Following the Dreamcast’s discontinuation in 2001, Sega’s future seemed uncertain. Fans were particularly concerned over the fate of their expansive Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Their fears were ultimately assuaged when a port for the latest game, Sonic Adventure 2, was announced for the Nintendo GameCube. It is nearly impossible to overstate how many shockwaves this development sent through the gaming sphere. An entire generation of enthusiasts had grown up knowing of the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. By the end of the year Sega pulled out of the console race, Sonic Team found themselves porting their latest work to their former rival’s console.
Because of this, for enthusiasts who had grown up with Nintendo consoles, Sonic Adventure 2 wound up being their gateway entry. As if to prove this wasn’t an elaborate joke, an original 2D platforming game by the name of Sonic Advance emerged for Nintendo’s newest Game Boy model. Both games were well received by these new fans. Over the next few years, this was followed up by a GameCube port of the original Sonic Adventure dubbed Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, a sequel to Sonic Advance, and Sonic Mega Collection – the last of which being a compilation new fans could use to play the series’ generation-defining Genesis installments. Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog then breathed a sigh of relief as the future of the franchise seemed secure.
During all of this, they began to speculate on what the next Sonic console installment would look like. Their answer came in the form of a project dubbed Sonic Heroes. It was being developed by the San Francisco-based Sonic Team USA – a crew consisting of nineteen members – to commemorate the series’ twelfth anniversary. The first few screenshots showed several returning characters from the Sonic franchise – including some such as Big the Cat, who had only appeared in one installment by that point. The project was led by mainstay producer Yuji Naka and director Takashi Iizuka. Mr. Iizuka stated in interviews that he didn’t want Sonic Heroes to be a sequel to Sonic Adventure 2. He was worried only fans of the series would buy the game and he wanted it to draw in a new audience. To this end, he desired to return to a gameplay style similar to that of the Genesis installments.
Furthermore, to reach as many people as possible, Sonic Heroes was to be the series’ first cross-platform installment, slated to see a release on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. In order for this to be possible, Sonic Team opted against using tools built by Sega, instead partnering with Criterion Software. The RenderWare engine would allow the game to be programmed and ported to each platform with ease. They were able to use some textures and models from the two Sonic Adventure installments, but most of the game ended up being built from scratch. The biggest problem that plagued development stemmed from having to work with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, consoles with which they had little experience. Mr. Iizuka and Mr. Naka briefly considered including content exclusive to certain versions, but ultimately decided it would be for the best for everyone to have the same experience.
Twenty months after they started, the game was released domestically in December of 2003 before emerging in North America in January of 2004 and PAL regions the following February. Though fans by and large enjoyed the Sonic Adventure installments, the reception to Sonic Heroes was decidedly mixed. Particularly unimpressed were those who purchased the PlayStation 2 version, as technical difficulties forced Sonic Team to make the game run at thirty frames per second. By contrast, it ran at sixty frames per second in the other two versions. Discounting this particular issue, critics felt that the game, while lacking the issues of the Sonic Adventure titles, were still well below the quality of the universally beloved Genesis installments. However, criticism toward Sonic Heroes lessened over the years, and it is now considered a decent effort. Being the first Sonic the Hedgehog console game to be conceived by Sega as a third-party developer, exactly how well has it held up? Did they manage to put their best foot forward after a tumultuous period?
Analyzing the Experience
Six months have passed since the events of Sonic Adventure 2. Sonic the Hedgehog, accompanied by his allies Miles “Tails” Prower and Knuckles the Echidna, receive a letter from the nefarious Doctor Eggman. He claims to have an ultimate weapon and intends to use it to take over the world. Not wishing to allow Eggman’s dreams of conquest come to fruition, the trio sets out to stop him.
