Sonic the Hedgehog: The Dark Age

Declaring anything the “best thing ever” or the “worst thing ever” is a dangerous game, for a variety of reasons.

Tastes change over time. Preferences vary between individuals. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting MoeGamer — well, quite a bit before that, to be honest — it’s that something getting critically panned doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth checking out.

It was with this in mind that I was greatly looking forward to investigating the much-maligned 2006 reboot of Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 — a game that Wikipedia claims (without citation) to be “among the worst games not only in the Sonic series but also in the video game medium.” That sounds like a challenge to me.

Sonic 2006 (as we shall refer to it hereafter) began development in 2004. Yuji Naka had decided after seeing the success of superhero movies such as Spider-Man 2 that the first Sonic game for HD consoles should be a “reboot” of the franchise, hence the use of simply Sonic the Hedgehog as its name.

The game was built using the Havok toolset, which had been steadily growing in popularity since its first appearance around the turn of the century, and had previously been used by Sonic Team in its PS2 title Astro Boy. Havok’s main benefits were its ability to create large-scale expansive levels and games with flexible play styles — as well as impressive physics-based effects such as objects shattering and bouncing around realistically.

Early reaction to the game was extremely positive, with excitement building as the Sonic series approached its 15th anniversary, and the proposed release date for the new game. But the game met with numerous problems during development, most significantly the departure of Naka who, despite being regarded by many as the heart and soul of the series, had become weary of developing Sonic games and instead wanted to focus on his own original properties. He went on to found a company named Prope, probably most well-known today for its curiously punctuated platformer Ivy the Kiwi? and Rodea the Sky Soldier for Wii.

Development also hit a bump in the road when Sega received development kits for Nintendo’s Wii and discovered that it was considerably less powerful than the 360 and PS3. Rather than take on the challenge of porting Sonic 2006 to the lower-spec console, the company instead split the development team in two — half, led by game director Shun Nakamura, would continue work on the ambitious reboot, while the other, led by producer Yojiro Ogawa, would go on to work on what would become Sonic and the Secret Rings, a game specifically designed to take advantage of the Wii’s unique control scheme.

The sudden shrink in team size meant that the developers had to drop a significant number of features in order to reach the proposed Christmas 2006 release date — some of which were cut so late they are still mentioned in the game’s manual. The final result was a game that was rushed out of the door to meet a deadline with insufficient manpower and, in the developers’ own words, didn’t have anywhere near enough time for the level of polish it needed and deserved. And, as you might expect, the review scores at the time — and popular perception of the game ever since — reflect this.

But, you know, back in 2011 or so I completely stopped paying attention to a game’s Metascore and reviews. The reason? I played and adored a game with a Metascore of just 45 — Hyperdimension Neptunia, a series I’ve been in love with ever since. What other games was I missing out on by focusing entirely on those ultimately meaningless and entirely subjective numbers, I wondered? Quite a few, as it turned out, and many of them have been featured on MoeGamer over the course of the last few years. But Sonic 2006… that was supposedly legendarily awful. Could it really be that bad?

Before we dive in head-first, I will preface what I am about to say by acknowledging and agreeing with one common specific criticism of Sonic 2006 — it has poorly implemented load screens. Long load times don’t bother me personally all that much by themselves — I grew up booting games from double-sided 5.25″ floppies on an Atari 8-Bit — but in Sonic 2006 there are sequences where you’ll agree to start a side mission, get a load screen, get an NPC give you one line of (text-only) dialogue telling you what to do, then get another load screen before the actual mission starts.

This is a bit frustrating — particularly when the mission in question is a difficult one you find yourself having to retry a few times — but it’s worth noting that the only real times this is an issue in the game as a whole relate to content that is entirely optional and not at all necessary to complete the game to a satisfactory degree. It’s also worth noting that two years after Sonic 2006’s original release, the “New Xbox Experience” dashboard update added the ability to install games to the Xbox 360 hard drive, considerably reducing overall load times for that version of the game. If you plan on checking this game out for yourself, plumping for the 360 version and immediately installing it is highly recommended.

All right, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why this game is actually a lot of fun, and well worth checking out if you have previously passed on it. No, I am not joking.

Sonic 2006 is an evolution of the formula established by the original Sonic Adventure. There are multiple playable characters, each with their own unique mechanics. There is a central “hub” area in which you can explore, talk to NPCs, take on optional side missions (which are the source of the aforementioned loading issues) and purchase upgrades, and there are discrete action stages and boss fights that open up as you progress through the story.

That story is a central focus in Sonic 2006 — and its treatment is one of the things critics didn’t respond all that well to when the game was originally released. However, after playing the whole thing all the way through — and enjoying the experience a great deal — I came to a bit of an interesting conclusion about it.

