Sonic the Hedgehog is turning 30! That's right, for three full decades people have been having their minds blown by blast-processing and the fastest mammal to have ever existed. It's crazy to think how much the character, and his games, have changed over the years. Moving from a 2D sidescroller to a 3D platformer has been occasionally awkward, but it's all worth it. Right? Well, honestly, not really. Taking a look back at the character's history, it's time to ask ourselves if Sonic really needs 3D gameplay as much as Sonic Team seems to think he does.
Sonic the Hedgehog's 3D History
To really understand why the third dimension and Sonic the Hedgehog don't mix, you need to look back at the blue blur's sordid history with 3D gaming, going all the way back to 1995... sort of. Way back in the mid-'90s, a couple of games were released that dabbled in mixing Sonic with 3D, namely Sonic Labyrinth and Sonic 3D Blast. Both of these titles were isometric platformers, so barely 3D despite the title, but these games have something else in common: they both kind of suck. That's not to say that there isn't some fun to be had with them, but it's a far cry from the tight platforming gameplay you'll find in the main Sonic series on Sega Genesis.
The isometric perspective, the loose controls, and, in one case, having to hunt for annoying birds rather than just racing towards the end of the level, really killed the enjoyment for many players. While I personally enjoyed 3D Blast as a child, going back to the game today is a tough experience. The reason this is important is that it's indicative of pretty much every single 3D game in the series that follows it. As fun as they may have been when we were kids, pretty much every 3D Sonic game, with a few notable exceptions, has a tendency to age like fine milk.
But, those early isometric attempts are just a single foot in the door of 3D, it's only when things move onto the era of true 3D that things start to get interesting. Firstly, there was the canceled Sonic X-treme title that was intended for release with the Sega Saturn. The game took an interesting approach to 3D, creating a world that rotates around the player but still allowed the player to have complete freedom of movement. However, there were a lot of internal problems. The game was moved across two different engines, and Sega of Japan was repeatedly unhappy with the progress of the game, eventually ending its production and leaving the Saturn without a Sonic game. That probably should have been a warning sign.
Sonic Adventure and the Tipping Point
I want to go ahead and preface this section by saying that I am a huge Sonic fan. I have been into the games my entire life and still consider Sonic 2 & Knuckles one of the best Mega Drive (Genesis) games out there. I also grew up enjoying almost every 3D game in the series from Adventure to Heroes and beyond. With that context, I'm hoping to soften the blow of the sentence that is coming next. I think that Sonic Adventure just might be straight-up bad, in my incredibly subjective opinion. Goodbye, reasonable comment section.
Sonic Adventure was the first real 3D Sonic title to hit the market, and at the time it was pretty well-liked. It received a whole lot of critical acclaim, was the best-selling game on the Dreamcast (not too much competition there though), and to this day ends up on a lot of different "best games" lists. There was also Sonic Adventure 2, which has gone on to make fellow Sonic fans as moist as possible whenever it's mentioned. I have to admit that around when they came out, I remember playing through both of these games and enjoying them, even in their original forms.
Trying to go back to either of the Adventure titles these days just feels awful. The controls are slippy and slidey, nothing like the tight controls that made the original games such a joy to go back to time and time again. There's voice acting now, and it sounds so bad that it seems like the voice actors were given no context or direction at all. Plus, the voice acting is attempting to add a backbone to a story that's not worth getting involved in. It's not like the previous games didn't, or rather couldn't, have a storyline; Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles both manage to tell a story, and characterize their characters without any dialogue at all.
The thing that I find truly baffling is the things that these games are praised for. Both the gameplay and graphics sort of make sense. Visually for the era, the game's graphics are pretty decent, partially thanks to how good the Dreamcast was. The controls feel slippy and annoying now, but they were still working out proper 3D movement, and very few games of the day still stand up to modern scrutiny. However, there are people saying that it was an aesthetic quantum leap. Just one look at literally any cutscene should be enough to tell you why that's not the case.
The Real Reason Sonic The Hedgehog Doesn't Need 3D
My personal complaints about Sonic Adventure aside, they're not the reason I think that future Sonic games should mostly abandon 3D gameplay. It's just that when I think back on all of the best moments in the series' history, they're very rarely the moments that relied on 3D movement. Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors are two of the best games in the series (in my opinion) and are well worth playing. The issue is that they're mainly worth playing because they mostly consist of 2D gameplay with 3D rendering.
Hell, look up a video of Sonic Colors' 3D segments and you'll see they take up about 40 minutes of the overall game. The same is true of Sonic Generations. The classic levels are entirely 2D, while the modern levels are kind of 3D, but often shift perspective so you're playing on a 2D plane again. It seems like every single time that we get a Sonic game most people agree is good, it's mostly a game that features the classic 2D style of gameplay that made the character successful in the first place.
For the biggest example of that, just look at Sonic Mania. It became the highest-rated Sonic title to be released on a home console after the '90s. What does it have that most of those other console releases don't? Well first of all it's not made by Sonic Team (that's a whole other article). Secondly, it doesn't have the 3rd dimension. As a result, the controls are tight, the inclusion of new powers and characters makes it feel fresh as all hell, and the creators were able to create a beautiful-looking game without a polygon in sight... mostly.
If Sonic games that are mostly 2D work out much better than the 3D ones, why do we keep getting 3D gameplay in Sonic games? It's not even like I'm saying that Sonic and 3D couldn't work, but something in the production of Sonic games is broken, and that means we keep ending up with mostly terrible or mediocre games when it's clear that there are good games still left in the franchise.
I Still Wouldn't Change Sonic's Past
Just because I feel like the reliance on 3D gameplay is detrimental to the franchise doesn't mean that I would go back in time and change all the 3D games if I could. Despite all of their flaws, there are a lot of 3D games in the series that are dear to my heart. To this day I still struggle through Adventure and somehow manage to enjoy Heroes, despite the presence of both Charmy Bee and Big the Cat. I also recognize that a lot of these games were groundbreaking, especially Sonic Adventure.
If Sega had just dug their heels in around the time of the Dreamcast's release and said, "No, Sonic The Hedgehog means 2D," then I think the franchise would probably have gotten stale and tired years ago, and we'd all be fed up of it in a completely different way. I just want to see more games like Sonic Mania and Sonic Colors, and I think the main thing that needs to happen is for the developers to realize that 3D gameplay is a weight around the neck of one of gaming's biggest characters.
Whether you enjoy 3D Sonic gameplay or not is down to your own personal taste. I just know that when I want to have fun playing Sonic, I reach for Sonic 2 or Sonic Mania above anything else. Not that it matter. After all, Takashi Iizuka has already been interviewed saying that the he wants to do with the Sonic 2022 title, what Sonic Adventure did 20 years ago. At least we have Sonic Colors: Ultimate to look forward to, but I'm not holding my breath for the 2022 game being any good.