Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rush games), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.
What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.
Many years ago, there was a developer by the name of Sonic Team. They made a wide variety of games, but they were best known for their platformers. These games has a distinctive appeal to them: they’d blast you through what were basically elaborate pinball tables, and break things up with all kinds of doodads to mess around with. But sometime in the previous generation, Sonic Team stopped making those kinds of games. (They’re still around; they’re just making different kinds of games.) Maybe the negative critical reception is to blame; or maybe it’s because the market moved away from the genre. Whatever the reason, Sonic Team doesn’t make as many of these platformers as they once did.
Why do I bring this up? Because my recent experiences with Billy Hatcher and the Giant egg have taught me what a regrettable loss this is. Like so many other Sonic Team games, Billy Hatcher makes movement an aesthetic unto itself. You begin with a novel way of moving through the world, add Super Monkey Ball-esque courses that capitalize on that movement, throw in some cartoony charm, and you have the engrossing experience that is Billy Hatcher.
Sonic R wasn’t Sonic’s first foray into the racing genre. However, it might as well have been, given how little people remember of the Sonic Drift games on Game Gear. Besides, where those games were essentially vanilla racing games with Sonic characters dropped in, Sonic R tries to bring the Sonic series’ platforming sensibilities to the world of racing games. Unfortunately, this is why the game fails. The two genres only ever pull away at each other, as neither one figures out how to accommodate the other. What should be an elegant mix of two game types is instead a clumsy mess of a game.