“Not as planned.”
At the end of the day, one can only imagine someone must have thought that when the dust settled on one of the biggest blights in the history of the Sonic franchise, the makings of which trace back to 2005. The full fruits of disaster would not bloom until 2006, a year that will live in infamy for Sonic fans everywhere.
2006: Games of Disaster
Right from the get-go, Sonic Team wanted to publish something unique for the outbound sixth generation of consoles in 2006. That game would be Sonic Riders, a strange racing title that featured Sonic et al. on hoverboards in a futuristic city. Perhaps the only thing to the game’s credit was the fact that it featured a slightly expansive cast of Sega characters, including NiGHTS, Ulala, and Aiai. Otherwise, this game got mixed reviews for basically being appealing to virtually no one.
Classic Sonic fans classify 1995 to 1998 as a dark age for the franchise. The failure of Sega to release the much-anticipated Sonic X-Treme, or indeed any Sonic game for the Saturn, had a deleterious effect on the franchise. A slew of mediocre titles bearing the Hedgehog’s name marked that period, none of which did anything to restore faith in his products. I classify 2000 to 2007 as another dark age; Sonic Shuffle onward was another stampede of pointless products for Sonic, most distinctly marked by what was the most egregious offender in Sonic’s library, Sonic ’06.
To understand why this game is one of the absolute worst, we must consider the circumstances of the franchise. Following its exit from the console market, it was clear that Sega was no longer the industry titan it always aspired to be. That status, for better or worse, was built around Sonic’s cult of personality, at least in the West. Without a strong backing from Sonic fans, Sega was destined to falter in such a vast market. Thus, the problem was how to make a Sonic game that brought in the fans while still being original and evolving the series. Sonic Team had been lucky with Sonic Adventure, but Sonic Team failed to realize its own pattern. Thenceforth, Sonic Team’s handling of the franchise would be to swing from one side of the spectrum to the other in terms of tone and atmosphere with the games. Nothing ever carried over from one game to the next, with the exception of the characters. The cheesy 90s coolness of Sonic Adventure gave way to the edgy toughness of Sonic Adventure 2, which in turn ceded to the bright and innocent Sonic Heroes (more like Sonic Zeroes, amirite?), which was followed by the gritty grimness of Shadow the Hedgehog. With Sonic’s fifteenth anniversary approaching, Sonic Team needed to redefine Sonic, who still seemed to be stuck under the shadow of the Genesis era and stalling under the aged look of the Adventure era. After having looked at all of those Eggman’s robots and searching for that damn fourth Chaos Emerald, Sonic was in need of something big and new.
Enter Shun Nakamura, a Sega employee with ties to Samba de Amigo, Chu Chu Rocket!, and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (the characters of this last one being direct parodies of the main Sonic characters). Nakamura would eventually be tapped to lead the fifteenth anniversary title. All seemed to be going well, with prototype media being well received in 2005. Nakamura had every reason to think he was going to be the man who could deliver. Little did he know he was sailing straight for an iceberg.
The first big blow came when Yuji Naka suddenly abandoned ship to form his own company, Prope, much as Naoto Ohshima had done in the wake of Sonic Adventure. Naka’s departure left a large void in Sonic Team, and for all of his impatience and brashness, he was also the authority on Sonic. Without him, Sonic Team was doomed to wander.
The second problem was nothing new. Much like the unfortunate fate of Sonic X-Treme, there was simply not enough time dedicated to development. Sega imposed strict deadlines to ensure that the new game would come out as close to launch as possible for the start of the seventh generation of consoles. Sonic Team was forced to scale back its original vision tremendously, leaving a considerable amount of material on the editing room floor. Sonic Team had gone out of its way to redesign the characters to have a more realistic style, which may have been a misstep. Sonic had been a cartoony character for years; Ohshima had said Sonic was Mickey Mouse with cat ears. The new, realistic look had slim, spindly limbs. Some fans took to calling this new look “Mr. Noodlemouse” in homage to Sonic’s original name because his limbs looked like noodles. In the case of Robotnik, the “realistic” look somehow looked even less realistic than before:
A third problem was the matter of just what this game was supposed to be. What it was, if nothing else, was ambitious. As a sign of the audacity, the marketing for the game was centered on returning Sonic to his roots. The game was simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog, directly paralleling the 1991 Genesis title that started it all. A bold choice, and the gambit could have worked if Sonic Team could deliver. Curiously, for a game with that name, Sonic Team spent a large amount of time on a new character, falling into the Sonic Adventure 2 folly of having Sonic be the titular hero but someone else be the main character. According to Naka, Sonic Team “tried to…take all the recurring elements in the Sonic series, while adding new things that would please the next-generation players.” The intent was to allow “players who discovered the hedgehog at his birth [to] be happy to find sequences reminding them of their childhood…” Nowhere was this less obvious than introducing what was an orange mink named Venice as a new character to the story. Venice, so named because the setting of this game was in a city resembling the famous Italian locale, was later redesigned to be (what else?) a hedgehog, and not just any hedgehog, but a silver one with psychokinetic powers. You know, in clear homage to…something from the 1991 Genesis game. This character, Silver, came from an apocalyptic future ruled by Iblis (the Muslim name for the Devil) and his only friend, in a bit of hardcore retconning, was Blaze the Cat from Sonic Rush. Meanwhile, a separate side story involved Shadow fighting an evil specter from the future named Mephiles alongside Rouge and Omega from Sonic Heroes. Lastly, and perhaps least importantly, Sonic was busy rescuing a princess from Dr. Robotnik, whose latest scheme involved using her to trigger the macguffin of the week, the Flames of Disaster.
