Franchise Festival #87: Sonic the Hedgehog (2008-2017)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here. Please be sure to check out Franchise Festival #85: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991-1996) and Franchise Festival #86: Sonic the Hedgehog (1998-2007) for a history of Sega and Sonic up to this point.

This week we’re going split the difference between 2D and 3D with Sonic the Hedgehog‘s 2010s revival. Cover art is from Sonic Retro except where otherwise noted. Bandwidth-permitting, I recommend turning up the embedded music playlist above each section’s cover art (all by YouTube hero DeoxysPrime) to get the full Sonic experience.

Where two years are present, the first is Japan and the second is North America. I have tried to use the North American version of game and console titles after first identifying international variants – consequently, Genesis will stand in for Mega Drive and Sega CD will stand in for Mega-CD; writing both simply became too messy after a while.

Specific sources will be cited as they pertain below, but three key general sources inform much of the following text:

Table of Contents

Sonic Unleashed (2008)
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010-2012)
Sonic Colors (2010)
Sonic Generations (2011)
Sonic: Lost World (2013)
Sonic Mania (2017)
Sonic Forces (2017)


Sonic Unleashed (2008)

Sonic Team, under the direction of lead designer Yoshihasa Hashimoto, began work on a follow-up to the dismally-received series reboot Sonic ‘06 in 2007. Japan’s Aokistudio was contracted to produce concept art oriented around heightened interpretations of real-world locations. Sonic Unleashed, built on Sega’s new proprietary Hedgehog Engine and featuring a redesigned Sonic model by art director Sachiko Kawamura, was initially planned to be a third Sonic Adventure title before being re-branded midway through development as it took on a unique identity. The developers, aware of Sonic ‘06’s notorious reputation, took great pains to differentiate the new game from its direct predecessor even as a characteristically rushed development cycle threatened to undermine their efforts. Sonic Unleashed was released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2008 after barely a year in development while standard-definition adaptations for the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 2 were simultaneously produced by Dimps, the studio responsible for the Game Boy Advance’s Sonic Advance and Nintendo DS’ Sonic Rush sub-series.

The Werehog went through a lengthy design process from the earliest sketch (left) to its final in-game rendering (right). Source: Sonic Retro

In contrast with all preceding 3D series entries, Sonic Team’s namesake is the only playable character. The story begins in medias res as Super Sonic battles Eggman aboard an orbital station. The evil doctor tricks his nemesis, steals the Chaos Emeralds, and uses their power to launch a devastating attack on Earth. Sonic, now cursed to transform into a monstrous Werehog every night, returns to the planet and seeks to recover the Chaos Emeralds with the aid of a snarky amnesiac named Chip. They are opposed by Dark Gaia, a powerful monster released from the Earth’s core by Eggman’s assault.

Ten stages are subdivided into two categories: daytime sequences in which Sonic speeds through obstacle courses and moonlit portions in which Sonic brawls with enemies in his Werehog form. Interstitial hub areas roughly based on Greece, Mali, Italy, China, Greenland, Jordan, the United States, and Cambodia separate these stages and include non-player characters (NPCs) with whom Sonic and Chip interact to discover their next objective and complete sidequests. Unlike the realistically-proportioned humans of prior series entries, the NPCs of Sonic Unleashed are stylized in the manner of a Pixar film.

Dragon Road, the stage based on China, is especially beautiful. Source: MobyGames

Gameplay during the linear daytime stages is relatively similar to earlier 3D Sonic games; Sonic moves rapidly towards a goal, collects coins, and uses a Homing Attack to defeat enemies. New features include the Quick Step, which lets Sonic slide slightly to the left or right while running forward, and the ability to drift around turns. Sonic Boost, a speed increase that confers temporary invulnerability and the opportunity to access hidden areas, is available once the player has filled a gauge by accumulating enough rings. In a change that would prove influential on all later series entries, the perspective occasionally shifts from a behind-the-back angle to a 2.5D side-scrolling view during daytime sequences. Night is comparatively slower-paced as Sonic engages in melee combat while exploring open arenas and passageways. Light environmental puzzles in which Sonic must move obstacles or use his Werehog form’s stretchy arms to reach distant platforms serve to break up the combat.

