Being a Sonic fan can be tough sometimes. The series has gone through more than one period of critical slumps, and it’s unfortunately caused the Sonic franchise to become somewhat of a red-headed step-child in the gaming sphere. Sonic Mania’s critical success went some way to undo that damage, but this is a franchise with some genuinely terrible games under its belt that will never be forgotten.
Why am I bringing this up? Because most of them fall under the ‘3D platforming’ genre, which is what I’m going to be talking about today. I’ve always believed that Sonic works far better in 2D than it ever has in 3D, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some wonderful games that have 3D platforming as their core gameplay.
What I’m counting as ‘main series’ could be a bit subjective. For example, I’m not including the ‘storybook’ games (Sonic and the Black Knight & Sonic and the Secret Rings) because, for one, I’ve never actually played them, and two, from what I’ve seen they play very differently to every other game on this list. So if you want to argue about that, be my guest, but I didn’t want to make this article any longer.
So…let’s start off with the shit, shall we?
11 – Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)
More commonly referred to as ‘Sonic 06’, this is a game referred to by many as ‘the worst game ever made’ and…I can’t say I disagree with them. I honestly would’ve loved to kick this list off with a classic, controversial opinion, but there’s just no way I could put anything else in last place and still be able to look at myself in the mirror.
There are plenty of reasons behind the mess that this game turned out to be. For one thing, the team were working with an engine they hadn’t used up until that point, so there was still a learning curve amongst the development team. Then, in early 2006, the head of the team resigned to form his own company, leaving a significant role in the team unfilled. Then SEGA management stepped in and remedied the problem by…splitting the development team in half in order to work on yet another Sonic game for the Wii.
The problems still could’ve been avoided if those in charge had the wherewithal to push the game’s release date back. Instead, they doubled down. Insisting that the game much be ready for the holiday season 2006 to line up with both the release of the PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360 and Sonic’s 15th anniversary. This meant that there was absolutely no time to put any level of real effort into the game. The team was under a tight schedule, so they were forced to rush stuff, and boy, it shows.
If you’ve ever watched a gameplay video of this game, then you know how terrible this turned out. The physics engine is problematic at best and straight-up broken at worst. Textures and assets are plonked around the world randomly, with no visual cohesion, and the game lags like hell if there are more than 2 enemies on the screen at once. Not to mention the hilarious amount of glitches you could perform. You could clip through just about any wall in the game if you hit it at the right angle and with enough speed, and specific mechanics like Silver’s telekinesis and Sonic’s gem abilities absolutely tore the integrity of the game engine to shreds. Just go and watch a speedrun if you want to see what I mean.
Then…there’s the story. I’m sure someone out there enjoyed it – and good for them – but the ‘blockbuster’ style it was going for, which was reportedly drawn from the big superhero movies of the time, fell totally flat for me. When people talk about ‘Sonic cringe’, it’s usually the stuff from this game’s story that they’re referring to. The dialogue is basic at best and laughable at worst, and that’s not even mentioning the unintentionally hilarious stuff like the Silver/Shadow fight or THAT kiss.
While the world of asset flips and terrible indie developers have made Sonic 06 look like a veritable masterpiece in the years since, when it comes to triple-A studios, you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse game.
10 – Shadow the Hedgehog
This should’ve been last. In ANY other franchise, this abysmal game would’ve been in last place, yet somehow, this franchise managed to shit the bed even harder.
Who…WHO? Who thought it would be a good idea to take the bright and cheery, kid-friendly franchise and turn it into a grungy shooter? The whole idea of it is laughable and just watching the intro cutscene for the game is enough to send anyone into hysterics. It’s just such a dumb idea.
There absolutely was a possibility there for Sonic Team to make a more teenager-oriented game using Shadow as the main character, Shadow was an interesting character with a solid backstory when he was introduced into the series. However, they went down the worst possible route with the character. It would’ve been so easy for them to make him a slightly darker, more jaded alternate personality to Sonic, but instead, they made him the most stereotypical ’emo kid’ you could possibly imagine. It’s so bad it’s almost parody.
Then there’s the gunplay, which may as well have not even been in the game. It was an option for combat, but you were much better off using the standard Sonic combat style instead, as it was so much more enjoyable. Note, ‘more enjoyable’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ and this is very much the case here. The homing attack didn’t know what to do with itself, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the camera had absolutely no idea what it was doing most of the time. Everyone I’ve ever seen play this game has, at some point, accidentally catapulted themselves into a death pit because the camera and the homing attack refused to cooperate.
