Tuesday, January 24, 2012

" Sonic The Hedgehog 4" and growing into bad habits

Before I did the top-5 free-to-play MMORPGs video, I had another one scheduled. It was about "Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1". But as I was going through the script, I realized I don't really have anything to say that hasn't already been said before. So I shelved it and did the other one instead. But shortly after the Holidays, SEGA came out with interviews and a shitty teaser trailer for Episode 2 and suddenly what I had to say seemed relevant again. It helped that only last weekend, they finally ported the game over to the PC and as I noticed, it took them over a year to do the port and they didn't fix a single bloody thing in it!

Not so young anymore, ay Sonic?!

See, I like Sonic. I always have. The consensus in the industry and its audience is that the poor guy fell from grace a long time ago and he's only been of use as the butt of gaming jokes. However, I think people have been brutally unfair to him. Okay, it's true no game since the Mega Drive era has been of great quality, but Sonic had something the fat plumber never did; he liked experimenting with formulas.

The revisionist history on that is actually kind of funny. Go back and find reviews of Sonic games and you'll see that the vast majority of them have been well-received by critics, the same critics who forgot their own scores and just kind of jumped on the making-fun-of-discolored-mammals bandwagon.

Not that Sonic couldn't take a lot of criticism, but he's been a prominent gaming icon long past his prime and long after Sega's dropping out of the console race. It's just that many people seem to remember the console games and especially the ones that were bad or didn't matter altogether. What about the handheld games, asks me? “Sonic Advance” 1-3, as well “Sonic Rush”, “Sonic Rush: Adventure” and “Sonic Colors” for the DS are considered as some of the finest platformers these systems had to offer, some putting them up there or even above the systems' token Mario games.

There are two eras that people remember in regards to Sonic; classic and modern. There are many details for the obsessive fanboy to distinguish the two, but the simplest one is that Classic Sonic is 2D, whereas modern Sonic is 3D, a notion cemented by SEGA themselves with their recent “Sonic Generations”. The modern era, started roughly with “Sonic Adventure” for the Sega Dreamcast, but it was the second fully 3D Sonic title after “Sonic R”, a racing game for the Sega Saturn. This is the Sonic people mostly fall back on to point out how the oldest mainstream gaming furry doesn't work anymore.

That's true, to some extend. Sonic in a 3D plane doesn't work. It's not his fault. No platforming really works on a 3D plane, including the allegedly “good” ones. Between these games and the success of the aforementioned handheld titles, which are technically modern Sonic games, but play in 2D, people started suggesting that Sonic will be fine, as long as SEGA makes his games standard 2D platforming.

Even the cocking special stages are phoned in.

Enter “Sonic 4 The Hedgehog: Episode 1”, SEGA's most cowardly and unrefined stunt in a long time. Taking place after “Sonic 3 & Knuckles”, a game that came out in 199-fucking-4, this would be the true Sonic sequel. No more faffin' about, no more experimenting, just true, original Sonic. Yeah, I'll call bullshit on this one. I don't want to go into much detail about why this game sucked both as a platformer and especially as a Sonic game, falling far, far behind any handheld Sonic since the Game Gear era. But a few pointers should do:

1. There is zero value-for-money. Episodic gaming is supposed to be short content at low prices and quick releases. Episode 1 is a 2-hour-long game with minimal replaybility value that came out at the ridiculous price of 13 bucks, while its sequel has yet to be seen in two years-- reportedly pushed back in favor of Generations last year for the franchise's 20th Anniversary.

2. It features the creative wealth of the game adaptation of an exploitation parody of a remake of a film adapted from a stage-play that was originally a book! All the levels have been ripped straight from Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, with little adjustments to accommodate this game's mechanics. You've seen everything before and you've seen it at its best when you were a kid.

This spin-dash just can't end well. Also, free hugs!!

3. Not only is the level design poor, Sonic Team had no idea what exactly to do with the gameplay. These are the same guys who spent years upon years trying to experiment with the franchise and now they are roped back in line with basic mechanics. They are at a loss! Sonic double-jumps, usually when you don't want him to and for some reason, the homing attack has made it in. Homing was designed to compensate for the handicap of a Sonic in a 3D level, something I'm not even sure ever worked all that well, since I find Adventure still plays better than modern Sonic in Generations.

It's not even the first time that homing has been featured in a 2D Sonic game, but in all other instances it was there to compliment game design geared toward fast action. Sonic 4 doesn't do fast well. In fact, the only times the game is worth its money is when you have to hold back and do some traditional platforming or solve some basic puzzles to progress through the level. As it stands, homing only exists to string up kills to boost Sonic to a higher platform; a function easily performed by a fucking spring!

Robotnic made these guys just to boost Sonic up. I'm serious, they don't even pretend to care.

Add to that the complete lack of power-ups, beyond the sneakers, the invincibility and the standard shield, all things obsolete, surpassed and replaced since Sonic 2 and there is absolutely nothing even remotely interesting to make this game rich enough to warrant its price or its hype.

4. Also, the presentation is crap. The colors are nice and vibrant, but Sonic's animation causes all sorts of problems. He seems slow, his spin tends to go away during falls, causing unintended injuries and he never seems to actually gain momentum. He just goes by two speeds; fast and slow. The music is also some of the worst in any Sonic game and Sonic is far from a stranger to weird soundtracks.

Sonic running. I am not kidding.

