How Sonic Lost His Spark (and How He Might Regain It)

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that Sonic the Hedgehog used to be one of the kings of the video game industry. Back in the 90s, he was the sole competitor to Mario, putting Sega right alongside Nintendo at the head of the video game industry. But nowadays? Not so much.

Recently, Sonic has somewhat found a balance. His last few games have been reasonably well-received, even if they’re not critically acclaimed (save for Sonic Mania, which shook the world). Even then, Sonic can’t escape the shadow (pun intended, why not?) of his greatest disasters, like Sonic ’06 or Sonic Boom. The series’ reputation might just be beyond fixing.

Admittedly, I’m not all that much of a Sonic fan. But I always appreciated the history of the series. That, and enjoy how bizarre these games can truly get.

At least, how they used to get.

Back in the day, even the worst Sonic games always felt like they were trying to do something new or interesting. They experimented with new types of gameplay rather than simply going with what worked again and again.

The Sonic Adventure games had the Chao Gardens, which have since become their most iconic feature. Sonic Heroes had a three-character party system, allowing the designers to experiment with all-new kinds of level design. Shadow the Hedgehog had branching paths (and guns!) to the story. Unleashed had the werehog sections and introduced the boost system. Even Sonic ’06 shot for the stars, with its varied characters, level designs, and mach-speed sections.

Were all of these ideas executed well? No. In fact, most of them made the games worse. The three-character system in Heroes hurt the game more often than it helped, the branching path system made Shadow the Hedgehog’s story impossible to experience coherently, nobody likes the werehog sections in Unleashed, and we all know what went wrong with Sonic ’06.

But if nothing else, they tried. They experimented with new ideas, but they made the games unique and memorable. Say what you will about the games themselves, but they made an impression.

Recent Sonic games really can’t say the same thing. Colors, Generations, and Forces are all acceptable games, but none of them really do anything to break the mold. They all just copy the boost system used in Unleashed and repeat it over and over. Each one has something unique to it; Colors has its own power-up system tied to the little alien dudes, Generations had classic and modern Sonic, and Forces had… create a character (it’s a bad sign when customizable avatars are the most exciting addition to your game). But none of them really feel like they’re trying to be exceptional. It feels more like they’re just desperately trying not to be another Sonic ’06.

Even the levels suffer from this issue. They’ve brought back Green Hill Zone so many times now that any nostalgic impact that stage once had has rotted away completely. It’s like if every Halo game opened with the Pillar of Autumn or if every Zelda game started in Kokiri Forest. At some point, you’ve got to leave the past behind and do something new!

That’s largely why Sonic Frontiers has been so well-received. It’s the first new Sonic game in a long time that feels like it’s actually trying. Between the new open world, the combat, and the leveling system, it feels truly unique. Sure, it still repeats certain levels like Green Hill Zone and it still uses the boost system for its levels. But it isn’t just more of Generations or Colors or Forces.

Will they keep up this momentum in the next game? I doubt it. In all likelihood, the next game will just be another Sonic Frontiers. We’re not breaking the formula; we’ve just got a new one. That’s just how video games are nowadays.

Man, I miss the days when video games got weird.

But who knows? Maybe Sonic will surprise us all once again in the future. They might just keep experimenting and playing with new ideas. Perhaps Frontiers is the game that will give Sonic Team the push they need to finally step out of the shadows of the franchise’s worst games.

Or maybe it’ll be that Sonic ’06 fan-made remake, P-06, that will do that. Can you believe that some madman took that broken mess and actually made it into a decent game? What wild times we live in.

Fans are getting better and better at fixing broken games. I’d be amazed if I weren’t so busy being annoyed that they have to do that in the first place.

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