Friday, March 30, 2007
Sonic the Hedgehog was my first gaming hero, basically because "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" came with my very first video game console, the Sega Genesis (or Sega Mega Drive depending on where you live). Back in the 16-bit days, Sonic was a fierce rival of Nintendo's mascot, Mario.
A lot has changed since then. Not only have Sonic and Mario buried the hatchet to costar in an upcoming Wii/DS game (see my very first entry), Sonic is also no longer a highly-praised series. Sonic's first true 3-D games were the Dreamcast's "Sonic Adventure" and "Sonic Adventure 2". While they were not praised as highly as their two-dimensional predecessors, they gained very favorable reviews. Both have an average rating in the mid-80's on GameRankings (a site that combines and averages video game reviews). However, fans were unhappy with the great departure from the series' roots in levels other than those starring Sonic and Shadow. The first game had many different play styles; the second narrowed it down to the three most popular. The fan opinion was clear: Sonic should stick to his roots. This does not just apply to main games in the series; the low review scores for the Mario Party-esque "Sonic Shuffle" suggest Sonic is not as talented in spin-offs as his former rival.
Sega got the message, at least somewhat, with the first original multi-platform Sonic game entitled "Sonic Heroes". Players picked one of 4 teams of 3 Sonic characters and played through levels similar to those of Sonic and Shadow in the Adventure games. However, with the team idea came character-switching and strategizing that took away from the game's speed. Some gamers were also upset with the sheer number of characters, though I personally do not see why. As a result of these complaints, "Sonic Heroes" netted lower scores than its predecessors, averaging in the mid-70's. I should note that the GameRankings score for this game in particular seems slightly higher than fan reactions would suggest.
Not terrible scores, but not as high as previous games. However, after "Sonic Heroes", Sega really took a turn for the worse. They made a game starring fan-favorite character Shadow the Hedgehog (which was also the title of the game). All the levels played pretty much like those in "Sonic Heroes" but without the character switching. There were optional missions, creating interruptions in the action and speed, but depending on which of the many endings you wanted, you could potentially avoid them. The missions would have been forgivable, but Sega decided that anti-hero Shadow needed weapons. Swords, plasma guns, pistols; you name it. He also could drive various vehicles. As a result, combat was no longer on-the-go as it had been in previous games. Players often had to stop to shoot enemies, negating the return to classic Sonic speed. The game averaged in the low 50's.
A unique racing game, "Sonic Riders," managed to score slightly better, in the low 60s, but spin-offs are a different story. After "Shadow the Hedgehog", people seriously began to lose faith in the franchise. Sega had a big job ahead of it: bringing its flagship hero to his former glory. They completely re-envisioned Sonic, showing a breathtaking trailer at E3 2005 with realistic scenery and classic high-speed Sonic action. The second screenshot at the top of this post is from that game. People had high hopes for this game, simply titled "Sonic the Hedgehog" to reflect the rebirth of the series. Sega had the chance to save Sonic once and for all. Instead, "Sonic the Hedgehog" for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 averaged even less than "Shadow the Hedgehog", scoring in the mid 40's.
But alas, the game is not over. Sonic sped his way onto all 3 current major consoles. Originally, "Sonic the Hedgehog" was to appear on Wii as well. At some point, however, Sega decided to create an original game that made full use of Wii's features. At E3 2006, they showed a brief trailer of a simple Sonic game tentatively called "Sonic Wildfire". It looked interesting and fast, but so did "Sonic the Hedgehog", so gamers were skeptical. The game, retitled "Sonic and the Secret Rings", came out for Wii this month, not long after the reviews came in for "Sonic the Hedgehog". It scored in the low 70s, higher than any Sonic game since Heroes or, depending on the source, since Sonic Adventure 2. By no means was it heralded as an amazing game, but it was good enough to be worth buying.
So what made "Secret Rings" more successful than previous games? Simply simplicity. First of all, rather than choosing between a bevy of characters with different abilities, players get one character for the main game: Sonic. Second, the missions that weren't a matter of getting to the end of the level were fairly simple, thus allowing gameplay to focus on Sonic's trademark speed. Finally, all of Sonic's attacks were all performed by movement, so he could generally keep moving. In other words, it was much more similar to Sonic's earlier games.
Also similar to Sonic's earlier games are his handheld games, which tend to score much better than their console counterparts. The first two "Sonic Advance" games for the Game Boy Advance played just like 16-bit Sonic games, but with more character choices. "Sonic Rush" for the DS also played like the classic games, with only 2 playable characters and the addition of 3D character graphics and limited 3D movement in boss battles. These games scored in the mid to low 80s. Sonic Advance 3 added a buddy system somewhat similar to (but less important to gameplay than) that in "Knuckles' Chaotix", giving it slightly lower but very close scores. On the other hand, the PSP title "Sonic Rivals" added racing to the classic sidescrolling gameplay and did not have many different levels. It scored in the mid 60s.
Sonic fans want speed and basic gameplay, and it seems like Sega is finally beginning to figure it out. "Sonic and the Secret Rings" is a good start for a Sonic console game. If they can perfect the Wii controls and bring similarly simple gameplay to other consoles, Sonic may very well see his second coming. I understand that making a game out of just levels like Sonic's in "Sonic Adventure" would not include the variety today's gamers want, but "Secret Rings" showed that variety can come from goals as opposed to characters and gameplay styles. Yuji Naka created Sonic the Hedgehog to show of the speed of the Genesis, and speed has always been the franchise's theme. Now they have to recapture that speed.