Failed Revolution: Sonic The Hedgehog

“Hey, before you go play a Sonic level, how about a terrible fishing minigame!”

The Sonic the Hedgehog games are awesome. Sonic can both really move, and has an attitude, and starred in some of the best games ever made. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is honestly, seriously, as good or better than any classic Mario game. They have great music, fantastic level design, and an incredible, fast-paced action that makes them constantly exciting and fun.

Then there are the other Sonic the Hedgehog games. The ones that started as slightly rough, inconsistent 3D platformers and slowly degenerated. By the year 2006 the series was something of a joke– elements that had been clunky in Sonic Adventure 1 had metastasized into tw0-thirds of Sonic Adventure 2, the music had gone from being so good Michael Jackson admired its craftsmanship to sounding like Smash Mouth b-sides, and the characters that had been lovable and cool in the early 90’s now seemed like Poochie, if Poochie had melodramatic comic books and uncountable amounts of porn made about him. Sega knew the brand was in trouble, and they launched a last-ditch attempt to save the franchise.

That attempt was 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog.

The Tragical History of Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic 06 isn’t just bad, it’s tragic. Over the span of 15 years, the Sonic series went from being represented by arguably the best platformer of all

The first five Sonic games. The first real console RPG. Nights, a game so good Miyamoto said he wished he’d made it. Because of Sonic 06, he now makes cell phone games.

time to being represented by possibly the worst. Like Duke Nukem Forever, what’s fascinating here isn’t just that this is a bad game, but that its failure is a tragic irony of Shakespearean proportions. It wasn’t a grudging cash-in. It was the game that was going to save Sonic, that was intended to be a callback to the classic games. They even called it, simply, Sonic The Hedgehog— as though this was the game that summarized the entire series, that was supposed to embody why Sonic was great and important. After a decade of dodgy games, the shuttering of their hardware division, and the complete creative bankruptcy of their signature franchises, Sega was making a project that would celebrate their successes and remind everyone of what their games used to be.

The universe was not going to let this kind of hubris go unanswered. By the time the game came out, it had gone from a grand artistic mission to a cash-in so desperate Sega was shoveling it out for Christmas as an obvious beta. It did so much damage to the Sonic brand that not only is it now out of print, but unavailable for download– the game that was supposed to be Sega’s pride has been quietly erased from public record. It embodied, not the Sonic of old, but every single mistake of Sonic’s 3D era. It was so disastrous, and so terribly managed, that Yuji Naka– the man who created Sonic, Phantasy Star, and Nights Into Dreams –quit the franchise he had helped create and left Sega entirely. This is a huge part of why we find the game fascinating– that, with everything riding on it and an entire franchise depending on it, Sega ran the project into the ground so thoroughly and devastatingly that it seemed like a deliberate attempt to tell the saddest story in the history of game design.

A Master Class In Failure

It’s pretty sad when you had better physics back in 1991.

Another part of why we find the game fascinating (and yes– we own it, and have played it through twice)? Its sheer number of mistakes, and the enormity of them. It’s not just that it’s unfinished, or that it’s poorly written, or that the graphics are terrible. It’s that the game seems like a deliberate attempt at franchise suicide. The very promise to “return Sonic back to his roots” means that Sega knew there were problems with the previous Sonic games– and yet Sonic 06 takes every previous complaint against the series and carries it further. No one liked playing as Amy in the first Sonic Adventure, and yet here she is, playable. The very idea of vehicle sections was laughable in Shadow The Hedgehog, but now they appear in every one of Shadow’s levels and side quests. Sega recognized that the open world in the first Adventure was poorly-done and removed it, but it’s in this game and it’s worse. Whereas everyone who wasn’t looking for fanfiction ideas thought the previous Sonic games had terrible stories, Sonic 06 has a story so incredibly convoluted and obtuse (involving time travel, alternate futures, stable time loops, and a plethora of misunderstandings and betrayals) that we’ve played it twice and still can’t explain it accurately. And these are just the mistakes that there was precedent for– some of the game’s ideas are so bad that there’s no sensible explanation for them.

