Sonic Team has officially confirmed that its next Sonic game will be coming sometime next year, with a formal reveal set to take place in a month. One popular discussion that always seems to come up between members of the fandom is whether the blue hedgehog should continue speeding along in the world of 3D, or bring it back to the basics of 2D. As we await the reveal of the new Sonic game, what are you hoping it’s going to be: a 2D retro-revival, or a speedy 3D adventure?
Like many other characters, Sonic made his full-3D debut back in the 5th generation. It came in the form of Sonic Advcnture and then Sonic Adventure 2 a few years later. Both titles are some of the highest-selling games on the ill-fated Dreamcast. Despite the fact that their original platform crashed and burned, many still consider the Adventure games to be some of the best in the series, and the best 3D Sonic games overall.
The core-component behind the Sonic games has always been speed. While other platformers consistently focus on slow-paced accuracy, Sonic games were designed with one goal in mind: get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the fastest time possible. The formula worked just fine in 2D, but translating the same idea into 3D has proven to be a daunting task. The 2D perspective worked primarily due to the fact that Sonic’s high speed forced players to learn the level layouts and anticipate the dangers ahead. Since there’s no way to see what’s front of you, that elements of surprise and punishment helped shape the experience. The sense of speed also benefits from it since there is only one direction to go in. This all changes when it comes to 3D.
In 3D, Sonic now has freedom of movement, not to mention incoming dangers are clearly visible. Seeing that Sonic is still a platformer first-and-foremost, obstacles and jumping segments are pretty much a necessity. The issue is, while the sense of speed fundamentally remains the same as it is in 2D, coming to a grinding halt is all the more obvious. This was incredibly apparent in games like Sonic Unleashed, Colors and Generations due to the high increase in speed over other 3D Sonic games.
Sonic Lost World shows just how much trouble Sonic Team has with properly translating the high-speed formula in a 3D environment. The developers decided to not only make Sonic more agile, but also gave players even more control over his speed. Sonic has always controlled similar to a car; unlike other characters, he would gradually move faster the longer you held the directional button. In Lost World, a dedicated run button was added, effectively keeping Sonic’s top-speed at bay until the player actually wanted him to go that fast; this can be likened to shifting a car from the lowest gear to its highest gear. But why was this done?
Sonic Team has had the dilemma of balancing Sonic’s speed, along with how controllable he is, as well as how he interacts with the platforming elements. Moves like the Homing Attack and Ring Dash were added just to help translate the formula better in a 3D environment. Because the 2D games are so reliant on building momentum, this made it all the more difficult to make Sonic look and feel ‘right’ from a 3D perspective.
That brings us to Sonic Unleahsed. Arguably, this is the game that marked Sonic Team’s true revolution when it came to creating a proper Sonic game in 3D,
Sonic had some pretty fast moments in his past 3D games, but most of the time you were mostly just sauntering along. Sonic Unleashed basically removed all restrictions, and finally emphasized the mach-speed that Sonic truly is capable of. I’ve already used the analogy of a car, but allow me to use it again. Just like how some tuned-up street cars use nitrous, Sonic Team basically attached a natural nitrous tank to Sonic in Unleashed. While this ‘boost’ mechanic was actually introduced in Sonic Rush on the DS, Unleashed was the first 3D Sonic game to fully use it. This led to it being referred to as the ‘Unleashed formula’. But Unleahsed brought yet another change; dynamic perspectives.
Sonic Team flirted with the idea all the way back in the re-creation of Green Hill in Sonic Adventure 2, but it was turned into a core mechanic for Unleashed. Many fans were surprised to see the game ebb-and-flow between the 2D and 3D perspectives, but it ended up working out really well. Sonic Team put an even stronger emphasis on the 2.5D style with Sonic Colors, with about 80% of the game’s stages being almost completely locked in the 2D perspective. Sonic Generations pretty much perfected the formula entirely with its focus on playing two different versions of the same stage. Even though it had the alternating stages, Modern Sonic’s levels still included 2D sections of their own. This shows just how much Sonic Team prefers the 2D perspective.
Despite so many franchises making the jump to 3D during the 5th and 6th generations, there are some that actually came back to 2D. Rayman and Donkey Kong are two examples of this, with both franchises featuring games that were marketed as being a “return to the roots”. There are even some franchises that actually never truly left the 2D realm, like Kirby who still actively embraces the classic perspective despite the advance in technology. Sonic has also returned to 2D in a big way—Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episodes I and II. Being the continuation to the classic Genesis trilogy, Sonic 4 was marketed as being a “blast from the past”.
Sonic, along with many other popular characters, have had ‘throwback’ games in recent years, and they were all well received.
But why return to the 2D realm? Or, in Kirby’s case, why ever leave? 2D and 3D really do have a pretty big gap between them. Most platformers have done fine transforming into 3D, but some mechanics simply work better in 2D. In Kirby’s case, perhaps the developers have simply concluded that there’s no need to bring the franchise into 3D because it works just fine in 2D. In Sonic’s case, the gameplay is a mixed bag.
Sonic works in 3D, but the best demonstration of this almost makes him feel like a race car on steroids. Lost World did a good job at allowing Sonic to make the best use of the environment, but at the cost of keeping his speed in check, well, too an extent. So the question still remains: which is better?
Exclusively, both perspectives have their merits and issues. 2D allows for a better focus on momentum and the elements of surprise and punishment. However, Sonic’s moveset is fairly limited. On the other hand, 3D offers a greater emphasis on speed, and allows for smoother-looking experience. However, platforming becomes a challenge because it’s just naturally slow. That’s why the dynamic-perspective of the Unleashed formula has ended up working so well. This has allowed Sonic Team to take the best factors from both perspectives, and create an experience that looks cool and feels good. While there are some fans that prefer one or the other, having them both in tandem with each other ultimately works better than having them separated.