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.

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