Sega was never hesitant to use Sonic to grab a few bucks, even when that meant loaning him to outsiders. In 1998, he appeared in a game called Sonic Jam for the Game.com, a kind of alternative to the Game Boy that was meant to slant to a maturer gaming audience. It was kind of a cross between a Game Boy and a personal digital assistant, but considering what technology was for both of these items in the late 90s, it comes as no surprise that this was a clunky machine. Made by Tiger Electronics, the Game.com never went anywhere. Sonic Jam for the Game.com, though bearing the same name as the Sega Saturn compilation title, was a motley assortment of levels vaguely modeled on the Genesis games. In 1999, he appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a hybridizing of the Genesis trilogy with a Sonic Adventure look to it, developed by SNK. A former employee of SNK, Takashi Nishiyama, went on to found a new company with some comrades. The company has since gone on to be well-known to Sonic fans everywhere as Dimps…
2002-05: Strange Bedfellows
At the very end of 2001, Japan saw what long-time Sega fans had always feared: Sonic being branded with the bright red Nintendo logo. At the time, everyone else had joined the newest round of the console wars: Nintendo, Sony, and even Microsoft. Nintendo, the old soldier of the wars, released the GameCube and the Game Boy Advance. Sega gave Dimps the project of bringing Sonic onto the GBA. The result was Sonic Advance, the first time Sonic appeared on a Nintendo console. At the same time, Sega also commissioned a port of Sonic Adventure 2 to the GameCube, known as Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. The inspiration behind the name came from significant changes to the multiplayer mode (though, being perfectly honest, I don’t know anyone who played the multiplayer mode in SA2 anyway). Both Sonic Advance and Sonic Adventure 2: Battle came to the Americas in 2002.
To enshrine Sonic’s place firmly in a state of vassalhood to Nintendo, the first of many Collections titles was released that same year: Sonic Mega Collection. This was simply an emulated collection of the Genesis Sonic games. It briefly featured new character Cream the Rabbit, who would go on to appear in Sonic Advance 2 in Japan at the end of the year. Sonic Advance 2 would make it to the West in 2003. That same year, the GBA also saw the release of the rather obscure Sonic Pinball Party, a pinball game celebrating Sonic the Hedgehog, NiGHTS into Dreams…, and Samba de Amigo. To round things out, Sonic Team USA also released Sonic Adventure: Director’s Cut on the GameCube. Both of the Nintendo re-releases of the Sonic Adventure games have since gone on to be released on Valve’s digital distribution platform Steam. I know what you’re thinking: who cares? What about Sonic Adventure 3?
First, we have to consider that 2003 was a big year for Sonic’s expected comeback of sorts. After being out of the spotlight as far as new console releases for two years, Takashi Iizuka and Sonic Team USA hoped to push out a product to satisfy everyone. At the same time, an anime TV series was licensed, known as Sonic X. This series, unlike previous Sonic cartoons, attempted to address the Adventure issue that no one else seemed to want to acknowledge: what is the deal with Sonic being in a world of humans? Admittedly, Sonic X was not very clever about this, essentially tying it into some magic foolishness with the Chaos Emeralds and Doctor Eggman’s technology. The result was the most grating supporting cast member: a rich brat named Chris Thorndyke, a human with the kind of improbably spiky hair that could only be achieved by being an anime character. Sonic X adapted a number of the more recent games’ plotlines but shoehorned Chris Thorndyke and his family into these episodes (the storyline of Sonic Adventure 2, for example, made Shadow save Chris and Rouge from death because Chris resembled Maria Robotnik, in a complete whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment). Sonic X saw the rise of a new generation of English voice actors for the Sonic cast, who replaced the prior actors in both the games and the television series. The series was licensed for dubbing and American distribution by 4Kids, the same geniuses who brought us Yu-Gi-Oh! The series would run for two seasons and left a lasting impression on me right away as incredibly generic. Yuji Naka had hoped that Sonic X would work for Sonic the way the Pokemon anime did for that game series. He was wrong. Sonic X did well in most places but Japan, and one might have a colorable argument that even this could be attributed to aggressive marketing by Sega of America and Sega of Europe a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, Iizuka and company were hard at work. Iizuka wanted to go cross-console with this new release as part of the strategy to appeal to everyone. The Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube would all see the same game, and the playable roster featured twelve characters: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, Cream, Big, Shadow, Rouge, E-123 Omega (in homage to E-102 Gamma from Sonic Adventure), Espio, Vector, and Charmy (these latter three not having been seen since Knuckles’ Chaotix for the 32X). With so many characters, reasoned Iizuka, there would be appeal for anyone. Kazuyuki Hoshino, designer of Metal Sonic, was brought onto the team to redesign his signature character to be the secret villain of the game. The game would operate on a team mechanic, in which the player would switch control between characters to utilize their comparative strengths in different areas. Ultimately, many of the ideas that presumably were forming or would have formed the basis of a Sonic Adventure 3 project found their way into this new title, called Sonic Heroes.
