In the year 1993, a game named Virtua Fighter debuted in arcades worldwide. Created by Yu Suzuki, a member of Sega’s second arcade game development division (Sega AM2), Virtua Fighter became a gigantic success – both commercially and critically. What particularly stood out was its presentation. Whereas many pioneering fighting games used two-dimensional sprites to depict its characters, Virtua Fighter featured three-dimensional polygon graphics. For braving the world of 3D gaming a before it became the standard and offering a level of complexity few contemporaries possessed, Virtua Fighter continues to be praised to this very day with some calling it one of the most influential titles of all time.
During this time, Sega was experiencing a lot of success in the home console market as well. Their 1991 breakout title, Sonic the Hedgehog, gave them a character capable of standing on even ground with Nintendo’s own mascot Mario. With Sonic as Sega’s mascot, the company sought to give him spinoff titles to demonstrate the character’s versatility as well as capitalize on the character’s popularity. Yu Suzuki once spotted one of his subordinates having created a model of Sonic during the creation of another fighting game entitled Fighting Vipers. This gave Mr. Suzuki the idea for a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game, which he presented to Hiroshi Kataoka – a fellow head of the division. This, in turn, caused Mr. Kataoka to approach Yuji Naka, the leader of Sonic Team with the idea. Although Mr. Naka expressed concern that Sonic couldn’t fight given his large head and short arms, he was won over by the polygon animations provided by Mr. Suzuki’s team.
With Sonic Team’s approval, Mr. Suzuki and the rest of AM2 began developing a fighting game for Sega’s blue hedgehog. The result, Sonic the Fighters, was released to domestic arcades in June of 1996 before appearing in North America a month later under the name Sonic Championship. However, despite starring a popular character, the game quickly fell into obscurity due to its limited release in the West. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the game received a greater amount of attention. In that year, Sega released a compilation dubbed Sonic Gems Collection, which most notably included Sonic the Hedgehog CD – a popular game that was highly difficult to find at the time. Sonic the Fighters also featured on that compilation. Between the release of Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Gems Collection, Nintendo, with the help of HAL Laboratory, conceived a fighting game starring their own mascot named Super Smash Bros. With Sonic having a three-year head start over Mario in this genre, was Sega able to successfully explore new ground?
Analyzing the Experience
A detective chameleon named Espio has sent a message to Miles “Tails” Prower and Sonic the Hedgehog. The nefarious Doctor Eggman is planning yet another scheme to take over the world. Making use of his new superweapon, the Death Egg II, he has sent a battalion of robots to invade Earth. In response, Tails and Sonic have constructed a rocket capable of transporting them directly to the Death Egg II.
However, there are two problems with this proposition. To begin with, the rocket requires eight Chaos Emeralds to power. Because there are traditionally seven in existence, this would seem to put an end to Sonic and Tails’s counterattack before it had a chance to begin. This turns out to not be an issue, as an eighth Chaos Emerald has spawned into existence for the purposes of maintaining the plot’s integrity. Otherwise, the far more pressing issue is that the rocket is only has enough room for a single person. The emeralds are scattered around the world with Sonic and his friends each guarding one. The eight of them decide the only way to determine who gets to board the rocket is to start a fighting tournament. The winner receives the opportunity to save Earth from Dr. Eggman.
Having been made by the same team, Sonic the Fighters proudly flaunts its Virtua Fighter influences. This becomes evident before the game even begins through an examination of the cabinet’s control panel. Each player is afforded a joystick and three distinct action buttons. The joystick’s purpose is self-explanatory, and as is typical for this genre, one performs a jump by directing it an upward direction. The purpose of each button is straightforward as well. Sonic the Fighters features a button dedicated to punching, kicking, and blocking.
This game has a roster consisting of eight different characters. Six of them, Sonic the Hedgehog, Tails, Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Rose, Fang the Sniper, and Espio the Chameleon, all featured in previous installments. The remaining two, Bean the Dynamite and Bark the Polar Bear, were created by AM2 themselves – the former being inspired by the Sega’s own 1989 arcade game Dynamite Düx. They were conceived at the behest of Mr. Naka himself, which led Mr. Suzuki to muse that anyone attempting to make a Sonic the Hedgehog game is obligated to create new characters.
Irrespective of the character you choose, the basic goal is the same. Your character and your opponent’s both have a stamina gauge. When one character’s gauge is depleted, they are knocked out and the winner is awarded a point. After obtaining enough points, your character will be made to fight the next opponent immediately. Unlike in Virtua Fighter, you cannot win by throwing your opponent out of the ring. You either have to win via knockout or by decision. Given the generous time limit you’re afforded and the fast-paced nature of the gameplay, the latter scenario is unlikely to occur.
Despite each character supposedly guarding a Chaos Emerald, your own character inexplicably doesn’t have one. It is obtained through a mirror match, which is instigated by Dr. Eggman cloning your character on the spot. This raises the question of why the clone, which is created as soon as the match begins, has it when your character never did. Regardless, you will need to fight eight opponents in order to reach the Death Egg II. Once you do, your character will face off against Metal Sonic. Because it simply wouldn’t do to have a creation as grandiose as the Death Egg II survive the loss of a major villain, defeating Metal Sonic will cause the space station to self-destruct. During your character’s flight, they will need to fight Dr. Eggman himself.
