Welcome back to Games That Time Forgot, where we look at games that are often forgotten by time. *pulls out note cards, clears throat* Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough history, hasn't he? There, I got the obligatory reference about Sonic games out of the way, but in all seriousness, there is some merit to that statement, as cliche as it can be. Since it's debut in 1991, the Sonic series has had amazing highs and equally impressive lows. Yet despite that, the series is still going strong, even celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with a genuinely awesome and amazing concert among other things. And with Sonic Colors getting a re-release set to come in less than a month, let's take a look at one of the blue blur's earliest forays into 3D: Sonic Heroes.
Yes, Sonic Heroes. The first 3D Sonic game released after Sega went third party, the first game to release on multiple platforms, one of the last games Yuji Naka worked on before he left the company in 2006, and it's a Guiness World Record holder for having the most playable characters in a platformer, though that last one has a bit of a huge asterisk next to it, which you'll find out why in a bit. Yet despite these milestones and awards, Sonic Heroes has in recent years been left in the dust when compared to other games in the series. Which is odd because for the longest time it came out and for a short time afterwards, Sonic Heroes was seen as being a pretty good game, especially when you consider some of the games that came out shortly after. At the same time, there might be a reason why I haven't seriously played the game until I decide to do this.
So let's blast through with sonic speed and take a look back at Sonic Heroes. Great, now I have that theme song stuck in my head.
Sonic Heroes was published by Sega and developed by Sonic Team USA, and was released for the GameCube (the version I own and have used for this retrospective), PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC, with the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox versions releasing on December 30th 2003 in Japan, with North America getting the GameCube version on January 6th 2004, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions releasing in North America on January 27th 2004, with PAL regions getting all console versions on Feburary 2nd 2004, and finally the PC versions releasing on November 22, 2004 in North America, November 26th 2004 in PAL regions, and Japan getting the PC version on December 9th, 2004. Man, that is a lot of release dates! Anyway, it was developed to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Sonic series (yeah I don't get it either), and while there was discussion early on about this game being Sonic Adventure 3, this idea was quickly shot down. This was because Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka wanted to make something that would appeal to everybody, not just fans. So, they looked back to Sonic's early history for this new game and decided to take the look and feel of the Genesis games and bring them into 3D.
The team did this because between this game, the Sonic X anime, and a McDonald's toy line, that the series would be introduced to a new generation. It's also because of this mandate that a lot of ideas from previous games were cut, such as less open levels that encouraged some level of exploration, simplier stories where the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad, and the Chao Garden was removed to help with flow. This also meant that ideas from previous games, like the special stages from the 2D games, were given new light in this game, and according to Iizuka, the team had a lot of freedom in desiging the game, and it was the stripping of individual gameplay elements that encouraged the team to focus more on "team action".
But this new freedom and concepts came at cost; quite a few actually. For starters, the team used the RenderWare game engine for this game as opposed to a properitary engine, and while it made it easier to program the game on multiple consoles, it did mean that a lot of textures and models had to be redone by scratch. Additionally, despite there being no exclusive content for any version of the game (a decision made by Iizuka and Naka), the PS2 version would only be able to run at 30 FPS, despite the GameCube and Xbox versions being able to handle 60 FPS. When asked why, Sega's Noah Musler explained that running the PS2 version at 60 FPS would have caused performance problems. Not only that, but Izuka described the development of Sonic Heroes as the most stressful in his career due to deadlines and Sega management, as well as a 20 month development period. And he wasn't the only one, as apparently the stress was so bad for one developer, that he became ill, lost 22 pounds, and suffered from insomnia. Yeah, this is still Sonic Heroes I'm talking about here.
Whenever you hear of a developer getting sick over development like this, it means two things: 1) the industry really needs to do a better job of treating its employees better and 2) the game is either going to be great or a total bomb. Let's see how Sonic Heroes fared, shall we? But seriously game industry, treat your employees better.
When I first played Sonic Heroes, I not only liked it, but thought "man, Sonic is way better than Mario!" I don't know what I was thinking at the time, because if there was a Sonic game that could make me think the Mario series sucks (spoiler alert, there isn't), it sure as hell wouldn't be Sonic Heroes.