This is where the game gets interesting. Almost every level has to be played three times, and then again in a fourth, abbreviated version. Sega licensed the Havok physics engine, built an entire (awful, awful) character around using it, built in complex physics puzzles and then forgot to give anything mass or friction. Some powerups do absolutely nothing; you can buy shoes that make Sonic shrink, which has no effect except that the camera can’t follow you and you essentially end up playing blind. One competitive race map– yes, we’ve played them — is actually unplayable because the version used in competitive play is from a level for a flying character, leading to players needing to coordinate jumps off each other to proceed. Playing as Tails makes it impossible to jump on enemies; instead you throw bombs that shoot rings and make the exact same noise and graphic as when you take damage. The end result isn’t just a slog through a bad game– it turns into a darkly comic experience akin to the painful awkwardness of a film like Waiting for Guffman. It’s not just that the game is bad, it’s that the people making it were trying to salvage the franchise and ended up failing in ways that no one could have ever predicted or expected.

Get used to this screen.

Some of the game’s best comedy comes from its absolute technical ineptitude. Struggling through it serves as a harsh reminder to people who want to work in games that, for the majority of a game’s development cycle, it’s unplayable and bizarrely broken. The loading times are infamous (even the logo needs a loading screen): starting a sidequest requires the game to reload the entire world to play a few seconds of dialogue, and then load the world again for the actual mission. You’ll see four load screens between starting the game and actually playing a level. All the font is Comic Sans. Sonic’s spines look like fleshy protrusions covered in fur, and they sway slightly like a camel’s hump. The controls are so finicky and glitchy that the best way to play this Sonic game is as slowly as possible. Water in the game is a plain, unmoving mirror that doesn’t reflect enemies, characters, or parts of the scenery that can be destroyed. Characters always stand perfectly perpendicular to the ground, even when this means they whip wildly back and forth while walking over uneven surfaces or when that ground happens to be a wall that they casually stroll across in zero-gravity. There’s a real sense of joy to be found in playing with the game’s horrendously broken physics. Have you ever made yourself fly by standing on top of a crate and then kicking it a bunch? Have you ever played a Sonic game and wished it had a stealth segment? All this and more awaits you.

The Worst Sonic Characters (Worse Than Cream the Rabbit)

So the Sonic series has some of the worst secondary characters known to video games. Characters like Rouge the Bat and Cream the Rabbit sound and look like fan creations more than official Sega characters. But Sonic 06 manages to take the series to new lows even in this area. The first of the two new characters, Princess Elise, is a human who becomes Sonic’s new love interest. And yes, they do kiss and it’s a horribly awkward scene. So that alone explains why Elise is awful (not that there aren’t at least 50 other reasons too), so let’s move onto the new playable character, Silver the Hedgehog.

It’s like his head’s a permanent facepalm.

Silver’s gimmick is that he’s psychic. He throws boxes with his mind, and that’s about it. Sometimes if you stand on a trigger point he’ll do scripted action, like bending bars, so the level can continue, but your main way of attacking is via box. This is probably an attempt to utilize their half assed implementation of the Havok Physics Engine. Aiming and throwing these boxes (which just happen to be scattered everywhere, and will respawn out of nowhere right in front of you) is especially tedious with the bad camera controls. On top of all this, Silver moves at a snails pace compared to every other character yet he has most of the same levels so it just takes forever to get anywhere with him. He can float for short distances too, but it’s only about as useful for crossing gaps as Sonic’s or Shadow’s Homing Attack, without the added benefit of killing enemies.The only things he can do that the other characters can’t are horrifically unfun, and in no way feel like they belong in a Sonic game.

