CONTENT WARNING!

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

- Bad language
- Mental health topics (autism, grief, etc.)
- Frightening imagery
- Graphic violence
- Flashing imagery (for the epileptic)
- Sexual and suggestive content

…and for reference, I didn’t think you were expecting to see the opening paragraph start out this way when you clicked the link to this post. That’s not to say it isn’t an appropriate starting point, however, as this is how my history with today’s subject matter began. Out of a twelve-child Catholic household (the ’60s were a different time), my mom’s sister Terry ended up having a family of her own, the Magnottis, who’ve certainly made up the bulk of my most colorful relatives. While I want to say there were very early instances taking place at either my Aunt Jen’s or Uncle Dennis’s, it was an ongoing tradition for Terry and company to cruise up north from Virginia and visit us in Pennsylvania every Turkey Day.

In between watching seventy hours of ESPN, they just so happened to waltz in at the start of one week-long vacation with technology from another planet: two popular forms of new-fangled brain junk called a Nintendo 64 and a Nintendo GameCube. Sure, I joined them in playing the original N64 Super Smash Bros. on several occasions—some of which were definitely at Jen’s or Dennis’s—but it took a lot to control Samus Aran with a hand-sized spaceship for a controller, so I gave the GameCube a try to see if my tiny autistic hands could handle it better. Sure enough, they could, and while I did spend many an afternoon gazing at the duking muscular bodies of hulking alien weirdos in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai (none of which resulted in me taking interest in the show), Magnotti cousins like David, Michael, and Jessie agreed to insert a disc for something called a Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, a title that contained too many words for it to even register with me.

What transpired from there was a rollercoaster ride of comforting emotions.

The game hit me like a freight train, combining a unique rock soundtrack, retro character models, and wonderfully utopian environments to form a welcoming atmosphere all around—one that quickly became another in a line of positive hyper-fixations. Within the hour (just so you’re aware, I was a goddamn five-year-old at the time), I’d squashed the liquid body of the vengeful deity Chaos at the start of slick yet wholesome Sonic’s story, earning my way into a hotel’s pool area in a city called Station Square and leaving me mystified at the possibility of unlocking the five other playable characters. Of course, its lack of multiplayer kind of threw a monkey wrench into the likelihood of playing the game again on the Magnottis’ system, not to mention that was both before they stopped visiting altogether and well before my immediate family hauled ass out of Pennsylvania.

After finally getting a GameCube of my own at the Exton Square Mall’s GameStop, I made sure to stock up on worthless shovelware like Pokémon that my sister only played for a good five minutes and revered masterpieces like Shrek: Extra Large that we inexplicably sat through for tens of hours more (and before you ask, the part about Pokémon and Shrek: Extra Large was one hundred percent sarcasm, minus our playtime with either game.) More than anything, though, I made sure to buy every available Sonic game for the system, like “Sonic DX” and “Sonic Adventure Battle 2″—as my true Sonic historian family used to call them—as well as a colorful little gem called Sonic Heroes. Little did I know that these three critically hit-or-miss 3D platformers would become some of my all-time favorite games as much for their dazzling creativity as for general nostalgia.

Okay, there are clear cutoff points where my “Definitive Childhood Sonic Trilogy” began and ended, but we’ll get to my feelings toward the rest of the franchise a little later. I just feel like expressing my adoration for the good ones first.

Ironically, out of the first three games I ever played—Super Smash Bros., Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, and Sonic Adventure DX—the one to truly reel me in was the only one that lacked multiplayer. Then again, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t warranted, given the whirlwind of emotions it gave me, as I mentioned previously. Because I felt this so strongly at the time, it surely has more to do with autism than the amount of nostalgia that admittedly infects it to this day.

This is in no way easy to explain to someone who’s never played the game, but elements like the fuzzy default menu narrator’s voice clips, the blue sky background of the main menu, the upbeat rock theme of the character select menu, the colorful playable characters with their movesets and personalities on display from the start, the cheerful cosmopolitan guitar background theme of Station Square, and countless others carried such a level of harmonic beauty that flooded me with an at times overwhelming sense of comfort early on, even when nothing consequential was happening. This continued on with the retro charm of Dr. Eggman lacking a moving mouth as he belted out his first evil laugh, Sonic’s iconic “You’re gonna crash!” face, and the tropical serenity of Emerald Coast.

To further add to the randomness of this emotional connection, the specific notes and instrumental tracks used in the act two theme of Emerald Coast—somehow more so than those of act one’s theme—stimulated the pleasure centers of my brain in a way that drove my enjoyment all on its own, and I of course mean the wholesome pleasure centers. This profound, borderline surreal and meditative experience continued throughout the rest of the game, from Tikal’s supportive tutorial offerings to E-102 Gamma’s surprisingly somber theme song during the end credits to his story. I literally could not believe that a killer robot’s explosive demise would leave me grieving for as long as it did.

Granted, this game carries an impressive quality that the rest of the games in this trilogy do, which is that I can still appreciate it from a creative and narrative perspective as an adult. Ultimately, none of these games’ writing is outstanding—mainly due to a troublesome tendency for over-explaining and the fact that none of the characters are among my all-time favorites—but it actually surpasses the writing of even classic platformer powerhouses (these games even surpass said powerhouses in a number of other areas, as this game’s camera controls are far more responsive than those of Super Mario 64, although people are still willing to complain about this game’s and not Mario 64‘s because it’s okay when the latter game has a shit camera.) Several of the characters grow and change, the villain’s plot is well thought-out and executed, and the backstory is shockingly deep and turbulent.

I will say that its sequel does a damn fine job of streamlining the story structure since this game, however, as each of the six playable characters (plus Super Sonic) having their own separate storylines does muddy the plot despite all intersecting in a rather cohesive way. There are plot elements that fail to tie together so cohesively, like the premise behind Big’s inclusion, but let me briefly discuss each of the stories for the uninformed. Sonic’s story is based around him and Tails learning that Eggman is plotting to collect the seven Chaos Emeralds, which, when fed to an ancient god of destruction named Chaos, will turn him into an invincible ally that will demolish Station Square, allowing the mad roboticist to build his imperial city on its ruins. So, they naturally set out to collect the Emeralds before he does.

