Sonic the Hedgehog: A New Twist

Sonic Generations rather ably demonstrated how the Sonic series’ gameplay had evolved over the years… but where could it go from there?

Certain members of Sonic Team were already contemplating this by the time Sonic Colours had completed development and work on Generations was underway. The concept grew from experimental attempts to make use of the Nintendo 3DS’ unique features, and the subsequent announcement of the Wii U console and the interesting possibilities it offered prompted Sega to focus the new game’s development on Nintendo platforms.

The result was Sonic Lost World; an unusual, highly creative and vastly underappreciated installment in the series, and one that would prove to be an ideal fit for Nintendo platforms. (As always, today we’ll be focusing on the home console version for Wii U rather than Dimps’ handheld incarnation.)

The impetus behind Sonic Lost World’s design was to remain true to the conventions that the previous games had established, but also push the series forwards. To this end, the game combines the blend of 2D and 3D gameplay that had been refined to work rather well over the course of Unleashed, Colours and Generations with a radically different approach to world design, particularly in the 3D stages.

Speaking with Nintendo Life in 2013, longtime series producer Takashi Iizuka noted that after the nostalgia trip that was Generations, the team wanted to “create and deliver a new experience in the gameplay” and “drastically change the structure of the environment”. He noted that the 3D parts of more recent Sonic games had typically emphasised speed, so the team decided that they wanted to add more “platform action”.

The team’s experiments led them to believe that an interesting and unconventional means of achieving a more platforming-centric 3D Sonic would be to create a “twisted tube-type level, like Jack and the Beanstalk”, providing the opportunity for “360 degree action”. This, in turn, led to the necessity for a few tweaks to Sonic’s by now iconic set of moves, most significantly including the addition of parkour moves such as running up and along walls.

Speaking with Sonic Stadium in 2013, Iizuka noted that these moves were added because they “really suited the game” and that they weren’t intended to become a longstanding part of the series; indeed, subsequent mainline Sonic title Sonic Forces returns to a style of gameplay most similar to that seen in Colours and Generations, and thus dispenses with the parkour moves, which are no longer necessary.

So what is it about Sonic Lost World’s levels that make the addition of these new moves necessary? Well, it’s the fact that the 3D stages are no longer designed like racetracks, and instead take the form of fully three-dimensional, explorable playgrounds, typically wrapped around a shape like a cylinder, sphere or cube. Gravity acts on all sides of these shapes, so Sonic is able to run right around to the “underside” of a cylinder to find alternative routes and secrets, and indeed obtaining full completion in the game makes this an absolute necessity.

The 2D side-scrolling stages, meanwhile, unfold relatively conventionally, with a twist — literally. Many of these stages are also wrapped around a shape, meaning in some levels you’ll find the backdrop and angle of gravity twisting and turning as you make your way through them; this gimmick isn’t overused, however, and there are just as many side-scrolling stages that unfold entirely as you’d expect, making it a pleasant treat when things get all topsy-turvy.

Unsurprisingly, this approach to level design in both the 2D and 3D stages means that the levels are much more abstract than those seen in previous games, which have typically been at least somewhat grounded in reality, albeit with more rollercoaster-style loop-the-loops and corkscrews. Sonic Lost World’s levels, meanwhile, float high in the sky, taking in winding pipes and tunnels, gravity-defying grind rails and, on one particularly memorable occasion, a cake and sweets-themed level that feels like it was put in entirely so the developers could make a “desert/dessert” joke with the zone name.

If all this sounds a little bit Super Mario, rest assured that this is entirely deliberate. Speaking in 2013 with the UK’s Official Nintendo Magazine (quoted by Sonic fansite TSSZ News), Iizuka said that there was a distinct and conscious aim to “win back the platform fans” with Sonic Lost World. “We don’t just want old Sonic fans to come back,” he noted. “We want Mario players and other platform gamers to enjoy the new game too.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to suggest; back in 2007 and 2010 respectively, the two Super Mario Galaxy games had proven that the “360 degree action” formula could work very well in the context of platform games, and indeed the Sonic series had experimented with the idea in Sonic Adventure 2’s Mad Space level as early as 2001, albeit without quite as much success as these later attempts.

It’s immediately clear that Iizuka and company were drawing some heavy inspiration from how Mario had been doing things for a few years by this point. This is perhaps most apparent in Lost World’s music; eschewing the energetic rock and electronic dance music elements of previous Sonic soundtracks, Lost World instead features a fully orchestrated score with real instruments and a wide variety of musical styles, ranging from Latin-inspired beats to jazz and big band numbers.

That’s not all, though; despite featuring numerous points at which Sonic is able to demonstrate his iconic speed, much of the platforming feels like a Super Mario game: slower paced, more precise, and often as much a challenge of observation, intellect and lateral thinking as it is of dexterity.

Rather than automatically accelerating up to full pelt by continually holding a direction, Sonic now has a dedicated “run” button, for example, allowing for a clear distinction between the more exact control required for tricky platforming sections and the balls-to-the-wall, flat-out thrill rides that are the speedier segments.

