Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
When Sonic's popularity regained its speed after its 20th anniversary, the seventh generation of video games was ending and Sega felt like it was time to take their franchise further with a new exclusive partnership with Nintendo. Nintendo unveiled its newest console, the Wii U, and Sega believed there was a new golden opportunity for Sonic to shine through. So, in the next few years, Sonic would only be made for the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS systems, like in the good ol' days during the early 2000s.
Sonic Team started out developing and releasing Sonic Lost World by omitting the Boost gameplay for an experimental approach with streamlined controls and twist-and-turn level design. That game immediately polarized critics and fans from its newfound direction.
Elsewhere, Sega wanted to expand the franchise beyond its usual Japanese audiences. They entrusted two North American game developers to create a brand-new Sonic adventure known as Sonic Boom. Big Red Button Entertainment, at first, had an interesting project of radicalizing Sonic into the action-adventure genre while Sanzaru Games was tasked to make a 3DS port due to their impressive portfolio and knowledge of the series. But, when a television series was pitched, Sega took complete control of development and ordered Rig Red Button to constantly change their original project into a "prequel" for the television series called Rise of Lyric. Little did they know, the Wii U wasn't powerful enough to render their artistic endeavors, and the crew was forced to finish the game with little to no time for fixing bugs and glitches. This was an example of history repeating itself as Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric has been crowned as the worst Sonic game of all time, if not, far worse than Sonic '06. Shattered Crystal was also critically panned but marginally better for being closer to the source material. Unlike Sonic '06, both games became the lowest-selling games of the franchise, not to mention shutting down Big Red Button Entertainment as adding insult to injury. On the bright side, the television series did decently well with critics and audiences for two seasons, and Sanzaru Games listened to the backlash and took more time in making Fire & Ice. Despite being the most improved game of the series, it sold poorly as a consequence. Plus, Sonic returned to Super Smash Bros. with tweaked moves that helped him reach a high tier in the series.
However, Sonic Boom was second to none when compared to the actual contributing factor to failure, the Wii U. While it had its fair share of successful and commercial games, the console itself was a commercial flop. Sega and Nintendo soon realized that the Wii U and their exclusive projects weren't as enduring as they hoped, and they decided to start over from scratch. In early 2017, Nintendo took the world by storm by unleashing its first hybrid video game console, the Nintendo Switch. Soon afterward, the Switch became a high-selling miracle that the company was aiming for and improved what the Wii U lacked. In fact, they ported some enhanced versions of their Wii U titles sometime later.
As for Sega, they announced two new projects during a live fan event celebrating Sonic's 25th anniversary. Many concerned fans soon got hyped and excited about these games scheduled to be released in 2017. The first of these projects was a concept that Sonic Team previously attempted, but failed at its full potential. Sonic was officially returning to his 2D pixelated days of the Genesis era in an original title. Not only that, this was a game made for Sonic fans BY Sonic fans, specifically Christian Whitehead. Welcome to Sonic Mania.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. Please do not harass anyone associated with Sega mentioned in this article, and please respect their privacy, especially if anything mentioned here is something they do not wish to talk about.
Sonic Mania (2017)
After the events of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, Sonic and Tails investigate a strange, energy reading on Angel Island. Upon arrival, they soon discover that Dr. Eggman and his new powerful Hard Boiled Heavies possess a magical gemstone known as the Phantom Ruby. Now, the duo, plus Knuckles, must chase them through reimagined levels before the ruby unleashes its true power.
If you have been following this history from the beginning, then you may remember I've mentioned Christian "Taxman" Whitehead time and time again. He is an independent video game programmer and avid member of the Sonic fangame community. Whitehead was previously contacted by Sega to make enhanced ports of the Genesis classics for mobile phones (minus Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles for obvious reasons) which were well-received by the fans during the 2010 decade.
Around that time, Christian was working on a prototype for an original game called "Sonic Discovery" for a few months. Once he pitched it to producer Takashi Iizuka, Iizuka was thoroughly intrigued by the concept and suggested that the project should include old levels from the classic Sonic titles to be "remixed" in a new, fresh way. It was also given a working title called "Sonic Mania" when everyone else couldn't think of a better title. But, because of the "maniacal" fandom and passionate love for the series, it was officially named Sonic Mania as Iizuka described the title as being made "by the mania, for the mania."
With Christian Whitehead in charge as director, he also brought onboard programmer Simon "Stealth" Thomley of the independent studio Headcannon, who previously worked with Whitehead on his past projects. Additionally, level designer Jared Kasl and art director Tom Fry of PagodaWest Games were hired as well, who helped make the unofficial high-def remastered Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Traditionally, Sonic Team supervised the indie team to make sure they do not "go off the rails into something that doesn't feel like Sonic."
To authenticate the Genesis side-scrolling experience, Whitehead built the game using his signature Retro Engine, which is made for constructing 2D games from the ground up and was also used for his enhanced ports. Iizuka described the art direction as a mix between the graphical capabilities of the Genesis and Sega Saturn, consisting of mostly pixel art and polygonal graphics.
As expected, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles' gameplay styles have been retained from the classics. Among the playable characters, Sonic was given a brand-new staple ability called the "Drop Dash." This technique will allow Sonic to charge a Spin Dash in mid-air and roll faster once he hits the ground. The Drop Dash was conceived during playtesting when Whitehead noticed that new players couldn't reach slopes and using a Spin Dash would cause a complete halt. Thus, the Drop Dash helped players keep their momentum going without stopping, including being useful for speedrunning or time attacks. Unlockable options for Sonic's moves also include the Super Peel Out from Sonic CD and the Insta-Shield from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles.
