This weekend I got a chance to stop by the SEGA booth at PAX and speak with a few representatives about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. Not only were they happy to give me a rundown of the game and all its features, they were also happy to shoot the breeze about Sonic's future and the overall design direction of the series. So, of course, I had to start with the question that was on everybody's mind: "Will Sonic ever turn into a werewolf again?" The answer is no, thankfully.
It appears as if SEGA is learning from the mistakes of their past. The booth reps acknowledged that games like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic and the Black Knight were dark times in Sonic's history. However, they also noted that the success of newer games like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations have given them a better idea of what the Sonic fan base is actually looking for. They then used this info to design Sonic 4: Episode II, and they plan on following the same trends throughout all future Sonic titles. So what does this mean for our spikey blue classic gaming mascot?
First of all, the dev team now realizes that momentum is very important in a Sonic game. In fact, the entire physics engine of Sonic 4 has been redone for Episode II. Sonic has far less traction than he had before, making platforming feel trickier while simultaneously rewarding players who keep Sonic at his top speed. In fact, speed seems to be the primary focus of all modern day Sonic games. Even the classic Sonic levels of Sonic Generations focused on speed before anything else. In Episode II, this speed is extended to Tails. He can now fly about as fast as Sonic can run, even when he is carrying Sonic along with him. The same holds true for Tails' ability to swim, which makes water levels far easier to navigate.
Sonic Team also seems to have a renewed focus on level design. The snowy level of Episode II that I played at PAX was designed in such a way that you immediately knew where the upper and lower paths diverged. Sometimes, screwing up on the highest path in the level would drop you all the way to the lower path, and this penalty would be so severe that you would never make that same mistake again.
Future Sonic levels seem to be geared toward the speed running crowd. Platforms seem to be spaced apart in such a way that you can easily skip one or two if you are jumping at high speed. Levels are built with long straightaways filled with loops that continually keep your speed at max. Most of the strategy in these levels involves memorizing where the pitfalls are and avoiding them at the last second. Unfortunately, this does boil a lot of Sonic gameplay down to rote memorization, but hardcore Sonic fans would argue that this isn't a bad thing.
The booth reps also said that SEGA is committed to delivering more classic Sonic games in the future. While they confirmed that there would be no DLC add-ons for Episode II, they did say that Episode II does not end the Sonic 4 story. Instead, they are taking Sonic games one at a time. If Episode II does well, Episode III will come out. After that, IV, and so on until they get to the point where they are ready to develop Sonic 5 (the rep speculated this wouldn't be until after Sonic 4: Episode IV).
I asked if Sonic would be remaining 2D in the future. I was told that 3D Sonic is a core part of the brand, but that SEGA is aware that fans want more 2D action. Further Sonic titles will probably continue to use the fusion of 3D and 2D gameplay. SEGA is also aware that Sonic fans want to see more old school conflict between Sonic and Robotnik. This means that we will see less of Sonic traveling through time, space, fantasy worlds, and other dimensions. All we need is just Sonic, his furry friends, and lots of evil robots.
Speaking of furry friends, SEGA also seems to have figured out that Sonic: The Hedgehog has reached a critical furry mass of supporting characters. The booth reps said that they want to shift the focus of Sonic games back onto Sonic himself. Although Tails was added to Sonic 4: Episode II, the focus still remains on Sonic and the Sonic-style gameplay. This holds true for mainstream titles as well. Sonic will always be the main character, and supporting characters will be slowly introduced as if the games are starting all over again.
With a renewed focus on the breakneck speed gameplay that the core Sonic fan base loves so much, Sonic is speeding back onto the scene. As long as SEGA sticks to the design goals they talked about at PAX, Sonic's future should be bright indeed. Judging by my time with Sonic 4: Episode II, that's exactly what Sonic Team is doing.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: April 11, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*