Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Has Sonic finally run his course at 20?

Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t merely a videogame character, he’s an institution. Throughout the dizzying highs of the early nineties, the miscalculated lows of the Shadow era and all the loop-the-loops in-between, ardent fans have stuck by their spiky companion.

It’s because we grew up with Sonic. For many of us he represents the very reason we fell in love with videogames in the first place. We could just about forgive him for his cumbersome 3D outings because we could never forget the glory days. Last week he curled up and slowly rolled into his twenties. You know, like an underpowered spin-dash up a steep incline.

In human terms turning 20 is a reason to rejoice. You’ve made it through the tempestuous teens and officially reached adulthood. The world is now your oyster. If you’re a videogame character, however, this transitional period can often be far more cruel than celebratory.

Some pass the maturity test with flying colours. Take Sonic’s arch-nemesis turned casual sports rival, Mario, for instance. Mario has endured because he has grown as games themselves have developed, he has moved with the times. Nintendo recognize what they need to do to keep him relevant - the peerless level design in Galaxy 1 and 2 being an obvious example. Then you have those who have struggled; grown old ungracefully if you will. Poor old Duke Nukem springs to mind after Forever’s recent damning; 14 years in perpetual puberty, only to cough, splutter and trudge away with his withered manhood tucked between his legs.

But what about Sonic? Without a guiding hand such as Miyamoto’s to steadily steer him down the right path through the years he now cuts a somewhat directionless figure. Not as washed up and forlorn as a certain Mr Nukem, perhaps (despite being 6 years his senior), but far, far from the blue trailblazer he once was. So where to go now in the cold light of day after his 20th birthday? He’s just awoken alone on the couch with a stinking headache and a wrinkled party blower hanging from his bottom lip. Where now?

If you’re like me then you may be a little confused about the relationship between the upcoming Sonic Generations and the episodic Sonic 4. As it transpires, there is in fact absolutely no relationship - they are entirely separate entities.

This isn’t that strange in theory - two games in the same franchise could well be developed in conjunction with one another. However, that isn’t the case here. Sonic 4 Episode 2 is now on hold while Generations is being rolled out as a 20th anniversary marker. Does this mean that Sonic Team didn’t consider Sonic 4 and its respective episodes to be of a high enough quality to mark the occasion? Did negative fan feedback from Episode 1’s release potentially derail the project? If this is indeed the case and Generations is ultimately the superior experience, what then for Sonic 4? Will it be panned entirely?

There are many questions surrounding our beleaguered hedgehog at the moment, so let’s stick to what we do know. Firstly, as mentioned, Sonic Generations will be the next instalment in the franchise and is set for a late 2011 release. Secondly, Sonic Team seems desperate to work the nostalgia angle regardless of the subtitle that follows the main star’s name.

Although the reversion back to 2D in Episode 1 succeeded in luring many of us in (if only out of nostalgic curiosity), it fell short of the mark. I was really looking forward to it - as I’m sure many gamers who treasure Sonic’s golden years also were - but we were left sorely disappointed. It simply didn’t feel the same as it did back in the good old days. In fact it was nowhere near, despite having nearly two decades worth of technological advancements behind us. Shortly after completing the first (and at 1200 MS points it didn’t come cheap) I vowed not to invest in any subsequent episodes, unaware at the time that Sonic 4 was stuck on standby anyhow.

With this in mind I downloaded the recent Sonic Generations demo with apprehension. Okay, so it’s a very brief burst of a solitary Green Hill Zone act (where else?) so we can’t get too carried away, but is this really representative of 20 years of Sonic the Hedgehog?

It’s a bit of fun, quite pretty, and has all the familiar sights and sounds of cherished Sonics of old, but is nostalgia really enough to carry the franchise forward? Can Sonic Team keep harking back to the past in an attempt to chart progress? From what I gather, the stage list will be a blend of familiar classics, but wasn’t this (at least partially) meant to be the purpose of Sonic 4’s throwback approach anyway?

Of course something I haven’t touched on yet is the 3D ‘Modern Sonic’ courses that will make up half of Generation’s content. From the limited experience that I have of these (Sonic Adventure’s Killer Whale run sticks out in the memory), they’re high on speed and low on meaningful platforming. I can fully appreciate that the idea is to mix traditional 2D play with the visceral rollercoaster rides of more modern incarnations, but I’m still far from convinced. After all, Sonic’s contemporary counterpart could arguably be held responsible for the series’ waywardness in the first place.

Sonic is undoubtedly a legend but he’s really running out of ideas now. He’s 20 years old, living in the past, and attempting to recapture his youth. Whilst his peers have innovated, he’s repeated and recycled. Nostalgia got the better of me with Sonic 4 Episode 1, but bar a major surprise the same won’t be happening with Generations. The truly hardcore Sonic fans will always be behind him, and fair play to them. Personally speaking, the Sonic experience has run its course. If that means that I'm not a 'true' fan anymore then so be it.

Even so, happy birthday old boy! Regardless of the highs and lows, videogames will always be indebted to a certain iconic hedgehog.