While Sonic the Hedgehog has had an admittedly spotty track record over the past decade, fans and skeptics alike can agree there’s more reason than ever to be excited for the blue speedster’s future. Sure, most diehard fans will point to next year’s Sonic Mania as the biggest chance for a significant turnaround—not an unreasonable bet, given that it’s being developed by an independent team and aims for an unabashed turn to Sonic’s roots—there’s another game flying under the radar that might prove to be just as much of a return to form.
We’re talking about Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, the upcoming Nintendo 3DS platformer from Sega and Sanzaru games. Fire & Ice marks the second 3DS game released as a tie-in to the popular Sonic Boom cartoon. You might have missed out on the first, Shattered Crystal, given that it didn’t exactly win over fans or critics. The game was knocked for departing too much from the classic 2D sonic formula, with a slower approach to gameplay that emphasized more exploration and backtracking. Perhaps more damaging was its association with a much, much rougher Wii U game, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which was released around the same time and only garnered a meager 32 out of 100 on Metacritic.
So why is there any reason to think Fire & Ice will duck the fate of Sonic Boom games? It’s simple, really. Sanzaru has been quite candid about listening to player feedback on the first game to fix its shortcomings, and the early gameplay definitely shows some major changes along those lines. In a recent interview with GameSpot, creative director Mat Kraemer revealed that he read every comment about Shattered Crystal, scouring forums like NeoGAF to absorb all the public criticism.
“Everyone’s going to hate on Sonic and have something to say, but you look at those comments constructively. I take all the information and granularly break it down, and [say], ‘People really didn’t like that feature, or they really wanted this,’ and those are the things you focus on,” Kraemer said.
Sanzaru has also been open about why it decided to depart from the Sonic formula so much with Shattered Crystal: It was building a game for younger fans of the cartoon, not for diehard Sonic players. This time around, the team is attempting to strike a balance between the two. That means the gameplay of Fire & Ice will have far fewer dead ends and far less exploration. Instead, there’s a renewed emphasis on speed and mostly linear level design.
Of course, Sonic has attempted to return to the status quo before, and those efforts have failed as often as they’ve succeeded. That’s why it’s heartening to know that Fire & Ice is still attempting to do its own thing, most notably with the set of five playable characters—Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, Amy Rose, and Sticks—each of whom have their own abilities to help them navigate obstacles. Sonic, for instance, can now chain his aerial dash attacks together to rush through stages, in addition to making use of his new fire and ice abilities.
Sure, Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice will live or die by how well it can deliver on its ideas, but Sanzaru is a talented studio that’s entered into this game with the right mindset and a refreshing level of honesty about its goals. That’s half the battle, and in the modern gaming landscape, it’s increasingly the tougher half.