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The Painful Truth Behind the Veil of Sonic Nostalgia

It is time that we, as a unified gaming community, tell Sonic to go the hell away. It is time we realized the madness and false assumptions and clouds of delicious nostalgia that have been screwing with our judgement for far too long. It’s time we came to our damn senses and admitted the truth.

The Sonic formula kind of sucks.

I know. It’s hard. But you have to let go. You know this to be the truth.

So many of us have deeply cherished memories of the Sonic games on the Genesis. So many of us have been clamoring for a return to those golden days ever since the blue hedgehog went 3D and multiplatform and started hanging out with that colorful group of annoying animal friends that just wouldn’t leave us alone no matter how many times we insulted their stupid spiky gloves or told them no one wanted to fish in a goddamned Sonic game you stupid fucking purple cat.

Look, before you go throwing things at the screen in blind rage, I’m not saying the Sonic games weren’t good… for their time. That’s the key isn’t it? What was once brilliant simply no longer works in a modern context.

The Sonic franchise represents a bygone era of design concepts that have become annoying, passe, outdated, and generally shunned by game developers with even the slightest bit of sense. It would be one thing if the Sonic games just made us deal with a few outdated concepts here and there. I think we could probably forgive that in the name of nostalgia and a good time. It’s not that simple, sadly. 

See, the Sonic formula is made up almost entirely of game design ideas that have no place on a modern console. The entire design process of these games is pretty much a bunch of developers sitting in a room coming up with as many ways to be complete fucking dicks as they possibly can. The more players they send into uncontrollable fits of rage the better. They get paid on commission not based on units sold, but in controllers sent flying in the general direction of something fragile (or possibly alive if the cat happens to be sleeping in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Remember that one part where Sonic was forced to shoot himself all around the level using cannons and the developers didn’t give you even the slightest clue where to go and you had to careen randomly around the level until you either figured out the right path or accidentally flew into some spikes or a bottomless pit you couldn’t see coming? Wasn’t that part fun?

Remember the bit where you were flying along one of those guided speedy bits the game loves so much that don’t actually require you to do anything and at the end of it you hit the conveniently placed spring that sent you sailing directly upwards into a waiting enemy you couldn’t possibly have avoided without being a cyborg from the year 2782? Didn’t you love watching your rings scatter everywhere like that?

Remember the part where the boss battle was prefaced by a long series of annoying obstacles, underwater no less, that you had to replay every single time you died because there were no checkpoints? And the boss could kill you in one hit? That was my favorite.

Remember that part when you had played just about the whole level and every time you fell there was another level of the stage below to catch you, but when you reached the final set of obstacles the game decided to pretend it was Mega Man for a second and force its slippery controls onto a difficult, precision-based platforming segment over a large bottomless pit that it didn’t warn you about? Didn’t you have fun with that?

Any of this kind of thing starting to sound familiar to any Sonic players out there? 

You want to know the worst part? All the examples above are from one game. It’s not one of the “classic” Sonic games either, it’s Sonic 4. But I bet even if you haven’t played Sonic 4 you read those and thought of countless places in the older titles that resembled these examples; places where death came out of nowhere, places where poor level design caused you to get lost, places where obstacles were clearly shoved in your path not in the name of fun or challenge, but in order to pad out a game that could be beaten in 10 minutes without such frustrations.

And there you have it, really. Sonic’s formula comes from the days of the arcade. Though it doesn’t have its origins in the coin-eaters of old, it features all the design hallmarks of the day. Games in those days needed to be short, simple, and fucking tough to keep you coming back for more, if not for consuming more of your allowance via tokens, then for tricking you into thinking that expensive cartridge you just bought for a lot of money held more value than it actually did.

Games have moved on. We don’t need this kind of crap to keep our attention anymore. Even in the space of the short, downloadable game that doesn’t cost $60 or require hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, clever developers have shown us how we can move on from these tired fallbacks of punishing design.