If you like punching, you’ll like the Werehog. Source: Super Bunnyhop

The Dimps-made standard-definition version of the game, rather than representing a straight port with reduced visual fidelity, includes unique stage designs. The nighttime portions feel particularly different in the standard-definition version, as motion controls are used to activate the Werehog’s melee attacks on the Wii and the total number of nighttime stages is tripled on both the Wii and PlayStation 2. Progression through the game is likewise altered dramatically, as time advances between day and night sequences automatically rather than requiring input from the player. Finally, all explorable hub locations are replaced with static background images.

Tornado Defense rail shooter sequences are present in the Sonic Team original but absent in the Dimps version. Source: Sonic Retro

Sonic Unleashed was greeted with a largely negative response from the press. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions were praised for their daytime stages, which streamline what had worked in earlier 3D Sonic games while abandoning the lackluster gameplay of alternate characters, even as the Werehog portions were criticized for their glacial pace and poor technical performance. The Wii and PlayStation 2 versions paradoxically received more positive reviews due to their omission of hub areas, improved camera controls, and enhanced linearity. Over 2,400,000 copies were sold in the game’s first year on store shelves and digital distribution platforms in spite of its poor critical reception. A fully side-scrolling mobile adaptation developed and published by Gameloft in Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania followed a year after the home console release. Unlike Sonic ‘06, Sega’s decision to delist the game from physical store inventories due to its poor Metacritic scores would not prevent it from reappearing on the PlayStation Now streaming service in 2017 and the Xbox One backwards compatibility program in 2018.


Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010-2012)

Following the middling sales of Sonic Rush Adventure (2007), Sonic Team and Dimps would spend a longer-than-usual development cycle creating the first 2D home console Sonic the Hedgehog game since 1995. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 likewise marks the first use of high-definition (HD) graphics in a 2D Sonic title. A 2009 Gamespot interview with Sega associate brand manager Ken Ballough reveals that, although 2D Sonic had never really gone away on portable devices, fan reception had finally convinced Sega to revisit their mascot’s 16-bit glory days with a back-to-basics revival; the game’s close connection to its Genesis/Mega Drive forebears is implied through a name which places it as a direct successor to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was released in two episodes made available through digital distribution networks on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS, Android, Blackberry, and NVIDIA Shield; though a Wii version of Episode I was released, Nintendo platforms did not receive the second episode.

Longtime Sonic fans will not be surprised to find that Eggman’s original boss battle is revived yet again in Episode I. Source: MobyGames

The first episode omits much of what had come to define its eponymous hero in the preceding 15 years. No alternate playable characters are available, no hub areas separate stages, and no minigames interrupt the game’s core platforming action. Even its threadbare plot resembles the series’ origins rather than the cutscenes and dialogue sequences which characterized its latest 2D and 3D releases. Following the events of Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic must defeat Eggman and a set of boss machines drawn from his past adventures across four three-act zones. Special stages are new maps based on the swirling pachinko-like special stage of the series’ debut. Like the game’s bosses, Sonic’s moveset echoes the series’ 16-bit classics. His primary way of engaging with the world involves jumping, running, and spin-dashing. Sonic the Hedgehog 4’s only mechanical concession to the prior decade is the Homing Attack.

The fourth numbered Sonic the Hedgehog game is the first side-scrolling release to be rendered entirely in 3D. The player can only move Sonic along a two-dimensional axis, but all character models and stages are made up of textured polygons. The creation of an entirely 3D engine for the game resulted in the implementation of a controversial physics system, which bears little resemblance to the momentum-oriented physics of the games on which it is based.

As a rule, Episode II‘s stages are more inventive and more visually appealing than those of their direct predecessor. Source: MobyGames

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II followed two years later. It is similar to its predecessor, though its underlying engine has been heavily modified to address criticism of that game’s physics system. As suggested by an Episode I cutscene only available to players who collected all Chaos Emeralds, the primary antagonist of Episode II is Metal Sonic. In a nod to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Tails appears as a partner character who can be controlled by a second player and linear half-pipes return as special stages. Importing save data from Episode I also allows players to access a special mode in which they play as Metal Sonic.