And this game sucked.
Not commercially, mind you; it did pretty well in sales. The drawback to broad appeal, though, is that it means there is going to be a lot of garbage that appeals to someone else but not necessarily you. Fundamentally, though, this game was too bloated. Too many characters made a poor excuse for replayability. Excessively long levels dragged out the play time. Bad and bland level design only worsened this problem. The story, such as it was, was uninspired and repeatedly what was now a tellingly formulaic set-up: Robotnik was not the main villain at all but it was some other evil force entirely that was at the heart of the final showdown. Perhaps most bizarre in this aspect was a revelation about Shadow: in one scene, it is revealed that there are dozens and dozens of Shadow clones. Remember, this was the first time Shadow was seen again since his supposed death at the end of Sonic Adventure 2. I still remember signatures on Sonic message boards at the time saying, “Shadow Died. Get Over It.” Well, that was only partially right. Yes, that Shadow died, but Shadow was too popular to drop, so he was resurrected as one of innumerable clones. I suppose Iizuka was watching a lot of Neon Genesis Evangelion those days. Overall, Sonic Heroes was simply not fun. A more tightly concentrated effort would have served Sonic Heroes better. The end result of Heroes was an installment simultaneously trying to capture the mystic, colorful feel of the Genesis trilogy and the more intense vibes of the Adventure games. It did neither job very well. I personally regard it as one of the most boring Sonic games in the entire franchise. Yes, even more than Sonic Labyrinth. Yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro.
2004 was capped by the release of two more Game Boy Advance games. The first was THQ’s Sonic Battle for the GBA. The first fighting game since Sonic the Fighters, Sonic Battle was a light-hearted fighting game centered around Emerl, an ancient robot who copied fighting techniques. The other was Sonic Advance 3, the last in the Sonic Advance series. By this point in the series, long-time fans were noticing a distinct change in the physics of the hedgehog, and the physics had been a key point in developing Sonic’s identity. Sonic Advance 3 was especially notorious for the so-called “hold right to win” mentality of game design, not requiring any great deal of talent. It was, however, innovative insofar as it made use of a two-character team-up gimmick similar to Knuckles’ Chaotix. Developed by Dimps like its predecessors, Sonic Advance 3 was now also guilty of pulling the totally-not-surprising-other-final-villain gambit, this time with Gemerl, one of Robotnik’s robots that was allegedly built from the scrap of Emerl from Sonic Battle. This was also the last time that the original English voice actors were used in a game; Deem Bristow, the original voice of Doctor Robotnik in the games, died soon after the release of this game. He was the second English VA to die, since Steve Broadie, who played Chief Pachamac and Gamma in Sonic Adventure and the President in Sonic Adventure 2, died in 2001. The year rounded out with the Sonic Mega Collection Plus, a repackage of Sonic Mega Collection but with several Game Gear titles, for the Xbox, PS2, and PC.