Meanwhile, Amy Rose, a hedgehog infatuated with Sonic is relaxing on the beach with Cream the Rabbit and Big the Cat. Cream’s pet Chao, Cheese, has lost his twin brother Chocola. Big is missing his own companion, a frog simply named Froggy. They have been led to believe by a newspaper article that Sonic has kidnapped both Chocola and Froggy. The three of them then team up to rescue their friends.
Elsewhere, a treasure hunting bat named Rouge sneaks into Doctor Eggman’s base after hearing he has been accumulating valuables. To her shock, she happens upon Shadow the Hedgehog, whom she was certain saw perish saving the Earth from destruction. As she awakens Shadow, she also inadvertently activates E-123 Omega, a robot hell-bent on assassinating Doctor Eggman as revenge for sealing him up in the base. Upon activation, Omega targets Shadow, believing him to be a robot. Realizing all of their problems lead to Eggman, Rouge breaks up the fight. From there, they decide to collectively track down the mad doctor.
As all of this is going on, the Chaotix Detective Agency is experiencing a slow day. Its leader, Vector the Crocodile is listening to music when Charmy the Bee comes crashing into the office with a mysterious package. He claims they have a new client, and asks Vector to open the package. Inside is a walkie-talkie with a stranger promising a high-paying job for the three detectives for hire. Though the agency’s third member, Espio the Chameleon, expresses doubt about the validity of their client, he soon realizes nothing he says will dissuade his teammates and reluctantly heads out with them.
Before you’re properly thrust into the game, you’re asked to select a team. In this regard, Sonic Heroes is similar to its predecessor, Sonic Adventure 2. Unlike Sonic Adventure 2, each team is made to go through the same fourteen stages. The difference lies not in what they are, but the challenges presented to the teams. Sonic leads his eponymous team through high-speed stages interlaced with occasional action sequences. Rouge leads Team Dark through fourteen brutally challenging stages guaranteed to test the skills of anyone who plays through them. As the leader of Team Rose, Amy’s campaign takes her through abridged versions of the fourteen stages intended to serve as an introduction for newcomers. Finally, as head of Team Chaotix, Vector is tasked by his mysterious client to fulfill specific objectives.
Though the stage layout varies between campaigns, the gameplay is cast from the same mold. It is a platforming affair that distinguishes itself from its predecessors by having you control three characters at once. Each character plays an integral role and the team’s dynamics change depending on who you assign to be the leader.
Sonic, Shadow, Amy, and Espio are Speed Type characters. As the type’s name suggests, these characters are the quickest members of their respective teams. By jumping in the air, you can execute a homing attack by pressing the control stick in the direction of an enemy and tapping the appropriate button. They can also conjure a miniature whirlwind, allowing them to navigate poles. The Speed Formation is reminiscent of the games in which players had the option of having Tails accompany Sonic for their playthrough. The Speed character moves on their own accord followed by their teammates.
Tails, Rouge, Cream, and Charmy are Fly Type characters. Intuitively, these team members have the ability to fly for short distances. The corresponding formation involves the Fly character lifting the other two in a vertical chain. When in this formation, they can execute the Thunder Shoot attack. This stuns airborne enemies, causing them to crash into the ground. Though it’s not particularly powerful, it allows for a cautious approach due to its range.
Knuckles, Omega, Big, and Vector are Power Type characters. As you will quickly learn thanks to a health gauge appearing whenever they’re struck, enemies in Sonic Heroes are markedly more durable than their counterparts in older games. You can’t mindlessly spam the Speed character’s homing attack and expect to get anywhere. This is where the raw strength of the Power characters comes into play. The formation indicated by the teammates standing side-by-side, Power can be used to inflict heavy damage on enemies – including ones the others couldn’t even scratch. They can also enter a gliding formation with their teammates, slowing their descent or even ascending should they catch an updraft in this state.
Despite a radical change in gameplay, the core mechanics of Sonic Heroes are similar to those of a typical installment. Though you control three characters at once, it is only the safety of the team leader you must concern yourself with. The other two characters will, without fail, catch up to the leader even if you see them falling into bottomless pits. Numerous rings litter a stage, and in the event that the leader takes damage, the team will drop them all. Should the leader take damage with no rings in reserve, they will be defeated, causing you to lose a life.
