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How Do You Solve a Problem like Sonic?

Could any video game character survive the abuse Sonic the Hedgehog has taken from his own games? Maybe the better question would be: would we accept that abuse from anyone else?

When I see the trailer for Sonic Forces, I see the same old Sonic. Same weirdly realistic world populated by Doom monsters and MechWarriors and Mickey Mouse’s woodland friends. Same insistence on introducing none of the game’s elements in the trailer. Same sassy finger-waggle. Why do we keep taking this? It’s time we talked about Sega’s blue blur in more certain terms.

Sonic is curious as the mascot of a video game because his persona was created before his games were. He was meant to be edgy, and gameplay entered the discussion only after PR painted Mickey blue and put Air Jordans on him. Ads at the time emphasized the Ritalin-popping hipster as the alternative to a pasta-paunched narcoleptic plumber who only gets going when he gives his slave mount the ol’ heave ho. But we’re passed that quarrel now – what Sonic is has become less important than what he was meant to be. And he was meant to seem fast, to stand against Mario’s persona before ever standing against his games. He was not necessarily meant to be fast.

Sonic’s old games depended on the illusion of speed. The levels were broken up by obstacles, enemies, timed door puzzles, slow block platforming, swimming segments. Combat wasn’t fast and enemies stopped Sonic cold if he tried to speed around or over them. Consider that the high speed in Super Mario World isn’t sluggish compared to Sonic’s top speed in these early games. Consider that the clock in Mario counts down to promote urgency, while the clock in Sonic counts up. There’s no real rush. Yet, you remember being really fast.

The conceptual problem with Sonic’s 3D adventures starts here. The team that made him decided, rubbing together the two brain cells they all share hoping to light the bucket of paint thinner they use for warmth, seems to have gotten the idea that Sonic’s speed would now be actual, not just a marketing illusion. Cartoons and trailers and Crash Bandicoot (Sony’s own inglorious woodland mammal designed to pelvic thrust his way into being the latest hipster vertebrate) made Sonic Team forget that speed was designed before Sonic’s game was. Driven purely by a marketed persona, 3D Sonic became an inarticulate blur that could take one successful loop out of twelve to put in hip trailers against a rock soundtrack, but couldn’t for the life of him keep a game afloat.

Everything else follows from this precedence of the persona over the gameplay. The stories, and I’m straining that word like I would trying to keep a car dry with a latex glove, would baffle even the most flighty, crayon-fisting pre-school dreamer. When given Sonic to fantasize with, I couldn’t imagine them coming up with time travel, apocalypses, werewolves, or King Arthur, and certainly not all of them. Even Sonic’s original story – something about gems, an alien planet, and an ancient protector race – had a certain wonky charm to it, accentuated by a geometric art style. Of all the things to cling to, why not the origami trees and checkered floors and woozy blue skies?

In the place of the old style, the new Sonic characters among real people are incongruous and creepy, like if one of the gangs in GTA looked like those big-headed political cartoons. And the bestial romances just keep getting worse. I don’t care who plays Sonic games, but I have one question everyone should consider really carefully, especially if you play them: who does Sonic Team think plays these games?

I ask because if consistency is the key to keeping a brand alive, Sonic’s still going strong for that reason. His badness is not erratic. Fans know they can expect panty shots of Amy, crazy speed, tons of playable characters, and a game broken beyond repair. Still they’ll spend months battling for the beaten mound of withered self-sympathy familiar to anyone still loyal to Sonic at this point, usually beginning with something like, “It’s not that bad.”

But the truth of my gaming experience is that I’ve never thought Sonic was that good. Even the original games had screwy controls, a broken health system, and leaps of faith down confusingly layered levels. Since you could hardly traverse the same way twice, there was no refined challenge – obstacles were more often avoided than overcome. Kind of like the real issue here.

I didn’t come here to bash Sonic, really I didn’t. I kind of respect the guy – it takes some nerve to keep on churning em out without a single good game under your neckerchief. I’m really here wondering why we don’t ask more of him, and what we can do about it.

His games have become indefensible on every level. I’m not even sure when Sonic Team finds time to Tweet if they all have to share the same computer to do the facial animations, and the same bathroom to do the voice recordings. But if we defend them for one good reason it’s that we actually like the character. We remember having a good time swishing through rings and putting a pounding on ol’ Dr. RobEggnikman, and trying to spatially comprehend what shape Tail’s sphincter could possible take to create a naturally occurring rotary.

In that case, here’s what a Sonic game should be. Get the old art style back with the candied bumpers and checkered hills and just make a platformer. That’s right. An honest, hearty, Indie-style, low-bit platformer. Forget speed and suddenly the levels might actually benefit from player input, rather than be hindered by it. And what about that health system, which doesn’t allow the player to benefit from having more health? Instead, put 100 rings in the level and make taking damage cost the player five. We’re video game players – it takes a lot for useless collectibles to become truly meaningless to us, if Flappybird is any indication. Sonic games have done the impossible and actually nerfed their own internal incentive to collect their only collectible. It’s kind of crazy.

In short: we need to lose Sonic from the Sonic games, the speed, the persona, the sass, everything. Super Mario Odyssey will displace Mario from the elements of his kingdom. It’ll be no less drastic than the realistic cities in Sonic ’06 but it’ll work because Mario isn’t hindered by a persona. If Sonic can become an accessory to his gameplay and not the reverse, we might come up with something playable instead of the same old under-rendered and over-hyped fan-art that couldn’t have tanked the critical persona of a beloved IP harder if it made him the subject of an Internet porn series.

Oh, that’s right. It did.

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