25 years ago, there was no hotter rivalry in gaming than Nintendo vs. Sega. The two Japanese powerhouses kept trading blows, and at the forefront of this war were two colorful heroes. Super Mario, the stalwart of adventure, who represented good wholesome fun, and the new kid on the block, Sonic the Hedgehog, the very embodiment of the 90s.
In time, Nintendo would emerge the victor, still fighting to remain competitive in the modern console era, while Sega would plummet towards the brink, buoyed largely by its arcade department and reduced to the status of third-party developer. Nowadays, the two companies have an amicable relationship, with Sega games appearing on Nintendo platforms, and Mario and Sonic even crossing paths at the Olympics every few years.
With their latest offerings available at last in Super Mario Odyssey and Sonic Forces, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on where these two giants of the industry are at.
Super Mario Odyssey was the first to release on Oct. 27, and it has proven to be a bona fide console seller. Currently sporting an overall score of 97 on Metacritic from almost 100 critic reviews, it has delighted fans with its charm and sense of style. Indeed, mainline Mario games are practically assured to be of exceptional quality; even his lesser efforts like New Super Mario Bros. 2 remain solid, with some issues holding them back from maintaining that lofty standard. For perspective: none of the 3D platforming games in Mario’s library have a score lower than 90 on Metacritic.
Odyssey in particular has proven to be a generational title, hooking gamers and non-gamers alike, with people coming in droves to try out Nintendo’s new console. Social media, so often a platform to expose glitches or lament questionable design choices, has instead been flooded with people comparing their moon tallies, showing off their eclectic wardrobe choices, and even sharing minuscule touches that caught their eye.
For a game this celebrated to arrive in the Switch’s first year of existence, only months after launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wowed us with its immersive world, is almost hard to fathom. It could be nigh impossible for Nintendo to maintain this kind of momentum throughout the system’s lifespan, but early signs are definitely encouraging, with more hotly-anticipated titles announced every week, it seems.
Which then turns our attention to Sonic Forces, the second major title featuring the blue hedgehog to arrive in 2017. It’s no secret that Sonic has not fared quite so well over the years, with our look at Sonic’s 20th highest rated game on Metacritic, Sonic and the Secret Rings, scoring a pedestrian 69. It has since been bumped from that position by August’s release of Sonic Mania; its score of 86 would place it as the 4th best Sonic game of all time, by those rankings.
Sonic Mania proved to be a love letter to everything that made us adore Sonic in the first place. Inventive level design with multiple routes to take, unique boss battles that challenged us to work out their weaknesses through clever visual cues, and of course – more fan service than you could shake a power ring at.
This last point is not insignificant, as it seems as though that has fast become Sonic’s trump card as he tries to make the long climb back towards relevance; appeasing the rabid fans’ desires to recapture that old magic. Sonic Generations was, on its own merits, a fine game that blended 2D and 3D platforming elements well without ever really pushing the boundaries of either genre. With the inclusion of classic Sonic however – long thought to have been lost forever – it sent waves of anticipation through a disillusioned fanbase that helped to mask its weaknesses. Overall, Sonic Colors was a superior game, but it didn’t receive nearly the adulation of its counterpart.
It’s clear to anyone that the portly retro aesthetic of the character is beloved beyond measure; whether it’s the sheer joy upon Sonic Mania’s initial reveal, or the pop from the otherwise subdued reaction to Sonic Forces when classic Sonic first appeared. Never mind the notion that the character has perhaps been shoehorned into a game where he didn’t belong, or the fact that this will be our 20th visit to Green Hill Zone – if it works, it works. But how does it translate in-game?
Early impressions are not proving kind to our boy in blue. The game presently sits at 58 on Metacritic, and the odds of it rising significantly beyond that point are unlikely. Once again, it seems to be a victim of the franchise’s famous pitfalls; awkward controls and camera, uninspiring gameplay, and a storyline that feels unnecessarily bloated.
Fan reviews are a little more optimistic, citing the customizable Avatar and impressive soundtrack as being positives. The general consensus among Sonic fans is that Sonic Forces is basically okay. Nothing great, nothing offensively bad. Just the same kind of game that we’ve been receiving from the character for years now.
Ultimately, this is the issue that needs to be addressed. Placing Super Mario Odyssey and Sonic Forces up against one another may seem unfair, as this is Nintendo’s first offering of a sandbox-style Mario game in fifteen years, whereas a 3D Sonic game is a yearly occurrence. However, we have been settling for games that are just passable – and sometimes worse – from Sega’s mascot for far too long.
Super Mario Odyssey could be considered the Mario game, another instant classic that is at least on par with his very best. Sonic Forces, on the other hand, is just a Sonic game; a humdrum chapter that does nothing to progress a series that has grown stale.
This is particularly evident following the success of Sonic Mania; there are still more innovations for the franchise to be found, it just seems as though Sonic Team, the very development division that created the character, can’t quite locate them, despite all of their best efforts. Sonic Forces simply cannot get out of its own way, and represents a distinct misunderstanding of what the fanbase really wants.
It’s truly saddening to see how the once minute gap between these legendary figures has grown into a veritable chasm. Their latest titles are indicative of their position in the industry as a whole; Mario is at the top of the class, rebranding and adjusting his formula just enough to deliver quality titles, while Sonic flings as much at the wall as possible, hoping desperately that something will stick. He’s iconic enough that we will keep coming back with false optimism, but unfortunately, we’ll always end up opting for Mario instead, when it’s all said and done.