The following article comes entirely from personal opinion. Thanks to Ersatz and Spazzy_D for edits, and Girard, Merlin the Tuna, and Sandler’s List of the Gameological Society for inspiring this piece.
Within every medium or canon, some works transcend their identity, defining or teaching us about the context in which they were made. This is even true of those considered the worst of their fields. Battlefield Earth is not just a terrible film, but one that highlights John Travolta’s supremely odd career, the Church of Scientology’s relationship with Hollywood, and the post-Star Wars infatuation with pulp adventure. Similarly, the “worst games ever made” can often tell us more about the industry than we might realize. And one of the most infamous on that list is the 2006 Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 disaster Sonic the Hedgehog, henceforth referred to as “Sonic 2006” for clarity’s sake.
This article may as well just be a geek act, with down on his luck icon Sonic the Hedgehog having long been reduced to biting the heads off of live chickens for our sick pleasure. I certainly can’t deny being averse to that appeal. By this point, it’s almost impossible to find new ground on which to mock this game; you could look at this…or this…or this, which I wrote last year when replaying the game for the second time in what must have been an act of sadomasochism on my part. But this series is about games within a broader historical context, and that may be a superior angle with which to discuss this one.
After all, if Sonic 2006 is notorious as a meme, it’s less in being a bad game than as primary evidence of a related meme: the precipitous decline of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s a compelling story about the beloved mascot of the video game company SEGA who, thanks to the machinations of his incompetent and greedy corporate owner, has fallen into an inexorable pit of failures. It’s easy to sell this, and it’s not an entirely untrue sentiment. However, I would like to posit an alternative argument, that Sonic’s failures and inability to remain consistently entertaining is both the fault of his company and an inevitability for the property.
It is, by this point, far too easy to contrast the “Blue Blur” with his old rival, but the philosophy of Nintendo’s headliner Super Mario is worth studying. Everything about the latter – his sartorial choices and facial hair, the design elements of his games – comes from function, the result of Shigeru Miyamoto working to overcome technological limitations and viewing games as giant toys. His cheerful, workmanlike attitude befits his blue collar persona and locomotion, and his place as the Nintendo mascot is a natural extension of the latter’s design philosophy. It’s similar to how, for example, Master Chief embodies Microsoft’s vision of game systems as cold, “elite” powerhouses.
Sonic, by contrast, is clearly a figure of deliberate commercial direction, one based around an acceptable level of focus-tested edginess to rival Nintendo’s mammoth commercial success. He seems almost explicitly a response to the Mario’s popularity, from his rougher, spikier shape to his ties with the SEGA Genesis’ much vaunted “Blast Processing,” its main technological selling point. It’s telling that game director Yuji Naka created him in an official contest to make a mascot. Sonic, for all intents and purposes, is SEGA; he symbolizes their creative and commercial ethos. This is not a denouncement of his beloved Genesis originals, more an acknowledgement that they were less evolutionary than reactionary, unable to mix being a power trip or a more “normal” platformer. Essayist George “SuperBunnyHop” Weidman has compellingly argued that even in Sonic’s “Golden Age” the developers of Sonic Team never avoided the pitfalls of the mechanics, though the appeal of fantastic music, the highs of running incredibly fast – Sonic’s gimmick, which cast Nintendo as uncool – and SEGA’s marketing obscured those issues.
Without a concrete underlying vision of what he was (Sly trickster? Freedom fighter? Demographically safe rebel with attitude?), Sonic started to flounder. The SEGA Saturn had no mainline Sonic titles, merely a collection of dubious spinoffs. Instead of the series moving forward, it just became broader and adrift, a feeling that didn’t end when it moved back into platform games. His first foray into 3D, the Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure – in 2001, the first “main series” entry in seven years – was a broken slog that set bad precedents in its mechanics. In the years hence, the quality moved up and down, but there was an increasing sense of irritation. Fans wanted Sonic to simply dash through gorgeous environments, but SEGA’s programmers seemed flummoxed by that one request. They instead supplanted it with secondary gimmicks or overwrought storytelling that made the initial problem worse.
