Sonic: The Good and the Bad

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,  knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

 James 1:2-4

I’m always surprised at myself, sometimes.

In recent years, I’ve taken the opinion of an iconoclast, renegade, contrarian, or whatever other synonyms you can imagine when it comes to video games. If a game outlet gives the game a negative review, I tend to find this game several years later, play it, and find myself enjoying said experience WAY more than I should if the critical opinions hit the nail on the head. What I find, more often than not, is that the reviewer took his/her expectations of the game, found it wanting according to that standard of themselves or the brand name of the game, and then slapped a mediocre to horrible review score on the top. It’s vaguely insulting, almost.

And me? I say “it can’t be all THAT bad.” More often than not, that’s true.

In this vein, I endeavored to collect every single Sonic game that came out on a major console (or PC, as of recent for most of the downloadable titles). As I’ve said before, I was never really a huge Sonic fan since the Master System never had any Sonic games (except in Brazil, but who’s counting there?), and the Genesis/Megadrive in my home came too little, too late to impress. Heck, I think I had more fun with Gunstar Heroes than any of the Sonic games – I don’t think that’s a negative trade-off! So, back to my foolish venture to collect all the Sonic games!

I knew, at some point in time, that I would have to pick up some of the more awful games in the series, such as Sonic and the Black Knight (a discussion of Sonic ’06, which truly horrifies even the most forgiving of video game players, will come later, I assure you). Dismissed as a Wiimote waggling simulator on its release, it was roundly dismissed as yet another failure in the franchise. Any game where a blue hedgehog wields a weapon is bound to get that kind of reaction from people, I wager. Still, it’s not like I could avoid this particular title – I had to play it and see what came of it.

So, how is it? It’s blissfully mediocre, insularly unaware of game trends. Apparently Sonic Team works rather autonomously with little/no control over the output of their product. Here, it shows brilliantly what Sonic Team does well.

Like Sonic and the Secret Rings before it, Black Knight takes place in the “Storybook” series – meaning they can plug Sonic and his cadre of pals into any realm or any historical period and come up with some fascinating setting. Here, we’ve got a tale based vaguely upon the old King Arthur legends, except Arthur’s evil and Lancelot’s Shadow the Hedgehog in armor. Hilarious, right? With the aid of a talking sword, Caliburn, you seek to stop Arthur’s evil reign (caused by the scabbard of Excalibur, interestingly). It’s pretty standard Saturday morning cartoon fare, but that’s not a bad things. Sonic’s still just as RADICAL as he was during the 1990s, which caused more than my share of embarrassing guffaws at some horrible puns. I guess the child within me still says this stuff’s funny at some level.

Also, if you can deal with furry animals in armor with swords, you’re golden.

Oh yeah, we’re talking about a game, aren’t we? Befitting a Sonic game, Sonic’s rather fast! Hurray! But it also has sword swinging! Boo! Actually, the two meld together pretty well for the most part. Sega divides the game into small, linear levels that, like any modern Sonic game, judge the player’s performance by speed, damage, rings, etc. In many cases, you just need to run forward and the game takes care of most things. You’ll need to dodge objects every once and a while, but that’s part for the course. Rather, the difficult part comes from the sword swinging. Unlike, say, Skyward Sword, the swinging requires waggling that Wiimote – not that it matters which way. It’s a replacement for a button press rather than a true utilization of the unique control scheme of the Wii, and that’s a shame.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. As I said, the running’s mostly automatic, but you need to kill enemies along the way by flicking the Wiimote. There are LOTS of enemies, and though your sword can blast through most in either air or land, how well you succeed works based on your timing. Enemies block attack; so can you. Perfect guards gain huge opportunities for combos – and it’s entirely possible to string combos for an entire level if you’re good enough at this. At the same time, you’ve got a super meter that allows for chaining super sword swings – it’s similar to Sonic’s homing attack, but done with a sword and a meter. All of these elements mean there’s a forward driving element, a timed combo system that remind me a little of Devil May Cry (without variety, of course) plus Sonic plus some seemingly irrelevant equipment selection. That last element doesn’t affect the game too often, and “items” don’t seem to do much anyway. Surely I’m wrong about this, but how many Sonic and the Black Knight experts exist out there?

Good scores require good timing and memorizing enemy patterns, since Sonic runs REALLY fast. So fast, you might run by items, chests, or townpeople, or not even know what your current objective in a level is. That’s happened to me more than a few times, and since Sonic can’t run backwards (the game has no camera functions in these narrow corridors), jumping backwards is the fastest. Now, the game isn’t without its pitfalls. The sword swings have a weird delay to them that I haven’t quite mastered; I’ll find myself swinging when I thought I was blocking or parrying, and then take a hit. Sometimes, Sonic will blaze ahead and run fast for seemingly no reason – until I figured out you get a speed boost for jumping and landing. That’s a lot to keep track of without getting hit, but that’s part of the fun. Chaining blazing fast combo moves throughout a whole stage is rather satisfying, actually.

In that sense, it’s not a very traditional Sonic game in terms of its objectives. Still, it plays like one, and this would fittingly describe its critical reception. Rather than play the game as it wants to be played, they play it and review it based on some preconceived objective. I have a feeling Sonic Team places these “gimmicks” into their games intentionally. It provides them with new design challenges and new ideas, and I appreciate a developer willing to take bizarre risks with their games. Still, I’m not heralding Sonic and the Black Knight as anything more than a highly polished, yet mediocre, game.

Still, this is way out of my comfort zone. I can appreciate this design without loving it, even if the implementation’s a bit screwy and faulty. Perspective’s everything, and having the wide experience neccessary to understand and criticize video games comes from accepting them all, from the greatly fun, to the simply good, to the average, to the horrible-game-that-no-one-should-ever-play. But you can’t understand a good game without playing a bad game, that much is for certain. And you cannot understand the good times without going through the bad, or learn anything at all without going through trials. Life’s a series of ups and downs; it’s how you choose to see those experience in perspective that makes the bitter moments palatable, and the enjoyable parts all the more sweet.

So it is in life, so it is in video games.

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

James 1:12

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • So how many Sonic games are there total and how many do you own?

    • @Mjoshua There’s too many to list. I’m just sticking with the ones that came on home consoles, not portable ones. I didn’t buy Shadow the Hedgehog or Sonic Riders yet, but I imagine I will have to.

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