While most stages from the Genesis era have returned, the developers used various methods to make them feel refreshed and new. At first, the first acts give out a familiar feeling, but then newer elements would be included in the second act. For example, Green Hill starts and plays out similarly as any player would expect. But then, the second act would have divided paths: the top sections being more open and full of items while the lower sections have slower and more dangerous paths. Reaching the end will have a boss fight against the Death Egg Robot from Sonic 2! Their biggest influences for designing the levels came from both Sonic CD and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles for their "big and wide" exploration and "streamlined" layouts respectively. For the latter, there are boss fights in each act and Giant Rings hidden throughout the levels.
Entering the Giant Rings will send the players into Special Stages. Unlike the past Special Stages, these provide a mix of elements from various titles. They are presented in 3D polygonic graphics where players would chase the UFOs from Sonic CD carrying each Chaos Emerald. To reach them, players must collect both rings and blue orbs to gain speed while avoiding obstacles.
As usual, collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds will transform Sonic into Super Sonic during gameplay. The same applies to Tails and Knuckles after a long absence in the series. Having all the Chaos Emeralds is also required to unlock an exclusive final boss fight as well.
Though not as Special Stages as they originated, the Blue Sphere minigame also makes a return as Bonus Stages which players can access from checkpoints when acquiring a certain amount of rings. Aside from functioning as the same, the minigame rewards players with new collectibles called Medallions, which can be used to unlock bonus content, like Sonic's aforementioned moves, a sound test, and even Debug Mode.
The game also adds its fair share of original levels. The first new stage Studiopolis Zone is Hollywood-themed with no relation to the Los Angeles recording for the current English dub. Another level called Mirage Saloon is actually based on the scrapped Sand Shower level from Sonic 2's development and the Monument Valley region in the United States. It is a callback to how Sonic Team was inspired by Western culture during the franchise's early days. The Press Garden Zone was heavily influenced by industrialization under the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Speaking of callbacks, in terms of design, some levels are loaded with references and Easter eggs. Studiopolis is a prime example where many LED signs and flippable title clusters have messages and phrases from past Sega material (i.e. "GENESIS DOES" and "LOCK ON TECHNOLOGY"). There is also a giant popcorn machine gimmick labeled "SegaSonic Popcorn Shop" named after the actual 1993 arcade machine where players would make popcorn and a mini-game simultaneously. Dr. Eggman's boss fights would switch up a notch where one battle involves Sonic riding the Egg Mobile or going one-eighty where Sonic challenges Eggman to a Puyo Puyo match, similar to Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine. It was also the first Sonic game to feature Fang the Sniper, Bean the Dynamite, and Bark the Polar Bear after a long absence as illusions created by Heavy Magician.
As a homage to Sonic CD, the game had animated and ending sequences directed by Sonic Archie comic artist Tyson Hesse while the soundtrack has handled by PagodaWest composer Tee Lopes. Lopes was chosen due to his recognition of rearranging Sonic tracks on YouTube and assisted Whitehead in making his Sonic 2 port.
Originally, Lopes wanted the score to resemble Sonic CD and imagined what would a "sequel" to that game sound like. But, as development progressed, he decided to take influence from older Sonic and Sega games, including The Revenge of the Shinobi and the Sega Rally series. Lopes also looked into popular '90s music, especially the works of Michael Jackson; another coincidental callback to the Genesis era. The opening theme "Friends" was performed by American EDM band Hyper Potions, who previously did the trailer music for Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice while they collaborated with Nitro Fun trailer theme "Checkpoint."
Reception & Legacy
There was a lot of hype and anticipation for the game. In addition to the standard release, Sega also launched a collector's edition which included a 12-inch Sonic statue atop a model Genesis, a game cartridge cast with a golden ring, and a metallic collector's card containing the game's download code. They promoted it with a retro-style commercial, based on the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 commercial, starring former series art director Kazuyuki Hoshino and social media manager Aaron Webber.
When Sonic's 2D maniacal return hit digital stores worldwide on August 15 for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, it took the world by storm as one of the best Sonic games in such a long time. Critics highly praised the presentation where its superiorly detailed animations with extra polish while the gameplay and level design recapture the "spirit" of the original games. The soundtrack was also appraised as "nostalgic and new at the same time." Minor criticisms have included relying too much on nostalgia, the enemy placement, and the, lack of a better term, "over-easy" boss fights. Even so, many have called Sonic Mania a return of form for the franchise after a long-running series of poorly received games.
It is also historically the highest-reviewed Sonic game in fifteen years, along with being called one of the best 2D platformers. Upon launch, Sonic Mania's golden ring capacity increased and it was the bestselling Switch game, which outsold Minecraft and Overcooked: Definitive Edition. As of April 2018, it sold worldwide over one-million copies from all systems. Sonic Mania was nominated for "Best Family Game at the 2017 Game Awards and "Best Kids Game" at the 2018 New York Game Awards, but Super Mario Odyssey took both wins.
In the following year, Sega announced an expanded version of the game called Sonic Mania Plus.
Ever since the trailer, this historically marks the grand return of characters Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. The two originated in the Japanese-exclusive arcade game SegaSonic the Hedgehog where players used a trackball to control them in isometric levels. With the latter appearing in one title, Mighty the Armadillo was additionally playable in the 32X game Knuckles' Chaotix. Afterward until now, these two characters became obscure and made cameos as "missing posters" in Sonic Generations.
In an interview with Famitsu, Iizuka said:
We thought about elements that would make fans happy. Since Sonic Mania is all about things that stimulate expectations and curiosity from fans, as a result of thinking about what could we add to make things more exciting, we decided to add Mighty and Ray as new characters.
