Reasons to get your hopes up, reasons to bring them back down again.
Australia, February 14, 2010 - Sonic announcements are curious things: they start off promising, before showering that promise with superfluous garbage. With Project Needlemouse – now officially known as Sonic 4, Sega may have at long last managed to trim the fat that has pulled its once-proud mascot into a pool of mediocrity. The company has gone out of its way to make us aware that it's aware of it. The character countdown that resulted in Sonic being the only playable character was the first sign; the newest trailer is the second.
With about 1.5 seconds of gameplay, Sega has managed give more hope to Sonic 4 than fans have felt for years. From the traditional cry of 'Se-ga!' at the beginning, right through to Sonic running through a stage that looks like an amalgamation of the Green Hill and Emerald Hill zones, the message seems to be clear: rejoice! We're returning to our roots.
Or is the company just baiting us with a turd in a Snickers wrapper? This game could either provide a very pleasant play experience, or it could blow festering chunks… all in full HD, of course. Let's go through a few aspects of the game and give it the One Up, One Down analysis.
Check out the first trailer.
When I was 10 years old, I would boot up the Master System version of the very first Sonic game and play as far as the third stage of Green Hill Zone. This was where you would fight Eggman after climbing a couple of hills. At the top, however, I would avoid the fight. Instead, I would tip Sonic back down the incline, roll him into a ball, and look on in awe as the screen blew by with increasing speed.
As such, it's pretty obvious that speed is something of a hallmark for Sonic, and the initial Needlemouse trailer's claim that 'speed returns' seems to confirm that Sega's marketing department is aware of this. There's promise here: for some, there are few gaming pleasures that rank with the thrill of keeping a perfectly streamlined run alive as Sonic spins, flips, and bounces towards the end of a stage.
But there is cause for concern. There is something very important from my childhood play that keeps on getting overlooked: momentum. Even on the Master System version of the game – a version that was, at best, a mere shadow of its Mega Drive sibling – there was a palpable sense of gravity. Sonic would gain speed when tumbling down slopes, and he would likewise lose it when climbing them. Overlooking the importance of the physics engine in the classic Sonic games is arguably the greatest misstep that this franchise has made.
The reason for this is actually pretty simple: the pleasure of the speed in these games came from the flow of maintaining the blue critter's momentum; not in simply pressing a button to blast through the stages before you can even take in the scenery you've just left ten screens behind you. Most of the newer Sonic games are actually faster than the... well... the good ones. The pleasure in the speed came from earning it, and for this to work the game needs to slow down just enough to allow for twitch reflexes to actually be rewarded.
It's received its share of flack, but Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast actually had some pretty well-constructed stages. Both the visuals and gameplay were diverse. Windy Valley was a run through a series of grassy, floating islands connected by rusty bridges that was broken up in the middle by a trip through a tornado; Twinkle Park took place at a garish amusement park where Sonic raced bumper cars before finding himself on a rollercoaster that thrust him to ground level, where ascent was the final goal; Speed Highway looked just as its name implied, and allowed for a brief moment of balls-to-the-wall running until Sonic eventually found himself tearing down a high-rise.
Although less polished, in this sense the game was a worthy successor to its 2D brethren. Remember how varied the stages in Sonic 2 were? Emerald Hill and Chemical Plant zones seemed worlds apart. If Sonic 4 is going to be a worthy continuation, then it's going to have to come up with a good variety of stages with different visual themes, and gameplay unique to each.
We all loved Speed Highway. It was a great surprise in the original Sonic Adventure, and its popularity must have been well known within the Sonic Team, because every stage in Sonic Adventure 2 attempted to mimic it in some way. Sadly, the fun-at-first reckless speed gradually grew tiring.
There's a huge risk, particularly since it's somewhat tied to the over-gratuitous use of speed, that Sonic 4 will fall into this trap. Nothing would be worse for players of this game than finding out that, after enjoying the first zone immensely, the next one is almost exactly the same. Sega needs to go back and seriously analyse the unique aspects of many of its classic stages – the acrobatic danger of Star Light, the tube-bending speed of Chemical Plant, the bouncy madness of Carnival Night – and consider effective ways to re-introduce these ideas, as well as thinking up some new ones on the side.
The internet is a very vocal place – removed from true accountability, people voice opinions in droves. Among the most vocal have been the long-term Sonic fans who scream bloody murder at each new entry in the franchise. And why shouldn't they? From the introduction of the 'heroes' concept, they've had to deal with rubbish mini-games, bestiality, guns, talking swords, overworld maps, trashy cinematics, Shadow and werehogs!
Many – if not all – of these complaints are very valid. If Sega listen to the fans in this regard (having Sonic as the only playable character is a step in the right direction), then it's well on the way to getting back to the core of what made Sonic games good in the first place, and can attempt to continue such traditions from scratch.
Let's be honest. Most fans aren't themselves game designers, and many just shout out common surface desires. We've already spoken about how speed has so often been misunderstood, and yet this remains a common request. Furthermore, years of sub-standard games have allowed us to forget that the gaming media and public were beginning to notice repetition by the time Sonic & Knuckles poked its nose through the door – little surprise, really, when you consider that the 16-bit games were all built directly atop each other. Sega can't allow over-caution to get in the way of new ideas that may be valid contributions to the gameplay, but the way it's advertising Sonic 4 right now, we fear it may do just that.
The first thing that Sega got right with its last trailer was the chorus cry at the very beginning. This retro chant was an audible trigger for memories of quality. The move to 2D also has similar associations.
Hopefully, the art and audio will undergo some revision and rejuvenation. It would be plain stupid to completely copy the look of the old games, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if the developer tried to re-invent the aesthetic from scratch, instead of using the evolution they're presently at. Look modern, sure, but look like Sonic, also. Likewise, Sega should probably listen to the original soundtracks again. The music has always been cheesy, but the bubblegum punk-rock of present is a bit much.
There seems to be a whole community foaming with outrage at Sonic's current character model. While it is true that they may be nitpicking, it's also true that this model looks pretty jarring, and not at all as swish as the aerodynamic sprite that ran through the stages in Sonic 2. We've nothing against the long-legged, green-eyed design of today, but it'd be nice if Sonic looked a little less like he had been poked with a straw and inflated with air.
The backgrounds need some work. That static, pre-rendered 3D foliage is eerily similar to Donkey Kong Country in style, and not at all congruous with the classic Sonic patchwork of the foreground scenery. Furthermore, just because we'd like to see a return to the classic audio sensibilities doesn't mean we're demanding midi format music – taking inspiration from a few remixes wouldn't hurt. Housethegreat's 'Walk on Water' remix of the Hydro City music would be a great start.
The reality is that we'll have to wait and see. Is the episodic release structure already set-in-stone, or will it allow for further iteration based on feedback response? Will each episode merely follow on from the other, or will these subsequent releases allow for the older ones to be experienced in new ways, as with Sonic 3 & Knuckles? We'll let you know when we can.