Dissecting a Hedgehog: An in-depth analysis of Sonic the Hedgehog
Starting in 1991 and going until 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog dazzled audiences with high-speed high-action antics the likes no other videogame hero can provide or has provided since. With each game, Sonic's adventures grew longer, the levels grew more complex, and the graphics got more detailed. But, after 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog all but vanished from the face of gaming -- a character who was king, beating out rivals like Mario in popularity polls and putting countless copycats to shame, began a downward tailspin into the depths of obscurity. The scarce few games that were released bearing the Sonic name that were not, infact Sonic games; instead they were other genres, other games altogether with the Sonic name and characters transplanted in to them.
In 1998, as Sega transitioned out of their 32bit console, the Sega Saturn, they revealed a new console - the Sega Dreamcast, and with it, a brand new Sonic game slated for a September 1999 release in America: Sonic Adventure. For Sonic fans, the world just got a whole lot brighter. Although, despite Sonic Adventure gaining critical acclaim, the game was full of a list of problems: Camera control was terrible, collision detection was questionable and voice acting was excruciating just to name a few; not all gamers could casually brush these sorts of problems aside. In 2001, Sonic Adventure 2 was released and was met with the same sort of mixed response; the game, as a whole, only got more restrictive on the player's actions. Murmurs began to arise from naysayers - could Sonicteam still make a good Sonic game? In 2004, Sonic Heroes only further confirmed fans fears - for every problem it seemed to fix, it introduced a handful of new ones - the game was one step forward, three steps back. Even the Gameboy Advance Sonic games, which were traditional sidescrollers, were riddled with enough problems to keep them from attaining the status the previous 2D titles held so valiantly.
We've had three "next generation" Sonic games - in both 2D and 3D formats. Where did they all go wrong? In this article I am going to speak to the best of my ability - not only about the problems, but about the inner-workings of the Sonic mechanics, in hopes of perhaps shedding some light on things. Shedding light on exactly where the new games have gone wrong, what the old games did right, and why certain aspects of the new games don't deserve as much flak as they get. This is years of geekdom at work here, folks, so sit back, grab a drink, and get ready for one of the most in-depth articles you'll ever read about the Sonic Series.
SECTION 1: Game Mechanics
First, you must understand how a Sonic game works. Or rather, how the Genesis Sonic games worked -- you see, Sonic himself is a very unique sort of character. No other game ever played like Sonic did when he debuted in 1991. Not just the speed, either -- everybody always talks about Sonic's speed, but there was something beyond that. Sonic enabled players, for the first time, a sense of momentum. Levels themselves were rollercoaster rides because Sonic had a one-of-a-kind physics engine; it allowed you to run up any smooth surface -- even run up walls and, most impressively, run along the ceiling - as long as you had enough speed to do so. To fully understand why this matters so greatly, you must first understand the basics of level design.
Flow is key. Flow is running through World 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers without stopping once, without turning around once, without ever slowing down. You hit every platform, every enemy, right on the money, the first time. Flow is nailing the Blast Barrel sequence in the first snow world of Donkey Kong Country on your first try. Flow is all about timing and forward momentum. The idea that every object in a level is perfectly situated so that the player can interact with it without having to stop. Flow is completing Green Hill Zone act 1 in less than 30 seconds.
The Sonic games introduced a brand new dimension of flow - in typical platform games, for the player to go to the left he would have to stop, and then turn around. It wasted precious time, and it broke the flow - in a level all about moving forward, the player would have to turn around and go the opposite direction. Sonic did away with this -- Sonic could run up a half-pipe and be shot off in a different direction, infact, any direction - up, down, left, right and everything in-between. It opened the door for limitless possibilities in designing Sonic stages. Zigzags, loops, rolling hills and valleys. Sonic reacted to them all realistically, too -- running up a steep hill would cause Sonic to slow down. Perhaps the incline was too great; he would stop and start running back down hill again. The Sonic experience was superbly unique for it's time. To this date, very few games have understood this mechanic of the Sonic design, and it is perhaps why all of the Sonic clones in the world never were met with quite the success our blue hedgehog was given; they had the style, but they didn't have the single most unique quality of a Sonic title: the physics engine.