Tails’s story is built around that same premise, but after getting separated from Sonic in the process of tailing the Egg Carrier—Eggman’s newly built flying fortress and one of the three explorable hub worlds—his backstory is revealed, albeit mostly implied, specifically of him having been neglected by others for his two tails before befriending Sonic, who taught him how to use them to fly. By collecting a Chaos Emerald to power his new plane, the Tornado 2, and stopping Eggman from blowing Station Square to smithereens with a missile after his initial plan fails, Tails realizes that it’s high time to stop relying on Sonic for everything and saves the city singlehandedly.

While it seems like a run-of-the-mill arc for a kid’s cartoon, it served to enhance my attachment to Sonic for saving the social life of a kid who was left out for being different, as well as my attachment to Tails for turning what he thought was a problem into an attribute. In fact, while I was still grappling with my autism at the time, my elementary school friend Tommy Donnelly had the same thing and insisted that I treat it as a gift more than anything else, so suffice it to say, this kind of character arc really meant a lot to me. Hell, Tails’s cheesy yet heartwarming theme “Believe in Myself” became my go-to song to calm down during tamper tantrums at the time.

It’s difficult to discuss Knuckles’s story without getting into the game’s backstory, so I’ll try to seamlessly connect the two. Eggman cracks the Master Emerald open back on a floating landmass called Angel Island (no, not San Francisco’s real-world Angel Island), releasing both Chaos and the spirit of an ancient princess named Tikal. Due to Angel Island falling into the ocean as a direct result, Knuckles sets out to collect the pieces and restore the artifact he’d spent his life defending.

Of course, the fact that he’s devoted to protecting the Master Emerald won’t be lost on anyone who’s played the classic games (we’ll be getting to my feelings toward those soon enough), but Knuckles is revealed in this game to have no idea why he was given this task, and this is part of what made the game as influential as it was to the rest of the franchise. His connection to the game’s backstory is never explicitly stated, but throughout each character’s story, they’re shown flashbacks of the Mystic Ruins—the third hub world next to Station Square and the Egg Carrier—thousands of years ago, when it was the capital city of a primitive echidna clan.

After the death of her grandmother and the chief of her people, Tikal’s father Pachacamac (both their names were taken from real-life Mayan city centers) took over the tribe and took on an imperialist stance, conquering other peoples through pillaging and genocide. Having discovered the Master and Chaos Emeralds at their altar, which were guarded by Chaos along with his offspring (adorable puffballs called chao, one of the biggest goddamn highlights of this whole trilogy), pacifistic Tikal had to keep her greed-crazed father from plundering the altar and obtaining the Emeralds’ mystic power for their people.

When Pachacamac and his fellow tribesmen set the altar ablaze and struck down Tikal and the chao, Chaos rebelled by absorbing the Chaos Emeralds, becoming a colossal serpent called Perfect Chaos, and wiping the tribe and its neighboring peoples off the planet. Tikal sealed him inside the Master Emerald to avoid any further destruction, and after her death, her spirit was sealed inside the Emerald with him. Not only is this backstory and the player’s ability to freely explore it piece-by-piece one of the game’s most fascinating aspects, but it also provides a perfect explanation for Knuckles’s lifelong duty: to keep the world from being destroyed by an angry god, as passed down to him by his remaining ancestors before they too disappeared. In other words, it’s like The Cabin in the Woods, but with colorful talking animals.

Brad Pitt: “What’s in the Emerald?! What’s in the Emerald?!”

Yeah… so, let’s try to condense the remaining characters’ stories as much as possible. Amy Rose—Sonic’s girlfriend who was totally overhauled for this game—finds a lost bird being hunted by one of Eggman’s robots. It would turn out later on that the bird has been smuggling a Chaos Emerald, but regardless, Amy sets out to reunite him with his family, initially with the hope that Sonic can offer some help along the way. It’s established early on that Amy has fallen out of contact with Sonic for a long time (presumably since the Classic Era), so after being rescued from Zero, the same robot trying to capture the bird, she decides to give up on being the damsel-in-distress she started as and continue her mission alone, even clobbering Zero to pieces the very next time they meet.

This attempt to give a female character a chance at independence and personal growth was actually pretty subversive for a platformer game, giving more popular damsels-in-distress like Princess Peach a run for their money. Regardless, the bird’s parents turn out to come from an unlikely source: E-102 Gamma, guardian of the Egg Carrier, and his previous model E-101 Beta. After Beta is deconstructed for the spare parts and the rest of the E-Series models are banished from the Egg Carrier, Gamma goes to retrieve the bird from an imprisoned Amy, only to feel a personal connection to the bird and set them both free instead. Following this incident, he acquires a conscience of his own and heads out to destroy his fellow models, understanding now that they’re simply animals contained within robotic shells. Upon hunting down and battling a newly upgraded Beta, he’s faced with his true final target—himself—before dying by Beta’s barely functional hands. Both robots explode, releasing each of the bird’s parents so they can reunite with their child.

Now, the reason I’ve saved Big’s story for last isn’t because I hate the character, as I appreciate that his dopey, bumbling nature is treated with this sweet, laid-back charm as opposed to being used for a cheap joke (Patrick from SpongeBob, a character Big is often compared to, has always been the butt of jokes about his stupidity—it’s just that those jokes always used to land perfectly.) However, the premise of Chaos possessing Big’s pet Froggy to obtain one of the Chaos Emeralds just isn’t necessary except as a means of luring (no fishing pun intended) Big into the plot, as he could simply absorb the Emerald in his puddle form and leave the scene unnoticed.

Ultimately, though, Big uses the crash-landed Tornado 2 to return to his hut from the Egg Carrier, and in Super Sonic’s story, Sonic and Tails fail to stop Chaos from obtaining the final Chaos Emerald from the plane itself. Thus, he becomes Perfect Chaos, annihilates all of Station Square in a disastrous flood (yes, it’s as insane as it sounds), destroys the second Egg Carrier model after its predecessor’s descent into the ocean, and gets defeated by Super Sonic, who’d just used the remaining energy from the fallen Emeralds to transform. Thus, Tikal reconvenes with Chaos in the heavens above, with the city and all of its inhabitants left to rot away in shambles.

See, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this ending is kind of hilarious in hindsight, with the main cast treating this unspeakable extent of death and destruction as a hopeful win. In fact, it’s elevated even higher in my esteem, given how the mass grave of a city’s anime-style denizens is treated as the site of a victorious battle against evil while Sonic Adventure 2 ends with its less stylized humans being allowed to live another day by our heroes. It reminds me of when RedLetterMedia released a re:View episode about the obscure sci-fi schlock-fest The Ice Pirates, in which Jay said the movie would’ve had one of the greatest endings in cinematic history if it ended thirty seconds before it did—namely with everyone except the main character’s son having died from rapid aging due to a time warp, and yet also with the same child being treated as having saved the day.

“All’s well that ends well, right?”

Okay, tonally backwards ending aside, the fact that this game followed a never-before-seen formula (even within its own franchise), with six unique characters boasting their own individual gameplay styles, as well as such a complex yet well-told story, made it truly one of the most influential games of all time… well, it accomplished that for the original release, that is. Yeah, for more than a decade, I was the only member of my family who knew that “Sonic DX” was just a GameCube port of Sonic Adventure for the SEGA Dreamcast. Now, when it comes to discussion surrounding these two versions, the most common talking points you’ll hear are that the Dreamcast release was a masterpiece and that the DX port utterly trashed it by updating the environments, graphics, and character models.

So, the question is, why haven’t I completely given up on the DX port yet? Well, that’s because the gameplay, iconic soundtrack, and retroactively adorable charm are still very much intact, and because it’s the version I knew during the era I grew up in—the Dreamcast predated me by several years. Besides, the DX version features Mission Mode, Metal Sonic as an unlockable character, and a supersonic framerate of 60 FPS as opposed to 30. Plus, quick fades act as fairly seamless transitions between hub world areas instead of lengthy fades, loading screens, and abrupt cutoffs to the background music like on the Dreamcast.

In the first of several instances of something you probably never expected to hear, I like to compare the Sonic franchise from Sonic Adventure onwards to the Star Wars saga. Like A New Hope, Sonic Adventure was the type of groundbreaking title that truly hadn’t been seen before, but like The Empire Strikes Back, Sonic Adventure 2—AKA Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, AKA “Sonic Adventure Battle 2”, AKA “The Chao Garden Game” because that’s all that many people played it for—is such a masterpiece that it practically holds the rest of the franchise together. Basically, what it was supposed to accomplish was enhance what the first Adventure game got right while cutting out all the fat (i.e., the crap it didn’t need), and what came out as a result was the very best kind of sequel.

What kind of sequel is that? Well, instead of just copying the formula beat-for-beat Ghostbusters 2-style, why not create a whole new adventure with a brand-new art style, brilliant stage design with numerous real-world influences, stunningly imaginative futuristic science fiction environments, an endless stream of fun unlockable content, a radically different story structure, and a new band of complex and well-defined characters? Oh, and also a pet simulator so addicting that it’s managed to draw in random people who’ve never played a Sonic game in their lives. When it seemed like no Sonic game was going to top the ingenuity of its predecessor, this game went and topped the record by a country mile. It’s kind of like World War II after World War I, except with fewer… you know… dead Jews and Armenians. There are definitely at least two mass killings involved in the story, though. Those and at least one cow that was killed in the North American marketing campaign.

Believe it or not, it also managed to lure me in with a similar whirlwind of emotions, albeit with more fast-paced rock music. Starting up the GameCube port—the one that I and millions of other people knew, so don’t judge me—I found myself transfixed by the combination of the raining circle pattern on the otherwise dim main menu background; the slow and childlike words of wisdom by the mechanical new tutorial character, Omochao; the more intense Crush 40-esque menu music; the pleasant at-home feel of the new, improved, and revamped Chao World; and the countless multiplayer matches played against family members, each one starting at the tightly populated gamemode and character selection screen for 2P Battle mode.

Unlike Shadow the Hedgehog, the fast-paced and sometimes jazz-accompanied menu music never detracted from the comfort it evoked for me, and the increased presence and involvement of my family in 2P Battle and Chao World only made it feel that much more like a home away from home. Of course, getting most of the family to play anything beyond racing and treasure hunting in 2P Battle after a certain point was a pipe dream, and it wasn’t until disturbingly recent years that they had any clue that multiplayer characters like Tikal and Chaos Zero came from the previous game as opposed to this one… even though their character select descriptions say they debuted in Sonic Adventure. Then again, who am I to judge? I was the weird kid who spent his first year or so with the game calling Chaos Zero “Chads Zero” because the “O” in “CHAOS” looked like a “D”.

Me and my whole family are dyslexic, apparently…

Luckily, the game’s story structure is airtight compared to the last game’s. Instead of six separate character stories plus Super Sonic’s story, this game offers two film-length chapters that tell the same general story from the heroes and villains’ unique perspectives before finishing with the drastically shorter last story, which the player unlocks by completing the first two. Many people complain that the start points, end points, and specific events aren’t always provided in seamless chronological order, but given how easy it is to put the pieces together in one’s head, I don’t necessarily see this as a problem. The story begins with Eggman (Deem Bristow graciously reprises his role) breaking into an underground military facility on Prison Island, a remote landmass located south of San Francisco-inspired Central City, in search of his grandfather’s missing research project. The project turns out to be a brooding black and red hedgehog named Shadow, who promises to bring him the seven Chaos Emeralds and meet him onboard a scientific research center floating in Earth’s exosphere: the Space Colony ARK.

