Thanks to NantenJex and Cart Boy for edits.
“He’s only the second most popular character in the whole canon!” – Dr. Eggman, Sonic Boom, “It Takes a Village to Defeat a Hedgehog”
More than anything else – its hero’s speed and spikes, the excellent music – Sonic the Hedgehog is about branding. Its hero is a creature of marketing, a mascot for a hardware company struggling to compete with Nintendo. Every part of him was designed to rival SEGA’s competitor, along with its flagship hero Super Mario. Mario wears red and blue, Nintendo’s traditional logo is red, and SEGA’s logo is blue, therefore Sonic is blue. Sonic’s arch-nemesis is a pudgy, mustachioed man, one who’s too darn slow to keep up with him. Even their designs are like this; Mario is round and playful, but Sonic is spiky and edgy.
And for the first half of the Nineties, this worked. The SEGA Genesis never managed to outsell the Super Nintendo, and most classics of the era were on the latter, but SEGA’s system still sold like gangbusters. But as time went on and various failed endeavors forced SEGA from the console market, Sonic, its most popular series, desperately grasped at anything that could reenergize itself. It was (and is) a move that has steadily chipped away at the value and reliability of the brand, with particular failed attempts defining Sonic’s career in some cases more than his good games. If Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), the series’ notorious nadir, was the train wreck whose stab at relevance went so awry it threw the “Blue Blur” off the rails and into franchise rehab, then Shadow the Hedgehog of one year prior was its prelude.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One quirk of the franchise right up to Sonic ‘06 was its approach to building its cast. Today, it’s a bit gun shy about that; its main cast changes in the past decade only came from Sonic Colors giving the villainous Dr. Eggman the comic duo of Orbot and Cubot, and the Sonic Boom cartoon introducing off-kilter conspiracy theorist Sticks the Badger. But that’s different from the series’ first fifteen years, where each main game would generally add one character, usually a Sonic knockoff with a specific fur color, haircut, and single personality trait. It started with child fox Tails in Sonic 2, who made sense; he was a necessary foil for the hero who provided an option for less skilled players to come along for the ride. Sonic 3 did a similar thing, giving Sonic a fully fledged rival in Knuckles the Echidna, but there was a noticeable difference: he was tougher, meaner, edgier. And that’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Sonic himself was an edgier alternative. But after three games (Sonic CD released before 3), someone new was needed to fill that role, and that’s where Knuckles came in.
I’m a believer that this, more than anything else, is the turning point for the series: the moment Sonic himself began inching ever closer to irrelevance and the series’ marketing focus served only to undermine his games. Knuckles signified a creative choice in which characters seemed to exist solely for demographic appeal or marketing potential, but in a way that was cheap, even patronizing to the very consumers it sought to court. Amy, who debuted earlier in Sonic CD, was constantly slotted into the role of the pink “girl” one, a love interest whose at times creepy obsession with Sonic superseded any other personality trait. Sonic Riders’ vain jock Jet the Hawk gave the franchise an element of extreme sports that was both a bit superfluous and entirely inevitable. Knuckles even got his own brand extension in femme fatale Rouge the Bat, and the “Team Chaotix” of Vector the Crocodile, Espio the Chameleon, and Charmy Bee was like a version of the Sonic-Tails-Knuckles trifecta from another universe.
And thus, Shadow. By the time 2001 rolled around, the Nineties “X-treme” attitude had petered out, and video game mascots with attitude – Gex the Gecko, Crash Bandicoot, Bubsy the Bobcat – were either changing to suit the times or (in most cases) falling into obscurity. Sonic was one of the few who managed to avoid changing too much, but the tropes that created him were out of vogue. In Sonic Adventure 2, though, Sonic Team created an out through a new rival. The self-described “ultimate lifeform” Shadow the Hedgehog was video games’ edgy alternative for the Bush years: black fur with frosted red tips, intensely antisocial, and carrying musical themes that alternated between hard rock and nu metal. Were he human, he’d wear a black trenchcoat and Slipknot T-shirt whilst perusing his local Hot Topic.
Shadow very quickly rode to being one of the most popular characters in the whole series (were I in the mood for puns, I’d joke about him hitting number two with a bullet), for a few reasons. He was the dramatic lynchpin of SA2, a possible clone of Sonic – or maybe the original hedgehog all along? – who sacrifices himself at the end to fight a monstrous serpent. The races and fights between him and Sonic were also some of the game’s most popular levels. But more than anything else, it was the attitude. Sonic may have been too fast for your square parents, but he was happy to be pals. Shadow absolutely did not give a damn about you, or anyone else, at least until the narrative demanded he finally sort of did. It got to the point where after the release of Sonic Heroes, he won a series poll from SEGA asking which character should star in a solo outing.