In some respects, Sonic Lost World actually feels like something of an evolution of the isometric titles from the blue blur’s early years, such as Sonic Labyrinth, Sonic 3D Blast and arcade title SegaSonic the Hedgehog. Indeed, the second level of Lost World’s Frozen Factory zone sees Sonic’s traditional form replaced by him rolled up into a snowball; the slower-paced gameplay in this level is strongly reminiscent of Sonic Labyrinth in particular.

Iizuka and company made a lot of solid decisions when it came to the new style of 3D levels. Perhaps most notable is the fact that they maintained the series’ typically directorial approach to the camera, meaning the player will never feel like they lost a life or missed out on a secret due to not manipulating the camera effectively.

Rather than the quasi-cinematic approach seen in the speedier 3D Sonic games, however, the camera’s approach here is simply to remain facing the direction Sonic needs to go in order to proceed. In this way, you can never become disoriented even if you get embroiled in exploring; when you’re ready to move on, just run “into” the screen and you’ll get where you need to be… assuming you can get past the obstacles and enemies in your way, of course!

Likewise, while the game has drawn some criticism for having more complex controls than most Sonic games, the additional moves and flexibility they provide absolutely do fit in with the level design. The new “kick” move is a nice addition to combat — particularly with the momentary “time freeze” that accompanies it — and the parkour moves, while initially tricky to get to grips with, soon make navigating even the most perilous environments a situation to be enjoyed rather than feared. These new moves are complemented by the return of the Wisp powers from Sonic Colours (along with a couple of new ones); these are used sparingly throughout rather than being a focus of the gameplay, but are always a pleasure to engage with, particularly when they provide access to secrets!

For the most part, the game does a decent job of explaining all Sonic’s new moves with hint prompts that can be tapped on the Wii U GamePad. These generally pop up at a time when the move in question is essential to progress; the only trouble with this is that there aren’t many moments where certain parkour moves are essential to progress, so some of them simply don’t get properly explained to the player at all. Sure, they can be figured out with a little experimentation, but while you’re going through this process you may well find yourself wondering if what you’re doing is an actual legitimate mechanic, or if you’re just exploiting the game’s physics somehow.

(I’ll save you some time and headaches: when you run up a vertical wall, keep holding ZR, push left or right on the stick and tap the jump button and you’ll “hop” along the wall while remaining mounted to it; you can do this repeatedly. “Hop” around a corner and Sonic will transition into a wall run. It’s often easier to do this than to run or jump at a diagonal angle to go straight into a wall run, so if you’re having trouble with a parkour section, give it a go.)

What’s nice about Sonic Lost World’s overall structure is that you can engage with it in as much depth as you like. If you simply want to try and make it through each of the levels intact, you can probably blast through the game in an evening or two. If you want to find all the game’s Red Star Coins, you’ll have a significantly longer, more exploration-centric and arguably more rewarding experience — but at no point does this feel “necessary”; it’s just something there to add value if you so desire. Plus you get to play as Super Sonic!

With 28 regular stages, two hidden stages that appear as you progress through the game and four more hidden stages that unlock once you’ve beaten the main story, there’s a decent amount of game here, and the game rarely sticks with a single style of play for long: throughout a typical zone, you’ll generally have at least one 3D stage and one pure 2D stage, perhaps complemented by a gimmicky stage of some description (such as the aforementioned “snowball” level), then finally a stage that shifts back and forth between styles and culminates with a boss fight.

Ah yes, the bosses. Sonic Lost World’s narrative primarily revolves around a group of demonic-looking antagonists called the Zeti, a small group of whom are known collectively as the “Deadly Six”. At the outset of the game, Eggman has enslaved this group to do his bidding, but Sonic acting a little too hastily at the midpoint of the narrative sets them free to cause havoc, necessitating one of the many temporary alliances between our hero and his archnemesis seen throughout the franchise… with plenty of comedic moments, and the admirable inclusion of the word “cattywampus”.

Each of the Zeti embody a different personality flaw of some description. They don’t quite go for the whole Seven Deadly Sins approach (at least partly because there’s only six of them), though a few of them come quite close; rather, each of them acts as a personification of a trait that we can assume Sonic, as we know him by this point, wouldn’t have a lot of time for. Just to make things a little more interesting, at least some of the traits they embody also reflect existing aspects of Sonic’s personality that could easily cause problems were he — and his friends, and you, the player — not able to keep them in check.

Zazz, the first Deadly Six member that Sonic encounters, embodies irrationality and rage. He acts impulsively and without thinking — something we’ve seen Sonic do many times by this point, albeit on a less destructive scale, and indeed it’s one such example of this that leads to the whole mess that needs cleaning up throughout the latter half of Lost World’s narrative.

Zomom, who Sonic encounters in the game’s second world, embodies gluttony, greed and lethargy. While one might not readily associate any of these traits with Sonic himself, consider things from a more “meta” perspective and any Sonic veteran will doubtless remember at least one time where greed for a power-up, Special Stage or simple batch of rings led to disaster.