In comparison, looking at the 3D titles, they ignore this; perhaps the most crucial aspect of Sonic's design. Infact, the 3D Sonic games often penalize you for trying to run up any surface that is not the floor - very few special items involve running up walls (and most of those were confined to the original Sonic Adventure), and if you try to run up too far, the physics engine glitches itself and you're thrown back to the ground (and sometimes, even through the floor itself). The only time the player ever runs up any surface besides the immediate floor in front of him are the loops - and those are laughable and pathetic; they are mostly pre-scripted events, offering the player very little control. Instead, they are content in zooming out on the action with cinematic camera angles, removing the player's immersion in the game world. All of this is done, as in Sonic Adventure Series Director Takashi Iizuka's own words, "to give the player a sense of just how fast Sonic really is"; and that, perhaps, is the main problem underlying the current Sonic game mechanics: Everybody is so enamored with reminding us how fast Sonic is that they've forgotten the finer points on what made him feel so fast in the first place.
A good example would be placing Mario in a Sonic level. To make it easier on ourselves, we'll remove the loops - in their place, flat ground. Now, imagine Super-Mario-World era Mario wandering around, say... Chemical Plant in Sonic 2, or Sonic 3's Launch Base Zone. Mario can't run up walls like Sonic can -- so obviously Mario could not easily make it to the end of a stage. Now, throw the 3D Mario we saw in Super Mario Sunshine's bonus levels (IE - Sans water pack, just flat out platformer Mario) in to a Sonic Adventure 2 stage. Most stages (save for one or two) -- he'd have few problems (or at least, a lot less problems) navigating to the finish line, because a large portion of the abilities that set Sonic and Mario (or, indeed, any platformer ever) apart have been toned down, or flat-out removed.
Not even the Sonic Advance games can escape these problems - while they obviously take advantage of Sonic's "run in any direction" ability, they tend to mercilessly throw our fuzzy blue hedgehog straight into traps - generally you hit a wall, and before you have time to react, a set of spikes pop out of the ground and you take a hit. And if it's not that, then you're being thrown head-long in to an enemy or off a cliff straight in to a bottomless pit. It leads to many "that wasn't my fault" deaths - and going by the rules of game design, that is not right. When the player dies, he must believe it is his fault - and you must give him room to improve his skills. While arguably the player could memorize every aspect of the level's design, on his first go through he's going to be subject to every trap and pitfall laid before him - if he is thrown off to his doom because he could not see the cliff before he went over the edge, that is not his fault. In comparison, the old games rarely threw you in to these sorts of situations - you always had more than enough time to react to a given situation while still feeling as if you were going fast. And when the game really did kick in to overdrive, sending Sonic running so fast the scrolling could hardly keep up with him - there was usually nary an obstacle in your path.
SECTION 2: Core Game play
One of the main complaints about Sonic games nowadays is they add in too many extraneous characters. The latest Sonic game, Sonic Heroes, boasts a total of 12 playable characters separated in to 4 teams of 3. The argument, is of course - this is a Sonic game, not a Knuckles/Tails/Amy/Shadow/Big/Cream/Vector/Charmy/Espio/Rouge/Omega/Sonic game. Indeed, it seems that perhaps there are too many supporting characters who get in the way of playing a Sonic game.
