CONTENT WARNING!

This post contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all readers. The material in question includes:

- Bad language
- Frightening imagery
- Graphic violence
- Mentions of homophobia
- Mentions of racism

In 2014, I’d been eagerly awaiting a new title in the Saints Row game series, particularly after realizing how much of an annoying and disappointing departure Saints Row: The Third felt like despite my previous enjoyment playing it. Then, when I was finally graced (or cursed) with one, it took what was originally a fairly whacky and cartoony gangster sim with realistic characters that a general audience could connect with and spiraled it out of control into an ’80s sci-fi nod-riddled clusterfuck of superpowers, aliens, simulated worlds, dubstep guns, and the Rem Lezar-inspired tentacle bat that continued to haunt me until I was able to turn it into a golf club in the PC version using mods.

In the tradition of making villains less and less interesting since Saints Row 2, the main cast’s rivals devolved from a fractured eastern Asian crime family to a stuffy Belgian businessman and angry luchador to the most generically-written alien warlord in the history of fiction. I mean, I’ll gladly get crucified online for being grateful that I eventually got the 2022 reboot that marked the end of this cycle of over-the-top, self-indulgent madness. Anywho, Zinyak from Saints Row IV was clearly a very memorable extraterrestrial villain—a true competitor with the Predators and the Xenomorphs alike—but something about him… his uncharacteristically unmemorable design, dialogue, and lack of any real motivation… caused me to start missing another such antagonist that I’d become familiar with years back.

Said my mom on the day of my birth.
Creativity is (almost) limitless.

So, seeing as the ghostly, wrinkly, tattered-cloaked, jewelry-adorned horned demon in the heading image at the top of this post is maybe possibly the most well-designed character in history, his anything-but-checkered history in not just any franchise, but the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, no less (yes, the very grim science fiction saga of a blue Japanese Speedy González defending equally colorful animals from a mad scientist modeled after Teddy Roosevelt), might feel decidedly lackluster. The truth is, Black Doom was an otherworldly dictator introduced in the oh-so beloved character study that was Shadow the Hedgehog, reintroduced briefly in the Archie and Sonic Universe comics, and then vanished off the face of the Earth for good. Before getting into the specific issues with the character and the writing behind him, we should establish some context for his limited history, for what that’s worth.

At the start of Shadow the Hedgehog, the titular antihero overlooks Central City and ponders his missing memories since his heroic sacrifice at the end of Sonic Adventure 2 and his mysterious return in Sonic Heroes. That’s when an ominous red storm cloud surges overhead, forming a swirling orifice above the skyline. Nasty, animalistic alien creatures with scaly gray and red hides called the Black Arms drop down and unleash total anarchy on the streets. Just when Shadow carelessly turns his back and scoffs at how “pathetic” all of the currently terrorized humans are like the naturally likable protagonist that he is, he’s greeted by a rippling, full-color hologram of the same warlord pictured way above, cast by the single eye of a floating, purple, starfish-like creature. Black Doom orders him to deliver the seven Chaos Emeralds expressly to him, and when Shadow asks for the warlord’s identity, the hologram fades away and the creature naturally dashes away while triggering a barrage of unnecessary explosions. Shadow figures that he may be able to use the Emeralds to recollect his memories by following the warlord’s instructions. Why not?

Whether he actually goes through with this, the last story reveals Black Doom’s true secret plan: to use the Chaos Emeralds to teleport his army’s home, the Black Comet, past the Earth’s atmosphere and drive its sinewy crimson roots into the planet’s crust. In his words, humanity is a self-destructive race that can’t control their sinful and environmentally harmful tendencies, so for the sake of his own people, he plans to release a specialized nerve gas into the atmosphere, which will send the entire race into a state of paralysis and allow the Black Arms to use them for domesticated labor and as a renewable food source. He then reveals that he aided Shadow’s creator, Gerald Robotnik, in Project Shadow using a sample his own DNA, for which Gerald promised him the Chaos Emeralds in return by using Shadow as an agent to collect them.

Even after Sonic and friends (who are all somehow on the Black Comet at this point) are paralyzed by the nerve gas (which is somehow spreading aboard the Comet), Shadow chases Black Doom to the deep inner sanctum of the Comet, where a message from Gerald telling Shadow to use the Eclipse Cannon—the weapon of mass destruction aboard his upper-atmospheric research center, the Space Colony ARK—to destroy the Comet and fight off the invasion is broadcast on the Comet and everywhere on Earth. Shadow transforms into his super form and defeats Black Doom’s final form, Devil Doom, before using Chaos Control to zap the Comet into space and the Eclipse Cannon to blow it into a thousand organic and crystalline chunks. I hope that was enough for you, because you can say goodbye to those hideous invaders forever!

Me, on the other hand? I have some… let’s call them “cautious objections”.

