Solar Ash is a great game that cherry-picks ideas from Jet Set Radio, Shadow of the Colossus, and Super Mario Galaxy. However, only one series came to mind as I skated across its teal clouds: Sonic the Hedgehog. More specifically, the 3D entries, which are the oft-maligned titles responsible for decades of headaches for the Blue Blur.
I’ll admit that I’m a Sonic traditionalist. My love of Sonic, like many other 30-somethings, began on the Sega Genesis, so I firmly believe the character is at his best in 2D. Sonic 2 is my favorite in the series and Sonic Mania, the 2017 throwback developed by a team of fans rather than Sonic Team proper, is the best entry in years.
The 3D installments have never gotten Sonic right. Yes, even the Adventure series, which I respect but still maintain are bad games. Sonic Colors plays the best of the batch, but even that has plenty of problems (and has a far superior 2D counterpart on DS that more people should play). I’ve always found the behind-the-back roller coaster approach takes away too much control. You’re usually just sitting there watching Sonic sprint through a zillion loops and rings. It’s less about flow and more about watching things go really fast until you can play again. When you do get your hands back on Sonic, he often feels slippery and imprecise. Losing momentum sucks because of how troublesome it is to get back on track. These games also tend to be janky overall.
Now, I’m not opposed to playing a great 3D Sonic game. There just haven’t been any. Then Solar Ash skates along. This is an experience all about the flow of movement. Rei, the game’s speedster protagonist, controls like a dream. A lot of that is thanks to mapping her acceleration to a shoulder trigger, similar to a racing title. That makes her easy to control, and you know when to hit the gas and when to break. That mechanic could work just as well with Sonic. Or Shadow the Hedgehog for that matter, given he and Rei share an affinity for rollerblading. And Shadow needs all the help he can get.
Anyway, the most important thing about Solar Ash is how the level design focuses on maintaining and challenging your flow of movement. There’s plenty of platforming, but the design allows you to avoid pitfalls while destroying enemies without needing to hit the brakes. The game also never takes control away; even grind sequences require you to hold a button down to stay on track. This extends to environmental puzzles that challenge your speed, such as racing through an organic network of landmines to locate and kill a target. Solar Ash’s approach to boss battles, which essentially boil down to speedrunning epic Shadow of the Colossus-style battles, are fantastic tests of Rei’s maneuverability. The tight attack windows simultaneously challenge your aim and reflexes in an awesome way. It’s smart boss design for a speed-focused hero, and I would love to see Sonic expand on it.
And with all of this, Solar Ash doesn’t bog the experience down with too many mechanics. It’s a clean adventure with a small handful of features that the world design takes full advantage of. 3D Sonic titles have always felt closer to standard platforming levels through which you run very fast, but not always because you’re stopping to smash through stacks of boxes or enemies that can’t be torn through as easily. You also have to juggle whatever power-of-the-month Sonic has that time around. They just feel messier by comparison. The Genesis entries, namely the first two, worked because they had a “less is more” mentality. Sonic 3/Knuckles, while good, was when the series started getting a too feature-dense in its level design, and it snowballed from there. Solar Ash is a good example of what happens when you scale back and focus on accentuating the core mechanic.
I’m not saying the next Sonic needs to be a chili dog-flavored carbon copy of Solar Ash. But I believe Heart Machine’s sophomore outing presents an excellent template for what a well-made 3D Sonic game could look like, and I hope that Sonic Team takes notice. Especially since it’s been heavily rumored that the 2022’s yet-to-be-titled Sonic game will take a more freeform, open-world approach. It used to be hard to imagine what that would look like, but Solar Ash paints a wonderful picture that Sonic Team should admire while jotting down plenty of notes. And behind it should be Warner Bros./DC if they feel like giving the Flash another shot in video games – but that’s a discussion for another time.