The truth is, nothing has changed. With Sonic 1, we played as just Sonic. Sonic 2 introduced Tails. Sonic 3 introduced Knuckles. These characters were designed in a way to provide an alternative experience from playing as Sonic (and thus, extending the replayablity of the game) - Tails, for instance, was the slowest of the three characters - but to balance out that weakness, he was given the ability to fly, and, depending on the game, he could jump the highest (besides Super Sonic, anyway). Knuckles - while not as fast as Sonic, was faster than Tails, but had the lowest jumping height of the three. He could also latch on to surfaces, climb up them, as well as glide over long distances. Sonic, of course, was Sonic - fast, relatively normal jump height, and depending on the game, could use the InstaShield to extend his damage radius for a split second. The reason Sonic 3 & Knuckles is as fun as everybody remembers it, is because there were certain areas -- certain character-specific routes that utlized these three movesets very well. It made traversing the same level three seperate times a lot more fun - you'd come upon an area you can't access, and would be eager to go back with someone who could break that wall or over take those spikes to see where it lead you.
Sonic Adventure simply tried to continue this tradition - the addition of Amy, E-102 Gamma and Big the Cat, each with their own stats and seperate play-styles. Gamma played like an on-foot version of Panzer Dragoon, Amy was a lot slower and did not spin when she jumped (but she had a hammer for long-range melee), and Big let you play a stripped-down version of Sega Bass Fishing. There was nothing wrong with this - while obviously some play styles were better and more refined than others, Sonicteam was just following the trend: a greater roster of characters, each with their own move sets. But, people complained; Amy's speed was far too slow (and her game far too short) and Big's fishing game was too simple and just did not belong in a Sonic game. Sonicteam listened to complaints, and in the next game - they went back to the tried and true formula: Sonic Adventure 2 presented us with three different play styles. Racing, Hunting, and Shooting, and six characters total. Sonic and Shadow were Racing, Knuckles and Rouge were Hunting, and Tails and Eggman were Shooting. But, all was not right. Racing levels were too straight forward and linear, Hunting took longer than it needed due to some features being removed, and the Shooting stages suffered from clunky control. An admirable idea marred by some unfortunate problems.
Sonic Heroes tried to put a new spin on things: You controlled a team of three: Speed, Power and Flight, and switched between them on the fly. This too, seemed like a good idea in practice - but between the four teams of three, there was not enough variation: Team Sonic played like Team Dark, Team Rose and Team Chaotix, with some very slight changes; changes that were not drastic enough to really modify how one played the game. It was almost like going through all the levels in the game four separate times with new player skins.
The main problems with these mechanics is the fact that they rarely utilized separate characters abilities. Half the fun of the old games was finding a new route exclusive to character X in a level you'd already been through with character Y. Both Sonic Advance and Sonic Adventure practically ignore the unique abilities of each character while tacking on extra moves that the characters never needed in the first place. A prime example of this are the moves given to Tails and Knuckles in Sonic Adventure (which have remained in their moves roster for later games). Knuckles can Punch, and Tails can do a sort of tail-whip move. Both moves pretty much force you to a stop if you use them, in which you must re-accelerate again from a standstill. It's a very counter-intuitive for a game that's supposedly about moving forward. And when you remove the fact that they must stop moving to use these moves -- what are you left with? A move that replaces the standard Sonic roll/spin? Where's the innovation in that? As common in this section of creating a Sonic game: It's the same thing with a fresh coat of paint. Same effect, different animation. Why not just let them use their rolling animation, if you're going to do that? It certainly would make the player feel more at home with traditional Sonic Game play.
Sonic Heroes does the same thing: Why can Knuckles punch? To smash walls? Why do those walls even need to be there? Easy - to justify Knuckles punch. It's artificial Game play; the wall is there, so the player must press a button on the gamepad to destroy it. They could remove the walls altogether, and save the player time and hassle. "But," you say "Isn't that what Game play is? Pressing a button and getting a reaction?" - That's a difficult question to tackle. Think of it like this: In the original Sonic games, Knuckles never HAD a punch move, because it wasn't needed: He had knuckles on his fists, and the general action of swinging them forward while running was implied enough to the point where breakable walls would crumble just by him touching them; no need for Knuckles to roll at all. He just walked right through them. Why, then, suddenly, do we need to press a button to do this very same action, especially if it breaks up the player's flow? The whole point was that Knuckles did not have to roll to break walls Sonic would have to be in a spin to take down. It was an advantage Knuckles had.
