The Anatomy of a Bad Sonic Game

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The following is a guest article from SEGAbits writer Ben Burnham, who joined the website several years ago. He is an avid and long-time Sonic fan who’s written about the games numerous times over the years. As part of our intersite #Sonic23on23 celebration, Ben has written an article for us about what he thinks makes a bad Sonic game well…bad! Hope you enjoy.

If there’s one series known as much for its failures as for its successes, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
There was a time when SEGA’s famed mascot, spinoffs aside, seemed like he could do no wrong; The series was incredibly popular, and arguably a major reason the Genesis was able to put up such a strong fight against the Super Nintendo.

It then came time for Sonic to make the dreaded transition to 3D, and though critics and fans have become more jaded about the quality of the games in hindsight, the fact remains that Sonic Adventure and its sequel were given rave reviews and greeted with much fanfare when they were released on the Dreamcast.

From there, however, it would become a bumpy ride. Sonic Heroes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 divided the fanbase, while Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, and Sonic and the Black Knight were panned across the board. Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic Unleashed were met with only tepid enthusiasm, and even with the well-received Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations thrown into the mix, it remains evident that the franchise has struggled to find its ground in recent years.

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It makes sense then to answer, or at least attempt to answer, the big question of what makes a bad Sonic game bad, and how Sega can work to prevent future entries in the series from becoming bad. It seems like an easy question, but upon sitting down to write this article, it became clear to me just how difficult it is to answer.
The Sonic Adventure games on the surface featured much of what fans would grow to hate about the series; multiple playable characters, a large variety of differing gameplay styles, linear levels with few paths, and cheesy presentation. With all that said, these factors didn’t seem to bother much of anyone back in 1999 and 2001.

Upon giving it some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that what made it work in those days was that the ideas back then were seen as being executed well. Most 3D platformers of that era didn’t feature multiple playable characters; and I don’t think many, if any at all, let you play as the villains in addition to the heroes. The freshness of these concepts certainly gave them strength, and while people universally preferred the Sonic gameplay to that of the other characters, the fanbase by and large didn’t question the existence of the other characters’ gameplay, seeming to accept them as a necessary part of those games. But it wasn’t just the fact that it was a new concept that made it a success. More importantly, the Sonic Adventure series was able to justify the other characters by getting their gameplay right and by giving them a role in the game that felt genuine and not like a marketing ploy.

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Though fairly simplistic, the shooting mechanics of characters like Gamma and Dr. Eggman were solid, doing their job and working the way they were supposed to. Many dreaded the Knuckles and Rouge stages in the Adventure series, but they provided a challenge and did what they were supposed to do. With the exception of Big the Cat, most of the gameplay in the Sonic Adventure games, if nothing else, proved itself worthy of being a part of the overall experience, and it fit organically into what those games were and what they set out to be.

My big issue with where Sonic’s gone these days isn’t that they continue to add gameplay variety, but that the different gameplay they come up isn’t fun or well thought out. Amy Rose’s levels and her storyline in Sonic Adventure were short and didn’t overstay their welcome, while the Werehog in Sonic Unleashed had levels that felt like they went on for ages. Sonic Team back then knew where to devote the majority of their gameplay, while the Sonic Team of today releases games that are more Werehog than Hedgehog. The old Sonic Team knew how design gameplay centered on each characters’ unique strengths, while the new Sonic Team will add a parkour mechanic to a game and do almost nothing with it.

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If there’s one thing that I’d like more than anything to get across to those who make the Sonic games, it’s that the poor implementation of the ideas is the problem, not the ideas themselves. Nobody would have complained about using the sword in Sonic and the Black Knight if the swordplay was fun and didn’t detract from the experience. Developer Big Red Button didn’t pull punches when they revealed up front that Sonic Boom would be far heavier on the exploration elements than recent Sonic titles, and I personally believe that many in the fanbase were optimistic about this, or at least hopeful, that we would have a fun new take on the franchise. It’s a series that’s flexible enough to warrant change, and to regularly shake things up, and these things are what keep things fresh.

