(Warning. Warning. Kichirant detected off the starboard bow!)
You know, I'm sitting here half-amused and half-terrified, watching The 3 Ninjas thanks to a friend of mine. As pathetic as this is, I have to admit that I still find it kind of entertaining. It's sheer batshit silliness from the very beginning, but what can I say?
For a movie that's supposed to be a cash-in on the success of Home Alone and TMNT, it isn't too bad. Just idiotic fun for kids, with just enough absurdity and subtext to be entertaining to adults who are awake at 4am with nothing else to do.
Ahem, at any rate, someone (who is very awesome) bought me Sonic Generations not long ago, and I've been playing it. It's not a terrible game, but I certainly pity anybody who bought it at retail price; if there's one criticism I'll make of the gaming world at the moment, it's that the prices most games sell at are simply exorbitant. You don't get enough entertainment out of these games to justify the price-tag.
SonGen is also just mindless fun, and a big fat nostalgia trip. Nothing to justify a $60 (or $90-120, whatever) cost but I wouldn't call this a bad game. It got me thinking again.
To be rather blunt about it, no, I'm not a Sonic fanboy. I've made some regrettable comments about the earlier Sonic games before, mostly out of irritation and because I got carried away. Honestly, Sonic and Sonic critics piss me off, because there is so much potential in the franchise and most of the criticisms are inane.
Yet there is much to criticize.
So, I was thinking about it, and I realized what utter travesties the recent Sonic games resemble. I believe a strong comparison can be made between SonicTeam and LucasArts.
Oh yes, I just compared Sonic The Hedgehog to the SW prequels. I don't know who exactly, but I'm sure that's already pissed someone off somewhere.
Obviously, the most obvious comparison is that they're guilty pleasures for a lot of us. We know The Phantom Menace is shit, but we watch it anyway just to see Spikyface McSpinnypants whoop two Jedi simultaneously in an over-choreographed, soulless display of glow-stick gymnastics. In this same way, I admit that I quite liked playing Sonic Heroes. Hell, I got quite good at it, and Sonic's music has always been downright addictive.
However, I confess straightaway that Sonic Heroes was a rushed, poorly-conceived game that let usdown horribly. I expected more after Sonic Adventure 2, and that's the problem.
To give a sense of chronology, I actually played Sonic Heroes first. A demo of it, rather. It was probably the absolute LAST demo of a game I ever played. It gave me a moment of "OH! That's right, I remember this Sonic thing!" I was fifteen at the time, and Sonic was something I remembered from the past. When I was nine, I had a younger friend next door who I used to hang out with and we would watch The Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic SatAM. I also caught Sonic Underground on TV a few years later. So the older games didn't exactly loom very large in my understanding of the franchise at the time: to me, Sonic was this old game character that starred in a couple of wacky cartoons.
So Sonic Heroes surprised the hell out of me. For all its flaws, it was a cheery, colorful game with absolutely stunning music - I didn't expect such good music, and the joyful presentation of the game made it fun to play in a sort of juvenile way. Just a silly platform game (again, would've been excellent if it cost half of what it did) and I was glad to see Sonic and Tails again.
But my friend seized on the opportunity to introduce me to Sonic Adventure 2, and I was very impressed. SA2 quickly became a favorite game of my entire damn circle of friends, and it's the standard I judge Sonic games by now.
For those who haven't played it, let me describe it quickly. Sonic Adventure 2 was a 3D platform game that featured six playable characters from the Sonic universe with three styles of play between them: a 3D, fast paced platforming with Sonic and Shadow; treasure-hunting levels with Knuckles and Rouge; and arcade/platform shooting with Tails and Dr. "Eggman." The story was substantial. Here it is in a nutshell. Spoiler alert:
"Shadow" the hedgehog was a genetic experiment to create the ultimate life-form, in tune with chaos energies. He lived on a space station with his creators, and his best friend was the chief research scientist's granddaughter, Maria.
Fearing the power of the space station (specifically, its chaos-energy powered KillSat gun) and Shadow, the government sent a strike-force to arrest the scientists and capture Shadow. They succeeded, despite Maria giving her life to save Shadow - she was shot in front of his eyes.
Shadow, suffering from amnesia due to being kept in cryogenic sleep and only remembering the government's betrayal, implements a revenge plot to either destroy or hold the world's government to ransom, using Dr. Eggman and Rouge as pawns. Eventually, he recovers the gems that powered the space station and his plan is mostly successful; even when Sonic and friends intervene and disable the station's cannon, a fail-safe had already been prepared. It's going to smash into the planet with the emeralds on board and annihilate life on Earth.
Amy Rose's whining triggers a flashback for Shadow and he remembers that, his own anger aside, Maria wanted him to use his powers to protect the planet and give people a chance to be happy, not seek revenge. Realizing his error, he races to help Sonic and the others (including Rogue and Eggman) stop the space station's descent. Discovering the station is being controlled by a prototype of himself, a monstrous lizard that cannot live without life support, Shadow urges the others to continue ahead while he contends with the aberration.