You remember how back in the late ’90s and early ’00s popular TV shows like The X-Files and suchlike would often get big-screen movie adaptations, and said movies would often feature familiar elements while feeling a bit “different” to their source material? The scope of the narrative might be larger or more significant, the budget would be obviously higher and the overall “vision” would clearly be a lot more ambitious than the original weekly show — but you’d still recognise those characters you loved,and enjoy having the opportunity to spend some time with them in a slightly different context.

That’s exactly what Sonic 2006 is doing. More than simply a “reboot” of the series, Sonic 2006 is the video game equivalent of a “big budget movie” version of Sonic the Hedgehog. It has characters you know and love from previous installments in the series — including some lesser-known fan favourites such as Blaze the Cat, who first appeared in the Dimps-developed Sonic Rush for Nintendo DS — but combines them with a narrative that is of a much grander scale than previous Sonic games, and a markedly different, significantly darker tone.

This tonal shift isn’t to say that Sonic 2006 feels incongruous with the rest of the Sonic series, mind. While it does feature a narrative that plays itself pretty straight and seriously throughout — some reviewers on its original release compared it rather disparagingly to the trademark melodrama of modern Final Fantasy — its core themes are firmly in keeping with the rest of the series. The conflict at the heart of Sonic 2006 is, once again, one of nature versus technology and science, and this is explored on a number of different levels.

The simplest and most obvious way this theme is manifested is through the obligatory conflict between Sonic and Eggman. Eggman seeks the power of Elise, the princess of Soleanna, because he believes it will allow him to make use of his technology to harness the power of the deity Solaris and its “Flames of Destruction” to control time and space to dominate the world. The forces he sends after Elise — and Sonic, once he takes an interest in the princess’ plight — are all purely mechanical in nature, eschewing their traditional depiction as animals trapped inside robotic shells from earlier Sonic games. Sonic, meanwhile, represents the natural world, and his fight is an attempt to restore the natural balance of things — indeed, the true ending to the game is a very literal reflection of this idea.

This core theme is explored in other ways throughout the narrative, too. Over the course of the three main story episodes, we learn that Solaris, effectively in itself a force of nature representing the element of fire and the power of the sun, had already been harnessed by the Soleannan royalty and their advanced technology. They, like Eggman, also wanted to use the deity’s ability to control time and space — but rather than use it for world domination, they claimed that it would only be used in a benevolent fashion to “correct past mistakes”. Indeed, in one scene, a young and rather naive Elise is shown excited by the prospect of one day being able to see her deceased mother again.

Naturally, things did not quite go according to plan, and the actual scale of the disaster that occurred ten years prior to the events of the game doesn’t become completely apparent in Sonic’s narrative alone — hence the presence of two additional protagonists, each with their own playable story to complete. Newcomer Silver the Hedgehog is introduced as being from the ruined future that is the result of the chaos unfolding in the present — a bit of an indirect callback to Sonic CD’s “Bad Future” stages here — while Shadow, fresh from his (also vastly underrated) adventures standing on top of collapsed highways while firing off Uzis, is now an agent of the worldwide law enforcement agency GUN alongside Rouge the Bat. The three narratives intertwine at various points throughout their overall duration, but each branch off in their own discrete directions by the end, with a final story to tie them all together unlocking when they are all completed.

The three hedgehogs each have a markedly different gameplay style. Sonic, as you might expect, plays much as he has done in the 3D games since Sonic Adventure, with relatively linear levels. the ability to use a Homing Attack for both defeating enemies and traversing the world — the ability to use Homing Attack on grinding rails is a particularly welcome addition after some terrifying, vertigo-inducing leaps of faith in Sonic Heroes — and an emphasis on speedy spectacle. The most notable difference in Sonic’s gameplay from previous installments is the addition of “Super Speed” areas, where Sonic runs forwards at high speed automatically, and you only have control over his direction and jumping. He also has a number of levels known as “Princess Stages”, where he has to carry Elise; during these, he does not have access to all of his usual abilities and mobility, but is capable of making use of Elise’s magical aura to deflect enemies and walk across water and quicksand.

Silver, meanwhile, plays at a much slower pace, with many of his levels feeling almost like a puzzle platformer. He doesn’t reach anywhere near the speeds that Sonic and Shadow do; his main mobility comes from his ability to “levitate” for short periods, which allow him to move through the air without falling. His specific challenges also place a strong emphasis on the game’s use of Havok’s physics engine, both for combat and puzzle solving — Silver primarily fights by telekinetically picking up and throwing objects (and enemies) but also has sequences where he has to push objects around and into holes as well as “catch” projectiles thrown at him before tossing them back at his foes.