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It’s in this sense that Sega shouldn’t be afraid of new ideas. New ideas are what keep long-running series’ going, and without them, they eventually cease to exist. What makes a bad Sonic game bad isn’t that it features a new take on the character, or a new style of gameplay, but that the gameplay isn’t well-developed or fun. It’s not enough to just give Sonic a sword and call it a day, but the gameplay has to be paced well, using the sword has to be fun, and the new gimmick needs to justify its existence rather than simply feeling like a way to sell Happy Meals. A Sonic game that feels more like an exercise in marketing than a well-made product is a bad Sonic game. A Sonic game that’s released unfinished, where it’s evident that monetary return was more important to its publisher than putting out a quality game, is a bad Sonic game.

These are aspects that should apply to any game, but the Sonic franchise has fallen into these traps repeatedly. The worst Sonic games either banked too much on ideas that didn’t work or weren’t fun, or they attempted to do far too much with too little development time. There’s a level of quality that’s just expected from an IP of Sonic’s stature. Developers who are content enough to add guns to a Sonic spinoff, but not to make the effort to ensure that they work properly and that gamers would be happy to use them, are not doing justice to the series. Ideas that just seem to come across (at best) as “okay” in practice shouldn’t be included in a game, even if they’re for secondary characters, or if they’re in addition to strong speed sections. The ideas should never be making it past the planning stages because they aren’t worthwhile additions to the gameplay.

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Looking towards the upcoming Sonic Boom, my fear is that it will be a bad Sonic game. I hope I’m wrong; I was so excited when it was first announced, believing that it would be a promising new start for the iconic mascot. If a combat system, which currently looks to (but hopefully does not) take up a majority of the game, is being viewed by the majority as something that isn’t fun, then it’s something that the developers need to make note of and fix. It’s something that they should have caught before the game was even shown, because what makes a good Sonic game good, just like with what makes any game good, is that it’s fun to play.

Through it all, that’s the most important thing. The conclusion after all this is so simple, but it’s one that has in the past so easily eluded Sega’s grasp; the game has to be fun to play. No matter what longtime fans may think of putting a villainous hedgehog on a motorcycle and sending him into battle, if the gameplay was fun to play, people would have eventually grown to accept it. Fun speaks volumes, and ultimately is the most important part of all forms of entertainment.

If any aspect of the experience, especially a major aspect, proves not to be fun, or proves not to justify itself in the context of the game it’s in, then that’s when we have a problem; because, in my view, that’s when we have a bad Sonic game.

42 Comments

  1. The Sonic Wheel Returns, I really wished Sonic Colors destroyed it but nope…

    lol you cant really trust SEGA, specially SOA They really have a bad rep since day one.

    1. Yep, it’s back. What’s the worst game have to offer so far–oh a Link and Yoshi DLC! Oh and a new patch that fixed a lot of problems the first version had! No seriously, Sonic Lost World was flawed, but at least it had some redeeming qualities that just leaves it as a meh experience. SLW should have been better, but I prefer a meh experience like Sonic 4 over what Sonic Team had before Colors.

        1. I enjoyed Sonic 4:Ep2, Episode one was not terrible but was mediocre for me, mainly because it was not its own game it copied Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 too heavily! THAT is not a sequel just a homage.

          Haven’t played Lost World but yeah I seen its pretty meh, so I wont bother with it, its sad they could’ve done so much with it.

          And with Boom well, it just feels like Sonic Chronicles for me. :/ SEGA is reminding me too much of Capcom, soon they might start cancelling Sonic games because they are inept in making em and worst of all they dont really care about Sonic, they should just hire real fans not these clowns who claim they know Sonic yet say that ‘at times they made the game so different it was not a Sonic game anymore’.

          *sigh* it seems idiots rule the world no doubt.

  2. I was expecting to be rather annoyed with this article, as the concept of what makes a Sonic game “bad” is usually based off of opinion, but surprisingly I thought it was very level-headed, neutral, and a bit honest. I do think a lot of the stuff they’ve added over the years felt fun, at least to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think that most of them could have been improved a little bit to make them much more fun and memorable. No matter what I think of the games, it does seem that the SEGA of late has been falling into a kind of pattern that tends to come up with mixed results more often than not. Chances are that I will like most of the stuff SEGA puts into future Sonic games, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else will, and if a core majority of people don’t like how something is handled, then some serious effort should be taken to make sure that whatever is put in is made to be fun and memorable to them. I’m totally fine with a combat system in Boom and I never really minded the Werehog gameplay all that much (except EggmanLand), but if they could do a bit more to make sure everything else is super refined and worth while, that would give the game more power. I like the look of the speed sections, but I do believe they could still use some heavy refinement, and I’m still looking for the insane feats of speed that the teaser trailer showed off. More Sonic running on water please! I think a majority of the fan base could really get behind a lot of these ideas that SEGA adds to everything, the only trick is to make sure that they are enjoyable and worth while for the whole game experience.

    I don’t know, maybe SEGA should try to do something that actually reaches out and directly asks a majority of the fans what they want from a Sonic game. Something like a survey, like what Square Enix does. I mean, Square doesn’t exactly use them for creating a game from scratch, but that doesn’t mean that SEGA shouldn’t at least try to become more intimate with their main source of income.

  3. As much as I wanted to like some of the topics and concepts you brought up, all I got out of this article is “Sonic and the Black Knight is a bad game” since you wouldn’t stop bringing up the sword. Since I absolutely love Black Knight and have lots of fun with the swordplay and the level design, I disagree highly and call bullshit.

    The only Sonic games I’d ever deem as outright bad are Shadow, 06, Lost World and the absolute worst of all, Secret Rings. All four of those just did a lot of things wrong.

    Also, to reply to Hero: “I don’t know, maybe SEGA should try to do something that actually reaches out and directly asks a majority of the fans what they want from a Sonic game.”

    That’s the last thing they should EVER think about doing. There is no single majority in the Sonic fanbase and most of the more open-minded and level-headed people are either silent or drowned out by all of the raging loud “fans” from different parts of the fanbase with various different tastes.

    Sega/Sonic Team should just keep doing as they are and make whatever ideas that come to mind. They can keep others’ interests in mind, but they shouldn’t try to cater to anyone or make it specifically for anyone. Everyone knows that doing things specifically to impress a certain group never works.

    And BigRedButton will do just fine with Sonic Boom. I think it’s looking to be a great and fun new franchise, but I guess that’s because unlike everyone else, I understand the fact that it IS a new franchise and not part of the “Sonic the Hedgehog” line. It’s like Paper Mario to the main Mario series and Mega Man.EXE (Or NT Warrior for some of you folk) to the main Mega Man series.

    It’s not like it’s Sonic Lost World or anything.

    1. I don’t get how could you prefer Black Knight over Secret Rings, but it all falls into personal opinions so you shouldn’t be calling bullshit.

      Personally I loved the story of Sonic & the Black Knight as well as its setting, the characters, the bosses, the fact that you could play with different characters and also who those characters were! (The 4 playable characters of Black Knight are my 4 favorite Sonic characters ever), but for me the gameplay left a lot to be desired, comparing it to Secret Rings it wasn’t better (I compare it to that game because is the more similar to Black Knight).

      1. I don’t get how anyone couldn’t like Black Knight over Secret Rings or understand why some of us do. It’s very simple, Black Knight fixed all of the issues Secret Rings had when it came to the gameplay, which really means that you could actually control Sonic using control sticks and buttons instead of tying to deal with the Wii’s terrible motion controls.

        The gameplay didn’t leave anything to be desired at all in my eyes. I wasn’t forcing any kind of unrealistic expectations on it and just played it for what it was and I enjoyed it as such, too. I find everyone else’s whining and complaints to be completely unwarranted and don’t take any of them seriously, but that’s why I typically treat the fanbase.