The branching narrative was largely pointless as well, especially considering, the whole point of the story is for Shadow to find out who he really is. The problem is that the answer to this question changes depending on what ending you get, which doesn’t make sense in the slightest. Also, how you branch the narrative is dull and tedious, as you have to go on two different collectathons in each level, one of which will take you down the ‘bad’ path, and the other the ‘good’. Meanwhile, doing neither will give you a neutral path. This is a nice idea, except for the fact that the game doesn’t ever communicate this to you. IN fact, sometimes some of the enemies or collectables you need to finish the objective don’t spawn into the world, and you have to restart the level.
Shadow the Hedgehog was a hilariously terrible idea and was just as horribly executed. The only reason it’s not in last place is that it’s not entirely broken like Sonic ’06 is.
9 – Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric
This sure as hell comes close though.
Visually, it was a boring game. Every level felt so muted and bland, especially when compared to the vibrant and fun colours that most other games in the franchise have given us. Although the new character designs did at least same some interesting design to them, they weren’t great. I don’t mind when characters get redesigned, especially if it’s for a new purpose, however, the new designs in Sonic Boom felt like they were trying to be something totally different, while simultaneously holding onto the old designs. This resulted in things like Sonic’s weird and lanky limbs or Knuckles’ upsidedown triangle of a body.
‘Dull’ is actually a pretty good word to describe the gameplay too. The puzzles were very basic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – this is a franchise aimed at children, after all – but they were implemented in such a way that every puzzle felt the same. This wasn’t helped by the fact that you had to complete each puzzle room four times. The platforming was a bog-standard affair, with no real feeling of speed, even when you were supposed to be zooming along an open path.
I wouldn’t quite call Sonic Boom ‘broken’ like I would with Sonic 06, but it’s undoubtedly lacking any kind of polish. Cutscenes and dialogue would constantly talk over each other, and there were many points where I straight up couldn’t hear what was going on because of how loud the music was. Which reminds me, even the music wasn’t particularly interesting in this game, which is mad, as even Sonic ’06 had a decent soundtrack. Thankfully, modern technology had meant that most of the major bugs that were in Sonic Boom at launch (most notably the ‘infinite jump’ glitch you could perform by continuously pausing & unpausing the game) have since been patched. Though there are still plenty of places where minor glitches rear their heads.
What baffles me most is that the story was terrible. I know, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but when you look at the Sonic Boom cartoon series that released around the same time as the game, you see that it’s an extremely well-written and genuinely funny kids’ cartoon. I’d argue that it’s one of the more underrated kids’ cartoons of the modern era. Yet somehow, the writing team behind the game just took a basic framework for a story and filled in the bare-minimum details.
You could argue that other games higher up in this list are technically worse, but what drags Sonic Boom so low for me is it’s complete and utter lack of soul and character. It’s like someone’s taken a paint-by-numbers Sonic game but only filled in the browns and greys. Nothing excites me about this game, although there is plenty that frustrates me.
8 – Sonic Lost World
I see what they were going for with this one, I just think it’s already been done so much better.
Let’s address the most prominent problem first, this is way too slow to be a Sonic game. I know many of the classic games weren’t just about speed, but there was always a certain upbeat pace to every level, you were always on the move. Lost World doesn’t really have that feeling. In the levels where you’re rolling along the long straights, Sonic moves with so little momentum that it always feels like I’m missing something. The movement lacks that sense of fast-paced fun that every other Sonic game is filled with.
Then, there are the more platforming-focused stages. In these levels, I don’t mind the slower pace so much because they’re deliberately trying to be something different. The problem is that 3D Mario Games existed long before this and they did the job so much better than Lost World does. It feels like someone’s taken the essentials of a 3D platforming game, played Mario Galaxy and then made levels for Lost World based on that knowledge. So not only is it a bad fit for the franchise, I can’t even say it’s bringing anything new to the genre.
However, as much as it doesn’t work, for the most part, it absolutely has it’s moments. I quite enjoyed the early stages, and it is at least a technically proficient game (which is more than can be said for all the other games I’ve covered so far). The problems only come in once I’d played it for a little while, the formula lost the novelty, and nothing new or compelling came into replacing it.
The writing is fine, although I think the comedy aspect of things fell flat. I know this doesn’t sound like anything surprising, but in some of the games leading up to this (which I’ll talk about more later), I thought the comedy worked well.
Sonic Lost World is a game that tried to take the Sonic formula in a new direction. It didn’t quite stick the landing, but it didn’t make a total mess of things either. If you’re a fan of the slower platforming style, then I can see the appeal in a game like this, it’s just not what I want from a Sonic game.
