More than 70 musicians contributed to the Sonic Lost World soundtrack. Musical diversity aside, the OST missed the mark on creating a cohesive, Sonic experience.
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I’ve been looking for an excuse to revisit Sonic Lost World. The game occupies an interesting space in the series. Released in 2013 for the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS, Sonic Lost World is barely two years removed from the series high-point, Sonic Generations. And yet the game somehow veered left from the gameplay formula that had endeared the blue hedgehog to fans once again.
In hindsight, Sonic Lost World jump started another dark age of Sonic games. But while the mid-2000s would see Sonic falter as his developers tried to affix a variety of genres to his spines, the period following Lost World was effectively radio silence. There was a series of mobile games, Sonic Dash and the like, that saw Sega try and capitalize on the growing app-based game sector. There were also other spin-off titles, namely the Sonic Boom series. Despite earning a successful TV adaptation, the games in the series featured a wonky, uninspired 3D collect-a-thon style, not dissimilar to Crash Bandicoot or Jak and Daxter the creators of which would form the Sonic Boom developer, Big Red Button.
Between 2013 and 2021, Sonic Team would release one other proper 3D Sonic game, Sonic Forces. If I were to assign a metric to it, the game is playable and nothing more. It’s not a buggy mess, like Sonic ’06 before it, but it’s far from the electrifying romp that was Sonic Colors. Despite being a revival of the boost formula devised in Sonic Unleashed and perfected in Generations, Sonic Forces was a frail carcass of a game that attempted to console its vapid level design with a customizable character that helped fan-creations come to life.
Simply put, the Sonic series over the last eight years has left much to be desired. I’m genuinely worried about the future of the franchise, given the best product to release in that time-span was effectively a fan-created one. Just as Sonic blitzes from level to level, Sonic Team can’t seem to settle on a gameplay style that can carry the franchise’s weight. And that’s a problem considering platformers Mario and Rayman can genre hop just fine. I’m honestly amazed at how well Bowser’s Fury plays considering it’s Mario’s first real attempt at an open world formula.
But despite my, and probably your, frustration with the series, Sonic’s music remains its most treasured feature, with even the worst games in the series earning at least passing marks in composition.
At face value, Sonic Lost World is no different. It’s a game that hears series veteran Tomoya Ohtani take the lead with breathing life into its near-100 track song list. Diversity is the Lost World soundtrack’s bread and butter, with more than 70 musicians contributing to the score. But given the series’ forthcoming quality drop-off, did Sonic Lost World’s OST live up to the hype? Or was the soundtrack merely a diversion that placated fans amidst another failed entry?
Let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of the Sonic Lost World soundtrack.
The thing about constructing a soundtrack with so many composers and artists is that despite trying to make a cohesive project, personal styles usually shine through. The Final Fantasy VII Remake soundtrack was arranged by three composers – series veterans Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Mitsuto Suzuki. Though the OST would feature plenty of remixes of past Uematsu tracks, it was evident when Hamauzu would take the reins. The battle theme for the Train Graveyard is all too clearly a Hamauzu piece, his angelic strings and piano taps indicative of his personal style.
Or in Sonic Adventure 2, the wealth of composers each brought their own, noticeable flairs to each of the styles of music, none more recognizable than Jun Senoue’s ravenous electric guitars.
Like many of its predecessors, Sonic Lost World was organized by multiple composers. Led by Tomoya Ohtani, Takahito Eguchi, Naofumi Hataya and Jun Senoue all contributed to crafting the sound of Lost World.
At first glance, most people would probably take Ohtani or Senoue as the best composer from the bunch, as both are responsible for some of the most iconic soundtracks from the classic and modern eras. I’m particularly fond, however, of Hataya. He’s responsible for a few of the mixes from Sonic CD, namely, Palmtree Panic, Quartz Quadrant, Stardust Speedway and Metallic Madness. As good as “Stardust Speedway’s Bad Future” is, with its funky vocal samples and driving, mechanical beat, “Quartz Quadrant Good Future” is one of the most intricate Sonic pieces from the classic games.
Though it’s obvious that Hataya was able to take full advantage of the Sega CD’s ability to play back real instruments, “Quartz Quadrant Good Future” mixes a wobbly bass line beneath a simplistic acoustic guitar rhythm and a keyboard synth melody that shines like the futuristic mine. This track epitomizes the man versus machine motif of Sonic CD, and I’m forever thankful that Hataya penned the track.
