Do you recognize this painting?
Actually, I hope you don't. And I hope you didn't look at the url either, because this way it'll be easier for me to explain - because, now I'll ask: do you kno who made it?
And you'll probably say "well, it's Pablo Picasso. The style is unmistakable." and so it is. Even if you've never seen this painting before, you can infer the author because of some data you've acquired before. It matches such data. Also, have you ever heard a song and immediately thought "this sounds like Beatles" even if you were listening to, say, that Lemon Tree song?
Every work of art leaves a mark, a legacy to culture in general that allows it to be recognized even when it's not present at all. It becomes "spiritual", so to speak. This, naturally, also happens to games and Sonic does have a mark. You can eat a donut and associate it to rings. We can recognize minimalist posters of Sonic, too. That's the essence of Sonic the Hedgehog.
I'm saying this because such essence is what's more valuable to a franchise in order to help it sell well (which is what's important in the end) and be recognized as an icon. That's what Sonic was made for. But what is, objectively, Sonic's essence?
I wouldn't say it's all about the elements without which the games can't be recognized as Sonic, though. Especially gameplay-wise. Some might say it's not a Sonic game if he doesn't run fast or doesn't jump high, but that's not it. The essence we're discussing here is like the following: Pietá is a sculpture made of marble. What's essential is not the element that made it be the ay it is (the marble), but the image it passes. If we make an origami that passes just the same image and people recognize it, then we can say that the essence has been preserved.
Running and jumping, you can say, are the marble. The material with which you build the game (and there IS a reason why one would want to choose marble over wood, for example). There are spin-offs that look more like Sonic than canon games (Sonic R compared Sonic '06, for example). Analogically, what's essential about Mona Lisa is not the frame, nor the paint used, not even the "mysterious smile". This is just as Mona Lisa as the original one, despite not having anything to do with it other than... well... Mona Lisa. You know, the very idea of Mona Lisa.
Essence is a creator of possibilities, not of restrictions. Because, in truth, essence is not the elements that e would like to make an ideal Sonic game: it's what makes us perceive Sonic in wherever he might be. We create Sonic, too, in a way, when he's not there.
And that's why the essence isn't the Word of God, either. There is a space of creation between the developer and the general audience. It is more or less conceived, but never completely preexistent to the first game. The audience can aggregate value to a game - let's take Pokémon as an example. Today, it's a part of pop culture, a very important one I'd say. You can use Pokémon for lots of analogies, lots of ideas etc. There's Missingno., which I point as a result of the interaction between the developer and the player and which is very much integrated to Pokémon culture even if it's not what GameFreak would define as "canon" at all.
I want to say that there is an abstract Sonic in people's mind even if no one says it. When the developer starts to mess up ith this very abstract Sonic, things start to get confusing. When you take Sonic from an universe to another without warning and without caution, the Sonic in popular imaginary is excluded and, therefore, no one knows what to expect from Sonic and opinions start to escape the earlier closed paradigm. That's how Sonic went downhill.
What has affected Sonic the most in the last years is an absolute lack of conceptual sequence. No, Sonic Generations wasn't able to repair this just because it tried to establish a timeline, a weak and contradictory canon. The problem is not necessarily internal (which means the games are not necessarily bad in themselves) - it's how the game is presented in face of the whole franchise's imaginary.
Sonic Adventure reseted the whole universe of the series, completely ignoring what had happened until S3&K. Not (only) in terms of storyline, but - most importantly - in the way one could deal with how he would make progress in the game and create emotional attachment to it.
Here's a fun fact: if Sonic CD was the first Sonic game ever, we'd automatically attach the time travel to the essence of Sonic, and, then, if they released Sonic 1 after it, everyone would complain because where the hell have the fun time travels gone? Time travel is so Sonic-y!
That's why there's no such thing as "evaluating a game for what it is". That's a fallacy. No one ever does that because there are expectations as of what has to do as what has not to do with the abstract, social Sonic. And, as we see the games more inside a context, our opinions change. That's how people have grown fond of Sonic 3 whereas it was criticized at the time, and that's how Sonic Adventure has grown older and older and the flaws have become more and more evident. Whether Sonic Adventure is more flawed than Sonic 3 doesn't matter: Sonic 3 has a whole essence, a whole base to support it. Sonic Adventure doesn't.
You know, there is a funny phenomenon in the fanbase. We hype up the most recent game and completely forget the last ones.
"The franchise has gone downhill, oh, woe is me, no one likes Sonic because of that pesky '06 game. But wait! Here we have Sonic and the Secret Rings, which is a light at the end of the tunnel! I SO wanted to play with Sonic only once again! Sonic is back, guys!"
"Yeah, Sonic and the Secret Rings surely made some progress, but it had a completely un-Sonic story and a stupid new transformation. It's not what we wanted after all. But wait! Here we have Sonic Unleashed, with whole new mechanics and 2D and WHOOOO! Sonic is back, guys!"