Metal Sonic plays similar to Meat Sonic but he hovers along above the ground. Source: Paraxade0

Neither episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was well-received by critics. The second was more successful than the first, largely due to its improved physics, but both were troublingly innovation-averse. A planned third episode was quietly cancelled for unspecified reasons, leaving this sub-series to (perhaps appropriately) end on an unsatisfying cliffhanger.


Sonic Colors (2010)

Sonic Colors’ Wii and DS versions respectively entered development by Sonic Team and Dimps after they wrapped up production on Sonic Unleashed. The home console game’s central design principle, a balance between speed and precision platforming inspired by the franchise’s earliest titles, was overseen by long-time series producer Takashi Iizuka in his most involved role since Shadow the Hedgehog (2005). In spite of the troubling connotations associated with Iizuka’s last major directorial role, Sonic Colors would be the return to form fans had been awaiting since Sonic Adventure 2.

Players again exclusively control Sonic as he works his way through seven themed worlds which are subdivided into acts reminiscent of the series’ 16-bit origins; in contrast to those games’ comparatively restrained two or three-act structures, each Sonic Colors world besides the final one is composed of six individual stages. The game is set on Dr. Eggman’s Amazing Interstellar Amusement Park, a space station inspired by Disneyland. Sonic Colors’ scaled-back narrative centers on Sonic and Tails’ efforts to free from captivity small aliens called Wisps who are being used by Eggman to power the resort.

Like its real-world influence, Dr. Eggman’s Amazing Interstellar Amusement Park is divided into themed regions. Source: MobyGames

New gameplay elements are informed by mechanics in rival mascot platformer franchise Super Mario Bros. following the success of Sonic and Mario at the Olympic Games crossover spinoffs. Linear stages accessed from a world map alternate between fully 3D and 2.5D sequences emphasizing quick movement, platforming, and the collection of rings. The aforementioned Wisps function as power-ups once found, allowing Sonic to use abilities not generally present in earlier titles. Cyan Wisps temporarily transform Sonic into a laser that can bounce between surfaces, Yellow Wisps turn Sonic into a drill that can burrow through the environment, Orange Wisps give Sonic the ability to blast off vertically as a rocket, Pink Wisps let Sonic stick to walls using long spikes, Green Wisps turn Sonic into a floating balloon, Blue Wisps transform Sonic into a heavy cube, and Purple Wisps give Sonic the ability to grow massive as he moves forward devouring enemies. The Homing Attack, Quick Step, Speed Drift, and Sonic Boost mechanics return from Sonic Unleashed.

Sonic Colors alternates seamlessly between its two perspectives while finally eliminating the camera quirks of earlier series entries. Source: MobyGames

Game Land, a mode that allows two players to cooperatively take on challenges as robots in Eggman’s Sonic Simulator, is set on a planetoid idiosyncratically shaped like Sonic’s head. Stages are unlocked by collecting red coins in the single-player campaign. While its level art is more abstract than the rest of the game, six of Game Land’s 21 acts are designed to replicate stages from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The Chaos Emeralds, and the associated ability to play as Super Sonic in the single-player campaign, can only be acquired by taking part in the cooperative mode with a friend or AI-controlled companion.

Standard stages in the DS version (left) are comprised of 3D characters within 2D environments while boss encounters (right) are rendered in full 3D. Source: Sonic Retro

While a handful of outlets criticized Sonic Colors for high difficulty and its sometimes-quirky NVIDIA PhysX-based physics engine, reception to the Wii version was broadly positive. The Dimps-developed DS version, which features the same plot and overall stage themes but is an otherwise unique side-scrolling game built on the DS’ Sonic Rush (2005) and Sonic Rush Adventure (2007) engine, was similarly popular. The two versions together sold over 2,000,000 units and remain among the franchise’s best titles of the 21st Century.