Sonic Heroes' main hook is that you control one of four teams, each one consisting of three characters. There's Team Sonic, which is the normal mode and consists of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, with a goal of saving the world from Dr. Eggman. Team Dark, which has harder levels, consists of Shadow, Rouge the Bat, and newcomer E-123 Omega, who's goal it is to stop Eggman and find out whether the Shadow here is an android or a clone, which we never get an answer to until Shadow the Hedgehog......and now I'm going to have to talk about that mess, aren't I? Anyway, next we have Team Rose, who are the easiest team and consisting of Amy Rose, Big the Cat, and the newcomer (at the time) Cream the Rabbit, who are looking for Big's pet frog Froggy (you know, the one he kept losing in Sonic Adventure) and one of Cream's Chao friends. Finally there's Team Chaotix, who are more about exploration and misson based (we'll cover that in a bit) and consisting of Espio the chameleon, Vector the crocodile, and Charmy the bee, who hail from Knuckles' Chaotix, and are only in this game because they have bills to pay. The stories aren't that great, but considering how the last two Adventure games and future games like Sonic '06 and Forces try waaaaay too hard to be edgy, I'll take this any day.
Each of the teams has three types of characters: speed, flying, and power. The speed character does all the stuff that you expect from a Sonic game like moving really fast, using the homing attack, use the light speed dash (at least Sonic and Shadow can), plus some new techniques like the triangle jump (or the wall jump as normal people call it) or a tornado attack that can stun enemies and remove shields in combat. The flying characters well, fly, and carry their other teammates around, either to reach certain edges or switches or fly over gaps for a certain amount of time; they move a lot slower than the other two characters, but they're the only ones who can effectively hit flying enemies using an attack called the thunder shoot, where they throw their teammates and which knocks enemies out of the sky. Finally you have the power character, who are pretty slow but can also deal the most damage to enemies and break special walls and floors, with some of their unique moves being able to float up gusts of wind, a slide punch, and a special move where they throw their teammates at enemies.
Each character can level up their techniques throughout each level by collecting orbs or hitting check points, with each level up making your attacks super powerful, so a speed character's tornado can deal damage, a power character's attacks leave AOE damage (or in Omega's case, lets him fire out missles), and a flying character can ran death and destruction from above with a fully powered thunder shoot (seriously, this move is so good when charged). Each team also has a special team blast which kills all enemies on screen and gives each team a speical ability: Team Sonic's lets them use a special light speed attack on any enemies nearby (I don't get it either), Team Dark can freeze time for a bit (and also progression), Team Rose levels ups, gets a shield and temporary invincibility, and Team Chaotix get rings for every kill, which can immediately fill up the team meter faster. All of this adds up to a game where in theory you take the high speed gameplay Sonic is known for and combine with team based gameplay.
Unfortunately, theories can fall apart when put into practice, and Sonic Heroes' gameplay kind of falls apart at points, like a rocket ship made out of crackers. On one hand, while the team mechanic has enough going on that it doesn't feel tacked on, it also feels unnecesary and really slows down the gameplay. And in a series that is known for being fast, that can be a problem, though I think someone on the team may have taken the "gotta go fast" motto a little too seriously, because speed characters can go way too fast, to the point that you can fall off the stage if you aren't careful; and you will fall off the stage. The flow of the game gets worse as you get closer to the end of each team's story, when the game decides to throw more areas where you have to take on a big enemy or a group of them. While the team mechanics are overall fine, and I'll fully admit they're pretty fun to use (especially a fully leveled up character), it can also be very frustarting and break the flow of the game by having to switch to another character to hit a switch, especially since outside of a few exceptions, the characters all play the same, making things a bit repetive over time. This kind of gameplay may work with a series like Mario or Crash, but with Sonic? Not so much.
The levels and completing the game are also a mixed bag. Unlike Sonic Adventure 2, where every level was tailor made for each character, Sonic Heroes follows a more Sonic Adventure 1 approach, in which each level is visited by mutliple characters. However, it's more a straight line approach and less being locked to a specific area, where it's mostly about getting to the end; let me tell you what I mean. Imagine the first level of the game, Seaside Hill, the average opening Sonic stage area. When Team Rose tackles it, their level is shorter and may take them a couple minutes to complete, with less enemies and hazards to deal with. Team Sonic's might be a little bit longer and take them about five minutes while dealing with some perilous platforming and a few more enemies; think of them as the normal mode. Team Dark may have to go through the whole level and deal with more enemies and challenges and may take even longer because they're the hard mode of the game. Finally, Team Chaotix doesn't have a goal ring because they're mission based, so they just loop back to the beginning of the level and keep going until you complete your mission. If I can give the levels themselves some credit, they definetly look and sound great, with it being the closest we would get seeing Genesis era level design in 3D.....at least until Sonic Generations. The music in particular does a really good job of making these levels a joy to play through, some of my personal favorites being the music for Ocean Palace, Grand Metropolis, Bingo Highway, and Hang Castle. And combined with some interesting level designs or themes, like Ocean Palace having a section where you jump across turtles across a huge ocean, Bingo Highway just being a mostly long roll down a hill and filling out a bingo card, or Hang Castle flipping the stage based on which switches are pressed, some of the levels in Sonic Heroes are genuinely great and dare I say it, can be some of the most fun you can have in a Sonic game.