– Takashi Iizuka, long-time Sonic producer
Aside from surprising fans, Mighty and Ray sport their own abilities. Mighty the Armadillo can slam the ground and is immune to spikes when curled up while Ray the Flying Squirrel can glide in the air without losing attitude. More added content included an "Encore Mode" with remixed levels and adjusted lives mechanic, extra cutscenes, a four-player competitive mode, and a pinball-style bonus stage where players would win bonus items. The reworked game also incorporated elements from Knuckles' Chaotix with the Combi Catcher used to carefully select other playable characters like a prize-claw game and a new Metal Sonic boss modeled after his final form from the game.
Compared between versions, the original version was never intended to have a physical release. The staff at Sega requested one but Iizuka feared having a retail version would be challenging for their production schedule. However, after Mania was a success, they changed their minds. The physical version contained a 32-page art book while the Japanese release had a soundtrack 3D.
During the game's promotion, Sega released an animated mini-series called "Sonic Mania Adventures." Taking place after the events of Sonic Forces, Sonic and his friends must stop Dr. Eggman and Metal Sonic from stealing both the Chaos Emeralds and Master Emerald. The shorts were written and directed by Tyson Hesse, the music was done by Tee Lopes, and the animation was made at Neko Productions. The series also included a holiday-themed episode featuring a surprise appearance from Amy Rose.
In terms of reception, Sonic Mania Plus earned more praise than before thanks to its inclusion of Mighty and Ray, and the "Encore Mode" though a few found the new partner life system to be "frustrating."
Sonic Team almost had something going when they attempted to depart the glory days of Sonic's Genesis years. The problem was that the execution came out confusing and redundant on a disappointing note. But, thanks to Christian Whitehead and his collaborative team, there is absolute proof of the hard work, love, and care put into Sonic. They had established experience understanding the gameplay and dynamics of the characters and took them further in a refreshing experience. Sonic Mania shows us that 2D platforming is still relevant despite the gaming industry continuing to evolve. Even when they re-release it with more content, they still manage to deliver elements that were impossible. Not to mention, it kept the hedgehog up on his feet as the best-reviewed game in history and is beloved by fans today. The future is uncertain whether Christian Whitehead would continue making original 2D games for the series or not. Whatever the outcome may be, there will always be people who are passionate about the franchise and those that love him in return.
At the same time as Mania was announced, Sonic Team was working on their newest project to commemorate the franchise's twentieth-fifth anniversary. After the divided response to Lost World, they felt it was best to go back to what people loved about Sonic during this modern age. In addition to returning to the Boost gameplay, Classic Sonic from Generations appeared as well. Some were excited while others were skeptical. Either way, Sonic Team would have to think hard to top off what they previously accomplished with a war against the evil Eggman Empire. It's time to rise up and join the Resistance with Sonic Forces.
Sonic Forces (2017)
When Dr. Eggman has taken over 99.9% of the world, Sonic and his friends form the Resistance to reclaim it. Alongside their battles, they get help from their old friend Classic Sonic and a newly trained rookie, while they constantly face returning enemies and a new threat known as Infinite. Now, they must learn to overcome the odds and discover the true meaning of strength in numbers.
Development began after Sonic Lost World was completed as Sonic Team wanted to bring back a modern Sonic game themselves. While Morio Kishimoto reprised his role as director, veteran Sonic game designer Shun Nakamura became co-producer halfway through production after Iizuka worked on the first half. To commemorate the series' twentieth-fifth anniversary, their goal was to give players a classic 3D Sonic game experience while also offering as much content as possible by including old fan-favorite characters and 2D gameplay experiences. The game's subtitle "Forces" was chosen to represent its themes of power, teamwork, and armies. At the same time, the game was given a darker tone, in contrast to the vibrant-colored and fantasy-oriented themes from previous entries. In addition to Ken Pontac and Warren Graff being in charge of English localization, the script was co-written by game designer Eitaro Toyoda and Shenmue writer Makoto Goya.
Throughout his career, Iizuka has revealed that he and his team received many requests and feedback from fans about creating their own original characters in the main series. So, Sonic Team created the Avatar system where players have the freedom to make their own characters with customized mechanics. Shun Nakamura said that the Avatar system was meant to modify existing characters to fit into the Sonic universe rather than using complex mechanics from other series like Fallout. Depending on what character they make, the Avatar plays a significant role in the game's story.
The category of animals used to make the Avatar are dogs, cats, birds, wolves, rabbits, bears, and even hedgehogs. Each animal is given its own special ability to stand out more than cosmetically. Dogs restart with some rings after being knocked out, cats would hold on to some rings after damage, birds can double jump, wolves draw in rings for collective reasons, rabbits get longer invincibility after getting hit, bears blow enemies away with their grappling hooks, and hedgehogs collect ring when damaged. A variety of clothing and accessories can be unlocked by either earning high-ranked scores or daily missions. Some have articles of clothes from familiar Sonic characters like Amy’s dress and Shadow's shoes. Even Sonic's Soap shoes from Sonic Adventure 2 made a comeback. The game's DLC also included costumes from other Sonic Team franchises, especially a T-shirt with the "Sanic" meme on it.
While the Modern and Classic gameplay remains intact, the Avatar gameplay is similar to Modern but relies heavily on grappling hooks for platforming and attacking enemies. There are certain levels where the Avatar would tag alongside Sonic with the ability to switch between characters and perform a combined and augmented move called "Double Boost" in which both characters could run faster and breach through enemies and obstacles.
