Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sonic Unleashed, or How I Got It Right!

The video below is the latest gameplay trailer for Sega's upcoming "Sonic Unleashed," which is set to hit just about every system under the sun. The game, in my opinion looks super fun, and a return to form for the blue hedgehog.

When I watch these videos though, I'm remind of a blog post I made back in March of 2006 on the subject:
Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega's beloved mascot from the Genesis days and beyond, has been in a bit of a slump lately on the consoles, and even that is putting it lightly. This downward trend can be traced back to one drastic change to the Sonic formula: the transition from 2D to 3D. For some reason, Sonic has not been able to make the final leap to 3D graphics like other franchises. Mario, Zelda, Metroid: they may all be Nintendo franchises, but this trio also stand as an example of 2D franchises transitioning well (and at times exceeding predecessors) into the third dimension. RPGs also transitioned rather well into this new dimension. Sonic the Hedgehog is not alone in this struggle, as Konami's Castlevania franchise has also struggled with this transition; however, I would argue that Sonic's failure is perhaps a bit more saddening.

What I aim to do now is not so much point out what Sega has been doing wrong with the Sonic franchise but what they've done right, as well as the things that still can be done to restore the blue hedgehog to his former glory.

Why Portable Sonic Worked!
If any of you own a Gameboy Advance or the Nintendo DS, do yourself a favor a pick up one or more of the Sonic games on these systems. On the GBA side, there is Sonic Advance 1-3, while the DS has Sonic Rush. While Sega's blue mascot has been struggling on current consoles, his handheld adventures are flourishing, with Rush and Advance 3 being must-haves for their respective systems. But why is that? Sure, they bring sonic back to his native 2D mechanics, but I'm sure there is more to it.

First off, there are the graphics. Looking back at the original Sonic titles (using Sonic Mega Collection as reference), the current models used for consoles are a logical evolution. However, the handheld graphics are quite a different beast. They ashew the old style and instead aim at the more "animated" look we're used to on current sprite-based games, such as the Guilty Gear series. Even with Sonic Rush, which ditched the sprites in favor of 3D polygon models, the style remained thanks to cel-shading. I can't see why this hasn't carried over to the console games, since to me they better capture Sonic and his crew than the more "realistic" models. Sometimes a cartoony look is just what the franchise is about. The Mario series, in all its offshoots, has embraced the style (though not with cel-shading) even though the power of the Gamecube could easily make Mario more of a real person (graphics wise). Besides, with the popular Sonic X cartoon, the cel-shaded graphics just make sense as a possible tie-in of styles.

There's also the aspect of Navigation. To my knowledge, the recent console Sonic games have all used a free-roaming world to explore and find the next area. This is all well and good, but often it just isn't that fun. Sonic doesn't have the moveset to make these sort of areas compelling. Even in two-dimensions, when Sonic Advance 3 added an explorable hub for each Zone World, the navigation got tedious. The only advantage it offered was the occasional extra bonus stage and possibly teaching players a new mechanic that would be used in stages. With Sonic Rush was released, it featured a much more user-friendly option: a simple world map (I believe this has been done before in earlier Sonic games as well). It is my belief that this is how Sonic games should navigate from now on. It has worked for many other franchises, from Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World, to the more recent Klonoa games on both the GBA and PS2. It may not be as graphically impressive, but sometimes streamlining an experience goes a long way.

Finally, there is the classic 2D mechanic inherent in these games. Sonic the Hedgehog works best when confined to a single direction, and speed is a key element in his former (and current handheld) success. Sega even has a timer built into the interface so that players no how long it took them to finish a stage or even to try and best that time. When Sonic and his friends run around in a console game, they lack the sense of speed that's present in 2D. Some might suggest it's due to an inability to portray speed in 3D, but I don't believe it. Achieving a sense of high speed has been easy, even for Sega. When they developed F-Zero GX for Nintendo, their game engine made players feel like they were on a white-knuckle ride. No, speed alone is not the problem; it's that Sonic can never go too fast in 3D while still being able to perform the platforming aspects from the 2D adventures. It is too easy to overshoot a landing or pass by a crucial area when moving at high speeds through a 3D landscape. Sonic just wasn't made for a free-roaming, 3D environment.

How Sonic the Hedgehog should be!
or how I learned to love Rails!

While contemplating Sonic's future, two other games come to mind that face a similar dilemma: Klonoa and Kirby. Kirby's gameplay mechanics were built around the 2D engine and would have been difficult to translate in 3D environments. Klonoa's basic gameplay, like Kirby, simply would not have worked as well in a 3D. With this in mind, their respective developers opted for what has been dubbed as 2.5D, or using 3D environments with characters moving along a 2D plane. In other words, these characters have their paths mapped out for them and are essentially on rails. The engine for this type of game would need changing for Sonic (we still want an exploration aspect after all), I believe this is the direction Sonic must be taken. Sega has already flirted with the style in Sonic Rush, using polygon models in 2D environments and featuring boss battles strikingly similar in gameplay to those of Klonoa 2 for the PS2. It might take a few years to iron out the specifics, but I can definitely see Sonic the Hedgehog producing some great titles if Sonic Team switched to a 2.5D engine.

Sega's mascot needs his glory back. Some of the recent console games are fun, but if Shadow the Hedgehog showed us ANYTHING, it's that Sega is struggling to make Sonic relavant to the current generation of gamers. Between cel-shaded graphics (maybe a possible Sonic X tie-in), a simple world map, and a revamped engine for 2.5D graphics, Sonic the Hedgehog might once again stand among the great platformers of our time.
This last part is key: if you didn't notice in the video, Sonic Unleashed is a heavily modified 2.5D game, just as I described it over two years ago. Thus far, Sega has taken the elements perfected in the handheld games (namely Rush) and mixed them together with those of Sonic and the Secret Rings, last year's Sonic game for the Wii. I'm hoping the game will be as good as it looks, not just because I want a restoration of Sonic to his former glory, but because how often do you really get to say "I called it"? =P

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