In case you forgot, I essentially started this post off talking about the alien dictator whose grand plan was to trap the U.S. president in a test simulation version of the last game’s setting (quite possibly because it was a DLC expansion that was lazily converted into a standalone sequel) while he goes on to blow up the entire planet with… I guess the deep, underlying motivation of “fuck you, humanity, because I’m the cartoonishly haughty and sinister bad guy”. Meanwhile, the Black Arms are driven by their beliefs regarding human nature and their scheme to preserve their existence by turning a species on, in their minds, an inescapable road to self-destruction and environmental catastrophe into an edible livestock. That being said, you might get the innate feeling that they deserve at least some further attention and longevity compared to the Zin from whatever obnoxious acid trip Saints Row IV turned out to be (to be fair, it’s admittedly a fun enough game to play, but lately, a horrendously poor story and cast of characters have been enough to dampen an entire experience for me.) If so, I’m inclined to agree with you, so let me get into what I personally find legitimately fascinating about this army of barbarians and critical yet long-since-abandoned piece of a fan-favorite character’s backstory.

Stunning physical designs for Black Doom and his tentacled messenger Doom’s Eye aside—not to mention the seemingly paranormal tyrant’s booming, echoing, impossibly deep voice that apparently only the voice actor for Dragon Ball Z protagonist Goku could produce, albeit with layers and layers of filters and distortion—he’ll actually provide the player with swaths of information regarding the Black Arms’ classes, weaponry, and related entities as the dark missions for each stage are completed. See, there’s a plethora of classes in the Black Arms’ hierarchy, including the basic Black Warriors, gargantuan Black Oaks, bronze-pronged Black Assassins, bat-like Black Wings, horned Black Hawks, and golden-armored Black Volts, as well as bloodsucking larvae, fire-breathing plants, and burrowing multi-jawed worms that utilize targeted projectile launchers embedded in their throats.

When the question “how much gold jewelry should this guy have?” was clearly posed during the predevelopment stage, you know someone cared.
Boy, would I love to have been a fly on the wall during this stage…

In fact, you also have plenty of smaller details that add just a minor touch of insight into their ways of life without much vocal explanation. First off, most of their weapons have some kind of organic or even fleshy component to them—particularly the red rifles carried by the Black Assassins and referred to as “refractors”, which are essentially light-streaked phalluses that only Clive Barker would be twisted enough to envision—which give off biomechanical H.R. Giger fumes. Furthermore, the interior of the Black Comet itself looks more like the digestive tract of a moon-sized space worm than the depths of a celestial rock formation, being filled with rivers of some nasty red and purple acid and waving oversized tentacles that are all hazardous if touched.

Meanwhile, dark towers covered in illuminating white “windows” make it appear as if futuristic cities have been constructed within this miles-long maneater’s bladder. Similar elements can be seen all over the Earth-based levels, including esophagus-like pipes and streams of a writhing gelatinous substance, humongous modified plant life of the same red and purple substance, and glowing magenta fruits that are each the size of Shadow himself and powered by a lone yellow seed that illuminates the same way. According to Doom’s Eye, these fruits are symbols of his army’s conquest and will cover the whole planet once humanity has been dealt with.

“And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”

Considering how often I find myself bothered by the game’s grungy teenager-aimed writing, among other general annoyances that I’ll get into with a later post, I’ve focused the rare times I’ve returned to this game admiring its smaller but visually and conceptually ingenious examples of subtle world-building. In fact, Black Arm-related environments aside, the Earth-based stages are exceedingly well-designed in their own right, as they feature unique and atmospheric areas like the wide-open airborne desert stages (Glyphic Canyon and Sky Troops) and the neon-streaked cyberspace stages (Mad Matrix and Digital Circuit).

Other than great vocal tracks like “Waking Up” and “Never Turn Back”, as well as… well… not-so-great vocal tracks like “Almost Dead” and “All Hail Shadow”, equal creativity went into the music tracks for these stages, notably the quiet and somber background music for G.U.N. Fortress, The Doom, and Lost Impact (the latter two stages must be frustrating for some but a breath of fresh air for those who enjoy a little exploration.) It’s this level of creativity that I still find myself dazzled by with the Sonic games I grew up with and, if paired with better and more mature writing, had the power to save this game altogether. However, for anyone who’s found it rather difficult to appreciate it, I think I have a solid understanding as to why that is.

Well, perhaps, the specific wording of “hating your audience” is a little too strong, but this is a section about the game’s writing, and that’s basically the vibe you get from it. I’ll be saving most of my feelings toward Sonic games in general and how the best ones are executed in ways that work as opposed to those that aren’t, but case and point, you don’t want things to get too dark. The Adventure games, for instance, knew how to introduce turbulent backstories of death and destruction while maintaining the same corny, lighthearted spirit that a game featuring… well… multi-colored animals with superpowers fighting a mustachioed roboticist should probably have.

