Sonic Forces is not a good game. Even by Sonic’s erratic standards, the levels are very hit and miss. It combines classic 2D speed platforming, 2.5D mazes and not-quite-fully-open 3D levels, letting you play as classic chubby Sonic, modern charismatic Sonic and a character of your own creation. The gameplay in all three options have glaring flaws, but together they gave me the best night of gaming of my life.

Like a lot of people, my love of gaming started at a friends house. I haven’t spoken to Joe in years, but without him I might not be in this job right now. We played Crash, FIFA, Tekken… every jump, kick, and jump kick had me hooked. Though my own console fell down my chimney that Christmas, heading over to Joe’s still made up a huge chunk of my childhood gaming time. I never owned Crash 2, he never owned Spyro 3, but together we beat them both.

It didn’t even need to be taking turns on the same console. We played Pokemon Yellow in the same room, together and wordlessly, him on his blocky GameBoy Classic and me on my incredibly ‘90s see through purple GameBoy Color. Later on, when my parents stopped me from getting Grand Theft Auto, I beat III, Vice City and San Andreas at Joe’s house. Please don’t tell them.

These games are all classics; Pokemon Yellow, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro remain some of my favourites to this day, and even without nostalgia they hold up pretty well. But the game I think of most when I think about that time in my life is Kula World.

Kula World saw you controlling a beach ball as it rolled around a blocky maze, filled with spikes, gravitational twists, floating fruit and pools of lava. God, it was awful. And I loved it.

To this day, I don’t understand how it worked. There was a magic with watching Kula World; when one of us died in Crash or Spyro, the other one of us always knew what we should have done. In Kula World however, we were clueless. The bullet hit us both.

Eventually I grew up, moved out, and gaming returned to a solitary affair. Online games, by virtue of their genre and communities, have never really been for me. The explosion of narrative based, single player experiences came at the perfect time for my moving out and moving on, but to recapture that feeling of playing FIFA ‘99 and Tekken 2 at Joe’s house though, it took Sonic Forces.

This happened a few months before lockdown started, or roughly seven years ago. My partner and I were visiting friends who are also big into gaming, but gaming together had never really clicked the way scoring a half volley with a square headed Alan Shearer had in 1999.

The problem was finding one that worked for all of us. With varying levels of skills and interests, MMOs and Fighting games couldn’t sustain the four of us for long. Even Crash Bandicoot, the remastered version of the game which first got me hooked, couldn’t quite do it. I knew that game inside out, and the disparate skill level took away from the feeling that we were all in it together. Enter Sonic Forces.

The game was wildly unbalanced; too easy in places, far too fiddly and complicated in others. None of us knew what was coming, and passing the controller upon death or level completion kept everything fresh. Sonic Forces is not the type of game where you learn from your mistakes, with death caused by a bad camera angle of lack of instructions as much as it was lack of ski. After a quick death, you were just as likely to get the controller back in your hands and be right back where you were as you were to watch the next person sail through untouched.

This was the real, accidental genius of Sonic Forces. Big Kula World Energy.

I’ve played through the game since and, predictably, found it to be a poor game with a story both bland and nonsensical. The character customiser is still A+, though the silliness of the outfits definitely worked better in a group. But Sonic Forces was so much fun because it was a bad game, not in spite of it.

There was foxholes feel to everything about it, from the storyline which fakes Sonic’s death to the time travelling to the boss battle fought on a ginormous snake. Where we had all been atheists going in, we now worshipped the one true gaming God: Sonic The Hedgehog.

The four of us, with no clue what we were doing, with no idea of the stakes and with no care for the story, we had fun. That’s all. That’s it. We had fun.

The more gaming goes towards hyper realistic storytelling, the more the fun becomes lost in the shuffle. We should feel sorrow, melancholy, excitement, nervousness… we should be taken on a journey. Too few games let you shut your mind off and just enjoy it; they force you to experience it. It makes for a more memorable narrative but it’s hard for groups to congregate around.

Multiplayer games meanwhile lean into fast win/lose loops, where the burst of serotonin upon victory compels you to keep playing as much as the shame upon loss does. There’s no room for reflection or enjoyment, there’s only barely enough time to digest the result before the next round starts.

There’s something especially unifying about a bad game. A shared ridiculousness; Sonic Forces was an in-joke to us. Something we all saw while drunk that we knew no one else would ever believe, let alone understand. It was a childhood memory experienced in adulthood, coated in nostalgia and innocence. It was, simply, a bad game. And I’m extremely glad I played it.

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