Silver Lining: Sonic the Hedgehog and a history of disappointment

Taylor Cocke
T. Cocke|06.22.12

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'Silver Lining' is a column from freelancer Taylor Cocke dedicated to highlighting moments of real potential in less than perfect games. This week he examines the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.

Oh, Sonic, where did you go wrong? Sega's iconic mascot has become a bit of a running joke in recent years, and for good reason. His games haven't been very good. The best I can say about any of them is that about half of the levels are good in any given release. Sonic Unleashed was only enjoyable during the non-werehog parts, Sonic Generations was fun during the old school sections, and even Sonic Colors had more than its fair share of clunky, slow levels that broke up any ability for me to fully enjoy it. The further Sega seems to stray from the formula of the original Sonic games, the worse things seem to get.

One would think that would mean that the two episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 would be pretty good, then. After all, they're ostensibly the most faithful reproductions of the classic 16-bit platformer. Sonic doesn't talk, he's lacking all the incredibly stupid friends that have cropped up over the years, and he's running through a variety of stages so he can beat up on Robotnik at the end. Right down to the order of the worlds, they're essentially recreations. So why aren't they as celebrated as Sonic's original adventures?
%Gallery-155437%It would be easy to write it off by stating the original Sonic titles haven't aged well, therefore the new games in the series don't have a chance. I'd love to say that the folks at Sonic Team simply tweaked the balance of the game too much and managed to break what wasn't broken. But really, I don't think either of those things are true. I can still enjoy myself with Sonic 2, and despite the objections of the internet, I don't think the way either of the Sonic 4 games play is that far off, despite a few new abilities and game mechanics.

I think we've all been spoiled by the 3D Sonic Adventures games. That's not to say that they're any better than their 2D brethren. Have you gone back and played Sonic Adventure 2 lately? Other than that "Escape from the City" song, which might be the best song ever written, I don't think it's very good. Both Adventures games seem to have aged far worse, and much faster, than their Genesis predecessors.

Yet, they've been equally influential in the way we play our platformers. I'd argue that what we fell in love with about Sonic 1 and 2 was not a sense of speed, but fluidity. Sprinting, rolling, and bouncing through levels was a great feeling, not because it was fast, but because it made you feel like a gameplay expert. The period in which those games were released was one of punishing difficulty. Just off the arcade golden years, where games were designed to chug quarters, the 8- and 16-bit era retained that mentality. Games were meant to be struggled through, to be played repeatedly until mastered. I feel like an unskilled idiot when going back to those games, and I'd imagine that I'm not alone.

When Sonic the Hedgehog came out, it was a small revelation. It did something that games weren't great at yet: it felt good to play. Sonic's success has always been in its ability to convince players that they're playing the game right. Sonic Adventure did that again, but for 3D platformers. Rather than allow players to run around at their whim, the running levels forced them down a single, if occasionally branching, path. As a result, the action was fast and fluid, just like we remembered the originals. Sonic made us feel exactly as good about controlling him in 3D as he did in 2D.

And, just like that, any subsequent 2D Sonic games were doomed. This was the new standard. It might not have been polished or really all that great, but it worked at the time. And from that point, that's the feeling that we wanted.

So, what do the Sonic 4 episodes tell us? They've confirmed that we don't want recreations of our favorite games. We don't want that speedy 2D feel of the originals. We want the fluidity that Sonic games have a history of establishing. That's why we recall certain sections of the newer games with pleasure, but remain disappointed in each subsequent sequel. We love Sonic games when they're a step forward, not an attempted copy of the past. We want to feel like we did when we were playing those classic games for the first time, and Sonic Team hasn't been able to recreate that.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who has written for 1UP, Official Xbox Magazine, Playstation: The Official Magazine, VG247, and more. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.
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