The Sonic series is no stranger to large departures from established formulas, and Sonic Frontiers is shaping up to be one of the biggest departures the blue hedgehog has seen yet. It takes the one-of-a-kind high speed 3D action and adapts it to fit a non-linear open world, or as Sonic Team themselves refer to it: an Open Zone. To break down the origin of this decision to break new ground with the 3D Sonic series, I talked with Sonic Team Creative Officer Takashi Iizuka, who not only explained the origin of the Open Zone design, but also spoke about the decision to merge old and new styles of Sonic gameplay in Sonic Frontiers.
Sonic Frontiers – IGN First Screenshots
IGN: When did you first get the idea to make an open zone focused Sonic game? Was this something that you brainstormed as an idea before the development of Sonic Frontiers?
Iizuka-san: After completing Sonic Forces, we were brainstorming on what to do next. We realized there’s little room for evolution with a traditional 3D Sonic game. We’d only be able to make something that fans have seen before. That’s why at the very start, we discussed as a team how to change this linear style of gameplay.
IGN: Did you look to any other Open World games as inspiriation when it came to designing Sonic Frontiers’ Open Zone gameplay?
Iizuka-san: As I just mentioned, this game began with us asking how to give more freedom to linear Sonic games. Its origin is in a different place from open-world action-adventure games. This new “open zone” game system is our way of giving as much freedom as possible to a Sonic 3D action game.
Open world games like Zelda or other AAA games fundamentally have RPG or adventure worlds. For Sonic, the core here is a 3D action game. Our basic idea was to have that take place in an open space. What sets Sonic Frontiers apart is this different approach to an open game world.
IGN: I wanted to take a second to talk about the music. When I was playing it I was really struck by how different the soundtrack was compared to other Sonic games. It’s very like somber and melancholic. What brought you to, to make this change in the overall tone of the soundtrack?
Iizuka-san: I think Sonic Frontiers has a clearly different and more realistic look compared to traditional Sonic games. Sonic stories have also been about “Something bad has happened, fix it!” They very clearly tell the player what needs to be done. Sonic Frontiers, though, places Sonic on these islands and asks what he needs to do, and how to save his friends. Its theme is that it asks both the player and Sonic to solve these questions together. The soundtrack also has less focus on upbeat tracks that match a given stage. It’s focused more on helping to create a mysterious feeling surrounding the islands.
IGN: Can you talk a little bit about the split of having this open zone along with traditional Sonic levels, and why you felt that was important to have both this new, experimental open zone format, along with the addition of the more traditional Sonic levels.
Iizuka-san: You can make lots of discoveries and enjoy 3D Sonic action on the game’s open zone islands. However, they also contain traditional Sonic-style high-speed linear action stages. Fans of traditional modern Sonic 3D action should enjoy these. They’ll be able to use the techniques and actions they’ve learned to beat them. By merging these open zones and traditional 3D action stages into the same islands, players will be able to enjoy a broader variety of 3D action than before.
IGN: Puzzles are a surprisingly large part of Sonic Frontiers. Can you talk about the decision to fill the world with puzzles and use them as the way to expand the map?
Iizuka-san: Exploring islands is part of the fun in Sonic Frontiers. It’s about both the 3D action and the excitement of what you discover. The islands in Sonic Frontiers contain lots of different elements and quirks. That includes puzzle-solving. These involve using both action game techniques as well as your brain. You can unlock island areas through these puzzles containing various kinds of gameplay. Part of the enjoyment is gradually opening up the area available to you.
IGN: One thing that has changed all throughout the history of Sonic has been tone. Some games have been very bright, colorful, cartoony, others have been a little darker and moodier. Where would you say Sonic Frontiers lands on that spectrum?
Iizuka-san: In the past, Sonic games have used more cartoon-y or dark styles. What kind of mood does Sonic Frontiers have? Past games in the Sonic series have taken different tones depending on their story and themes. This time, these mysterious islands are the game’s major setting. That’s why our artists have worked hard to create a mysterious mood.
IGN: With the inclusion of the Open Zone, it almost feels like we’ve completed a loop back to the first Sonic Adventure, which also had a very small-scale open world. Is visiting the Sonic Adventure games something that interests you, whether in the form of a remaster or a sequel?
Iizuka-san: I’ve mentioned this in previous interviews, but I would like to continue the Sonic Adventure series. Sonic Adventure also contains smaller open spaces known as Adventure Fields. I think we’ve used what we learned with those in this game as well. I haven’t thought about my next game yet. But I personally think it’d be nice if we could use what we learn with this game in Sonic Adventure.
IGN: With Sonic being more than 30 years old now, there’s not only an audience that has grown up with the classic Sonic games from the Genesis and Dreamcast eras, but also a growing audience that’s growing up with the movies and more modern Sonic games. How do you try and appeal to both those audiences?
Iizuka-san: Well, Sonic is going to be 31 years old. Sonic fans from 30 years ago are adults now. There are also young fans who may have started with the movies and such. Going forward, we want the Sonic brand to appeal to both groups in its games and other media. Part of that is our June release of Sonic Origins. It’s a perfect representation of the origins of Sonic for fans both old and new. We also plan on creating more games like Sonic Frontiers that will delight 3D Sonic veterans in new ways. Our plan is to target these specific groups of Sonic fans with each of our releases going forward.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit