By this point, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog would be forgiven for losing hope. The franchises continued mixed fortunes have become a major point of discussion among gamers, with long-time fans left bewildered by the meandering quality. For every Generations, there’s a Sonic Boom. For every Colors, there’s a Sonic 06. With so much hype and good will around the franchise right now – what happens if Sonic Forces fails to deliver?
I’ve been pondering this question since the release of Sonic Mania. That game managed to bring some positive light to the Sonic franchise after an extended period of negativity. In the shadow of Sonic Boom on Nintendo Wii U, the franchise had been left aimless and devoid of momentum. Sonic Mania was designed as fan service of the highest order – a way to showcase that Sega understood what made the franchise tick and that they were finally willing to give audiences the experience they wanted. Sonic Mania was the ultimate Sonic game.
Yet Sonic Forces is far from a guaranteed success. The 3D Sonic games have never quite matched the love received for their 2D cousins; creating a sense of tension in the build-up to those games release. It’s not helped by users who played the game at various conventions offering a very mixed opinion on where the game stands. Some seem to love the Avatar sections and fluid platforming. Others are already writing the game off, labeling the title as a bad experience and negative time. It’s not the pre-release hype that Sega would have wanted for its hugely anticipated games.
The pressure on Sonic Forces to deliver is arguably greater than any game since Generations. Since transitioning to 3D games, the franchise has failed to maintain a steady run of great games – creating an air of unease long before games land in gamers consoles. It’s only made worse by the fact that even the best 3D Sonic game don’t come close to matching the highs of the 2D classics. Sonic Mania underlined this quite sharply earlier this year – reminding gamers that Sonic as a franchise can be great if it sticks to what it does best.
Sadly for Sonic games, that usually doesn’t involve the third dimension.
It’s only made more awkward by the success of Sonic’s rivals. Mario and Crash Bandicoot are showcasing what 3D platforming in 2017 should be – practically dragging the genre back into mainsteam eyes. Mario Odysee already looks like a strong shout for game of the year while the N-Sane Trilogy reminded gamers that, much like Sonic, Crash Bandicoot is an excellent series when it focusses on what it does best. There’s clearly an appetite for competent 3D platformers – Sonic Forces can’t coast on reputation.
So what happens if the worst come to pass and Sonic Forces is a disappointment? What if the early chatter around the upcoming game turns out to be true? It certainly wouldn’t be a good look for the series. Having done the groundwork with Sonic Mania, undoing all that good will around the franchise could ultimately prove to be a major step back. Worse still, it would confirm once and for all that Sonic doesn’t work in the direction Sonic Team are pointing him in. Already Sonic Forces seems to be borrowing ideas from previous games to try and excite – that can’t be the way the series moves forward.
It would also raise questions about just where the franchise should be. It’s 2017, Sonic Team and Sega have had a good two decades to sort out the 3D aspect of their franchise. They’ve experimented vastly and arguably, to the detriment of the franchise as a whole. If they can’t settle on one idea now – it’s probably not going to happen. The only time the franchise seems able to exceed expectations is when it’s openly indulging nostalgia, a tactic that can only deliver diminishing returns.
The biggest change that would need to occur should be over at Sonic Team. I appriciate the effort they’ve made over the years with the series, but there comes a time when someone has to take the blame for the state of play. Sonic 2006, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Boom, Sonic 4 (Depending on what you thought of them). How many times can one studio be allowed to mess up before someone at Sega accepts that the current layout isn’t working. Sonic Team was formed to steer the series forward, yet they seem intent on driving it into the ground.
It’s funny because Sonic Mania paid homage to the series past – but it also cast a light on a potential future. That game was developed by an outside team – a team of people who cared and loved the project they were working on. Of course they had the benefit of nostalgia to lean on. But that doesn’t mean Sega shouldn’t hand off major projects to competent outside teams. Inspiration comes from the strangest of places and for Sonic, a bold new direction may be the only way to truly give the franchise the future it deserves. I don’t see that happening while it remains tethered to Sonic Team.
We’re getting a touch ahead of ourselves here though. There’s every chance Sonic Forces could surprise and deliver a strong game. The early whispers could be wrong and this could be the 3D Sonic game that finally proves the doubters wrong.
But if they are true. If the game doesn’t exceed expectations or deliver a solid installment – it may ultimately need to signal greater change for the franchise. I’m sure many fans wouldn’t bemoan a full return to 2D focus – in particular when the groundwork for that has been so heavily laid. Sometimes a bad idea isn’t worth repeating in the hope of inevitable success. Sometimes, Sega needs to be able to say no.