Note: Cover art sourced from MobyGames


Sonic Generations (2011)

After the release of Sonic Unleashed, Takashi Iizuka and Sonic Team began exploring how to celebrate their mascot’s 20th anniversary. With development on its Wii sequel already underway, the plan to produce a game that paid homage to Sonic’s 2D and 3D adventures was temporarily shelved until that project was completed. Work on Sonic Generations was able to resume in earnest following the 2010 release of Sonic Colors. Under the direction of Hiroshi Miyamoto, the developers sought to revive stages from the series’ 20 year history in an appeal to older and newer fans. The resulting game launched on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC (a port handled by Devil’s Details) just in time to celebrate two decades of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic Adventure 2‘s City Escape receives its definitive appearance when played in Sonic Generations as Modern Sonic (right) while Classic Sonic (left) offers a unique perspective on a stage never meant to be viewed from the side. Source: Sonic Retro

Like Sonic Colors before it, the plot of Sonic Generations is relatively simple and conveyed through brief fully-voiced pre-rendered cutscenes. A chronologically-unmoored monster called the Time Eater casts Sonic’s friends into a black limbo and Sonic himself into a white void dotted with colorless landmarks representing past game settings. The modern incarnation of the hedgehog meets up with his silent classic form within the jumbled timeline and both set about restoring the world to its former state. As stages are completed, Sonic’s friends return from limbo and bonus challenges become available.

Stages can be tackled either as Modern Sonic or Classic Sonic; the former plays through stages which alternate between fully 3D and 2.5D action sequences and can execute most movement techniques from his Wii adventure, while the latter is confined to traditional 2D platforming in the style of the series’ 16-bit titles. Nine two-act zones are drawn from Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), Sonic and Knuckles (1994), Sonic Adventure (1998/1999), Sonic Adventure 2 (2001), Sonic Heroes (2003), Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic Unleashed (2008), and Sonic Colors (2010), while a bonus stage published as downloadable content (DLC) is a pinball table inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s Casino Night Zone. Encounters at the end of Sonic Generations’ three sections – each composed of three zones – likewise see the revival of final bosses from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Adventure, and Sonic Unleashed before Sonics Modern and Classic confront the Time Eater itself during the game’s climax.

While races against Metal Sonic and Shadow were safe bets, reviving Sonic ’06‘s Silver as a rival was a bold move. Source: Sonic Retro

While the primary goal of each stage is simply to reach the end point, a variety of additional objectives are unlocked once a zone is completed for the first time. These take the form of time attacks, battles with oversized enemies, scavenger hunts, and more. The most mechanically engaging challenges are races against rivals Metal Sonic, Shadow, and Silver. While some bonus objectives can be frustrating, and completing at least a portion of them is mandatory to progression through the story, they generally serve to offer replay value without falling victim to earlier Sonic titles’ emphasis on alternate playable characters or transformations with less successful mechanics.

Sonic Rush‘s Water Palace is depicted in 3D for the first time in Sonic Generations‘ 3DS adaptation. Source: Sonic Retro

Sega also published a Dimps-developed 3DS version of Sonic Generations in 2011 that is mechanically and visually distinct from the home console and PC releases of the same name. Though it was planned to pay homage to the title character’s portable adventures, Dimps’ Sonic Generations primarily features stages drawn from Genesis, Dreamcast, and Wii series entries; the only exception is Water Palace, which originally appeared in Sonic Rush (2005). Gameplay is bound to a 2D plane, though Modern Sonic can execute moves from the Sonic Rush games while Classic Sonic exclusively makes use of his 16-bit jump and spin-dash techniques. Like all stages aside from Green Hill Zone, the 3DS Sonic Generations bosses are different from those present in Sonic Team’s home console and PC versions.

Sonic Generations was a critical and commercial success but failed to sell as well as Sonic Unleashed or Sonic Colors. As Sonic the Hedgehog 4 had done for the series’ 2D iterations a year before, diminishing returns seem to have caused Sega to reevaluate the frequency with which they published 3D Sonic games. In contrast to the steady one to two year release interval which had characterized the franchise over the last decade, the series would move into a two to three year development cycle in the 2010s.