But for every fun level like Ocean Palace and Bingo Highway, there's a level with terrible pinball physics and controls or levels like Rail Canyon and Bullet Station, both of which are dominated by rail grinding that while it works okay, doesn't work well enough to base two entire levels on. None of this would be a problem if they were one and done levels, but because every team has to go through the same levels, including the same not very good boss fights (and I use fights loosely), the really good levels start to lose some of their charm after playing them for so many times and the bad ones start becoming more of a problem, especially when you have to play them again with Team Chaotix because their missions involve them killing a certain number of enemies, trying to sneak past some enemies in some really terrible stealth sections, or getting a certain number of rings. Even the sound design starts to lose some its charm, as the characters will not shut up; while it'll lead to some nice callbacks and references, like Tails talking about being afraid of lightning (a callback to the Sonic OVA), most of it is your character saying something painfully obvious. Thank you Tails for reminding me for the billionth time that you're falling.
Oh, and the Chaos Emeralds are back, this time found by grabbing a key in certain levels and not getting hit, and then beating a special stage that is up there with the halfpipe in Sonic 2 as one of the worst special stages. And you need those Emeralds to get to the game's Final Story, though thankfully you have to get them with one team to unlock it (protip: use Team Rose because their levels are shorter and easier to get and hold onto the key). If it feels like I'm all over the place with the game, it's because I am. Despite me playing it, writing my thoughts down, I still for the life me can't figure out my overall opinion on Sonic Heroes. I wouldn't call it a good game because the team mechanics don't go far enough, some of the levels and missions are really bad, especially during Team Chaotix's story, and the overall repetive nature of everything can drag down the experince. On the other hand though, I'm not fully prepared to call it a terrible game either, because there is some genuinely good gameplay, levels, and of course music to be found here. I guess the best way I could describe it is that its aged, like some bananas left out for too long. Some of them are still salvagable and could be made into some delicious banana bread, but some of them are really bad and need to go away. However, you probably wouldn't go out of your way to buy it.
Terrible analogy aside, I think Sonic Heroes is overall somewhere in the middle of Sonic games: better than the really bad stuff (like that's hard), but not as great as some of the best games. But even a mediocre game can still leave an impact on the series, so let's see how Sonic Heroes fared.
Sonic Heroes got "mixed or average" scores according Metacritic, with the PS2 version being rated the worst out of all of them, due to a terible framerate, clipping, and graphics tearing (fun fact: this is the version that got released on PSN in 2014). Critics praised the graphics and music, but were torn on the gameplay and the team mechanics, with even IGN, who gave the game the highest score with an 8.0 out of 10, thought that the team gameplay wasn't deep enough as it should be. Still, despite mixed review scores, Gamespot named it the best GameCube game of January 2004, calling it "the fastest and most authentic 3D Sonic experience we've seen yet." Sales wise, the game did a lot better, with the game selling over one million copies in Europe alone by October of 2004. The PS2 version went double platinum, and by 2005, it had sold 1.57 million copies. The game did well enough across all three home consoles that it got Player's Choice, Greatest Hits, and Platinum Hits monikers on the GameCube, PS2, and original Xbox respectively.
Bits and pieces of Sonic Heroes have been referenced here and there since the game's release. The models for Sonic and his friends for example were reused in Shadow the Hedgehog, so that was......something. More significant, Heroes was referenced in later Sonic games, specifically the level Seaside Hill, where it showed up Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, both Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and its sequel, and of course Sonic Generations. The game's main theme "Sonic Heroes" is part of the Sonic soundtrack in every Super Smash Bros. game since Brawl, and even the team mechanic was brought back in both Sonic Forces and Sonic and Team Sonic Racing, the latter being directly inspired by Heroes. This game would also be the last game to use the Dreamcast era cast, as the 4Kids actors would take over. Sadly, this was also the last console game that Deem Bristow did the voice of Dr. Eggman, as he would pass away on January 15, 2005 due to heart failure (his voice clips from the Adventure games were reused in the first two Sonic Riders games though). As for the developer Sonic Team USA, they were kicking around for awhile before being rebranded as Sega Studios USA, with much of the Sonic Team heading back to Japan. For a game that was considered mediocre at the time and is often forgotten about, it's really surprising how much of an impact Sonic Heroes had on the series. So why does it seem forgotten, and is thus being talked about here? Simple: Sonic games have just gotten better; kind of.