Throughout a given stage, you can collect orbs corresponding to the color of each character type. Collecting them allows said character to level up. This increases their combat proficiency and potentially grants them new abilities. For example, if sufficiently leveled up, Fly characters can also damage enemies with their Thunder Shoot attack. These upgrades are lost between stages or upon losing a life. The maximum amount of times a character can level up in a single stage is three. These upgrades can also be obtained by having a team leader cross a checkpoint. By fighting enemies, a meter on the top-right corner of the screen begins to fill. Once it is completely full, your characters can execute a “team blast”, decimating all enemies in the vicinity.
Though the Sonic Adventure games were liked by fans, they did receive a fair share of criticism. Sonic’s and Shadow’s stages were universally praised, but the reaction to the other characters’ stages was a bit more divided. Both installments had characters whose objectives involved scouring large stages in search of three items required to advance the plot. As these kinds of stages were a far cry from the high-speed platforming on which the series built its identity, many argued it caused serious pacing issues. Featuring similar gameplay across all of the teams appears to have been an attempt to address this issue. Indeed, the most heavily criticized styles are nowhere to be seen here. Considering Mr. Iizuka wanted Sonic Heroes to feature gameplay akin to the Genesis installments, it would stand to reason that he would excise the extraneous styles in favor of crafting a uniform, focused experience.
Now that the important pieces have been established, the next question concerns how successful Sonic Team was in their goal. One thing I will give them credit for is that the gameplay, on its surface, is quite inventive. Part of the appeal of the franchise was when more characters were introduced, and with them came a treasure trove of new abilities. When Tails debuted, his ability to fly allowed players to reach platforms that were otherwise out of reach. Though Knuckles couldn’t jump as high as Sonic or Tails, his ability to glide and scale walls changed how players went about exploring levels. Therefore, playing as all three at once is a great way of allowing their strengths to shine. If you need a certain character for a given situation, there’s no need to start the game over from the beginning – with the press of a button, you can switch right to them.
Unfortunately, when I said that’s one thing I give them credit for, I actually mean it’s the only substantial compliment I can pay Sonic Heroes. Whether it’s in 2D or 3D, a platforming game lives or dies based off of its controls, and Sonic Heroes provides players with some of the slipperiest controls the series had known by this point in history. Whenever characters bounced around on springs or were made to grind rails, I was very worried they would careen into the abyss below. The fact that such situations occurred countless times did nothing to assuage my apprehension. A lot of people who play this game criticize the Fly formation for being slow, but I often found it was the only way to have a reasonable amount of control over my characters.
It’s not just when negotiating precarious platforms that you’ll notice the flaws of the physics engine. There are several instances in which you’ll find a locked, translucent box containing an item needed to proceed. The only way to open them is to defeat all of the onscreen enemies. Though this isn’t an unreasonable requirement by itself, what makes it untenable is how often you’re required to fight several enemies on platforms only barely large enough to sustain all of the combatants. Logic would dictate that the best way to deal with these enemies is to switch to the Power character. However, because the platforms are often so narrow and it can even become difficult to tell where the enemies are at times, don’t be surprised if you find the Power characters’ attacks launching themselves over the edge into a bottomless pit.
There is something of a safety net whenever your characters reach the edge of a platform in that they stop in their tracks as they reach it. However, the Power characters’ attacks usually override this safeguard, rendering it moot. Whenever I had to fight multiple enemies on narrow platforms, I defaulted to the Power character’s stationary attack regardless of how cumbersome it was.
Then again, even if you exercise caution, you may still see your characters tumbling into pits time and again. This is because when knocked back, your characters don’t always obey the laws of physics. When I played the game, there were a few examples in which my characters got hit with an attack only to fly in the opposite direction into a bottomless pit. Because of these flaws, I lost far more lives due to falling out of the stage than as the result of a well-timed enemy attack.
