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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ranking the 3D Sonic games

This past weekend, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise turned 21. In other words, Sonic is now officially considered a man in many countries. What better way to celebrate one's journey to manhood than to rank his accomplishments?

Rather than his obvious 2D highs, we’ll be ranking the more controversial half of Sonic’s career – his journey into the realm of 3D. We’ll also give you a brief rundown of each game as we go.

Just so the history makes more sense, here’s a little timeline of the 3D games:

SegaSonic the Hedgehog  – 1993
Sonic 3D Blast – 1996
Sonic Adventure – 1998
Sonic Adventure 2 – 2001
Sonic Heroes – 2003
Shadow the Hedgehog – 2005
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – 2006
Sonic and the Secret Rings – 2007
Sonic Unleashed – 2008
Sonic and the Black Knight – 2009
Sonic Colours – 2010
Sonic Generations – 2011

Note: This list is just the opinion of one writer - I don’t claim it to be an objective list by any means. Additionally, two games will be left off the list on account of me having never played them.

10. SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Yes, we’ve all heard about this game by now. The plainly titled "Sonic the Hedgehog" was to be a reboot of sorts for the franchise. It featured similar gameplay to past 3D Sonic titles, complete with three different hedgehogs to choose from.

It’s widely hailed as the realisation of “bottom of the barrel” for many good reasons. Things are utterly broken in terms of gameplay, with lengthy load times, the most awkward hub world of the series, and copious amounts of glitches assaulting you at every corner. Just look up some videos and you’ll quickly learn why this game is so notorious.

Beyond that, what bugs me is that the game was a questionable concept from the get go. I’ve heard many fans say that it would have been a good game if Sega wasn’t rushed by the deadline for the PS3 version. When your premise is the most convoluted mess of a story in the series, featuring hedgehogs getting uncomfortably close to human princesses on more than one occasion, though, that doesn't scream "quality reboot" to me. Even if this wasn't intended as a new beginning, why tarnish the title "Sonic the Hedgehog" when you've knowingly released an unfinished game?

9. Sonic 3D Blast
Does this actually count...? Sonic 3D Blast was designed to be Sonic's last outing on the Sega Mega Drive. After Sonic Xtreme was cancelled, the game was ported to the Sega Saturn to fill in for the lack of a Sonic platformer on that system. Even though SegaSonic The Hedgehog technically preceded this as "3D", it was exclusive to arcades and hardly widespread.

While the Sega Saturn game was an improvement, I consider the Mega Drive game to be the real thing. As Sonic’s first stint in “3D”, 3D Blast was quite a strange departure for the blue blur. It was barely Sonic, debatably 3D, and certainly not a blast.

Gameplay revolved around defeating robots to collect Flickies in an isometric viewpoint. There wasn’t much speed to speak of, so it felt more like a plodding collect-a-thon than the natural transition from 2D to 3D. It also showcased just how unsuited Sonic's controls are to an isometric game  –  you can feel frustrating controls at every turn. While not outstandingly terrible or a glitchy mess, it makes for an uninspired platformer.

8. Sonic Colours
Sonic Colours was what we got when fans asked to see the daytime stages of Sonic Unleashed fully realised. The idea was to trim all the fat and make Sonic happy-go-lucky again. Sega did so and essentially cut things down to just Sonic, Tails, and Dr. Eggman. While others tout this as the triumphant return of Sonic’s glory days, I feel the controls and level design go together like Mentos and diet Coke. Sonic just doesn’t have the platforming chops to back up many of the ambitious puzzle-esque level designs in the 2D realm. Trying to double jump often leads to a homing attack on something you were trying to avoid. The new Wisp powers were also met with various personal grievances.

On top of that, it was just plain unexciting. The price of the story not taking itself seriously resulted in much groaning over horrifying “humour” and the lack of a compelling reason to press onward. For the first time, I actually found myself struggling to finish a Sonic game because of simple boredom. Perhaps my mind has been warped by one too many play-throughs of games like Sonic ’06 and Shadow the Hedgehog, but I see this is the epitome of bland.

For those who successfully wiped Sonic 3D Blast out of their brains, Sonic Adventure was Sonic’s first stint in the realm of 3D. Taking place years after Super Mario 64 and a drought of Sonic in general, there was probably some pressure to match the plumber's transition from 2D to 3D. The game also had to help the Sega Dreamcast gain ground at launch time. The end result? An action movie narrative with cutscenes and voice acting, six characters with unique play styles, a hub world, a virtual pet simulator, and some of the most impressive visuals seen in video games up to that point. It sold millions and shocked the gaming press.

When you get over all that, Sonic Adventure is a lot like Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 – it’s not glitchy, it is a glitch. It’s an ongoing train wreck that borders on being just as unfinished as that game. And yet, when you’re not falling through objects for no apparent reason, getting killed by invisible attacks, and unable to retrieve your Chao from the water because robots can’t swim, it’s thoroughly satisfying. Sonic has a good ten stages to replay and, unlike Adventure 2, most characters incorporate speed into their gameplay styles. There’s a good deal of content to see, so I heartily recommend this one if you’re into the franchise.

6. Shadow the Hedgehog
Hoo boy, where to begin? Shadow the Hedgehog looked like Sega’s attempt to make the Sonic series “mature” and “edgy” without sacrificing the current audience. This meant spinning off the best character for the job – Shadow the hedgehog. More importantly, it meant giving Shadow guns, cuss words, and a typical amnesia storyline. The game also introduced a karma system. Depending on what task you chose to complete in a level, you would play different levels and progress down the path of good, evil, or neutral.

