved around each world’s unique theme. What makes Sonic Mania so great is that it taps into each level’s theme wonderfully to create obstacles and tricks for the player to navigate and use.
The 3D iterations of the series provide some level of enjoyment but are ultimately limited and don’t age well. On the other end of the spectrum are the Mario games, which continually takes risks and improves each entry into the series. Bold ideas are a rarity in the Sonic games and are more often replaced with lame gimmicks to draw in a crowd. The biggest frustration is that the race track formula doesn’t mix well with the series’ platforming roots. When moments of platforming are injected into 3D sections of levels, Sonic’s light speed movements make it impossible to navigate, resulting in the lead character crashing into traps, coming to abrupt halts, or unexpectedly falling off the stage. After 17 + years since Sonic Adventure, the Sonic Team hasn’t done much to change these glaring faults.
Where to Take Inspiration
Obviously, I think following up and perfecting Lost World‘s gameplay is a start. However, Sega should also look at what fans are creating for inspiration. Sega has always had a soft spot for the fan games being made by their community.
Christan Whitehead’s previous Sonic fan projects and games like Freedom Planet 2 are the perfect examples of this. Whitehead fan projects eventually lead to him being responsible for the most critically received Sonic game in years – Sonic Mania. That kind of talent and success can be found on the 3D side of series, or at least generate ideas for improving the games.
Look at Sonic Utopia, a fan-game that made generated a bit of buzz last year. Yeah, it’s a bit rough around the edges and more of a tech demo than anything else. However, it’s a game that provides Sonic with an open environment where his speed works. Utopia also finds creative ways to implement some of the series best features like ramps, bumpers, and loops, showing that Sega’s blue mascot works best when he isn’t restricted.
Inspiration can also come from some of Sonic’s canceled projects. Sonic X-Treme, while a weird fishbowl lens attempt at a 3D version of Sonic, looks like a lot of fun when you think about its maze ball design. I’m sure there are other 3D Sonic prototypes that could give Sega a few interesting ideas that they overlooked. 3D Sonic games need a change. The formula that Sega used for years is hit or miss and wearing thin. While change is risky, it’s one that Sega needs to be willing to make if they want the series to evolve.