The Sonic franchise has an elaborate history full of ups and downs. How far has the Blue Blur come since his debut in 1991 and how does Sonic Forces also help his other games shine?
Sonic Forces marks the latest edition in the Sonic franchise. Sonic began his time as a mascot platformer on the Sega Genesis in 1991 as Sega’s last attempt to compete with Nintendo and their money printing plumber Mario. Since then, the Sonic franchise has tried its hand at a myriad of different gameplay styles to remain fresh and competitive in a market squeezing out its genre. Sonic games have long been categorized, like many other franchises that originated in the 8-bit or 16-bit era, as having two distinct types: the 2D Sonic game and the 3D Sonic game.
For some franchises, such as Mario and Zelda, this distinction holds true. There are significant differences between not just the presentation, but the gameplay in the 2D and 3D titles in either franchise. When it comes to Sonic though, to present the franchise as being comprised of two distinct and concrete renditions is a false dichotomy. The reality is, that Sonic games have changed, evolved, and morphed over the course of their 25-year history to a point where there are not two distinct types of Sonic, but rather, only one type of Sonic game that has gone through multiple iterations.
What began as a sidescrolling platformer and a product of its hardware limitations from Sonic (1991) through Sonic & Knuckles (1994) did, in fact, make a leap to the third dimension in 1998 with Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. This game was a dramatic departure from the 2D sidescrolling to fully 3D environments with 360-degree navigable levels and hub worlds. Had this trend continued past the 2001 sequel Sonic Adventure 2, perhaps the Sonic franchise could be viewed differently. Instead, the direct follow-up came in 2003 with Sonic Heroes. This game would set the franchise on a path of constant reinvention and attempted reinvigoration through varying gameplay styles that morphed the 2D and 3D formulas in a way that has been entirely unique to the Sonic franchise and, in spite of its criticisms, deserved and undeserved, has birthed a franchise that truly has something for everyone.
The Sonic Formula
There are four components to a Sonic game that have never wavered: platforming, the simulation of speed, a punk attitude, and the moral that friendship will always win the day. These four components have been with the franchise from the time of Sonic and Sonic 2 (1992) through Sonic Forces today. Whether this has been done running from the left side of a screen to right side, running straight into the background or the foreground, going around in a loop, or in an open world environment, these elements remain consistent.
Sonic is a runner, and the games he appears in are most often meant to be played repeatedly to get faster and faster at completing the levels. This has not always meant actually moving as fast as possible. Often, Sonic games are assumed to be synonymous with fast-paced action. This has never been the case. From the onset completing a Sonic game has required the player to slow down as the platform across obstacles or recover from taking a hit from enemies. What is a more accurate depiction of Sonic games is the simulation of speed. Even when the player is not moving at lightning speed in every title in the series, the characters are designed to look like they are moving fast. The scenery is designed to look as though it is whipping by as the player moves through a stage.
Sonic Forces features more auto-running sections and quick time events than possibly any Sonic game before it. This does, in fact, slow the player down substantially. It does not, however, eliminate the simulation of speed. Each automated twist, flip, and turn is animated to appear action packed and super fast. It is this simulation of speed in spite of actual movement metrics that is the crux of the Sonic formula. For each player, they can decide whether this is a style they appreciate or not. But this is not a game-breaking attribute. It is simply another iteration of what Sega and Sonic Team believe is at the core of their character and franchise. If any given player does not appreciate this iteration, there are always other iterations available to them, like the impeccable Sonic Mania (2017) or the myriad of older titles widely available.
What Makes Sonic Games Special
Sega has always understood the value of porting video games to current consoles. This is not merely a marketing ploy or a cash grab. It is an opportunity to allow video game players to enjoy every type of Sonic game at any given time. The Sonic games have been ported to virtually every console, and have been since Sega’s first console to follow the Genesis, the Sega Saturn. They can be played on iPod Nanos, Xbox Ones, Android devices, and everything in between. This has meant that if a new Sonic game was released that did not peak someone’s interest, a library of previous Sonic games would still be available instead. It also has meant that lovers of new Sonic titles have the opportunity to dive into different types of Sonic games with just as much ease.
