Sonic Frontiers feels like the breath of fresh air the long-running franchise needs, even if it still has many problems. Part of what makes Sonic Frontiers so fascinating is the laid-back almost “chill” feeling of its gameplay which puts a major focus on simply running around and exploring. Strange one-off mini-games often get in the way of exploration, but this could have entirely been avoided if Sega had chosen to bring back one of the biggest fan-favorite features of the series: the Chao Garden. Sonic Frontier’s core design feels like it was tailor-made for a Chao Garden, and it’s a huge missed opportunity that the game could have really capitalized on.
The Chao Garden was first introduced in 1999’s Sonic Adventure, but it would only be iterated on over a couple of entries, with the last proper version of the mini-game appearing in Sonic Advance 2. Essentially the Chao were virtual pets, and players could discover these hidden gardens that let players hatch, name, and interact with the adorable creatures in a variety of ways. The Chao Garden was a surprisingly deep piece of side content that, integrally, provided a break from the action and intensity of Sonic Adventure. It helped break up the flow, and fans loved it so much because of how much fun it was to simply interact with the charming little Chao.
Now looking forward to the release of Sonic Frontiers, a feature like the Chao Garden would have perfectly reinforced the overall message and vibe of the game at large. In a cruel twist, Sonic Frontiers even has a voice line where Sonic says, “I wonder if there’s a Chao Garden around here?”
Even if you don’t use “Chaos” specifically, Sonic Frontiers has another cute little creature it could put in its place. While exploring the islands of Frontiers you collect little Korok-like critters called Koco, but unfortunately, they only function as a currency for leveling up, and nothing else.
It’s honestly a shame as the Koco themselves are exceptionally cute, and it’s fun to just see them roaming around, jumping, and chirping. That all would have been made even better if there was some kind of system that let you interact with the Koco on a deeper level, literally raising and taking care of them. This would help encourage the relaxing feeling of Sonic Frontiers even more and provide some much-needed gameplay variety, letting you pop into a garden when you start getting tired of exploration.
Even more important is how Sonic Frontiers could have potentially expanded the Chao Garden formula, seeing as it’s been over a decade since the feature was last seen. An in-depth photo mode would be absolutely delightful with a Chao Garden, letting players pose the creatures and take portraits of their favorites.
It could also be a more complex mini-game where you manage and train the Chao, improving their overall stats. Sonic Team could even take inspiration from another Sega series that does mini-games exceptionally well: Yakuza. Over the years, Yakuza has featured a wide array of management mini-games, like the Cabaret Club and Clan Creator, and putting that kind of complexity into a Chao Garden could drastically increase the appeal. Those Yakuza mini-games give players a wide array of characters to train and grow attached to through additional story, and even though Sonic and Yakuza have some major differences, it’s easy to see common ground.
In many ways, Sonic Frontiers feels like the prototype of this new formula. It’s great at its core but needs a lot of tuning and refining to really turn into something special. Adding on a robust feature like a Chao Garden would have undoubtedly increased development time. However, now that Sonic Frontiers is out Sonic Team can start thinking about how to iterate, so maybe the Chao Garden dream isn’t totally dead.
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