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Sonic's Historical Pitfalls with 3D (and How Frontiers Can Avoid Them)

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  • Posted on 08th Apr, 2022 16:40 PM
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Sonic's disastrous transition into the 3D era severely damaged the brand, and Frontiers should be wary about making the same mistakes.

p>There is a lot to like about 3D graphic realism, and cinematic experience that a lot of modern video game licenses have become known for. On the other hand, many prefer the retro graphics and 2D gameplay of fifth generation or earlier consoles. It might sound obvious, but there was a transitory phase in the industry when 2D franchises started receiving 3D titles. After all, Nintendo didn't go from Super Mario Bros. 3 straight to Mario 3D World + Bowser Fury. Mario is a franchise that successfully made its leap to 3D with Super Mario 64. Unfortunately, much like the notorious Bubsy 3D, Sonic has had a fraught history with 3D adaptations.

It's not the case that Sonic hasn't had excellent 3D adaptations. Sonic Adventure had fluid gameplay and a decent story, so it is appreciated even to this day. Sega had a working formula, and all it had to do was to stick to it. The downward spiral of Sonic games after Adventure stems entirely from Sega doing the opposite of that. Instead of simply refining something that works like how Super Mario Galaxy evolved from Super Mario 64, Sega kept reinventing the wheel at every turn. Not only were the constant changes a headache for developers, but numerous catastrophic releases would reduce Sonic to a minor license. If Sega is to restore the franchise's image, it needs to learn from past failures with Sonic Frontiers.

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The Genesis of 3D Sonic Games

There were 3D Sonic games before Adventure; they were just subpar. Sonic Labyrinth, an action-puzzle platformer released in 1995, was Sega's first attempt at rudimentary 3D gameplay with platforms and jump pads. The most notable aspect of Sonic Labyrinth is that Sonic runs slowly. For its part, Sonic 3D Blast released the following year, calling on players to use shrewdness and patience to locate enemies around the map. Players of previous 2D Sonic games starting with Sonic The Hedgehog and onwards might not expect shrewd, patient, and slow in their Sonic game vocabulary.

Yet another year later, in 1997, Sonic R would be released as a competitor to Mario Kart. Instead of having characters drive vehicles, Sonic R has most of them run on foot or glide like Tails and Robotnik. As a racing game, the speed theme should be perfect for Sonic, but the gameplay faced another massive problem. The handing in Sonic R is absolutely atrocious. It's nearly impossible to race a few meters without sliding all over the track, and ending up in the water. This is important because maneuverability and controls would remain a recurring problem in future Sonic games as well. In a way, early Sonic 3D attempts were prophetic in predicting the identity crisis that Sonic still suffers from today in the modern era.

Sonic Adventure Had A Formula That Worked

The first Sonic 3D game that would have a working formula is Sonic Adventure. At the time of release, Sonic Adeventure's visuals and gameplay were praiseworthy, but it's also considered one of the best Sega games to this day. Of course, the game wasn't perfect; the FMV cutscenes and the audio in general were mediocre, the glitches were frustrating, and the camera was buggy.

Some speculated that Sonic Adventure could foist the Dreamcast among the top sixth generation consoles after the Saturn's failed run. They were wrong about that, but Sonic Adventure had laid a good foundation that future Sonic games could build upon and refine. Sega foolishly proceeded to not do that.

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Just Don't Be Sonic 06

Sonic 06 is certainly the most infamous Sonic game and still gives nightmares to Sonic fans to this day. The saddest part of this game's journey is that Sonic 06 was supposed to be the great revival of the franchise for the 15th anniversary after years of mediocre titles. That's why it wasn't to be called Sonic Adventure 4 or Sonic Fantasy, but Sonic The Hedgehog like the original 1991 game. Unfortunately, the developers were under pressure to finish the game for the anniversary date. Further, there were three teams to make the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii versions, with the latter never even releasing. Sensing the impending catastrophe, Yuji Naka, the mastermind behind Sonic, would resign before launch.

The high expectations during preview only make the Sonic 06 experience more painful. The character design was incoherent between the Final Fantasy-esque aesthetic and modern day urban fashion, the gameplay hovered between awful and nonexistent, and the plot was a mess, with characters constantly time traveling without any respect for Sonic's preexisting canon. If Sonic Adventure had a drunk camera, the camera in Sonic 06 was worse, with the added bonus of not target locking on bosses. This made boss fights unbearable, especially against Silver. For obvious reasons, the romantic tension between Sonic, a cartoony blue hedgehog, and Elise, a human, made more than one player uncomfortable.

Sonic's Perpetual Identity Crisis

It's critical for a franchise to have a working formula since that formula will determine its identity. For example, players know more or less what to expect from a 3D Mario game because Nintendo used the successful formula from Super Mario 64 and built upon it every subsequent game. Sega could've done the same, but instead changed the Sonic formula every single game.

From the convoluted plots to the underutilized cast of Sonic characters to werewolf transformations, as well as lazy writing and overly ambitious projects, Sonic is suffering from an identity crisis. The blue hedgehog doesn't know what kind of game he wants to be in, and Sonic Frontiers is a chance to truly wipe the slate clean.

Sonic Frontiers releases in 2022 for PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.MORE: 5 Isekai Games to Play While Waiting for Forspoken's Release

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