Additionally, the Wisps power-up was retooled as the Avatar's weapon known as "Wispons." As Sonic continues using White Wisps to maintain his Boost, the other Wisps would offer the Avatar a multitude of abilities more differently than Sonic usually would. For example, the Burst Wispon would act like a flamethrower towards enemies, but it can also help the Avatar make continuous higher jumps. The Lightning Wispon performs like a whip yet moves the player at lightning-fast speed through rings or enemies. The Blue Wispon can turn enemies into cubes while making platforms in mid-air. The Asteroid Wispon launches clones at multiple enemies and draws items toward invincible players. The Drill Wispon can repeatedly let the player dash through hordes and dig through the ground to climb upwards from the walls. The Hover Wispon launches shockwaves and grants the player to hover through the air. The Void Wispon sends enemies and rings into a black hole while transporting the player in a different direction.
On a side note, they omitted the life system in order to keep the game's difficulty in balance.
Ever since the teaser, many fans were surprised yet curious about Classic Sonic's inclusion into the game, which some mistaken Forces as a sequel to Generations. To make some clarifications, Iizuka stated that the game was not a sequel to Generations, but his reasoning is different than one may expect. Classic Sonic was chosen among the list of returning old and fan-favorite characters to the project. But, interestingly enough, during Sonic Mania's development, it affected Forces' development cycle where both stories from respective games decide to connect with one another, with Mania envisioned to hype up fans for the latter. Though it is strange or a mistranslation, that Classic Sonic came from a "different dimension" instead of the past. As expected, Classic Sonic's gameplay is mostly similar to Generations, with the major addition of using the Drop Dash from Mania as another connecting factor.
Dr. Eggman did not rule the world alone; he had a little help. Sonic Forces featured an army of recurring and returning past baddies in Sonic history: Metal Sonic, Shadow the Hedgehog (for some reason), Chaos from Sonic Adventure, and Zavok from Sonic Lost World. Believe it or not, an early script revealed that Mephiles the Dark from Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) was planned to appear as multiple clones at his Egg Empire Fortress before the final boss fight. However, he was removed from the final product due to the fact, besides his newfound fandom, that he was from one of the worst Sonic games and doesn't deserve to repeat history.
Among all the villains, Sonic Team created a brand-new one for the occasion. The character went through several design changes from a ghost-like figure, to a buffalo to finally a jackal, based on the Egyptian afterlife god Anubis. The team also wanted to give the villain "a cool, but evil" design, along with a mask that would emphasize his nature. Nakamura said that the character was made with a strong and impressive presence in mind that would not only make him faster and stronger than Sonic but represent a dangerous existence standing in between Sonic's bond with his friends. His overall design motif was influenced by the demon-like being Namahage from Japanese folklore with emphasis on "cruelty", "power", and "disbelief." Though the design process was difficult, the character's silhouette and face logo were easy to help with.
In the early drafts, the villain was originally called "Zero." But, because of the character's infinite powers and capabilities, he was officially known as Infinite.
As their first game made for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles, the development team wanted to up the ante with an upgraded version of the Hedgehog Engine called the "Hedgehog Engine 2." The Hedgehog Engine 2 provided better global illumination, added physically based rendering (PBR), and improved lighting and shadows. Art director Yoshitaka Miura said in a magazine article that the team was not just aiming for realism, but also "the atmosphere of the design culture that existed in 80s graphics in 3D." Its cutting-edge rendering visuals seamlessly react to changes in gameplay and the environment in real time while the developers would edit them in Autodesk Maya for quicker results.
They tested the new engine with a new city location, which was inspired by European-style buildings. The team also came up with many unique and contrasting ideas for the other levels. For instance, Eggman's prison was going to be located in a darker version of Green Hill Zone before being finalized on the Death Egg, and the Resistance's base was planned to be in Mystic Jungle but it was changed to the City. While the stages were meant to have more detail, the team was reminded that Sonic runs so fast that players won't notice the added work, so some had to be simplified. Eggman's battleships, shuttles, and fighters were supposed to have a special forces military-like appearance. But after reviewing them, they were too complicated to render and were designed easier to fit into Sonic's world. Additionally, the Badniks' designs were made closer to resemble weapons to emphasize the "war" theming.
Within the cast of returning actors, it was the last game to feature Travis Willingham as both Knuckles and Zavok, Quinton Flynn as Silver, and Vic Mignogna as E-123 Omega. The reasons I'll explain in the following game. Liam O' Brien, who previously voiced Zazz in Sonic Lost World, provided the English voice for Infinite and Takashi Kondo in Japanese. Despite being mute, the male and female Avatar vocals and grunts were supplied by Yu Seki and Aoi Yuki respectively.
Tomoya Ohtani, once again, was the primary composer with additional music done by Naofumi Hataya, Kenichi Tokoi, and Takahito Eguchi. The orchestration was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra to highlight the weight of pieces, such as the title theme and the world map screen. Each playable character has its own distinct musical category. Modern Sonic has typical rock-style music, Classic Sonic's music is synthesized to mimic the Sega Genesis sound quality, and Avatar has an EDM genre mixed with vocal lyrics performed by Madeleine Wood, Jon Underdown, Claudia Vazquez, and Nana Hatori.
The main theme "Fist Bump" was sung by Douglas Robb, leader of the band Hoobastank. Metalcore band members Tyler Smith & Andy Bane wrote and performed Infinite's theme song, which marks a return of character theme songs since Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). The credits song "Light of Hope" is a piano ballad sung by Amy Hannam.
