In theory, I have always loved the concept of Sonic the Hedgehog platforming games. Sonic the Hedgehog’s memorable catchphrase, Gotta Go Fast, sums up at the core what should be the series differentiating factor from other mascot platformers, the thrill of platforming at high speed. You’ve got your Mario games, about careful and considered platforming through increasingly difficult environmental challenges, you’ve got your Super Meat Boy style platformers, where the challenge is in navigating near impossibly precise levels with set solutions, and the unique selling point of Sonic games has always been the character’s speed.
Except, as we all know, Sonic games have never been as encouraging of fast and frantic play as they somewhat advertise themselves to be. Right from the original game’s release on the Mega Drive / Genesis, Sonic games punish players for going right ahead at full speed. Obstacles are thrown in front of players with minimal time to dodge them if you’re speeding fast, causing you to drop all your protective rings. Collecting those rings back up requires stopping your sprint, running back and forth for a moment, then building your momentum back up from scratch. If you die and lose a life, you are thrown backwards in the level, having to rebuild that speed and replay content you’ve already completed. levels are peppered with slow swimming sections, moments of paused slow precision platforming, and failed moves often end in slow journeys back to a path where you can pick up speed.
Sonic Games have never really encouraged going fast, in fact they often punish it with mechanics which cause you to pause and stop the full of a full speed sprint, and I think that’s one aspect of the series I have never really enjoyed.
Look, I’m not saying Sonic games are inherently bad, or that the entire series needs to change to suit the way I want to play, but I think one thing that’s clear is over the years Sonic games have struggled to find a clear sense of identity, and leaning more heavily into being the fast and stylish platformer might be a potential solution to that problem.
If you look at Sonic games over the past decade the series has featured a slow melee combat focused werewolf, a side scrolling run and jump platformer, a 3D platformer with full directional control and millennial voice acted attitudes, a third person autorunner on a set track shot from behind, a game about switching between sidescrolling and autorunning, a game about a knight with a sword, and a Mario Galaxy style slower paced platformer on giant shapes with unique gravity. The sonic series has an undeniably identity crisis, reinventing the wheel every couple of years and trying something totally different, and perhaps this could be one path forward for the troubled series.
I want to see a Sonic Game that leans fully into being about platforming at speed. Give the player fewer penalties that cause them to slow down to rectify mistakes by removing the rings system. If you focus more on fewer but more consequential penalties across the track, times that you do screw up will not necessitate stopping to pause the fun, and you would have fewer nasty surprises just waiting to punish the player for daring to rush into things. Perhaps zoom the camera out a little on 2D entries in the series, so you have more time to see upcoming obstacles coming, even if your speed still means you need to physically react fast to stay safe.
Make checkpoints more frequent, loads shorter, and take away the need to take time building back up to speed. Did you screw up? Just jump right back into the chaos and try again. Make it so that if you fail, you don’t have to waste time before getting back to what’s fun. Perhaps have specific threats chasing you, or stricter time limits, to encourage platforming without wasting time. Make it so that there are occasionally safer paths, but you’re not going to be able to complete the level if you don’t take a few of the risky time saving routes. Make playing risky and fast a choice that’s encouraged rather than something likely to cause you injury.
Honestly, I kind of wish the Sonic series would learn a little from games like Sayonara Wild Hearts. I’m not saying make the Sonic games into autorunning music rhythm affairs with scripted button prompt sequences, but look perhaps at how that game makes you feel fast, gives you obstacles that don’t force you to slow down and recover, features frequent checkpoints with respawns fast to load and fast to throw you back in the game, and with incentives not to just take the easy route at high speed. Honestly, Sayonara Wild Hearts embodied that Gotta Go Fast mentality better than Sonic at times, and that’s something worth taking note of.
I honestly think the Sonic series has a core concept that could differentiate it from its competition, but it needs to grow and commit. If Sonic as a character “Gotta Go Fast”, the designers of the game need to stop punishing players for wanting to go fast, and reevaluate their design to encourage challenges around going fast consistently.