Morio Kishimoto, longtime Sonic Team dev and director of Sonic Frontiers, recently did his best to clarify what Sega means when it hypes up the game’s “open zone” mechanics. But his explanation seems to confirm the phrase is just a trumped-up marketing term rather than some sort of indication that Frontiers is substantially different from other sandbox games.
“Our Open Zone is a world map, only we’ve made it entirely playable,” Kishimoto told IGN. “A playable world map that includes stage-like elements is something that hasn’t really been done before, so we had to come up with a new name. What is often defined as a World in other level-based platformers is called a Zone in Sonic games, so we took that and combined it with Open, which refers to a freely explorable field.”
All due respect, Kishimoto, but you literally just described an open world.
If anything, what Sonic Frontiers is apparently all about sounds like a direct correlation with the design of Bowser’s Fury, the excellent expansion bundled with Super Mario 3D World on Switch. Although Bowser’s Fury scattered traditional Mario levels across a large map, it was still very much a seamless, open-world game at heart. And it seems, at least to me, like Sonic Frontiers is trying for the exact same thing.
“The Open Zone stands central in Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay, and the game’s levels exist as elements within this area,” Kishimoto said. “From grind rails to platform objects, loops and so on, the Open Zone is packed with the athletic action we love in Sonic games.”
I’m fine with folks describing their games in whatever way they feel is most appropriate, just to be clear. Language, especially language pertaining to game design, is constantly evolving. Most “roguelikes” these days have very little in common with 1980’s Rogue, but I immediately understand what someone is getting at when they use the term despite it being somewhat divorced from its original meaning. Same with terms like “Metroidvania” and “immersive sim,” for that matter.
I guess it’s just Kishimoto’s insistence that Sonic Frontiers is an entirely different thing that strikes me as funny.
“The [world map] system has been used by countless platformers since [Super Mario Bros. 3], even to this day,” Kishimoto said. “A true evolution of this structure is what we see as the essence of Sonic Frontiers’ field. We wanted to provide a next-gen, level-based platforming experience. But how do we evolve a level-based platformer like Sonic into this new Open Zone? That’s what Sonic Frontiers is all about.”
Of course, no one asked Kishimoto to explain all that jargon or even nail down what truly sets Sonic Frontier’s “open zone” apart from an “open world” game during this recent media blitz. Kotaku contacted Sega for more information but didn’t hear back immediately.
Sonic Frontiers is scheduled for a late 2022 launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, and PC. It looks bland and apparently the gameplay doesn’t inspire any confidence either, but Sega is committed to not delaying its release despite the largely negative feedback.