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Will a Measure of Mario Magic Save Sonic?

One-time unstoppable superstar, Sonic's recent history has been one of inconsistent vehicles and supporting roles. But could the upcoming Lost World signal a turnaround for his fortunes?

Kids these days have no idea what it was like growing up during the Cold War of the early 90’s. Two sides engaged in an increasingly costly technological arms race, desperately trying to gain any kind of advantage over the other. Two machines of war separated by the crater-filled, no-man’s land between them. And their two respective leaders locked in fierce battle where never the twain shall meet. I’m of course talking about Sega and Nintendo, Genesis and SNES, and Sonic and Mario, respectively.

During that era, it was pretty much inconceivable to think that at some point in the future, the two warring mascots would put down their weapons and not only shake hands, but appear side by side in a video game. But that’s what they did in the 2007 Wii and DS release, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. While not particularly critically acclaimed, this bringing together of old rivals in the spirit of the games was nevertheless a huge commercial hit, selling over 11m units across both systems.

At the time of Sonic and Mario’s video gaming peace accord, Mario was by far the most successful of the pair. While they were largely neck-and-neck during the 16-bit era, Mario had become increasingly more prolific across subsequent generations. Although his own games were few and far between – but each an absolute gem – he’d become Nintendo’s go-to guest star for an almost bewildering range of games, most of which were more than good enough to offset his occasional transgressions.

Sonic, on the other hand, had a more checkered history. His parent company misfired twice on consecutive console generations, and Saturn and Dreamcast’s failure to achieve the success required to sustain Sega as a premier hardware manufacturer resulted in the company withdrawing from the technology race completely. While most Sonic games released on Sega’s own platforms were good, his name began to appear on some increasingly inconsistent titles. Sonic Rush proved that there was still life in the old hedgehog yet, but a one-two punch of back-to-back clunkers in 2006 – Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Riders – left many wondering whether the former star was washed-up.

So his partnership with Mario the following year could not have come at a better time. But despite being back in the limelight, Sega still couldn’t quite bring back the spiky blue one’s mojo. Sonic games continued to appear regularly, but apart from the occasional winner like Sonic Generations, most were mediocre at best, and downright horrible at worst.

That saddened me. As someone of a certain age, Sonic will always have a place in a quiet corner of my gaming heart. I was one of the first people to review his Genesis debut in 1991, and I loved it. And I’ll forever remember November 24 1992 as Sonic Twosday, a major event where Sonic fans on both sides of the Atlantic got the chance to have their second high-speed run out in his superb sequel. Dammit. I even remember the guy before he had his own game, when he was just a little toy hanging off the rear view mirror of Sega’s Rad Mobile coin-op. So yeah, that guy and I go back a long way.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that when I was at E3, I made sure I carved out some quality time with his new game, just on the off-chance that the speedy blue fella might finally make a comeback. And you know what, based on what I saw, that’s a not entirely unreasonable expectation.

But it’s an ironic comeback in many respects. At least, ironic to those whose gaming history goes back at least two decades, because to bring back Sonic’s magic, developer Sonic Team has stolen a bunch of it from his prior arch-nemesis. Using some flagrant gaming DNA splicing, what has been engineered into the upcoming Lost World is a hybrid of classic Sonic high-speed action and fabulous Mario Galaxy 3D platforming. Which, judging by my hands on experience with the Wii U demo I played at E3, feels more like the best of both than the worst.

The game plays out over a gravity-defying non-linear landscape of circular tubes, platforms and ramps that Sonic can negotiate at high speed, collecting his infamous rings and bashing monsters along the way. It’s Mario Galaxy style platforming, but played at Sonic speed. Clearly recognizable, signature Sonic loop-the-loops and tubes are prevalent, connected with more open areas where things are a bit more Mario-esque jump-and-avoid. There are speed boosters, warp spots and jump-points generously littered across the landscape, and these can be used to plot a variety of different routes through to each level’s final goal. If the designers exploit this structure to its full potential, that should create a game with plenty of replay value, since you’ll be able to go back into a level to find new, faster ways through, and to look for secret spots, such as the bouncy cloud area I inadvertently hurtled up and onto that my E3 demo minder had no idea existed.

I do want to quickly mention the game’s premise, which has a bit of a fun modern twist for those familiar with Sonic’s history. The game starts out with the former Sega mascot pursuing his long-time enemy Dr Eggman into the eponymous Lost World. Said villain has tapped into the power of the Deadly Six, a group of bad guys native to that world. However, they decide not to co-operate, and Eggman’s plans go awry, forcing him and Sonic to combine forces to save the day. At this point, I’m wondering whether Sonic is simply making peace with all his former enemies so he can enjoy a hassle-free retirement.

Anyway, bottom line is that I’m delighted to see a Sonic game that is fun, free of horrible camera nonsense (a consistent flaw in more than a few prior 3D Sonic games) and has a huge amount of potential. The big concern I have is simply wondering if Sonic Team is biting off more than it can chew. By heading straight into Mario gameplay territory, inevitable comparisons will be made, so to stand up to that scrutiny, they’ll need to spend a lot of time testing and finessing things to get everything just right. I hope Sega gives the group the time to do that, and doesn’t rush them as I feel has been done in the past. If so, I think this could be one of the best Sonic games in many, many years – and perhaps a great game in its own right. If not, it’ll be yet another missed opportunity for the Sonic faithful to lament.

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