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The History of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Dark Era

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.

"Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)" Artwork

"Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)" Artwork

Recap

After discontinuing the Sega Dreamcast, Sega retired from making video game consoles and became a third-party publisher. Their biggest change came in a form of a partnership with their former rival, Nintendo. Sega released new Sonic games and ports exclusively on their systems.

With help from a newly developed studio known as Dimps, they were able to create a solid and successful trilogy of handheld Sonic titles for the Game Boy Advance that paid tribute to the Genesis' gameplay style. Sonic Team also had their first multi-platform experience when creating a new 3D game when taking influence from Dimps, along with a spin-off fighting game for the GameBoy Advance. While both of these games gathered a new generation of fans, thanks to the "Year of Sonic", they were neither considered critically nor ranked as one of the best in the franchise's history.

Things took an unexpected turn when the Dreamcast actors had to be replaced under a secret business decision from Sega and one of their actors passed away. So, the 4Kids voice actors, who voiced their respective characters on the Sonic X English dub, took over for upcoming Sonic titles. Not to mention, that the seventh-generation video game consoles were around the corner. Questions began to arise: What's next for Sonic? Where would the series go from there?

Well, Sega and Sonic Team decided to take and experiment with the franchise in a series of different directions that would literally change its history. The first was returning to spin-off territory starring one of the series' fan-favorite characters. Even so, that choice took a dark, DARK twist whether intentional or not. Pick a side and choose your weapon because Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) is storming in.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. Please do not harass anyone associated with Sega mentioned in this article, and please respect their privacy, especially if anything mentioned here is something they do not wish to talk about.

"Shadow the Hedgehog (2005)" Cover Art

"Shadow the Hedgehog (2005)" Cover Art

Shadow the Hedgehog (2005)

Still suffering from amnesia, Shadow the Hedgehog must find all seven Chaos Emeralds to learn more about his past. During his journey, he encounters Sonic and his friends, aliens known as the Black Arms, and the Guardian Units of Nations (G.U.N.) where both of their leaders share a connection with Shadow. Shadow now has three choices: heroically aid Sonic in fighting the aliens, go solely neutral, or evilly join the Black Arms in Earth's destruction.

After completing Sonic Heroes, Sonic Team USA was renamed "Sega Studio USA" while rumors began with Sega releasing an online poll asking fans which character would star in their own game. While Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Eggman were possible candidates, Shadow the Hedgehog was the winner. However, the poll wasn't the main reason why the game's development began, it was more likely due to the character's popularity and fan requests. Takashi Iizuka was also looking for a game that would not only target young children but older audiences as well. Because of his experience with Shadow since Sonic Adventure 2, Iizuka felt it would be a great opportunity to include more story elements that would explore the character's mysterious nature and origins while answering fans' questions. Actually, he also served as the game's writer, besides being the director.

The biggest change that Sonic Team went through during development was giving the game a darker tone to compliment the character and his design more than in the early 3D Sonic titles. To get the aesthetic and atmospheric feel around the character, the team took inspiration from films, such as Constantine, Underworld, and the Terminator series. You know, the typical family-friendly movies. That dark nature also included riding vehicles and the use of weapons. Speaking of the latter, Yuji Naka had received letters from Japanese fans (especially children) asking Sonic to have a gun. If you remember during both Sonic Adventure games' development, Naka felt it was inappropriate for Sonic or any character to wield weapons, even though they found a compromise with the shooting levels. However, the team wanted to create a "gun action" game that would focus on speed and shooting at the same time. After consideration, Shadow has been deemed a suitable character for this type of gameplay.

That decision caused controversy when the game was initially rated "T" (Teen) with the violence being cranked up, blood presented in both human and alien enemies when damaged, and mild profanity. Due to that, Sega was looking for anyone thirteen or older to play the demos during game trade shows or events. Lucky for the company, the ESRB updated its rating system, and Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) was one of the first video games to be rated "E10+" (Everyone 10 or older). Having its new rating also applied some censorship when localizing the game. These changes include omitting human blood, making the alien blood color green instead, and some swearing removed during translation (occasionally a few characters would say either "h***" or "d***"). Besides Shadow, other characters that said the "d"-word include Knuckles, Espio, the G.U.N. Commander, and even Sonic at one point.

