I didn’t grow up with a Genesis, but I’ve played my fair share of Sonic in the past few decades. I don’t know why people like these games. While I could just say “this game series is not for me” and move on with my life, sadly that isn’t enough. I need to rant here.
On paper, Sonic seems like it would be perfect for me. I love 2D platformers and I love speed. Sonic is a fast-paced 2D platformer. I picked up Sonic Generations for the 3DS the other day, after reading some great reviews (and some not-so-great reviews of the newer Sonic Boom). I thought, “I need to get into a Sonic game today.” I spent two hours playing it and am planning on going back to GameStop and returning it later today. I never return games.
Let’s get into it.
The Game Focuses on Speed, But Punishes You For It
The whole point of Sonic is to move fast. At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe. Probably having something to do with the name “Sonic.” He’s named freaking Sonic, don’t try to tell me that speed isn’t a major part of this, otherwise they wouldn’t have called him that. He’s a freaking aerodynamic hedgehog who automatically starts moving fast when you hold left or right on the directional pad. The game rewards speed with the letter grade rating.
But, once you get him going fast, it’s only a matter of time before you run into something that is completely unavoidable because no one has a 4 millisecond reaction time. Then you get sent into a ring re-collecting frenzy so you and your score don’t get killed.
You Can’t See What’s Around You
A big issue with the earlier games in particular, which was most likely a byproduct of limited processing power of the systems at the time, was that the screen is so zoomed in that you can’t see more than probably a few feet around Sonic. Which means that you can’t get any idea of your surroundings and you can’t see anything that’s coming up. There’s no way to know what’s right below you without jumping into what hopefully isn’t a bottomless pit. This kills any urge to explore the level.
This was especially evident in the Casino Zone, where I kept getting bounced around the same tiny section, and had no idea which direction to go in, because I couldn’t see far enough, nor could I get Sonic to jump his ass in the right direction.
Truth be told, most of the issues I’m ranting about would be solved in the camera was zoomed out more. It would allow for ample reaction time, and things would just run smoother. Give me a chance to actually make those big jumps over enemies, don’t just throw it in my face because I’m going “too fast.”
The Levels Weren’t Designed for Speed
An argument brought up frequently is that you need to practice in order to finish the level with any sort of speed, which again goes against the point of being a speed-focused game. Instead of wide open levels that let you zip around, there are tight platforming sections that make you stop and wait.
Rayman Legends is by far one of my favorite 2D platformers, and that games’ answer to speed is the Invaded! levels. Yeah, they take some practice to hit the 30 second goal, but it had reasonable expectations of your reaction time. The first few runs you might make a few panicked mistakes, but you got good at them relatively fast.
This isn’t a complaint about how long it takes to get good at Sonic “because I have better things to do,” it’s that the reaction times actually needed for Sonic don’t exist for human beings. Rayman Legends can make you rush a level and if you get killed, it’s your own damn fault. That to me is the intrinsic beauty of Rayman Legends – when you fail, you failed. When you fail in Sonic, you got screwed.
Sonic Moves Like He’s Underwater
During the slower sections that involves some platforming or jumping around/on enemies, it became very evident just how terrible the controls are. Sonic lingers in the air for a bit when he jumps, but controlling his direction leaves much to be desired. Something is all off about the momentum, and precision platforming is pretty much impossible.
There’s also the issue of jumping when on a slope. Another issue that’s a nonissue once you get used to it, but I have tried my heart out on basically every 2D Sonic game that there ever was, and I cannot seem to get this right.
Sonic Can’t Walk Up Hills
One of the most infuriating things is when you have just too little speed to make it over an obstacle, like a loop. He slowly trickles back down to the bottom of the ramp, and then you have to awkwardly wait for him to try to walk up a hill to give it another shot.
For some reason, for such a fast animal, he sure is incapable of gaining any speed whatsoever when he’s walking up a hill. Why on earth is this the case? He can’t just move a little slower while going uphill? You end up having to do an awkward jump to get up a hill, but then of course he jumps at that crazy angle when you try jumping for a slope. Total nightmare that infuriates me.
You Sit and Watch the Best Parts
One of the most satisfying parts while playing a Sonic game is when you fly through little tunnels or through a series of loop-de-loops. However, at this point you’ve completely given control over to the game. You’re moving too fast to have any sort of reasonable expectation of reacting to something, so you just hold Right and wait until there’s something to be done. Or until you run into an unavoidable enemy, sending your coins all over the place so you can begin the frenzy all over again.
How Could Sonic Be Better?
Sonic plays as if it were designed by two designers with entirely different goals in mind. One designer was told to make a platformer along the lines of Mario Bros., the other was told to create an entirely new concept with a fast-moving animal. What you end up having is a platformer that needs to be played slowly to progress, but a controllable character who’s natural movement automatically shifts towards high speeds.
So how would I have improved Sonic? Well, hardware specs aside, there are a few ways to make it work. The state the obvious, making the world 3D would mean that the player can actually see upcoming obstacles and therefore would have time to react. Timing would become the main gameplay challenge, and impossible dodges would no longer be a part of the formula.
That’s a bit of a cop-out answer though, and the Sonic series has a few 3D installments (that I enjoyed more or less, by the way). In keeping up with the 2D platformer style, all they had to do was tilt the camera a little bit. That’s right – imagine holding a video camera pointing perpendicular at a racetrack. You can see the cars flying by left to right, but not much else in the ways of where they’re going. Now, tilt this imaginary camera to the right so it aims further down the track. You suddenly have some depth – where these cars are going requires looking ahead, and not pure dumb luck or muscle memory.
And there you have it. Some will disagree, and I know Sonic has it’s fanboys just like Nintendo does. I know, I’m one of them. But that’s my story of why I don’t like Sonic games and I’m sticking to it.
UPDATE: I returned the game and replaced it with Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. I’d seen this one recommended just about everywhere and am having an absolute blast with it so far. Terrific game that I recommend completely if you enjoy rhythm games, which I am seriously getting into lately.
Oh yeah, and I got $10 cash back with that trade. I’d call that a win.