Watching the career of Sonic the Hedgehog is like following a once beloved actor on a nightmarish hellbound career trajectory, from Oscar success, through supporting roles in increasingly dire movies, to a life spent attending fan conventions in small cold towns, grimly signing photos for a dwindling crowd of nostalgic weirdos. I’m speaking as a Sonic fan here.
Yes, I’m one of those weirdos. I’m cool with that – or at least I was until I played last year’s Sonic Boom, the gaming equivalent of your favourite actor suddenly turning up in a British movie farce that also stars Kelly Brook and Christopher Biggins. Sonic Boom is so bad, I almost cried with frustration and horror during the E3 demo. The Sega staff member exhibiting the game looked actively concerned as, directly in front of him, a middle-aged journalist slumped forward head-in-hands, dry-sobbing like a child.
So I stayed away when, in early February, Sega teased details of the hedgehog’s next game. Named Sonic Runners, it’s a smartphone platformer in the traditional 2D visual style, with early screenshots resembling the Casino Street stage from Sonic 4. According to an article in Japanese magazine Famitsu, translated by Polygon, it’s an “endless runner”, like Canabalt and Temple Run, which means that Sonic moves automatically, you just touch the screen to jump. It’s being developed by Sonic Team in Japan, who, of course, created the earliest and best Sonic titles – though none of the original creative masterminds (Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara) remain.
Now there is footage. You’ve probably already watched it. If not, watch the video now.
It looks ... okay? I don’t know. It’s clearly harking back to the original three games (you can unlock Tails and Knuckles apparently); there are loops and golden rings and jump pads. The parallax scrolling is super nice.
And, um, endless runners are fun, right? Sega has already discovered this with its presentable into-the-screen take on the genre, Sonic Dash. Rayman Jungle Run was also really good. And look, Sonic himself is back to a more familiar design after that whole disastrous Boom makeover; most vitally, he’s got rid of all that athletic tape he wound around his feet in a strange and unexpected tribute to the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding.
Sonic is free again
Oh yes, it’s free-to-play. This was always going to happen, so let’s try not to whine about it. It’s free-to-play and it looks like there will be microtransactions. The teaser site mentions 20 collectible “companions” who provide Sonic with assistance: a radio-controlled balloon ensures he always makes jump pads successfully while a golden pig collects any rings dropped when enemies are touched. There are also collectible items that give special abilities. Doubtless, some of these will be monetised, like the power-ups in Candy Crush Saga.
Free-to-play isn’t intrinsically evil (shock, horror), but it does alter the design sensibilities of the project; it has to because the developer needs to ensure players are incentivised to make purchases. Are all these collectibles going to enhance the gameplay experience or are they going to get in its way, like all the many extra moves added to Sonic’s repertoire since the spin dash? Are they just there to pad out the paid-for customisation potential?
However you feel about it, this is probably the future for old Sonic. Sega has just gone through a painful restructuring, looking to shed 300 staff through voluntary and enforced redundancies, and refocusing on PC and smartphone titles. Consequently, the company has been investing heavily in small smartphone-focused studios, most recently buying Demiurge, the team behind hit iPhone game Marvel Puzzle Quest. Sega has also done well with mobile versions of classic titles such as Crazy Taxi and Super Monkey Ball, capitalising on both the ubiquity of smartphones and the nostalgia of older fans who probably wouldn’t buy a remastered version of an old Dreamcast game on PlayStation 4, but may be tempted on iPhone or Android. If it’s free.
That’s the market Sonic is in these days. He’s a quick hit of old-school fun. That’s what we have to come to terms with. I once posited that the future could be saved by handing over the character to the indie community and letting, say, the Super Meat Boy creators have a bash at him. Right now, a duo of fans is looking to complete its own update of Sonic 3 for smartphones, and there’s even a petition to Sega to help them complete it. But the coder has blogged about how all his Sega contacts have left, taking him back to square one.
Meanwhile, over in Nintendo land, Sonic’s once rival Mario is still at the top of his Hollywood “A” game, in terms of quality if not sales (the Wii U is still underperforming, despite hosting the brilliant Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8). Unlike Sega, Nintendo has remained suspicious of the smartphone market, though it is now tentatively exploring free-to-play, most recently via Pokemon Shuffle. However, I can’t imagine Mario ever going through the motions on a phone screen, trying to seduce players into paying a little extra for a mushroom or a double jump, or a golden tanooki suit.
But Sonic’s trajectory is so different to Mario’s. He’s got to graft now, he’s got to muscle in amongst the app store hoi polloi. Sonic Boom ensured that most people aren’t going to pay for Sonic games anymore. He has to monetise our memories now, he’s broken too many promises. Sonic is the Peter Molyneux of game characters ... Too soon?
Sonic Runners is due out in spring 2015.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 19th February 2015 15.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010