Okay, time out. This story is pathetic on a number of levels and it amazes me someone was paid to write it. Sonic’s story demonstrates in bold detail that no one plays a Mario game for the plot; rescuing the princess is not especially deep. When Princess Elise questions why Sonic goes out of his way to rescue her, he admits, “No reason.” Shadow really had no reason to be involved in any of this, except that he became a secret agent after one of the many endings of his own game and when Mephiles was unleashed, he assumed Shadow’s form. Even then, Shadow’s motivation seemed rather lacking for a character who, only a few games ago, wanted the world to end. On top of this, Robotnik’s ambition to control the Flames of Disaster screamed laziness; this was exactly the same set-up as every mainstream Sonic game dating back to 1999! Robotnik tried to harness the power of something out of his control, it goes out of control, and Sonic has to go Super Sonic to vanquish it at the very end. However, there were so many bonuses to this foundation of foolishness. For example, there is a part where Robotnik and Elise die on his crashing battleship. Since Elise was the key to the Flames of Disaster, technically this meant the Flames of Disaster could never be released, so what does Sonic do? Time warp to prior to Elise’s death to save her, thereby ensuring a good possibility that she could release the Flames. It also meant that Sonic left a Chaos Emerald with Elise in the past, so he never would have had all 7 Chaos Emeralds to transform into Super Sonic in Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes, or any of the Sonic Advance games. Why Sonic would do this is inscrutable, since Elise was clearly as dumb as the President in Sonic Adventure 2 and Shadow the Hedgehog; she does the same stupid thing in which she confuses Sonic with another hedgehog, in this case Silver.
Because they look SO alike.
There is also a sequence in Sonic’s story where he is asked to choose between Amy Rose and Princess Elise as his true love. Without putting too fine a point on it, Sonic 2006 was the game that made love between a hedgehog and a human just a charming quirk instead of, well, repulsive. Thus, we are left with the bewildering scene of Mephiles literally stabbing Sonic in the back, thereby killing our nominal hero, and only a kiss from Princess Elise (again, a human) revives Sonic. One has to wonder who greenlit this. No matter how much there was some delusion of emulating a beautiful moment from Disney, Sonic Team completely miscalculated how utterly odd and out-of-place the relationship between Elise and Sonic was. Like Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes to a lesser extent, Sonic 2006 had a story that could accurately be described as fanfiction. It was okay, though; the end credits theme for Sonic’s story was a remix of “Sweet Dream” from Sonic 2 done by rapper Akon, because that was just what we needed to bring Sonic into the new age.
Maybe this balderdash story could have been overlooked if the game played well, but it notoriously did not. Apart from the fact that the game was probably not even half of what was envisioned, the actual game was known to be buggy, glitchy, and incredibly ugly for a then-next-gen console. Loading times were legendarily atrocious. The character models sometimes displayed unnatural poses and a large part of the game was spent not actually playing as any of the three hedgehogs. A common complaint by this point was that too much time in Sonic games was spent not being Sonic but rather, one of his little friends. Reportedly, QA testers were dismissed for not approving the game’s readiness for launch. Vehicle sections were also an unnecessary addition. I don’t mean little vehicle sections that mix things up like Sonic’s snowboard intro to Ice Cap Zone in Sonic 3 or Tails’s Sea Fox expeditions in Sonic Triple Trouble and Tails’s Adventures. No, I mean riding and gunning in humvees and hovercrafts during Shadow’s story, again, reminiscent of something from fifteen years prior.
All parts of this magnificent disaster landed on poor Shun Nakamura’s head. Indeed, Nakamura was initially not supposed to oversee this mess, but after Yuji Naka’s departure, Sega had to scramble to find a way to port Sonic 2006 to the Nintendo Wii without Naka’s genius. Yojiro Ogawa, who was supposed to be in charge of the Sonic 2006 project, was sequestered with a team of his own in order to build a Wii port for Sonic 2006. However, it became clear that Sonic Team would have to invest considerable resources into making this happen and with not a lot of time, acknowledging that Sega wanted this to be a launch title for all three platforms of the seventh console generation. Nakamura was left to oversee developing one game on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 with one team and not nearly enough time to do it before Christmas of that year. Ogawa’s team redirected its focus to prepare something exclusive for the Nintendo Wii, destined to come out in the first quarter of 2007.
Oddly enough, as if determined to cement the Sonic 2006 disaster as canonical to the franchise, Sega licensed its characters to Digital Eclipse Software, the people behind the GBA Spyro the Dragon games. Digital Eclipse, now known as Backbone Entertainment, produced the title Sonic Rivals for the PlayStation Portable in late 2006. Silver was included as one of the characters in Rivals, giving legitimacy to Sonic 2006 (as much as is possible; the game’s story literally writes itself out of existence in the end). In a clear case of missing the mark entirely, Takashi Iizuka suggested to Backbone that a competitive racing element be added to the 2.5D platforming focus of the game. I have no firsthand knowledge of anything about Sonic Rivals, but like Riders, Rivals received mixed reviews. Clearly, 2006 was a grim year for Sonic fans, who could only hold out hope for a better year to come…