Even though I’ve come to identify Sonic with some of Hataya’s, as well as Senoue, Eguchi, and Ohtani’s creations, the Sonic Lost World soundtrack is just… different. Whereas past games saw the soundtrack follow genre thematics – think Sonic Colors having electro pop to drive it’s interstellar design while Sonic Adventure favored hard rock to capture the sensory overload of the hedgehog’s newfound 3D playground – Sonic Lost World doesn’t fall into simple categories.
In a sense, the soundtrack is a lot like Sonic Unleashed, drawing inspiration from a wealth of sounds and instruments from the world over. But while Unleashed took influence from the realistic worlds Sonic would dash through, the hyper-fictitious Lost Hex is notably less identifiable.
The oddity of the Lost Hex, namely that it appears to be more Mario influenced than anything Sonic Team had ever-produced to this point, isn’t too far fetched when you consider where Sonic Team was at the time. In 2013, NIntendo earned the rights to three exclusive Sonic games for its consoles. Lost World was the first, followed by Mario and Sonic at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.
I didn’t find any reference that game director Takeshi Iizuka drew from Mario explicitly, but you’d be hard pressed not to see the comparisons. Beyond the tubular, gravitational level design, which immediately drew comparison to Super Mario Galaxy, the game follows the level theming of a title like Super Mario Bros. 3. Sonic visits grassland, desert, tropical, forest, sky and lava themed worlds in almost a 1-to-1 recreation of New Super Mario Bros. U. The Yoshi’s Island DLC level also serves as a reminder that Sonic never fully shakes the plumber, as shuttle loops meet piranha plants and shy guys.
Lost World does subvert this pattern by interspersing each area with out of character levels. In the desert world players jaunt through Dessert Ruins, which nixes the sand and pyramids in favor of all things sugary and sweet.
Musically, however, this means that despite most levels following clear tropes, the soundtrack takes unexpected turns that break up the cohesion. For example, after the Arabian sounding Desert Ruins Zone 1, the Zone 2 song, “Sugar Lane” lays on the sweetness with a bubblegum pop Hataya composition that would be his only contribution to the OST.
On the one hand, this is new, and refreshing ground for Sonic, a series which tends to favor remixes for subsequent zone themes rather than unique compositions. In my eyes, however, it gives the soundtrack less staying power, as each track feels more like a single than part of a cohesive album.
Think back to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. When you enter Ice Cap Zone and are met with a simple, but athletic theme as sonic shreds down the mountain in act 1. By act 2 however, the song strips back the heavy handed melody for a sparse remix, the relative emptiness capturing the thinning atmosphere as Sonic ascends to the mountain top.
Sonic Lost World lacks that progression. And while there are plenty of strong tracks among the bunch, the missing cohesion takes the soundtrack down a peg in my book. Most Sonic games are light in story. Eggman is plotting to take over the world and Sonic has to save it. In addition to solid gameplay mechanics, Sonic games enthrall players with stunning visuals accompanied by thematically appropriate music that ramps up in intensity as Sonic and pals traverse varied landscapes. Lost World misses focus on this, leaving behind a soundtrack that never really cements its importance to the story.
Where the OST does shine, however is in its sheer size. Ohtani noted that the game’s new design offered him the chance to experiment with styles and genres.
“Sonic Lost World (2013) featured several new terrain types like tubes and spheres, codified visual expressions, and a great variety of gameplay. Given that the game design approach was so overhauled, the songs I composed had to match these new concepts musically.
“Instead of adopting a heavy, hard-edged sound, I thought in particular that freely using all sorts of live instruments and injecting a light pop vibe would fit this game well.”Tomoya Ohtani – VGM Online
He wasn’t alone in playing those live instruments. Ohtani enlisted more than 70 musicians to contribute to the Lost World OST, which added to the overall vibrance of the soundtrack.
His efforts are immediately noticeable, as the first level theme for Windy Hill hears 10 musicians coalesce to perform what amounts to a breezy tribute to Sonic intro levels from the past. The tune is a lighthearted romp that eases players into the bulbous and colorful Lost World. This game is nowhere near as dark as Sonic 06, or even Unleashed, and the peppy, violin led track feels like a cheery Saturday morning.
At the same time, the sweeping melody plays in contrast to typical Sonic intro level fare. Some of the most memorable opening levels in Sonic – Green Hill, Emerald Hill, City Escape, Apotos – feature short, staccato rhythms and melodies that really play up Sonic’s budding sense of speed. The choppier beats fall in time with enemies as the whiz into Sonic’s field of view.
