It's not a secret that modern Sonic the Hedgehog games have something of tarnished image these days, or that the franchise doesn't quite hold the credibility it used to. Sonic and Mario used to be held up as equals and rivals; Sega always promising to do what Nintendon't. But Mario seems to constantly triple jump from peak to peak, whereas for the last couple of decades Sonic has been exhibiting a distinct lack of chaos control.
Translating Sonic to 3D movement was always the big challenge, taking this thing that barely worked in two dimensions and unsuccessfully recontextualising it over and over. You really do get the sense that this is the sticking point, because different Sonic games have attempted different solutions: embracing a racetrack mentality, keeping the game on rails, refocusing on platforming, presenting a more open world, all trying to fix one core issue and never quite managing it.
What Sonic games need is to work out what they want the player to do—go fast—and then set up a system of mechanics to encourage that. Something that makes speed more powerful and gives us the advantage in combat and in danger. And weirdly enough, a perfect template for that exists: Saints Row 4.
Now hear me out: I'm not suggesting that you could reskin the Saints' Boss into Sonic and everything would be fine. I tried it, and the results are... hard to look at. I won’t go into details, but very few people will sit next to me in the office kitchens now.
But I do think Saints Row 4 tapped into some fundamentals about speed in gameplay that Sonic would do well to learn from. It’s not long in Saints Row 4 before you can run like a fired bullet, and a lot of the combat that follows—especially the combat that takes place in the open-world—puts that power at the center of everything. It’s arguably your greatest advantage against the Zin aliens, an ability that works for defense, offense, and mobility all in one go.
Saints Row sets this up in a few ways. The environments are built big and open, with roads that split and merge to form a web of paths for you to make use of, with the occasional open area to really cut loose in. The Zin have vehicles that can just about keep up with you, so a gunfight can sometimes turn into a high-octane chase through the city. Health drops are common, but only left behind by defeated foes, so a lightning dash across the battlefield can be the only way to restore health. Even when you can't see around a corner, the mini-map lets you know what to anticipate and lets you plan accordingly. And of course, Enemies use weapons with slow-moving projectiles, so you can actually outrun their gunfire or strafe ahead of it, and it always looks completely freakin' awesome.
This is speed as an integral, essential part of gameplay. There’s quite a few missions where it’s taken away, and it really feels like a handicap when you’re suddenly forced to run at a measly 20 MPH, rather than the breakneck speeds that blurred the world around you. You know something is important when it hurts to lose it. But in Sonic, I'm always wishing the little twerp would slow down for a moment.
And I know what some of you are thinking by now: "another unprovoked attack on Sonic, even though it's really not that bad a franchise. It just has a few bad apples that people latch onto." All right, fine, it's just Sonic '06. And Sonic Boom. And Shadow the Hedgehog. And Sonic Unleashed, Sonic and the Black Knight, Sonic and the Secret Rings, Soni- actually, this is starting to feel cruel.
Sega have had over two decades to get it right, and yet I struggle to think of one game that really translates speed to a 3D environment flawlessly. Even in the older 2D games, going fast—the core selling point of a Sonic game—rarely felt like an advantage. You just rocketed forward too quickly to see what was ahead and usually plowed into an enemy you couldn't possibly have anticipated. And more often than not, the games have to force you to go fast. They throw down boosters and power-ups that fire you forward like a bullet whether you want them to or not, or set up loop-the-loops that demand you hit a certain speed to cross them.
This isn't fastness being a gameplay advantage. This is setting up barriers that say: "You must be this velocity or higher to enter." The moment you're past those, it's in your advantage to slam on the brakes before you crash into a Badnik's backside.
There is hope for Sonic, though. For years now Sega have tried to reinvent the wheel, reimagining the gameplay and approaching it in a new way each time, trying to fix the problem but never building on a single solution or idea. What's one more change at this point? Hopefully, it'll be a mad sprint in the right direction.