While the series’ spinoffs always fluctuated widely, Adventure brought that attitude to all future “main” games. It’s incredible how nakedly “Sonic Team,” which had almost immediately split into two separate studios, have drawn brazenly from so many trends over the years. God of War combat, Mario Galaxy level design, Final Fantasy storytelling, Mario Party multiplayer, Ratchet & Clank shooting, hub worlds and upgrade systems and dual worlds of other, better works; Sonic today is a fossil record of the last two decades of gaming history. Except there’s never an interest in synthesizing these with the core gameplay, or even making any of it enjoyable. It’s almost as though Sonic, having been birthed in a pool of marketing synergy, lacks an identity of his own and grasps anything vaguely interesting instead.
You don’t even have to look at gameplay for examples, thanks to the cast. Most characters are built from the same mold, taking Sonic’s relative shape, changing the color, and adding a single personality trait and skill. Knuckles is red, tough, and can glide. Jet is green, competitive, and can snowboard. Amy is pink, “the girl one,” and has a hammer. While even minor Mario characters burst with personality – Captain Toad and Toadette can star in a game and not seem that weird doing so – Sonic Team’s approach to design feels exclusively for the benefit of brand extension, with each one targeting a specific demographic or feature. And with them being “Sonic + X” (not the also maligned anime Sonic X), the Blue Blur moved perilously close to being incidental in his own games.
This eventually leads us to 2006 and 2006. Fresh off the release of Shadow the Hedgehog, a 2005 sequel/spinoff starring a gun-toting, cursing, motorcycling clone of the hero, the problem was clear. Most journalists and fans were openly frustrated with the series’ confused tone, even though each installment sold millions of copies. The series badly needed a kick, and with Sonic’s fifteenth year anniversary coming up in a year, the PlayStation 3 scheduled for release that same year, and the Xbox 360 already starting the seventh console generation, that seemed the time to do it. It’s noticeable that despite sharing a name with the original Sonic, 2006 was never sold as any kind of remake. It was presumably only a sign of how far the franchise had come.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of failure Sonic 2006 is, but perhaps it’s best seen as one of ambition. Sonic Team clearly had grand aspirations, with a dramatic and complex plot, many characters and role playing elements, giant environments traversable in multiple ways, and systems exploiting the Havok physics engine, which had previously been used to great acclaim in 2004’s Half-Life 2. However, due to SEGA’s demand for a 2006 holiday release, splitting off part of the team to build what would become Sonic and the Secret Rings, the developers’ struggles with the 360’s hardware, and many key team members leaving the company – including Yuji Naka himself – the final game was released in a barely playable state. With budgets and time slashed, effort that would have gone to even the most basic testing was abandoned, and despite the bloat of features that made it into the final game there are obvious signs of cut content. Ironically, even with all that, difficulties with adapting to the PS3 forced that version, even buggier and less optimized than its 360 counterpart, to be released months later in 2007. (note: this review is based on the 360 version)
On a purely technical level, it’s shocking that SEGA considered this anywhere near acceptable. Sonic’s classic “homing attack” (a move meant to offset these games’ inherent camera snafus) is just as likely to send you hurtling to your doom as an enemy, whose high health and constant attacks can still stun you into a quick death. Collision detection is random, level design is ugly, and every one of the nine playable characters has their own terrible idiosyncrasies. Sonic’s longtime sidekick Tails, for instance, can only attack using “dummy ring bombs” that can’t be comfortably aimed and kill the framerate. Hell, even hitting too many enemies – enemies the game itself spawns – can do the same thing. Loading is a joke; Sonic 2006 will wait over a minute for such graphics-intensive content as a single line of unvoiced dialogue from an NPC to whom you are already talking.
But even discounting those technical issues, it is truly dire. The gameplay is a mess even in theory, a miserable hodgepodge of mechanics and play styles that are neither fun on their own nor synergize in any way. The upgrade mechanics and hub world do nothing but worsen the experience, acting as barriers to block off content and forcing players through a conga line of awful minigames. The whole idea of a hub world is to facilitate gameplay, and this one implies that 2006’s world is a constant stream of incessant demands from insipid NPCs and narratively worthless story sections. So already, it’s working against not only the “gotta go fast” ethos of traditional Sonic, but any kind of satisfactory coherence at all.
