Throughout my nearly 20 hours of playing through Sonic Frontiers, running through Starfall Islands, and getting to the bottom of Sonic’s friends getting stuck in digital purgatory, I kept getting blasts from the past. The newly released adventure is filled with wonderful callbacks to previous games, both in terms of gameplay and story canon. It may be a brand new “open-zone” game, but it beautifully blends modern open-zone gameplay mechanics with classic side-scrolling ones. Some of the previous Sonic titles have sort of done that before, including Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Forces, but Frontiers stands out in how respectfully it treats the rest of the series.
What stuck out to me the most during my playthrough is how Sega uses the game to reflect on some of the best (and worst) moments in the Sonic series in some cutscenes. Despite marking the beginning of a new era for the Sonic the Hedgehog series, the Blue Blur’s latest outing never forgot to honor where he and his friends have been in the last 31 years (or how long they’ve actually been together and fighting Dr. Eggman canonically since time passes differently in their world).
The wheel comes full circle
All the references that Sonic Frontiers made to previous installments are thanks to writer Ian Flynn’s wealth of lore knowledge that spans back decades. Flynn famously wrote the Blue Blur’s comics at Archie and IDW (the latter’s comics start after the events of Forces, after all), with each mention being what he terms a Flynn-ism. Case in point, the game makes several references to the Knuckles’ history in the series, including Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure.
After Sonic releases Knuckles from his cyber cage, Knuckles explains he was exploring the ruins of Angel Island before he got transported to Ares Island, as seen in the animated short Sonic Frontiers Prologue: Divergence. In the short, he speaks about how his role as guardian of the Master Emerald came as a result of his ancestral Knuckles Clan trying to steal the emeralds in order to gain the upper hand over the neighboring countries they were fighting. The rampaging Perfect Chaos would annihilate the echidnas, forcing clan member Tikal to sacrifice herself to seal him inside the Master Emerald in the process. The military unit of Ancients that the Koco resided in met the same fate, albeit in a different cataclysmic event. The militant Koco that Knuckles guides (as well as the war medals that shape Knuckles’ Memory Tokens) pay tribute to the Knuckles Clan, whose members were just as stubborn as they were.
Knuckles later discovers a pyramid-like bunker in the game, which brings him back to the moment he first met Sonic and Tails on Angel Island. The flashback is not a CGI recreation of Knuckles knocking Sonic out of his super form and taking all the Chaos Emeralds, but rather a direct screenshot from the classic Sega Genesis game with the red echidna flashing his infamous chuckling grin.
Retro flashbacks are used throughout the game, taking players back to previous titles. When Tails asks Sonic if he is a burden on him, Sonic tries to cheer him up by helping him remember that he prevented Eggman’s missile from detonating on Station Square in Sonic Adventure (cue screenshot of Tails watching the missile flying overhead) and saved him from the Deadly Six in Sonic Lost World (cue still of the nefarious Zetis from the game’s announcement trailer).
Other moments and characters from the series are mentioned in passing, whether Sonic is talking to his friends or to himself. For instance, Sonic asks if the visions Knuckles got during his Cyber Space imprisonment were similar to the visions Tikal gave him in Sonic Adventure as he was collecting shards of the Master Emerald. Tails mentions his mental breakdown after Infinite beat Sonic in Forces. At a key moment, Sage reminds Eggman that he helped Sonic prevent the Space Colony ARK from colliding with Earth in Sonic Adventure 2 and beat Neo Metal Sonic in Sonic Heroes. Sonic even namedrops some unseen characters, like Shadow, Rouge, Jet, and Zavok. At the end of the game, Amy even asks if Cream the Rabbit and Sticks the Badger will be free to go on a road trip when she gets back home. Cream hasn’t been in the mainline Sonic games since Shadow the Hedgehog, but the Sticks name drop is especially left field as she’s a character from the somewhat infamous Sonic Boom.
Embracing the past, but living for now
Previous series writers Ken Pontac and Warren Graff wrote Sonic and his friends a little bit out of character in the series’ more recent games. Games like Sonic Forces went heavy on forced comedy, which rubbed some fans the wrong way at the time. With Sonic Frontiers, Flynn ushers in a return to normalcy. Sonic isn’t the borderline wisecracker that we’ve seen in recent games here, but rather back to being more sincere. Thanks to Flynn and his years of experience in writing for the Sonic comics as well as his wealth of knowledge of the game series’ lore, everyone’s personalities have come full circle — or should I say “full loop” — while some other side-characters have now become part of the series canon.
It’s common knowledge that Sega is known for experimenting with new things when it comes to Sonic’s gameplay mechanics, but fans have been on high alert over the past decade when it comes to story. Sonic diehards have paid extremely close attention to the negative shift in the games’ writing style for the characters thanks to Graff and Pontac’s employ, which became more prominent in Sonic Forces. That’s why Sonic Frontiers is something of a triumph for long-time fans at the moment (even if its nuances haven’t resonated with everyone equally). Its willingness to reflect on past moments in the Sonic series, subtly and overtly, is a sign that Sonic Team has learned from the successes and mistakes of previous games. The most important lesson of all is hiring someone who understands the characters, and they did that with Flynn.
By weaving in references to the Sonic series’ past and mentioning even the more obscure friends he’s met over three decades, Flynn single-handedly realigns Sonic’s story arc back in the right direction, allowing him to look back on the things he has done while still moving forward to a better future.
In the immortal words of Beyoncé: “Embrace your past, but live for now.”