Opinion// Sonic Boom - Shark Jumping or Golden Ring?

Posted 13 Feb 2014 12:18 by
Sonic Boom
Sonic Boom
Nothing’s ever simple when it comes to Sonic the Hedgehog, is it? Post-apocalyptic storylines, an army of eclectic side characters, South Islands and Mobiuses, Robotniks and Eggmen...

It’s all a bit complicated for a blue ball smacking a fat man about. And last week, some sixteen years after the Japanese and Western Sonic stories had been painstakingly unified, SEGA went and confused everything again by announcing a reboot... that exists alongside the current Sonic Team series. Wha?

Simply put, Sonic Boom marks a concerted effort by SEGA of America to re-engage with modern kids, to try and make the blue blur as big of a merchandising phenomenon as he was in the early 1990s. As such, there’s a brand new TV show, produced by French studio OuiDO and an apparently exhaustive line of toys and tat being made in collaboration with Tomy.

Sonic Boom
Sonic Boom
That’s where the similarities end with previous attempts to resuscitate Sonic’s popularity (and where the controversy begins). SEGA is not soft-balling this one, revealing a bold new design for Sonic, Knuckles, Tails and Amy, as well as announcing a commitment to develop a number of video games based on the new series. Naturally, opinion has been mixed on the reveal, with die-hard fans immediately rejecting the new direction.

I have to admit I was quite confused by the whole thing myself; with the original short, stumpy 1991 Sonic more recognizable than Mickey Mouse, it seems strange for SEGA not to look to its past to re-engage with kids and deliver a silent protagonist charm that would have been welcomed by children and adults alike – in a similar vein to Nintendo’s success with the Super Mario series.

Instead, at first glance it feels like the new-look Sonic characters were designed by focus groups, rather than the considered and charismatic original by Naoto Ohshima. It feels very ‘American’ in nature: subtlety appears to have been thrown out of the window, with characters' personality traits screaming in your face. If it was obvious before that Knuckles was the strongman in the team – with his enlarged always-closed fists and snarling facial expression – then the visual clues in Sonic Boom’s ‘roid rage’ Knuckles work to give the audience blunt force trauma.

Sonic Boom
Sonic Boom
But there’s an equal number of fans who embrace this new design, and given that Sonic’s mass appeal is to Western consumers anyway, it kind of makes sense that this re-imagining would adopt such an exaggerated design direction. And, after some time, I got used to the new designs myself – as a different branch of the Sonic franchise, it will be interesting to see how these characters will be played out and represented. Amy, for instance, is said to be a much stronger and relatable female character than in past games, which can only be a good thing.

Better yet is how the game itself sounds. In development by Big Red Button (a new studio consisting of former Naughty Dog employees), Sonic Boom on Wii U and 3DS promises a number of gameplay elements that will have die-hard fans jumping for joy. In particular, that stages are more open and will include different routes for each character to explore – a throwback to Sonic 3 & Knuckles that many have been calling for since the Mega Drive era. Add the pedigree of the developers to the mix – with previous works including Jak & Daxter and Crash Bandicoot – and there’s no doubt that this particular action platformer is in good hands.

As refreshing as the US-based project sounds, it does raise an interesting question: will Sonic Team Japan’s output still be considered top dog? This reboot was born out of a necessity to re-energise interest in the Sonic franchise, that much is obvious. And although Sonic Team has been getting back on track with the franchise in recent years – Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations in particular being critical highlights – the studio has had trouble shaking its wobbly development past. It’s clear that even the better games haven’t been reaching the sales that might be considered fitting for one of the industry’s most iconic mascots.

As a result, Sonic Boom could be taken as a sign that SEGA West bosses feel the old guard in Japan can’t make the grade anymore, and that (re-)fragmentation of the game series is a price worth paying for renewed mass-market appeal. Although the publisher has stressed that Sonic Boom will not replace the current Japanese line of games, its marketing and PR efforts betray that assertion – at least, in part.

Sonic Generations
Sonic Generations
There is no way SEGA would be spending a huge amount of money on merchandising, television rights and high-profile game development for an experimental ‘new pillar’ in the franchise. This is not a spin-off, but rather a whole new continuity that will run in parallel with the established Japanese canon. It is inevitable that SEGA of America and Sonic Team’s products will be battling for the title of ‘core Sonic series’ soon enough, and the survival of either will come down to how much each will resonate with the target audience.

In Japan, there is no risk of that happening – Sonic Boom will only be released in the US and European territories – but in the West it is possible that Sonic Team’s ‘Classic Sonic’ and ‘Modern Sonic’ will live on as a sub-series, with the rebooted US effort replacing it as the mainline. But, rather than get pessimistic about such things, I see this as an opportunity for Japan to conduct a little reboot of its own.

Over the last ten years, we’ve seen Sonic’s reputation as a game franchise destroyed by efforts within Sonic Team to make the series appeal more to Western fans - owing perhaps to a distinctly Japanese interpretation of Western feedback. When fans say they want more epic scenes, for example, they mean in the vein of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, not the tedious tripe that eventually became Sonic 2006. When fans indicated they wanted the series to return to its light-hearted roots, they didn’t necessarily want an often-times patronizing and toe-curlingly cheesy story script in Sonic Colours and Sonic Lost World, written by American comedy writers.

With Sonic Boom releasing on 3DS and Wii U, Sonic Team appears to have the privilege of working on the first game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (SEGA is not talking about it yet, but various internal documents have teased a new title for release in 2015, and it’s not likely to be a second title by Big Red Button). As such, the studio has a chance to start fresh – to ditch the focus on ‘storyline’ and ‘character development’ and leave all that stuff to the Americans. Free of these shackles, it can create a game that more accurately reflects the charisma and personality of its Japanese developers.

Like John Lasseter when establishing Walt Disney Animation Studios, Takashi Iizuka has a rare opportunity to look to Sonic Team’s classic past – the character design, the Green Hill Zones, the physics-based platforming and the badniks – and use that to great effect in rediscovering the magic that the studio had lost since the 1990s. And should Japan
Sonic Boom
Sonic Boom
release a quality Sonic game to return the serve that SEGA of America has begun with Sonic Boom, fans will no doubt be witness to a franchise rebirth that will satisfy all ages. That, at least, will make all the confusing elements of the Sonic franchise that much easier to absorb. Or ignore.

The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect those of SPOnG.com except when it does.

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