3D Sonic Games Have Failed, But They Can Succeed Again

Nothing has exemplified the gap in quality between 2D and 3D Sonic games quite like the recent releases of Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces. Mania returned to the series roots, mimicking the original Sonic games’ aesthetics, gameplay and heart completely. Sonic Forces, on the other hand, feeds into the modern Sonic fan base a bit too hard, and ends up being a hodgepodge of gameplay and narrative ideas the series has thrown around for quite some time now.

It’s easy to lament the overall decline in quality of the Sonic series and it’s even easier to say “2D Sonic good, 3D Sonic bad,” but there’s more to the problem than an extra dimension. 3D Sonic games, by and large, have lost focus, controlled poorly, and have become part of an absolutely bonkers universe. Every series needs to evolve to stay alive and Sega has tried many different things to keep Sonic moving forward. Here are some of their biggest missteps present in most 3D Sonic games and some possible changes they can make so the next 3D Sonic game is as great as Sonic Mania.

A Complete Loss of Focus

Let’s get this out of the way: Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 are actually decent games. They may not hold up especially well, but for being the first couple of proper 3D entries into the series, they succeeded on many levels, evolving the franchise from a simple and fast 2D platformer into a sprawling adventure game. Both had six playable characters that changed the gameplay in surprising ways. Right off the bat, Sega proved that Sonic could thrive in this newfound dimension. Unfortunately, the Adventure games also planted a seed that would eventually drag the series down in due time.

The Sonic Adventure games may have made a lot of strides forward, but they also largely eschewed the single element that made the series memorable in the first place: speed. The Blue Blur was always known for speed when his competition focused more on deliberate platforming. There were, of course, portions of the Adventure games that made Sonic go fast again, but they felt largely on-rails, and they were few and far between once the other five, generally slower characters entered the fray. In fact, it’s those other characters that are responsible for splitting Sega’s focus away from speed so dramatically.

The next big 3D Sonic game, Sonic Heroes, was the first new Sonic game to appear on non-Sega consoles after the tragic decline of the Dreamcast. It had a lot of the right ideas: the levels were vibrant and reminiscent of classic Sonic, and they mostly dropped the slower exploration sections from the Adventure games. Unfortunately, it also had twelve playable characters that were spread across four different “teams.” Each team moved as a group of three across the streamlined levels, frequently working together to reach new heights and break down barriers. If this mechanic were kept squarely on Sonic, Knuckles and Tails, the game might have had a bit more momentum through its 10-12 hour playtime.

Things fell apart much more drastically after that. Shadow the Hedgehog came around and introduced guns and a gritty tone to the series – two things that absolutely nobody asked for. The gameplay additions to Shadow were generally ridiculed, straying further and further from Sonic’s fast-moving roots. Then Sonic the Hedgehog came out in 2006 and was infamously terrible for way too many reasons to go into detail. The Sonic series had hit a new bottom and had done so with just a few games to boot.

Generally speaking, the 3D series hasn’t recovered in the eleven years since. Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations serve as relative bright spots in an otherwise murky collection of games. They worked because they focused on Sonic as the only playable character and emphasized his speed. Though the presence of new characters isn’t a problem in-and-of-itself, their constant insertion into the series, especially as playable characters, has distracted from what makes the series great. If Sega can make Sonic, and only Sonic, move quickly again, it’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, moving fast in 3D is not that simple.

Cameras and Controls Fit For No One

Most developers struggled to control cameras inside 3D spaces after transitioning from 2D games. Nintendo handled camera and control issues valiantly in Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Unfortunately for Sonic, moving super-fast only amplifies these difficulties. That’s why it makes sense that the Adventure games pulled away from sheer speed at first, but it’s been nearly two decades since Sonic went fully 3D, and technical excuses have become harder and harder to accept.