      2. Um, how about the fact that Black Knight fixed the problems that Secret Rings had with it’s controls? Secret Rings was interesting, but it was very hard to enjoy with the game’s constant need to keep pushing Sonic forward automatically, leaving you to reign him in every 30 seconds like some kind of out of control horse. At least in Black Knight the ability to move felt much more natural.

      3. Raw, I have to agree with you. Secret Rings was overall a better game than Black Knight. Of course, I’m not deathly allergic to motion controls, so maybe I’m not being as harsh on Secret Rings as I should be?
        Anyway, I had a lot of trouble just controlling Black Knight. I just couldn’t get used to the sword; it had too much delay, and without the Motion Plus the accuracy was… bad. Maybe I’m just too used to Wii Sports Resort and Nintendo Land.
        On the other hand, Secret Rings knew exactly what it was trying to be. I viewed it more like a racing-platformer game; sometimes I’d even put the Wii Wheel on and play it like Mario Kart. To me, Secret Rings was playable, and Black Knight really wasn’t for most. The sword really was terrible, although for those that can actually control the sword, maybe Black Knight was fun.

        1. Agreed, i liked the fact that they changed the controls to the Wii control and nunkchu, but the sowrd gameplay was way too slow, had very wacky controls and not that fun compared with Sonic classic moves, I liked the story, characters and tone though, I’m sure there could be a great game if Sonic Team combined the best elements of both games.

    2. If you like Black knight then you like black knight, but it was an overall bad game, controls weren’t tight, it was just waggle and hold forward throughout most of its game-play experience and the setting/levels we’re very non-Sonic.

      We all have to admit when we like a bad game, people hate Sonic 3D blast which I accept but that doesn’t stop me loving it 🙂

      Similar to Sonic 4 episode 2, I liked it but gamers hate it, I can see why they hate and I accept that I like a bad game. its called guilty pleasure when you like a bad game that people hate which is fine.

    3. Well, when you put it that way, I guess you’re right about not listening or catering to any one specific or several majorities/minorities at once. Still, I wish there was some way for SEGA to clearly identify what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, separate them, and then junk all of the wrong stuff while building upon the good stuff, adding new things, and then repeating the process again. This new process of experimentation may feel like a step back after the success of Generations, but if they know how to properly experiment, then it may still lead to success, maybe sooner rather than later. Unfortunately it seems that the only way that could properly happen is if they figured it out for themselves. I sure hope having Sonic Team tied together under one man’s direction doesn’t drag the series towards one corner, because lately it seems that we’re getting Iizuka’s Sonic rather than Sonic Team’s Sonic.

    4. Now you have the right to your opinions, and some of your points regarding fan-interaction are very well…..but then you had to skrew it up

      Did you honestly compared Paper Mario, which managed to translate many of the tropes, charm and platforming mechanics of the Mario series into a really engaging action/rpg series, and Mega Man Battle Network, whose use of a real time attack system using grids combined with collectible chips somewhat replicated the intense and difficult action of the Mega Man series…

      ..to BigRedButton’s cheaply designed, obvious “trans-media” cash grab that is destined to for the $1 bargain bin at some local game store?!

      Even Sonic Lost World had more original thought and effort than this poor man’s Jak and Daxter and that game was basically aping the Mario series.

      You know, there is a difference between three aforementioned games that experimented with new ideas to revitalize long running franchises and a kiddie game meant to tie-in to a cartoon, right?

      (I was going to put it in Best Buy’s or Gamestop’s bins, but then I realize that they sell their games for at least $5 and that is giving Boom too much credit)

  4. I thought the gameplay in Shadow was really fun, which is odd since I despised Heroes. I’ll admit that driving vehicles wasn’t spectacular, though.

    And I also disagree with Secret Rings and Black Knight being bad. I had loads of fun with both of them. But to each his own.