Meanwhile, in the middle of his feud over the Master Emerald near the Great Pyramids of Giza with an arrogant jewel thief named Rouge the Bat, Knuckles keeps Eggman from stealing the artifact by shattering it into pieces, prompting him to challenge Rouge to find all the pieces before he does. After stealing one of the Chaos Emeralds from the federal reserve of Central City, thus getting his lookalike Sonic framed and arrested for the crime, Shadow meets Eggman in the ARK’s central control room and tells him that the weapon of mass destruction built there, the Eclipse Cannon, can be used to hold the planet ransom and build his robot empire, should all seven Emeralds be used to reactivate it—a task that Rouge comes aboard the ARK to offer assistance with.

With help from Tails and Amy, Sonic escapes from his cell on Prison Island, where Eggman, Shadow, and Rouge have returned to steal most of the remaining Emeralds and set off explosives all across the island to cover their tracks. When the Eclipse Cannon’s destructive power is demonstrated by blowing half of Earth’s moon into white stone fragments—followed by an ominous twenty-four-hour countdown until the next launch, this time on Earth—Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy track Eggman’s location from Central City to his base inside one of the Egyptian Pyramids, where they take one of his spacecraft up to the ARK with the intent of disarming its cannon and saving the world from the maniac’s violent conquest.

Yes, that does sound like a mouthful, which is why it’s split into two separate stories, silly. While the story is good overall—especially in the not-so-story-oriented platformer genre—the last story is where it goes from ominous and intense to unexpectedly tragic and moving (but no less corny and melodramatic, which is the way it should probably be anyhow). Even with Eggman having all seven Emeralds in his possession and the Eclipse Cannon having been disarmed by our heroes, a far greater threat is unveiled, that being the relative whose personal diary led Eggman to his discovery of Shadow: Gerald Robotnik.

The birth of the black hedgehog as a research project experimenting with biological immortality to eventually save the life of Maria, the professor’s terminally ill granddaughter and a dear friend of Shadow’s (a side of the story not mentioned verbatim in the game but detailed in the Japanese game guide)—as well as the construction of the Eclipse Cannon—was deemed unlawful by the United Federation of Earth, who sent a strike team up to the ARK to shut down the professor’s research… only for other test subjects like the “Artificial Chaos” to break out and attack, prompting the military to commit an all-out massacre against Gerald’s colleagues as well as Maria, hence Shadow’s desire to annihilate the human race. Before his capture and execution—the final step in the government’s attempt to cover up their actions and claim the massacre as an unavoidable accident—Gerald lost his mind out of grief, having blamed his own research on the deaths of his associates, and activated a revenge-fueled program that would initiate should anyone use the Chaos Emeralds to reactivate the Eclipse Cannon.

Now, with Eggman having fulfilled that very requirement, Gerald sends his chilling final message to the people of Earth as the entire colony hurtles straight toward the blue planet. Since the power of the Emeralds has the potential to blow the planet to pieces upon impact, the heroes and villains alike race toward the core of the Eclipse Cannon to shut down the program using the help of the Master Emerald that Knuckles had recently restored… except for Shadow, that is, who simply watches the program commence, deeming his mission a success. Through Amy’s desperate pleas, however, Shadow recovers his long-lost memory of Maria’s dying wish: to defend the species she loved so dearly. Thus, he teams up with Sonic to defeat the Biolizard—an early prototype of the project that birthed him, a gargantuan reptile wholly devoted to keeping Gerald’s program active—and together in their super forms, they zap the ARK back into orbit… using all of the Chaos energy Shadow has left in him. The story ends with the planet saved, Shadow falling to his death on the planet below, and the rest of the cast coming together in the ARK’s observatory to mourn the black hedgehog as the credits roll.

There’s no doubt that plot holes and other inconsistencies can be cherry-picked from this game’s story, and like I said earlier, the writing of all three games in this trilogy is certainly not the best (we’ll be getting to the real bad examples a little later, though.) Of course, that doesn’t mean I agree with all of the critiques out there, notably the one that claims the game takes itself way too seriously. For me, though? The fact that such a quaint, child-oriented series with such zany, colorful characters tries to tell stories like this about greed, insanity, redemption, and other themes with a straight face in spite of the melodramatic execution is what gives it a lot of its charm. It’s like RedLetterMedia’s re:View episode about the 1990 Ninja Turtles movie, particularly when they bring attention to how grim and atmospheric much of the film feels, even throughout all the high-octane action scenes involving… well… man-sized, anthropomorphic reptiles built by Jim Henson. You appreciate the visual absurdity because it doesn’t come off as dishonest or tongue-in-cheek about the material, yet it still has the same corny execution to keep it family-friendly.

Also, general story oddities can be easily explained away, such as why Eggman plans to strike the Earth with the Eclipse Cannon when it has the capability of destroying a planet. Well, he tells the president of the Federation that his country will cease to exist, so he presumably just intends on making an impact crater and scaring the Federation into surrendering after the lunar demonstration fails to convince them. One that’s arguably even harder to dismiss is the bomb timer on Prison Island, as Sonic’s given eight minutes to escape the island in the hero story while the timer’s shown ticking at one minute in the dark story. Thinking about it in hindsight, though, the explanation seems fairly simple to me: the timer’s at one minute in both stories (we never see it during the hero story), so in the context of the story, Sonic only has that amount of time to make it through Green Forest—the player is given eight minutes because it’s a far more reasonable time limit. As for how and why Sonic has the same ability to utilize Chaos Control as Shadow… I unfortunately don’t have an immediate answer. Maybe, the real Chaos Control was the friends we made along the way.

I am by no means a player who only flocked to this game for Chao World—I find all six characters and all three gameplay styles equally fun and formulaic in their respective stages, and with five missions in each of the thirty-one stages, you’ll have a whole lot more to do after the story than Kart Race and Boss Attack. That isn’t to say raising chao didn’t make up the bulk of this game’s highlights for me and my sisters, though, as I alone have probably spent more than fifty percent more time in this game’s overhauled Chao World than I did in SADX‘s chao gardens. We’d take turns collecting animals and chaos drives in the stages to feed to our chao and boost their stats, quickly unlocking the hero and dark gardens along the way.