Nonetheless, just because the bottomless pits proved to be more troublesome doesn’t mean the enemies weren’t a threat. It is a standard feature of several games that if your character takes damage, they become invincible for a few seconds. Sonic Heroes would appear to be no exception, but there’s one aspect that negates the goodwill. Whenever your character gets hit with an attack, it takes a few seconds for them to get back on their feet. The timeframe of the character’s invincibility begins as soon as they get hit rather than the second they stand up. This means it’s possible to take a hit only for the enemy to double tap your fallen character before you even get a chance to move them – a frustratingly common occurrence when fighting large opponents.
Given that your teammates can gather rings even when you’re not directly controlling them, one would expect picking at least one up without trying to be a simple task. Incredibly, this is seldom the case. This is because the rings themselves have very biased hitboxes. Basically, unless you guide your character into a ring’s exact center, it doesn’t count. Exacerbating matters is that whenever you get hit, the rings bounce on the ground. How high they bounce depends on the altitude of your characters when they took damage. This leads to incredible amounts of irritation should you position your characters underneath where you think the rings will land only for the game to declare that your efforts don’t count.
Part of the reason why these issues get out of hand has to do with the game’s unworkable camera. To be fair, this flaw isn’t unprecedented. Even the game that started it all was saddled with a glitch which deducted one life should Sonic go too fast for the screen to keep up and touch the bottom of the screen. Ever since the series attempted to make the 3D leap along with everyone else, having a freeform camera typically clashed with the series’ quick gameplay. In Sonic Adventure and its sequel, players typically had little control over the camera. It usually didn’t matter, however, as Sonic’s stages were almost entirely linear, making the camera’s tendency to face one direction tolerable. Furthermore, the players typically had enough control over the camera in non-linear stages that it wasn’t an issue then either.
Therefore, what the camera of Sonic Heroes manages to do is magnify a flaw that the series always had, making it impossible to overlook this time around. Though players have some degree of control over the camera, it often reverts to its default position once they begin moving the characters. Particularly strange is the inclusion of a first-person view. Though it could make examining certain areas easier, it is mostly unnecessary – something that becomes painfully obvious should you activate it by accident. The little control players have over the camera wouldn’t be so bad if all stages were fully linear like Sonic’s in Sonic Adventure, but this is rarely the case.
This leads to another problem with the game. Though the quality of the non-Sonic stages in Sonic Adventure is a point of contention, they at least had a consistent sense of pacing. The same can’t be said of the average level in Sonic Heroes. You will find yourself running through loops at Mach-3 as the Speed character only to come to a dead stop and fight multiple enemies as the Power character to progress. I can appreciate throwing variety into the gameplay, but if you’re going to do that, it still needs focus to work. As it stands, the level design feels like the result of the developers haphazardly gluing snippets of completely different games together.
It is through the simple act of switching characters that one particularly irritating aspect makes itself known. That is to say, the voice acting is horrendous. Admittedly, it’s far from the worst I’ve heard, but it is extremely grating hearing “Leave it to me”, “I’ll take it from here”, or “Got it” every single time you change the leader. You’re even forced to hear characters belt out the same lines whenever you make them perform certain techniques. To wit, Charmy yells “Here we go!” as he carries his two teammates.
Moreover, the characters can’t seem to go a whole minute opening their mouths – often electing to point out the painstakingly obvious. Hearing these lines the first time isn’t so bad, but after dying multiple times, you’ll wish there was an option to mute the voices. At the same time, there are certain stages where they give out legitimately helpful advice. This means that as dire as these acting performances are, you are compelled, if not obligated, to pay attention to them. Otherwise, one would be forgiven for playing the entire game with the television muted.
