Sonic Frontiers is bringing an open world structure to the series (like, for real, not just having an overworld like Sonic Adventure and Sonic ‘06), and in order to make this possible, Sega is isolating the blue blur from all his friends. Sonic is being stranded on a big island where he’s free to run around all he wants without worrying about whether Tails is keeping up or having to race against Shadow. While this fits with the evolution in scope that Sonic Frontiers appears to represent, completely removing any signs of life from other characters feels like the actualization of something the Sonic franchise has moved toward over the past 16 years: leaving its extended cast behind. Having been most attached to this series when it leaned into an ensemble instead of just the titular blue guy, I’m sad to see Sega further distance itself from a group of colorful characters. After over a decade of Sonic’s friends being relegated to a background role, I’m not sure why we got here in the first place.
Full disclosure: I’m a little biased on this topic because I have zero attachment to Sonic. I came into the series as a kid with Sonic Adventure 2, and while my brother played as Sonic, I played as Shadow. The black hedgehog has been my touchstone with the series since I started playing it, and he, Rouge the Bat, and E-123 Omega were the characters I associated most with it. That was until Sonic 06, which was the last time Sega leaned into its large cast in a platformer. Despite their issues, games like Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes, and Sonic 06 are some of the most experimental entries that Sega has put out. This is largely due to them having a wide range of playable characters, each with their own abilities and levels that accommodated their skills.
After Sonic 06 put a bad taste in the public’s mouth (it was delisted from digital stores for a reason), mainline Sonic platformers moved away from the cast dynamic to focus almost exclusively on Sonic. This shift had a damaging effect on not only the series’ experimental game design, but also its characters; it stopped treating them like people.
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Shadow is probably the best example of this. As I’ve written about here at Fanbyte, his character took a significant shift when he stopped being a playable pillar. The series eventually stopped leaning into its character-driven stories and instead became about how fast Sonic could run around to stop Eggman’s latest scheme. The cast shifted from people with multifaceted arcs, like Shadow had from Sonic Adventure 2 to Sonic 06, to one-note characters easily summed up in the background of Sonic’s heroics. Shadow is an angsty edgelord. Knuckles is a himbo idiot. Rouge is only ever around if Shadow’s there. These were characters that, at one point, had relationships more complex than most mascot platformers could claim at the time. But now, as Sonic games push each of them further into the background, we can only make out the vague outline of who they once were.
To which, I have to ask: Why? There was a lot of backlash about the size of the Sonic cast back in the day, but has it really helped the Sonic franchise to leave these characters behind in the dust trailing behind Sonic’s running shoes?
Mechanically, much of the Sonic games that have followed Sonic 06 have felt safe — and even that hasn’t been enough to elevate some of them beyond mediocrity. Sonic Frontiers has a new structure and some puzzle elements, but what we’ve seen so far still seems to center Sonic’s speed. Compared to games like Sonic Adventure 2, which had treasure hunting and mech combat, and Sonic Heroes, which was all about weaving different characters’ abilities into its hot swapping gameplay, Sonic has felt stagnant in a way that I’m not sure an open world can alleviate.
Perhaps Sonic Frontiers will have Sonic confronting this isolation; maybe, in a roundabout way, it will take a page from the film franchise and become a commentary on how the fastest hedgehog needs his pals. The live-action movies have been built on spotlighting how Sonic’s friendships and connections are what make him great. But as the movies remind us about why those friendships are worth celebrating, the games feel like they have only doubled down on leaving them behind. Just give us Sonic Adventure 3 with different perspectives and gameplay styles, Sega. You’ve had 16 years of hindsight to look back on to get it right.