Perhaps the only moves from the 3D Sonic games that were worth while were the moves initially given to just Sonic. The Homing Attack, and the Light Speed Dash, both most notably, were unique additions that served great purposes. And in Sonic Adventure 2, they remained the only two moves truly "improved": the Homing Attack was made less of a "gimmie" move; in Sonic Adventure you could just double jump anywhere near an enemy and Sonic would automatically lock on and kill it - Sonic Adventure 2 injected a little bit of "skill" in to the move; it forced you to aim at the enemy you wanted to Homing Attack. Once Sonic was vaguely facing the right direction, he would home in on it. The Light Speed Dash in Sonic Adventure too needed improvements: To use it you had to sit through a 2-or-3 second long charge up sequence that forced Sonic to a standstill while he did it. Sonic Adventure 2 gave the move a rebirth in the name of the "Light Dash" - it negated the charge sequence all together; instead, you merely tapped the spindash button near a string of rings and Sonic raced a long at un-told speeds. Both moves served to aide and streamline the 3D platformer process: No longer was hopping on enemies heads a difficult task; you just had to be near enough to them and Sonic took care of the rest (while looking pretty cool in the process) - and the move sported added Game play benefits, to boot (stringing enemies out over a pit and forcing the player to homing attack across them in sequence). It is unfortunate that the rest of the cast was stuck with such a mixed bag of often moves, moves that broke up Game play flow or just never made any sense - especially compared to how they handled in the classic games.
And perhaps even worse; the next generation of Sonic games fail to utilize the player character's separate abilities in ways that they were in the old games. Sure, you could fly as Tails in Sonic Adventure: but what for? You were accessing Sonic's levels through Tails' controls. There were very, very few Tails-specific items littered around the levels (the only ones I can recall offhand are the dash rings in Windy Valley). The Sonic Advance games do the same thing: you are playing Knuckles running around Sonic's level. There is no place for Knuckles to fit in, for him to find his groove. Yeah, you can reach a couple of secret items if you climb up a wall or two, but generally, Sonic can reach those, too. It's this kind of level design that I think fosters the sort of "Who needs these supporting characters?" complaints - they might play differently, but there's no reason for them to really be there. You can play them almost exactly like you play Sonic because the level design is tailored to Sonic; therefore, who cares if Knuckles can climb? Who cares if Tails can fly? You don't need to. You can blitz through the level at the exact same speed as Sonic (thanks in part to all the dash pads that litter even these 2D stages that force you to top speed).
Even worse still is the case concerning Super Sonic. Born in 1992's Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Sonic was a sort of parody; at the time, Dragonball Z was airing in Japan - and obviously, Super Sonic was some form of homage to Super Saiyan Goku. After collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds, the ability to become Super Sonic was within your grasp -- a up-turned-spike golden yellow version of Sonic; Super Sonic was basically what you get when you take Sonic and enable all power-ups on Sonic all at the same time: Incredible speed, and invulnerability to any attack; plus the highest jump height. Super Sonic let you blast through stages doing nothing but enjoying scenery - you didn't have to worry about enemies, obstacles, or traps. You just went as fast as you could. He made a return appearance in 1994's Sonic 3, and in Sonic & Knuckles later that year, we were introduced to Hyper Sonic - an even faster seizure-inducing rainbow-flashing version of Super Sonic, whom served the same purpose Super Sonic did, except for a Sonic-and-Knuckles era game: He could blast through walls without having to spin, and was given a double-jump move much like Sonic; except Hyper-Sonic's destroyed every enemy on screen in one blinding flash. Since Sonic Adventure, and the birth of a more story-driven Sonic title, Super Sonic has been "phased out" so to speak - Chaos Emeralds are collected, and for one very brief boss fight, we get to fly around as Super Sonic. That's all - And perhaps that is one of the keys to the problems we face in Sonic level design: Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles had stages that were designed with Super Sonic in mind: they knew, that if you wanted, you could fly through these levels at maximum velocity, but you had to work for that. The 3D Sonic games almost forcefully hurtle you through stages at blistering speeds - often times the player doesn't even have to bother accelerating, because the game has already automatically thrust him off in the direction it wants him to go.
