The Sonic series is no stranger to major 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 unique high-speed 3D action and adapts it to a non-linear open world, or as the Sonic Team themselves call it: an open zone. To break down the origin of this decision to break new ground with the 3D Sonic series, I spoke to Takashi Iizuka, Creative Officer of the Sonic team, who not only explained the origin of the Open Zone design, but also about speaking the decision to merge old and new styles of Sonic gameplay in Sonic Frontiers.
Sonic Frontiers – First screenshots from IGN
IGN: When did you first get the idea of making an open-zone focused Sonic game? Was that an idea you had before developing Sonic Frontiers?
Iizuka-san: After completing Sonic Forces, we thought about what to do next. We’ve found that there’s little room for advancement in a traditional 3D Sonic game. We could just do something that the fans have seen before. So right from the start, as a team, we discussed how to change this linear playstyle.
IGN: When designing the open-zone gameplay in Sonic Frontiers, did you take inspiration from other open-world games?
Iizuka-san: As I just mentioned, this game started with us wondering how we could give linear Sonic games more freedom. Its origin is in a different place than open-world action-adventure games. This new “Open Zone” game system is our way of giving a sonic 3D action game as much freedom as possible.
Open world games like Zelda or other AAA games basically have role-playing or adventure worlds. For Sonic, the core here is a 3D action game. Our basic idea was that this should take place in an open space. What sets Sonic Frontiers apart is this different approach to an open world.
IGN: I wanted to take a little time to talk about the music. When I played it, I was really impressed by how different the soundtrack was compared to other Sonic games. It’s very dark and melancholic. What prompted you to make this change in the overall tone of the soundtrack?
Iizuka-san: I think Sonic Frontiers looks a lot different and more realistic compared to traditional Sonic games. Sonic Stories were also about “Something bad happened, fix it!” They tell the player very clearly what to do. However, Sonic Frontiers places Sonic on these islands, asking what he must do and how to save his friends. Its theme is that it challenges both the player and Sonic to solve these questions together. The soundtrack also focuses less on upbeat tracks that fit a specific stage. It focuses more on creating a sense of mystery surrounding the islands.
IGN: Can you talk a little bit about the division of this open zone along with traditional sonic levels and why you felt it was important to have both this new, experimental open zone format and the more traditional sonic levels.
Iizuka-san: The game’s open zone islands allow you to make many discoveries and enjoy 3D sonic action. However, they also contain traditional high-speed sonic-style linear stages. Fans of traditional modern sonic 3D action should enjoy this one. You will be able to use the techniques and actions you have learned to defeat them. By merging these open zones and traditional 3D action stages on the same islands, players will be able to enjoy a greater variety of 3D action than before.
IGN: Puzzles are a surprisingly big part of Sonic Frontiers. Can you say something about the decision to fill the world with puzzles and use them as a means of expanding the map?
Iizuka-san: Exploring islands is part of the fun in Sonic Frontiers. It’s all about the 3D action as well as the excitement of what you discover. The islands in Sonic Frontiers contain many different elements and quirks. This includes solving puzzles. It uses both action game techniques and your brain. You can unlock island areas through these puzzles that contain different types of gameplay. Part of the fun is gradually opening up the space available to you.
IGN: One thing that changed throughout Sonic’s history was the tone. Some games were very bright, colorful and cartoony, others were a bit darker and moodier. Where would you say Sonic Frontiers falls on that spectrum?
Iizuka-san: In the past, Sonic games have used more cartoony or dark styles. What mood does Sonic Frontiers have? Previous games in the Sonic series have taken on different tones depending on the story and themes. This time these mysterious islands are the main setting of the game. That’s why our artists 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 open world. Are you interested in visiting the Sonic Adventure games, be it in the form of a remaster or a sequel?
Iizuka-san: I’ve mentioned this in previous interviews, but I’d love to continue the Sonic Adventure series. Sonic Adventure also contains smaller open spaces known as Adventure Fields. I think we applied what we learned with those to this game. I haven’t thought about my next game yet. But I personally think it would be nice if we could apply what we learn from this game to Sonic Adventure.
IGN: Now that Sonic is in his 30s, not only is there an audience that grew up playing the classic Sonic games from the Genesis and Dreamcast eras, but there is also a growing audience that grew up playing the movies and more modern Sonic games . How do you try to address these two target groups?
Iizuka-san: Well, Sonic turns 31. Sonic fans from 30 years ago are all grown up now. There are also young fans who may have started with the films and stuff. Going forward, we want the Sonic brand to appeal to both groups with its games and other media. Part of that is our June release of Sonic Origins. It’s a perfect representation of Sonic’s origins for fans old and new. We also plan to develop other 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 future releases.
Mitchell Saltzman is an Editorial Producer at IGN. You can find him on Twitter @JurassicRabbit