More Franchises Should Be Like ‘Sonic Frontiers’ And Get Weird

Sega takes an audacious, messy swing at modernizing Sonic.
sonic
Image: Sega

What’s the point of a franchise, a situation where there’s a built-in audience that will show up because of a mixture of nostalgia and blind loyalty, if not an excuse to take some chances? 

I’m not sure Sonic Frontiers is a good game, but I cannot stop playing it, and I wish more companies had the courage to be this weird. It’s an audacious, messy swing at modernizing Sonic—as a character, as a franchise—without losing its core DNA, that’s an unabashed response to the runaway success of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, right down to the twinkling piano keys that suggest the world’s fastest video game character is depressed. 

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It’s creaky and doesn’t always work, and your definition of “work” may severely depend on how much you can appreciate the vision of video game that takes a number of big swings based on the seemingly obvious idea that a fast-moving character like Sonic would make sense in an open world environment…but doesn’t necessarily net a home run in the process. 

Look, this is easy for me to say. I don’t care if Sonic games are good. If you want to hear about this game from a Sonic stan, read Gene Park at the Washington Post. He loves it! 

In my youth, the choice between Mario and Sonic was easy. I’ve never clicked with the Sonic games, finding them too chaotic, despite my love for platformers. With Sonic, levels whizzed by in an instant, while with Mario, every careful jump is its own reward. Sonic Adventure, released for the Dreamcast in 1998, was itself a response to Super Mario 64, an attempt to reinvent Sonic for three dimensions. Sonic Adventure’s thrilling chase and rail sequences, combined with slower and more deliberate exploration, was a combination made for me, and Sonic Frontiers feels like a natural, more ambitious evolution of the ideas from that game.

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Much like I’ve wished Nintendo was looser with its characters and allowed developers to experiment—I’d previously hoped the weird and beautiful Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer was a sign Nintendo finally got this—I’ve wanted the same for Sonic and basically any other major franchise, too. This is especially true for franchise in a creative rut.

What, exactly, do you have to lose? Fans are going to show up next time, and I mean that with less cynicism and more sincerity: trust that fans will both reward and forgive. The more cynical thing, frankly, is to keep doing what hasn’t worked before and solely rely on loyalty, which probably has more to do with establishing ideas of the Sonic Cycle than anything else.

I’ve also been rooting for Sonic Frontiers all along, especially so when the early reactions, both to trailers and showings to the press, were decidedly mixed. That’s my catnip to me, despite not being someone who finds themselves on the Sonic Cycle. Who in the world thought it was a good idea to give Sonic a skill tree, let alone the ability to parry attacks? Sickos like me, that’s who, because all I could think about was how it might—or might not—work. (Weirdly, in the end, I think the combat works better than the platforming!)

It reminds me of an essay I wrote earlier this year called “The Video Game Version of 'The Thing' Is an Empty Promise Worth Playing,” after Waypoint re-examined the 2002 survival horror adaptation of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a game that also barely holds together:

“To The Thing’s great credit, the opening hours are a surprisingly solid execution of these ideas,” I wrote, “as the game walks you through carefully crafted sequences of action and tension that slowly introduce all of these ideas into the mix, clearly building towards the game removing its hand-holding and allowing the systems to do their work. [...] And it was at this point while streaming the game with Rob, we turned to one another and went ‘look, if the rest of the game builds on what they’ve got here, we could be in for something special.’”

The Thing was a smokescreen of ideas that buckled and collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think Sonic Frontiers is that, nor an empty promise. Both are flawed experiments.

It does feel a bit like a rough draft of an idea that didn’t come together before the game had to ship, but given how cookie cutter so many games at this scale often feel because of how much they cost to make, I can’t help but guffaw, applaud, hope the team gets a second chance to build on this, and hopefully inspire other game companies to take some risk, too.