As much as I understand the complaints targeted at Shadow the Hedgehog, it's something of a guilty pleasure. The story may be too dramatic for its own good, but I found it surprisingly compelling (particularly when the alien invasion stuff steps to the sidelines). The good and evil system allows for terrific replay value, to the point where each play-through can be an individual experience. I’m also quite partial to several of the less contrived songs in the soundtrack. Like past Sonic games, it has its fair share of glitches and eccentric annoyances, but I found it still performed far better than Sonic Adventure in that regard. It could worth a look if you want something different from the standard Sonic formula. 

5. Sonic and the Secret Rings
The Secret Rings pushed Sonic into four types of territory at once – motion control, on-rails gameplay, the world of fairy tales, and mini-game action. Taking place in the storybook world of the Arabian Nights, Sonic had to fight off a villainous genie and save the book’s pages from being erased. Sonic was controlled exclusively with the Wii Remote, with tilts determining his movement and speed and thrusts triggering homing attacks. Sonic also became very customisable through an upgrade system that allowed players to adjust his speed and abilities.

Overall, I think Sonic worked surprisingly well whilst on-rails. It compromised his freedom of mobility and made collecting things a bit of a pain, but ensured that the number of glitches was kept to a minimum. With enough levels to compensate for the replay value of a single more open level, I don’t think it should be much of an issue. Combined with the fairly smooth motion controls, this turned out to be pretty darn fun. Obviously I wouldn’t want the franchise to go in this direction since a couple of stages feel like they play themselves, but it went down nicely as a one-off.

On top of that, it’s got one of the better mini-game compilations I’ve played just thrown in as a mere extra mode. I still find myself whipping it out at parties more than five years later.

4. Sonic Heroes
Sonic Heroes was the storyline follow-up title to the Adventure series. The first title of those games had you choose between one of six characters while the second game split six characters into two teams. Sonic Heroes was like an evolution of Adventure 2 in that the teams actually came together in-game. A new mechanic allows you to swap between a speedy character, a flying character, and power character to deal with different situations.

Aside from the cutscenes and all that new-age jazz, I felt Heroes was pretty true to the spirit of the 2D Mega Drive games. My personal favourite is the way it brought back the special stages for collecting Chaos Emeralds. Its camera could be quite uncomfortable, but again, nothing quite as painful as Sonic Adventure. The Game Cube and Xbox versions are significantly more stable and run at a smoother frame rate, so don’t bother with the PS2 version if you get to make the choice.

3. Sonic Unleashed
Before Sonic Colours came along, one of the big complaints about Sonic games was the ever-increasing cast of playable characters. The two Sonic Adventure games had six each, Sonic Heroes had 12, and even the portable side-scrollers were introducing new characters like Cream the Rabbit. So, Sega decided to release a game with Sonic as the only playable character. There was a twist, though – Sonic would transform into a werehog* at night, completely changing the gameplay into a beat-‘em-up with platforming elements. In other words, they just introduced a new character without it actually being a “new character”. It's also the first game to feature Sonic on the planet Earth, which makes for some interesting settings. 

The daytime stages were quite special. They managed to fuse elements of Sonic’s 2D days seamlessly with his more expansive 3D adventures. The camera would shift into a classic or third person view depending which part of the level you were in. This play style would later become the basis for Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations. I feel the level design here is far more compelling than Colours, however. Additionally, it featured a new mechanic that allowed you to instantly dash left or right when on a narrow pathway. This move could have saved a lot of trouble in some of the other 3D titles.

The night time stages weren’t outright terrible, but the problems arose from how lengthy and repetitive they could get. If you lost your last life near the end of the level, you’d seriously contemplate swimming with a brick. Overall though, this is a fairly solid title that might have benefited from being fully speedy with less content or having more forgiveness in the werehog levels.  

*The “were” in werewolf is actually derived from the Old English word “wer”, the word for “man”, yet Sonic becomes furrier and more wolf-like as a werehog. “Werehog” is almost a more appropriate name for regular Sonic, since he has several anthropomorphic traits.

2. Sonic Adventure 2
After the critical and sales success that was Sonic Adventure, it was fitting that Sega would release a sequel to the game. Sonic Adventure 2 was a more focused and polished version of its predecessor.

It also boasted what I feel are some of the best Sonic levels in the franchise’s history. Yes, the Sonic levels are very linear and the other two major portions of the game (shooting and treasure hunting) were met with mixed reception and some valid complaints. On the flip side, the highs of the game justify struggling through some of the worse stages. The game’s best asset is that the amount of content is legendary for a platformer, surpassing even the 50-100 hours offered by Adventure.

Sonic Generations came out last year as the celebratory 20th anniversary game of the series. Sega saw it fit to bring back the original chubby Sonic, which led to a game that offered a good balance of both 2D and 3D. Taking the gameplay of Sonic Unleashed and merging it with the classics, Sega crafted a game based around the entire franchise’s history, right up to Sonic Colours.

Sonic Generations takes everything we’ve come to love – and hate – about the blue blur and throws it all into one game. It may be comprised of past efforts (including the game’s engine itself), but it’s the reimagining of them that makes it such a thrill to play again and again. Stages like City Escape and Chemical Plant Zone keep the spirit of the original levels while expanding on the experiences originally offered. It also has one of the best soundtracks, thanks to countless remixes from Sonic’s illustrious musical career. My four star review didn’t quite do this justice – it’s more than the sum of its parts. It may not have the bulky amount of content that Sonic Adventure 2 offered, but it’s consistently greater than any other 3D Sonic title.


So, there you have it. What is your favourite 3D Sonic game? How much do you disagree with my selections? 
Ranking the 3D Sonic games
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