So far, I’ve highlighted more than a few aspects that could be used to condemn Sonic Heroes as a subpar experience, but I’d say its Achilles’s heel concerns what must be done to achieve the best ending. Before I can say what it is, I feel it’s appropriate to establish the proper context. Since the series’ inception, seven magical gemstones known as Chaos Emeralds have played an important role in the backstory. Having little story to speak of, the original trilogy offered them as prizes for completing bonus stages. In the event that a player was skilled enough to collect them all, they would be presented with a better ending. Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 distinguished themselves from their 2D predecessors by having the heroes collect the Chaos Emeralds as part of the plot. Consequently, players were only required to complete each campaign to achieve the best ending.
What Sonic Heroes expects out of players in order for them to unlock the final scenario combines both methods in a way that fails to grasp why either one worked in their respective games. The first requirement is to complete all four campaigns. Criticizing having to see all of what a game offers before being given an ending may seem like an odd decision, but I assure you it’s a real issue. This is because three of the four campaigns are too similar to each other.
The only substantial difference between the scenarios of Team Sonic, Team Dark, and Team Rose is the difficulty level. As such, it’s best to think of them as “normal”, “hard”, and “easy” difficulty levels than as fully fledged scenarios in their own right. Though I can appreciate developers seeking to capture the broadest audience possible, what Sonic Heroes essentially does is force players to conduct three playthroughs of the same game on all three difficulty levels before they’re allowed to see the true ending. I purposely saved Team Rose’s scenario for last only to be taken aback when the game forced me to play though the tutorial stage. That I was able to persevere through Team Dark’s campaign beforehand clearly meant nothing.
Team Choatix’s scenario is reminiscent of the extra missions from Sonic Adventure 2, which involved having to fulfill odd objectives to clear the stages. Being the most substantially different from the other three scenarios, one might believe it to be a reprieve from the tediousness the rest of the game entails. In practice, it doesn’t fare any better. Oftentimes, you’re made to collect a certain number of items, and the stage just ends abruptly once you have. In other cases, the mission is merely a fancier way of saying that the objective is to reach the end of the stage. The most insufferable mission in the game involves extinguishing torches in a haunted house. If you miss even one, you have to comb the entire rest of the stage again to try to find it. It’s not as though these are short stages either. After factoring in failed attempts, it’s very easy to spend more than thirty minutes attempting to clear one level. This is quite a contrast from the classic Genesis entries wherein lingering in a level for ten minutes would kill your character on the spot. Strangely, in the early development phases, they intended to have six different teams, thus giving us eighteen playable characters. I can only speculate how that could have possibly worked when four turned out to be too many.
After clearing every campaign, your next goal is to collect the seven Chaos Emeralds. Unlike Sonic Adventure and its sequel, the all-important gemstones are not discovered by the protagonists as part of the plot; instead, they must be obtained as prizes in bonus stages. This by itself isn’t an unreasonable requirement, and it even harks back to the series’ early entries. Unfortunately, getting to the special stages is more of an involved process than just collecting fifty rings and jumping into a portal that appears over the checkpoints. Every so often, you’ll find a key in a cage. If you retain possession of the key until you reach the goal, you will be taken to the bonus stage. This is easier said than done, for your character will drop the key if hit with an enemy attack. Unlike the rings, you don’t get a chance to recover it; once it’s gone, it’s gone. Given how easy it is for enemies to take you by surprise, this is tremendously difficult – especially with Team Dark, whose stages are drawn out to absurd degrees.
When you finally get a key to the end of the stage, you’ll learn your troubles have only just begun. To begin with, the Chaos Emeralds only appear in even-numbered special stages. This means if you thought to try to get one in the often easier odd-numbered one, you’re out of luck. Your characters are placed in a transparent, cylindrical tube containing spheres and spikes. The object is to simply catch up to the emerald. By collecting the spheres, you fill up a power meter. By amassing enough power, you characters can dash quickly for a brief duration.
