We have all had this conversation: “I would like to see… (insert developer here) … make a… (insert franchise here)… game”. Gamers are an imaginative bunch, and it’s fun to let the mind run wild with endless scenarios involving unlikely developers taking the reins of an established franchise. Ever since the release, and woeful cancellation of Silent Hills, I have become more curious than ever as to what some of gaming’s greatest franchises might look like in different hands. “Pipe Dreams” is a series devoted to that very idea. As the title implies, these are just fanciful scenarios. As much as I would like to see these dream pairings happen, there are a number of reasons why they would not, and could not.
For the first installment, I decided to focus on a franchise that has, by all accounts, completely fallen from grace: Sonic the Hedgehog. This once-great series needs no introduction, nor does its continual downward trend towards mostly disappointing releases over the past decade or so. 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, in particular, felt like a death-blow to a character that used to give Mario a run for his money. If Sega is having such difficulty breathing new life into the “Blue Blur”, then what developer could take over? My vote goes to a developer that has experience in resurrecting a franchise, and has a deep understanding of the platforming genre: Ubisoft Montpellier. I believe Ubisoft Montpellier could breathe new life into the Sonic franchise and restore the sense of speed the series was once known for. I think Ubisoft could restore Sonic’s identity, which has been all over the place for far too long.
In 1995, Ubisoft released Rayman on the Sony Playstation. Lauded for its animation and music, Rayman had the player guiding the titular character through six dreamlike worlds to stop the nefarious Mr. Dark. The game was very well received. Naturally, a sequel was greenlit, and this time in 3D, which was also met with acclaim. Further sequels saw a gradual decline in critical reception, with titles like Rayman Arena ditching platforming for couch co-op minigames. Eventually, the series shifted fully to a minigame approach during what I will refer to as the “Rabbids Era.” It would be six years before we got another true Rayman title, in the form of Rayman: Origins. A rebirth of sorts, Rayman Origins recaptured the magic of the original and managed to push the series forward with gorgeous cartoon-like visuals and an amazing sense of pace. The game proved that there was still a place for traditional 2D platforming.
Looking at the life cycle of the Rayman series, it actually shares a few similarities with that of Sonic. Both series started out as breakout hits, and made an eventual transition to 3D (although, arguably, Rayman fared much better). In addition, both series fell off in quality at some point, and moved away from what made them great games in the first place. The difference is that Ubisoft actually managed to resurrect Rayman while Sega has continually struggled to recapture the magic of Sonic’s glory days. If Ubisoft were given control of Sega’s trademark franchise, I think they could make a great game by simply following in the footsteps of Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. Going back to the series’ roots. What made Sonic fun? What are the fundamental elements that need to stay intact in order for this game to feel like a Sonic game?
Sonic was all about speed. It was the defining element that made Sonic stand out from the mass of ‘90s platformers. The way you could fly through loops, and catch air, only to hit a boost that led to even more speed was extremely satisfying. Through Sonic’s many changes over the years, he has seemed to lose this simple, fundamental element of his identity. There have been many attempts to translate Sonic’s trademark speed to 3D, but it just doesn’t seem to work, or moves too far away from the original formula.
Playing Ubisoft’s recent Rayman entries, it becomes clear to me that they understand the importance of momentum in level design. Throughout Rayman Legends, for example, they have music themed levels that require the player to outrun an obstacle while speeding through the level as fast as possible. The player is able to take different paths forward, not unlike the way Sonic used to encourage players to find paths on the top, center, or bottom of the level. The speed is absolutely seamless in these segments, and obstacles are incorporated in clever ways. Playing these segments in Rayman Legends, there are times that I could almost see Sonic the Hedgehog in Rayman’s place. These games understand speedy level design in a way that Sega seems to have forgotten. I think, if Ubisoft applied these mechanics to a Sonic title, we would have the most faithful entry in the Sonic series in over a decade.
Prior to the Saturday Morning Cartoon, I can’t recall Sonic ever having a voice, especially not a voice that reminded me of this. Recent entries in the series continue to give Sonic a voice that reminds me of a bully in a mid- ’80s movie. Many believe that Sonic was at his best when he was a silent protagonist. There was something interesting about this fast character who never said a word, but was also very expressive. Wait too long to press a button? He would get impatient. Run out of air underwater? His eyes would shoot wide open. It was interesting creeping toward an edge in Sonic and see him start to wobble. It gave a lot of personality to the character without the use of words, and as we have learned over the years, sometimes it’s not worth it to hear our favorite character speak.
The Rayman series has always created a lot of personality without the use of voice acting. Characters forgo speech in favor of gibberish sounds, and movement to tell the story. I think this approach could be very useful for the Sonic series, bringing Sonic back to a state of charming simplicity. Maybe this silent approach could serve to give more personality to the characters than a convoluted story ever could. Not only that, but this in turn could serve to make his various sidekicks more palatable. If there is one thing Sega has focused on over the years, in regards to the Sonic franchise, it is filling up the series’ character roster. While some are great additions, like Tails and Knuckles, others are far less endearing. Perhaps by focusing on the characters unique abilities, and less on silly dialogue and voices, we can appreciate these supporting characters in a different way. Maybe it’s the second chance some of these characters need. Overall, I think the method of character selection in both recent Rayman titles would work well for a Sonic game, and it would allow players to use their favorite characters, while avoiding the ones that simply do not resonate with them.
Lastly, I think Ubisoft’s visual style for the Rayman series would work really well for Sonic’s universe. Sonic always looked his best in his retro form, and the visuals in the current Rayman titles would be a nice evolution to his classic look. I think Ubisoft could go wild with the level designs, adding their trademark flair to the Sonic universe. I could see them doing a great job creating Dr. Robotnik’s various creations, as well as providing some creative and interesting enemies for Sonic to engage with. This approach could make the games feel both like a throwback, but also new, colorful and refreshing.
So, overall, what do I visualize? Ubisoft Montpellier creating a Sonic the Hedgehog title in a visual style very reminiscent of Rayman Origins and Legends. A game that does away with silly dialogue and focuses purely on movement, and speed, while adding a hefty dose of humor. Levels that ooze momentum, using the fastest parts of the Rayman series as inspiration. Character selection is varied, and each character offers unique traits that help them traverse the levels in different ways. I imagine a game with imaginative worlds utilizing Ubisoft’s artistic flair leading to various, screen-filling battles with Dr. Robotnik’s robotic monstrosities. Given Ubisoft’s experience resurrecting their own franchise, perhaps they can resurrect this one. Will it happen? Probably not, but it’s fun to think about. One can dream, right?