We need that, again. We need a Sonic game that gives us gameplay beyond just speed -- leave the "pure non-stop speed" to Super Sonic, but give the players - as Sonic, as Tails, as Knuckles - give them gameplay that fully utilizes the abilities given to them in a non-artificial way.
SECTION 3: Fixing the Problem
So one of the big problems nowadays is that we refuse to let go of the old Sonic and we refuse to embrace certain changes in the new Sonic. Some people don't like things like Sonic's shade of blue, or the fact that he's taller now, or the fact Eggman doesn't look outrageously fat anymore or whatever. I say that these are problems people shouldn't concern themselves about. But what about those problems which we have a right to fear? They deserve noting. They deserve fixing.
First up would probably be the Sonic Heroes problem: It's storyline. For years now, ever since Sonic Adventure, Sonicteam has vowed, one game after another, to be "returning Sonic to his roots". Sonic Heroes tried to embrace this mentalityperhaps the most out of any game since it: the rolling checkerboard hillsides from Sonic 1 returned in full force, and to compensate, Sonic Heroes' storyline got cut down to be "simplistic", like the rest of the game was supposed to be. But Sonicteam didn't get it right - rather than painting a simple (and classic) "Eggman's going to rule the world" plot they decided to over complicate things a bit with a little bit of a mystery, another left-over of the previous two 3D Sonic titles (in which there was a lot of mystery surrounding the antagonists). For, in the last moment of the game, we discover that it was never Eggman, it was, infact, Metal Sonic, who orchastrated the whole mess. We'd been given glimpses of him every now and then throughout the game. And thus, the final confrontation is against an enemy who we've maybe seen 30 seconds total of - 15 of those seconds were spent on a small portion of exposition and a long transformation sequence. And that's not the half of it.
The game starts a handful of plotlines it never resolves, perhaps in the sake of simplicity. We are introduced to a cloning factory in which there are millions of clones of the Anti-Hero, Shadow (from the previous game, Sonic Adventure 2). We never learn why there are Shadow clones, and we never see them in action. They are on screen for all of 10 seconds; in which they are presumably all destroyed. Additionally, another plotline involving Shadow never gets resolved - at the end of Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow regains his memories and fulfills his promise to Maria; by giving hope to humanity. In the final sequence, after Shadow's "death", we are given perhaps the most emotion the corporate big-wigs will allow Sonic to show: As he is the last person off the Space Station, he says his final goodbye to Shadow. You can almost hear his voice crack as he says it, you can hear the threads of emotion seeping through (at least, if you're listening on Japanese vocals). Sonic and Shadow had been through a lot together, starting out as bitter enemies, together, by combining their strength as a team, they vanquished the final boss and saved the planet. Together. They were on the same side. In Sonic Heroes, when Sonic and Shadow meet up a second time - Sonic doesn't bother with any sort of "hey, you're alive?!" pleasantries; both of them, without batting an eyelash, start a knock-down drag-out fight with each other. Why? We don't know. Simplicity, and all.
For those quick to crop up that Sonic was never about plot, it's this type of "simplicity" at the core of the problems we face in the 3D Sonic titles: We are promised simplicity, but instead we are met in the face with the same Game play from Sonic Adventure with perhaps mixed up a little bit (and wouldn't that be just added complexity?). And if it isn't that, we're just given things that simply don't belong. Simplicity? In the eyes of the current developers simplicity seems to be defined by "taking what we already have and subtracting functionality". They give us flat, linear level design for the sake of simplicity. They give us a plot and then get rid of all the interesting bits for the sake of simplicity. They remove the player from the immersion of the game world, limit his control - even take it away - for the sake of simplicity.
