I was just finishing up another routine boss encounter at the end of Sonic Runners Adventure’s fourth world when suddenly the game popped up with an unexpected screen: “Congratulations! You’ve completed the game.” Though I wasn’t expecting it to end there, it was not entirely surprising, given the rest of what I’d seen. You see, when talking about Sonic Runners Adventure, it’s easier to talk about what’s missing from the game than what it actually contains.
The original Sonic Runners had no business being as good as it did. I held absolutely no interest in Sega’s other mobile Sonic titles; particularly Sonic Dash, which seemed to be the most generic, cookie-cutter endless runner you could come up with. Expectations were low for Runners, but the game was surprisingly enjoyable in its beta form; like a high-speed, twitch-reaction version of Spelunky, where the game constantly fed you familiar chunks of road with minor details altered. Levels were technically randomly generated, but each individual section was created by hand, allowing you to learn its patterns and react accordingly.
Once the game officially launched, Sega loaded the original Sonic Runners up with advertising, crippling the game’s performance on many older devices. Many users, including myself, wished for a paid premium version of the game, just to get rid of the resource-intensive advertising. The bloated ads, alongside a poorly-received “Version 2.0” update ended up delivering a death blow for Sonic Runners. A shame, if you ask me.
Consider Sonic Runners Adventure a do-over then, courtesy of Gameloft. But instead of taking Sonic Runners and just removing the advertisements, Runners Adventure pitches itself as a brand new game, but it’s one that’s missing anything that gave the original game its bite.
The roster of 29 heroes has been simplified down to just nine characters, divided into three teams (each one containing Speed, Power and Flight classes, like in Sonic Heroes). Though you can still level characters up to hold more items and get boosts to power-up durations, they all have frustratingly low level caps, and even maxed-level heroes never feel strong enough. Over half the power-ups have been removed, too. Did you like the wisp powers of the old game? They’re gone. Most of the equippable buddies are as well, and the tiny handful that are left behind cannot be upgraded beyond their base abilities. The dozen or more environment types? Now just five. The myriad of weird, wacky story events? Now you get one, single, incredibly bland story. Varied boss encounters? Nope, now you only get one boss type. But perhaps the biggest, most egregious missing feature? Sonic Runners Adventure is no longer endless.
In the original Sonic Runners, the longer a run would last, the faster and more difficult things would get. Eventually you were pulling off death-defying stunts with zero rings and no safety nets, with only a single mistake standing between you and oblivion. Perhaps taking a page from Super Mario Run, the vast majority of levels in Runners Adventure are purposefully-designed and of a finite length. What this means is that every level in Runners Adventure has the same layout every time you play it, and all of them eventually end in the same place. Normally, this is preferable, as hand-made levels are usually better than randomly-generated ones, but that’s simply not true in Runners Adventure.
The first issue is that the loss of everything else — the characters, the equips, the power-ups, the environment types — all of it means that the levels themselves are less broad. You’re challenged on a much more narrow set of skills, to the point where they’ll usually recommend that you use a specific type of character for a level, and if you dare to deviate from that recommendation, it’s often impossible to progress forward (something that wasn’t true in the original Runners). It also just makes for a far more uneven game — Runners Adventure feels too slow and too easy when it starts out, but by the time you reach the last world, levels almost feel too difficult. The semi-randomized nature of the original Sonic Runners meant you slowly learned a level’s rules and rhythm. Here, every level in every world seems to have its own different rhythm, increasing the game’s overall tedium and eventual frustration in learning how to finish them.
Now, Runners Adventure does contain what it calls “infinite” stages. There are two of these in each world, often treated as optional, bonus challenges. These come the closest to replicating the feel of the original Sonic Runners. But even though they claim to go on forever, these levels come with specific goals that, once met, will forcibly end what is billed as a supposedly “endless” level. Runners Adventure also introduces “lap” based levels, where you repeat the same section a set number of times. The twist is that rings don’t respawn when you start a new lap, demanding smarter, more careful play. This is where the bulk of the game’s challenge lies, as tension rises and life-saving rings become scarce. It’s a good idea, but it’s one of the only genuinely new, interesting things this game does.
In general, there’s just less to do, most of the time. Sonic games at this point are known for having some kind of a ranking system, and Sonic Runners took things a step further with a robust leaderboard system that sectioned players in to different leagues, sort of like an eSport. All the combo points systems, rankings and leaderboards are gone from Runners Adventure, with the game mainly tasking you to amass large quantities of gold rings. This kills the incentive to experiment with different character equipment loadouts — it doesn’t matter how far you can make it, or the size of your combo, because the game doesn’t usually care about that stuff anymore. You just have to collect lots of rings, which usually means you’re just going to pick a character from Team Chaotix, because they have an ability to multiply collected rings by huge amounts. Need rings to level up a character? Pick Team Chaotix. Need rings to buy items? Pick Team Chaotix. Need rings to unlock something? Pick Team Chaotix. Why would you pick anyone else, if given the option to? The answer is that you won’t, because you’re picking Team Chaotix.
Sonic Runners Adventure feels like a monkey’s paw wish. It’s exactly what I asked for, but not in the way I asked for it. I can understand the game having less content, given it’s being sold for $2.99, but what I don’t understand is why so many of the underlying systems had to be changed to actively make the game less interesting to play. It feels like Runners Adventure is trying to distance itself from its mobile game roots and play more like a “real” Sonic game, but all it’s really done is straddle two different types of gameplay, and it’s not good at either of them. This may be a controversial statement to make in 2018, but not every money making scheme in a mobile game is necessarily a bad idea once divorced from its monetization system.
To put it another way: mobile games did not invent random loot drops. Most of the systems that free-to-play games rely on were around for decades beforehand, some even stemming as far back as a time before video games entirely, in pen-and-paper board games. These systems become problematic only when they are intentionally designed to pester you in to paying extra money; when presented on their own, as raw gameplay systems, they aren’t terrible. Sonic Runners Adventure seems to think so, but clearly doesn’t understand why. But then, it also doesn’t seem to understand a lot of things, like proper team balance or what the word “infinite” actually means.
That’s not to say you’ll never have fun with Sonic Runners Adventure, it just means that when taken as a whole, the game is nowhere near the highest highs reached by its original free-to-play release. Too much of this game has been neutered and chopped out, and what’s left just doesn’t feel as fun to play. If I was given an option to go back to the old version of Sonic Runners that was choking my device to death with advertisements, or Gameloft’s Sonic Runners Adventure, I think I’d still pick the former.