If stages like Sky Rail or Cosmic Wall detracted at all from the welcoming vibes of this Sonic trilogy—in which case, they really didn’t whatsoever—then it was thanks to the grassy hills and clear blue water of the neutral garden; the angelic paradise in the clouds that was the hero garden, white marble fountain and all; and the decrepit silver rock plateau of the dark garden with its red water lake that maintained a familiarly homey feel. While we did come damn near close to breeding immortal Chaos chao (but nowhere close to acquiring the rare and adorable Tails, Knuckles, and Amy chao), the one chao to truly stand out in our memories for… some reason was Kimmy, a white hero chao with a bat’s legless lower half and jagged tail, along with a peacock’s green forehead tuft. Since the moment she became engulfed in her death cocoon, we’ve never quite finished mourning her loss as the real saddest death in the game… until I was able to use a chao editor to resurrect her in the PC version many years later. Thank you, mods, for making me understand how much of a fool I was for being so distraught over this.

Pet Sematary can go to hell. I have no regrets about resurrecting my child.

Now, sure, Sonic Adventure and SADX definitely have their fair share of extra content—just take the character upgrades, the hidden hub world chao eggs, Twinkle Circuit, Hedgehog Hammer, the Dreamcast-exclusive DLC events, and the DX-exclusive Mega Drive Collection—but chances are, the time you’ll spend with it will pale in comparison to the additional playtime this game offers. Instead of the unrepeatable A, B, and C missions for each stage in its predecessor, all thirty-one stages have five separate missions that can be replayed for fun or to beat your previous scores! As hard as they can prove at times, the “find the lost chao” missions are admittedly my favorite of these extra missions for the amount of exploration they encouraged (I actually never completed most of these missions growing up, so it was only in recent years that I discovered hidden parts of several levels for the first time!)

Plus, as an advantage of the GameCube version over the original Dreamcast release, the playable character menu themes are available from the start, yet four extra menu themes can be unlocked in different ways—the Amy, Omochao, and Maria menu themes can be bought with rings after a certain number of emblems is earned, and entering a cheat code will unlock a theme centered around and narrated by… the president’s secretary? Yeah, the fact that you can be guided around the menus by a personal secretary (who may or may not secretly be Maria, who was never actually killed in my ultimate pointless fan-theory) is both unexpected and kind of brilliant, now that I think about it. Oh, and you can also replay any part of the story chapter-by-chapter after completing it because this game is objectively better than the previous.

I honestly may have understated my appreciation for the dazzling creativity of SADX‘s soundtrack and stages, but like in most other areas, this game somehow reaches a new high. Not only do the real-world locations that inspired many of the stages add to the inventiveness of their design as opposed to diminishing it, but their theme music manages to fit them to the letter while evoking that same semi-surreal feeling. In a general sense, I can’t offer any praise for City Escape’s theme that hasn’t already been offered, but it’s not like the stage itself and its distinct Northern California flair doesn’t craft an unforgettable gameplay sequence using the downward slopes of San Francisco’s upper residential neighborhoods. Along with that comes Radical Highway, a stage that may not have one of my all-time favorite themes, but the decision to incorporate the towering pipes along the sides of the Golden Gate Bridge for use with the newly introduced rail-grinding mechanic was nothing short of ingenious.

With all due admiration towards Prison Island stages like Security Hall and Metal Harbor—a Rouge and Sonic stage, respectively, that may or may not take inspiration from Alcatraz—space stages like Eternal Engine, Crazy Gadget, Meteor Herd, Final Chase, and Cannon’s Core (I honestly can’t bring myself to put down Mad Space, although I can’t disagree that it’s a vast and disorienting stage to pass) deserve praise for bearing some of the most alien and breathtaking sci-fi settings to not be envisioned or directed by Denis Villeneuve or James Cameron. The blast doors with their eerie roaring sounds, glass-floored corridors with green Matrix digital rain walls, light-speckled hanging towers beneath the ARK, scrolling lights along the rectangular runways, and loop-dee-loops of illuminating rails that form tangled transport routes take such a tiny environment compared to the “blue marble” down below and make it feel fifty times larger, as well as just that much more intriguing to explore.

While the ghost-plagued pyramid interiors just serve as more prime examples of jaw-dropping creativity with real-life influences (Egg Quarters is great for its exclusive stealth mechanic, and it’s hard to put into words how terrified and unprepared I was to come face-to-face with King Boom Boo after the first time I passed Death Chamber), there’s one stage and one part of the overall soundtrack that are worthy of brief discussion yet again: Pumpkin Hill and Knuckles’s rap music. Pumpkin Hill is one of many Sonic stages to act as the perfect Halloween backdrop—Hang Castle and Mystic Mansion are just ahead of it—and while its theme is no doubt catchy, related stage themes like those for Aquatic Mine, Death Chamber, and Meteor Herd are even more impressive examples of rap music in kids media done right.

Aquatic Mine blends together funk, light jazz, and chillwave tracks to create a rather relaxing number; Death Chamber makes for an unexpectedly soothing jazz tune in spite of such a distressing name, especially thanks to the hidden exchange between Sonic and Knuckles that actually had to be censored in the GameCube version for using a swear word; and Meteor Herd seamlessly blends together a set of spacey electronic tracks with top-notch backup vocals to suit the hazardous asteroid mining colony that the stage takes place throughout. It almost makes you forget that the guy who performed the rapping himself falsely claimed that he was never paid for his work after being charged with felony weapon possession. Almost.

You know, on the subject of vocal themes, Sonic Adventure 2 is the definition of memorable in that area, as well… but maybe still not as much as it deserves to be. “Live & Learn” has gone on to become about as beloved as “Escape From the City”, and Eggman’s theme titled… well… “E.G.G.M.A.N.” (yes, that is how his name’s spelled) blows the roof off as much as it makes the opportunity to wreak havoc as him that much more appealing. I get the feeling that I’m probably not alone with my preference of this game’s “It Doesn’t Matter” cover over the Sonic Adventure version and Tails and Knuckles’s themes from Sonic Adventure over their covers in this game, but this is where my viewpoints start to become comparatively unpopular. What the hell else is new?