Sonic 2 was simple. Sonic Heroes is not. Holding down and pressing jump to spindash is simple. Hitting jump a second time while in mid-air to execute a special move is simple. Assigning eight separate special moves to two buttons is not simple . Standing in front of a wall I cannot cross because I have not pressed a button to cycle through a list of characters just so I can press another button, break the wall, and then cycle through the list again to get back to the character I was playing as is not simple. Removing useful functionality is not simple (well, it is, but for the wrong reasons). All of what I have described is simply more frustrating and cumbersome than it is simple or intuitive.
If the game is simple and easy to understand, shouldn't the player be able to do these things without the game forcing him in the right direction? Without the game holding his hand, always telling him what to do? If it is one thing studying marketing trends has taught me, it is that people, especially children, do not enjoy being talked down to. So why make a game that practically plays itself? Are they too stupid to understand what you are trying to do? If so, that's not really simple, is it? And if it is simple, and you're still holding the player's hand - leading him by a leash - then aren't you just wasting time? Sonic's not about wasting time.
I read an article on a website, some words by a very intelligent man named Tim Rogers - in it he was discussing Sega/Treasure/Hitmaker's Astroboy GBA game, released in the USA under the title "Astroboy: The Omega Factor". In this article he was discussing choice: The fact that Astroboy himself had a variety of moves of which to dispose enemies, all of which had the same end result (destruction); but what it gave the player was choice. Freedom within the limited game world. Astroboy could lead in with a kick and go to a finger beam, or do it completely backwards. Maybe he punched enemies to death. Maybe he used Astroboy's mounted guns to stun the enemies first. It was up to the player to decide. If Sonic can go fast, that does not mean he should go fast. Let the player decide - don't throw him along a pathway. If he wants to slow down, stop and smell the flowers, let him. Give the player the ability to go fast, and give him the choice to use it when and wherever he wants. It's freedom of choice. It leads to the player feeling as if he has a greater sense of control over what he's doing. It helps the player's immersion in the game world. So what if Sonic doesn't go around every single loop at top speed? Maybe the player doesn't want to. Maybe something happened near the loop that made the player slow down so he could see what was going on? It doesn't matter. It's up to the player to decide. Maybe the Player stops at the loop, walks through the bottom portion of it and comes out the other side without ever running up, around or upside down. One of favorite levels in the original Sonic Adventure is "Emerald Coast" - it's tropical, and it's wide-open. One of my favorite areas in this level is at the very end, before you reach the capsule that ends the level - there is a medium-sized stretch of sandbar leading up to it. What's there? Nothing. A few rings, maybe that's it. I like it, because it's one of the first and only extended stretches of land you can run on as just Sonic. There are no dash plates. No enemies. No platforms. Just you, and speed. There are times when I run laps around this section, if I'm bored enough. The game never forces me to go down this part of level. I can do whatever I want.
Some would be ready to tell you that such freedom within the game world is dead: in today's market, gamers want games with simple controls that equal big flashy effects. I'm not going to deny that playing to this crowd is a good way to make money; RPGs like Final Fantasy have built their entire franchise on this premise alone. But to that, I do not say that freedom is dead - games like Grand Theft Auto plop you down in the middle of the city and let you tackle missions completely in your own way. Or, you could ignore the missions and do menial tasks like deliver Pizza, become a Vigilante Cop, or ferry people about the city in a Taxi Cab. The MMORPG craze is currently in full swing, with games like Everquest 2, Lineage 2, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, The Matrix Online, Shenmue Online, Final Fantasy XI, Starwars Galaxies, and Ragnarok Online -- most of which employ open-ended Quest systems. Indeed, the gaming industry is seeing a surge in games that allow the player freedom to tackle a situation from multiple angles (or just not tackle it at all) -- meaning the concept of freedom in a videogame, freedom like we saw in what gamers consider the "golden era" of 16bit gaming, is far from dead.