The game was heavily promoted with a four-issue digital prequel comic written by Ian Flynn, a cross-promotion with Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone to earn posters and badges, and Hooters where customers would collect character coasters when ordering a chili dog meal. You know, the typical family-friendly restaurant.
But, the biggest highlight is the DLC included in the bonus editions. Aside from the previously mentioned costumes, there is the free add-on pack called "Episode Shadow" which serves as a prequel to the game's story. It involves Shadow and Team Dark's investigation of Eggman's base as well as the origin of Infinite. Since Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), this historically marks the first time Shadow is a playable character in a mainline game after many years. His controls and attacks are similar but different from Modern Sonic, while he plays through three redesigned levels. You can also optionally play as him in any of Modern Sonic's levels in the main story. According to Nakamura, Sonic Team created "Episode Shadow" to appeal to older and longtime Sonic fans and the levels were designed much more difficult and challenging than the regular stages. For an added touch, each stage includes tracks from Sonic Adventure 2.
Though Chaos Emeralds and Super Sonic make no appearances storywise, there was additional DLC where players would play as both Classic and Modern Super Sonics during regular gameplay, minus the bosses.
Reception & Legacy
When the Resistance raged war against the Eggman Empire worldwide on November 7 and two days later in Japan, the outcome of their battle was...complicated. The visuals and presentation were appraised, along with great voice acting, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack. The Avatar customization and gameplay were also commended, giving players the freedom to create anyone they want and offering solid replay value. In addition, Modern Sonic's gameplay retains its fun factor...at times. As promising as the story sounded, it, unfortunately, lost track of its ambition and focus within a short length. The level design show creativity and potential moments, but are quickly finished with automated sequences and repetitive boss battles. Despite being a tie-in with Sonic Mania, Classic Sonic was, no pun intended, forced into the game as an afterthought with poor physics. Not to mention, the underwhelming framerate and performance issues on the Switch version, in contrast to the other well-optimized consoles. As you could tell, critics' and fans' opinions were mixed. Some liked it, some hated it, some found it okay, some found it mediocre, etc. But, it was anonymously declared an overall disappointment amongst fans, especially when comparing how positively received Mania earned within the same year.
On the bright side, the game performed "strongly" in sales, according to Sega's February 2018 financial report. Forces was placed fifth in the U.K.'s all-formats charts, and number 10 in Japan with a total of 10,624 physical copies sold in its first week. Combining the numbers of all versions Sonic Forces made 1.59 million units worldwide, along with an estimated total of 6.8 million Playstation Network players on the digital spectrum.
The villain Infinite, like the game itself, also received a mixed reception from critics and fans. Though they enjoyed his design and Liam O'Brien's performance, his motivation felt weak and his character was a huge wasted opportunity. In spite of this, Infinite was eventually made as a guest playable character in the tie-in app game Sonic Forces: Speed Battle. Speaking of which, this app developed by Hard Light is an online racing game where you could play almost any Sonic character you could imagine, including the IDW comic characters, movie versions of the characters for promotional reasons, and seasonal costumes. Unlike the main game, the app was praised with over 100 million downloads, as of 2021.
Ever since its release, Sonic Forces has been the subject of ridicule among the community of how disappointing and ludicrous the final product came out, despite its four-year development. Many assumed that developing the Hedgehog Engine 2 hindered its time for quality assurance, while others believed that they used the physics engine from Lost World, thus making the Boost gameplay game-breakingly easy and the platforming too heavy and awkward with little momentum. Some fans are heavily debating which is worse in terms of their quality: Sonic Lost World for its experimental yet difficult streamlined and parkour controls or Sonic Forces for its "style over substance" gameplay with lack of polish. Although there is no definite answer, both games have an equal share of strengths and weaknesses, but nowhere nearly as bad as Sonic '06 or Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. In the end, it's just personal preference.
What started as an anniversary title full of both old and new elements added, Sega thought this was their attempt of making lightning strike twice. Sonic Team showed a lot of promise with a serious story, an intimidating antagonist, a new game engine, restoring the Boost and Classic gameplay, and making your own original character. While some of these elements prevailed, the rest fell flat with a plot that goes nowhere, linear stages that take about a minute to complete, shoehorning characters, and rushing to finish under corporate demand. Regardless of your thoughts on the game, Sonic Forces is an example of a project that almost had something going to be great but didn't meet expectations in the end. The Resistance may have won the war, but they lost something deeply valuable: their love from fans.
If there's anything uplifting to end on, Sonic Team has posted a survey on players' opinions on Forces. After carefully listening to the feedback, Sonic Team has realized that the Boost gameplay since Unleashed has grown tiring and it's time to move forward with the series' direction. To quote Sonic himself: "It's time we cleaned up the mess Eggman left this world in, and I'm not talking about those illusions he dreamed up for us! We need to fix the real world we all live in!"
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018)
Meanwhile, the Nintendo Switch was making its successful rounds with players worldwide. Knowing that some Wii U games were being reworked and ported, many have wondered: Will there be a Smash Bros. port or a brand-new installment in development?
Their answer came in a form of an E3 2018 video presentation, hosted by director Masahiro Sakurai himself. The newest game was more than a port, it was literally the biggest Super Smash Bros. game where every playable character from past games has returned! This was known as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Many characters have been reworked and rebalanced from the ground up and Sonic was no exception. While Roger Craig Smith's recycled dialogue remains untouched, his moveset and attributes were tweaked. Sonic, like other fighters, was more expressive and gave more visual flair to his moves, such as adding a reticle to help target his Homing Attack on opponents. While the Spin Dash and Spring Jump are no longer strong and his lighter weight would make him vulnerable, Sonic has a stronger and faster Homing Attack, a more ranged forward smash, and his both up and down smash have greater KO potential. With the game's faster-paced energy, Sonic's attacks have lesser lag and would have reliable multi-hitting moves and improved air dodging. Outside his buffs and nerfs, his Final Smash received the biggest change. Instead of freely controlling him after transforming, Super Sonic can now automatically move back and forth and attack opponents at an increased drastic speed. In spite of these nerfs, Sonic still remains a top-tier fighter on the roster and is viable in competitive play.