But it’s Silver’s personality that makes him a horrible character, even by Sonic standards. He whines throughout the entire game and constantly attacks the other characters (particularly Sonic) due to various misunderstanding in the convoluted storyline. Now we at Cardinal Virtual have no problem with characters who are unlikeable for a reason, but Sonic Team clearly wants us to love Silver. He is, after all, the game’s main character— you spend more time playing as him than as Sonic, and it’s his insufferable conflict that drives the plot. Despite his whiny obnoxious behavior, Sonic Team tries to pass him off as a mysterious badass in many of the cutscenes, having him kick Sonic’s ass even after Sonic beats him in a boss fight. And in the end, he doesn’t change or learn anything. He spends his whole storyline worrying about the responsibility his role in defeating the main villain entails and at the end his best friend/girlfriend ends up taking responsibility for him. He literally has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

You Are Tearing Me Apart, Sonic

NO. NO. STOP IT. STOP THIS RIGHT NOW.

In the end, Sonic 06 is a lot like Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic masterpiece The Room. Not just in a “oh my god this is awful way,” but in being so bad that it’s worse than “so bad it’s good.” You can laugh at it, but playing it feels like more than just playing a bad game– it turns into a test of endurance and willpower. We ended up playing it once just out of morbid curiosity, laughing constantly at how broken everything is and how hideous the game is. And then, a year or so later, we played it again. We have no idea why, except maybe to inflict it on someone who wasn’t there for the first playthrough. And then, while researching this article, we tried to play it again but started feeling physically ill and had to turn the Xbox off and lie down for a little while.

In the end, it might be worth picking up. We’re certainly better for having played it– though awful to actually suffer through, the game becomes hilarious in hindsight. It’s also an absolutely fascinating look into what happens when developers drift so far away from critical opinion or objective quality that they become incapable of figuring out which ideas are good and which ones are awful.  This is perhaps the biggest lesson to take away: the next time you defend a game with “I don’t care what the critics think, I love [Franchise X]” remember what happened when Sonic Team went down that path.

It would be an awful game normally, but the context magnifies it. We played Sonic 2 in between levels of this game and the experience is surreal– one of the best games of the Genesis/SNES generation, followed by one of the absolute worst of the current. The glitches, terrible writing, and absolutely catastrophic design ideas are funny on their own, but knowing why this game was made, and why it failed– that turns it from simply a laughable experience into something strange and sad.

Man, remember the Chemical Plant Zone? That was rad.

Advertisements

Games are Art, and that means criticism.

Recently, Halo 4‘s lead developer mentioned that games, and the gaming community, have a serious issue with sexism. The comments on the article… were awful. There were the ones that instantly proved her right (one person said that the fact that Halo 4 was made by “whiny, sensitive women” who cared about this issue had convinced them not to buy it), but the ones that really stood out for us were the ones that called talking about sexism in gaming a “pointless crusade,” said that raising the issue was an “ego trip,” and saying that because gaming was full of misogyny trying to change it was a waste of time. These comments, and these complaints, go way beyond the issue at hand to one of the biggest problems with gamer culture: an instantly defensive attitude towards any kinds of critical discussions. Not just to negative criticism, but to the very idea that we should be looking at games intellectually and through critical lenses. This isn’t just ignorant– this is hurting the very medium that gamers claim to love.
Because if you don’t want a critical discussion, you don’t really believe that games are art.

“Trying to actually discuss relevant issues? Big risk. But the priiiiiiiize… is being taken seriously by critics outside gaming.”

Gamers act like children about social issues. This is a more specific part of what we’re talking about, but it’s where we wanted to start because of this article and other problems the past several months in the gaming community. Look at this article, in which a lot of issues with race and gender in major games are examined. You might notice something, which is that it’s not a very great article. Jacob in Mass Effect, for example,  is the most well-rounded and professional member of your entire crew, and the fact that he has daddy issues (like everyone else in the game) and moves 6 months on after your brief fling ends and you’re under house arrest and he’s living half a galaxy away aren’t issues of bigotry on the part of the designers. Similarly, Gay Tony in GTA IV? Fantastic character and one of the most rounded and human gay characters in gaming.