In fact, the soundtracks and the execution of the action complimented this tone, as the action was just intense and well-paced enough that it was fun in an innocent enough way, and the soundtrack never got too edgy or grim unless it needed to—for every Red Mountain: Act Two theme and “Throw it All Away”, there’s an Emerald Coast theme and “Escape From the City”. A Sonic vocal track should have lyrics like “Trust me and we will escape from the city,” and “I know with some luck that I’ll make it through,” but probably not lyrics like “Hopes drown in this big of blue” or “The world is made of broken things”. All the same, a children’s character comparable to Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat should never be getting involved in absurd, anime-style sword fights to the sound of hardcore metal music.

Strangely enough, the way that Shadow’s written at the start includes an equal balance of story inconsistencies and unintentionally cringeworthy dialogue, like this sudden hatred of Sonic as well as his memory of Maria’s fatal gunshot that he didn’t even recall in Sonic Adventure 2. Granted, I could go on with general writing issues, but probably the most wasted character aside from Black Doom is the G.U.N. Commander. Clearly, Sonic Team was attempting to develop a legitimate arc for him, but aside from him having no apparent reason to believe that Shadow was responsible for the incident aboard the ARK, his nasty low-effort dialogue borders on being physically painful to listen to.

Would you believe that even the origins of this Shrek meme template involve lost media?!

I mean, it’s confusing enough that he calls Maria “the only family I ever knew” only to go on and say that “worst of all, I lost my family,” as if they’re completely separate, but we’ve strayed way too far from the initial topic already. Overall, Black Doom’s writing tends to suffer from the same problems as that of other characters like Eggman and the Commander, but the most apparent issue I’ve come to notice is that his motives are barely even hinted at before the last story. Until the big reveal, he comes off as painfully generic at times, notably his speech to mankind before the Eclipse Cannon fires at the end of the pure dark story—instead of commentating on their self-destructive nature and the “prosperity” he’ll be ensuring for his people, he chooses to instead declare things like “You humans are so pathetic,” and “This planet is MINE!” that really take away from what later comes damn near close to justifying his conquest.

Honestly, I do think you can have him attempt to relieve mankind of their sins and atrocities by turning them into an energy source for his race and give him a vile, insatiable, borderline fetishistic desire for the pain and suffering of the entire race. However, on the other hand, if you just want to depict him as a heartless, enigmatic anomaly with no motive other than a need for the fall of mankind, too much about him is developed for that to work. In general, though, these aliens are the most interesting part of the game in spite of the poor writing, so a deeper backstory on why they’re seeking out a new home and energy source would be warranted, especially thanks to brow-raising details like the one he reveals to Shadow just before Sky Troops: his transportation of the stage’s floating temples to Earth over two thousand years ago. Granted, calling them the best part in the game isn’t necessarily a compliment to Shadow himself, as the player is consequently left hoping that he’ll just end up siding with Black Doom and help turn the planet into the Black Arms’ domain, which I highly doubt was the original intention. Hell, it would only make more sense for him to do so, as he inexplicably hates humanity at the start and is therefore automatically inclined to do so!

Never has the villain’s success ever felt so inevitable.

While I certainly don’t despise the modern Sonic games, I have become increasingly cynical about the overly formulaic and cookie-cutter format of the same boosting gameplay introduced in Unleashed. As mediocre as Forces was, it at least offered a greater variety thanks to Classic Sonic and the customizable avatar, the latter of which I thoroughly enjoyed and has never been seen in the franchise before. I’m also in the same camp as those who take issue with the depictions of characters like Tails and Shadow in these games, with Tails’s character growth in Sonic Adventure having been completely tossed out for some unknown reason and Shadow being the same selfish and careless rebel that he was in Shadow the Hedgehog (then again, other people seem to like him in Sonic ’06 and onwards, a viewpoint that I can’t side with or understand for the life of me.) Unfortunately, I’ve heard on numerous occasions that SEGA has placed strict limitations on how writers are allowed to work with certain characters, hence why Shadow hasn’t been given any heart or meaningful character development since the Archie and Fleetway comics. It doesn’t help that characters I have zero interest in like Cream, Silver, and Blaze are given the spotlight more than him because fans always seem to love them, although I can at least give the IDW comics a bit of credit for making Silver relatively likable and distinct compared to how he was portrayed in, say, Sonic ’06.

Wow. Took more than a decade to give a character charm.

