I love platformers; they’re probably my very favourite sort of games. I grew up playing Mario, Adventure Island and just about every other game that involved jumping in and on things. I, rather naturally, have an old love for Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s been whittled away over the years, following bad Sonic game after bad Sonic game. 2010’s Sonic Colors and even the more recent Generations very nearly made me a believer again, rekindling a bit of the old fire. Sonic: Lost World for the Wii U has undone it all – leaving nothing but pure, festering hate for the blue spiny bastard
Sonic: Lost World is actually a direct follow-up to Sonic Colors, but instead of refining and iterating upon that game’s mechanics, Lost World takes an entirely different approach. It borrows much in the way of aesthetics and mechanics from Nintendo’s own Super Mario Galaxy, so you’ll be running along along on long, air-bound cylinders, jumping to and from planetoids with their own gravity, engaging in simple environmental puzzles and rotating along those bizarre landforms’ tubular axes.
It’s colourful, vibrant and instantly charming, and the game actually makes a decent first impression with its first few levels, locked 60fps action and sharp, crisp visuals. The initial Windy Hill Zone has you zipping through that familiar grassy terrain, turbo-boosting your way through ring-filled loops that evoke memories of Sonic’s glory days, but it doesn’t last. And it certainly doesn’t take very long before you realise that the comparisons to Super Mario Galaxy are simply cosmetic; the game completely fails to capitalise on the idea of spheroid levels.
There’s a story, of course – but it’s a terrible, cringe-worthy artefact of the era in which Sonic was still really popular. Sonic’s perpetual nemesis Dr Eggman (or Robotnik, for purists) makes way for six bizarre alien creatures hell-bent on conquering earth, none of whom are interesting or memorable. Of course Robotnik and Sonic have to work together to vanquish this new enemy, because of course they do. The stupid narrative isn’t made any more enjoyable by the fact that Sonic himself is entirely unlikeable. For some bizarre reason, since Sonic found his voice in the 90’s he’s been stuck there, as an annoying reprobate with all the charm of a cocky teenager. Whenever he appeared on-screen in a cutscene, I wanted to put my fist through the screen.
You’ll mostly be playing the game from a 3D perspective in a variety of ways; standard 3D platforming and on-rails gliding 3D sections (hooray for insta-death!), interspersed every so often with moments of 2D platforming action that almost recall the magic of Sonic games of old – but even they’re clunky and tiresome. To make this newfangled level design work, Sonic has had a fundamental, jarring change to how he works; instead of perpetually attempting to run at full speed, Sonic is now a little slower , and you’ll have to hold in a trigger button to bring him to full gait. It’s odd; Sonic has always been about going flat-out – and this change in mechanics slows the whole game down. The level design makes it necessary though; Lost World favours pixel-precise platforming over Sonic’s trademark speed and you’ll often have to be rather cautious and conservative with running, lest you fall in to yet another pit of spikes. There are all sorts of other egregious faults that come down to poor controls; Sonic no longer has much forward momentum thanks to speed, so you’ll have to double jump to cross chasms, and a new wall-running mechanic means Sonic often clambers up walls whether you want him to or not – resulting in death.
It does become frighteningly difficult – but so little of that feels like real difficulty due to masterful design; most of your deaths result from not actually being able to control Sonic as well as you should. It’s made even more challenging thanks to a baffling design choice; collecting 100 rings no longer gives Sonic an extra life – making the collection of rings almost meaningless. That’s speed, and the importance of collecting rings – the two very central tenets of a Sonic game – pointless.
The only way to get extras in Lost World is to collect them, and they’re pretty sparse, and without a cache of spare lives many sections begin to feel hopelessly impossible. Fail on a section enough times and you can skip to the next checkpoint; but unlike Nintendo’s superguide systems, this seems almost an admission by the developers that the game is so badly designed.
The wisp powers from Sonic colours return, but their inclusion feels more like they were thrown on just to be included than to aid in level design in any meaningful way. And while they could have added some inventive uses for the Wii U’s second screen, make the whole system feel instead like a comically oversized DS. In many ways, it feels like the game’s designers have thrown just about every idea they could conceive of at the game, in the hope that some of them stuck – but all its resulted in is Sonic: Lost World being a confused hodgepodge of misguided, ill-fitting ideas and mechanics that’s about as fun as running head-first in to a brick wall. There’s a stealth section for god’s sake.
While it’s occasionally inspired, with a handful of nicely designed, fun levels, Lost World is an affront to fun – and Sonic fans deserve better than this. I hope that SEGA really re-examines the guy who used to be their mascot to find out what really made him work – or just retire him for good.