I genuinely worry for people who think Sonic Forces is going to be good. There’s just no reason from the promotions or the promises to suspect that it will be any better than Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations, the templates for mediocrity to which Sonic Team has obviously reverted following the earth-shattering bust of Sonic Boom. A demo that offered a shockingly sparse amount of content (60 seconds of a 3D level, a 2D level, and a boss fight) and a trailer totally pre-rendered should bristle everybody’s blue quills in warning that this is the same old story. Coming after the much more spirited Sonic Mania, Sonic Team is proving that even the same story can be comparatively lackluster.
It probably won’t be terrible. When I fail to make my Katamari sparkling or wonderful enough, the King of All Cosmos calls it “tepid,” and I think he’d have something similar to say about Sonic Forces.
Take that boss fight for instance. You dodge bullets on a strip of 2D frame about three screens wide, hitting boxes back at the boss in the distance. It’s functional because it’s worked in games countless times. It’s not even a riskier 2.5D affair as we saw in Klonoa on PS1 or Viewtiful Joe, not even a copy of creativity (I remember better constructed fights even on Sonic Rush for Nintendo DS). Remember that this is a third of the promotion for a game that turned out to be only five hours long: a boss fight that would not be out of place in Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back.
In fact, that’s where I’m going with this. The three titans of regression – Mario, Sonic, and apparently Bubsy – have all put out their best efforts within the last couple of weeks like they’re still competing for the platforming crown of 1995. They’re all chained to their own pasts, with only Mario seeking out the fortune of nostalgic novelty through an expansion of his assets. Sonic Forces sits more squarely in the Bubsy camp, with very little to show for its years of experience in the industry.
But where Bubsy is basically an industry troll, Sonic actually still has devoted fans. And I think Sonic Forces makes some smart choices in acknowledgment that people still adore it.
The ability to create a character is unheard of for this kind of game, and it elevates the spirit of Sonic Forces. A game series totally dependent on fan-fiction and imagination has finally given gamers the tools to insert themselves into their own alternate verses. It’s a savvy move, worthy of the business strategy that made it.
At last Sega seems to acknowledge that fan-fiction has been the fuel behind the Sonic property all along. Just as the Sonic persona and aesthetic is more important than his gameplay, the initiation of fan discussion is more important than design. Are these original characters implemented in an interesting way? Of course not. Rather than being Sonic, your custom character is equipped with a weapon that allows them to spin dash, and shoot a gun in case you can’t figure out how to jump. Playing as them has no effect on gameplay, but takes the Sonic property back to the level of the fans, ushering in a new era of internet hentai.
Now if we could only get Sega to program a game, or to have anything on their agenda besides business strategy. I could argue for pages about how Sonic Forces does nothing engaging or new, how it could be played with a rubber band holding the analog stick forward and one finger to press jump now and again (it looks almost like an iOS game). I could praise its crisp look, as at least it doesn’t look like Sonic Boom, a game from 2004 upscaled in resolution.
But put the fossilized boss fights and shallow, unchallenging gameplay aside: at least on PC, Sonic Forces doesn’t even work.
It’s been out 24 hours and Sega has already rushed out a patch for bugs and crashes. PC users can’t even use that special custom character beyond level 2, and the cut-scenes don’t play in the right framerate on even the best machines.
This is a poor enough state in which a major publisher could release their five-hour game. But look at what else is included in the patch: “improved menu controls,” “adjusted game balance,” “fixed player character reaction when taking damage.” This doesn’t even sound like a finished game, no matter its length. Even after clipping the wings of the development cycles of both Sonic ’06 and Sonic Boom, Sega doesn’t seem to think there’s a causal link between the time they give their teams to work and the quality of the finished product. Or they think that the time of release is more significant to sales figures than the quality anyway.
In that, they may be right. Despite monumentally disappointing promotions and a release-day glitch problem, how will Sonic Forces sell? My guess is that it will sell about as well as any Sonic game. Critically it will be derided for not reaching the heights of Sonic’s past, in other words, that it’s not regressive enough. I’m positive I will read before the week is out of the good old days with the Sonic Adventure games, games that have been proven by history to be the progenitors of everything that is wrong with Sonic the Hedgehog.
Or we’ll hear countless cries for Sonic Team to make things like Sonic Mania, even more outmoded, based on even older mechanics.
But even if Mania was no less regressive than Forces, it was passionate about its specific vision. It was made from a place of genuine homage to a beloved series, rather than from the conference room of Sonic’s handlers, unleashing yet another Xeroxed image of Sonic Adventure for a bunch of Deviant Artists they don’t even respect enough to finish the game. Bubsy comes out of nowhere to nudge a little pity money out of our accounts. But Sonic is special: he is a carefully planned commodity, whose successful business model is so inseparable from poor quality that at this point they might be letting things remain boring and buggy as a business practice.
Or even more heinously: Sega might be searching for an optimum middle-ground, one where the player is required to do the least for the least problematic experience. The minute-long levels of Sonic Forces look, to me, strikingly similar to an auto-Mario custom level or a level of Temple Run. I haven’t seen footage yet of gameplay that doesn’t look prerendered.
Sonic’s dynastic mediocrity will continue so long as you buy his games indiscriminately. Support Sonic Mania for its noninnovative creativity. Let Forces remain a fiction.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org