Sonic: Lost World (2013)

A small group of Sonic Team members who had begun experimenting with a new approach to the series following Sonic Colors were joined by the rest of the studio once development on Sonic Generations was complete. In contrast to the latter game, Sonic: Lost World was planned to be a major step forward for the character rather than a reflection on his history. Morio Kishimoto, the lead designer for Sonic Colors, reprised his role for Sonic’s new adventure. The game began production for PC before shifting to Nintendo’s Wii U home console midway through its two-and-a-half year development cycle. In spite of a superficial resemblance to Sonic Team’s unreleased Sega Saturn title Sonic X-Treme, Super Mario Galaxy (2007) seems to have been the greatest influence on Sonic: Lost World’s peculiar approach to level design.

The Lost Hex features some truly mind-bending geography. Source: Super Bunnyhop

Players take on the role of Sonic as he explores a floating world called the Lost Hex alongside partner Tails. Eggman, initially in control of a new group of antagonists called the Deadly Six led by horned monster Zavok, is forced to join Sonic when his erstwhile allies betray him. Supporting characters from past games make cameo appearances during cutscenes, but the game’s plot and gameplay are focused primarily on the relationship between Sonic, Eggman, and Tails.

The Lost Hex’s otherworldly nature allows levels to resemble the zany landscapes of Super Mario Galaxy rather than the comparatively realistic settings of Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colors. 3D sequences generally involve moving around spherical settings or long straightaway passages with a flexible gravitational pull in the style of Knuckles Chaotix’s special stages. 2D sequences, which return from Sonic Generations, likewise give the impression of a curved circle rotating under Sonic’s feet as he progresses rather than the linear horizontal stages of earlier series entries. Both modes of gameplay feature less speedy movement mechanics than had characterized the franchise so far, with Sonic’s jumps being especially devoid of forward momentum; Sonic: Lost World compensates for this through a new double jump and parkour-like ability to briefly run up walls. Wisps return from Sonic Colors, allowing the player to make use of transformations controlled by the Wii U GamePad’s distinctive touchscreen and gyroscope, though they lack the narrative context that they had in that game.

Sometimes Sonic rotates around landscapes while, at other times, landscapes rotate around him. Source: GameXplain

The series has undergone a major visual overhaul for the first time since Sonic ‘06. Artists Sachiko Kawamura and Yuji Uekawa retooled the look to be simpler and more colorful in an effort to make characters pop out against the busy rotating landscapes. This also aids in the game’s adaptation to the underpowered Wii U hardware, permitting it to run at a consistent 60 frames per second while retaining an HD resolution. The soundtrack, which is more atmospheric than the catchy pop of Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations, was primarily composed by Sonic Unleashed’s Tomoya Ohtani.

Multiplayer lets a second local player aid Sonic in his quest by manipulating a small remote-controlled drone that flies alongside him or compete against him in a race. Three downloadable single-act bonus zones inspired by Sonic Team’s own Nights into Dreams (1996) and Nintendo’s Yoshi and Legend of Zelda intellectual properties bring the total number of playable stages up to 34. Until its discontinuation in 2017, the Wii U’s MiiVerse social network let players exchange Wisps online and even access a unique Wisp unavailable during offline play.

Sonic learns to fear The Legend of Zelda‘s Cuccos. Source: Sonic Retro

Dimps developed a 3DS adaptation which features the same broad plot and premise, though its stages are unique; this version represents the first portable Sonic title with fully explorable 3D environments. A 2015 PC port of the Wii U original by Sega Europe omits GamePad functionality and Nintendo-based bonus stages but includes all other DLC. Critical reception to the game’s audio/visual presentation was positive, though Sonic’s reduced speed and floaty platforming controls kept it from reaching the heights of its two direct predecessors.

Note: Cover art sourced from MobyGames


Sonic Mania (2017)

Following the commercial and critical disappointment of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Dimps moved on to developing ports of home console Sonic games and Sonic Team turned the series over to an unlikely new creative team. Christian Whitehead, who had gotten his start by producing Sonic fan games before creating mobile remakes of Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 successfully pitched a new core series entry called Sonic Discovery to longtime series producer Takashi Iizuka in 2015. Whitehead enlisted the support of longtime collaborator Simon Thomley (of Headcannon Games) and independent studio PagodaWest Games to develop the franchise’s next 2D entry under the revised title Sonic Mania. While the game was announced as part of the series’ 25th anniversary celebration event in 2016 to widespread excitement, fans would need to wait until the following year to find out whether Whitehead’s aptitude for remaking classic series entries would translate into an essential new release. Any concerns evaporated in 2017, though, as the game’s release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC was greeted with near-universal acclaim.