2005 hardly improved matters. The GameCube and PS2 received the Sonic Gems Collection, another collection package with the Game Gear titles from Sonic Mega Collection Plus and Sonic CD, Sonic R, and Sonic the Fighters. The big bombshell was Shadow the Hedgehog, and where even to start with this mess? Well, apart from the fact that Shadow had a damn potty mouth, apropos of nothing, let us start with the premise: a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off in which Sonic’s evil twin/clone/doppelganger shoots people with guns to stave off an alien invasion. I don’t see anything wrong with that; do you?
Oh, how about music by Powerman 5000, the band headed by Rob Zombie’s younger brother? Yep, that fits well with everything we ever knew about Sonic as a franchise. How about an ending implying Shadow murders Robotnik? Sounds good. This was just an absolute, hard left-turn for Sonic coming off of Sonic Heroes. Iizuka, in his infinite wisdom, was not done waving his vexatious fanfic character in everyone’s faces yet. This was a game no one really expected or wanted per se. Nevertheless, this atrocity, an ugly hybrid of Terminator, Constantine, and Underworld wearing a fur suit, came at us like a gunshot blast on the GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 at the end of 2005. Though it sold a million and a half units, Shadow the Hedgehog was heavily criticized, getting about a 50% approval rating through Metacritic and GameRankings. There was just something incredibly wrong about Shadow the Hedgehog in the abstract; while games need to evolve, this was a far cry from the whimsy and fantasy of the very first Genesis game. Shadow the Hedgehog was aspiring to be gritty, dirty, dingy, and dark. This move was inscrutable but for the fact that Iizuka, apparently incredibly satisfied with writing his obnoxious emo hedgehog character, was under the impression that everyone took him for a genius. In fact, it is very difficult not to blame Iizuka for this period of tackiness in general: he and Sonic Team USA had been overseeing just about every big Sonic release since Sonic Adventure and the overall feel of Sonic had been tonally inconsistent. Sonic Adventure started off with a high feeling of a great quest, only to be brought down to a level of gritty realism with Sonic Adventure 2, and then Sonic Heroes tried to reclaim the lost sense of wonder of the Genesis trilogy. Now Shadow the Hedgehog was aiming to be edgy and was trying way too hard. One had to wonder what embarrassment was next.
As it turned out, Naka was talking up bringing Sonic to Nintendo’s newest handheld, the impressive Nintendo DS. Perhaps the first significant change-up in Nintendo’s handheld console family in a long time, the Nintendo DS had many features that Naka wanted to exploit. A very simple tech demo of Sonic on the DS appeared at E3 2004. From there, it presumably morphed into 2005’s Nintendo DS title Sonic Rush. Developed by Dimps, Sonic Rush could be considered a more refined Sonic Advance game. The game’s main gimmick was a tension meter that built up as Sonic or new character Blaze did tricks and defeated enemies. They could then use the tension in the meter to boost their running speed, even from a dead stop. This divided old school fans, some enjoying this evolution and others decrying it as an unnecessary break from the physics that the original games had. Still, Sonic Rush did suffer from being unoriginal in other respects, such as a story that was virtually a carbon copy of Sonic 3 & Knuckles and what was at times infuriating level design, given Dimps’s penchant for bottomless pits. However, an excellent soundtrack of hip-hop stylings from Hideki Naganuma really sold this game, with great tracks like “Right There, Ride On,” “Ska Cha Cha,” “Vela-Nova,” “Bomber Barbara,” and “Wrapped In Black.” For contrast, Sonic Rush walked away with an 83% favorable rating on GameRankings and and 82% favorable rating on Metacritic. It seems bright colors and upbeat themes were far preferred in Sonic games still, no matter what Iizuka thought. Fans wanted something more reminiscent of an age gone by, and that was reflected in the release of Hedgehog Heaven in 2005. Hedgehog Heaven was the name of an album by fans at OverclockedRemix that remixed the soundtrack of Sonic 2. People wanted to go back to a better, simpler time.
Pictures were already surfacing in 2005 of what was going to be the fifteenth anniversary game for Sonic. Since Shadow the Hedgehog ostensibly ran the franchise right off the rails, the next big Sonic game was meant to bring Sonic “back to his roots.” Hopes ran high as Sonic Team made big promises. What ultimately followed shocked just about everyone…
To be continued…