Once upon a time, Sonic went toe-to-toe with Super Mario Bros, one of the most popular videogame franchises of all time. In fact, there was a season when the SEGA Genesis was actually outselling the SNES in the USA and in Japan. This was due, in large part, to the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog. Since the 16-bit era, Sonic had fallen down. Hard. We're not talking about skinned knees here. We're talking about falling down a tall flight of jagged concrete stairs, across a busy street, getting struck by several moving vehicles, only to Sonic-Spinball down an open manhole and into a river of sewage.
Time and time again, Sonic Team promises to "go back to Sonic's roots" and deliver a Sonic experience that is worthy of the name. Time and time again, the fanbase ends up disappointed.
I'll tell you why: because SEGA has no clue what made Sonic so good in the first place. Nowadays, Sonic is all about being cool. He's all about "gotta go fast". He's all about crazy loop-de-loops and colorful bosses and levels that are arranged like a rollercoaster track.
But that isn't what made Sonic good.
Sonic was great because of three things: special abilities, level design, and excellent controls.
Remember playing with Tails and discovering not only did Sonic the Hedgehog 3 support co-op (awesome!) but tails could pick Sonic up and carry him around! WHAT?! Remember discovering the Bubble power, or the spin-dash (which was a welcome addition in Sonic 2). Remember when you finally got all of the Chaos Emeralds and turned into Super Sonic? The Sonic games had so many powerups, so many cool set-pieces, so many secrets. And speaking of secrets...
Something that SEGA has totally forgotten is how their level design used to be. Sonic isn't about going fast or zooming through roller-coaster tracks. Sonic is about exploration and finding secrets. Granted, there are parts where you zoom through a level, but a large part of the game's charm comes from investigating all the nooks and crannies of the level. Modern Sonic games have totally lost this aspect of the older games. Take the new Lost World, for example:
What the heck IS this? What is this level? Where does this take place? There's no continuity here. It's just a big, disjointed carnival setpiece. There are no secrets. There are no cool areas to explore. There's no reason to Sonic dash up a ramp in hopes of flying high enough to reach that far-away platform. People forget that older Sonic games weren't just about speed for the sake of speed. In the older Sonic games, going fast meant that you could build momentum and launch high up into the sky, often landing on a floating platform with a free life, a powerup, or a Chaos Emerald bonus level.
This is Marble Garden from Sonic the Hedgehog 3. It is one of the most sprawling, secret-packed level in the entire series. (link to map: http://www.sonicgalaxy.net/img/maps/gen/sonic3/mgz-1.png). To think this was running on the Genesis is INSANE. How do modern Sonic games compare? They don't. There's no exploration. There's no need to ramp up to higher platforms or use a Fireball to shoot across a gap (or through a wall) because the secrets simply aren't there. If SEGA wants Sonic to be interesting again, then they need to stop worrying about making too-cool-for-school Shadow the Hedgehog or giving Sonic a scarf or giving Knuckles steroids. They need to begin by making the levels interesting again.
Levels in Sonic the Hegdehog used to be huge, with hidden paths and secrets all over the place. Not to mention, they each had a very cool theme that tied the world together (like the Carnival Zone: http://www.sonicgalaxy.net/img/maps/gen/sonic3/cnz-2.png). These maps give you so much freedom of exploration, it's no wonder that Sonic was so popular. There aren't many platformers that give you so many areas to explore in one level! Nowadays, Sonic is on rails because the developers don't want you to miss a single setpiece. But back then? The devs rewarded exploration.
Last but not least, the controls in the Sonic the Hedgehog series are phenomenal. The momentum was weighty, and yet you always felt in control of your jumps and your attacks. The ability to fine-tune controls is apparently something that SEGA has lost, because every new Sonic game controls like crap. Either Sonic is moving too fast (gotta go fast!) for the player to react, or he's having trouble making precise jumps on platforms. It just isn't the same. Plenty of recent platformers like Donkey Kong Returns, Rayman Origins, and New Super Mario Bros (among others) have shown that a modern platformer can still have excellent controls. Did SEGA miss the memo?
I think that if SEGA could pull their head out of their you-know-where, they could make a fantastic Sonic the Hedgehog game. Sonic Colors was pretty decent, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was a step in the right direction. However, if they want to bring Sonic back to his glory years, then they need to remember what made Sonic so great in the first place.