Each character in the roster has unique abilities. Sonic is naturally the quickest character while Knuckles forgoes finesse in favor of punching his opponents. The characters, particularly from the mainline games, often retain their unique abilities in Sonic the Fighters – many of which are decidedly unusual for this genre. Sonic himself is capable of executing the signature spin dash ability that first appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 while his best friend Tails can lift his opponent into the air and drop them. The latter is especially potent due to being nearly impossible to block.
Sonic the Fighters also stands out from contemporary fighting games in that many of the characters have weapons. Fang, true to his moniker, uses a gun. Although said ordinance fires corks rather than live bullets, they damage the opponent’s stamina gauge all the same. Bean, living up to his own sobriquet and inspiration, uses bombs to attack enemies. In fact, this game marks the first appearance of Amy Rose’s Piko Piko Hammer. It was modeled after a type of children’s toy popular in Japan and its namesake is derived from the onomatopoeia used to describe the chirping sound they make when they strike an object. Interestingly, Sonic the Fighters, despite bearing a cartoonish appearance, realizes that a weapon does not discriminate. That is to say, your character can potentially steal their opponent’s weapon and use it against them. Amusingly, you can potentially have your character take one of Bean’s bombs and place it in his mouth whereupon it explodes. It’s something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Looney Tunes short.
Although the animations are often amusing and fit with the general tone of the series, it doesn’t take long before the novelty wears off. The single most debilitating flaw of Sonic the Fighters is that it’s far too easy. This was an intentional design choice on AM2’s part. Whenever characters get struck in this game, rings fly out from their grasp. In the mainline games, rings are an analogue to coins from the Mario franchise. They serve a slightly different purpose in that taking damage with at least one ring in hand prevents you from losing a life. In Sonic the Fighters, the rings serve no practical purpose at all. They’re only used to gauge how much damage your character takes. The developers contemplated the idea of allowing players to pick them up to restore their character’s health, but eventually opted against it.
Similarly, the controls are greatly simplified from what one would expect from a contemporary fighting game. Although it has a similar button layout as Virtua Fighter, the gameplay eventually devolves into a mindless button mashing affair. There really isn’t much point to including eight different characters possessing unique movesets if you can just press the attack button of your choice until you win. Unfortunately, that is indeed a viable tactic in this game. If the artificial intelligence is acting particularly daft, you can potentially win solely by pressing the punch button. With one exception, characters don’t react quick enough to your attacks as long as you don’t relent. Considering that the point of a fighting game is to be able to make snap decisions in response to what your opponent is doing, Sonic the Fighters completely misses the point of the genre.
It also doesn’t help that Sonic the Fighters is horribly balanced. While certain fighters could give the player trouble, even those who breezed through all of them will hit a brick wall in the form of Metal Sonic. He can react to your every move with nearly perfect precision. Worst of all, if you break his shields, he retaliates with a corkscrew attack that can’t be blocked at all. If you want any chance of winning, you better hope you land more than a few lucky strikes. Otherwise, you will need to spend a lot of quarters. It is a little ironic that Sonic the Fighters was intended for beginners, for the mechanic-breaking brutality Metal Sonic displays wouldn’t feel out of place in the final phases of an SNK game.
The game itself seems to disregard this anomalous spike in difficulty immediately afterwards in the fight against Dr. Eggman. Despite having only seconds before the Death Egg II explodes, he decides to take your character down with him. There are only two factors that make this fight even remotely challenging: the fifteen-second time limit and your inability to retry if you fail. Otherwise, this is the single easiest fight in the game because he can only execute two incredibly basic moves. Also, your character is being empowered by the Chaos Emeralds. This means you can, as usual, simply repeatedly hit an attack button with impunity until the mad doctor falls. Although it is a little cathartic after the grueling battle against Metal Sonic, its placement in only serves to remind players how mindless the game is as a whole.
Drawing a Conclusion
I like to think of Sonic the Fighters as the fighting game equivalent of Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Square’s effort was intended to ease beginners into the role-playing experience so they could get an idea of what the genre constituted before handling trickier games. However, this proposition backfired because when it came to providing a simple experience, the team succeeded too well. Because there was little stopping players from using their best techniques at all times, newcomers would be liable to pick up bad habits from using it a tutorial. Sonic the Fighters has a similar problem. Theoretically, the standard tropes and idioms of the genre are there; you can time specific joystick movements and button presses in order to execute special moves just like in the pioneering Street Fighter II. In practice, you can resolve most conflicts in this game by pressing the punch button until your opponent is knocked out. Any beginner attempting learn how to play fighting games through Sonic the Fighters would be in for a nasty wake-up call upon trying out anything Capcom or SNK had to offer at the time.
The only true advantage Sonic the Fighters has going for it aside from the excellent music is its presentation. Even if the polygons are a little dated, there is a lot of personality that comes through in these fights, and having a cartoonish brawler made for an interesting change of pace from the gritty ones popular in the West at the time. However, neither of these aspects salvage what is an utterly mindless experience that even those who have never touched a fighting game in their lives could complete in thirty minutes. Because you are fully capable of mashing the attack buttons until your opponent falls regardless of which character you choose, there isn’t even any replay value to be found. Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog may find it mildly amusing for a brief moment, but otherwise, there are countless other fighting games that much worthier of your time.
Final Score: 2/10