7 – Sonic Forces
If there was ever a game I’d describe as ‘just fine’ then it would be this one.
There’s honestly nothing special about Sonic Forces, for good or for bad. It takes what had already been done with the 3D Sonic formula and iterates on it in a reliable performance. While I don’t particularly care for yet another Green Hill Zone remake, most of the stages have a decent flow to them and the visual design has plenty of character, using the factors that make a good Sonic stage.
The character creation aspect of things is fine, but ultimately pointless. It’s one of the most bog-standard character creators you’ll ever see, and your character’s unique abilities aren’t very noteworthy. The ‘wisp gun’ thing that you use works a hell of a lot better than trying to inject actual gunplay into the game, although I still could’ve done without it. All it meant was that I’d always go barrelling into enemies by mistake because I forgot that I wasn’t playing as Sonic and couldn’t just bounce off of all their heads like I have done for every game in the franchise up until then.
Speaking of characters, there was absolutely no reason for Classic Sonic to be involved in the story. I get why it was included following the praise it received in Generations, but here all of the 2D levels felt like afterthoughts. The story didn’t accommodate for their presence at all either. Looking at the story…it’s okay. It might have tried to be a bit too complex for its own good, but I wouldn’t say I hated it. Infinite is as good a character as any for the Sonic franchise, although I can’t say I care about him in any way, shape or form.
At the end of the day, if you want a standard Sonic game that lets you blast through a bunch of fast-paced stages with little thought towards anything else, then you’ll have a pleasant time with Sonic Forces. Just don’t go into it expecting anything amazing.
6 – Sonic Adventure
The first fully 3D Sonic platforming game (no, 3D Blast doesn’t count because it’s isometric and no, Sonic Jam doesn’t count because it’s shit), Sonic Adventure feels like more of a proof-of-concept with many kinks to work out, rather than a landmark Sonic title.
Sonic Adventure has a lot of incredibly frustrating design choices. The most prominent of which is the camera, which cannot navigate the 3d terrain in a meaningful way. It had all the makings of the kind of things that someone doing for the first time wouldn’t consider. For example, the player has total control over the direction of the camera…sometimes. The game would decide that it wanted to take control of the camera away from you at seemingly random times, which was incredibly annoying. Doing that is fine when you have something you want the player to focus on, but a lot of the time it felt like Sonic Adventure only does it to stop you looking at bits of the game they didn’t finish.
It also doesn’t help that when the camera swings wildly away from where you wanted it, it doesn’t preserve what direction you were running. To clarify, this means that if you push your joystick to the right to make Sonic go around a right turn when the camera turns to follow you, you keep going right and end up flying off the side of the level. This wasn’t just a product of its time either. Nintendo had already released Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time by this point, both of which have camera systems that still holds up to modern standards. I know SEGA wasn’t a part of Nintendo by this point, but you would’ve thought the dev team could’ve learnt a few lessons.
When the camera is working correctly, you get a bit of mixture when it comes to the levels; both in design and in quality. Having 6 different characters, all with the own, interlinking stories was an odd choice. It could’ve helped vary up the gameplay (which it did in SA2), but instead, they were all locked behind each other, meaning chances were you’d blast through all of a single character’s stages in one go. Honestly, I would’ve been happy with just Sonic’s series of levels in the game, as those are by far the most fun to play. They don’t quite tap into the same feeling that made later Sonic games great, but they still have a nice flow to them that is only ever broken up by faulty tech, not the level design itself.
While it definitely doesn’t hold up anywhere near as well as most other games of its era, Sonic Adventure definitely laid the groundwork for what would eventually become a delightful formula. The storytelling style may have been a bit ambitious, but they’d work out those kinks in time for the sequel. It results in a flawed game, but one I was still able to draw enjoyment from.
5 – Sonic Unleashed
Sonic Unleashed is halfway to a good game. In fact, if the other half of Unleashed was entirely removed, it might rank in one of the top slots…but the bad half of the game is genuinely awful.
This was the first game developed entirely withing the Hedgehog engine. This was a brand new lighting engine for 3D Sonic games that allowed Sonic Team to create long and fast-paced levels a lot quicker than they had previously been able to, and looking at the daytime levels, it shows.
Where Sonic 06’s level design was cramped, and Sonic’s movement was slower than usual, Unleashed’s daytime levels were long and blazingly fast sprints along varied and exciting terrain. New mechanics such as Sonic’s new boost meant that you could always keep the level flying by at an astonishing speed, with the roadblocks in your way being reactionary obstacles designed to momentarily trip you up, rather than stop you entirely. It made for levels that were easier but flowed a lot better, and it made for some of the best 3D levels the franchise has ever seen.