SECTION 4: A Possible Solution
So, if that's what's wrong with the games, how exactly does one fix that? If you would, please allow me to indulge my own egotism on the matter. Everybody will have their own vision, undoubtedly, on how to "fix" a situation such as this. It's a question that pops up with anybody who's a fan of something: If, by a fortunate twist of fate, I found myself as the creative lead behind this project, what would I do differently? While I make no claims I have the idea for the perfect Sonic game, these are simply things that I wish were part of the current series. Besides, it serves as a nice wrap-up to show how all my claims from above wrap together in to a nice, cohesive package. Basically: I'm going to gush like a lowly fanboy now, so, if you want, you can go ahead and skip this part.
For starters, we'll adhere to the complaints of fans: this game will feature just Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. (If the creators are really dead-set on it, we'll include Cream & Cheese, too. They've always worked as a sort of nice "easy mode" for younger players in the Advance games) Exactly what Players have been complaining about: Not too many characters, but not too few, just enough for a good set of replay value. Sonic will retain his two most useful innovations: Aimable Homing Attack, Light Dash. Beyond those two, he will have his Spindash/Roll. Nothing else; no Ancient Light, no Mystic Melody, no Summersault Kick. Knuckles will be able to climb, glide, roll and dig. Tails will be able to fly - but in a move combining how he functioned (outside of his mech) in Sonic Adventure 2, and in Sonic Heroes, Tails will get a "flight bar" of sorts. He will be able to hover in place without depleting this "flight bar", however, pressing A will make him boost upwards. Each boost will deplete the bar X amount until he runs out. Moving while hovering will also deplete the bar, but at a much slower rate than boosting. Perhaps boosting would also serve as an attack. Super Sonic would return true to form: Either after completing the game (or beating all the Special Stages, if any) Super Sonic would become unlocked and playable in every level in the game, just as he was in the previous Sonic games - Exactly like Sonic, just with faster acceleration, faster top speed, and completely invincible to all hazards (except being crushed, and falling off in to a bottomless pit). Super Sonic would be the focus on non-stop all-out speed; he would not have to stop for anything if he did not want to (except, maybe, for rings).
Doctor Eggman would return to the status-quo of being a big bad Villain. Too often in the recent Games has Eggman been used as comic relief; I realize he is supposed to be a wacky Mad Scientist, but when every project he makes literally overpowers him and uses him as a doormat, you start wondering why he makes plans to try and control something he obviously has no power over. So, obviously, if I had control of the next Sonic game, Eggman would re-take his place as being a proper, ominous, dastardly-deed-doing super Villain. No Servants, no Slaves, no Ancient Prophecies, just Eggman being cool again. Emphasis on badnik characterization and personification would return; as would the typically diverse group of enemies we used to see in Sonic games of old. (Less "Generic Grunt" type badniks and more "personalized to fit the stage" style)
Storyline would be written by Asahiko Kikuchi, whom wrote the story for Sonic Battle (presumably, at least. He is listed as "Story Mode Planner"). Sonic Battle had one of the best, most well-thought-out and thoroughly enjoyable storylines in a Sonic game since Sonic Adventure; characterization was spot-on, jokes were clever, and the method of telling was just phenomenal, especially for a GBA game - needless to say, that's how I want all storylines in the Sonic Series to be written. Music would be largely composed by the group who did Sonic Heroes' music, but perhaps a little less Jun Senoue. I love wailing guitars as much as the next guy, but Jun's work as of late has seemed flat and uninteresting. He did awesome music for the original Sonic Adventure, but none of the music he's done since that soundtrack has quite had the "punch" that Sonic Adventure contained. I felt his work in Sonic Adventure 2 was boring and repetitive - random guitar chords strung along a beat with no real "tune". To me, a good videogame tune is something you can whistle while you take a shower. When I listen to the Sonic Heroes soundtrack, most of my favorite songs were done by people other than Jun Senoue - Mariko Nanba, Tomoya Ohtani, Naofumi Hataya, and so on.