Do you see what we did there, fellow gamers? How we actually responded to the issues raised in the article that we disagreed with, and didn’t think that any discussion of social issues was an attack on our personal clubhouse? That’s how grown-ups who like a medium act about criticism. You don’t say, as virtually the entire comments section did, that “feminists don’t know anything about games” or “games are just catering to their market” or “but tits are nice to look at” and “all that matters is that the game is fun.” If you truly believe that games are art and should be treated as such, you have to accept that all art gets looked at through critical lenses. Imagine if an art critic said that Gauguin’s work is sexist or racist and people who love art, who spend a few hundred dollars a month on paintings and art books and going to museums, said “clearly you don’t like paintings” and “who cares about that, I just love the pretty colors.” The only reason that games could get a blanket immunity to criticism on social issues is if we said “well, they’re just toys for adolescent virgins, so who cares?” If you want games to be art, you have to accept that they’re going to be treated like every other form of art. (And if you, say, respond to the very idea of a feminist look at games with ranting and death threats, then congratulations– you understand the medium as much, and approach these issues with the same tact, as Jack Thompson).

And speaking of Gauguin, yes, the man is absolutely sexist and racist– he abandoned his wife to go have sex with women in Tahiti while

“Ugh, just another complaint by a watercolor fanboy whose parents were too poor to buy him oil paintings as a kid. Grow up and stop loving babby painters.”

fetishizing their culture and doing a lot of talking about the noble savage. You know what else he was? One of the greatest painters of the 19th century. And that’s because acknowledging criticism doesn’t mean art is bad. This is part of the problem– gamers have a hard time hearing “there are some problems with this game” as anything but “this game is awful.” You’ll see this manifested in whining about review scores– “this game deserves a 100 instead of a 98, clearly if you think it’s a masterpiece but not perfect you’re an idiot” –but it also shows up in other discussions. There’s a thread running through gaming that any attack on any aspect of a game you love is a personal attack. It’s why console fanboyism exists, and why gamers treat other people’s opinions as invalid– “I love Resident Evil 6 so it’s an objectively good game, and any critic who didn’t enjoy it has to be deliberately lying.” Criticism, both in terms of quality and critical interpretations, is meant to be a part of discussion, not the be-all and end-all of “is this game bad or not?”

What criticism isn’t meant to be is a venue for people who love art to try and control discussion of it. Let’s compare two similar works in different mediums. Blue Velvet is a fantastic movie– aggressive, innovative, and unique, taking viewers to dark place and trying to challenge how we interact with film. Heavy Rain was a game with a lot of the same ideas and approaches, loved by a lot of critics, scored by the… same composer (okay, “similar” might have been a little too kind). And we love Blue Velvet. We’d put it in the same category as Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, or The Seventh Seal. It’s safe to say that we love it as much as the people who think that Heavy Rain is the best game ever love it.

“I’ll send you a love letter. You know what a love letter is? It’s a 6.5 out of fucking 10. You get a love letter from me, your Metacritic average is fucked forever.

And, if you love Blue Velvet, you know Roger Ebert’s review of it. The one where he just didn’t seem to get the movie– where the balance of comedy and horror, the sexual menace, and the feeling of unease and disgust never worked for him. The review where he gave the best film of the ’80s one star. And do you know how we feel about that, as people who love film and love Blue Velvet? We acknowledge his points, state our disagreements, have a laugh that it didn’t work for him. David Lynch joked about it and then made Twin Peaks. In the long run, we love the review– it raises questions, and the discussions it provoked (both among other critics and between Ebert and Siskel, who loved it) have enriched peoples’ understanding of the film.

