Even if you’ve never touched a Sonic the Hedgehog game (and if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?) you likely know the general consensus of the past decade: Sonic’s sixth generation games started off strong with Sonic Adventure and its sequel, and delved into mediocre with Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog. Meanwhile Sonic’s seventh generation games started off abysmally with Sonic ’06 and eventually climbed to greatness once again through Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations.
But in this climb to greatness, Sonic has created a huge yet seamlessly crossed rift between more restrictive, simplistic 3D speedrunning and more complex, traditional 2D platforming. The first impression one might have is that this gives Sonic games the best of both worlds. But does it, really? Does this unique “separate, yet combined” design truly make Sonic the best he can be, or does it create compromises that keep him from truly making “S Rank?” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Personally, I hadn’t touched a Sonic game newer than Shadow the Hedgehog, until I picked up Sonic Generations this past November. Boy, how things have changed in the six years between these two. For the first time, 3D Sonic truly felt fast, to the point where I could almost feel Sonic’s adrenaline rush as I guided him down speedways, around tight corners, and even over water. But of course, the game wasn’t all 3D speedrunning. Even besides completely 2D “classic” levels, the “modern” levels often switched between a 3D speedrunning and 2D platforming perspective. The transition was so quick and seamless that I found it hard to believe that this was from the same Sega that had butchered the camera in almost every other 3D Sonic game I had played up to this point. As I played the game, I immensely enjoyed it, but felt a sort of emptiness about it, which I brushed off at first.
Then I played Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). I thought I knew pretty much exactly what I was getting into when I made the decision to play it. Over the past six years, I had seen far too many LPs and reviews showing me how glitchy and broken the game was—let alone the story and aesthetics—so I wasn’t expecting much. But after actually playing the game, I was rather surprised. Just about everything I heard about the bugs, story, etc. were true, but in spite of all that, Sonic ’06 showed the squandered potential of great game design.
Now before you start throwing things at me, please bear with me. I’m not going to defend this game as anything but broken (I could try, but it’s no use!), but think about this for a moment: Sonic ’06 featured a speedy blue hedgehog, especially fast for on-rails areas, or “mach segments,” and more traditional robot-smashing and platforming. All of this is very similar to newer entries like Sonic Generations, but with one very key difference: All of it was done in 3D.
Perhaps you see what I’m getting at here. Sonic ’06 does many of the same things as Sonic Generations, but fully in 3D (and in a buggy and terribly executed manner). Sonic Generations also features some of the very same 3D platforming as Sonic ’06 during certain chunks, as evidenced by the “modern” versions of City Escape and Crisis City (except that they’re, y’know, actually playable). I’m not saying that Sonic Generations shouldn’t have 2D segments; after all, Generations‘ entire mission statement was to bring 2D and 3D Sonic together as an awesome twentieth anniversary celebration. But between its limited use in the “classic” levels and it’s overly generous use in the “modern” levels, I don’t see why 2D gameplay should have accounted for 70% or more of the content in the main levels.
I’m also not saying that 2D segments need to disappear from 3D Sonic games, period. After all, even 3D Mario games feature an occasional sidescrolling sequence, and those are really fun. Personally, I could care less if 2D segments disappeared from 3D Sonic games completely, but I don’t mind if they’re used sparingly, and not used as an excuse to avoid making a complicated platforming segment in 3D.
So why has Sega abandoned the concept of a fully 3D platforming Sonic game, especially when their recent work proves they’re capable of doing so? Are they just scared that they’ll mess it up? Are they afraid they’ll lose the appeal of the faction of Sonic fans who very much prefer 2D games? Or is it something else entirely? And they have Sonic 4 and all the handheld games, so why not save 2D Sonic for those, similar to New Super Mario Bros.?
Sonic’s recent juggling act between 2D and 3D gameplay is genius in its execution, but ultimately is like oil and water—the two coexist in the same glass, but are still separate, and a transition, no matter how seamless, is required to switch between the two. It oversimplifies 3D Sonic, limiting him either to restrictive on-rails speedrunning, or to platforming locked to two dimensions for fear of error, like a match made in Heaven tragically destined to never meet. What say you? Is Sega oversimplifying Sonic in fear of failure, or is Sonic great just the way he is? Let us know in the comments below!