Okay, I hear you all typing out your "Wait, what?", *jazz music stops*, and "NANI?!" memes right now, but here me out on this. When I say that Sonic games have gotten better, I of course don't mean that every game has been amazing. Far from it, there have been a lot of stinkers since the release of Sonic Heroes, and I'm not saying that those games are better than Heroes; god no. But I will say, since the release of Sonic '06, the series has gotten better on both the 2D and 3D front. Sonic Unleashed has some of the best boost gameplay levels, as does Sonic Colors. Both Generations & Mania are genuine love letters to the series, and the Rush games are also pretty solid. That's not to say that these games don't have problems, because they do (Were-hog levels anyone?), but they are definietly solid games that do a really good job of capturing the essence of the series......even if Mania and Generations feel more like a greatest hit album. Even the first two Sonic racing games made by Sumo Digital are really amazing, with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed even giving Mario Kart a run for its money. And sure, on reflection I would even include Sonic Lost World on that list, albeit a little lower, because it has some good platforming segments and I like the inclusion of a run button.
Again, these games aren't perfect, don't reach the heights of the early 2D games (well, at least Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles), and I would easily take a mainline Mario game over most of what the hedgehog has done, but still. There are a lot better Sonic games than most people think, and it shows that Sega and Sonic Team have been really doing a decent enough job of turning around the series since the dark ages. Which leaves Sonic Heroes in a bit of an awkward position. As I said before, Sonic Heroes is not a bad game, but I would hesitate to call it a good one either. On a scale of dumpster fire like Sonic '06 or Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and the best games like the aformentioned Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Mania, Heroes is squarely in the middle: not the worst thing ever, but also far from the greatest the series has done-a C paper basically. And while that might have been fine back in 2006, 2008, or even 2009, by the time the 2010s rolled around and Sega started to (somewhat) turn things around, it made Heroes more and more irrelevant, where it's gotten to the point that a lot of the good parts of the game have been taken or implemented in later Sonic games, sometimes a lot better, as is the case of some of the levels being modded into the PC version of Sonic Generations (by the way real talk Sega, thank you for not getting your knickers in a twist over modding in Generations; the community has made that game even better).
At the same time, while it has become more irrelevant and harder to come back to, that's not to say that it doesn't have merit. The music is still really good, with some of the tracks being my personal favorites in the series, which is saying a lot. But more importantly, it was a nice solid foundation to build on and helped Sega get its bearings so to speak. Keep in mind, this was the first original Sonic game released on non Sega home consoles that wasn't a port or collection of other games, and while Sega are still around today, things could have easily taken a drastic turn after the Dreamcast failed, and I feel that Sega making this game is part of that first step of them getting out of that hole. Granted, they kept falling into bigger and bigger holes when it came to Sonic, but not everyone is perfect, right? And while the team mechanics didn't work that well, I will give Sega and Sonic Team USA some credit for at least attempting to spice things up.
I guess overall, while I don't think the game has aged all that well, nor do I see myself recommending, I do think there is some merit to the game in some regard. But I can also see why it's often left in the dust when talking about the good Sonic games.
If you had asked me ten years ago, the answer to both those questions would be yes, absolutely. Now? I'm kind of in the middle. Just like the game's quality BA-DUM TISH!
While I don't think there's any merit to playing Sonic Heroes today, since you can find a couple of the good levels modded into Sonic Generations, I do think it deserves a little better in that it did help the series stay afloat for a little bit and helped Sega find its footing in a post Dreamcast world. That doesn't instantly make it a classic or underrated gem, since it isn't, but the game did well enough to help Sega financially and helped them establish themselves as a third party to some extent. And while the team mechanic isn't something I would like to see come back in a Sonic game, I do see it having some merit in other games. And yeah as weird as it is to say, I wouldn't be opposed to a remake or remaster, which will probably never happen. Sonic Heroes doesn't live to the potential of other games in the series, but you can do a lot worse. And I mean a lot worse.
I'm moving away from hedgehogs for now, and instead going to focus on another popular mammal. One that is the face of a multibillion dollar corportation and owns like eighty percent of your childhood; I'm of course referring to Bugs Bunny. Just kidding, it's Mickey Mouse, and next time we'll be talking about one of his more.....magical quests.