Then…there was the nighttime levels. Featuring Sonic’s new ‘Werehog’ form, these nighttime levels focused less on platforming and more on brawling. There was a chance for this to be quite fun, traditional beat-em-up brawlers that have you face off against hoards of enemies can be extremely satisfying when done right. Sonic Unleashed’s brawling, however, is no fun at all.
For one thing, the game absolutely could not cope with the number of enemies of the screen at once, especially when there was a bunch of particle effects covering the screen. So often while fighting in a big brawl, the game’s framerate would drop to genuinely unplayable levels, it would cause me to take unnecessary damage and even totally miss quick-time events. Even when the game is running fine, the combat holds no weight to it, the sound design doesn’t put enough emphasis on the impact of your strikes, so nothing feels satisfying, which for me, is the main appeal of this style of gameplay.
The writing in Unleashed is among the worst in the franchise too, to the point where I honestly believe it’s one of the main contributors to many outside of the Sonic bubble believing all Sonic writing to be a total joke. The ‘Werehog’ is a dumb concept that doesn’t fit in the world of Sonic at all. The performance on Sonic’s ‘Werehog’ voice acting is abysmal, with it just sounding like Sonic needs to cough and clear his throat. The sidekick in the game is incredibly annoying, with a personality that puts me in mind of the worst cartoon sidekicks ever (I’m looking at you, Scrappy-Doo) and I longed for the days of having Tails silently following me through every stage.
Despite it’s massive, glaring flaws, there’s still a lot to love in Sonic Unleashed. As I said, the daytime levels laid the foundation for what 3D Sonic levels should look like going forward and levels like Rooftop Run are easily among the best in the entire franchise. I almost feel bad for it having to carry this horrible weight in the form of the nighttime levels, and I’m certainly glad they never caught on for future instalments.
4 – Sonic Heroes
I think this might be one of my more controversial opinions, as this game is looked upon unfavourably by the community at large, but I actually rate Sonic Heroes quite highly.
The fact that you have to complete every level four times is quite annoying, even if your objectives in these levels are different depending on who you’re playing as. In fact, it may actually be those objectives that make the levels so annoying. Racing through these levels, just trying to reach the goal is really fun. Having to wander around trying to collect a certain number of rings, or kill a specific amount of enemies is really boring. Not to mention it’s stuffed with a roster of characters that don’t need to be there, and the writing is full of cringe.
However, the gameplay, which to me, is always the most important thing, has a lot to offer. The level design is fantastic, I feel it’s one of the few 3D Sonic games to truly tap into the classic Sonic school of visual design in its levels. Every area is distinct and unique, with bright colours and crazy settings being the focal point. This made blasting through the levels very satisfying because there was a lot of fun scenery to look at.
The gimmick of switching between one of three characters, each with their own unique abilities was fun. The system behind it meant that you could do it on the fly, without having to totally kill the pace or momentum of the level and most of the levels were designed in an intelligent way that got the most out of the gimmick. By the end of the game, it did become a bit tiresome to be switching between characters for basic tasks, but for the majority of the game, I felt the pace carried it well.
I can see the flaws in Sonic Heroes, but I think the gameplay is enjoyable enough for me to overlook most of them. The platforming is fun and fast, while the level design has a sense of character to it that 3D Sonic games often lack. Ultimately, I just don’t think this game’s flaws are anywhere near as significant as the games I’ve covered up until this point.
3 – Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic Adventure 2 is arguably the game on this list that is most beloved by the overall Sonic fanbase, and I can definitely understand why.
This was the first 3D Sonic game that didn’t have any of the massive issues that the previous ones had. It finally felt like it was the full package, the grand 3D Sonic game we’d all been waiting for since Mario 64. For one thing, the game lets you play as the bad guys, which is a nice touch. Plus, even though you have to play through all of the stages twice, it doesn’t get tiresome because of how the game paces itself.
Instead of lumping them together like in Heroes, each of the three characters you play as in SA2 were given their own distinct style of levels. Sonic/Shadow get the classic platforming stages, Tails/Robotnik get a hybrid platform/shooter level in a walking mech, and Knuckles/Rouge get sandbox-style levels where you have to hunt for fragments of the Master Emerald. The game mixes and matches these levels to create a game that has a continually shifting pace and makes sure you never get bored of doing one thing for too long.
Once again, the levels have a good variation in their design to keep things fresh and visually appealing. I would say that the colour palette is a bit muted and there are a bit too many industrial levels for my liking. Still, it’s miles better than much of what I’ve covered so far. There are also vast improvements from the first Sonic Adventure, where it feels like Sonic Team had genuinely learnt from their mistakes.
