A grim reality struck me this week. A new Sonic game was out and I couldn't, personally, care less. If brief demo time and video footage wasn't evidence enough, the word of those in the team that own Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric was enough to convince me that it wasn't worth my time or money. When both of those commodities are at a premium choices are made carefully, and the blue blur is too far down my list of priorities. I'd sooner splash some cash on some extra goodies such as amiibo and the GameCube adapter to go with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; that's a sad state of affairs.
To be clear, this is branded as a Soapbox due to the fact that, from a Nintendo Life perspective, Sonic games will continue to get full coverage as is typically demanded; the hope is always that whatever comes next will be better and satisfy the fans that remain. From a personal perspective, though, there's a tipping point in which SEGA's continued negligence of its most important IP has gone too far, and I've reached it. Let's outline the case.
In the 16-bit era I was a SEGA kid, so the Mega Drive — Genesis to those of you in North America — was my gaming world. I was obsessed with the main-series Sonic The Hedgehog games, through the combination of platforming and — in latter entries — bursts of thrilling speed. While it's tempting to talk about Sonic being fast as his primary strength, that wasn't strictly the case; these games were just well-designed experiences that combined imaginative design with great visuals and an awesome soundtrack. Fast moments were often there for show — one rare similarity with the modern 3D efforts.
Of course, in this era Sonic and Mario were going head to head, but a vital point came when Nintendo released Super Mario 64 and proved that 3D gaming could achieve wonderful results. SEGA as a whole was lurching through a chaotic period in which its hardware strategy was a slapstick affair, and the Sonic games found on the Saturn — in that period of 1996 to 1997 — were way off what I expected as a fan. In some respects Sonic suffered due to his platform holder making a mess of its hardware business, and my household switched to Nintendo's 64-bit machine.
The trouble with Sonic's games at that time, even accounting for some attempts at respectability on the Dreamcast, was that his owners struggled to figure out how he'd play in the 3D era. That emphasis on bursts of speed was thrilling in 2D, but in 3D had predictably glitchy results in open play, or were simply on-rails sequences; whereas sections of crazy speed in 16-bit Sonic were for seconds at a time, these were entire levels with that approach. Not all releases in the Dreamcast era were poor, in fact they can be fun, but they rapidly put Sonic in a tier below the very best, at least to me, which was not where he belonged.
A telling issue, of course, was that with SEGA exiting the hardware market it meant that Sonic no longer had a definitive home. That doesn't excuse the continuing loss of identity that has blighted the blue blur, however, as subsequent releases jumped all over the place and introduced an increasingly aimless — and sometimes irritating — cast. In the space of less than a decade Sonic went from being one of the two most important brands in gaming to being a second tier figure, moving between systems with some games that were decent and others that were disappointing. SEGA, for its part, seemed less interested in finding the right formula and more bothered with flogging the brand while keen fans were still desperate to support it. Quality suffered either through poor design, wonky cameras or choices that simply weren't good enough.
The fact is that Sonic completely lost me between 1996/1997 and the Wii era, as every sight and play I had of new releases left me with a lingering sense of disappointment.
Then there was the Wii era, which again showed how aimless the strategy for Sonic had become. Sonic Unleashed was high profile but had poorly conceived Werehog sections, whereas the Storybook spin offs were pretty mediocre; again, far removed from the glory days.
I was given some hope with Sonic Colours, though, and enjoyed Sonic Generations to a degree, though the PC port that I played was a buggy mess. Add in the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog 4 episodes and, again, there seemed to be a focus within SEGA to rebuild trust. None of these efforts were perfect — the jumping momentum was oddly borked in Sonic the Hedgehog 4 — but they made Sonic a real part of my gaming world again. When a new Sonic game arrived I was excited, simply as there seemed to be a positive trend of gradual improvement after years of decline.