    Also that Shadow render is ridiculously cool, I’m setting that as my wallpaper.

  5. Well, if Shadow wasn’t an ignorant fool in his own game and had his character changed completely into a psychopathic, trigger-happy, and constantly foaming at the mouth type it would had been more approved. Why was it an idea to let a superpower being that possess Chaos Energy use…*shivers*…THOSE?

    I’m not interested in Sonic and the Black Knight. I understand the medieval time but the sword was not necessary.

  6. Great article man!! Seriously well thought out. I hate to read the 800000+ people ranting about how crappy the adventure games were, when they don’t even bother to place them in a timeline. If the same developers produced an adventure 3 (is impossible), it’d be up to par with the high standards of today like adventure was back then.

  7. Couldn’t agree more with you, excellent article man!

    And this begs for the question; what happened to Sonic Team? These are the most common theories as to why they changed so much from what they used to be:

    -Change in management
    -Conflicts between Sega of Japan and Sega of America
    -Less time to develop their games

    I don’t know what the explanation might be, but if is the second and/or third I’m sure the arrival of Big Red Button and Sonic Boom will help Sonic Team amp their game.

    1. It’s a combinations of all three of those things really.

      I also agree that this was a great article. Not only did I agree and understand what was said it but I also learned from it and I think that’s most important. Looking at what’s happened between 2010 and now, it seems Sega has as well. They’ve learned that it’s not enough to give the people what they want; they have to make sure that it works. Now they hit a bump in the road with Lost World, but unlike what happened with 06, they did fall flat on their face (just sorta stumbled a little). That’s where Sonic Boom comes in, where not only does it offers some features that fans have been asking for for a while now, but Sega swallowed their pride and asked some up-in-coming outside talent to make it all work out. And I have confidence that it will 🙂

  8. What the hack Sonic Adventure 2 is popular Sonic game ever but I know some people don’t like shooting stages & treasure hunting Stages also the cutsence is action or funny at the same time muitplayer is fun.Then one more thing about it Chao world has Chao Garden, Hero Garden, & Dark Garden, but please don’t hate this Sonic game okay Ben.

  9. I do agree with this article, I must say. I came into it about to roll my eyes at the fact that someone may be unfairly bashing games I enjoy, or others enjoy. But man, nuckles… good article here. Very well thought out. If Shadow the Hedgehog didn’t play horribly to me, I would have enjoyed it despite its awkward direction. If Sonic and the Secret Rings could actually control correctly and give me freedom like your normal 3D game, I probably would have enjoyed it too. But that’s just my opinion.

    Also, I think I may be one of those few who thought that Sonic and the Black Knight wasn’t really bad. I certainly find it a much better game than Secret Rings. I only have true complaints with the really lame multiplayer and the wonky momentum that carries over from Secret Rings, but is more controllable. The sword combat, bad idea or not, I thought was okay. I rather enjoyed lunging forward into my enemies. But that’s just my personal rant. XD I do certainly understand why one wouldn’t like the game.

  10. I love sonic 06 no matter what glitches the game had i literally thought my first play through that most were my own fault for going to fast or chipping a wall. But i learned. And now i can still somewhat enjoy it but i know what i am in for. Ive never seen sonic as some blockbuster game that many fans do. I think i enjoy it more as a fan who just enjoys the characters more than anything. Though i wish sega would explain the plotholes left open after 06

  11. There’s a bit of a problem with this theory though. Fun is pretty subjective. While a lot of people didn’t like the werehog gameplay, I actually pretty enjoyed it myself. Vice versa with the emerald hunting, I didn’t think the emerald hunting was fun at all, especially come the later levels. I think the problem that SEGA is trying to figure out is meeting a balance between what is fun to a majority of a fanbase that is split like the grand canyon, and with so many different people being either extremely optimistic that they ignore glaring flaws or extremely pessimistic that they dismiss the great attributes of a particular game, it’s hard to pinpoint an overall good experience. I gotta be honest, if I sat behind the development of a Sonic game, I wouldn’t even know how to begin to not only please a general audience, but please the fanbase which is the posterboy of subjectivity.