First off, I’m not a huge fan of “Throw it All Away” until it gets somber and vengeful during the chorus, as I normally like more harmonic songs with a rigid and consistent tune, and “Throw it All Away” feels somewhat random and sloppy in that department (again, until the chorus, especially when it’s repeated at the end). Second of all, I’ve developed a strong adoration for “Fly in the Freedom” in recent years, as it used to be another case of my dumb little kid self hating “girly stuff” like Amy’s theme. It’s a lovely and supremely underrated jazz club number that still manages to surprise me with how rarely people talk about it nowadays. As for the Biolizard boss theme, “Supporting Me”, I’d call it underrated if there hadn’t been, like, five official covers made of it since this game, but it has this tragic and chaotic darkness to both its lyrics and its overall sound, seemingly having been written from the perspective of Shadow or Gerald after the ARK incident.

If you recall, I made it clear that the voice actors for these games make all the difference in my overall enjoyment, and more than any other, this game’s the gold standard when it comes to the characters and their voice actors… well, for the most part, at least. An opinion that you’ll be hearing a few times across this blog is that I much prefer taking more time to flesh out a cast of fewer characters than doing less to develop a larger cast. As much as I admire Heroes and its impressive number of playable characters, this game actually benefits from featuring a smaller cast, as its individual members are defined far better as a result.

While Sonic remains so naturally affable thanks to Ryan Drummond reprising his role, he’s given a crucial weakness: a comparative lack of intelligence, which is how Eggman is able to ambush, trap, and come within moments of killing his “admirable adversary”. Not only does this play a key role in making Eggman look like a true genius over the course of the story, but it also embodies why Sonic so desperately needs a wise techie like Tails by his side, who’s still demonstrating his independence after the last game while never holding back from sounding adorably chipper, thanks to his returning actor. Interestingly, Knuckles’s new actor in this game is one of the best actors in general throughout the franchise due to the slickness and believability in his performance, although Amy’s innocence is emphasized a little too much over her stronger side within the writing (the fact that she gets held hostage by Eggman kind of dampens her character arc from the last game, but I’m willing to look past it as she rescues Sonic earlier in the same game, convinces Shadow to save the world in the last story, and never gets captured once in Heroes.)

It’s here, however, that we get introduced to the best voice actors for two of the best characters: David Humphrey as Shadow and Lani Minella as Rouge. With Shadow being as dubious and reflective as he is, the magic of David Humphrey’s performance is the emotional range he brings to the table, as he doesn’t sound nearly as sinister as, say, Jason Griffith—when he takes a heroic turn at the end, his tone is versatile enough to suddenly sound positive and determined without much of a shift in the overall delivery. As for the latter newcomer, Rouge is not an especially popular character due to her… ahem… hourglass curves and jiggle physics, but the surprising thing is that she really isn’t sexualized at all in terms of her personality or how other characters perceive her. Instead, she’s emphasized as being proud and cunning, and characters like Knuckles and Eggman see right through her worldly swagger—she never gets ogled at once (until Sonic X, of course, where the non-diegetic saxophone keeps ogling her every goddamn time she appears onscreen), and following Shadow’s sacrifice, we even get to see her show a stronger adoration for something other than riches.

Remember the Star Wars comparison I made all the way at the start of the last section? Well, in line with that comparison, if Sonic Adventure is like A New Hope and Sonic Adventure 2 is like The Empire Strikes Back, then Sonic Heroes is mighty comparable to Return of the Jedi. How so, you may ask? Well, what I mean is that it’s very good—phenomenal in some areas—but the problems to come have begun to seep their way in. I’ll be very vocal about those problems as we go, but although it’s ranked as my third favorite of the only three Sonic games I still enjoy, its positive aspects deserve to be emphasized. You know what? We’ll play it by ear and find a healthy balance along the way.

In simple terms, Sonic Heroes is the last great Sonic game in my opinion, as it features the final remaining traces of what’s always drawn me to the series. For instance, this is technically the last time the voice actors I’d grown to love lent their unmatched vocal performances to the franchise (although some, like Ryan Drummond and David Humphrey, had a few of their previous lines reused in Sega SuperStars as their last official credits), both due to the expiration of their contracts and the unfortunate death of Deem Bristow in 2005. We’ll get into the voice-acting a little later, but for the record, it’s pretty clear that this game was meant to be a lighter and simpler change in direction since the unusually grim and momentous adventure that came before it, making it more colorful and upbeat than even Sonic Adventure.

The pure tone and simplified story structure, as well as the all-new three-member team gameplay, embody what makes the Adventure games so memorable: each game feels totally fresh and new compared to the last. Sonic Adventure 2 carried over some of the gameplay styles from the first game, but the physics, soundtrack, character abilities, extra content, and the rest of the general execution made it stand out as its own separate experience. Now, while there are clear parallels between the two Adventure games, Heroes is notable for being utterly unrecognizable, with loose and bouncy physics, three character classes that can be rotated between on the fly, and a lively visual style that really pops thanks to the distinct glossy finish applied to the character models. The visual style was basically repeated for Sonic Riders a few years later, except this game actually gives the characters their proper bodily proportions. I have said visual style; the enormous, fantastical, oftentimes idealistic landscapes; and the jovial, borderline celebratory soundtrack to thank for the smörgåsbord of happy vibes that still keep me smiling as I continue to replay it.

Damn. He just got stung.
R.I.P. Matthew Nelson. I’m sure Gunnar will carry on whatever legacy you had.

…let’s move onto the negative examples, shall we?

Then, there’s the prequel trilogy equivalent.

It’s okay, Sonic isn’t dead. That’s just a rubber Sonic doll.
Shortly after this was taken, he was formally charged with the desecration of Deem Bristow.