And like with so many other breakout characters, that promise was fulfilled when SEGA released a half-spinoff, half-sequel to the Sonic franchise for GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox in 2005. Though you wouldn’t think so playing it, Shadow the Hedgehog wasn’t some tossed out thing; it was a fully fledged project made by Sonic Team during the beginning of production of Sonic ‘06. But thirteen years after release, it’s hard to understand why. It’s a stupefyingly poor idea that lays out its problems right on the cover: a cute cartoon mascot looking angry, packing heat, and placed over an exploding background. It’s something deserving of an early Nineties superhero, not a fuzzy talking animal; even the intensely profane Conker’s Bad Fur Day didn’t go this far. It’s all tremendously embarrassing, to the point where the very first sound in the game – gunshots, for selecting options in the main menu – made me turn red and think twice about this project.
From the very start, the game front-loads its extreme edginess. Shadow – who, it needs to be stated, already runs as fast as Sonic – drives tanks and motorcycles to run down enemies. He can pick up handguns, assault rifles, traffic signs, and laster blasters to shoot not only evil alien invaders but the human soldiers fighting them – and in some of the game’s eleven endings, Sonic as well. He even curses, letting out a “damn…” when he dies and to punctuate how angry he is in cutscenes. In other words, Shadow the Hedgehog takes place in a version of Sonic that’s upside down. And that isn’t just figuratively; it puts the villainous options and stories on the left side for options and the top part of the story modes, implying it’s the “right” way to play.
To its credit, the central mechanic of Shadow – one it lifts from Sonic Adventure 2 – is fairly interesting in concept. You complete levels by following a good, evil, or neutral path. Outside the latter, which is exclusively about racing to the end of what are very linear stages, each direction (represented by a good or evil sidekick) demands you complete one of a few generic goals, generally along the lines of killing certain numbers of enemies or finding doodads scattered about. The way you complete each level determines where you go next on a six stage line to five potential final levels, with each one having two possible boss fights (except the neutral Lava Shelter, where you send Eggman “straight to hell” no matter whether you help him or not). With twenty-two stages in total and ten varied endings before the final story, there are a total of 326 potential paths in Shadow, each with a melodramatic title like “Punishment, Thy Name is Ruin,” “The Sealed-Away Ark of Sin,” or “The Day That Hope Died.”
The intent of presenting Shadow as a loner and rebel unfettered by the villainous Black Doom, less villainous Dr. Eggman, and heroic Sonic and friends, however, is undercut by how he’s really a sort of all-purpose lackey for the entire cast. The advertising claimed he’s a “hero or villain? You decide,” but his only options in each story are to either follow characters or wait to follow them. Whatever independence Sonic Team tries to present him as having – one story ends with him pouting “I and only I know what is best. No one can tell me what to do!” – doesn’t work when he’s just following someone else’s quest. Forget his absurd backstory involving alien DNA, robot clones, a confusing friendship with the President of the “United Federation,” and poorly represented PTSD; Shadow’s in search of a personality beyond a few edgy tropes.
This structure collapses even further when you realize how weak everything is underneath it, like a floor made of asbestos. Almost all the linear levels feel the same, and a few just copy a pre-existing one. The possibilities of a narrative with such diverging plotlines die the moment you realize the narrative makes absolutely no sense. And since the only way to hit the final story is to go through the plot at least ten times, with you inevitably revisiting a huge number of stages and fighting three stock bosses at the end, the replayability quickly becomes a chore. The attitude Shadow wants to present, this notion of being super edgy and not caring what anyone else things (albeit in a way that’s incredibly self-conscious), is ultimately damned by the game’s own attempts to let players express it. It’s like an idiotic Greek tragedy.
It certainly isn’t helped by what that expression entails; the gameplay is atrocious on the most basic levels. Like most of the series’ 3D outings, control over Shadow is limited at best. Turning the control stick slightly makes him careen left or right, the poor momentum of his jumps makes falling into one of the many bottomless pits easy, the camera works against him, the Homing Attack used for platforming is a gamble, and collision detection is vague. Even attempts to help, like how Shadow may stop himself at the edge of a platform before running into the abyss, or how you only lose life-saving rings in ranges of ten at a time instead of all at once, aren’t reliable. At times, it even seems out to antagonize you; some enemies needed for platforming can shoot you down as you jump into them, and the game almost certainly pushes Shadow into dangers when he runs, as though he’s secretly auto-targeting them. And yet it still acts like a precision platformer, with limited lives and comically high requirements for good rankings. I’ve been playing Bloodborne along with Shadow, and even a game built on intense, arduous difficulty feels fairer, easier, and more accessible at every turn.
Unsurprisingly, the main attraction of Shadow’s guns are poorly implemented, though not as much as the running and jumping. Auto-targeting is usually shaky – though the kind used by the enemies to shoot you is more consistent – but it’s the only option other than explosive artillery you can barely aim, or melee attacks that might cause you to clip into an enemy and die. The game wants you to pick up weapons on the fly, like Halo (a painfully clear influence, given how the game divides the realistic human and sci fi alien weapons), but they mostly feel the same. And while they could mitigate the issue of Sonic games giving bosses and enemies absurd amounts of health, it’s struggling to solve an unneeded problem. There’s no reason for Sonic enemies to have so much health that it chokes the series’ beloved speed.