Limbo showed us that you can tell a story without saying a word. Through clever design and a lenient checkpoint system, it guided players through tricky puzzles and difficult platforming sections that proved modern games can indeed be challenging, fun, and user-friendly at the same time. It was even a great example of a short game that was a terrific value despite its brief running time.

‘Splosion Man demonstrated how to be a stupidly tough platformer in this day and age. Requiring ultra-precise timing and long stretches of intense concentration, it was maddeningly difficult. But thanks to clear level design and snappy controls, you rarely felt like failures were the fault of the game. Instead, you knew that if you gave it just one more try you could finally get past that tough part. Practice makes perfect, after all.

Shadow Complex demonstrated how to fit a satisfying game progression into a compact, cheap experience. Even better, it added even more value into the equation by encouraging replays via in-game incentives, such as achievements, leveling up, new abilities, and other such goodies. 

Games like Geometry Wars 2, and other arcade-style titles that harken back to the Sonic days in terms of design philosophies, show us how to successfully modernize such ideas. Geometry Wars 2 enhances its replayability not through unfairly challenging design, but through difficulty that rewards practice and skilled play, various modes that reuse the basic mechanics in interesting ways to change up the experience, and online leaderboards that show you just how much better you need to do to show your friend who the real master of the triangles is.

Sonic 4 is none of these things. It is indeed the “return to form” so many have been hoping for, but that form is outdated, annoying, and not fun to play. Its level design isn’t based on challenge or skill, like ‘Splosion Man, but rather memorization. You’re not getting better as you play, you’re simply memorizing what to do when. It doesn’t make replaying the same small set of levels over and over inherently rewarding, like Shadow Complex and its compact environs, instead requiring you to drag yourself through levels multiple times simply to finish them at all. It doesn’t strive toward user-friendliness or teaching the player how to be good, like various aspects of Limbo and ‘Splosion Man, instead choosing to give a big ol’ middle finger at every opportunity and laugh at players as they suffer.

Sonic has always been this way. In this respect, Sonic 4 is no better or worse than its predecessors. Despite its high degree of polish and shiny graphics, Sonic 4 is exactly the same type of game as Sonic 1. Sure it has a couple of new tricks and a few more level design gimmicks, but philosophically it’s cut from the same mold. 

It’s time to realize that this status quo isn’t any good. 

There’s no glorious past for Sonic to return to anymore. This is it. This is as good as it gets. Sonic games never were any better than this. Sega has finally, for the first time in a decade and a half, given us a true console iteration of Sonic’s bread and butter formula, and it feels stagnated, antiquated, and annoying. Where else is there for the beleaguered hedgehog to go?

Sega’s furry mascot provided us with tons of entertainment back in the day and I’m not trying to tarnish any of those cherished memories. When these games first came out they really were revolutionary. Unfortunately, while Mario seemed to hit on a timeless formula that could be repeated ad-nauseam until the end of time and still remain fun, Sonic’s gameplay was too rooted in period design concepts that aged about as well as milk. 

The truth is clear. What you choose to do with it is up to you. You can continue to buy Sonic games in the futile hope of reliving the past or you can admit that the good times are gone and move on. Sonic is not the powerhouse he once was and Sega is not the studio it used to be. Sonic’s charms have long worn off and Sega’s ability to make a good game of any sort, much less one with the challenging design requirements of the classic Sonic formula, has rapidly deteriorated. 

There is no comforting air bubble at the bottom of this deep well, Sonic. You’ve fallen far and it’s time to remove your safety net. We shall always remember the good times, dear friend, but we can no longer stand idly by while you try to relive the glory days like some poor veteran caught up in painful flashbacks. 

Goodbye, Sonic. It was fun while it lasted. 

Oh, and by the way, whoever composed Sonic 4’s music should be stabbed in the ear with a golf pencil, because that’s what it feels like to listen to his shitty music and he deserves a punishment fitting of his crimes against my ears. Rot in hell you tone-deaf hack. 

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Reader Comments (1)

That'll save me a few bucks. Good article mate!

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergameboyadmin

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