Both Green Hill Zone and Windy Hill Zone stages also make a comeback with much more music variety and options, ranging from Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) to Sonic Forces. In addition to Shadow the Hedgehog returning as an Assist Trophy with improved animations and visuals, Knuckles the Echidna surprisingly joins the battle as an Assist Trophy as well. When summoned, Knuckles can either punch, dig and uppercut from the ground, and use a Homing Attack on enemies. Though Sonic Forces was his last Sonic game as Knuckles, Travis Willingham voiced him one final time for this occasion, along with voicing Guile from Street Fighter who also is an Assist Trophy. Many Sonic characters were represented as Spirits instead of Trophies whereas selective fighters take the form of each character. For instance, a yellow fur-colored Fox wears a Rocket Belt item visually representing Miles "Tails" Prower for his species and ability to fly. Two Spirits, Shadow the Hedgehog and Chao, can be enhanced into Super Shadow and Hero Chao respectively.
In comparison with its previous appearances, Sonic the Hedgehog became the first and only third-party series with both more than one stage and Assist Trophies. Overall, Sonic himself came a long of redemption since his debut in Brawl. His inclusion did surprise the world, but didn't play well as they expected. Burt once the subsequent installments came along, not only Sonic's moves and attributes were fixed into reaching high-tier, but also gradually added more representation and content, such as Assist Trophies, stages, and music. Even though the franchise itself continues its roller coaster of quality, the Super Smash Bros. series will always be an entertaining thrill ride for fans and non-fans alike. The future of the series is uncertain at this point, but having all these characters together makes it truly an Ultimate experience.
Back to Sega, it has been nine years since Sonic had a spin-off racing title. Last time, both Sega and Sonic Team tried too hard to cap off the Riders trilogy with the third entry Sonic Free Riders. In that game, they wanted to experiment and capitalize on the newly anticipated Microsoft Kinect add-on where players would literally control the characters themselves instead of a regular controller. That experience was the straw that broke the camel's back as it was critically panned for simply not working and the director leaving Sonic Team afterward. After deep consideration, Sega noticed that Sonic was doing critically and commercially solid behind the racing wheel with other Sega characters in between that period and decided to commission a new racing entry from the same developer in charge of those spin-off titles. This time, there was no guest Sega characters, just a fully-fledged traditional Sonic racing game with the power of teamwork. Grab your teammates and race together across the finish line with Team Sonic Racing.
Team Sonic Racing (2019)
When a business tycoon hosts a kart race competition, a suspicious Sonic and his friends/rivals compete in a series of team-based races while discovering what's really going on.
Development for the project began after both Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces were completed where Sega contacted British video game developer Sumo Digital to work on a new Sonic racing game due to their experience with the IP. When the game was first teased, many fans believed it was a sequel to Sonic R, where the "R" in the title highly references the stylized font in the Sega Saturn game.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (2010)
Before talking about Team Sonic Racing, it's best to know who Sumo Digital is and how their experience came to be.
Sumo Digital started out working on the crossover sports game Sega Superstars Tennis (2008) where Sonic and characters from eight different Sega franchises competed in a series of tennis tournaments and minigames. Soon after, the studio wanted to do a racing title based on the recent Out Run games they worked on at the time. Originally, an early prototype showed Sonic running on foot, Tails flying a biplane, Dr. Eggman riding a robot with legs, Amy driving a car, and Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe riding one of the Chickenleg creatures. Sega, however, did not find the prototype fun to play because the different characters' varying sizes and drifting didn't work with on-foot racers. It was then decided that every playable character would be in cars, bikes, or modified flyers. In other words, this was Sonic's official return to kart racing since the Sonic Drift games, but better. Thus, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was born.
Aside from familiar characters like AiAi from Super Monkey Ball and Ryo from Shenmue, each console had its own exclusive character. The Xbox Avatar appears in the Xbox 360 version while, believe it or not, Banjo & Kazooie, from the then-newly, released Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, appeared as DLC on both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions. Nintendo's Mario was planned to appear exclusively on the Wii version, but Sega didn't want to repeat what the Mario & Sonic series achieved. So, the Mii took his place. Other Sega characters like NiGHTS from Nights into Dreams appeared as a flagman instead of a racer.
On a side note, this was the final game to feature the 4Kids actors voicing their respective characters, though some of the voices were archived from select games.
When the game launched on February 2010, it received positive reviews for its character roster, responsive controls, addictive gameplay, and track design. Yet, some felt the power-ups were uninspired and could've added more content. Even with that, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was a commercial success selling 1.07 million copies worldwide.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012)
Two years later, a sequel Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed was made where Sumo Digital literally transformed their racing game to the next level. While most of the characters and racing tracks remain intact, the biggest mechanic change is that the characters' vehicles would either transform into planes in mid-air or boats on the water whenever the tracks change course, which the latter was inspired by the Wave Race and Hydro Thunder games.
With Sumo Digital primarily working on the sequel, the staff received assistance from other studios, like Bizzare Creations and Black Rock Studio, due to their experience with working on racing video games. Veteran composer Richard Jacques also returned to write original and remixed tunes for the soundtracks.
