Sonic games haven’t exactly had the best track record these past few generations. Once hailed as titan of the industry, rivaling even Mario himself, Sonic’s decline as a franchise has been a bizarre spectacle indeed, as Sega and Sonic Team struggle, to this day, to keep their blue hedgehog relevant in a gaming market that has moved on from those simpler days. Looking over recent entries, the games range anywhere from the fairly decent Sonic Generations to the truly awful Sonic Boom, and this wavering quality has plagued the series since Sega’s legendarily disastrous attempt to reinvent the series with Sonic The Hedgehog (2006).
But before Sonic’s faceplant onto the 7th generation of consoles, things were a bit more optimistic. The Sonic Adventure series may not have sold spectacularly, but they were received warmly by fans and are remembered fondly by many. At the same time, there were a handful of spin-offs and portable games that were at least good enough to keep people entertained, not to mention Sonic Heroes, which is less remembered, but still holds up fairly well. However, there is one game from that time period which stands as an outlier to those beloved titles, and holds an interesting place as one of the more, shall we say, unique takes on the Sonic formula.
Indeed I’m speaking of Shadow the Hedgehog: Sega’s ill-fated attempt to market the Sonic universe to edgy teens everywhere. Starring the titular hedgehog, the game could be charitably described as a little bit silly, and less charitably as a cringe-worthy mess. Shadow hover-skates his way through various themed missions shooting people with guns, brooding about how he can’t remember things, spouting off PG swear words, and generally being an angsty misanthrope who is also, inexplicably, “The Ultimate Life-Form”, all to the tune of an embarrassingly cheesy Crush 40 song. It’s utterly ridiculous in almost every respect, the gameplay is wonky and disjointed, the environments are entirely disconnected from each other, and the characters take everything deadly seriously, without a hint of irony.
And it’s incredible.
I have not played a single game before or since that has managed to top the sheer oblivious hilarity that is stuffed into every corner of Shadow the Hedgehog. It wanted to be cool so badly it wraps all the way around into being one of the funniest games in the entire Sonic canon, perhaps one of the best “worst” games of its time. It’s a classic example of a bunch of out of touch developers trying to appeal to the youth, and missing the point spectacularly. The plot of the game in particular is both incredibly convoluted and dark in setting, yet laughably innocent and childish in presentation.
Shadow, having lost most of his memories, is out on a quest to discover who he really is, and his best guess at how to do that is to listen to a big evil alien dictator that commands him to find the chaos emeralds. The twist is, in almost every mission, the player can choose which of three missions to accomplish, thus aligning him with the current good or bad guy of the scenario, or simply ignoring the whole mess in favor of his own goals. Basically what this means is every mission comes with a packed-in morality choice, and the objective you complete determines what your next piece of the story will be, with the game even providing a handy map to visualize your path through the game. These different choices eventually lead you to one of five different finales, each of which have both an “evil” and “good” ending, depending on how you finished the previous mission. These endings also involve Shadow coming to some conclusion about his origin, whether it be that he is an alien sent by Black Doom, or an android built by Robotnik, or an experiment to create the edgiest life form known to man.
(Seems like the kind of guy you can trust, yeah?)
All the endings involve him collecting the Chaos Emeralds and giving a cute little speech that begins with “I am Shadow the Hedgehog” and progresses into a brief summary of the conclusion he’s made, followed by his next goal, which ranges from destroying the planet, conquering the universe, or just murdering Eggman off screen for giggles. And all of the speeches have Shadow declare, with the utmost gravitas and emotion, “This is WHO I AM!” It’s so stupid it almost hurts, and yet every time I see these overacted, underdeveloped cutscenes I can’t help but grin because there’s something so inherently satisfying in its mesmerizing lack of shame. That’s not to mention the true ending, which attempts to hurriedly wrap up every single story arc and establish a final “good vs. evil” conflict while presenting a rushed motif about human over-consumption, while also having time to include the typical “all the characters rush to work together moment” that Sonic games seem to love so much. Of course, the true ending requires the player to go through the game at least ten times in order to play every finale in both good and evil alignment, a rather tedious objective, even for a game that features such distinct branching paths.