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With the plot heavily revolving around Shadow, many factors from Sonic Adventure 2 have appeared and are referenced throughout the story. These include characters like Maria and Prof. Gerald Robotnik, locations such as Prison Island and the Space Colony ARK, and the military organization Guardian Units of Nations (G.U.N.) would appear as either allies or enemies. Carried over from other Sonic titles are the Eggman Fleet, Egg Pawns, and Shadow Androids from Sonic Heroes and Central City from Sonic Battle appears as the main setting.

While Sonic, Eggman, and nearly the entire cast of Sonic Heroes appeared as supporting characters, new characters were added to the mix. Character designer Kazuyuki Hoshino was in charge of creating the new alien species known as the Black Arms. These creatures were given more grotesque and fleshy appearances in order to stay consistent with the dark tone. Though it was never confirmed, their leader and main antagonist Black Doom visually resembles Wizeman, the main antagonist from Nights into Dreams. Similarities include their style of clothing, being "blood-related" to the protagonist, and having a power that would watch over people. In Doom's case, it's his third eye that takes the form of a tentacled organism known as "Doom's Eye" which helps Shadow complete missions.

Another addition was the G.U.N. Commander who serves a personal grudge against Shadow and is one of the first Sonic characters with heterochromia. His real name was never addressed in the game until later in Archie Comics where it is revealed to be "Abraham Tower."

Besides the fact that the game follows traditional gameplay mechanics from previous Sonic titles, each level throughout Shadow's story is mission-based, which is similar to the Team Chaotix missions from Sonic Heroes. However, each mission is represented by three different options: Hero, Neutral, or Dark. For example, in the first stage Westopolis, Shadow would either help Sonic defeat a number of aliens, straightforwardly reach the Goal Ring, or assist Devil's Eye in defeating a number of G.U.N. soldiers. Completing one of these missions would not only progress to the next level but also affect the plot around him. This concept was based on the scrapped branching pathway element from Sonic Adventure 2, which surprisingly fits into the hero/villain motif around Shadow this time. Despite that Shadow is the only playable character in the main campaign, Sonic and his friends (excluding Cream, Charmy, Eggman, and Doom's Eye) are only playable in two-player co-op mode with different attacks.

In an interview with 1Up.com, Iizuka described:

"Shadow the Hedgehog has a much darker personality than Sonic the Hedgehog. In Sonic the Hedgehog, your typical mission was to go out and beat the bad guys, it gives the players a choice to either take the side of the good hero guys or to take the side of the bad buys, giving the player the option to choose in the game."

— Takashi Iizuka, director and writer of Shadow the Hedgehog

A unique mechanic added to the gameplay was the Hero and Dark gauges. Whatever side Shadow is on, defeating enemies fills up either gauge. If the Hero Gauge is fully charged, Shadow would perform "Chaos Control" which would allow him to fast-forward through stages and slow down time during boss battles. If the Dark Gauge is charged, Shadow would use "Chaos Blast" that would wipe out all enemies instantly. Even if either gauge is maximumly full, Shadow would be invincible and get unlimited ammunition. Speaking of weapons, Shadows uses a variety ranging from guns, bazookas, lasers, and turrets to close combat weapons. Completing enough missions would also unlock exclusive weapons, namely a samurai blade, a healing gun, and an egg-like vacuum gun that is influenced by another Sonic Team game, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. For vehicles, Shadow would deliberately or mandatorily ride motorcycles, armored trucks, or air saucers over inaccessible areas, and a jumping mech for higher ascension platforming.

Structurally, the player would go through six stages at any time out of the total number of 22 presented. However, combining the stages, the number of branching missions, and ten non-canonical bosses all together, there are a total of 326 different possibilities for completing the game! To unlock the final story segment, the player must beat all ten non-canon endings, regardless of what path chosen, to reach the true ending.

While the in-game cutscenes were made under the Renderware game engine used for Sonic Heroes, the CGI cutscenes were handled by a new visual effects company named Blur Studio. Contrasting Vision Scape, the cinematics are more realistically textured, the colors are subdued, and the character models and animations are more expressive and polished. Two visual effect artists that were involved in the game's production were Tim Miller and Jeff Fowler. Sound familiar? Well, let's just say that they would play a historically significant contribution to Sonic's legacy later down the line in our story.

