When the original Sonic The Hedgehog debuted in 1991, Sega had one thing in mind—beat Nintendo's Mario at his own game. Sonic, both the character and the game, achieved success from being a faster, more hip alternative. However, time hasn't been kind to the blue rodent. The last game that really stayed true to the original formula was actually the first sequel—Sonic The Hedgehog 2—which came out way back in 1992. Every Sonic game since then has focused more on expanding Sonic's world and his cast of friends—neither of which have proved as compelling as Super Mario's. Coincidentally, the games stopped being fast, and they stopped being cool. A quick look at the current state of the Sonic franchise reveals that the games have totally lost sight of their original purpose.
This is why Nintendo's Mario games remain so fun and why Sega's Sonic games are only kind of fun. The secret to the success of the Mario universe lies in the strength and appeal of its characters. You can insert Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad and Yoshi into just about anything—golf, tennis, go-kart racing—and always have a really fun game. Sonic's cast on the other hand, which includes the curious likes of Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Robotnik and Amy ("Amy"—are you kidding?), aren't nearly as convincingly characterized and as a result aren't as fun to watch—and yet Sega has come to rely on them just the same. Sonic games are no longer as fast. Sonic games are no longer as cool. Sonic himself has lost that trademark attitude that catapulted him to super stardom in favor of an ill-suited actor's voice that makes him come off as a cheap superhero caricature.
The bottom line is this: Sonic's world and its cast will never be as fleshed out nor as timeless as the Super Mario franchise. Remember how good Square's Super Mario RPG was on the Super NES? Would a similar game featuring the cast of the Sonic The Hedgehog games be as fun? Of course it wouldn't. That's why in order for the Sonic The Hedgehog series to return to its former glory, it needs to forget about Knuckles, Amy and all the other horrible characters, and get back to the basics.
Unfortunately, the latest Sonic game, Sonic Shuffle, is not a step in the right direction.
Sonic Shuffle is Sega's inevitable entry into the party game genre, which got its start with Nintendo's Mario Party on the Nintendo 64. Guess what—Sonic Shuffle isn't fast, isn't hip, and it certainly doesn't have any attitude. And that's not all. Not only isn't it a good Sonic game, but it also isn't a very good party game, either. What does that leave us with? A lousy game, a borefest, the first interactive insomnia remedy, an expensive coaster, a complete waste of time, a pile of—how many different ways can I put it? The game sucks.
To begin with, the whole attraction of these kinds of games—the multiplayer mini games—seems to have been an afterthought in Sonic Shuffle. This is not to say that the mini games aren't there. There are in fact tons of mini games, but they're so unfun and poorly designed that the developers might as well have left them out entirely. Let's all jump rope over a big snake! Let's all take turns playing guitar in a concert spotlight! Let's play tag! TAG for crying out loud! I'd rather watch an Adam Sandler movie with my eyelids taped to my forehead than play tag!
Now wait a second—I can imagine videogame tag being fun with a little imagination. It's just not any fun in Sonic Shuffle. For one thing, all of the characters—including Sonic—run like they all have cement blocks chained to their feet. Why is this? The whole point behind Sonic The Hedgehog is that he runs really fast, isn't it? So why is he so slow in this game? And he runs like this during all of the mini games. It doesn't make any sense! What's the point of making a Sonic game if he can't even run fast?
Anyway, there are many other types of mini games in Sonic Shuffle—it isn't just limited to tag and jump rope. However, whether you're playing by yourself or with three other players, I found the mini games to be either too obscure or just plain dumb. Even the ones that might sound halfway interesting—like the frying pan game or the turntable DJ game—end up falling totally flat in their execution. In fact, for me the mini games were so pointless and boring that they became a distraction from the main part of Sonic Shuffle—the board-game playing aspect.
Yes, most of Sonic Shuffle is played on a map that resembles in its design the surface of your typical family board game. Instead of rolling dice to move your character, you draw from a hand of numbered cards (hence the "shuffle" in the game's title). You move your characters around the board, and different things happen depending on the spaces you land on. You can win by either collecting more rings, more "Forcejewels" or more "Precioustones" than the other players.
Right from the start of playing this game, I found I would have preferred rolling dice. The whole card-playing set-up never works smoothly, and it can prove downright confusing for people who aren't very familiar with videogames—so the game's party appeal goes right out the window immediately. There's also a lot of stoppage in the game's action. A single session with Sonic Shuffle is filled with enough "now loading" screens and non-interactive game events to make you yawn after just five minutes of gameplay. Furthermore, simply waiting for your turn is enough to make you lose interest since watching the other players do the Sonic Shuffle-thing is twice as boring than doing it yourself.
One of the best action games of time, Treasure's seminal Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis, featured a stage in which you play through a board game. Every space on the board gave you something different and interesting to do, whether it was finding a power-up room, battling some crazy alien or racing through an ever-changing maze. That one level offered more fun and more imagination than all of Sonic Shuffle. So much of Sonic Shuffle is dependent on the game's contrived and sleep-inducing storyline that you have to wonder what exactly the developers were trying to do. Like we're supposed to care about the importance of getting all the Precioustones. What a joke. Did the creators put so much time into the lame story to cover up for the rest of the game? And what about the rest of the game? I can't figure out if Sonic Shuffle wants to be a video board game or if it wants to compete on the Mario Party level. Either one is an admirable goal, but Sonic Shuffle is so all-over-the-place in its focus that it fails miserably at both.
Sonic Shuffle is a poor attempt at mainstream entertainment, but it's also perhaps the worst single-player game I've ever played. It's the first game that actually made me change the channel on my TV while playing. Most of the game is spent watching anyway, and I'd rather watch something more worthwhile (national rodeo championships, auto racing, pro wrestling, soap operas). Sonic Shuffle does have pretty visuals, but even good graphics can't help a game concept this confused. So this is where Sonic The Hedgehog has come. Yuji Naka must be truly mystified as to what Sega is doing with his famous creation. After playing Sonic Shuffle, my advice to Sega is to get off its ass and do something to restore the Sonic franchise to respectability before it's too late.