Sonic Jam - "Sonic Heroes" (2003)
"What goes up, must come down," croons Johnny Gioeli in the opening cinematic of Sonic Heroes. Those words ring true for the game's star. Sonic's heyday was over. The Dreamcast was dead. Sega was struggling to put out relevant games as a third-party developer. Sonic and Sega, those tragic, star-crossed figures with fates too entangled for their own good, were in a bad place. At the very least, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle had done well enough as an early Gamecube exclusive to give them time to pump money into another Sonic game.
With the Adventure formula doing well enough for Sonic Team, they decided that 3D was the route they wanted to keep taking with the franchise. And on paper, all the pieces for a good game were there. A plot that involved teams of different Sonic characters racing against each other, coupled with diverging campaigns that offered potential twists on the gameplay, depending on who the player chose. It would be done on a new generation of consoles, too, which gave Sonic Team ample opportunities to push the 3D Sonic formula to the next level - better controls, polished physics, nice visuals.
For all intents and purposes, a 3D Sonic game on the GameCube (the lead platform,) PlayStation 2 and Xbox should've been cause for celebration. Which isn't to say it wasn't for a lot of people, namely small children. There was a pretty big marketing campaign behind this game, and it was a pretty effective one. Almost every kid I knew at the time wanted the game, had a copy laying around, or played it at a friend's house.
I was one of the kids in the last party. Two of my best friends, when I was about ten, had a copy of Sonic Heroes, and every time I came over to their house I played some. You have to remember that this was a point in time that whenever I saw Sonic in a game, I loved it. I hadn't yet grown an inkling of critical introspection yet. The idea of "good" and "bad" games was alien to me. There were Mario games, Zelda games, and Sonic games, and Sonic games were second only to Zelda - meaning they still totally ruled. So I loved Sonic Heroes. Played the hell out of that copy that I didn't own, watched my friends play their own save files.
I mention this sensation of not knowing what "good" and "bad" games are because it's integral to my overall take on Sonic Heroes. See, we all have those games, I think. My girlfriend, for example, talked about playing the mess out of a Gex game on the N64, not ever consciously thinking about whether or not it was "good." To her, it was a video game, and video games were good things, so that game was probably a good thing. When she watched some of that same game on YouTube, she lost her shit laughing at how she ever thought it was good. I think this sensation is something that happens to a lot of kids who played games growing up. We sunk ungodly amounts of hours into bad games not because we actually liked them, but because they're video games. As we grow up and stop playing those games, we remember those games as being "good," because we played a lot of them. Sometimes, I think that's for the best. I really wish I hadn't gone back to Pac-Man World 2 and realized that it has some major problems. I really don't want to play Red Ninja: End of Honor in this day and age and confirm that it's as much of a flaming trash pile as critics at the time said it was.
With age generally comes perspective, and with perspective comes taste, and with taste comes opinions. And I think if you're a lifelong player of video games, you can point to a key moment when you played a bad game. You sat down, between the ages of ten to thirteen, and expect to have fun with a game. Only this time, it's different. You aren't having fun. The game's working against you. What was supposed to be enjoyable is a chore. You keep playing, thinking that there's something wrong with you, but it doesn't change, and if it does it's for the worse. Before you know it, you've played a bad game, and you can't go back.
It's a weird, puberty-esque experience. At least, it was for me. That halcyon glow of video games as an abstract concept is over. The childlike innocence associated with playing games has ended, and no matter what you do, you can't ever get it back. Something inside of you has changed, for better and for worse, and you just can't play enjoy playing something the way you used to. I think this is something that happens to everyone. It's part of growing up with the medium. And I also think we can all point to the specific game that marked that turning point.
For me, it was when I finally bought my own copy of Sonic Heroes.