As mentioned from the beginning, Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) was the first Sonic game to be voiced by the 4Kids cast. These replacements include:

  • Jason Griffith as Sonic the Hedgehog and Shadow the Hedgehog
  • Mike Pollock as Dr. Eggman and Gerald Robotnik
  • Amy Palant as Tails (P.S. the was the first where Tails would be voiced by actresses onward)
  • Lisa Ortiz as Amy
  • Dan Green as Knuckles
  • Kathleen Delaney as Rouge
  • David Willis as Espio
  • Amy Birnbaum as Charmy
  • Carter Cathcart as Vector
  • Rebecca Honig as Cream and Maria Robotnik
  • Jeff Kramer as Omega

A couple of remarkable English actors included were Andrew Rannells, Maddie Blaustein, and Sean Schemmel. Andrew Rannells was a former 4Kids voice actor/director that eventually became a Broadway star after the company went bankrupt. Maddie Blaustein (as the voice of the President) was a voice actress known for her variety of voices, including male characters, especially as Meowth's original long-running voice in the Pokémon anime. Lastly, Sean Schemmel, well-known as the voice of Son Goku in the Dragon Ball franchise, supplied the voice of Black Doom.

Jun Senoue composed the game's soundtrack where certain musical pieces went for a more heavy metal approach to coincide with the game's tone. Continuing the tradition of character theme songs, different themes were used to reflect on which specific ending the player chooses. Yet, there were a couple of tracks that Senoue wanted but was unsuccessful in getting.

The first was "Who I Am" written by rock band Magna-Fi, which was intended to be the game's main theme song. However, it was removed due to licensing and copyright issues. However, Magna-Fi wrote another song "All Hail Shadow" which served as the Pure Hero ending theme. Another song "Broken" performed by Sins of a Divine Mother was planned to be included, but couldn't contact nor reach a negotiation with the lead singer on licensing. Thankfully, two former members of that band formed a new rock band called "A2" (now called "Mona Lisa Overdrive") and wrote the semi-Hero theme "The Chosen One." Julien-K, who performed Team Dark's theme, returned for the Neutral ending theme "Waking Up." Metal band Powerman 5000 performed "Almost Dead" which was the Pure Dark ending theme. On a side note, an English recording artist named Bentley Jones, known for remixing Sonic songs was brought on board to compose a "Doc. Robeatnix Mix version of E.G.G.M.A.N."

As for the new main theme song "I Am ...All of Me", it was performed by none other than Crush 40 themselves which was given a more industrial rock approach when comparing their previous tracks. They also wrote the last story credits song "Never Turn Back."


Reception & Legacy

Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) was released for the Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox on November 14, 2005, in North America, a couple of days later in Europe, and a month later in Japan. As we discover the untold story of the "Ultimate Lifeform", that experience turned out to be...a mess.

Critics and gamers found the game's new mature tone as "unwelcoming" and "dumb" while the plot was ridiculed as "laughable" and "doesn't make any sense." For the addition of weapons and vehicles, they were characterized as "useless" with the guns lacking a target lock or manual aim and certain vehicles making level progression feel clunky. The controls were no better where platforming felt slippery and using the Homing Attack would lead to cheap deaths. The level design was also mixed where some noticed appeal and features that carry the fast-paced nature of a 3D Sonic title while others were "extremely frustrated" when tasking specific missions during poorly constructed levels. With multiple pathways and endings chosen, that aspect was highly praised for benefitting the game's replay value.

In spite of the criticisms, Shadow managed to become a commercial hit. According to financial reports from March 2006 to 2007, the game sold a total of at least 2.06 million units worldwide. These earnings also re-branded the game as part of the Gamecube's "Player's Choice" line (with 250,000 copies sold) and Playstation 2's "Greatest Hits" line (with 400,000 copies sold). Confoundingly, the game was voted the best game of 2005 in the Official Jetix Magazine Reader Awards and Nintendo Power readers named it "Best Platformer" that same year.

Still and all, these accomplishments weren't enough to sustain its legacy. Many fans to this day consider this game to be an absolute joke and attempting to make a "dark and edgy" Sonic game felt more a product of its time. Even those who generally enjoy Shadow found his character arcs and ending routes to be utterly ridiculous by the franchise standards. Come to think of it, based on one of the above criticisms, some fans would find the game so bad, that is entertaining. It is highly evident with the Internet memes involving dialogue like "Where's that d*** fourth Chaos Emerald?" or "Find the computer room!" It is also possible that there are minorities out there that grew up and enjoyed the game, since that was Iizuka's intention of appealing to older audiences. Yet, both Sega and Sonic Team soon realized their mistake. True, there was potential for fleshing out of Shadow, in terms of character and story, but it was the wrong direction in the end. There are still fans that still enjoy Shadow today, just not this game. With the franchise's fifteenth anniversary on the horizon, Sega would have to work hard in creating an experience that fans will never forget. But, to quote Eggman from Sonic Heroes: "This is only the beginning!"

