This article is an opinion piece by one member of our staff and does not represent the views of the Source Gaming crew as a whole.
There is no denying that the cast of characters in the Sonic the Hedgehog series is exceptionally large for what is usually a platformer. Even ignoring everything outside of the video games, Sega and Sonic Team seem to have this desire to introduce a character of the week in almost every game. This goes all the way back to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and has continued as a trend in nearly every main-series game all the way up to Sonic Boom. For some fans this became a bit too much and an outcry was had to ‘return to form’ and only have Sonic and his closest companions: Tails, Knuckles and Amy. Sega took note of this outcry and so the last number of Sonic titles have tended to focus on a smaller cast with new characters having little presence or being confined to villains. While I am down for a game to want to focus on just Sonic and his confrontation with Dr. Eggman (the driving force behind the original game and basically the whole series) I would be lying if I said I did not miss the days of Sonic Adventure, Battle and Heroes where Sonic shared the spotlight with his friends and rivals.
The outcry from fans for a Sonic game with only a focus on Sonic came off of the heels of three games: Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Sonic Unleashed. Looking at how the characters are presented in this game, it becomes obvious as to why people became sick of Sonic’s companions. For Shadow the Hedgehog, our hero Sonic was demoted to a side character while all the focus was put on our new angsty hero. This obviously upset fans of the blue blur and then to add insult to injury Shadow the Hedgehog basically ruined almost every other character in the series. Every stage had partner characters from Sonic’s cast and some of them (Charmy Bee and Amy make good examples) come off as incredibly annoying and in the way. It got to the point where players were questioning why they even liked these characters in previous games as they do nothing more than annoy this time around.
Next we have Sonic ‘06, a game that was bad for a large number of reasons that I really won’t get into now, but once again Sonic was no longer the focus. Yes, he had more of a focus in this game than in Shadow the Hedgehog but he shared the limelight with two other shades of Hedgehog, Shadow and Silver. This began to create a feeling among fans more and more that Sonic was no longer the hero of his own series, that it was being hijacked by lesser characters because Sega believed that this is what the fans wanted. To add to this, fans felt like Sonic’s portrayal in Sonic ‘06 was weird and atrocious. This is not the Sonic everyone remembered but all the worst parts about Dreamcast-era Sonic rolled into one ugly mess.
Finally we come to Unleashed. Hearing the outcry from previous titles, now we have a game that changed up the gameplay but also the characters. Gone were all of Sonic’s friends, with the exception of Amy,for a title focused on establishing how Sonic would should play in 3D. Unfortunately this still was not enough fans and the main issue of this comes from Chip, the newest addition to the Sonic roster who takes up far more screen-time than anyone could bare. The story became so focuses on Chip that Sonic felt more like a side addition and that’s what fans detested more than anything and the Werehog levels did not help.
So when we jump to the next two games in the series, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Sonic Colors, we see a ‘return to form’ from Sega as we get characters and a game hyped up to be a return to form. Sonic Colors on the Wii was focused on Sonic and Tails against Dr. Eggman. Any new characters (like the Wisps) were underplayed in the games narrative. As for Sonic the Hedgehog 4, that title was being promoted by the fact that it didn’t have anyone else but Sonic. ‘The focus will remain solely on one blue hedgehog’ Sega would say and the fans would eat it up.
Now Sonic Colors would turn out to be the better Sonic game in a long time but Sonic 4, a game being promoted as what the fans wanted, was not received as well. How can this be though? Surely it has everything the fans wanted? A return to the classic style and none of Sonic’s extended cast in sight. I am not going to sit here and dissect the issue with Sonic 4 but one thing is clear from it being that Sonic’s friends don’t necessarily ruin a game just by being there. Sonic Colors, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Sonic Lost world didn’t benefit from limiting its cast. If you look at the DS version of Sonic Colors we do see some of Sonic’s friends and it makes the missions slightly more interesting having them present. Sonic Generations also utilised Sonic’s pals but in this game it kind of had to. After all, a celebration of Sonic’s legacy required the appearances of those who ran alongside him.
So appearances from Sonic’s friends don’t harm a game in any meaningful way, but to be honest I think most fans know this. It’s when these characters are playable in games like Sonic Heroes and Sonic 06 that this became an issue. However, even then, I believe these were one off cases and not a precedent form something inherently bad. In my favour are the 2D titles. Starting in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 the idea of one of Sonic’s friends with their own playstyle helped to vary up the gameplay and add replayability to each title. Tails and Knuckles in the classic series, Amy and Cream in the Advance games and Blaze in the Rush titles were all interesting and made a positive impact on the player’s experience. Not having them would not have ruined the game, but having them certainly makes it a better experience. This is why I hope the next Sonic title embraces this after being absent for so long.
“But Nantendo” I hear you say, “those are all 2D games. It’s the 3D ones where they always fail and that’s what this new game will surely be!” And to that I say phooey. Everything I said about the 2D games applies to the 3D ones as well. While the 3D games never always improve by having more characters it is how they are utilised that make the problems. In the Adventure series it is not the addition of characters that is the issue but it’s how poorly designed part of the game that comes with them. Rouge and Big are not objectively bad characters but the levels they come with are poorly designed and don’t feel in place within a Sonic game. Sonic Heroes is criticised for having too many characters to play as but this issue comes more because each character is identical along with every stage. If Team Sonic and Dark had some major differences between the two rather than just the difficulty then it might have been more acceptable. Finally in regards to Sonic 06, the whole game is the reason it’s bad – not the inclusion of the main side characters, playable or otherwise.
Before I wrap this up however I do want to bring focus to one other argument for why the focus should be on only Sonic and that is thanks to characters like Chip and Elise: the character of the week. The thing is, Sega always introduces new characters in every Sonic game with the exception of Sonic 4 and Generations, both of which due to the fact that they were designed with nostalgia in mind so sticking to the established was the point. Even in the games where the focus is on Sonic alone we still have new characters, usually foes like the Deadly Six and, Orbot and Cubot. Unless this new game is another Generations title then I would expect a new character to appear. What I want is not new characters but for some of my favourite side characters to return and be useable once more.
No one should have to be alone. Not even Sonic. It’s not like they can’t keep up and it’s not like he is a loser. Sega and Sonic Team, this time let some of the pressure off the blue blur and hand it over to his friends. At least some of it, we don’t want another Shadow the Hedgehog game after all.