Sonic has a speed problem. No, this is not some kind of edgy joke about the Blue Blur struggling with a drug addiction, I mean it literally. Sonic is too fast for his own good. The “Gotta Go Fast” mentality that has infected many of the series’ latest 3D adventures is limiting its potential to reinvent itself through a thoughtfully designed platforming adventure. We need less sections spent spamming the A button to homing attack enemies in a straight line across gaps and more situations that reward the player for traversing areas with meaningful mental input on how to make it through. This is not to say the latter cannot also be done quickly, but we need to stop letting speed be our first consideration when we approach the creation of a Sonic game.
I say “we” instead of addressing Sonic Team directly because I feel this mentality has not only affected the House of Hedgehog itself, but also fan game developers. From Sonic Utopia to the recently released Sonic Omens, speed is consistently prioritized over level-design and mechanics. The open space of the tech demo styled Sonic Utopia is fun to run around in, but it lacks intrigue or points of interest. The stage is designed only to make the process of transitioning your runs into rolls seamless, maintaining Sonic’s speed, but none of the player’s attention. Meanwhile Sonic Omens is visually stunning and features all the makings of a regular Sonic adventure, but level design is lacking in creativity and player movement still devolves into homing attacks, slides, and boosting down long corridors, half-pipes, bridges, etc. Sonic Team, fan game designers, and even you, need to slow the hell down and ask themselves: Is it more important that Sonic is fast or fun? Because recently it does not seem like anyone can figure out how to make him both, at least in 3D.
All that open space in Sonic Utopia and absolutely nothing of interest to do with it other than "Go fast".
For all my ragging on Sonic Team’s obsession with Sonic’s speed, even they are not entirely sure what to do with Sonic in 3D. Nintendo quickly established how Mario should look, control, feel, and move in Super Mario 64 and things have not changed too radically since. Nintendo has added their fair share of experimental movement options throughout the years, such as Super Mario Sunshine’s water based FLUDD and Super Mario Odyssey’s Hat Hopping mechanics, but everything else has stayed the same. Players can immediately intimate through only a few minutes of play that Mario has a triple jump, long jump, side jump, and spin jump and they send him *this far* and *this high*. This is important, because when more tricky platforming is introduced later in the adventure (Super Mario Sunshine’s infamous FLUDDless stages being perhaps the most challenging) the player is already prepared for it.
With Sonic it is always changing and always limits his level design options. Some games he has 1 jump and a homing attack, others he has a double jump and a boost, he may have a bouncing ability one game and have it changed into a stomp the next. In Sonic Unleashed daytime stages or Sonic Generations modern stages Sonic moves so quickly and with such little friction that you literally cannot walk or move slowly with him. Any challenging platforming will require too much control from Sonic, and so must be limited to auto-targeting rails, enemies, and capsules, with any platforms being too wide or long for Sonic to possibly miss. In Sonic Lost World many of the stages are designed like this as well, but Sonic is now much slower and capable of precision platforming, so it makes the game feel too sluggish and unchallenging. His laughably underutilized and extremely limited parkour abilities in Lost World certainly did little to help matters. Perhaps the best balance of speed and control was achieved in Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, but many gamers forget that not even one third of Sonic Adventure 2 involved Sonic style platforming and almost the same can be said of the original Sonic Adventure.
No seriously, there are 30 stages in Sonic Adventure 2 and only 10 of them are Sonic/Shadow stages.
Is Sonic just about moving fast? Is all the player expecting from Sonic when they break open a game case and put one of his myriad games into their system that he moves at something approaching the speed of light? If Sega created a fantastic 3D Sonic game but it had more in common with the speed and platforming style of Super Mario Odyssey than a traditional Sonic game would players shun it and exclaim “this isn’t Sonic!” or would it succeed regardless? I feel Sonic is in dire need of a reinvention on the level of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Both games began development by taking a big step back from where the most recent game in the series had left things and stripping the series bare of any preconceptions of what a new Zelda or Resident Evil game “needed” to be.
Resident Evil 7 went back to the influence of early Western and Japanese horror which had inspired it in the first place as well as focusing on a core mantra that made not only Resident Evil, but many classic horror films so successful: serious horror that does not take itself too seriously. Being chase with a shovel by the malevolent figure of Jack Baker while he proceeds to mock you in a Southern accent is a refreshing mixture of horror and camp that resonated well with gamers who remembered surviving a deadly zombie outbreak while simultaneously joking about becoming a “Jill Sandwich”. Breath of the Wild took a similar approach, though that transition was made over the course of a few games. Wind Waker introduced the concept of a truly open overworld map, Skyward Sword combined that with more open-ended dungeon designs and Breath of the Wild took both those changes and put them together. It also positioned itself as a refreshing contrast from other popular open-world games, with series’ like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher becoming increasingly more focused on story while Breath of the Wild concerned itself almost entirely with gameplay and let the player seek out the story if they wanted it.
Games like Breath of the Wild and Resident Evil 7 have taught us that it's okay to take chances with long held series traditions even decades later.
If we strip back Sonic in a similar way, what will we get that must be maintained for Sonic to still be Sonic and what can or should be left out? Everyone will probably have a different answer, but for me there are a few things that define Sonic for me. The first is the fine balance of quick movement with precision platforming. If you play back the original Sonic trilogy on Genesis, you will be surprised at how many times the level design forces you to slow down and jump carefully. Only if the player does well is he or she rewarded with a section of the level that gives them a satisfying boost in speed. Do so poorly and you are dropped to the lower section of the level that requires even more platforming and slower decision making. See Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 from Sonic 2 for a perfect example of this. Sonic Mania followed this level design philosophy to excellent results, but it is transitioning this to the 3D Sonic series that has yet to be done effectively.
Secondly, I would like to see the 3D Sonic games return to the human populated worlds of Adventure and Adventure 2, complete with the themes, personalities and character development involved in both games. Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 involved serious topics such as domestic terrorism, bio-weapons, military operations, and ancient gods. Dr. Robotnik was less a bumbling idiot and instead an egomaniacal genius who made good on his threats. Characters like Tails underwent meaningful development between games. In Sonic Adventure, Tails was a weakling whose stages literally involved tailing Sonic. After defeating Dr. Robotnik on his own at the end of the game he grew confident in himself and no longer required any help handling Eggman by the events of Adventure 2. I believe players would find the comically grim-dark stylings of Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 refreshing in 2021 instead of the series’s current uninspired Saturday morning cartoon antics. If you enjoy those kinds of antics then Rachet & Clank already has you covered and is much better at it.
Remember when Eggman used to hold women hostage with a comically large pistol? This OG Sonic fan remembers.
I am not saying that Sonic cannot or should not be fast. It may well be too intrinsically entwined with the series’ legacy at this point to be altered. But Sonic in recent years has been a slave to speed, prioritizing fast movement and twitch button reactions over inspired level design and innovative new mechanics. Sonic can no longer afford to continue down this road of speedy servitude. Something must be done…and fast.