By losing a dimension, Sonic has regained a sense of direction

The year was 1991. I wasn't born, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was showing in cinemas and Sonic the Hedgehog had just exploded onto the Sega Genesis and into the public consciousness. 

With Sonic, Sega seemed to have the mascot they were longing for – something that wasn't similar to Mario but with the potential to be a massive success.

Despite his reputation for constantly moving, Sonic has stuck around for Sega and although the release of games starring him has been fairly consistent over the past 26 years, the quality has not. 

Though Sega really pushed how different Sonic was from Mario, they had several similarities. Both started out in the 2D platformer genre, both had bright and appealing designs, and eventually both of them stepped into the third dimension and explored other kinds of gameplay. 

Unfortunately, very unlike Mario, the Sonic franchise tended to be less successful when it experimented. Sonic never really had its direction-affirming Super Mario 64 moment and it’s perhaps partly because of this that the series has been somewhat lacking in terms of quality control. 

Return to form

That’s why it’s been so good to see the recent success of Sonic Mania. The consensus appears to be that this is the best Sonic game in years (though, let's face it, that wouldn't be all that hard). 

The appeal of Mania isn’t that it’s a hugely modern Sonic that uses all the capabilities of the current generation, but because it’s a Sonic that both recognizes and uses what made the original game so great.

It does kind of make you wonder why so many of Sonic’s games over the years have fallen so flat.

I love the original game and I think the fact that I was introduced to Sonic in his 2D, side-scrolling form does mean I'm probably slightly biased. 

That being said, I don’t outright dislike the later Sonic games  – some of his 3D adventures may have been bad but some of them were genuinely really good. Sonic Adventures remains one of my absolute favorite titles but not for the reasons I love the original Sonic. I enjoy it as a game, but not a Sonic game.

While adding a third dimension was something that managed to uncover entirely new possibilities for games like Rayman and Mario and it felt like they grew to fill the new space they had, for Sonic the space felt misused and misunderstood.

For me, Sonic is a game where speed is both a tool and a reward. 

Get good, get faster, get better, continue. It's not just about going fast, it's about becoming good at going fast and knowing when going fast isn't good. Exploration wasn't absent, it was just different.

I suppose from Sega’s weaker position, once Mario started branching out it must have looked pretty essential to start offering different Sonic experiences to keep up. 

However, Mario's pace, structure and environment translated more effectively across different dimensions and genres. This wasn't because Mario was loads better than Sega but because Nintendo never forgot to distill Mario down to its most successful core mechanics and adapt them appropriately. 

Mario madness

Sega did this less successfully, but being behind and trying to catch up will have this effect. Sonic games were increasingly a reaction to Nintendo rather than a considered decision from Sega. It probably didn't help that while Nintendo had a growing number of popular figures, Sega was relying very heavily on Sonic.

As I said, I always felt Sonic was more about speed, flow and exploring in order to learn how to use these things correctly rather than just speed on its own. This is something which came across best in condensed 2D. A big part of Sonic's problem is that as time went on, Sonic's speed increasingly became a characteristic rather than an in-game tool to be earned and mastered.

The condensed levels of the early game provide a sense of speed and flow without requiring that the player always be going as fast as possible. When Sonic went 3D, camera angles had to shift and levels had to expand.

When this happened it increasingly seemed that the fun was supposed to come from moving as quickly as possible through these relatively uninteresting game worlds, rather than learning the most efficient way to move through them. 

As a result, while 3D levels encouraged Sonic's speed and showed it off, they didn't necessarily effectively challenge it or use it. Increasingly I felt I was just playing another 3D platformer with Sonic in it rather than playing a Sonic game. Speed became a constant, challenge became a rarity and Sonic lost his appeal to older audiences. 

Sonic’s 3D worlds tended to be visually great they were never really necessary. Sure, they allowed for the gameplay experimentation that Sega probably wanted and though not all of these experiments were bad, the important thing to point out is that none of them made the core Sonic experience better. It never felt like the formula was quite right.  

To be the multi-dimensional success that Mario was, Sega probably would have had to redefine Sonic in a more clear way than it did, both for itself and for players. 

Instead, it seemed that Sega fixated on the idea of Sonic being different just because he went fast, convinced themselves this was the reason for his success and dropped him into the most popular genres of the moment.

Sense of direction

By going back to basics, Sonic Mania makes it feel more like a distinct game again rather than just a vehicle for a mascot. Sometimes it can feel like remakes and re-releases are simply an attempt to cash in on nostalgia. 

Sometimes, though, for franchises that have gone on as long as Sonic has they’re the perfect opportunity to drop the unnecessary baggage and bloat that’s built up over the years without having to make any excuses.

By losing a dimension, dropping a lot of competitive pressure, and (incredibly) slowing down a little, Sonic has regained a sense of focus and direction. Long may he run.

  • Emma Boyle is taking a look back at games gone by (some of them older than she is.) Follow her time traveling adventures in her bi-weekly Retro Respawn column. Got any games you'd especially like to see her revisit? Let her know on Twitter @emmbo_  
Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.