Besides the transforming vehicles, the character roster stands out for a variety of reasons. Though a few characters like Billy Hatcher and the Bonanza Bros. were cut, NiGHTS, Raela, and Gilius Thunderhead (from the original prototype) officially became playable characters. However, this sequel contains some characters that exist outside the realms of Sega's boundaries. For example, Ralph from the then-upcoming Disney animated feature Wreck-It Ralph appears as a playable character since Sonic and Dr. Eggman themselves have made cameos in the movie. Characters from Valve's Team Fortress 2 also made a surprise playable appearance. But, the biggest highlight of the roster was NASCAR racer, Danica Patrick, due to being part of a promotional deal with the 2012 Texas Motor Speedway. She drives her custom-painted "Danicar" co-designed by Hot Wheels. The catch is that Patrick doesn't appear in the Japanese version of the game.
For DLC, game director Steve Lycett posted a forum for fans to vote for potential playable characters from countless requests. These choices included the Sega Saturn mascot Segata Sanshiro, Hatsune Miku, Platinum Games' Bayonetta, and obscure Sega characters, such as Vectorman, ToeJam & Earl, and Ristar (who became the flagman in the final product). Among the choices, Ryo from Shenmue was confirmed to be in development as DLC. Additional characters like General Winter from Company of Heroes 2 and Simon Lane from the Yogscast series on YouTube were later downloadable content. In Simon's case, the proceeds from purchasing him went to charity.
Since its release on November 2012, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed received as much praise, if not better, than its predecessor, where many have called it one of the best racing games with its character roster and fixed elements. The Wii U version, initially, had technical issues but was later patched. It outsold the first game with 1.36 million units worldwide and was nominated for "Best Racing Game of 2012" at the Game of the Year Awards and "Best Multiplayer" at the 2013 Golden Joystick Awards. However, it lost to Forza: Horizon and Payday 2 respectively.
Going back to the subject, programmer Richard Acherki was in charge as the lead game designer and his first Sumo Digital project while Takashi Iizuka of Sonic Team was the producer. Compared to the staff who worked on the previous entries, the majority of the Sumo Digital staff was relatively new, though a few veterans were contacted for advice.
Unlike the past games, Team Sonic Racing was aimed toward casual gamers where the team wanted to solely focus on the Sonic brand while standing out from other racing titles. The game was built using a modified engine from the Sonic & Sega All-Stars games, which helped port across platforms more easily. Another goal of the team was to expand the Sonic universe by giving them a "full suite" of the characters and elements, providing players with "fanservice" while giving something new to look at at the same time.
As for the "team" in Team Sonic Racing, Iizuka conceptualized the team-based gameplay mechanic after watching his son play a kart racing game with his friends. Besides obviously using Sonic Heroes as a reference, Sumo Digital wanted to make a game that would emphasize cooperative gameplay influenced by Splatoon and Overwatch, instead of popular kart-racing games like Mario Kart 8 (Deluxe). It also helped that there were fewer team-based racing games available at the time.
When Sonic Team was interested in making future Sonic-themed racing games, they would create a character facilitated in any race as part of both worldbuilding and storytelling. Designed by veteran character artist Yuji Uekawa, Iizuka requested a character that would be built around future-proofing and maintaining a persistent universe. That character came out as an alien business tycoon known as Dodon Pa. His species name "Tanuki" and appearance were heavily inspired by the tanooki, shape-shifting raccoon creatures found in Japanese folklore. Many mainstream players would recognize the tanooki motif from the power-up in the Mario series.
With that said, designing the teamwork aspect was proven to be challenging where one programmer recalled his experience as "surreal" yet had a fun time working on the game, regardless. Winning each track requires how much a single racer must pay attention to how teammates perform and earn points based on working together. One technique that functions conceptually similar to the All-Star Moves in the previous games is Team Ultimate, where the player's team creates an unstoppable speed boost that would help them plow through opposing racers. Cross-platforming multiplayer was unavailable due to technical constraints.
One of the most difficult tasks was choosing and debating characters for the playable roster. For example, Vector the Crocodile is usually a member of Team Chaotix. But, instead of Espio and Charmy, he paired up with Silver the Hedgehog and Blaze the Cat. Each character was given a unique car that reflects their stats and personality. Traditionally, they are also characterized by speed, technique, and power classes.
The team-based roster consists of:
- Team Sonic (Sonic, Tails, & Knuckles)
- Team Rose (Amy, Chao [Chao, Hero Chao, Dark Chao, and Omochao], & Big)
- Team Dark (Shadow, Rouge, & Omega)
- Team Vector (Vector, Silver, & Blaze)
- Team Eggman (Dr. Eggman, Metal Sonic, & Zavok)
The development staff also had a hard time choosing stages that offer a variety of atmospheres. Many race tracks were constructed and based on past Sonic games, such as Sonic Heroes, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Colors.
For power-ups, Wisps were once again integrated to coincide with the Sonic theming as each one uses their respective abilities to offer players temporary offensive and defensive advantages. Among all the returning Wisps from previous games, the newest addition was the Jade Ghost Wisp where the user would invisibly drive through opponents and hazards while stealing other Wisp power-ups. It was so unique that it returned as an exclusive Wisp in Sonic Colors: Ultimate where Sonic would bypass through walls for shortcuts and hidden goodies.
Additionally, the game also offered customization for vehicles. Not just for cosmetic purposes, but also for new parts for boosting, handling, acceleration, etc. These extras can be unlocked either through the story mode or using the in-game currency, Mod Pods, which are rewarded for completing races or missions.
