Friday, 5 February 2010

Editorial: Can Sega Make Sonic 4 Succeed?

Yesterday Sega unveiled Sonic The Hedgehog 4 to the world, and in flurry of excitement and burning anticipation we brought that news to you at IQGamer. Today the dust has settled and a dead calmness has set in, bringing with it feelings of anxiety and doubt as to whether what we saw yesterday could really live up to its promise. The legacy sewn by those faithful four original Megadrive games is not something easily replicated, even for Sega who produced the graphically impressive but rather flawed Sonic CD some 17 years ago.

Given Sega’s track record these last few years, filled with failed 3D attempts to capture that 16bit essence, a disastrous reboot in the form of a next-gen Sonic Adventure sequel, along with a handful of outsourced 2D handheld instalments which seem to completely forget just what Sonic games were all about, my cause for concern is far from being misplaced.

Having this all-new 2D Sonic game as a sequel to Sonic and Sonic & Knuckles is a tall order to fill. Creating a canonical successor in a similar style and with respect for the source material is no easy task, especially some 16 years on. Only a few developers such as Capcom with Street Fighter IV, Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando Rearmed have truly succeeded in doing this.

Sega looks like it’s trying its best with what they have, and in an interview with GameSpot, Ken Balough seemed to be addressing most of my concerns, along with other die-hard fans. Essentially he told GS that the team was going back to the MD games, and using them as the template for Sonic 4, however the style and tone of the game would be as if the series was created today rather than 16 years ago.

In the trailer released the visual look of Sonic 4 was clearly a natural follow on from the likes of Sonic 2, with a hint of Sonic 3 and demonstrating a modern twist on the proceedings. However there are certain things which don’t look quite right. Sonic’s character model for starters looks a bit iffy, almost like a throwback to the design used in Sonic and the Secret Rings, and currently suffers from some uncomfortable running animations. The stage shown in the trailer also looked a little too much like it was from a well made mugen game, and lacked the style you'd expect from a true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, whist also feeling slightly unfinished from a graphical perspective. However the inclusion of parallax scrolling in the background brought a twinkle to my eye, and it was rather impressive seeing the effect updated using todays hardware. From a stylistic point of view though, Surely Sega should be looking at replicating a new take on the style featured in Knuckles Chaotix, or at the very least Sonic 3, especially as Sonic 4 is supposed to be a proper game in the series?

Maybe this will change as development progresses, though seeing as the release is only a few months away I have a sneaking suspicion that it probably won’t. Still, at least we have a style that fits in with the original Sonic games, with an updated look for the current generation. It could be much worse.

Gameplay wise it was most certainly impossible to gauge just how Sonic 4 will pan out. With only a couple of seconds of footage showing very little other than Sonic briefly jumping on a few enemies, and speeding through a corkscrew platform before reaching the end of the stage. Although comments from Sega’s Ken Balough can allow us to at least assume that they have forgotten about Sonic being about speed, and will instead be focusing on having cleaverer level design based around building up momentum; finding that ‘perfect path’ through the level, and effectively achieving max speed via skill instead of by simply holding down the d-pad in the forwards direction.

This is what needs to happen, as this insistence on speed is what killed the GBA games, and made Sonic Rush nigh on unplayable for anyone used to the MD games of old.

Sega should also create new enemies in the style of the old ones, rather than simply rehashing and updating existing badniks for the 21st century. Old bosses should be given new tweaks, and mixed up with some innovative new ideas all in keeping with what the classic franchise is known for. Maybe they should look towards both Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaoix for inspiration, as both these games had more elaborate set pieces and boss designs than their MD counterparts. In essence creating a really authentic follow up in the form of Sonic 4.

Musically rather than just also reworking old themes as with the graphics, Sega should ideally be looking to create original new music for both the title theme and the tunes to be used in the various stages themselves. A new theme tune, if they come up with one, should be in keeping with the style and direction the series was heading in with Sonic & Knuckles, whilst taking care not to parody the series iconic sounds, and simply build on the foundations laid down all those years ago.

Ultimately this latest instalment cannot be just a cheap fan service attempt, certainly not if Sega expect it to be taken seriously as a proper Sonic 4, although that would still make for a potentially lovely game, it wouldn’t do the franchise any real justice. And that is what they need to show, if they are to redeem the brand and successfully move it forward looking to the future.

Anything that fans do complain about, or which they feel maybe isn’t quite right, I do expect Sega to listen to and correct in further episodes. I also expect they’ll expand upon the things that worked in the first episode, the style and ideas explored, whilst evolving them forward in preparation for potentially Sonic 5. That is, of course if they manage to hit the ground running with part 1 of Sonic 4.

Either way, Sonic 4 represents a trial and proving ground to see if a revival can be done, and if Sega still has what it takes to make this happen.

For the sake of the character and the franchise I really do hope so.

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