Sonic Frontiers: Getting Up to Speed
The first look at Sonic Frontiers has proven to be quietly popular with fans – it is a Sonic game after all. Panic comes later.
The disappointment traditionally comes with every subsequent trailer. And then even with release. It is a Sonic tradition. Personally, I hope this one bucks the trend, but we’ll have to wait and see.
I feel slightly more expert than most on this topic. Long-time readers (Hi Mom) will know my wife and I are in the middle of an immense playthrough of every single Sonic game. And as a man knee-deep in Sonic 06, I think I’m entitled to be concerned about the future of the franchise.
Yes, 16 years ago Sonic’s worst 3D entry was released. Between that and this new look at Sonic Frontiers, I thought we’d take a look back at how the franchise has developed. And, hopefully, we’ll find a solution for how it needs to move forward.
Sonic’s first 3D adventure (if you don’t count the abysmal Labyrinth).
Find me an awful spin-off game from a major 90s video game hero and I’ll find you a pack of loyal fans who count it higher than it deserves. I’m one of those loyal fans. Sonic 3D is better than it gets credit for.
And maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, or maybe I’ve just been playing 06 for too long, but it’s actually pretty fun. Difficult at times, but pretty fun.
The Traveller’s Tales developed title has you collecting flickies before transporting on a magic ring to the next level. It’s not a Sonic game in the traditional sense, but it still has its charm.
Sonic’s first 3D title taught us an important lesson: Sonic is not about busywork. As much as Sonic Team has tried to make us believe that killing squads of enemies or finding switches is a key part of his MO, it’s just not true. Sonic is about moving forward as quickly and as cooly as possible. The second that stops, the second it starts to feel nothing like Sonic.
It came out in 1996, so I’m not quite sure what it’ll take to make the guys at Sonic Team realise this. Maybe just chucking some extra friends at the problem will solve it?
Adventure 1 and 2
Sonic Adventure is a classic. For some time it has been getting “hindsight” criticism from people who just weren’t there. Nontheless, it’s a classic for a reason.
It transferred a fairly accurate version of 2D Sonic into the third dimension. And you can argue about level design and lack of choice, but the actual movement was pretty spot on. And because it was accurate doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy or fun. I think it was on both counts, when things worked, but I understand why mileage may vary.
Additional characters had short stories that added to Sonic’s adventure. That’s a controversial opinion, I know, but with the exception of Big, the other characters gave a new view of the world you’re inhabiting. Viewing them as basically optional works quite well (although not getting the Super Sonic mission without them makes them more important). This was about the right balance. Except Big, who at least could be finished in all of an hour.
Sonic Adventure 2, in fine tradition, cocked all that up. They mushed together all the friend missions, and the level design was even worse. If you’d have asked me as a kid which game I preferred, I’d have probably said Adventure 2. That is no longer the case. It’s a bad game with moments of brilliance.
Unfortunately it’s about to get worse.
The Adventure games taught us that 3D Sonic is something that is delicate. It can be very right and very wrong, all within the same game. And the most minor thing can throw it off. It’s hard, but heart can see it through.
I never finished Sonic Heroes as a kid. As an adult I can see why.
So much of the ridiculousness of modern Sonic came from this game. And it’s a bit of a mystery as to why. Sonic Heroes sold around 3m units, less than half what the Adventure games ended up selling. Why this game in particular ended up as such an important turning point to the franchise we’ll never know. But man, I wish it hadn’t.
It recycled ideas from the Adventure games, right down to the music. But the gimmick of having three characters at one time put each of them into boxes that didn’t quite make sense. It added a bit of busywork, changing characters to match the situation instead of having characters that felt well-rounded. What that meant is you might as well have played as Knuckles at all times instead of Sonic – not a good look. There were four stories, but each were basically identical except for 10 minutes of cutscenes. The Chaotix detective agency was, sadly, present and accounted for.
What the developers should have learned from this title is that polish is important, and variety and choice is the key to bringing in the friends (if you have to do it at all). They didn’t. They learned that glitches were acceptable and that level design didn’t really matter so long as you hit the right beats. Seaside level, jungle level, Halloween level…
This is where it all started to go wrong. It stopped feeling cool. Unfortunately, that’ll be a major fault of our next 3D Sonic entry too, but let’s take a quick break before we get there.
There are some people who think the Sonic series was going strong as a 2D entity before Adventure came out. Those people are unfortunately wrong. Knuckles Chaotix – a decent spin-off that nobody played – came out in 1995. Pocket Adenture, an unusual remake of Sonic 2 for the NeoGeo Pocket, was the only other 2D game before the Gameboy Advance came out.
