Next year will see Sonic's 25th anniversary come and go. A quarter of a century is a long time and surely he must be getting tired. After all, he's been running pretty much non-stop since 1991. His knees must be agony. He must have collected more rings than there are grains of sand on Emerald Coast's beach. Indeed, the certainty of this fatigue really hit home when I saw a plushie of Sonic in a shop window. He looked absolutely defeated.
Broken by the world and its constant milking of his cash cow teats, that forlorn face says everything. Forcing a smile for the camera but vacant behind the eyes. But he shouldn't be sad - he's certainly done well to keep the sales coming, while other heroes have fallen along the way. He probably raises his glass to Crash Bandicoot, Ristar and Dizzy, and keeps meaning to visit Bubsy's grave (but never seems quite able to find the time to actually do it).
But I took that photo before Sonic Boom came out. And because I'm an eternal optimist (not to mention known for being a Sonic fan), I was actually excited about the new game, especially as it has a developer link to the cancelled Sonic X-treme. I was ready to accept the long legs and bandages. Yet somehow… somehow, it managed to lose my interest. Before it even arrived.
I fully accept it isn't aimed at me. It's aimed at my 6-year-old nephew, who does love the classic 2D games, but will also buy anything with Sonic on it. Because he thinks Sonic is cool. Sonic is cool, or at least the idea of him is. Or rather the idea of what he used to be. OK, he's not cool. I've had my excitement for new Sonic games beaten out of me by so many disappointments, I'm arriving at the conclusion everyone else arrived at years ago. And this is a bad thing. If I feel like this, something's seriously wrong.
It's a well-documented phenomenon that there's a 'Sonic cycle' that occurs around every new release. A new game gets announced, the fans convince themselves that THIS ONE is going to be the game that turns the hog's fortunes around, while everyone else writes it off. It gets reviewed, wins points for flashes of brilliance but ultimately falls a few miles (or more accurately an entire galaxy) short of Mario and then everyone goes back to grumbling until the next one comes along.
How long can this go on? Why are the games always so disappointing? Even the best ones contain infuriating design choices. Sonic Generations' first level is damn near perfect, yet the rest of the game is padded out with obvious filler missions until it snatches spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.
Lost World added a 'run' button that solves the problem of Sonic moving too fast to control in 3D. This allows Sonic to handle controllably at low speeds (like Mario), but then start wall-running and zipping about everywhere if you hold the right trigger. Gotta go fast. But even then, the opening levels with their throwback art design and wonderful 'rounded' routes of play are switched out for forgettable fare later on.
I fear Sonic Team has forgotten what made Sonic so good, probably because so few members of the old team remain. Yuji Naka's at Prope, Naoto Ohshima last worked on Yoshi's New Island (hey - we all make mistakes) and Hirokazu Yasuhara now works for Nintendo. Takashi Iizuka, the current head of Sonic Team, has produced some good games, but even the best ones neglect the core features of the original classics. The fundamental idea of what Sonic should be in each game is wrong.
As I see it, the reasons for Sonic's initial success are very simple. He has the ability to move faster than your eyes can process the data (which is thrilling), but does so in short, sparing bursts. The graphics move at 60 frames-per-second with pleasing physics over undulating terrain. Jumping on top of enemies to defeat them is satisfying (just ask Mario). When he curls up into a ball, Sonic takes on the physics of a pinball, accelerating down slopes and bouncing off bumpers. His enemies are animal-based robots. And, crucially, you have to be really good to get far into the game, and if you die, you have to start again.
There. How simple is that? Yet modern Sonic games ignore all of those key traits. He either moves too fast to control properly, or – in the case of Sonic Boom – so slowly it isn't exciting. Sonic games rarely run at 60fps any more and the sensation of travelling over undulating terrain is simply not a part of the game design. Being 3D, Sonic now 'locks on' when attacking enemies, even 'learning how to do it' in 2D in Sonic Generations. Shite. His enemies are now either generic humanoid robots (which suck), or lovingly recreated classic enemies, which are great but whatever creative thinking process that produced them seems to have been lost somewhere. And it's literally impossible to 'be out' in modern Sonic games. You just start the level again with another three arbitrary lives.
The series has always had needless mechanisms that don't add to the core experience, like the score in the first game (what is that even for?) but modern efforts' needless additions are shoved in your face. The 'colors' from Sonic Colors are annoying and dilute the experience. Other playable characters in Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 are never as fun as playing as Sonic himself. The motion control of Sonic & the Secret Rings is clumsy. The were-hog is categorically awful. It feels like it isn't enough to just be a Sonic game - it needs to keep 2015's 6-year-olds happy with stuff and things happening everywhere, constantly changing so that boredom doesn't creep in. 'Old' Sonic never needed that.
There's still this stupid part of me that thinks 'Sonic Team just has to make one great 2D Sonic game and it'll all be alright again'. But it'll never happen. It really wouldn't cost very much to design a kick-ass, gob-smackingly beautiful 2D Sonic game. To make the stone slabs of the Labyrinth zone glisten in the light that reflects off the surface of cold, dark water. To make polygonal trees and flowers that grow and shrink again every few seconds as you sprint by. To make magic from pixels. Yes, it would require skill and artistry, but it wouldn't require a massive budget. Just care and attention to detail and a ruthless QA team. But it'll never happen. Not officially. Modern Sonic will never appease old Sonic fans because the series just isn't for them any more.
I'm so far beyond the point of frustration, I've given up. It will always be like this. No wonder Sonic looks like he's hung himself, I bet he's arrived at the exact same conclusion. And, of course, the optimistic part of me says 'give the series to Christian Whitehead', the man who did such an amazing job of converting the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD and Sonic 2 to iOS and consoles recently. But then again, maybe those iconic games were the result of a perfect set of circumstances (including it being 1991) that can never be replicated, even with Christian's talents. So perhaps it's time to stop dreaming. Nobody else is making animal character mascots any more. And perhaps that's because they've had their time. It's been almost a quarter of a century, after all.