This is unfortunately where the game falters, as the actual gameplay isn’t particularly amazing, and while it’s issues are not game-breaking, they definitely impede on the actual enjoyment. Shadow can be hard to maneuver, and while it’s funny the first time he falls into a pit and shouts “DAMN, not here…”, the humor value drops rapidly with repetition. Similarly, the idea of Shadow running around brandishing weapons is chuckle-worthy, but the game has no real aiming system to help you target enemies, and it often devolves into running around at top speed firing indiscriminately in the hopes of hitting something.
There are also decisions that aren’t objectively bad, but will definitely irritate some players. The need for multiple paths gives the game the perfect opportunity to bring back every character that has ever been in a Sonic game, introducing more obscure and irritating allies as the game progresses. Each objective typically has a character attached to it, with the first mission having you choose between Sonic and the big evil alien dictator himself, who calls himself “Black Doom”. Oh and don’t worry, later missions will pair you with other iconic characters such as Cream the Rabbit, a girl named Maria, Charmy the Bee, and Espio, who is supposed to be chameleon but looks more like a reject Hot Topic plushie. It’s an admirable attempt to cram the entire Sonic canon down the audience’s throat, but it doesn’t exactly add anything of value to the experience.
(Name a more iconic trio… I’ll wait.)
It’s roadblocks like these that can make it hard to play the game for long stretches of time, and this is perhaps part of the reason that the games industry doesn’t really have an equivalent to films like Plan 9 from Outer Space. If a movie is bad, you can still extract entertainment by changing the way you watch it, whether it be by watching with friends or just not being overly critical. This is true for games as well, but to a lesser extent, due to their interactive nature. If a game’s fundamental systems aren’t designed well, or just don’t feel good to play, it becomes hard to push through that and enjoy the overall experience, even ironically.
That being said, it’s not like Shadow The Hedgehog is poorly handled in every regard. Different levels have fun themes and gimmicks, and there’s a lot of variety in pretty much every aspect, from ridiculous faction weapons, to disparate enemies, even vehicles that have different control methods and styles of play. On top of that the game has a good handful of different boss fights that, while repeated several times, are enjoyable enough to keep the player engaged. Hell, even the pre-rendered cutscenes are pretty impressive, as you might expect from Blur Studios, who have since gone on to work for more critically acclaimed titles such as Halo 2: Anniversary. There is definitely enjoyment to be had here, and not just from laughing at the game’s sillier moments.
I think that’s what really makes Shadow the Hedgehog special to me: as much as it is a game you can laugh at, it’s also a game you can laugh with, for want of a better metaphor. For as stiff and frustrating as the gameplay can be, and as over the top and absurd as the story gets, there is something about it separates it from those truly unbearable games we revile and loathe. Shadow the Hedgehog will never be as famous as Sonic (2006), because Sonic (2006) was a confused, broken “reinvention” that had no idea what it wanted to be. Shadow the Hedgehog knew exactly what it wanted to be, a dark and brooding game with lots of guns and explosions and badass one-liners with a misanthropic anti-hero in the starring role. Yes it may have failed at every single one of those things, but it fails not because nobody tried, it fails because they tried way too hard, and that’s what makes it so endearing.
When Shadow mutters to himself about that “DAMN fourth chaos emerald”, or when the President of the United States sorrowfully gazes upon a picture of Sonic and Shadow that he just happens to keep on his desk, there is no malice, there is no laziness, just an honest-to-god attempt to entertain us, and that’s genuinely enough to turn those previously damning faults into lovable quirks. How can we hate something that tries so hard, and so honestly, to make us love it? I can’t.
I’ve spent years playing video games of all genres, and levels of quality, and even as I forget who the villain of the latest Call of Duty was, or why exactly Bowser stole a bunch of fairies in Mario’s latest adventure, there’s something about Shadow’s adventure that has always stuck with me, and I can’t help but hold those memories with some nostalgic reverence.
I don’t expect anyone to read this and suddenly believe Shadow the Hedgehog is some underrated gem that passed us by unwittingly. In all honesty, I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone regardless of their tolerance for such faults and missteps. However, I do believe with conviction, that there are those of you out there who could look past those faults and perhaps even begin to understand why I hold this game up as a personal favorite even after many years of playing the best the medium has to offer. Perhaps someday we can all look back at the long line of Sonic games, and hold in our hearts a small measure of fondness for a game that may not represent the best of what gaming has to offer, but at least provides us with an opportunity for uncritical amusement that very few games can replicate.
Or maybe we won’t.
But at least it was better than Sonic Boom, right?