When you think of Sonic, do you picture him tapping his foot? Or with a finger gun and a wink? Sonic has come a long way from the former image, a Mario competitor that could blow him away in a 100 meter dash and looked impatiently at any players that couldn’t keep pace.
Outside of the over 30 games that have his name on it, there have been 5 separate cartoon series, 2 movies (one animated, one live action), and multiple manga and comic series. The sheer amount of Sonic stuff speaks to an attachment that extends far beyond the “Nintendont” design and marketing philosophy. He’s his own brand man, an ever shape shifting series of adventures starring him and whatever anthropomorphic characters that Sega can cook up. He is a mascot, a universe, an ever evolving property aimed squarely at kids and their parent’s wallets. He is widely beloved and way more popular than anyone truly realizes. Which makes his game’s critical reputation a bit at odds. As his universe has expanded, his metacritic ticker has gone down. This speaks to a failing of this particular critical lense; it’s hard to truly evaluate on the old standbys set by magazines like GamePro. Sure the graphics aren’t all too hot, the story less than cohesive, and the levels themselves not too challenging. That sloppiness works in their favor though; an A-tier mascot refracted through the lense of willy nilly licensing and budget constraints. Sonic properties are there to sell you on a good time and how goddam cool these cheesy as hell characters are. Not a lot of other kid’s heroes are set to blaring rock music and EDM (they even made a spinoff where a character has a goddam gun). Sonic is sloppy and that’s half of the appeal.
Which brings me to Sonic Forces, the 2017 game where you get to create Sonic’s new best friend. This game unequivocally rules. It’s a rollercoaster ride of a game, with fast paced levels trying to funnel you down the path as quickly as possible. The levels are not difficult, instead designed with a more on rails approach and a series of lock on targeting jumps. There’s no intense platforming and jumping, just speed (gotta go fast, remember?). You team with Sonic, blow shit up, go to space, blow shit up again and speak to the power of friendship. There’s also a war going on that culminates with all the animals attacking Eggmans forces in a Lord of the Rings scale battle? Count me the fuck in. That description above is obviously cheesy as hell, but that’s what makes it so great. This is a game that plays it straight, with characters like Knuckles earnestly talking about how to shift the tide of war. The story is rushed and the details are glossed over, but there’s just enough peppering of in universe events to get you hooked. All your favorite characters are there too, like Tails, Amy Rose, and Shadow the Hedgehog (Big the Cat is mysteriously absent though, has anyone checked on how he’s doing?).
Everything in the game feels a little rushed, a little haphazard but is fucking fun to play. Therein lies the critical rub, can it still be good when you can easily point out its faults? Abso fucking lutely. Sonic has and never will be a Mario caliber series. I mean that in terms of polish and innovation; Sonic has never been a series that’s led the way, but taken in contemporary influences through Sega’s strange lense most notably in the jump to 3D. When Mario got 3D levels, so did Sonic. The differentiator lied in Sonic’s reliance on speed, but how do you communicate that on a three dimensional plane? With lock on targeting, the same momentum based physics, and some odd platforming here and there.
Sonic Adventure blazed on to Dreamcast and immediately sunk its hooks into a generation of gamers. The feeling of platforming and running, while impressive, never felt tuned like Mario 64 did. Sonic felt slippery in a stand still, jumping felt just too floaty, and targeting could send you flying off a stage rather than toward a jump. The overworld, similar to Mario 64s castle, was largely awful and completely removed for the sequel. Adventure tried to one up its 64-bit competitor with cutscenes and told a globally expansive story (a pretty wild one at that). All of these didn’t add up to anything amazing and yet Sonic Adventure was hailed as an achievement. That enthusiasm certainly has waned a bit, but it’s still remembered fondly by gamers of a certain age.
Sonic Adventure still is the perfect encapsulation of the appeal though; Sonic didn’t have to be polished to be good. You got to outrun a goddam whale! New characters were introduced to meet and interact with, even play as! These are still the core tenants of the series. 18 years later, Sonic Forces has fine tuned those items. Lock on targeting is much improved and levels give you an even better sense of speed along with intense background activity. The Sonic cast has expanded triple fold with alligators and bumblebees. Sonic never had to beat Mario at his game, he was always racing to his own tune (and that tune is Escape from the City).
Check out my YouTube channel if you want to see my thoughts on Sonic Forces in video form.