Thursday, February 6, 2014

I'm Hyped for Sonic Boom (And Why It's Okay for You to Be, Too)

Today, SEGA showed off Sonic Boom, not just the final of three Nintendo-exclusive video games, but a CG cartoon, and lots and lots of merchandising. We posted the trailer for the game earlier today. Aside from the use of Skrillex that really had no place in the trailer and the Sonic gang's new look, I'm cautiously optimistic about the new direction that SEGA is taking Sonic the Hedgehog and his world. 

At first glance of the new character designs, I was not wholly amused. Sonic himself has very lanky legs, as did his now steroid-induced friend Knuckles, who now looks like the type of echidna who if he wore a polo shirt would most likely have the collar turned up. The trailer didn't do anything to change my opinion, as Sonic and Knuckles usually had their legs bent to not show how ridiculous they both looked. That said, Tails and Amy look very nice to me, but they're also the most faithful to their past designs.

Regardless, character aesthetics aside, there are numerous reasons why Sonic Boom intrigues me heavily. First off, Sonic Boom is being developed not by Sonic Team, but by two Western studios. Both games have been in development for two years, longer than what we saw with Sonic Team's own Sonic: Lost World. We didn't know it at the time, but we actually saw a glimpse of the game in a GDC 2013 CryEngine 3 licensee demo's beginning). 

Now, hearing that Sonic the Hedgehog is in the hands of two Western studios might have some fans waving a red flag. One of the last Western Sonic games turned out to be a mediocre RPG with incredible music such as this. That was from BioWare of all companies, so if they couldn't create a compelling Sonic game, why would anyone expect any Western studio to do any better?

The information given to gamers and the press has revealed that new studio Big Red Button Entertainment, made up of many former Naughty Dog developers from the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter era, as well as those who worked on Ratchet & Clank, is creating the Wii U version. Meanwhile, its smaller counterpart, the Nintendo 3DS version, is being built by Sanzaru Games of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time fame. Both studios are made up of people with experience in platformers with a focus on exploration. As luck would have it, Sonic Boom is more about exploration than just pure speed.

Some would argue that this is a totally different direction than what Sonic the Hedgehog represents and is about. However, if you can recall, the original Genesis/Mega Drive Sonic the Hedgehog games featured plenty of slow, methodical platforming, such as in Sonic 1's Marble Zone or Sonic 2's Chemical Plant Zone. It was until Sonic CD that speed was a factor, primarily for time travel. The Sonic Adventure series took that approach into three-dimensions and created a game where it was difficult to control a speedy Sonic when there were 360 degrees of controller movement available, and the slightest shift in angle could make things quite complicated, in comparison to simply pressing left and right in a 2D space. Sonic Boom's trailer shows speed, but it also shows slow moments as well, which makes me have hope that there will be a better balance than we've seen in more recent Sonic games.

Regardless, levels are said to be open and connected, much like what was found in the original Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. This gives me Banjo-Kazooie vibes, and that is very much a good thing, as that's only one of my favorite 3D platformers of all time. 

Sonic Adventure's duo of Dreamcast games introduced the concept of playing as Sonic's multiple animal acquaintances. Sure, players were able to play as Tails and Knuckles in previous games, but their gameplay was just like Sonic's. They weren't in mechanized walkers, they weren't forcing players to glide around in a treasure hunt, and they weren't having players fish for frogs. 

Sonic Boom has it where the four main characters, Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose share similar gameplay. Heck, they all tag along essentially with one another. Each has their own individual specialties to make them play slightly differently. For instance, Sonic is agile while Knuckles is the brawn of the group, powerful and able to use his knuckles to claw into ceilings to cross over wide areas. Having the game focused more on the foursome being equals rather than Sonic and his amazing friends, makes Sonic Boom a much more interesting proposition to me. Plus, I don't have to worry about the game being ruined by playing as an obese cat or big-breasted bat.

Another thing that gives me solace is that this isn't the direction the Sonic the Hedgehog series is going in entirely. Instead, Sonic Boom is being treated as a complementary series, one developed and given creative control by Western studios. While Sonic Boom will fork off into its own niche, Sonic Team proper will still focus on the Japanese development side, providing Sonic games still focused prominently on speed. That way there's a Sonic the Hedgehog for newcomers to the series as well as longtime fans and everyone in between. I think it'll strike a nice compromise between fans and will give the Sonic series a nice breath of fresh air. Thus, if for some reason Sonic Boom is not met with critical or commercial praise, at least Sonic still has his Sonic Team developed titles.

So it's not all bad with Sonic Boom. I admit that the redesigned characters for the most part do nothing to instill me with confidence, but watching the trailer and reading details about the game have my interest piqued. There's a wide amount of dislike for Sonic Boom by fans, but at the same there was a lot of positive vibes going on regarding Sonic: Lost World, and for many (myself somewhat) that game turned out to be a disappointment. Perhaps this game, not liked initially, will turn out to actually be great. It's sort of hard to doubt the talent behind games like Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper doing an admirable take on the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Then again, it was hard to doubt BioWare, and we all know how that turned out.

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