I won’t go so far as to say Lost World and Windy Hill are bad, but the track’s meandering melody seems better suited for an exploratory platformer than one rooted around speed.
Replicating live instruments has always been a strong suit for Sonic games, and the use of heavily orchestrated pieces here gives the soundtrack lasting appeal. On the zone 1 track for Tropical Coast, Ohtani employs a lazy reggae bass line from Akinori Yamada complemented by steel pans and a medley of trumpets, sax and trombone. This track peels out into the more upbeat version for “Juice Archipelago,” reviving the previous instrumentation with added banjo and accordion for a livelier tune.
As pieces of music, both Tropical Coast songs are fun and engaging, but as level themes they leave a lot to be desired. While zone 1 has a very clear bounce to its rhythm, the level itself is little more than a series of long pathways interrupted by egg robos and other baddies.
Juice Archipelago suffers a similar fate as a jovial track with an abysmal level gimmick. To progress, Sonic has to coerce giant pieces of fruit to follow him into a blender that will shoot juice to propel him to the next segment of the level. In a game about speed and platforming, this level never leaves the starting gate, and highlights one of many points when poor gameplay hears a stellar music track go to waste.
“Snowball Waltz,” the song for the Frozen Factory level that features Sonic enveloped in a snowball traversing narrow passages over a bottomless pit, is similarly jarring. As the title conveys, the oboe and trumpet melody follows a distinct triple meter pattern. However the lack of platforming, and frankly, the need for Sonic to slow to a crawl to navigate the tight passages means the music is simply a tease for uneventful level design.
Still, the soundtrack-level pairings aren’t all bad. “Silent Forest,” a level in which Sonic runs, jumps, and grinds through a spider and alligator infested forest adopts a jazz noir style that harkens back to the likes of Security Hall from Sonic Adventure 2. Later, when Sonic out maneuvers a watchful owl in Act 2, the tango inspired track provides a steady rhythm as he hops over floating platforms while dodging falling enemies.
I’d be remiss not to mention the fan favorite “Sea Bottom Segue.” This track plays during grind exclusive levels that take place at the bottom of the ocean. The calming string melody mimics the flowing water all around Sonic, and the changes in tempo match with the green and red rails that change Sonic’s speed from fast to slow.
“Careening Cavern” is another stellar track. As the music for the underground levels, it very clearly takes inspiration from the trembling bass line of Mario 1-2. But when Sonic meets the rolling boulder sections the track gets spruced up by a jazz guitar that brings Sonic back to his patented funky roots.
Taking a turn from the level themes, the sub-bosses for the game, the Deadly Six fall into an odd place. They are incredibly basic “enemies of the week,” represented more by their overblown personality traits than any meaningful addition to the story. The Deadly Six theme features a jazzy ensemble that makes the group out to be less threatening than Eggman, and rightly so. Many of the boss fights last just two or three hits. Like so many other aspects of this game, it’s unfortunate to hear such great music caught up in a product that never really figures out what it wants to be.
Two of the chief inspirations for Sonic Lost World were childhood fairy tales. Iizuka said in 2013 that the tubular level design was in part a tribute to Jack and the Beanstalk, while Alice In Wonderland informed the game’s generally wacky nature.
“This game is like going into the rabbit hole in Alice in the Wonderland, an action game where you can experience many strange and fun experiences.” Takashi Iizuka in an interview with NintendoLife.
The departure helped differentiate Lost World from Sonic Generations. Rather than paying tribute to two decades of Sonic, Lost World forged a new path forward. Gameplay wise that was achieved, for better or worse, through new levels, a run button, a chain homing attack and other additions. Sonically, Lost World comes off as too big to fail, touching on a variety of genres that never make the game’s setting feel fully developed.
In the grand scheme of things, Sonic Lost World will probably be lost at the hands of time. Though the game was re-released on PC in 2015, its relegation to the Wii U makes it feel like it’s not really a main line Sonic game. Control-wise, it’s the only one of its kind, as Sonic Team has yet to revive the run button that propelled the hedgehog in this game. While Forces can slot into the traditional boost format titles, and Mania directly harkens back to the 1990s, Lost World is something of a black sheep. And no matter how interesting the music may be, it can’t help the game escape its sense of mediocrity.