Anyone who was born in the nineties can tell you of the darkest conflict in human history; a topic so controversial, and charged with such malevolent energy that it divided us as a species. I am of course referring to the only choice more defining than even Grass, Fire or Water: Nintendo or Sega, Plumber or Hedgehog, Mario or Sonic? These two titans of the industry have been locked in eternal battle since the resolution debate was eight versus sixteen, and no one in the nineties could have imagined how the war stands today. Unless, of course, you were on Nintendo’s side of the conflict, because while Mario bounds from strength to strength, Sonic tripped over and crashed into a wall some time back in the noughties and hasn’t looked like coming back since, despite one ‘innovation’ after another in an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise.
It seems baffling that things have fallen so far for the Blue Blur, because on the face of it, each Mario game is a fairly similar experience. Poorly-guarded head of state is kidnapped by opposing dragonic turtle monarch, local handyman is armed with a variety of powerups to get her back, traverses variety of themed locales, deposes enemy ruler, rewarded with peck on the cheek or baked goods. Meanwhile, Sonic the Hedgehog has attempted to beat off the dreaded label of a stale, repetitive formula by embracing new convention after new convention. Yet here we are, decades later, in a world in which Mario Maker has thrown up its hands and let us design Mario levels for the developer and be rewarded with all the money in the world. And on the other side, we have the radical redesigns of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, a game so hated by the fanbase that scientists have theorized we can harness our universal hatred of it as a factor of commonality in diplomatic relations. So what went wrong for Sonic, and what’s going right for Mario? I’m going to save future archaeologists the trouble and break down the console wars for your reading pleasure.
If I asked you to name an oddball entry in the Mario canon, I’m going to feel reasonably assured that most of you suddenly thought of Super Mario Bros 2. Also, the overworld theme is now in your head forever, and I’m not sorry about that at all. The second instalment of the juggernaut franchise (or third for the Japanese) was a radical departure from the original. Multiple playable characters with different abilities, an inability to kill monsters by jumping on them, no powerups, and the final boss is weak against vegetables. It’s by no means a bad game, but it stands out, and if someone is asked to name a weak link in the franchise, that’s what they’ll go for. That or Mario is Missing. By contrast, the other games in the main series have a clear idea of how this is going to work. You’re going to run around, you’re going to collect coins, you’re going to jump on mushroom demons and turtles, you’re going to beat Bowser with some arbitary weakness he left lying around his boss room for you to utilize against him. What makes Mario good is that this is the foundation for everything else that transpires in the game. If a game introduces a new powerup, such as say, the Cape from Super Mario World or the Cat Suit from Super Mario 3D World, these serve to enhance the core gameplay rather than completely alter it. There’s a sense of continuity to all of the games, the idea being that if you played one, you can be reasonably certain that you could play another. Let’s be frank here, Mario knows exactly who he is and what he does, and because he has that set identity, you can have some fun in the spinoffs playing about with those established conventions. The Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series get endless mileage out of riffing on established Mario tropes.
Now let’s look at the Sonic franchise, and yes, I can hear you rubbing your hands together in sadistic glee, in anticipation of what’s about to happen here. Stop it, you’re disturbing your friends and loved ones. As I mentioned in an earlier article about a Sonic Boom movie – which is a thing that exists and is being brought into our sinful world – Sonic had three solid games on the Mega Drive because it followed the same pattern as above. Run right and jump on bad guys was the foundation, and what changed was the rate at which you could run right and which powerups you could use to jump on bad guys. And then everything went insane. Sonic Labyrinth emerged, a game in which you could not run fast or jump on enemies at all. New characters were brought in to do things like fishing. Sonic turned into a ‘Werehog’ and lost the ability to run fast in exchange for God of War-style brawling. Sonic jumped into storybooks to swordfight in Camelot or rescue genies. He raced flying skateboards.
For a brief moment, it looked like Sega had figured this problem out and returned to the basic formula for Sonic Colours, Generations, and, to a lesser extent, Lost World. But never one to resist the siren call of ‘changes for the sake of changes’, we got Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric, a game that is the burden we pass to our children to bear. That’s right, Sonic ’06 didn’t merit a reboot, but two good games and one okay one did. Not helping these rapid changes was the fact that the games were plagued with technical problems. Sonic’s arch enemy is not in fact Dr. Robotnik/Eggman, nor any of the various super powerful entites that vanish in time for the next game. His greatest enemy is the unholy trinity of the camera controls, Sonic ’06, and Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric, the game that we pray every day for absolution from and know our prayers are in vain. In short, Sonic lost his identity in the whole affair, and we lost our ability to care.
When people talk about games that follow a strict formula and how bad that is, they’re actually confusing the issue somewhat, and it’s a thing that our chums at Sega haven’t managed to grasp either over the last twenty odd years or so. Here’s the TL;DR, if you will. There is nothing wrong with a game that sticks to a formula, provided that the formula is for a game we want to play. If you have a proven concept that is working really well, there’s no reason for you to burn it all to the ground and start again in the hopes that the new thing will be better. Likewise, changing things that didn’t need to be changed will only encourage people to make articles like this, comparing Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric to the coming of the Antichrist.
All I’m saying, Sega, is that maybe you should consider a game where Sonic runs to the right, jumps on enemies, and fights Eggman at the end? It really can’t hurt your chances now.