I'm actually a defender of Sonic Lost World, too, within reason. I awarded it 7/10 in our review and, although I sometimes wonder whether I was one point too generous, I still believe it was relatively close to finding a solid formula. It had problems — a horrendous difficulty spike at the end, some questionable level design and platforming controls that could have been tighter — yet had wonderful moments, particularly in cylindrical levels where there was a solid fusion of speed and control. The quality wasn't consistent throughout, but there were flashes where SEGA seemed to have grasped how it could give Sonic a style that actually works.
Yet then there's Sonic Boom. The whole concept, top to bottom, is why Sonic is in a cycle of diminishing returns and credibility. If SEGA's plan was to create an off-shoot that looks like the work of a committee of disconnected business people, and then hawk it around as a cartoon with mediocre game spin-offs, then the job is done. If SEGA's aspirations for Sonic is for him to be a TV character readily dismissed in the gaming space — for there are plenty of those — then it's clear that the company cares little for the character that truly made it.
I was embarrassed by a show demo of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric earlier this year; it was shoddy, while reviews — including our own — along with general feedback reinforce that view. I will say from experience that when a publisher holds games back from the press until after release then alarm bells ring; short of actually refusing to sell the game SEGA — and Nintendo, acting as publisher — couldn't have hid it much better. The creeping trend of embargoes after releases is bad enough — see Assassin's Creed Unity — but not even giving early access shows that a title is either so online-centric that there's no purpose to advance copies, or that the product is a mess. Rise of Lyric was the latter. I'm actually interested in picking up Shattered Crystal cheap in the future, as it seems like a relatively competent effort. Yet Sonic's all about home console games, to me, with portable entries a welcome extra.
If Rise of Lyric is a new low, then what next? I think SEGA, first of all, needs to slow down. Whether its desire to extract a few more bucks out of Sonic overrides that priority is something for the company's executives and accountants to figure out, but a break is needed for multiple reasons. The brand is rapidly descending towards junk status again, and it needs to determine how the best can be made of Sonic moving forward. The first assessment is to decide who can develop a truly admirable Sonic experience — is Sonic Team up to the challenge, does it need external help? Then it needs to prototype, experiment and generally care about what it's doing with the franchise.
There are some suggesting Nintendo should 'acquire' the IP, which would be lovely but won't — I don't think — happen. An interesting suggestion in The Guardian is for SEGA to hand over the keys to the most talented small 'indie' devs they can find; there's logic to that, as the brand's origins were in rebellion, with the classic early entries defying some well-known conventions in drawing inspiration from sources such as pinball. That's when Sonic was an actual rebel through actions and how he played, not in the annoying voice-over and awful script sense. I'd still prefer a sizeable studio with experience to run the show — that doesn't include Big Red Button, evidently — and spend a solid few years on the project.
Sonic and Mario are barely comparable now, which is SEGA's own fault, yet it can learn lessons from Nintendo's approach to its main series of platformers. Nintendo was more than happy — in the N64 and GameCube eras — to have long gaps between projects as it worked on the next game. With the Wii and DS the company kicked off its regular 'New' series of 2D games, while using the building blocks from the first two '3D' Mario games to expand and improve its efforts in that area. The regular entries we see now are the legacy of the company — in past generations — nailing down how Mario games should feel, and we reap the rewards as gamers. SEGA never truly took that time to get Sonic absolutely right in a 3D space, and has reserved his better 2D efforts for portable hardware. That history can't be changed, but with Sonic's identity at such a low point now may be the time to assess what to do next without chasing deadlines or targeting kids by committee, as with Sonic Boom.
Games like Sonic Generations, Sonic Lost World and Sonic Colours all showed potential, and at least provide some form of foundation. SEGA absolutely must show more respect for its mascot and its fans, however. It needs to take time and extract the best of recent efforts into one project, and it needs to stop degrading itself with shoddy, second-rate spin-offs.
I'm out of patience, for now. SEGA must show that it truly cares about making Sonic an important name in gaming; unfortunately I suspect I'll be waiting for a long time.