And although compelling narrative isn’t exactly part of the Sonic wheelhouse, the story is atrocious, incomprehensible, and bizarre in its aims and themes. Like previous 3D attempts, 2006 uses a large cast to tell a giant, nonlinear narrative, but this saga of angry gods, a dystopian future, and the Final Fantasy-esque city of Soleanna – or its realistically proportioned human denizens – meshes so poorly with the plasticine cartoon animals of the franchise you might be forgiven for assuming you were looking at a fan mod. Characters’ attitudes and personalities seem defined by the whims of the convoluted plot, and its themes are either confused, stated without subtext, or oppressive.
These colliding problems of a barely functional engine, turgid game mechanics, and a laughable mess of a story can best be seen in faux-breakout newcomer Silver the Hedgehog. An angsty teenager from an apocalyptic future, he’s gone into the past like Kyle Reese to kill Sonic, who a shadowy doppelgänger of Shadow claims will set off a chain of events destroying the world. Silver’s main function is to best show off the Havok physics engine, which was developed to create subtler, more diverse physics for objects in games. He’s psychic, and his primary method of attack is to use objects strewn about the field as weapons. It’s actually neat in theory, but the combat never evolves past tossing crap at monsters, the necessary auto-targeting is unreliable, and it slows the frame rate to a pained crawl. This is almost certainly the part the developers cared about most, yet it makes all the worst elements shine through.
Sonic himself barely plays a role, so subsumed by rival brand extensions Shadow and Silver that his story lacks significant narrative import. In one of the series’ more odd attempts at giving his character dramatic weight, he now has a human princess love interest played by Lacey Chabert from Party of Five, who is about as awful as a supporting character can be. She has no personality beyond her relationship to Sonic, only exists within the game’s wretched cutscenes, and repeatedly gets kidnapped in a begrudging attempt to give the hero something to do. His buddies do only marginally better, if only because they lack the sections where Sonic decides to run too fast to control through a maze of instant deaths, but each new gameplay mechanic offers a wealth of unique, exciting problems.
It’s a testament to how hideous and noxious Sonic 2006 is that it still stands out as the worst Sonic game released that year, completely obscuring Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis, a nigh-unplayable port of the first game for the Game Boy Advance. Or that as a property in 2006 disparaging the name of a beloved original it still came out worse than the Nicolas Cage remake of the Wicker Man. Or that the even more broken Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric has gone under the radar by comparison, though that lacked as compelling a meta narrative. That was also a mutual tie-in with a recent cartoon reboot, suggesting Sonic hasn’t changed an iota.
Sonic 2006 was built as a paean to Sonic the Hedgehog, and in a twisted way it was: it highlighted not the hero’s highs or triumphs, but the terrible creative decisions that led him to being an industry joke. The oppressively large cast, pointless mechanics, broken gameplay, ridiculous storytelling, and a lack of interest in being entertaining? Those were all established tenants of the brand long before this game came out; 2006 only brought them further to the forefront.
While most Sonic games enjoy extensive hype before the quality inevitably lets people down, there was a marked shift here. It popularized the view that Sonic was fundamentally broken, and SEGA eventually removed it and other Sonic games from digital stores in response. Since then, the franchise hits an odd dead-end of sorts, where every release since seems to be a rejoinder to 2006 and the attitudes which spawned it. Things course corrected slightly in Sonic Unleashed (a fairly poor game whose dual-character gameplay almost symbolized the series’ problems), which influenced Sonic Colors and Generations. Together those two are one of the franchise’s brightest spots, with engaging level design that answered the original games’ potential. However, the series has yet again hit a new snag, with the disastrously received Sonic Lost World and Boom sending the series crashing yet again. Sonic’s even worse now, because fans aren’t buying his games or even caring about him at all beyond an official Twitter feed – a Twitter feed that has openly mocked this very game, which seems presumptuous.
With SEGA teasing a new Sonic game and once again stating how much they care and that this time they’ll get better, it’s good to remember that Sonic 2006 was not made in a vacuum. It – and Boom, and Sonic Shuffle, and Tails’ Adventure, and Sonic and the Black Knight, and all the rest of the myriad of misguided Hedgehog games – was only the product of a specific philosophy, one which chased commercial potential and marketing over strong, cohesive game design. I’m sure it is possible to make a good Sonic game, as there is empirical evidence showing us just this. But with nothing to guide Sonic’s handlers but their corporate investment, the chances of a return to halcyon days seem implausible.