…oh, you know what? Fuck it. At the end of the day, the Chaos Emeralds are collected around the world and used to revive Sonic along with a kiss from Elise—something that’s as notoriously creepy as it is nonsensical—thus turning him into Super Sonic, who then transforms Shadow and Silver into their own super forms. They defeat Solaris together, Elise almost lets the world burn so her and Sonic can be together, and the timeline is reset so none of the game’s events ever happened. Look, if you think from a narrative perspective as often as I do, you’d be able to tell that this game’s plot is (a) an overstuffed mess, and (b) about thirty-six-point-eight percent more jumbled than either of the two Adventure games. One of the main reasons for this is that the Adventure games had their own separate thematic focuses: Sonic Adventure was more focused on mythical gods and ancient civilization, and Sonic Adventure 2 was centered more on futuristic technology and scientific research. Whether you could or should try balancing out both focuses at once, Sonic ’06 did not do it well because it overcomplicated the story and muddled the emotional core as a result.

Now, perhaps, the romance between Sonic and Elise was intended as the emotional core, but there’s good reason for why it’s left fans and players feeling little more than discomfort with the boiling intensity of a thousand suns. See, when the first Sonic game was being planned out in 1990, the idea of a human girlfriend for Sonic was brought forth, much like Pauline from the original Donkey Kong and Peach from Super Mario. So, what happened to her, you may ask? Well, obviously, she was scrapped in the end, and a replacement was offered years later in Sonic CD. That turned out to be Amy, who was and always has been a far better match due to being the same species. In other words, Sonic characters like Sara from the 1996 anime, Princess Elise, Shahra the Genie, and Merlina the Sorceress are proof that Sonic Team has always been plagued by an obsessive-compulsive and paraphilic urge to develop sexual chemistry between human women and a male rodent.

Well, that’s quite a doozy of a flubbed story, alright, but in spite of the few story issues with the Dreamcast Era games, they at least feature quality characters to compensate for them, right? Well, (a) none of those games’ stories have the same surplus of issues as that of Sonic ’06, and (b) Sonic ’06 does not have quality characters. Even the ones who were quality. You have Sonic and Tails, one of my favorite fictional duos, coming off as clueless while Knuckles… well, I mean, how can you care about a character with a voice like the one Dan Green gives him?

Hell, I haven’t even brought up all the obvious hints throughout the story that Team Sonic fails to take, like Eggman’s proclamation that he can alter the flow of time itself, as immediately after Shadow tells the team that they’re in the future, Tails shouts, “That means Eggman can control time!” Moreover, after Shadow clarifies that the future is “far removed from our own timeline,” Knuckles grovels over how it can possibly be their future. When he’s already been told it wasn’t. Moving onto the other characters, however, Amy is sometimes assertive but still somehow okay with her boyfriend cheating on her, and Shadow is the epitome of a wet blanket—arguably even more so than in the last game. Furthermore, all of his Chaos-based abilities do little more than make it clear that Chaos Control has no clear rules, and it’s even revealed that the same bracelet Rouge was given during Sonic Adventure 2‘s bittersweet ending was one of his two “inhibitor rings”. So, what happens when both are removed?

Well, he… uhhh… blows up everything behind him as he skates because explosions are CCCOOOOOOLLL!!! I guess.

As always, I adamantly refuse to withhold my contrarian nature, this time by slamming new and returning characters that everyone else seems to love: Silver, Blaze, and Mephiles. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about Mephiles other than his weak motivations, uninspired resemblance to Shadow, and the most disastrous factor—his voice lent by Dan Green as the guy’s second terrible performance in the same game (no personal attack on him, of course). His one good moment made it into the Archie comics, where Scourge the Hedgehog storms out of the prison cafeteria, and we see Mephiles in an orange jumpsuit mumbling, “That guy needs to lighten up.”

Moving on, Silver and Blaze are strange cases where everyone seems to like them for reasons that just aren’t there, namely their apparent identities as a futuristic warrior and princess, respectively, both of whom actually turn out to be insecure nerds who aren’t up to their own duties. The problem here is that this trait of theirs is never reflected in their arcs or personalities, as both characters are stone-faced bores with zero charm and very little motivation for their heroic turns. I can see them working if their insecurities were reflected in their backstories as well as the things they said and did, like if Blaze was established as the child of and heir to a royal family, and her “destiny” to take the throne had pressured her into giving off the illusion of confidence and worldly prestige. She could stumble over her words constantly and demonstrate a recurring lack of self-esteem, with other characters and potential friends like Amy and Cream having to make she knows that she doesn’t have to try so hard to be someone she’s not.

To some extent, the IDW comics gave a touch of this to Silver, as he’s significantly more nervous and wholesome in that, but that hasn’t applied to him in any of the games until Team Sonic Racing, and there’s also the highly damaging factor of him being… ahem… an egregiously whiny and unlikable character in his writing and vocal performance. The only time that the game and I are ever on the same page is the money shot of Shadow freezing time to troll him mid-punch and ultimately roundhouse-kick him in the temple, a highlight that’s desperately calling for for a ten-hour loop.

“Nice running style, loser!”

Yes, there are small bits of humor scattered throughout these games, but I feel like the weaker qualities tend to outweigh even the amazing idea of Sonic’s friends becoming mythical characters (they’re a tad more prominent in Black Knight than in Secret Rings, as the latter spends far more time on new characters like Erazor Djin and King Solomon), which just makes said idea feel all the more wasted. I should specify, however, that even as a kid, I never bothered to actually play either game, and I never would. This makes the whole topic as difficult for me to talk about as Rush or Colors, so most of what I’ll be setting my sights on relates to the execution of what I already know, which is… most of these games and their stories. Both stories begin with more or less the same basic premise of Sonic paradoxically crossing over into an alternate reality, which leads him to cross paths with a female guide (Shahra in Secret Rings and Merlina in Black Knight).

In Secret Rings, he and Shahra must collect the seven World Rings for the main antagonist, Erazor Djin, Shahra’s father and a tyrannical genie who hopes to retell the stories of the Arabian Knights in his image. In Black Knight, Sonic must collect the swords wielded by the Knights of the Round Table (Shadow as Sir Lancelot, Knuckles as Sir Gawain, and Blaze as Sir Percival) to stop a corrupted King Arthur, only to learn that Merlina and her grandfather Merlin have manipulated him into helping them transform the world into a rigid, unchanging realm. Sonic also obtains additional guidance in the latter from a wisecracking sword (yes, that part is true), a proto-Excalibur of sorts named Caliburn. Admittedly, these games’ stories at least benefit from being streamlined compared to that of ’06, although Secret Rings does oddly give Sonic motivation to collect the World Rings by having him pierced in the chest by Erazor Djin with a fire arrow to save Shahra, and instead of this killing him on the spot, the power-crazed genie promises to remove it if he collects the World Rings for him. In other words, Sonic needs a self-serving reason to save the world instead of just being a selfless hero.