A lot of the above may sound like nitpicks and in a better game, they would be. But in a two-hour title you've played several times before under a different name, they tend to stand out, especially because they didn't even need to exist; like the homing attack that has no practical reason to be there and only forced Sonic Team to find ways to utilize it, just so it could be in the game. If this was a bigger game, maybe its defects wouldn't show as much. It's not like in GTA, where if you make it through to the end, the problems disappear, because you can see the game as an experience.

This isn't an inherent problem with episodic gaming, though. The point of these things being so short is less a commercial one and more of a development rationale. What would ordinarily be a giant body of work that had to be consistent can now be divided, better worked on with more care and detail, better focus, it can be available to the public and consequently bring in the feedback needed to improve on its subsequent parts. The thing is, they were working on a two-hour-long game for well over a year. None of the above ever crossed their minds?

Recently we got the first news and a short teaser about Episode 2. The ground-breaking innovation that would redefine Sonic as SEGA wants? Tails! Fantastic! The thing that will make Episode 2 worth its money opposite to the first game is a gimmick from 1992! At least they are being consistent!

Shouldn't he be in Episode 1? This is Sonic 4! How does that work? How does 4 have less things than 2 and especially 3? You can't do that guys! You can't try to slowly re-establish your work starting from the ground up and still market it as the much-awaited sequel of what was the pinnacle of your property! Anybody in the world who can count up to five can tell you that!

Incidentally, the cart is faster than its occupant. Foiled by the power of... the wheel?

But this is where the real problems start. Episode 1 had the backbone of a good platformer, but was marred by a clear lack of direction and an execution that seemed lazy. People gave it a free-pass, because it was only the first step into this revitalization (so far as SEGA is concerned, anyway), but they don't seem to want to get away from that lazy execution. Is “Sonic 4” in its entirety going to be characterized by being identical to the property's better titles from two decades ago?

This can't bode well for either Sonic or platformers in general. As the downloadable market increased and Indie developers found a gold-mine in simplistic retro-style games, nostalgic to the older gamers and perfectly accessible to the new ones, it was a matter of time before bigger companies followed the same practice. Hell, Capcom's “Mega Man 9” and “Bionic Commando: Rearmed” were some of the first games in that category (also referred to as "2.5D"). But now we're seeing a complete reversal of the process of evolution for a franchise, with the scope being shrunk and only treading safe, familiar ground. If this was just the dressing that you may or may not want to have it'd be okay, but at this point we're looking at the practice as the main course.

"Bionic Commando: ReArmed" (2008)

There is nothing wrong with finding a platform to rescue an entire genre that has been steadily disappearing from mainstream. I wish others, such as my much beloved and now entirely forgotten flight-sims would have had the same luck. But what we are seeing here is that platform being exploited for a quick buck, which is potentially undermining not only its future prospects in regards to the genre, but also the very franchises it currently represents.

This isn't Sonic's exclusive problem. Mario hasn't exactly been the paragon of evolution either. Most of his big titles are the same side-scrollers you've played when you were a kid and they are the same games that Nintendo pushes as system sellers, both in the console and in the handheld market. They off-set this with the occasional RPG or 3D title, but even those have only been adding to an old formula. The last time the Mario franchise really made a bold move was with “Super Mario 64”; in 1996!

Sonic had the decency to experiment with a number of ideas for all these years. You can argue neither the mammal nor that stupid grin on its face can handle it and should stick to the tried and true, which is fair enough; but there are lots of things under the property's belt that have been tried and I'm not talking about freaking Tails. What can we expect from Episode 3? Knuckles? Is there a point to all this? Is any of this going to do Sonic any good in the long term? How about the genre as a whole? How about the Indie market or even gaming in general?

The creativity is just oozing!

The original "Sonic The Hedgehog 2" logo/title screen.

What SEGA's doing with Episode 2 is merely the most obvious example. But as gaming progressed and sort of lost its way, per the snubber critics, it became “hip” for lesser-known developers (or at least, lesser-known properties) to go back and rip ideas from the golden days of gaming. Sonic's doing this by copy-pasing the early days of his career and the platform genre, but we've seen it happen before with first-person-shooters adapting the style and presentation of mid-90s FPS titles.

I am the first in line to defend things like Serious Sam or even Duke Nukem Forever (for what it had salvaged from that bygone era), but only insofar as they add variety to the market and maybe preserve some of the better trends of gaming that could be otherwise phased out without being actually obsolete. At no point did I have in mind going back and checking the list of what made X or Y franchise popular in the days when pre-burger David Hasselhoff was the world's biggest star!

Andraste's tits, this damned industry is so susceptible to making everything a goddamn trend. Say what you want about the allegedly declining Japanese video-game industry, they at least knew when to stop this shit when they were kings of the world!

Gaming, as a hobby, as an industry, even as entertainment is still very, very young. It's been in public awareness for a little over 30 years and it didn't even explode into the mainstream until 15 years ago (with the PS1). It'd be a pity to just sit down and accept that there is no innovation or creativity left in it, that we have to go back and recycle everything we know works before we just fade into oblivion. This is still a booming industry, barely into its pubescence and its masters and servants, usually the same people, force it into the mentality of the middle-aged executive that needs to hang on to their job for just a few more years until retirement.

Unless developers and publishers alike are hell-bent on making some sort of high-brow allegory about Wall Street fat-cats crushing the future of kids barely out of high school or college, we all may want to take a step or two back and re-consider what we're doing here.

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