These special stages are similar to those of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. They were my least favorite of the Genesis era because it involved a lot of trial-and-error. However, as irritating as they were, the ones in Sonic Heroes are a significant step down. Like the rest of the game, the special stages only magnify just how poorly implemented the controls are. It’s difficult to describe unless one has played the game for themselves, but the motions you need to go through to have your characters navigate the walls of the pipe often don’t match up with what you’re seeing. You could push what you think is the right direction only for your characters to come to a dead stop for no reason.
The worst part about all of this is that you don’t get a second chance. If you fail to get the emerald, your only recourse is to clear the stage again. This means collecting the key and taking it to the end without getting hit. In Sonic the Hedgehog 2, you theoretically had as many tries as there were checkpoints. Meanwhile, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 featured giant rings that would instantly take you to the special stages. If you failed, you could simply reload your save file and try again. What Sonic Heroes does is pad the game out with its tediously designed stages only to impose more busywork upon players in the form of the Chaos Emeralds. Filler is usually intolerable at the best of times; placing it in a series famous for its fast pacing is inexcusable.
The plot isn’t compelling enough to motivate players to seeing the task through either. It does theoretically have a creative twist in that the main antagonist is Metal Sonic. He has turned on his creator, Doctor Eggman, and impersonates him throughout the game. In fact, the real Eggman is Team Chaotix’s mysterious client. I do like how Vector figures out his identity almost immediately, but I feel the writers tipped their hand when setting up the twist. In one of Team Chaotix’s boss battles, Eggman reacts to one of Vector’s insults. Even worse, Metal Sonic appears in certain cutscenes long before the reveal, and it’s easy to read between the lines and deduce that he is behind everything. In short, the reward for clearing all of the campaigns and getting the seven Chaos Emeralds is like seeing a film after everyone you know has given away all of the twists. You’re just waiting for the pieces to fall exactly where you know they’ll land. It may sound underwhelming all around, and that’s because it is.
Drawing a Conclusion
Sonic Heroes is a classic example of a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Mr. Iizuka stated that he wanted to return the series to its roots, yet the game he and his team created is so far removed from what allowed the classic Genesis installments to shine, I find it difficult to believe they studied them extensively. Sonic Adventure and its sequel may not have been the greatest games in the franchise, but they proved the series could work in 3D. Between its unwieldly controls, terrible pacing, and multiple bouts of spotty programming, one wouldn’t get that impression from playing Sonic Heroes. It’s a shame that it turned out as poorly as it did because I remember enjoying the demo included on the Mario Kart: Double Dash bonus disc. As it stands, the rest of Sonic Heroes didn’t have that level of quality, and it remains one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever played.
Despite all of this, a select number of fans have felt Sonic Heroes is worthy of the same brand of retrospective vindication titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night received, believing it to provide a decent experience. In most of these cases, the vindication is granted to an underrated gem that, for one reason or another, was left to fall out of the public consciousness. Barring that, I have seen a few instances wherein an otherwise middle-of-the-road game was granted goodwill from its improved sequels. I suspect how Sonic Heroes came to be viewed favorably in hindsight in some circles falls into a third category. With truly abhorrent titles such as the 2006 version of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, Sonic Heroes doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. However, as a critic, I steadfastly believe being better than the worst doesn’t retroactively make a bad work good. Even with the foreknowledge that Sonic Heroes wouldn’t be considered the series’ nadir for long, there’s no denying how in 2003, it was indeed the weakest installment in the core series.
With the myriad reasons to condemn it, I cannot recommend a playthrough of Sonic Heroes at all. It would take a truly astonishing amount of devotion to the series to overlook all of its grievances and appreciate the few things it does well. Around this time, Sonic fans began to regularly accuse the critics of being biased against the franchise. Though bias would become a major problem with the gaming critical circle over the next few years, their lukewarm reaction to Sonic Heroes was entirely justifiable.
Final Score: 3/10