Master Zik, ostensibly the original leader of the Deadly Six, is next to put in an appearance. Probably the least “negative” of the group in terms of character traits, he represents both experience and a stubborn unwillingness to move with the times, acting in the belief that the way he has always done things will always be the best way.

We can interpret this in a few ways: the contrast between him and Sonic can be seen to reflect the differences between Lost World and the preceding “Boost Sonic” games Unleashed, Colours and Generations; he can be seen as a metaphor for the stubborn, die-hard Sonic fans who only ever want new Mega Drive-style games rather than the series to spread its wings; and he can also be seen as an acknowledgement by Sonic Team that even with a character and series as well-established as Sonic, one should never become too complacent.

Next up is Zeena, who embodies prideful arrogance. We’ve certainly seen Sonic exhibit this on plenty of occasions — though again, not to the extreme that Zeena demonstrates. While Sonic is certainly interested in looking cool, he never does so at the expense of an important mission he has to fulfil. If he can look cool while fulfilling the important mission? That’s an entirely different matter, of course, but you certainly wouldn’t catch him holding up a boss fight because his nail polish hadn’t dried yet.

Zor, a Zeti who embodies depression and pessimism, shows up just as Sonic himself is becoming depressed at the increasingly bleak events of the main narrative, and shows a natural endpoint of allowing yourself to be consumed by emotional darkness and a feeling of hopelessness. Sonic’s optimism in the face of extreme adversity has always been a defining characteristic in past installments, so while he doesn’t specifically acknowledge it in the game, we can certainly infer that seeing the sorry state of Zor helps drive Sonic onwards, however much of a challenge there might seem to be ahead of him.

Finally, the leader of the Deadly Six, Zavok, embodies a different type of prideful arrogance to Zeena. While Zeena’s pride is simple vanity, Zavok’s stems from overconfidence. He believes himself to be invincible and superior to everyone, and has no empathy for others. In many ways, he is the absolute antithesis of everything that Sonic stands for, and thus it is fitting that he is Sonic’s final foe from among the Zeti.

One interesting thing about the treatment of the Deadly Six in the game script is a noticeable contrast between how they speak to Sonic, and how Eggman has traditionally spoken to him in previous games where he is the primary antagonist.

Eggman typically refers to “defeating” Sonic or “winning”, almost positioning himself as a rival rather than an archnemesis; the Deadly Six, meanwhile, make outright references to “death” and “killing”, making it clear that they are by no means interested in any sort of ongoing “competition” of sorts with Sonic, as Eggman sometimes seems to be. They just want him dead; he stands in the way of their plans to conquer the world, so they just want him obliterated from existence.

When contrasted with the extremely colourful, cheerful (and, yes, Mario-esque) nature of most of Sonic Lost World’s levels, this is a powerful and surprising juxtaposition that lends a certain weight to the story, particularly in its latter hours. In terms of its context within the whole series, it makes for a more gradual transition to the overall darker tone of subsequent game Sonic Forces — but it’s also an acknowledgement that the Sonic series as a whole has always had a dark side ever since its earliest days.

Another interesting part of Lost World’s script comes in its treatment of Tails. In a gradual process that began with his story path in Sonic Adventure, Tails has been growing in confidence — both as a person, and with regard to his own unique abilities. And as part of that process, he’s started to feel less like he needs to live in Sonic’s shadow, and more like he should be treated as an equal.

To put it bluntly, from Colours onwards in particular, it’s become very apparent that Tails has developed a fairly low threshold for Sonic’s bullshit, particularly when his own contributions to a collective victory look like they might be glossed over.

By this point, the pair have been together for so long that there’s been a noticeable shift in the balance of power, now at least approaching if not quite reaching mutual respect and admiration; consequently, Tails feels quite comfortable in speaking his mind to his friend, and in Lost World we see the pair having probably the biggest disagreement they’ve been shown to have in the whole mainline series. The situation is inadvertently defused by Eggman, who points out how cringeworthy their conversation is, which shuts them both up pretty quickly, but a tension still remains between them right up until the story’s final sequences, where Tails demonstrates that he, in fact, was right all along.

Sonic Lost World does a hell of a lot of interesting things and it’s honestly surprising that it wasn’t received better by press and public. Its new take on 3D platforming for the series makes for a nice change from “Boost Sonic“, and its narrative and characterisation likewise provide a bit of a change of pace without going for the “big budget movie” angle that Sonic 2006 took. It eschews gimmicky controls in favour of making simple, understated and optional use of the Wii U GamePad to complement its main screen action, and the whole thing is tied together with a beautifully crisp, slick, 60fps visual presentation featuring numerous delightful throwbacks to the series’ past. And just to top it all off, it has one of the series’ all-time most memorable soundtracks.

Underappreciated? Absolutely. But that’s pretty par for the course for the Sonic series at this point, isn’t it…?


More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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