A recent trend in Sonic games seems to be the increasing outreach to the online Sonic community, with today’s Sonic Team no longer the closed in studio it once was. There have been some good throwbacks to past games before – Sonic Heroes was a mish-mash of both classic and modern gameplay, with Chaotix (minus Mighty) making a welcome return. But Sonic Chronicles on the Nintendo DS marked the first time SEGA were willing to stretch a hand towards the community in terms of a game’s development.
BioWare produced a pretty sweet fan service in general in Sonic Chronicles’ dialogue, story and impressive knowledge of lore/filling in the blanks. The cherry on the cake was the studio allowing the online community to name an alien race in the game. On the back of that success, Sonic Team seem to have taken futher steps, by including easter eggs in Sonic Unleashed in the hidden Dreamcast, and acknowledging the chilidog as Sonic’s official favourite snack.
The Japanese studio took another step with Sonic and the Black Knight, but it’s more than the obvious. SEGA held a contest around the world to include some pieces of fan artwork into the latest Wii adventure. The result is an awesome set of slideshows that feature a bunch of American, European and Japanese work. Even the outcome of a discrepency in one of the European entries resulted in a fair and responsive reaction from ArchAngelUK, which really just adds to how far SEGA and Sonic Team are willing to go to put things right.
But it’s in other things as well. A lot of fans had lamented the lack of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue in their Sonic games, and while it never detracted from the sublime Sonic Unleashed soundtrack, many still felt like it had been too long between hearing that familiar guitar twang. As a result Crush 40 performed two tracks as if the game was canon, and invited Richard Jacques (Sonic 3D on the Saturn, Sonic R), Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim) and even Howard Drossin (Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3 & Knuckles) to complement them. If sat in a room together, it would provide the ultimate audio tag team for sure, and a testament to how far Sonic Team want to go to impress the fanbase.
But dig deeper in Sonic and the Black Knight and you’ll find some of the biggest reaching out to the fanbase is in the semantics of the entire story. In one of the final cutscenes, you see Merlina in a twisted, deformed state, trying to maintain the ‘perfect image’ of the land of Camelot. When Sonic confronts her, a trade-off reveals that generations before her failed to keep the peace, and without the intervention of the evil King Arthur, things would have fallen apart anyway given rivalries between the Knights.
The only way to restore the land to a perfect kingdom for Merlina, is to recreate it in her (now jaded) image. Sonic jumps in and screams that nothing lasts forever, and questions the meaning of life if nothing ever changes. “Sounds pretty lame if you ask me”, he retorts.
This moral not only speaks to the kids enjoying the game in a way that only an Aesop Fable can, but it also connects to the older players. Those who enjoyed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles on their Mega Drives as kids, but now only seem to react to modern games with a sneer. The jaded, older Sonic fan is Merlina, wanting to recreate Sonic in their vision – it might not always be distorted, but it’s a natural reaction given that the comparable loss that the Sonic fan feels is in Sonic 06.
Just as Merlina feels her past generation has failed her, and finds that she must think of her own way of reviving the land, so too must older Sonic fans feel that the old Sonic Team has failed in providing an enjoyable experience. While the quality of Sonic Heroes is debatable but forgiven due to the successes of the Adventure series, many fans feel that since SA2 it’s been “all downhill from here”. It doesn’t help that the ‘Knights of the Round Table’ in this case – Yuji Naka, Naoto Oshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara – all disbanded just as Lancelot, Galahad and Percival once did, leaving a struggling Sonic Team to cope with the demands of a next generation title with great expectations.
As an older fan, playing through modern games can be a fun experience but that ultimate loss felt has a near-permanently negative impact – seen in various damning comments made against Sonic Unleashed (an altogether pretty good game, but game quality let it down in various departments). As a result, there’s a notion that any future Sonic title – regardless of actual objective quality – will be seen with negativity and calls of “Sonic with a Sword? I can do better than that”.
If any underlying message to fans is to be gleaned from this interpretation, it’s certainly not one of deference, ignorance or “talk to the hand, because we’re going to systematically ruin Sonic”. It is simply a plea of acceptance. The new Sonic Team know that they cannot recreate the ‘perfect’ life that the classic games (Camelot) once meant to you, but instead wishing for a return to the roots may cause more problems than it will solve. It’s an offer by Sonic Team to make Sonic as interesting as possible, by attacking the perception of generic Sonic concepts that some may argue is held by classic fans.
And if we look at recent games, you can see that the premises have not been that bad. Sonic Unleashed provided an amazing plotline that, while Dark Gaia proved to be quite cheesy at the end, was made all the more enjoyable by the awesome intro sequence and the amusing introduction of Chip. Sonic Rush Adventure takes Sonic to a new world – certainly not the ‘Mobius’ many would like to see – but Marine is admirable, Blaze is still as cool as always and the premise for the handheld title remains the best in recent years.
With Sonic and the Black Knight, Sonic with a Sword sounded like a bad idea at first (and we admit – and now retract – saying it was a totally crap idea) but in the confines of the Storybook universe – as a spinoff game, and as a premise in and of itself – it works perfectly well. The story is one that truly shines, especially since we’re actually analysing it right now, while graphically and casually it’s a game that you can really appreciate. It’s just a shame the most important element – the gameplay – is severely lacking.
However bad the interpretation of Merlina appears to make the jaded, older fan be though, remember what happens at the very end of the game. Merlina is not persecuted and not totally destroyed by Sonic. Instead, she is comforted in her sadness and accepted as a friend. If we follow this idea that the older fan is Merlina here, this is Sonic Team’s way of saying “You’re not wrong for feeling bad about the series, you’re not a real bad guy; a bad experience has simply taken you off the rails a little bit”. Sonic in this instance… well, it’s open to interpretation, but I like to think it’s the modern Sonic fan picking the classic fan up, dusting them off and saying “Hey, I know some games in the series have been crap, but it’s not all bad. I don’t hate you”. It’s the perfect end to both Sonic and Merlina’s relationship, as is the connection between classic and modern Sonic fan.
On a personal level, I review Sonic games because I love Sonic the Hedgehog. I know that Sonic 06 was poor, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the (decent) latest releases with an open mind and a spring in my step. The dangers that I – along with many older fans – face is the possibility of believing that if we come across a poorly crafted Sonic game, that it means the series is declining into ruin. The danger of the modern fan, who frequently argues with the jaded fan to the point where flamewars escalate, is in becoming overly defensive and denying the success of “Camelot”.
And in this, Black Knight gives us the greatest moral of all. The point being that modern and classic fans can in fact get along, despite their differing opinions and thoughts. Some fans don’t like how Sonic has changed, others are enjoying the intricate set-pieces and alternative gameplay. And in the middle Sonic Team is offering an extended arm to say “We’re not like the old ways, but we will keep trying to make this kingdom just as enjoyable as the last”. Obviously as a gaming experience the Sonic games since have failed in that mission so far, but at least we know that Sonic Team aren’t doing it just to annoy us all. Although as a gaming experience Sonic and the Black Knight leaves a lot to be desired, in its story it’s truly one of the biggest messages Sonic Team has ever made to its fanbase.