“I already got struck through the chest by Mephiles! How bad can another impalement be?”

Surely, there are strange quirks to the gameplay of either game—notably the inability to move around freely, as the player can only stop and strafe backwards—but most of these are related to the Wii and the sporadic responsivity of its motion controls, so suffice it to say, I don’t have much experience (or care, for that matter) in this area. To be fair, I did used to watch videos of these games’ stories growing up despite never having experienced them firsthand, and the deciding factor to keep me away from them is the attempt to turn the Sonic franchise into an edgy teen adventure series with a swashbuckling protagonist and over-the-top action sequences. This rings true all the way through their final chapters, with Sonic and Shahra bringing the World Rings to Erazor Djin inside his palace at the end of Secret Rings, only for the genie to murder his own daughter and harness the Rings’ power for himself. Because he fails to fully harness them, he transforms into a disfigured demon called Alf Wayla-Wa-Layla (named after a Middle Eastern folktale saga), forcing Sonic to somehow also absorb the Rings and overcome him in a rage-fueled form known as Darkspine Sonic.

The final scene is a perfect encapsulation of where the tone of this series went wrong, as Sonic takes a seat on Erazor’s throne, angrily demands three wishes, and basically tortures the wishes out of him with his own lamp before trapping him back inside said lamp. It’s done with the mindset of Sonic being a badass action hero when, even during impressive moments like the time he cheats death in Sonic Adventure 2 using Chaos Control, he carries the same laid-back purity that defines who he is (and who his audience is) by design—having him topple the lead villain in such a ruthless manner goes against his very nature. I mean, seeing Darkspine Sonic scream bloody murder as he begs for Shahra’s power and smashes away at the peg on Alf Wayla-Wa-Layla’s back is just plain scary, and if there’s a character who you should never, ever feel afraid of, it’s Sonic the bright blue, child-oriented Hedgehog.

Black Knight‘s final chapter has a similar problem, with Sonic donning Excalibur and the solid gold armor of his Excalibur form as he dukes it out with Merlina’s Dark Queen alter-ego, but at least you get to hear “Seven Rings in Hand” during the final boss of Secret Rings instead of migraine-inducing crap like “With Me”. Never has a song begged for involvement from Crush 40 so badly, and those metalhead bastards actually made a cover, goddamn it!

That’s where we should segue into the last aspect of these two games that I have any real authority on: the music. I’m not going to lie to you, the soundtrack to Secret Rings is rock-solid, as it boasts a catalog of kickass numbers like “Let the Speed Mend It”, “High and Broken”, and “How it Started” that could actually compliment Adventure game stages rather well. My only problem lies in the fact that these were all done for a mainstream Sonic game, not a darker spinoff like Shadow the Hedgehog, and even great songs like “No Way Through”, “Blue on the Run”, and “It Has Come to This” are just too hardcore compared to, say, Emerald Coast and Metal Harbor.

Now, as for Black Knight’s soundtrack, it takes that tonal enigma about fifteen steps further by simply banging way too hard. “Misty Lake” is pleasant enough, and a gorgeous acoustic cover of “It Doesn’t Matter” was recorded for it, but even quality stuff like “Knight of the Wind” is too much for this material.

It should’ve been made clear as day throughout the latter half of this overwhelmingly long post that I really don’t have much passion or affection for the vast majority of the Sonic franchise, as I only really hold three games dear to this day. Why is that? Am I a fraud? Am I not the fan I claim to be? Am I a maverick who does things his own way?

Perhaps, the answer is yes, yes, and yes, but for the most logical solution, we can’t focus on where this post ended up, but rather where it began—it all started with five-year-old me, playing video games with relatives he’d only get to see less and less often as the years went on. It was about emotion, intrigue, the times spent with family, and the connections I formed with the things I loved, and I really did feel a connection to the three games I talked about earlier. Sure, my love for them led me to act like I loved all the other games as they came out, and I could only play Sonic ’06 for a half hour before realizing it wasn’t the Sonic I knew, but at this point, I’m old enough to analyze the series more critically without losing that initial connection. It’s just that I don’t have to cringe at Dan Green’s delivery with these three games, nor do I have to sift through a convoluted mess of a plot looking for a sign of reason that simply isn’t there, and nor do I have to feel bothered or overstimulated by the metal-accompanied sword fights between two angry talking rodents.

No, my Definitive Childhood Sonic Trilogy isn’t perfect, but I don’t feel like I have to complain about them too much, either. If I can’t just relax and play the games from a franchise, and if I have to ramble on about how grungy, unfocused, and uninspired the later material has become over the years, then what’s the point?

So, yeah… at the end of the day, the answer is clear, which is that I’m not a Sonic fan. I used to be, but that’s long since passed. I’m a fan of quality entertainment, but not without the willingness to ignore inconsequential flaws if I can feel good and enjoy it. Hell, throughout the process of writing this, I’ve watched at least two longplays for GameCube games I used to play as a kid, and sure, many of them aren’t that great—a number of them are Super Mario games, and boy, do I have a lot to say about that series a couple posts from now—but that’s okay, because I formed similar emotional connections with them like the ones I formed with my Definitive Childhood Sonic Trilogy. Whether I’m watching longplays of these games or emulating them on Dolphin with an Xbox controller plugged in, it doesn’t matter as long as I can hear the sounds, listen to the music, watch the retro graphics, and control the low-poly characters because it all brings back feelings that would otherwise be long gone. In fact, between Smash Bros. 64, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, and the smörgåsbord of obscure GameCube games me and my family used to play—from a Rugrats platforming adventure to a chaotic theme park management sim—I get the feeling this won’t be the last you’ll hear or see of them on this blog!

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