Similarly to Sonic Free Riders, outside the CGI intro, the game goes arcade-style with cutscenes involving static character images and fully-voiced conversations in-between races. The only difference is that most of the Studiopolis actors have reprised their roles while a few were recast for varying reasons.
During recording for the game, Travis Willingham and his wife Laura Bailey (known as Knuckles and Blaze respectively) were expecting their newborn child. However, Willingham left after learning Sega wouldn't offer them compensation for maternity leave. Knuckles is now officially voiced by Dave B. Mitchell. In addition, Patrick Seitz took over as the new voice for Zavok.
As for Laura Bailey, she and Quinton Flynn were unionized actors and were replaced by Erica Lindbeck as Blaze/Omochao and Bryce Papenbrook as Silver.
But, Vic Mignogna's departure takes the cake filled with controversial proportions. Mignogna was the target of sexual harassment allegations from either his underage fans or Funimation castmates like Monica Rial. Because of this, Aaron LaPlante became E-123 Omega's new voice.
Dodon Pa was voiced by Kyle Hebert in English and by anime actor Katsuhisa Hōki in Japanese.
After a long absence, Jun Senoue returned as the main composer for the soundtrack while many Sonic musicians Richard Jacques, Tee Lopes, Tomoya Ohtani, Hyper Potions, and Tyler Smith individually collaborated with him on each track. Iizuka said that the staff needed "cool" music that would "influence the payer's excitement", which led to ultimately choosing Senoue. On top of that, Senoue reunited with Johnny Gioeli once again as Crush 40 and performed the opening theme song "Green Light Ride."
Reception & Legacy
As usual, Sega promoted the third entry with an IDW one-shot prequel comic and a two-part tie-in animated series Team Sonic Racing Overdrive, produced by Tyson Hesse and Neko Productions. Even in this live-action launch trailer, Takashi Iizuka made a cameo.
When Sonic and his team take the wheel and raced across stores worldwide for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on May 21, it was a fun yet rough ride to the finish line. Critics and fans enjoyed the team-based gameplay, appreciated the track designs, and had a nice listen to the collaborative soundtrack. In terms of the story mode, they found it "less engaging" with its "boring" cutscenes and newfound voice acting on certain characters. It was clear that its quality did not reach the highly-praised levels of its predecessor and other racing titles.
However, Sonic still managed to win first place, thanks to his commercial run. In spite of how it performed on a technical level, the Nintendo Switch version sold 3,339 copies during its first week in Japan while the Playstation 4 version made 2,432 units within the same week. The game also did commercially well in the U.K. charts since Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games with the Playstation 4 version selling the most. In fact, its launch sales doubled and surpassed what Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed accomplished. Though there is no confirmed total number of copies sold, Sega's 2021 fiscal year reported that Team Sonic Racing was among a couple of recent Sonic titles and Sonic Generations to earn a total of 4.4 million units. Like Transformed, the game was nominated for "Best Racing Game" at the 2018 Game Critics Awards, with Forza Horizon 4 taking the win, and The Independent Game Developers' Association (TIGA) Awards in the following year, but lost to F1 2019. Though, it did win "Best Casual Game" at the 2018 Gamescom Awards.
Shortly afterward, Hard Light released a simplified app version of the game called Sonic Racing for Mac and IOS with Classic Sonic being the only exclusive new character.
In the end, Sumo Digital created a unique racing game like any other. Sure, it was critically inferior to the previous games since it was made by fresh new recruits with little experience. Metaphorically and literally speaking, Team Sonic Racing was built through the power of teamwork with old and new staff. Sonic Team supervised the staff through challenging yet progressive aspects of team-based racing. There were some debatable and tough decisions to make along the way. Veterans with past experience working on either racing games or music managed to work off each other naturally through consideration. Even so, it achieved what both development teams were aiming for and earned back high revenue for the company. Sonic definitely had hit-and-miss racing games throughout his history but each game always had its own identity. The future of Sonic racing games will always continue to change and evolve in the following years.
Actually, if there's anything to learn about the franchise during the 2010s is that the decade was a massive mixed bag for the Blue Blur. It began strongly when Sega wanted to rebrand the value of the series with new management and crew. It had its strengths when Sonic Team returned the series to its roots using the Wisp mechanic in Sonic Colors, celebrated its twentieth anniversary from both Classic and Modern perspectives with Sonic Generations, and indie game programmers passionately revived Sonic's early 2D years with Sonic Mania. It had its weaknesses when the Sonic Riders trilogy ended on an unresponsive note with Sonic Free Riders, and desperately rushing two North American spin-offs into unfinished disasters (minus the television show) known as the Sonic Boom series. There were also some experimental projects that wound up in the middle where they are neither good nor bad. They tried to bring Sonic back to his beginnings with the episodic Sonic 4 that went nowhere, accumulating controls with parkour in Sonic Lost World, recapturing previous successes with Sonic Forces but felt underwhelming, and creating a racing game with Team Sonic Racing that emphasized teamwork and nothing else.
And because of the recently mixed reception, these were signs that Sonic Team was starting to listen to the feedback. The Boost gameplay was revolutionary and fun for a while, but now it's getting stale. Ken Pontac and Warren Graff's comedic and lighthearted writing was fine the first time, yet it was becoming too ridiculous for anyone, besides kids, to be invested in it. Classic Sonic had his historical moments in the spotlight but didn't have to rely on him too much. With the 2010 decade ending, it was time to move on. No matter what decade we are in, there will always be change. Change is an essential part of life and we must learn to adapt in order to survive. Sonic the Hedgehog is no exception. And with the 2020 decade now in effect, we are now entering a new future where Sonic is starting to reach the new frontier.