Sonic: Lost World
Sonic the Hedgehog 2006; Sonic Unleashed; Sonic Colors; Sonic Generations; Secret Rings, Black Knights, Episodes, Werehogs, and Wisps.
A screenshot from “Sonic: Lost World.” — Submitted image
For seven years I’ve been writing about the pitiful decline of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Sega’s beloved mascot and one-time franchise player who stood toe to toe with Nintendo’s Super Mario and dared him to take a shot.
Each and every time, I swear it is going to be my last, that I have no desire to hold onto memories of a series that has been so painfully exposed. With “Sonic: Lost World,” the new Nintendo-exclusive title for the WiiU and 3DS, I’ve got a revised game plan. We’re going to take a required, albeit brief look at these games — and then I’ll lay out the measure that I believe must be taken to restore some lustre to a franchise that exists by holding onto a thin thread of parental ignorance and blind nostalgia.
On the surface, “Sonic: Lost World” looks to be a bright and tightly designed platformer. The level layouts have immediate shout-outs to Nintendo’s brilliant “Super Mario Galaxy” games. It’s visually accomplished; I’d go so far as to call it the prettiest game I’ve yet seen on the WiiU, and definitely in the upper echelon of the 3DS.
Its story is a nice switch from the tired emo Dragon Ball Z retread Sonic Team has been mired in since 2001 — Sonic and Dr. Robotnik/Eggman are forced to team up when a group of intergalactic baddies (essentially the villains from “Space Jam”) show up and start wreaking havoc. The controls even paint an illusion of having been refined, with Sonic having been slowed down quite a bit, but able to call upon great bursts of speed with the touch of a button.
Outside of the graphical prowess, though, it is all just so much smoke and mirrors.
What ultimately sinks “Lost World” is what I believe has been the core problem with the Sonic franchise since 1991: bankrupt level design and hobbled controls (which only get worse in 3D). It may look like “Super Mario Galaxy,” with all the spherical and cylindrical planetoids, but there is more design talent in one standalone member of Mario’s design team than has been present in the entirety of Sonic Team for its 20-plus year existence.
Portable developer DIMPS fares mildly better on the 3DS due to controlled learning of new skills, and less reliance on bottomless pits for challenge. Somebody needs to send a memo to Takashi Iizuka reminding him that he doesn’t have to construct all of his levels to exist in the stratosphere.
Controlling Sonic remains an unnecessary challenge — he may be able to run up walls now, removing the Dead Stop problem that has plagued the series since the Sega Dreamcast, but he still moves far too greasily, and his jumping is bizarre. Sonic floats slowly until he reaches the apex of his leap, where he crashes down like a ton of scrap. By the end of the first act of the first zone, I was ready to yank the cartridge out of the DS and toss the disc from the WiiU.
The new moves, new powers and new villains add up to little more than confusing button mashing at slippery high speed, spamming gimmicky vehicle sections with finicky controls, and rehashed, uninspired boss fights that repeat to the point of boredom.
How can a developer have been with a series for more than two decades and still fail so utterly at the two core concepts of a DECENT platformer? Every single time a new Sonic game is announced, there is a frenzy (albeit a softly declining frenzy with every consecutive game) of media reports, and developer interviews, and demo footage that promise how everything is different; how Sonic Team is going “back to basics.”
There’s no easy way to say this. Hammers are blunt and have a singular purpose — Sonic Team is the problem. They have been weaned on a franchise that was successful because it was the only alternative to Super Mario in a two-player fight. Once the playing field opened up, and platformers began to evolve, Sonic Team was exposed. I understand the enjoyment to be taken from controlling something that goes ridiculously fast — speed is a thrill.
On a design level, the Sonic titles have never been on the same level as their contemporaries in the Mario family. Nowadays there are a swelling number of game studios who are all doing it better. Sonic is a marketable franchise that still sells well, despite a decade of disarray. If Sega were looking for a solution, it would scuttle Sonic Team. Sonic and DIMPS have had their shot, and blown it repeatedly. Sega has a wonderful working relationship with Platinum Games. Try setting them up for a full franchise reboot.
Nintendo obviously wants the Sonic games on its systems. It’s had both “Sonic Colors” and “Sonic Lost World” as Wii, WiiU and 3DS exclusives. Maybe Retro Studios can work some magic. Hell, they could even take the Nordic Games approach and openly invite developers to put together a package showing why they could develop the next title.
But going back to the same developers and trying the same tactics with a different small gimmick each time and expecting fortunes to change isn’t just bad game design — it’s the definition of insanity.
Platform: WiiU, Nintendo 3DS (BOTH versions reviewed)
Developer: Sonic Team (WiiU) DIMPS (3DS)
Release Date: Oct. 29, 2013
Rated: E10+ for Everyone 10 and up.