A lushly hand-animated promotional trailer firmly contextualized Sonic Mania as the successor to Sonic and Knuckles. Source: Sonic Retro

Players take on the role of Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles as they battle against the once-again renamed Dr. Robotnik and his Hard Boiled Heavies, EggRobos transformed into more powerful forms through their interaction with Angel Island’s Phantom Ruby. Over the course of the adventure’s 12 primary zones, play shifts from Angel Island to Sonic CD’s Little Planet. Players who collect all Chaos Emeralds by tracking down UFOs in special stages inspired by Sonic CD are able to access an additional final zone and boss encounter. Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s Blue Sphere minigame, on the other hand, reappears as a way to acquire silver and gold medals that unlock bonus content and modes.

As suggested by the repurposing of earlier titles’ special stages, much of Sonic Mania is actually drawn directly from the series’ past. Whitehead’s Retro Engine, which had made its commercial debut in 2011 as a means to accurately reproduce Sonic CD, powers a startlingly faithful recreation of Sonic’s Genesis heyday. At the same time, a richer color palette and more extensive animations suggest what the franchise might have looked like if it had seen a 2D entry on the Sega Saturn.

Returning stages like Chemical Plant (left) offer new elements, new stages like Studiopolis Zone (center) are among the best in the series, and special stages (right) imagine what Sonic might have looked like in low-poly 3D. Source: Sonic Retro

Returning zones include Green Hill (Sonic the Hedgehog), Chemical Plant (Sonic the Hedgehog 2), Flying Battery (Sonic and Knuckles), Stardust Speedway (Sonic CD), Hydrocity (Sonic the Hedgehog 3), Oil Ocean (Sonic the Hedgehog 2), Lava Reef (Sonic and Knuckles), and Metallic Madness (Sonic CD); all are reimagined with new mechanics and bosses more complex than would have actually been possible on the Genesis or Sega CD. New zones include Studiopolis, Press Garden, Mirage Saloon, and Titanic Monarch.

While power-ups and character moves broadly echo Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic has an additional movement technique not present in any earlier series entry. The drop dash, which allows Sonic to drop from a jump into a rolling dash, was inspired by Whitehead’s observation that players unfamiliar with traditional Sonic mechanics would sometimes lose momentum when they got hung up on a hill. The move proved so popular that it would be included in M2’s subsequent re-releases of earlier titles under its Sega Ages product line.

Mighty finally gets a unique moveset while Ray is revealed not to have been a collective fever dream of the early 1990s. Source: MobyGames

A year after its initial release on digital distribution platforms, Sonic Mania was augmented with DLC and an enhanced retail edition. Sonic Mania Plus integrates remixed versions of stages and even introduces two new playable characters only recognizable by longtime series fans: Mighty the Armadillo makes his first series reappearance since Knuckles Chaotix while Ray the Flying Squirrel is featured here for the first time in a core Sonic the Hedgehog title more than 20 years after his debut in the arcade-only spinoff SegaSonic the Hedgehog (1993). Giving the reins of its flagship property to a team of independent studios with their roots in Sonic the Hedgehog’s online fan community had paid off handsomely. For the first time in over a decade, Sonic the Hedgehog was running at top speed.

Note: Cover art sourced from Amazon

Sonic Forces (2017)

Sonic Forces began development in 2013 under Sonic Team and progressed alongside the second party-produced Sonic Mania. In spite of the use of an updated version of Sonic Unleashed’s and Sonic Generations’ Hedgehog Engine, which should have made the production easy for a staff primarily composed of veterans from those two games, Sonic Forces represents the longest development cycle in series history. Perhaps the game’s complex environments – which include several highly detailed urban settings – or implementation of a new playable character slowed the process down.