Camera would have three modes - two from Sonic Adventure DX (Free, which lets the player control the camera, and Auto, which tries to find the best angle automatically). The new mode would be a "Locked" Camera Mode; this would lock the camera behind the player at all times (of course, there'd be a little leeway; a smooth-scrolling pan to keep itself behind the player, not some tight, stiff camera that's crammed behind the player). The camera itself wouldn't be solid (unlike the cameras for most platformers) - meaning it would be able to pass through walls. When on the other side of a wall, the wall itself would appear invisible as not to obstruct view from the player. These three camera modes would, infact, make everybody happy, I think.
High-speed game play mechanics would be based more on racing games: Sonic would have some weight - maybe a tiny bit of drift - as he turned at high-speeds. However, the player would still have enough control over Sonic to where they wouldn't be sliding in to walls constantly during turns. The deeper mechanics would mimic racing games such as F-Zero GX and Rollcage: Games that allowed the player to stick to pretty much any curved surface as they drove; you could drive on the ceiling, up and down the edges of half-pipes, pretty much anywhere that the track allowed you. Sonic games require this mechanic, and, if I were in control, I would love to emphasize this in level design.
One idea I've toyed with for a long time in my mind, came from when the PS2 game, Jak & Daxter was first released: the removal of "levels", and the introduction of, more or less, "areas" and "locations". In actuality, what this means, is you connect all the levels together as one, giant, inter-connected never-ending "world". Ever since Jak & Daxter (and the subsiquent sequels) have been released, I always ponder on this idea, and wonder just how effective it would be within a Sonic setting. Using this concept, I think, would be be more along the lines of a fully-matured "Adventure Field" from Sonic Adventure: enough action within them to be considered challenges, while still retaining an adventure element. It would also help emphasize the fact that backtracking through levels would, indeed, be essential, and could open up the door wider for challenges involving the physics engine.
Level designs themselves, if even called that, could open up wider, as in Sonic Heroes, to give the player more room to manuver. Design emphasis would be on choice: Imagine a corkscrew segment where there would be two openings to go around, forming a sort of solid "tube" between the two corkscrews. The "every level is suspended over a bottomless pit" mechanic would be toned down, with more stages taking place on wider, more comfortable arenas - that, as the game drew to a close, would get narrower and higher in to the sky (eventually, reaching in to space itself, obviously). Pre-scripted, cinematic loops would be de-emphasized, and player interaction with them would be paramount, to tie in with the newly re-envisioned physics engine: Sections where the player must run up a wall, but remain in control of where Sonic is going to hit a spring or avoid an obstacle. There would be sections of level, perhaps seperated in to areas only certain characters would access, that would cater to their gameplay: Long portions of highways for Sonic to run; some platforms that are perhaps too high in the sky to reach, or a section of wall too long to be flown across, and can only be climbed. Classic Sonic mechanics would return in full form: Swings, slides, tubes, monkey bars, and more.
Think of it like a big playground: as a child, the playground was the cool place to be. You were given a set of structures - swings, slides, monkey bars, etc. and you were given free reign to use them as you pleased. Yes, you were supposed to slide DOWN the slide, but I don't think a child exists that hasn't tried to climb up the slide backwards. Or what about the swings? Surely we've all swung as high as we could -- only to jump off at the peak of the swing, just to see how far we would go before landing? Even have contests doing this. I-bet-I-can-jump-farther-than-you-oh-no-you-can't sorts of affairs. The current 3D Sonic games take you to this playground and they force you to go down that slide the same way, every time: feet first, sitting upright. You are not allowed to climb back up the slide backwards. If you want to go on the slide again, you have to come back tomorrow, and that's a big problem that shouldn't be there.
And that's how you fix the problem. You give the game back to the player. You let him play in the playground as he chooses to.