At the same time that Sega was producing Sonic Heroes for the Nintendo Gamecube, it was also creating traditional sidescrollers for the Gameboy Advance in a Sonic Advance series. They produced games such as Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) which may not hold up well by today’s standards, but provided entirely new ways to enjoy the characters and general gameplay that the Sonic franchise is known for: action platforming. Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS continued the sidescrolling tradition while games like Sonic ’06, Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007) Sonic Unleashed (2008), and Sonic and the Black Knight (2009) continued with varying degrees of success to continue innovating the formula.
Not every Sonic game has been successful. Several have been marred by production challenges that left them undesirable to many. Even with the zeitgeist of disdain for several of the titles in the franchise, none did not enjoy countless hours play time from kids, and adults, who wanted to bask in the elements that make up Sonic that call out to them the most passionately. A game does not have to be beloved or even good by any standard of measurement to be enjoyable to many people.
Franchise Influences on Sonic Forces
Sonic Forces is the result of 25 years worth of experimentation, success, failure, and the constant drive to reinvigorate and reestablish Sonic and his friends as part of the great modern video game pantheon they once enjoyed participation in. Parts of it weave together threads and nods from across the franchise’s history, including Sonic Mania. Sonic Forces mixes elements of Sonic Adventure and its multiple characters with distinct gameplay and even Sonic Heroes with moments to play as multiple characters at once. The games Sonic Forces most directly takes its influence from in terms of gameplay styles are Sonic Colors (2010) and Sonic Generations (2011). The best way to describe the gameplay style of these titles is a merger between sidescrolling and 3D platforming. Sonic levels have always been known for boasting multiple pathways that lead to the end, some being faster than others.
These games, Sonic Forces included, streamline the 3D gameplay by making them more similar to infinite runner games than the Sonic Adventure titles’ takes on 3D platforming. The 3D segments are more about dodging obstacles and selecting left versus right paths while platforming is reserved for the sidescrolling sections. The homing attack is only usable when there is an enemy or spring clearly locked onto and performs a double jump otherwise. They infuse the 3D mechanics with 2D sidescrolling to weave together a single gameplay type that has become unique to the franchise. Sonic Forces still includes some “Classic Sonic” type gameplay, albeit with different physics and more simplified level structure than the purely “Classic Sonic” counterparts in the franchise. Even the “Classic Sonic” levels mix together elements from the past in addition to the new, such as including the Drop Dash from Sonic Mania.
Sonic Colors also introduced a mechanic now central to Sonic games, the boost mechanic. The boost mechanic is the ultimate in speed simulation. It may sometimes lead the player to fall to their death or make the rest of the game feel slower when not activated, but it has transformed Sonic games in a several ways. It has simplified level structure, placing absolute speed, or its simulation, over navigation. It has also made the way obstacles work in the games different. Enemies can be plowed through in boost mode, making gaps a bigger issue thanks to the extra speed than previously before. Players have to switch their minds back and forth between what obstacles are the most necessary to consider depending on whether they are boosting or not.
The Accessibility That Change Has Wrought
An increasingly salient topic in the realm of video game design has been player accessibility. Can games be designed that balance challenge with completability? Do players deserve to see the full product just because they purchased it, or is it okay to lock content behind difficulty barriers? Sonic Forces has its own take on these questions. In many ways, the streamlining of the 3D platforming, shortening of levels, and introduction of the boost mechanic have made Sonic Forces and other recent titles easier to beat and even complete than older titles. Sonic Forces was certainly an easier game to beat and receive perfect rankings in each level on than Sonic Generations which had highly difficult challenges in addition to the simplistic main levels of the game.