Look at a handful of reviews for nearly any 3D Sonic game and a reoccurring theme will quickly appear: bad controls and an even worse camera harm the gameplay. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) was plagued by objects obscuring the player’s view of Sonic at nearly every turn and the controls sent him careening off stages more often than not. Combining the two made for a nearly unforgivable gameplay experience. Other games, like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Lost World, had similarly derided controls. Even better Sonic games, like Generations and Colors, took hits from some reviewers for having these weaker qualities.

Of course, developing a workable camera and tight controls in any video game isn’t an easy task. These fundamentals are absolutely crucial for platforming games, however, and Sonic Team needs to focus on them first and foremost. No new characters,  power ups, inventive level designs, or an intriguing plot can make up for a platforming game with an erratic camera and slippery controls. The way Sonic controls has always been crucial to his success, and though it’s unarguably easier to deal with cameras and controls in a 2D space, they aren’t the only thing that has turned off many gamers with the 3D Sonic games.

The Sonic Universe is a Mess

The overarching Sonic universe has kept many hardcore Sonic fans connected with the series, but it has also polarized many casual fans over the years. Look at literally any Sonic Wikia entry and you’ll be bombarded with a verifiably insane level of detail that covers every aspect of the Sonic universe. From individual games to character profiles to non-cannon stories: the Sonic fanbase is both extremely dedicated and unnervingly enthusiastic about this long-running series. For many in this fanbase, the hundreds of characters that have appeared in even the most obscure entries into the series deserve their time to shine. For those less keen on the Sonic universe, however, it’s overwhelming.

There have been a few individual points of contention for casual fans that are hard to shake. For instance, Sonic’s romance with a human woman in Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) was bizarre and unsettling, Big the Cat in Sonic Adventure and his obsession with Froggy was downright irritating, and Sonic the Werehog was a misfire on pretty much every conceivable level. However, where most casual fans find faults with these aspects, many hardcore Sonic fans are highly dedicated to them. It is, of course, a matter of opinion, and expanding on the goofier aspects of the series has had to be a difficult decision for Sega to make. Most recently, Sega bought into their fan base’s love of inventing their own Sonic characters by adding a character creator to Sonic Forces. Because so many of these odd parts of the series keep fans coming back for more, sales for most Sonic games – even the critically derided ones – are almost always solid. If they want to expand this fan base, though, Sega will most likely need to reel it in with future releases.

Beyond just a few infamous missteps in the franchise’s history, the world of Sonic feels impenetrable from an outsiders perspective. There have been five Sonic TV shows, a Christmas special and there’s an upcoming theatrical feature that fill out a space in the Sonic universe that most fans haven’t even touched. There was the long-running Archie Comics Sonic series, and various other comic and manga adaptations over the years. Then, of course, there have been dozens of games (released on almost as many systems) since the early nineties. Most of the 3D Sonic games have introduced countless characters, both playable and non-playable, and trying to figure out how integral Rouge the Bat or Cream the Rabbit is to the series as a whole isn’t an easy task. If Sega wants the series to thrive going into the future, they need to dial back on this extended universe and keep things centralized on Sonic and maybe a few close friends.

Sonic Mania is the perfect example of most of these faults being rectified in the 2D Sonic games. It focused on Sonic as the primary playable character, but also brought in Tales and Knuckles to round out the classic trio. Its controls were reminiscent of the first few games in the series, but they were also modern in their precision, allowing for Sonic’s speed to once again be his greatest asset. Finally, Mania cut out much of the fat that 3D Sonic games have become guilty of carrying, instead focusing on a simple, yet original, story with all the classic beats fans remembered from the older games.

Of course, the series can’t coast on nostalgia alone. As great as Sonic Mania is, it’s a throwback in every sense of the word. To move forward, Sega needs to adapt these lessons to their 3D games. They also need to take the series into a new (yet decidedly bestiality-free) space in the future. Many lapsed fans hoped that Sonic Forces would be that game, and while it looks like it fell short of expectations, it’s a start. The Sonic series isn’t dead and it never was. It was damaged for quite some time, but with a little love and care, Sega can get gather enough momentum to clear those giant loops once again.