How do I spin?
This is the kind of question that nobody playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game should ever ask themselves. But within thirty seconds of starting Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, the latest 3DS-exclusive title based on the Sonic Boom TV show and comic (still feels weird seeing a game with SEGA's famous mascot only being available on a Nintendo system), I'm wondering just that. I'm pressing down, and the B button, and the A button for good measure. Nothing. A few trial-and-error fumbles later and I get Sonic sprinting, at least – straight into some spikes that were covered by ice, but as I'm kind of on fire I've instantly melted the protective block, fallen, got pricked and lost my handful of rings.
Fire & Ice feels as intuitive to me as building your own PC must be to someone who's only ever gamed on handheld consoles. It uses every face button for a different purpose, plus the shoulders – a far cry from the Mega Drive days of A, B and C doing the exact same thing, context sensitivity the name of the game. One jumps, obviously. Another sprints. One activates a special ability – a dash move for Sonic (yes, the spin), a hammer for Amy Rose, a laser beam for Tails (because, obviously, Tails has a gun). The shoulder buttons switch between fire and ice powers – the hot stuff melts blocks in the opening Glacier Forest stage, while glowing a silvery white means that magically right-angled bodies of water will instantly freeze when you touch them.
Every so often, in said first level, there's a classic loop-the-loop, and a booster that sends your swappable character of choice hurtling forward on a 2D plane. But this rush is short lived – within just a handful of stages, Fire & Ice is proving to be a chore to get through, with the traditionally fleet-footed Sonic reduced to grinding through environments ill-designed for maintaining speed. It's not difficult – it's just not fun. With practise, I can see how these zones could become time-attack sprints; but with so many buttons in play, obstacles stacked upon obstacles placed between enemies, fiddliness foils the new player's best efforts to finish a stage with the sort of stylish slickness SEGA sold this character with back in the early 1990s.
Is it just me? My thumbs aren't what they used to be, certainly, dulled by the routine slapping of a laptop space bar. Or is there something amiss at the core of this game's design? I used to be pretty good at Sonic – and Fire & Ice is pitched as a return to "the fast, classic gameplay", so says the reviewing guide that Nintendo sends over. It, and again I quote from the attachment, "enables players to run through the game at top speed, or take their time with deeper exploration and puzzle play". And sure, I'm finding collectibles – no context is really offered as to why they matter, mind – but that flow present in the best Sonic games – not just the 16-bit ones, as there have been others since – isn't clicking.
"How do I spin?"
Henry Hoffman is as perplexed as I was. A BAFTA-winning video game designer whose latest title Hue – a platform-puzzler, just like Fire & Ice is pitched as – recently received six nominations at the 2016 TIGA Games Industry Awards, Henry has called into VICE, on my invitation, to give Fire & Ice a half-hour of professional scrutiny. I'm no expert when it comes to the making of video games – I just play them, and instinctively know what I like and what I don't. I'm hoping that Henry can see through what's on screen to suss out precisely what's bothering me.
But right now, he can't get Sonic to spin, either.
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"So there are hints, but I don't know how to activate them," Henry grumbles. "I'm going to struggle. Okay, so the hints are on the bottom screen. I see. But that's not really obvious when you're trying to string jumps together. There are a lot of competing elements, right at the start. I don't think I've ever played a game where I've had so many different things introduced in such quick succession, in the very first stage.
"It's important as a player that you feel the game isn't working against you – that if you lose, it's your fault. But here, you're overloaded with so much information that you never feel that you're really responsible for what's happening."
That's definitely something that bothers me: the sheer amount of information that the player is asked to accept inside the game's first few minutes. The basic controls, for one thing, but also what they mean in relation to different parts of the environment – here are some blocks that Sonic can dash through, but these ones only Amy can break with her hammer. The hints come thick and fast – one message's barely had time to process before another data nugget's popped up.
"I can run faster, but I don't want to, because there's so much stuff in the way. There's just not enough speed, which is surely the core of Sonic." – Henry Hoffman
"What's this? 'Bring hammer parts to Amy's house, they will look nice in her display case.' It doesn't say what contextual purpose they serve, merely that they'll look nice. There are so many hints. Am I still on the first level? 'While jumping, slide the circle pad up and press X to air-dash...' Oh, that is super hard. The first level in any game should really be about introducing the core mechanics, just moving and jumping in Sonic's case."
There's that awkwardness, the combination of sometimes needing to press three buttons in super quick succession to achieve a single jump to a new safe place. I appreciate that Sonic games have moved on a lot since the first three instalments for the Mega Drive, but they really distilled the essence of fast-moving puzzle-platforming, and to me they're markers that any subsequent 2D Sonic title should be respecting. They needn't be copied wholesale, but at least reflect some of what made them work so well in your new 2D game. Because when you tell me that your new game is going to hark back to "classic Sonic gameplay", I don't expect to have my forward momentum curtailed mere seconds after managing to pick up speed.
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"This is really slow, generally. I can run faster, but I kind of don't want to, because there's just so much stuff in the way. Oh... wait. I just had maybe two seconds of loop-the-looping. That usually comprises most of an early Sonic level. There is some satisfying momentum, but it's really the minority of the gameplay, which is very frustrating. There are long, drawn-out bits of precision platforming, which feel very sluggish. There's just not enough speed, which is surely the core of Sonic. When it does quicken the pace, you get the sense that if the game had more bits like this, it'd be quite good. But the rest of it is really obfuscated and overloaded with tasks.
"The original Sonics were like pinball machines. This is just a platformer, with enemies to kill. The appeal of the original Sonics was that they were super fluid – you were literally flying through the world. This is the opposite of that. I can understand why – you get a lot more bang for your buck, as a level designer, if you're building for slower gameplay. But the player shouldn't be working to get that momentum."
'Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice', E3 2016 trailer
Fire & Ice is the follow-up to Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal, which came out in late 2014 to a raft of negative reviews. Both are supposedly aimed at the younger end of the gaming market, kids into the Sonic Boom cartoon. Shattered Crystal was criticised for its slowness, its terrible dialogue, its poor story and linear gameplay. Fire & Ice does take some steps to repairing the damage done with the previous 3DS Sonic release – levels here are designed in such a way where secret areas can be uncovered, if you want to seek them out. There are branching paths, but that can lead to confusion as to which direction to take. And that has a disastrous effect on the game's fluidity, the basic motion from one platform to another via the bouncing off an enemy's head and the collecting of rings. It simply isn't as honed as it needed to be to back up the "classic" sales pitch. And it's evidently not just me who feels this way.
"I get that this is aiming at a totally different audience to those older games," Henry says, putting the 3DS down after battling his way through a brace of Fire & Ice's early levels. "But all the same, there's a problem if people who liked the older games can't get into this, at all. This is just so daunting, in terms of what it throws at you. Nothing here is really intuitive. Being introduced to so many mechanics at once is very confusing – but I wonder if the developers did that because they feel that's the only way to hold the attention of a younger player? Maybe pumping this full of visual noise is a very conscious decision.
"On early Sonics, you'd fly from left to right, up and down, and hazards would just miss you – and that's how it was designed, to give the impression that you were so close to danger. But of course, those early stages were easy to complete – the danger was an illusion for the most part. But it was still super rewarding, without being punishing. This is just punishing."
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is released on September the 27th in the US, and September 30th in Europe, exclusively for Nintendo 3DS. Release dates in other territories vary.