Some fifteen years after Sonic Adventure and over a decade of attempts at keeping the blur of a hedgehog controllable in the third dimension, the studio have a new proposition in the form of an additional button. One that removes the ability to run from the analogue stick - if you want to move faster than a walk in Lost World, you've got to hold down a button as well.
It's a simple idea, but one that immediately grants a comforting assuredness when exploring Sonic's newest surroundings. Surroundings that on first glance are akin to Super Mario Galaxy ("we were very surprised to hear from the media there was a similarity", responds his creators to the visual parallel).
Despite those claims to the contrary, there is comparison to be made here - floating islands, cylindric in nature, that Sonic can travel along and around the circumference of. But there's also a stronger parallel to be made towards Lost World and Sonic X-treme.
X-treme was the canned Sonic platformer, the creative misstep between the Mega Drive's Sonic & Knuckles and the Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure, an evolutionary dead end back in the mid-90s as Sega tried to reinterpret its icon. The game stylised itself with a fish-eye lens on the action, 'tube' like levels and the ability to switch planes while travelling through stages.
Sonic Team say it's just coincidence. When we catch up with producer Takashi Iizuka at E3, he emphasises that Lost World is all-new.
"We've been making Sonic for twenty years and we [decided] to have a very big change in the Lost World... we started making the game to have a totally new level design.
"This time we expanded the sides of the forward view," he continues, in reference to the 'corridor' style running of the 3D levels from before. "Which ended up as a 360 degree tube stage, [which] allowed the player to go to multiple pathways; even more than the forward view types. So that was the main concept."
We get to see that new concept in action, as joining him on the trip to L.A is a three level demo of the game. Like Sonic Generations, the game's split between 3D and 2D gameplay.
A solitary level from Windy Hill has us exploring a sky full of tubular islands, long pipes that you can walk the 360 degree circumference of, but need to travel along the length of to reach an exit. Each 'island' is filled with platforms, spikes and enemies, multiple springboard exits on each letting you navigate different paths and islands towards the end goal. In the skies around us other floating islands - potential travel points - hover, flipping upside down while sky turns to ground, perspective continually altering as we walk (or run) around the spherical islands.
The first Desert Ruin (a world that should by rights have a second "s" in its first name, given the slowly spinning chocolate biscuits and sweets that form the stage) is a more straightforward 2D run along these floating platforms. We judge tricky jumps, hit the odd speed boost along spiralling red liquorice paths. Its second level has you controlling a speeding Sonic down another tubular level, zero emphasis on exploration and all on dodging enemies, leaping collapsing bridges and spinning round the tube to line-up into tunnel entrances.
This third level's control scheme is however, baffling. More so given Sonic Team tweaking the controls again to make Sonic as precise as possible elsewhere.
Whereas Sonic Generations nicely incorporated a side-shift manoeuvre for similar gameplay, perfect for dodging enemies and spikes in the blink of an eye, there's no such mechanic here. Curving Sonic onto the right path with the stick raises much the same problem he's had on previous 3D games; he's just too imprecise. Thus we plunge to our deaths when we transition too sharply between paths, hammer into walls.
The enemy lock-on feature's still in effect, though you can choose to ignore it. Triggering it automatically bounces you around those robotic foes that have been targeted. On the tubular stages - whether you're exploring or charging - attack chains let you zoom up the level length much quicker.
In exploration stages, Sonic's able to grab onto higher platforms and pull himself up if he jumps near enough to a platform edge. It's an odd addition if you think about it for a second, yet the reasoning behind it can be speculated in context of that new run button. Sonic Team aren't misjudging the height of their character's leap, nor offering it as a simple help action to make the game easier (and there's proof in the first Desert Ruin's platform sections that the game's going to be surprisingly difficult). It's yet another emphasis to slow down your progression through a level. Explore it. There's even five star emblems hidden through each level to have you rooting down every path and corner.
While Des(s)ert Ruin reminds heavily of 90s platformer James Pond II: Robocod due to its sweet fixation, both it and Windy Hill (another Green Hill Zone-analogue) keep the background detail light, the colours bright. There's a vividness and simplicity that, according to its creator, was specifically done to keep levels being an eyesore - a direct response to Sonic Generations feedback.
"Because of the HD graphics [in Generations], we felt that the important items and rings were covered up [by the] detail of the background features. With Lost World, we wanted to have a more playable game, so we went back to the Mega Drive Sonic's taste and colours."
Like The Legend of Zelda series, fan feedback is an important element for the studio, as the team try and forge something new between their ideas and audience expectation. Something Iizuka-san is mindful of when we ask him how hard it is to keep reinventing the hedgehog after so many years.
"[We'll] get some feedback from the audience, and to the next game implement some of them - and think about even more. The team and I try and think about new things in each game. So there's there's no fear in running out of ideas."
Sonic continues to try and walk (or run) that fine line between past and future. Coincidence or not, the echo of the evolutionary dead end that was Sonic X-treme gives the game an air of fun familiarity, and its a concept that's captured our interest; perhaps the first try of this type of idea was ahead of its time.
Either way, there's a new Sonic game coming. And we're not dreading its arrival. Yes, we realise that's stage one of the Sonic Cycle (™) spinning up again. But better excitement and hope than outright apathy. Roll on release.
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