Why mention this? Well, because the chances of layers to Shadow’s backstory and/or personality being peeled back are near zero at this point, not to mention the Black Arms have only appeared a couple times in the comics and been briefly mentioned in Frontiers (I’ve only read about this, as I have no genuine interest in playing Frontiers) since their debut all the way back in 2005, I think I can safely assume that neither an official retelling of Shadow the Hedgehog or a more in-depth glimpse into the history of the Black Arms are ever going to be seen published in the future. So, like Stephen King said on Maximum Overdrive five seconds after his last coke fix, “if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself.”

So, in that very spirit, when I’m not writing these posts or issues of ElectroNuke, I’m working on these exact projects just for the fun of it in the form of Shadow the Hedgehog: The Recollected Cut and Black Comet, respectively. The former is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure book that either heavily modifies the game’s dialogue or totally restructures entire story events. Meanwhile, the latter functions like an Old Norse saga and sci-fi allegory to climate change and the exploitation of indigenous peoples. In simple terms, think of these as more effortful attempts to bring a gritty, mature tone to the Sonic series.

The Recollected Cut is an attempt to make Shadow a more sympathetic protagonist who’s more in the spirit of how he was depicted by the end of Heroes, as well as turning Black Doom into a more complex and threatening antagonist, giving the G.U.N. Commander a stronger arc with more logic behind it, and generally clean up the overall dialogue and story structure. The most vital changes include but are not limited to… deep breath…

…Shadow no longer hating Sonic or humanity at the start; no more explosions after Black Doom’s first appearance; Shadow figuring out that the Chaos Emeralds could be used to restore his memories by remembering what Rouge said about their power creating a miracle in Sonic Adventure 2; Black Doom offering Shadow an opportunity to make up for his betrayal just before Glyphic Canyon as opposed to instantly forgetting to punish him for it; Shadow comedically telling Espio to hit the enter key right before Mad Matrix as opposed to karate-chopping the keyboard; Tails getting distracted and struck by fireworks right before Circus Park instead of randomly crashing; the memory of Maria’s death being recollected during the first chapter; Shadow deciding to hand all of Eggman’s machines to G.U.N. and the Black Arms in the neutral ending instead of pledging to build a robot empire of his own; the G.U.N. Commander having been the son of the last commander and fed the lie that Shadow was responsible for the ARK incident; the inclusion of three last stories for the dark, neutral, and hero paths, respectively; only Sonic appearing on the Black Comet in the last hero story, as well as Shadow hearing from Eggman that he is, in fact, a robotic clone of the original Shadow, which he comes to accept before continuing to keep Gerald’s initial dream for humanity alive; the last dark story featuring Shadow fighting off the last of the G.U.N. fleet, Super Sonic, and the Commander in a prototype of Diablon called Paimon; and the last neutral story featuring Shadow blowing through Metal Sonic’s oceanic headquarters and stopping him from turning Eggman’s minions and the rest of the world into robotic slaves comprised of liquid metal, the final boss of which brings back the unused Sky Chase Dragon from Sonic Adventure.

Phew. BREATHE.

Black Comet, on the other hand, is a standalone prequel, and while I never expect IDW to have their own Black Label like DC, that would be the best division for this graphic novel. Fifty years before Shadow the Hedgehog, Black Doom is revealed to have once been Z9, the son of Emperor Black Fate on the distant planet Nigerheim. Because of its distance from any nearby stars, it relies on a mineral within its mantle called negronite to stay warm. Meanwhile, the United Federation has just discovered that Chaos and the erasure of the Knuckles and Nocturnus tribes were real pieces of the planet Mobius’s history as opposed to local folklore (yes, this negates the clueless recent decision that there’s only one world in this universe), so they need to build their defenses out of a durable yet flexible material like negronite. G.U.N. invades Nigerheim to forcibly mine for the mineral, during which Z9 is brought aboard the Space Colony ARK. There, he meets Maria and assists Gerald with Project Shadow, but he returns home a week later to find his planet starting to freeze over and his father dead. He seeks revenge on his killer, the previous G.U.N. commander, while planning to collect the Chaos Emeralds with Shadow’s help, fend off the human army, and take Earth as their new home.

The story takes heavy inspiration from Old Norse culture and mythology—namely Robert Eggers’s The Northman—so it’s implied that Z9 comes back to life at the end as a partially paranormal life form because he’d previously died in battle, as opposed to his father and grandfather’s cowardly demises. Like Vikings being granted access to Valhalla, Z9 (who’s officially Black Doom at this point) is granted immortality as well as the powers that he would go on to use during his boss fights in Shadow the Hedgehog.

Ever thought “Paint It Black” and “Sympathy For The Devil” by the Rolling Stones would be associated with a Sonic game?

Like I said, I don’t consider either of these to be anything beyond hobbies. In fact, even as Black Comet in particular is being completely reworked as I speak, it’s always remained as little more than a world-building exercise. However, in the portfolio tab of this blog, I’ll be adding my final draft of Black Comet, which will be followed by The Recollected Cut once that project’s finished.

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