In a brief 2017 interview with Polygon’s Allegra Frank, Sonic Forces producers Shun Nakamura and Takashi Iizuka acknowledged that their inclusion of a Custom Hero mode was inspired by the Sonic fan community’s long-running sub-culture of original characters. These creations have proliferated online for years and vary widely in their adherence to the franchise’s family-friendly aesthetic. In Sonic Forces – released on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch in 2017 – Sonic Team offers the first opportunity for players to craft their own in-game avatar from a set of pre-created elements.

Sonic Forces‘ tone is weirdly gritty. Knuckles musing about despair and the horrors of war is a highlight. Source: Sonic Retro

The plot kicks off with an introductory level culminating in Sonic’s capture by Eggman and a team of lieutenants including newcomer Infinity and returning antagonists Metal Sonic, Shadow, Chaos, and Zavok. As the planet descends into a war-torn society ruled by Eggman, Knuckles leads Sonic’s allies to mount a resistance movement. The player’s Custom Hero is recruited by Knuckles for a rescue mission that breaks Sonic out of imprisonment on a space station shortly before his planned execution and the two are are joined by Classic Sonic through vaguely-justified time travel. The remaining stages and cutscenes see Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, the Custom Hero, and their NPC allies fighting to overthrow Eggman’s authoritarian regime.

While still linear, stages offer the impression of sprawling explorable space through a staggering level of architectural detail. Source: Sonic Retro

Level design is largely similar to that of Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors as gameplay alternates between fully 3D and 2.5D platforming sequences within more or less linear stages. Explorable hub locations are again eschewed in favor of a menu-based world map. Sonics Modern and Classic perform identically to how they had in Sonic Generations, while the Custom Hero can make use of projectile and melee weapons called Wispons once they are acquired during the campaign. When the Custom Hero and Modern Sonic are partnered up during certain stages, they can activate a quick-time based Double Boost. In a nod to changing game design trends, Sonic Forces fully eliminates the series’ traditional life system in favor of unlimited continues.

Custom Heroes can be made to look very silly. Source: Blue Sky Gameplay

Free DLC Episode Shadow expands the story to include three redesigned stages in which the player can control Shadow the Hedgehog and explore events immediately preceding the main campaign. A DLC pack which opens up the ability to transform into Super Sonic was controversially planned to cost money following a brief window of time in which it could be downloaded for free, but negative fan feedback eventually caused Sega to reconsider. Costume options for the Custom Hero, which are normally unlocked by acquiring hidden red rings in stages, were likewise expanded through free DLC.

Sonic Forces was less consistent than Sonic Mania, which had been released only three months earlier, though its commercial success confirmed that it may yet represent the best way forward for the franchise in the years ahead. Its presentation was superlative, but critics generally found the gameplay repetitive and uninspired. The Switch version was particularly panned for its poor performance. Four years in development had been enough to produce a profitable 3D Sonic game but left long-term fans wondering why it was unable to match the excellence of the second-party-developed Sonic Mania. In spite of its strong sales, no sequel has been announced at the time of writing nearly three years after Sonic Forces‘ release.


Sega and Sonic Team have evolved significantly over the past 25 years, but a few core traits have remained consistent. Naoto Ohshima and Yuji Naka departed to form independent studios while Takashi Iizuka remained an ever-present shepherd for Sega’s spiny blue mascot. Sonic moved into the third dimension and then occasionally back to the second but nearly always emphasized speed and a snarky attitude. In spite of sometimes-misguided lapses into loose mechanics or overwrought narratives, Sonic Team has consistently delivered impressive visuals and stirring soundtracks. The integration of elements which appeal to multiple generations of fans, whether they prefer the side-scrolling platformers of the 1990s or the character-driven drama of the 2000s, has secured the franchise a bright future ahead.

What do you think about Sonic’s most recent decade? Does the hybridization of 2D and 3D gameplay feel like a combination of what works well in both formats or does it water down the formula too much? Is the omission of playable allies an improvement or a step backwards? Do you have a case of Sonic Mania? Let’s discuss below.

Next week we’ll be wrapping up Sonic Month with a quick overview of the series’ spinoffs. Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #88: Sonic the Hedgehog Spinoffs – April 24
  • #89: The Witcher – May 1
  • #90: Mortal Kombat – May 8
  • #91: Masters of Orion – May 15
  • #92: Mega Man Zero – May 22