Finally, Shadow’s segments play like a blend between Sonic’s levels and a character action game. While he has a lock-on attack like Sonic, continuing to press his Jump button after making contact with an enemy causes him to unleash various combination attacks (with some extremely satisfying sound effects) and defeat multi-hit enemies in a single fluid movement rather than having to bounce around like Sonic does. He also has the ability to commandeer various vehicles such as buggies, hovercraft and motorcycles, though outside of a few short on-rails shoot ’em up sequences where he flies on what appears to be a jet-propelled hang-glider, use of these is generally optional if you prefer his regular combat and movement skills.

Regardless of character, combat with enemies feels weighty and satisfying, with robotic foes exploding into pieces upon defeat and the more monstrous enemies seen later in the game requiring you to mix your tactics up a little. Silver’s physics-based object throwing takes a little getting used to, but becomes second nature before long — and throwing an enemy’s projectiles back at them never gets tiresome. Sonic and Shadow, meanwhile, both have a pleasingly meaty sense of “impact” when they slam into an enemy that remains enjoyable right through their respective stories.

Each of the three characters visit the same levels in a different order to one another, but thanks to their unique mechanics, each visit feels like a distinct experience. Even in the few instances where characters share segments of a level, they branch off in different directions by their conclusions. Sonic and Shadow share the first two sections of the “Crisis City” level, for example, but the third part features a platforming challenge for Sonic, while Shadow gets one of his hang-glider shoot ’em up sequences through the same environment, and the final section of the level is completely different for each.

Each of the main stories also sees guest appearances from various other Sonic characters who become temporarily playable under various circumstances. Generally speaking, each of the protagonists’ “episodes” has a single “Extra” stage where a non-lead character has a whole level to themselves — Tails for Sonic, Blaze for Silver, Rouge for Shadow — while certain main stages feature short segments that temporarily switch to another character to, for example, access an out-of-the-way switch or open a door.

The narrative justification for these is generally pretty flimsy, but this doesn’t matter too much, since the game wisely keeps the vast majority of its narrative exposition between stages rather than during them, allowing the stages themselves to remain gameplay-centric. These sequences do break up the action a bit to provide some nice variety, particularly as each character has been designed to have unique elements rather than being a “clone” of another as in previous installments.

Tails, for example, is no longer a slightly slower version of Sonic as he was in the original Sonic Adventure, nor does he have his divisive mech suit from Sonic Adventure 2; he can fly for short periods as in Sonic Heroes, and attack by throwing exploding canisters of fake rings at enemies. Rouge and Knuckles are also distinct from one another now, too; while both can still glide and climb walls as in their past appearances, Rouge can now throw grenades and plant bombs on walls, while Knuckles makes use of his fists to fight up close. The robotic E-123 Omega, who first appeared in Sonic Heroes, also puts in an appearance towards the end of Shadow’s route, and distinguishes himself with his short-range shotgun-style attack, his ranged lock-on missiles and his impressive jumping ability.

The stages and boss battles provide plenty of variety between them, and the final story that unlocks after all three protagonists’ main arcs have been completed essentially acts as a means for the player to prove they have mastered all the main aspects of the game. A single, multi-part action stage sees all of the characters (except for Sonic, who is… temporarily indisposed at the time) each attempting to reach a Chaos Emerald situated at the end of a distorted section of one of the previous levels. Not only do you have to make use of each character’s unique abilities, you also have to contend with eyeball-like spatial distortions that pull you around, forcing you to adapt your route and technique accordingly. It’s a challenge, for sure — particularly as you start with just five lives to complete eight discrete sections of level — but if you’ve made it this far, it’s a fun way of proving your skills.

And if you reach the end of the game and still want more, the game provides plenty of replayability and longevity, too. As in previous games, a “Trial Select” menu allows you to skip straight to a favourite action stage or boss fight to replay it in an attempt to score highly enough for an S-rank, or for a Hard variant to be tackled. Previously completed side missions from the hub town can also be replayed for higher ranks, and on 360 a range of Achievements challenge you to S-rank everything and locate all the hidden collectible medals concealed throughout both the town areas and the action stages.

Even if you find yourself still bouncing off the game after my enthusing here, one thing we can hopefully all agree on is the fact that Sonic 2006 is a beautifully presented game. It’s one of the few console-based 3D Sonic games on seventh-generation platforms to run at 60 frames per second (albeit with a few drops here and there when things get busy, though never to a game-breaking degree) and its CG cutscenes by American visual effects company Blur Studio are stunning, rivalling some of the best scenes Square Enix has included in the Final Fantasy series. The soundtrack, likewise, is consistently excellent, encompassing a wide variety of musical styles and fully embracing the more “epic” feel of the overall narrative while still maintaining iconic aspects of modern Sonic soundtracks such as use of rock- and rap-inspired sounds and structures.

