Sonic Unleashed, a “double-sequel”
“You were too strong to change, Sonic,” says Chip—an annoying side character who is actually half of God Itself—near the end of Sonic Unleashed, in regard to the reason that Sonic alone maintains his wits after being infected by God’s nasty half, Dark Gaia. Perhaps the wording of the statement is simply a matter of coincidence and localization, but it seems (to me) to be kind words to a dying hero from his creators. Most people think Sonic wasn’t strong enough; they say he did change, and for the worse.
Sonic Unleashed isn’t a horrible game. I admit that I picked it up from the clearance bin at Target (a fairly reliable place to get cheap unused games, by the way) for all of twelve dollars, so it was easy to find pleasure in such a flawed piece of work. Rather, I should say “easier”: the first few hours of the game are so filled with bothersome cut scenes and text-box dialogue that I almost shelved it for a rainier day. I picked it up primarily because I hadn’t played a Sonic game since Sonic 3 (same reason I picked up Tomb Raider Underworld). Generally I enjoy these late entries in obviously decaying IPs, simply because I’ve played so few of them. I was really excited to see what Sonic (even bad Sonic) was like in 3D—and to be honest, the experience didn’t entirely disappoint (though it did feature a sharp learning curve).
Sonic Unleashed isn’t horrible in the same way that Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 isn’t horrible. They’re both eye candy, they’re both over-produced and somewhat stretched in the middle, and they’re both double-sequels. What I mean to say is that a lot of people didn’t understand what the Hell was going on in 2046, because very few critics made it clear that the movie was not only a sequel to In the Mood for Love but also to the short, cryptic coda at the end of Days of Being Wild (as well as featuring a minor female character from the latter film). The minute I started playing a Werehog stage in Unleashed, I realized that the game was not only an entry in the Sonic series but also a spiritual successor of Team Sonic’s Ristar. It took some digging, but I did find one or two mainstream game reviewers (and a good number of Sega loyalists) who picked up on this fact.
I didn’t own a Sega Genesis (Megadrive) when I was younger. I got an NES when I was two years old (the year it was released in America), and I only played Genesis games (mostly Sonic 1 & 2) at friends’ houses or when on vacation—people always keep a dusty Sega Genesis in their rental beach home, have you ever noticed that? If you’re a Sega loyalist: I was your enemy during the first console wars, and Sonic isn’t sacred to me… which may have something to do with why I didn’t completely hate Unleashed. In any case, what this all means is that I actually didn’t play Ristar until a few months ago.
Somehow I also managed to miss every Sega Omnibus retail disc sold over the years since the death of the Dreamcast (I know, I know—it lives on). Hoping to remedy this fact, I bought Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection the day it came out. I have to admit that I didn’t have a wonderful time with the disc. Old games really are only fun if you played them when they were relevant—I suppose I buy the argument that a scholar should be able to analyze them and appreciate them historically and for their design innovations (and I did), but really we’re talking about a bunch of IPs that made tiny improvements in graphics and hit detection (for projectiles, punches, or axe swings) over the course of a decade. Three games (besides early Sonic) stood out for me as particularly well-designed, making the experience of playing over 30 of them completely worthwhile: Vector Man, Comix Zone, and Ristar.
I’m only going to talk about Ristar, because you probably all played Vector Man back in the day. And you owe it to yourselves to experience Comix Zone on your own when it gets its own XBL release in a few months. Ristar was this pseudo-3D starman (not like Earthbound or Ziggy Stardust, like a star with arms and legs and big, stupid eyes) who could do one thing: stretch out his arms. He could stretch them out to punch something, to grab ledges and poles, and to grab dudes to pull them close for a headbutt. I know it sounds really lame, but the game succeeds for me on multiple levels (and is one of the few smooth, enjoyable Genesis games by contemporary playability standards): hit detection had been perfected for both combat and platforming, every new “world” had a unique theme (forest, water, fire, ice, etc.), and the level design eschews repetition (like Braid claims to).
Since Ristar exists in 2D, his arms only stretch forward. As far as Sonic Unleashed is concerned, the B and Y buttons (during Werehog stages) come directly from Ristar. The B button stretches Sonic’s arms to grab ledges and pick up baddies, while the Y button always punches forward in a straight line (just like Ristar). A lot of reviewers saw Unleashed as a weak, children’s version of God of War, because the X button causes Werehog Sonic to swing his floppy arms around in a circular motion a la Kratos. While the fairly robust RPG-lite features and combo system contribute to viewing the game as a God of War knock-off, it ignores the considerable influence of Ristar on combat and platforming.
I would also add that the world design is significantly Ristar: while Sonic games often use thematic locations (green hills, casinos, factories… I need a better word), Ristar travels between elementally different environments. The world of Sonic Unleashed is a thinly veiled version of our own planet (as Yahtzee comically notes), with the only notable major difference being that the Middle East has been placed on top of the United States (where Canada belongs). Because each “zone” represents a different well-known country, the levels are either Sonic-type thematic tropes (such as the Windmills of Apotos) or Ristar-style elemental worlds (the Arid Sands and North Pole locations). In general I agree that the game relies a bit too much on an open-world structure that isn’t filled with enough interesting people (to follow Gaynor’s immersion model), but Team Sonic does attempt to hammer in a message of world harmony through the frequent and visible traveling of NPCs between different cities and the appreciation of world food culture—and, besides Chip explicitly mentioning it at the end, they do manage to pull it off with some subtlety.
I initially hated the Day stages because of the trial-and-error flow of progress, but by the end I really appreciated the speed and multi-linear complexity of the things. The transitions between 2D and 3D felt natural, and once you’d memorized a level it became really enjoyable to do speed runs (that’s the whole point of a Sonic game, right?). My only caveat here is that there wasn’t nearly enough verticality and backtracking in these stages to liken them to my favorite locations from Sonic 2 (the best of the series in my mind). Night stages started out as entertaining—I’m quite good at hack-and-slash games, so they’ve come to be my videogame guilty pleasure over the years—but quickly faded into monotony as Werehog Sonic became powerful enough to plow through every enemy with a powered-up forward punch. Adept blocking and rolling are what separate the men from the boys (and the women from the girls) when it comes to games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, but I don’t think I used the block a single time during Sonic Unleashed. This leads me to my final question and observation.
Who exactly was this game designed for? I ask this because the final zone of the game, Eggmanland, is about as difficult as a Wiley stage from early Mega Man titles. I played through it as such, pretending that if I got a Game Over I’d have to start the entire two-hour sequence over again. It was some of the most thrilling and anxious gaming I’ve had in years. The first segment is the longest by far (around an hour if you don’t lose all your lives), finally incorporating a mechanic the player has wanted all along: the ability to switch between Werehog and “regular” Sonic during the course of the same level. After this follows a series of somewhat tedious boss battles, all with different control schemes and avatars (one of which is a pretty incredible Mayan Voltron throwback to Shadows of the Colossus). The final two hours are a bit like playing a WarioWare game—you never know exactly what the game is going to throw at you next or how you’re going to be controlling your avatar, but you don’t really care if you allow yourself to get lost in the flow.
What Sonic Unleashed ended up doing for me was this: it recalled the days of the third generation of consoles when my father and I would play NES platformers together. I would beat the easy parts, and he would tackle the hard stuff. (I suppose it’s possible that I’m not as proficient a gamer as the average 10-year old who might be interested in the cartoonish contemporary Sonic, but I really can’t imagine too many younger players being able to beat that first segment of Eggmanland easily.) Call me a sucker for controversy, but I ended up really enjoying this game—and I don’t even have ads here to catch eyes in the event that I start a flamewar!