I unabashedly adore Sonic Unleashed. It is by no means a perfect game, and I fully acknowledge the poor decision that was the Werehog, but the Modern Sonic daytime stages that are featured in the game are a sight to behold. These levels display a really high level of craftsmanship and thought in regards to enemy and hazard placement, faster routes and sections that require the player to have total mastery over Sonic’s newer, more speed-run oriented moveset. I’ve been playing Unleashed since it launched in November of 2008, and still have a blast playing it to this day. I’m constantly trying to beat my best times, improve my execution, be more precise and perfect my runs.
Sonic Unleashed Is A Speed Runner's Dream
Sonic Unleashed is a game that, at times, can seem cruel and unforgiving in the things it asks the player to do. Completing the game is totally manageable, but achieving high scores, S ranks and good times is a completely different story. To briefly compare it to one of its successors, Sonic Generations, both games feature an identical gameplay style, but decidedly different mentality when it comes to level design.
With Generations, unless I mess up at the beginning of the level or am attempting a perfect speed-run, I’m not likely restart a level. It’s a game that I enjoy playing casually just as much as I enjoy speed-running. Even for speed-running, with the exception of a few near frame perfect exploits, Generations isn’t too arduous of a game to blaze through. There’s never any real sense of tension or danger in the levels, making the game a pretty safe and comfortable adventure overall.
Sonic Unleashed Made Me A Perfectionist
With Sonic Unleashed, if I make even the tiniest of mistakes, I have to restart. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the game casually, I’m just highlighting a point. You see, Unleashed wants you to go really, really fast, and is constantly challenging the player to keep their speed. The Modern Sonic Boost gameplay style gets a lot of criticism for being simply Boost to win, the same way the Genesis games drew ire for being hold right to win. These statements have always been pretty hyperbolic, to say the least. The Genesis games are physics and momentum based platformers. Players are reward for manipulating the slope-y terrain in tandem with Sonic’s pinball physics to achieve bursts of high speed. I know it’s cliche to say, but players have to earn their speed.
Keeping The Pace
Modern 3D Sonic takes a different approach to this thought. Modern Sonic has a Boost button which instantly rockets him to high speed. As long as you can keep your Boost meter filled, (which is not at all hard to do), there’s no real requirement to earn your speed. However, as I said before, the challenge this time around is keeping that speed and seeing how long you can go without stopping or hitting an obstacle, which Unleashed is littered with. Walls, spike walls, trip hazards, Eggman springs, normal springs that will send you into hazards, flame pillars, every force on Earth, (or Mobius), wants to stop our blue hero from running.
Sonic Unleashed forces you to “get good” if you wanna have an enjoyable time, a design trait that was picked up from it’s handheld little brother, Sonic Rush. This was likely a turn-off to many players, which is why they significantly scaled back the difficulty in subsequent games. But I for one welcome the challenge, and really hope future games bring it back in full force. After all, practice makes perfect.
Mastery Of Mechanics
Earlier I used variants of the words precision and execution, two words I always use to describe Unleashed, and most games of its nature. Unleashed is very difficult to master, and I love it for this reason. I have a huge thing for games that reward the player for learning and mastering its mechanics and levels; it’s why Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is my favorite game of all time.
If you wanna stand a chance against any of that game’s bonus bosses, knowing the ins and outs of the combat system, knowing which weapons and items best suit the given situation and identifying boss patterns and weaknesses is a necessity. Most of Kingdom Hearts II's bosses wrecked me my first time fighting them, but I was never frustrated because I always felt like it was my fault that I lost. The challenge was tough but fair, and I always felt like I lost due to my own mistakes.
In my eyes, most challenges fall into two categories: the ones that make you say in exasperation, “thank goodness that’s finally over”, and the ones that make you feel powerful and accomplished for overcoming the challenge. I don’t think it’s too hard to guess which one I prefer.
In addition to precision and execution, Unleashed does require memorization, which I don’t think is a bad thing. Rote memorization often gets used as a negative phrase when talking about games, and I’ve never really understood why. My best guess would be because some players prefer to be rewarded for their reflexes and reaction time, rather than their memorization skills. I can definitely sympathize with this sentiment, but I still maintain that memorization is not a bad concept. Knowing a level’s exact layout can go a long way towards preparing you for the more intensive parts.
An Amazing Arcade-like Experience
As much as I love Sonic Unleashed, I fully understand why future games like Sonic Generations had a softer touch. Generations is much easier, and much more accessible as a result. Generations is an amazing game, and I'll still say that, pound for pound, it's the best 3D Sonic game, but it just lacks the thrill that I get from a really good run in Unleashed. Where Unleashed really gets me is it's appeal to my love for arcade experiences. I've always been obsessed with high scores, best times and flawless runs, and Unleashed provides such a great outlet for this.
For the past few years, I've become obsessed with seeing 3D Sonic head deeper down the "racing platformer" path that Sonic Unleashed set him on. If you wanna see a really good analysis that highlights this type of game, I highly suggest you check out this video by Ryan Bloom, one of the writers for the Sonic fan site TSSZ News. I've been a huge fan of his for years, (in fact I stole the term racing platformer directly from him), and we share a lot of the same opinions in regards to Sonic Unleashed, and what we want to see out of future 3D Sonic games. He does an excellent job of highlighting the flaws of the Boost formula, as well as how a more refined Modern Sonic experience could work.
Sonic Unleashed is one of my favorite games of all time, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. I'll always enjoy doing runs of my favorite levels, beating my best times and just having a darn good time doing so.