As repetitive as it is, the rare times Shadow musters ambition are dangerous. A standout example is Cosmic Fall, one of the final levels that’s awful even amongst a smorgasbord of atrocious design. It involves Shadow escaping the falling debris of a collapsing space station, jumping from section to section in a goofy, flagrant abuse of physics. Except that it’s impossible to see or understand where you’re supposed to go next, the camera just…stops whenever you try to manually control it, enemies you’re supposed to use as platforms shoot you into the abyss during your jumps, and the ever increasing pile of lost lives utterly kills the momentum that should be building as you get closer to the story’s final boss. And that’s a boss in which you either take the good route and kill the evil Black Doom, or follow him in the evil route, only to ignore him and defeat Eggman non-lethally. Apparently Shadow sacrificing his independence to quietly protect humanity is an evil ending?
And that’s why I feel wholly vindicated in shellacking the “choose your own adventure” structure. The tale is straining for pathos, but bouncing around revelations about Shadow’s origins and nature doesn’t work. It should give a Rashomon-style scope in which each playthrough gives a new perspective, but instead they’re collections of jumbles. That some stages have bosses you fight regardless of which side you supported (leading to bizarre sequences in which Shadow will help a character, only to fight them immediately afterwards for no reason), and that enemies will always attack you regardless of whether you’re trying to help them or had done so in a previous stage, provides a clue for how slapdash the affair really is. It doesn’t help that the bad guy’s plan seems to change from dominating humanity to eradicating it depending on what path you take, or that Shadow himself is incredibly incoherent. This isn’t like a Telltale or BioWare game, which strive to create justifications for those shifts in personality; he’s just good, unless he decides to be bad, or bad, unless he decides to be good. It’s less complex or interesting than something you could put together in Twine in a half an hour.
And the thing with that Cosmic Fall example is that it’s only marginally the worst of the bunch; they’re almost all comparably bad. You have to either save Central City by blowing up twenty small bombs or eradicate it by blowing up five large ones, all under an absurd time limit and a loop-de-loop stage that does not work at all for that kind of exploratory mission. The “good” ending in Space Gadget is just doing the neutral one under a time limit, presumably because they couldn’t bother to come up with anything. The Doom asks you to find enemies or heal friendlies in a boring maze filled with indistinguishable hallways and rooms. Digital Circuit and Mad Matrix have Shadow, having shrunk himself into cyberspace, ride webs of data streams which mesh into an imperceptible collage of neon lights. Lava Shelter features level design so hideous I had to draw a picture to explain a single room to the Source Gaming Discord page:
The journalists who didn’t laugh cringed. A dark Sonic toting guns and shooting the fuzz was patently absurd, and a damning sign of how wrongheaded, contemptuous, and bereft of vision SEGA’s regard for its flagship brand really was. It sold 1.5 million copies, decent but sizably lesser than most mainline Sonic games, which can usually hit around two million. And there are people who genuinely like and defend the game, whether on the hill of its stone skipping level design, its score (which I found entirely forgettable), or its drama. But Shadow the Hedgehog was instantly a black mark, rarely referenced again by the games outside a couple music tracks, most commonly the ludicrously titled “All Hail Shadow.” Even Sonic ‘06 is given a sort of damned pedestal as the iconic “worst” Sonic game; I get the sense most fans are more embarrassed about the project than anything else.
As for the eponymous hedgehog himself, Shadow now occupies an odd place in the franchise. He’s undeniably the most popular character in the series after Sonic and by extension has to reliably appear, but his edginess is incredibly divisive, and since the game there’s a noticeable cheekiness in how he’s presented. His story in Sonic ‘06 threatened to eclipse Sonic’s, Generations and Forces played with him reverting back to his antagonistic start, and the Sonic Boom show treated him as a (rather funny) joke, a comically intense rival who was nonetheless Sonic’s only threatening opponent.
Ultimately, though, I’m left with an insecurity that the game was much of an outlier at all. Certainly the guns, amorality, and cursing were over the top in a way that makes it feel like a deranged film fiasco, something more like Zardoz (which is, coincidentally, also fetishistic of firearms) than a Sonic game. But I also feel like something close to it it was inevitable. It’s clear SEGA has no concrete idea of what they want Sonic to be beyond a commercial enterprise. Sonic Colors, Generations, and Mania are good – and it’s telling that the latter, one of the most well regarded games in the franchise’s history, was made by fans turned pros instead of the multiple studios that make up “Sonic Team” – but they were surrounded by non-starters like Sonic 4, Lost World, Boom, and Forces. The only constants seem to be weird attempts at reboots and spinoffs, most of which die on the vine. That’s not a way to make something that endures. And while Sonic’s history looks brighter after Sonic Mania than it has in years, I can only assume we’ll have more misguided disasters to come. Maybe that’s part of why it’s embarrassing; it happened before, and it likely will happen again.