There’s a feeling of comfortable familiarity about certain aspects of the game, too. The game’s hub city feels strongly inspired by continental Europe, particularly Italy, and this is something we’ve seen in a number of subsequent games such as Gravity Rush and Final Fantasy XV. While this resemblance is more than likely coincidental — what modern developer would admit to being inspired by Sonic 2006, given its reputation, anyway? — it’s something I found personally rather pleasing. The game’s overall structure actually also reminded me somewhat of Gravity Rush in particular, with the numerous optional gameplay-centric missions scattered around the city coupled with the narrative-advancing main stages. Of course, Gravity Rush pulled all that off with rather more grace than Sonic 2006, but it also came out six years later.

The narrative is also very enjoyable if you take it on its own terms. Sure, it’s melodramatic, it’s over the top and it lacks some of the playful cartoonish silliness of many earlier Sonic games — though this isn’t to say it’s completely absent — but as I said earlier, it’s the equivalent of a big-budget “movie” compared to the earlier Sonic games’ “TV show”. It has good structure and pacing, it builds to a spectacular climax, it’s genuinely emotional at times — particularly if you’ve come to care about these characters over the years — and it concludes with a satisfying finale.

Widely despised it may be — and I suspect I’m not going to change many minds even with the preceding three thousand words — but I had an absolute blast with Sonic 2006 from start to finish. For me, it’s just another example of a game where it really paid off to try it out for myself rather than simply being swept along by popular opinion. Your mileage may, as ever, vary — but that’s the honest truth from where I’m sitting.


More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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13 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog: The Dark Age”

  1. I often skim read articles about Sonic ‘06 as they’re often very similar, but this was very interesting. I especially enjoyed reading about the development history.

    You’re right though, my mind isn’t changing on this one, mainly because the bugs and control issues were such a problem for me that I couldn’t enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interestingly, I don’t think I encountered a single bug during my playthrough. Certainly none of the most commonly cited ones. Control-wise I can see why some people might have an issue with its more twitchy sections, but again, I didn’t have a problem personally and actually found some aspects of it (the homing attack most notably) significantly tighter than Adventure and Heroes.

      As I say, your mileage may vary! Thanks for reading and for not yelling at me for being “wrong” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Did you find some mysterious new and improved version of this game with all the control issues and glitches fixed? I probably would have had a great time with Sonic 06 if it had treated me right gameplay-wise. But between Sonic’s horrible “gotta speed up” sections, Silver’s god awful desert billiards game, falling through sections of levels for no damn reason, and the general weird stiffness of some of the characters I just couldn’t stand it, and I even liked the Adventure games with all their pockmarks. There’s no question Sonic Team put a lot of effort into the game, though, and I’m happy someone had a good time with it. In general I feel like Sonic gets an unfairly bad rap.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said to iplayedthegame earlier, I didn’t encounter any bugs whatsoever while playing, not even the commonly cited “falling through level” issues. I don’t recall there being a patch or anything when I booted it up for the first time, but regardless… no, I had no problems besides the load times I mentioned, and I learned to live with those. They certainly never made me actively want to quit.

      As for control issues and the sections you describe, well, those are more a matter of taste than anything; early 3D Sonic was always a bit twitchy, but I didn’t feel any aspect of Sonic 2006 felt significantly worse than any previous installments. In fact, certain aspects such as the homing attack felt noticeably tighter and more satisfying to use. As I noted in the article, the ability to homing attack onto grinding rails was something Sonic Heroes could have really done with, for one thing, but the sense of weight and impact in combat generally (for both Sonic and Shadow in particular) was a real highlight for me.

      I enjoyed the high-speed segments for their variety (and music!) and I’ve always had a soft spot for stupid physics puzzles so Silver didn’t give me any grief either, even if that one rolly ball bit at the end of the desert level took a few attempts.

      All in all, yeah, I had a great time with the game, and I encourage more people to try it. You may still end up hating it, but it’s better to hate something having given it a fair shot than hate it just because everyone says you’re “supposed” to. And there’s always the chance you’ll have an unexpectedly positive experience with it, too, as happened to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Honestly, Sonic 2006 isn’t even the worst Sonic game released in 2006; that honor (or dishonor) would go to Sonic Genesis for the GBA. But even that’s better than the Game.com version of Sonic Jam, which I think needs to be seen to be believed (as an aside, would you mind taking a look at those two titles? It’d be both interesting and funny to see your takes on them).

    What I’m saying is that there far worse games (both Sonic and non-Sonic related) out there, and it doesn’t take much digging to find them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Seconding Sonic Genesis. I bought this at a retail store when it came out thinking hey, a port of Sonic 1 to play in the GBA slot of my DS? Great!

      I returned it the next day.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s kind of amazing how they could mess that up, really. That said, PAL regions in particular didn’t get a port of Sonic 1 that ran at full speed until the Xbox 360, so much as we take good Sonic ports/emulation for granted now, it wasn’t always the case!

        Liked by 1 person

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