Rumor has it – on good authority, albeit – that Sega is set to announce its next game in the venerable Sonic the Hedgehog series any day now. To say I’m “excited” would be a grievous understatement. Is John Cena stale? Is the PlayStation 4 redundant? Is Kalin’s hair dumb?
The previous “proper” Sonic title, 2011’s “Sonic Generations,” has become one of my absolute favorite games of all time. As a burgeoning critiquer of gaming, I’d like to take the opportunity for a moment to instead critique my contemporaries. While I somehow convinced my editor to LET ME WRITE IN ALL CAPS FOR AN ENTIRE PHRASE TO COMMUNICATE MY JUBILATION, and the game did have a generally positive reception, “Generations” was blasted again and again for being too short, for lacking re-playability.
The way Sonic is reviewed would be comparable to playing through Guitar Hero on easy mode, beating it once, and reviewing the game based on THAT experience. Sonic, especially modern Sonic, does have a very high skill curve, and until you work your way up, you’re going to go flying into pits and slamming into enemies sometimes. It’ll be frustrating, and that’s not something every gamer wants to push through.
Why was there so much disparity when it came to “Sonic Generations?”
The only way Sonic can fail at all is by taking damage when he somehow doesn’t have any rings, which are scattered abundantly throughout every level. Falling off the stage is often a liability as well, especially in later levels, but it’s usually easy enough to stay on track if you slow down.
Sonic games are inherently easy to win. But winning a Sonic game isn’t really the point, and it never has been. Most reviewers don’t see it that way, and that perceived lack of re-playability is what hurt Generations’ scores more than anything. They blazed through the game one time, beat every level and boss, and reviewed it based on that experience. They compared Sonic not just to his own, somewhat maligned history, but to his platforming contemporaries.
A Mario game is about winning. Finding all the MacGuffins, beating all the stages, getting to the end, saving the princess.
Mario, and most other comparable platform games from Kirby to Donkey Kong to Rayman tend to have many more levels than Sonic typically does. They do that by re-using art assets, enemies and music in different ways in each level.
Sonic has never strayed away from making each level its own world.
With the exception of a few of the 3D titles, every single zone has its completely unique tropes, badniks, music and gimmicks that DON’T get reused anywhere else.
Sonic games are easy to win, but difficult to master.
Unfortunately for these reviewers, mastering the levels, finding the quickest or most rewarding paths, being able to show off your skills … that’s where the majority of Sonic’s re-playability lies. Not in winning, but in becoming epically awesome at the game.
Sega doesn’t need to stray too far from Generations’ core gameplay: they’ve finally figured out how to make a speed-based character work in 3D, and switching that up at this point would be foolish.
So what should Sega do for this next Sonic game? Extenuate those differences to make the distinction clear: Sonic is NOT to be played like other platformers, and you’re missing out on most of the game if you try.
Make the ranking system for each zone extremely stringent. You shouldn’t be able to S-rank a level unless you play it to perfection, and your time is comparable to the best the game’s developers could do. Remember, we’re not making the levels themselves harder or more frustrating.
We’re raising the skill ceiling that tells the player whether they’ve done a good job. To offset this increase, throw in a practice mode that lets a player move through individual sections of a level, perhaps even letting them do so in slow motion.
And perhaps most importantly, make it worthwhile to S-rank each level. Have it unlock more content, more characters and abilities or maybe even bonus levels.
A lack of traditional length has always been inherent in Sonic’s design, but that can and has been offset with a boatload of depth, with hidden re-playability.
By extenuating that, I think the next Sonic can be even better than “Generations.”