  12. Here’s how I see it.

    Whine, whine, moan, whine and bitch.

    Thing were better in the past when I was a kid cause now a days it all suck, woe is me I need to get outta my mom’s basement.

    Typical nostalgic cry baby Sonic fanboy complaining about all the modern Sonic games isn’t new, interesting or even remotely fun, kindly get your act together and come up with something new rather then repeating word for word what the so called true Sonic fans say on tumbler blogs if you want to be taken serious.

    1. So I take it by this you either didn’t read the article or paid attention to what was said?

    2. Um, this wasn’t even whiny or bitchy in the slightest. It was hands down one of the most level-headed opinion based articles I’ve ever read. I was expecting to get pissed off by reading it, but it’s actually left me a little wiser than before. I suggest you ACTUALLY READ the article before you write off every person who has something to say about what they think a good or bad game is made of. It’ll make you come off as far less arrogant.

      1. I’m with hero and Hogfather.

        At first i was “Oh here we go! Another damn rant for a whiny sonic fan! (No offense Nuckles)” but after reading this, and thinking it over, i can’t help but agree with him. I’ll be honest, i get tired of hearing the whining from the articles of this site, and i still do, but like Hero said this may be the most level headed article I’ve ever seen TSSZ eat your heart out.

        But the one thing i don’t agree with is the fact that Black knight was a bad game. I liked black knight, and plus i always wanted a Sonic game that would give me an excuse to work out. Like having one for the wii fit and you being a Sonic character who runs around a stage. Kind of like the running game on Wii fit. But that’s just me.

        Anywho, I would say i agree with 80% with what this article says. Mainly because some of the games mentioned I liked. (even 06 deal with it) But yeah, I can see the point.

    3. It’s okay to whine or whatever you call it. Its better to whine (a bit) on something that STILL exist than theres nothing to whine about anymore. That means people still care about Sonic, it will always get better next time around. I’m giving Sonic second chance. (by the way, this is 3rd second chance lol)

  13. I completely agree with you Mr. Burnham. While I do believe that no game can be officially labeled as good or bad, I personally believe what you said is true for about 95% of the franchise.

  14. I am continuously blown away by all the hate Lost World gets
    as someone else said whats fun is subjective and for some weird reason I
    think lost world is REALLY fun
    do I have a few complaints with it? Yes.
    But i got more right than wrong in my opinion.
    I felt a bit like I was playing a sequel to sonic 3d blast (a game I actually like)
    I really enjoy the increased difficulty and I think the game controls beautifully to the most part.

  15. Its all about the game-play, I agree with this article, Sega have great ideas but they never use it well, besides Smash bros brawl was proof that as along as its fun it can be good, Sonic was fun to play in that.

  16. Sonic used to be cool. He just feels like a big joke now. Too many dumb decisions and too many half arsed games over the years with no real effort put into them has really hurt this franchise. It boggles my mind how carelessly they have treated the IP that has been of most value to them.

    Not once does it seem like the devs on some of these projects have looked at these games halfway through and said, “No, this isn’t working at all. We need to rethink this”. And that goes for many things regarding this franchise. Many of the theme elements, story lines, gimmicks etc. in these awful games have been so weird and out of place it’s crazy, while other IP’s have kept true to what they were from the very start while still bringing new and exciting ideas to table. Ideas that felt like they had a long and thorough process of planning and outlining behind them so they would fit in with the older formats that made the games so well liked and cherished to begin.

  17. Question: Do we actually need good sonic games?

    I mean, half the fun seems to be talking about how bad they are. So much to a point that most of the fanbase are victims in a Sonic cycle of abuse.

    Also, they still sell. If they’re selling then by capitalist theory, there must be demand for bad Sonic games, right?

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