Mario vs. Sonic in 2017: Why Odyssey worked but Sonic Forces failed
The war between the pudgy Italian
plumber and the spikey blue hedgehog continued, decades after it began, with the 2017 release of both Super Mario Odyssey and Sonic Forces. The verdict? Super Mario Odyssey is one of Nintendo’s best Mario games yet while Sonic Forces is a four hour trip to disappointment town. It looks like Mario wins again, a outcome that we should all be used to by now. The question I’m interested in is “Why?”
It’s tempting to give a simple answer. Super Mario Odyssey is better because Nintendo had a bigger budget and a more experienced team. But that's not a very useful answer. We are essentially saying that Super Mario Odyssey is better because Nintendo is better at their job, and that doesn't teach us much. The problem here goes much much deeper. It’s not a problem of budget or design competency. It’s a problem of identity.
Who Is Mario?
Let’s ask another question. Who is Mario?
Mario started his life as “Jumpman” in the original Donkey Kong. He’s known for one thing and one thing only:
plumbing (nope, sorry, it's going to take some time to come to terms with Mario's official career change) jumping!
It’s right there in his original name. Mario is the man who jumps. He jumps in every game he has ever been in. He even jumps in spin-off games like Paper Mario and Mario Party.
Every Mario game has been built around his jump. In the original Super Mario Bros. jumping was one of two things Mario could do to attack enemies. In Super Mario 64, Mario was given a variety of new jumping abilities that let him navigate a 3D world. Now we have Super Mario Odyssey in which the main mechanic is…possession. So, what does that have to do with jumping?
Absolutely everything! Enemy abilities are all solutions to jumping puzzles. If Mario is faced with a gap he can’t long-jump across he can possess a Bullet Bill to fly across. If Mario can’t high jump to a platform he can possess a squid and hover to the platform on water jets, or a potted plant that can reach the platform by extending its vines. Even enemies that can’t jump, like wigglers, have abilities that supplement Mario’s jumping, in this case the ability to stretch across gaps and around obstacles.
Super Mario Odyssey has far fewer jumping challenges than its predecessors. Instead, it’s focused on open world exploration. Yet this exploration is also built around Mario’s jump.
Let’s say you find a power moon atop a tall spire. How will you get there? Will you backflip, wall jump, bounce off your cap, and try to hit the spire from the ground? Will you climb up a neighboring tower and long jump? Will you possess an enemy that can fly to the spire? All of these possibilities answer a simple question: “How will I make that jump?”
This is the primary reason that Mario has succeeded. Nintendo understands the mechanical core of his identity. They know that Mario needs to be jumping and they build every Mario game around that core mechanic. Mario fans are rarely disappointed because they know what to expect. They want a game that lets them jump, and Mario never fails to let them jump.
Who is Sonic?
Now let’s ask the same question of Sonic. Who is Sonic the Hedgehog?
When you think of Sonic you probably think of his meme-ified catchphrase “Gotta go fast!” Where Mario is known for jumping, Sonic is known for running.
This isn’t an accident. Sonic was designed to be Mario’s opposite. While Mario was a cartoony family friendly person, Sonic was a spikey edgy hedgehog with attitude. Everything that Mario was, Sonic wasn’t, and vice versa. Mario was a game based on jumping, a vertical method of movement, so Sega made Sonic’s core mechanic running, a horizontal method of movement.
All of the best Sonic games focus on this mechanic. Early 16-bit Sonic games rewarded you with secret areas and hidden routes for keeping up your momentum. Good 3D Sonic games feature long stretches of territory that you can boost through. Managing your boost meter is their core challenge. Any good Sonic game features puzzles and challenges that make the player ask “How do I run fast enough?” Whether you need to make a jump, get through a loop, or boost through a wall, you always have to consider your speed.
Then we have Sonic Forces. It’s obvious at a glance that running is not the core of this game. Its newest character, the custom avatar, moves more slowly than Sonic and has to plant to battle with their wispon. All three Sonics have to frequently stop running to participate in finicky platforming segments. Later stages force Modern Sonic to stop boosting by removing guard rails and putting insta-death pitfalls in his way. The game constantly wants to prevent you from going fast, which is what Sonic is all about.
All of Sonic’s failures somehow betrayed his core identity. Sonic Unleashed forced Sonic to slow down and beat up enemies as a were-hog. Sonic and the Black Knight forced Sonic to stop in order to use his sword. Sonic Boom, Sonic 06, and Sonic and the Secret Rings all included mechanics that either discouraged or flat out prevented high-speed gameplay.
Compare this to Sonic Mania, which was largely considered a success. Sonic Mania returned to Sonic’s 16-bit 2D roots which kept Sonic running at all times. In main stages, Sonic is running. In chaos emerald stages, Sonic is running. In blue orb bonus stages, Sonic is running. When you play as Tails or Knuckles, you are still running.
Every new mechanic in Sonic Mania was built around speed. The new drop-dash ability lets you retain your speed after a jump. Several boss fights require you to build up speed to land a hit. Even the Mean Bean Machine mini-game has an element of speed to it, as you have to match colors and form combos quicker than your opponent to win. Sonic Mania kept Sonic’s speed at the core of his identity, and it succeeded because of it.
How Do You Stay True To Your Identity?
Every game franchise has to innovate to keep itself fresh, but you can go too far. Innovation isn’t just the act of changing game mechanics. You have to innovate around your game’s core identity in order to create an experience that fits them.
Even Mario fell into this pitfall at one point. Super Mario Sunshine, largely considered the worst 3D Mario game, would take the focus off jumping in order to fool around with FLUDD’s water mechanics. Even so, these water mechanics eventually came back around to jumping with abilities like the hover nozzle.
And that is why Mario is winning the everlasting war between Mario and Sonic. Because even after 36 years, Mario is still the jumpman we knew and loved from his original appearance. That’s why it feels completely natural for 3D Mario to become 2D Mario in the middle of Super Mario Odyssey. The controls may have changed, but Mario is still doing what he does best: jumping.
Sonic, on the other hand, isn’t the same Sonic we fell in love with in the Genesis era. In fact, the gameplay split in Sonic Forces between Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic and a custom avatar proves it. Classic Sonic is the Sonic we love. This is the Sonic that showed up in Sonic Mania. This is the Sonic that is rewarded for going fast. Modern Sonic is fun when he’s allowed to run at supersonic speeds, but most of the time the game punishes him for doing so. Meanwhile, the custom avatar is a neat addition, but they barely run at all. Sonic become three different characters, but only one has “gotta go fast.”
By preserving and evolving Mario's core mechanical gameplay identity, Nintendo has been able to continue to produce quality Mario games for decades. If Sega wants to get Sonic back on track, they need to follow the path laid out by Sonic Mania, not Sonic Forces.