After a protracted battle that even took to space, the hedgehogs understand the station is on a terminal descent. Using everything they had left, they use the emeralds to teleport the station to the other side of the planet. The effort depletes Shadow's energy reserves and he starts to fall to Earth. Admitting that Sonic was the true "ultimate life-form" with more power than even he, Shadow accepts death as penance for his actions and he dies a hero. (Only he doesn't, because Yuji Naka is a fucking moron.)
... That's a fucking videogame about colorful hedgehogs defeating robots by headbutting them. At one time, the game even lets you think that Sonic was killed, and you control a determined Tails fighting to avenge him and stop Eggman. All of this didn't change the fact that mostly, SA2 was a light-hearted, colorful experience that came across as a real adventure. I don't care that they're cartoon rodents, that's a plot, and it's perfect for younger players.
People get stupid at times and think that kids can only stomach simplistic plots with zero drama whatsoever. Remember at all times that kids, specifically tweens and teens, live and breathe melodrama, so this was absolutely perfect. This is what we want. Don't lie to yourself and tell me this isn't what the tween fans of Sonic want. You might not like it, but it's damn sweet when you're twelve.
But Yuji Naka suddenly turned into George Lucas, with each game following just getting either stupider or less dramatic by orders of magnitudes. Sonic 2006 was an exciting premise, but they cocked it up so badly the fandom could barely believe it. The DBZ references just got tiresome too.
At this point, the Lucasification of Sonic's creators became very evident. You can see it in Sonic X - they think "the franchise is for kids" despite the multiple polls (most of which I voted in personally) showing their fan-base was over eighteen. Then, they go right ahead and prove they don't understand kids either. Jar-Jar Binks, meet Cream The Rabbit. Thankfully, they seem to be holding off on this now.
Misunderstanding their target audience and splitting their efforts between the very young, the tweens, and the mentally retarded (seriously, I hope they rot in hell for Silver the Hedgehog), SonicTeam has made game after game without much in the way of a plot. Which would be fine if the gameplay was half-decent, but 9 times out of 10 they've been too god damn lazy and made poor design choices.
Some of the poor choices seem to be due to them listening to the "critics." As I've already said, folks: 3D is not Sonic's hemlock. Sonic Adventure 2 proved that Sonic games can operate very, very well in 3D environments. This is NOT the problem with modern Sonic games. The problem is the games are shit, it's different.
So, misunderstanding their audience and being lazy with both plots and game design are the main flaws with Sonic games now, in my opinion. That brings me to another problem I've mentioned before: Naka does not understand the characters or how to portray them anymore.
BioWare's Sonic RPG was well-written, with each character being immediately identifiable just by reading one of their lines. They GOT the characters, perfectly, and infused the game with a delightfully wry humor. It was certainly not a fantastic game, but in this area they excelled better than any other Sonic game ever has. I even found myself going "shit, I LIKE Rouge all of a sudden!"
So most major release Sonic games have insipid plots with absolutely zero dramatic gravitas, and the characters are so shallow you couldn't drown an amoeba in them. They're definitely improving the game-play again, from Unleashed to Colors to Generations, but things still seem wrong to me.
To return to the 3D-versus-2D thing, in Generations I find it almost impossible to enjoy the 2D levels because the controls are dismal. Sonic slips all over the place like he's on rollerblades (I know there's an upgrade that lets you stop more easily, but one: it shouldn't be necessary; and two: this problem is present in the 3D levels of Unleashed as well). The crisp, precise controls of Sonic Adventure 2 just don't seem to be there. On the contrary, the slip-n-slide physics make 2D and its inherently lesser warning time of obstacles a nightmare.
Don't get me wrong, I like the direction they're trying to go and I like Sonic Generations. The fast-paced, flowing experience of a Sonic game in a colorful environment is a joy that Mario just doesn't bring to the table. I LOVE how Sonic seems to be having so much fun, it's almost infectious! But it annoys me that SEGA and ST seem to be having so much trouble working these kinks out and producing a half-way decent, exciting plot for the kids (and us adults who still watch The 3 Ninjas occasionally) when they've already got a pretty damn good example already.
It makes me wonder if SA2's excellence came from some other source, and then Naka (or someone else) has started diddling with the series, having too much personal control and brooking no disagreement. It makes me think this person, whoever it is, is either lazy or doesn't really know what to do with the potential in his hands. Or, perhaps it's a committee of soulless business executives too scared to push the envelope.
That's why I defend Sonic to the bitter end. Because I see the potential for it to be a fantastic franchise of kids games and cartoons, something that could mix the humor and characters and drama and bright colorfulness that's perfect for the audience; like Avatar: The Last Airbender.
And when you could be the Avatar: TLA of kids games and instead you choose to wallow in mediocrity like a baffled hippopotamus it just frustrates the everliving fuckery out of people like me.
But maybe I shouldn't worry about it. Maybe I'm asking too much. Come on people. Just sit down, write a good story, and make a smooth, characterful platform game. You've done it before. The characters are right there for you to reuse. Remember them?