Sonic Forces also made a gameplay choice similar to that of Super Mario Odyssey (2017). There are no longer lives to lose upon death in Sonic Forces. Every Sonic game until now had checkpoints throughout the levels that players would revert to upon death until running out of lives. Now, the checkpoints remain, but the lives have been done away with. There is no consequence for death other than the points earned at the end of the level. Death is now only a barrier to players who aim to achieve the highest ranks in each level, an “S” rank in a system akin to that established by Sonic Adventure 2 but augmented in Sonic Rush to feel the way it does in Sonic Forces.
Death was always a barrier for these such players, though, and is inherent in their mission. What this change truly does is allows players to feel more free fail. Less experienced players can play on an easier difficulty and enjoy the sensation of speed with a punk attitude and killer soundtrack. Completionists can now get a hang of the game and its levels to boost their scores and times without the frustration that comes with running out of lives will attempting to nail a trick or collect the various collectible rings the game has to offer ample replayability.
Why Is Sonic Forces Important
Sonic Forces is, of course, important for Sega and Sonic Team because it is their first follow-up in the franchise since 2011 and Sonic Generation’s relative success. It is important because it is the next in a long line of games that have split the fans and critics dramatically over what direction the franchise should go and what constitutes a good game, let alone a Sonic game at all.
But, above all else, Sonic Forces is important because it shows that a Sonic game is what the developers say a Sonic game is. Their process and eventual products are not beholden to the demands of hypercritical, outspoken voices. Even if those criticisms are often due and grounded in genuine problematic circumstances. Rather, Sega and Sonic Team have shown through this game that what they are most proud of putting in a Sonic game are platforming, the simulation of speed, a punk attitude, and the moral that friendship will always win the day. The result of that singular desire was a new, different, and fun experience that looks nothing like a previous Sonic game, but is absolutely a Sonic game at its core.
Does it have its problems? Yes, the game is certainly not perfect. But the new addition to Sonic Forces of the Avatar character that can be completely customized with increasingly difficult to unlock parts is fully engrossing and feels completely at home in this universe filled with colorful and spunky characters that have been introduced across numerous generations. The Wispon weapon mechanic may seem odd on paper, but in reality, it acts in a similar way to the boost mechanic, requiring the player to switch back and forth between what obstacles are necessary to consider based on whether their Wispon is activated or not. It even allows old, beloved mechanics such as the Light Dash to return in Sonic Forces.
Guess What Lies Ahead, Only One Way to Find Out
In the immortal words of Crush 40 in “Escape From the City” in Sonic Adventure 2, there’s only one way to find out what the future of Sonic holds, and that’s by getting there to find out. Assuredly, with the success of Sonic Mania and the passion behind Sonic Forces, the franchise will likely continue to see games in both veins. But, regardless of what is produced, they will all harken back to those four ingredients that make Sonic Sonic. Not every new game will be for everyone. Some new mechanics will irk some and inspire others. What will invariably remain true is that the best way to enjoy future Sonic games, and to enjoy old ones again today, is by seeking the value in what they are meant to be, not what we expect or desire for them to be.
The Sonic Adventure formula may hold a special place in some hearts while Sonic & Knuckles or Sonic Colors hold special places in the hearts of others. To become so ensnared by the expectation or desire that future games emulate the gameplay style of our most personally beloved entries in the franchise is a self-fulfilling trap. Rather, let Sonic Forces wet a desire or 3D Sonic action, illuminate the possibilities the streamlining and boost mechanics have endowed the game with, or even sharpening the desire to play a “Classic Sonic” styled game. All of these and every emotion in between are valid and intentionally elicited by Sega and Sonic Team. It may even help make some of the previous Sonic games that much more fun to play today.
A combined likely several hundred hours have been spent playing Sonic games over the last 15 years in addition to 8 playing Sonic Forces for this article. Sonic Forces is available for purchase for PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch. Many of the other Sonic titles mentioned are also available on Xbox One, Play Station 4, and Wii U eshops.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.