It had been about three years since I'd played that copy at my friends' house. I'd moved away from them at that point. I was living in a whole new city, with new friends, alien surroundings, and the growing realization that my parents' marriage sucked. By chance, at my local EB Games, I stumbled across a copy of Sonic Heroes for the PlayStation 2. I remembered loving it, because I remembered loving Sonic, and I hadn't played a Sonic game since then. I picked it up for fifteen bucks or so, went home, and sat down expecting to waste away an afternoon with a lifelong pal in games.
About thirty minutes in, I was ready to smash my controller to bits. Sonic slipped and slid off of ledges with the smallest jerk of an analog stick. Characters screeched and grunted with voice acting that was painful to listen to. Floors and walls seemed like an arbitrary concept, considering I could fall through them at a moment's notice. All of this was coupled with all the good memories I had with the game - waking up before my friends and playing their GameCube, arguing over whose turn it was, cheering for each other when something cool happened. I remembered this game being so much more. I remembered it feeling epic. I remembered it feeling like how Sonic should feel.
The whole time, it was just garbage.
But it couldn't be, right? Since that day, I've actually played every possible version of Sonic Heroes, just to see if I could recapture that early love for it. Some people insist that the PS2 version is outright inferior, and the other versions are great. So I've purchased and played all of them - even the PC version. I thought that if I could find the right version, I could finally love the game. If I played the right port, I could see why some people think it's the best 3D Sonic game.
The result? Yeah, no, still the same. Sonic Heroes is a bad game. A very bad one, in fact, and easily my least favorite 3D entry. As soon as the opening cutscene ends, it's all downhill. The nicest thing I can say is that the visuals are good for their time and that the music is good. Everything else about it is just bad, bad, bad. It's a fundamentally broken game across all platforms, although if you are going to play it, the GameCube version is less prone to breaking than all the other versions. I still would say that avoiding it's for the best though. It has some of the worst level designs in the entire franchise. It's a cobbled-together technical mess. Rail Canyon is a waking nightmare.
And the voice acting. Christ. The voice acting. This was pre-4Kids, so Heroes just says "fuck it" and throws in some of the absolute worst, bottom-of-the-barrel talent they could find. Tails was played by an actual child, for christ's sake. At least Ryan Drummond's still in this one, so that's nice. He was a pretty good Sonic, although I legit think Roger Craig Smith is the dopest one yet. Just my opinion. Anyway. What's weird is that a lot of the performers here have done good work elsewhere. This must have been cranked out in an afternoon.
I could go on. But I think the main takeaway is this: if Sonic Adventure 2 was Sonic Team phoning it in for an inoffensive Hail Mary, Sonic Heroes was them scraping the bottom of the barrel to crank out more Sonic for kids. The story is pitiful. It's no fun to play, whenever you can actually play it without the game just wresting control from you. Those two things can only be experienced, though, when the game isn't straight-up breaking, which happens on a consistent basis.
Unfortunately, Sonic Heroes set a precedent. It started the troubling trend of the series experimenting with new mechanics, fucking them up, then never trying them again. Sonic, in recent years, has gained a reputation for an overall lack of consistency, and that started here. The game's central gimmick, which sees players controlling three characters at once and changing formations depending on the area, was never revisited in subsequent iterations. Now, granted, that's probably for the best - it's a bad system. But some people liked it, and I do think that with some polish, it could've found its way into a better game. Yet it was tossed out the window, like so many systems introduced for one game only, in favor of something entirely different in the next one. Pre-Heroes, you basically knew what you were getting into with a mainline Sonic game. After 2004, though, things started getting dicey for the blue blur. From then on out, Sonic was a wild card, cutting the brakes and seeing what happened from game to game.
That is, when he was even involved. To follow up Heroes, which sold remarkably well in spite of being horrible garbage, Sega got the wise idea to not even have Sonic star in the next main entry. Outside of an ancillary side-role, that is. Because in a post-Sonic Adventure 2 world, the Sonic fanbase had a fever.
The only prescription? Shadow the Hedgehog.
Here we go, buddy, here we go, buddy, here we go, here we go, buddy, here we go.