The speed-based levels were now more focused on being long-shots of fun platforming, rather than weird hybrids of areas you’re supposed to take slowly. The camera is vastly improved too as the game knows exactly the right places to take control away from the player and point the camera in the direction of something they actually need to focus on. That said, it’s still not perfect, and it can get caught on terrain some of the time, but it’s leaps and bounds ahead of what SA1 gave us.
Ultimately, SA2 feels like a much grander adventure that is worthy of being a landmark title in the franchise. It still has some features that haven’t aged well, and the writing is still relatively simplistic. However, I think if Sonic Team had kept producing 3D Sonic games at this quality, then it’d still sit in the upper echelons of mainstream gaming culture today.
2 – Sonic Colors
Following up on Unleashed seemed like the easiest thing in the world for Sonic Team. There was one style of level that received critical acclaim and another that was absolutely panned. Thankfully, for Colors, Sonic Team picked up on that fact and made a bloody good game out of it.
While this game did still have a gimmick, instead of shoving into an entirely different style of gameplay, the Wisps in Colors were instead integrated into the regular 3D platforming stages that were so great in Unleashed. Overall, Colors just refined the formula, things like the boost and homing attack were polished, getting rid of the small amount of frustration that could arise from them in Unleashed.
When it comes to level design, I’d argue Colors is second to none on this list. Finally, 3D Sonic games abandoned all premise of having semi-realistic settings, and it allows the art and design team to go absolutely nuts with the levels. The concept of the whole place being an intergalactic theme park built by Eggman is absolutely fantastic, while each individual level has such a distinct and bright colour palette, it’s one of the most alive feeling worlds the Sonic series has ever created.
The Wisps themselves are implemented quite well. They’re not all winners (looking at you, Cube), but for the most part, the usage of the Wisps wasn’t overdone. Whenever a section where you needed to use them came up, it felt like a natural progression of the style and challenge that the level was trying to convey. The only time you’d ever have to go out of your way with a Wisp section is if you were trying to perform a tricky platform manoeuvre or find a secret.
Ironically, I’d say this game’s biggest issue is the 2D sections. Later games would work out how to do this better, but in Colors, when you were switched into a 2D section midway through a level, it led to slow & slightly tedious puzzle-platforming. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it often killed the pace of the levels and had me itching to just be able to blast off at top speed again. There still needed to be a greater level of integration between the two for it to work properly.
That’s pretty much it though, I honestly can’t say I have any more major complaints about Colors. It learned from the previous game and improved on it in almost every way, creating one of the best 3D entries in the franchise. It’s a joy to replay and treat for the eyes too. A roaring success if you ask me.
1 – Sonic Generations
(From my 100 Favourite Games (90-81) article)
Firstly, the readdition of the classic 2D Sonic levels was a brilliant touch. It didn’t quite have the same feel as the original games, but I think Generations’ reimagining of the 2D platforming mechanics made for a fun experience. The nostalgia factor was prominent, not just with the mechanics, as I’ve already discussed, but with the levels too. They picked one level from every major Sonic game, and it was a wonderful trip down memory lane, seeing how beautiful some classic locations could look with the modern art style.
Meanwhile, the 3D platforming mechanics were, for my money, as good as they’ve ever been throughout the franchise. By this point in time, SEGA had made many, many mistakes with their 3D platforming mechanics and this game finally polished everything to the point where I believe it will hold up far into the future. The sense of speed and momentum was fast and snappy, the levels were designed in such a way that didn’t go too far to hamper your speed. Instead, it provided you with a series of quick challenges, where the punishment for failure was usually only being forced to take a slower path.
Generations did an excellent job on iterating on the progress the series had made with Colors & Unleashed, combining it with Sonic’s gameplay routes to create the most complete feeling modern Sonic game to date.
Adding to what I said there, Generations really did the reimagined classics justice. Stages like Green Hill & Sky Sanctuary looked absolutely beautiful in Generations. They edited the colour palette slightly, but it was absolutely to the stages’ benefit. Every level felt so much more vibrant and polished than they did in their original games. The boss fights were great little trips down memory lane and the Metal Sonic, Shadow & Silver fights might be my favourite in the whole franchise.
Generations felt like a true celebration of everything Sonic. Much like Mania would feel for the classic games. Everything was as good as it could’ve been, and there was little disappointment. 3D Sonic games have never been so good.
And that’s it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. Please, let me know what you thought of these games, either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure you come back here on Wednesday for the next part in my 100 Favourite Games series!