Maybe it's time for us to leave Sonic Team's take on its own series behind
Sonic spent forces.
To my surprise and delight, one of 2017's very best video games is made by none other than Sonic Team. Yup, that Sonic Team - the developer formerly known as Sega AM8, the one behind behind Sega's iconic mascot and the very same studio that's been by the hedgehog's side through the good times and the bad.
You will likely not be surprised to discover, however, that that game is not Sonic Forces. Not unless something special happens between now and launch, that is.
So yes, Sonic Team's Puyo Puyo Tetris is a many splendored thing that's devoured countless hours of my time since it came out in March (and yes, you beautiful pedants, it did come out originally in 2014, but the localised version didn't arrive on these shores until this year). It's a puzzle game of marvellous depth and glorious colour that melds two classics together with winning style. Sonic Forces, however - going by a recent short cross-section that highlights its three distinct parts - is a fairly limp tread through Sonic old and new that introduces an all-new flavour likely to leave a lingering bad taste.
It's not a bad game, per se - it's just that, having heard the names of Generations and Colors being dropped in the run-up to Forces, I had my hopes up for something a little more. Generations and Colors were two fantastic games that showed Sonic Team was still capable of something approaching greatness, before the series resumed its more traditional slump with the Sonic Boom games. Sonic Team recently professed some sort of innocence, saying it had been away from the series while the old Sega of America took charge, but let's not forget the recent bad spell started with 2013's Sonic Lost World - a Nintendo exclusive by none other than Sonic Team, of course.
Sonic Forces doesn't look to plumb those same depths, but it also doesn't look quite set to reach the heights of Colors or Generations either. Its modern 3D sections are fast and frantic if overly talkative, with Amy and Shadow and a furry soldier (!) chatting in your ear as you dart through levels. It's like a Saturday morning cartoon, I guess, but one of those really crap ones your brain can no longer endure no matter how much damage you did it the night before; the sort of overly energetic and hollow trash that's the tipping point for getting you off your sofa then getting on with the rest of your day, basically. The action itself is remarkably clumsy, lacking the elegance and style the series was once known for and overcompensating with an abundance of noise.
It has sections played by a customisable avatar that are clumsier still, in which you fire your way through hordes of robots in appropriated versions of a level you may well have just sped through as modern Sonic. It's almost like the Shadow the Hedgehog sequel you hoped would never, ever exist.
And it has 2D sections that would normally get the older fan's hearts racing were it not for the shadow of another game that's coming out soon. Jumping to Forces from the exquisite looking Mania just goes to show how far removed Sonic Team's own classic Sonic is from the 16-bit ideal. There's something off about the physics and friction (a problem no doubt exacerbated by the Switch version at hand which is pegged at 30fps and runs like a drunk three-legged dog), and the encounter - a spin on Green Hill Zone's original Robotnik encounter - feels plain messy.
None of it is truly disastrous - and it is, of course, only a small section of the final piece - but it most definitely is disappointing. A small tragedy? Not really - just a sign of things moving on. The one truly tragic thing about another potentially disappointing Sonic from Sonic Team is someone in their mid-thirties complaining about it. Over 26 years the series has maintained its popularity and earned new fans, even if the games have struggled to appeal to more mature palettes, and when you find yourself listening to a talking crocodile bemoaning the number of robotic death eggs he has to deal with, maybe it's time to accept that this just isn't for you any more.
Miserable traditionalists like myself have their own forthcoming treat, anyway, in Sonic Mania - a game which I'm looking forward to more than anything else this year, which is probably another small tragedy of its own. Sega's been smart to split its approach this year, and unless something staggering happens with Christian Whitehead and his team's revival of classic 2D Sonic, it looks set to be the best entry since the series' 16-bit heyday. It proves there's hope for yet more quality games in a similar vein, and it proves too that Sonic is still capable of greatness, just as Sonic Team is still capable of making great games - but if you're hoping for one of those to be a Sonic game, my best advice is to leave a certain part of this series behind.