Heavy Rain, though, had a very different relationship with critics. David Cage, who wants so badly to make gaming’s Blue Velvet that he hired Angelo Badalamenti to compose the soundtrack, called its critics– who gave it a 6.5, vastly better than Ebert’s Deuce-Bigalow-level-score –“children” who were “just barely intelligent” and were simply resistant to the revolutionary work he had created. He then did the worst thing anyone can do in regards to game criticism: he points out the Metacritic average and says that because these reviews are so far below the average, they don’t count. That because a person’s opinion is different from the majority that opinion shouldn’t be treated as valid. When Cage responded like this– to a handful of critics who said his game was mediocre-to-decent and not a masterpiece –it wasn’t just a tantrum that he wasn’t being universally adored, it was making a public statement that he believed popularity and selling lots of copies mattered more to him than making art.

And the fan’s response to this prima donna behavior was to carry it further. To say that everyone who doesn’t like Heavy Rain is a shill for Microsoft deliberately trying to sabotage a PS3 game. They say that the scores should be exempted from Metacritic averages because they’re obviously the product of biased hacks. They say that any critic who lets their “personal biases” determine how much they enjoy playing something– who lets their opinions shape their opinion piece –should be fired. This is unique to gaming, and it’s not just about reviews. This is how gamers react to critical discussions. And it’s awful. Games are never going to be able to grow and develop if you attack the very idea of critical disagreement. If minority opinions are treated as irrelevant. If the individual perspective of critics is treated as a bad thing. If game developers rely on Metacritic averages to defend their art. That’s not how art lovers defend art, that’s how P.R. executives defend products.

And then they fall back on the single worst defense of a game ever when people raise the issue of plot. Whether you like the game’s story or not,

“You are looking at a man who– you are looking at a man who has zero lives left.”

it’s an objective fact that there are problems. There are narrative contradictions, elements and ideas that are quickly dropped, stilted dialogue, and a plot twist that relies on lying to the player. These don’t have to be dealbreakers. It’s perfectly fine to say that they’re not major issues, just as you can say that a movie has a bad script but is really fun and visually stunning. What’s not fine is to say “well it’s better than Halo‘s story.” And what’s absolutely unacceptable is to say, as many did (and as Cage’s promise to “make a game with a story as good as a Hollywood movie” implied) “it’s just a game, so lower your standards.” These are the same arguments that pop up in response to any negative review or complaint about games that anyone makes anywhere, and they’re insulting to the medium. If you think games are art, respect them by actually holding them accountable. Don’t just say “well, not every game can have a story as good as Taxi Driver.” When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, he wasn’t content to say that no movie could measure up to Crime and Punishment– instead he tried to write a film that could. You see this every time a game’s story is criticized or examined– the notion that as long as the game’s fun, all of these issues can be disregarded. The idea that writing, art design, characters, plot, or social awareness are just optional add-ons is something unique to games, and it arises out of the same defensive attitude as our previous examples. When someone raises the fact that a game has narrative problems, you’re not a little kid trying to defend your hobby to your parents anymore– you’re someone who claims to be passionate about an art form who should be willing to engage in an actual discussion. When Roger Ebert said that games weren’t art, the gaming community exploded with rage– only, every time the issue of a game’s artistic failings is raised, for many of the people that were apoplectic at Ebert’s claim to fall back on saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the game is fun.

Gamers have gotten so used to, for years, accepting mediocre writing that they see it as standard. But the achievements of gaming can only matter if they’re looked at in context and treated as examples. The fact that Bioshock and No More Heroes can say great things about gaming and tell powerful stories isn’t just a neat little bonus– it’s every bit as big of an achievement as making a game that’s incredibly fun or has the best graphics ever. If you believe games are art, you have to treat them as every other critic of every other medium does. You have to hold them accountable for their failings. You have to recognize that other people have different opinions and priorities. You have to accept that games should be for everyone, not just straight white men. You have to discuss them and look at every aspect of them. Saying that the only thing that matters is how much fun you have is only true when it comes to toys for children.