The Sonic Advance trilogy was good. Individually, the titles have high points and low points. There are moments that are too hard, too easy, too confusing. But overall, they get it right. They bring across ideas from the Adventure series that work while building on the best bits of the Megadrive entry.
What should Sonic Team have learned? That Sonic was still there, under all those glitches and bad ideas. The Sonic that fans had grown up on still existed, and was still worth playing. It may not have been 3D, but these back-to-basics titles still had a lesson worth learning.
So, naturally, the next game in the mainline franchise was Shadow the Hedgehog.
Shadow the Hedgehog
You know what kids like? Guns. And motorbikes. And angst.
So naturally Shadow the Hedgehog deserves his own spin-off game.
Add this to the list of Sonic games that could have been pretty good with just a bit more thought behind them. I know that list is getting pretty unbearable at this stage.
Here’s what you do if your shitty 3D platformer doesn’t work… Whoa, no, fix it? What the hell is wrong with you? No. You don’t fix it.
You add layers and layers of unnecessary stuff to distract. A morality system that’s more effort than it’s worth? Check. Vehicles that are more a burden than an advantage? Check. Enemies that attack you, even though people who want to ally with you are asking you not to fight back? Check.
If all these systems had worked, and if the base game had been enough, and if the edginess had been turned down like 12 percent, this game could have worked. Instead, it’s an ill-advised mess.
Here’s what the developers need to learn: don’t follow trends, make sure your base game is perfect before adding on needless systems and please, for the love of God, don’t have a cartoon hedgehog murdering army people with guns. That last one, well, it probably didn’t need to be said, but here we are.
Sonic Rush is remembered with a special, nostalgic glow. It was the first 2D Sonic game for a number of youngsters in the DS era, so it’s easy to see why.
And honestly, it’s mostly deserved. At it’s best, Sonic Rush is cool, it’s fun, it’s fast and it’s furious.
So long as you don’t think about the sometimes iffy level design or the totally annoying boss fights, you’ve got yourself an almost perfect Sonic game.
The vibe is right, and the levels themselves are usually right. That puts it head and shoulders over other Sonic games. But Rush introduces something that became a dangerous series mainstay: the boost. Because why have tight gameplay controls and fun level design if you can just press and button and magically race through everything?
Like with the Advance series, developers should have learned that tight gameplay and great level design are what makes Sonic special. Don’t slow me down, let me go fast.
Instead, they learned to boost. But not immediately…
Sonic The Hedgehog 06
Do I destroy the credibility for the rest of this article if I say this game isn’t nearly as bad as we remember? My God, the memes had me dreading even booting it up.
It has major flaws, which mostly seem to be down to the ridiculous notion of not finishing your game before hitting release. But the base game was the best since Adventure 2, when it worked.
It just doesn’t work very often.
The main characters – Sonic, Shadow and Silver – are all fun to play as, with the additional characters turning up occasionally being either short or undistracting. Glitches abound to an embarrassing level, and some of the story beats are bizarre. But I like the more realistic look, as controversial as that is, and I like the feel of it. With more work, it could have been a classic. As it happens, it’s a neverending joke.
If I never have to have a Silver boss fight again, I’d be happier for it.
Developers pivoted hard after this game, to the point where SEGA seem to want it not to exist. The reaction was that brutal. I think that’s a shame. Had it been better rounded and if that infamous kiss hadn’t happened, I think we’d have a very different view of Sonic 06. SEGA instead decided to lean into the kiddy crowd, and that led to even more mistakes.
And that’s as far as we’ve gotten in our Sonic replay. There have been surprises and disappointments in equal measure, in ways that only Sonic can truly deliver.
So what can SEGA learn from this rundown of the blue blur? First, polish. Don’t release an incomplete game. You’ve been doing it for twenty years and it hasn’t worked once.
Second, lean into what Sonic does best. He’s fast, and he’s cool. Stop slowing him down, and stop trying to introduce his dorky friends. This is the one I’m most worried about with Sonic Frontiers. If it is, indeed, a Breath of the Wild clone, then puzzles will be a necessity. And not platform puzzles, but stuff that Sonic is going to need to stop running for. Sonic 1 and 2 were perfect for allowing you to choose your own way, and to usually go as fast as you like while doing it. But it has been long gone. Choice shouldn’t be a problem in an open world (watch Sonic team prove me wrong, though). But slowing me down with unnecessary busy work will be a problem.
Don’t have your main character shooting people in the face. Oh, unless it’s one of the annoying and unnecessary side characters that have been introduced in the last decade and a half. We’ll call it edgy.
I have high hopes for Sonic Frontiers. Call me mad. But simply by learning from the mistakes of the past, it could already be the best game since Adventure.