"Yeah, Sonic Unleahed surely made some progress, but it had a completely un-Sonic story and a stupid ne transformation. It wasn't enough after all. But wait! Here we have Sonic Colors, which is a simple, fast-paced game, yet full with platforming! Sonic is back, guys!"
"Yeah, Sonic Colors surely made some progress, but it had a completely un-Sonic Sonic and didn't get that much attention. It wsan't enough after all. But wait! Here we have Sonic Generations, which even has Classic Sonic and all! Sonic is back, guys!"
We've seen it all a lot of times. And even though the games haven't been so smashed by the critics recently, they've sold less and less. Sonic and the Secret Rings sold 2,42 millions of units, whereas Sonic Colors has sold about half of this amount. What's wrong, then?
It's simple. No one cares about Sonic anymore outside of the fanbase. Because the "abstract Sonic" has simply vanished - not because the games were exactly bad, but because they were horribly, horribly WRONG. Sonic is today a pensive franchise, trying to find its way into 3D. And it has been like this for more than 10 years. What Sonic needs is not a good game. It needs to be able to bear an unique, recognizable UNIVERSE once again. Sonic Adventure even had some interesting elements, like the Chao and the Echidnas, but nowadays the general audience can't build ANYTHING on Sonic's universe, because there isn't one. Actually, there are about a lot of them, but no one is consistent ith one another. That's symptomatic in Sonic Generations - the difference between Chemical Plant and Crisis City, visually, is abysmal. What's important now is to gather elements that everyone can recognize, establish a coherent style for the games (in terms of visuals and even music) and understand hat's the right time to release the right game. For now, it would be for the best if they weren't releasing anything at all.
What needs to return is not necessarily the black eyes or the 2D gameplay. I, for one, do think the earlier design is far better than the new one and I do think the level design we have had sucks. But focusing on creating a distinctive "Sonic feeling" once again is far more important than these scattered details that do build a franchise's essence, but not if the developer doesn't try to. There needs to be a masterplan, and this is lacking HEAVILY in Sonic Team.
Each game we have had was a mechanical response to the last one instead of the next gear in a machine. Everyone hated Sonic '06, they acknowledged the critique and made Sonic and the Secret Rings and then Sonic Unleashed, which have in common the fact that you play with Sonic alone in them. Everyone hated Werehog, so they removed it. The games are NOT consistent with the rest of them. There is not a train of thought in them, only cause and effect. The games didn't have a sense of where they were going, they all had a sense of here they were not.
On addition, I have seen people claim that Sonic no gets poked fun at because it's cool appeal couldn't stand the test of time and that some characters, like Mario and Pac Man, were born timeless. However, it's not like characters have an intrinsical value that decreases over time. Mario's "timeless everyman appeal" wasn't found stuck in a rock like a diamond - it was constructed by lots of elements that make Mario recognizable even when he's not there. The flower, the Goomba, the shells etc. Sonic lacks these many elements, even more because the ones that ere established get tossed in the next game. Where are the Chao? Where have the echidnas' gone? The flickies, all the metal paradigm, the floor with trippy patterns, the mysticism about the chaos emeralds, the sense of Robotnik's grandeur while progressing through the game (except for Eggmanland), the badniks, the importance of the rings (gameplay-wise, not only to feed your Boost), the item boxes, the speed shoes, invincibility? It all gets reinvented all the time. This makes it impossible for Sonic to have a racing game, an RPG game, even a platform game that stands on its own.
I have to agree on one point, though: it's difficult to mantain Sonic's cool attitude actually cool. But we've seen characters close themselves inside of an universe over time just so that the appeal would be preserved - becoming more and more "cartoonish" in their own account, in a way. It's happened to The Simpsons, Kiss (the band) and perhaps Harry Potter, for instance. The problem with this is that the other extreme of loss of essence is self-caricaturisation. However, Sonic didn't do this - its lack of "Sonic-y" sorroundings made its cool appeal have to face other cool appeals with bare hands, and so it was undermined.
Indeed, Sonic Unleashed and Colors share similitarities and Sonic Generations was a message from Sonic Team about how they do have a more concise plan now. I support this plan, even if I'm not really into it. Also, I can't deny that Sonic Generations got *some* nice media attention and SEGA will be really smart if they start investing in marketing. However, that's not all.
Some might say Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations were targeted at different bases - that's not how it should be. This Sonic for you, this Sonic for them. It doesn't work quite like this, even if franchises tend to do that sometimes. The thing is... indeed, SEGA can't take any risky steps. But targetting different audiences when the to games are supposed to be deeply connected and "canon" is a risky step. Instead of searching for a market, SEGA should create it for Sonic, because he has this much potential.
It's like Angry Birds or Temple Run etc. It doesn't have target audience; it has a target media. It creates, around itself, some kind of pop culture fuss that attracts people, their preferences aside. Sonic did that perfectly with Mega Drive/Genesis. It's about having some kind of image attached to it - and you can build this with a very, very unique universe and very, very unique elements. Triforce, Portal Gun, GlaDOS' voice, the mushrooms, Goombas, colored ghosts, an eyepatch, pixeled art etc.