Meanwhile, the Nintendo DS was launched onto the market and Sega would need a new handheld Sonic game that would capitalize on its success. Dimps was up to the task of doubling the screens with doubling up the characters. This was Sonic Rush.

"Sonic Rush" Cover Art

"Sonic Rush" Cover Art

Sonic Rush (2005)

The game follows two intertwining stories where Sonic goes on his usual outings against Dr. Eggman while a mysterious character from a parallel dimension suddenly appears on a personal journey.

Early development began ever since the Nintendo DS made its debut in gaming where it emphasizes a dual screen feature. While the top screen was the main and traditional screen, the bottom was a touch-screen for interactive purposes using a stylus. Sega wanted to create a Sonic game that would take advantage of its new capabilities and commissioned Dimps, the same development team behind the Sonic Advance 3 trilogy, for the new entry. To test the system, they released a short demo during E3 where gameplay involved using the DS's touch screen to make Sonic run along a fixed path and trying to complete a simple race course in a singular 3D level. After the demo, production began with Yuji Naka as producer and the Advance trilogy director Akinori Nishiyama was in charge, alongside writing the story, under the original title "Sonic DS."

Various concept art and finalized design of "Blaze the Cat"

Various concept art and finalized design of "Blaze the Cat"

the-history-of-sonic-the-hedgehog-the-dark-era

Since the game's story was about characters from another dimension, Nishiyama designed a new character who is described as an "equivalent yet alternative version" of Sonic's character. Instead of just creating another hedgehog, they decided to go with a cat. Ironically, the character was originally very similar to Shadow where her appearance was more of a silhouette form. Another design close to her finalized look had her wear Arab-like clothing, including a shalwar and a mid-riff top. Being born to royalty with pyrokinesis abilities, this character became known as Blaze the Cat. Instead of Chaos Emeralds, Blaze uses Sol Emeralds to protect her imperial world and would transform into Blazing Blaze.

Of course, it wouldn't be an alternative Sonic character without having their own arch-nemesis. Her enemy is Dr. Eggman's distant-future relative known as Eggman Nega. While he shares similarities with his counterpart, Eggman Nega is more sadistic and power-hungry when he attempts to destroy the world rather than rule it.

Since this game is a 2D platformer, Dimps continues to make the gameplay similar to the Sonic Advance games with a couple of big additions and differences. First off, only Sonic and Blaze are playable this time while Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Cream appear as supporting characters. Using both of the Nintendo DS's screens, they are allowed to display the scope of each level where Sonic or Blaze could explore and be aware of their surroundings. Taking notes from Sonic Advance 2, both the boost and trick action mechanics were retooled using the "Tension Gauge." Whenever destroying enemies, reaching checkpoints, or performing tricks, the Tension Gauge will be full and its energy will allow Sonic and Blaze to boost at faster speeds and plow through any enemy in their paths without damage. Sonic Rush was also the first handheld game to use the ranking system from the 3D games with "S" becoming the newest and highest ranking letter over "A."

Although the game is primarily 2D, Sonic Team conceived the idea of making it a "2.5D" formatted game where it combines both 2D and 3D elements. Nishiyama still wanted to maintain some 2D elements but explored and found a solution to "marry both 2D and 3D." He also admitted that, during Sonic Advance 3's development, the series was getting more complicated. So, having "fast, dynamic action" would be their next approach.

Many of the levels contain 2D side-scrolling segments, but once in a while, they will be multiple gimmick sections where the levels will be rendered in 3D. Sonic, Blaze, and the other characters' models are also presented n 3D, though, during each respective credit scroll, we see a couple of characters as 2D sprites ala GameBoy Advance style. The Boss Battles are entirely animated in 3D where the bottom screen shows their health meter and either Tails or Cream cheering their respective friend on. Special stages, only aimed at Sonic, have returned to familiar territory where Sonic would find Special Generators. If he swings around with enough energy, he will be transported to a 3D special stage based on the half-pipe structure from Sonic 2. Unlike the previous versions, players would move Sonic using the stylus to collect rings and occasionally perform quick-time-event moves for Chaos Emeralds.

With Tatsuyuki Maedi and Kenichi Tokoi unavailable, Dimps decided to hire composer and DJ Hideki Naganuma for the soundtrack. For those who don't know, Naganuma was known for composing music for the Jet Set Radio series. Because of his experience, the soundtrack was given more of a techno and big beat mix, along with music containing vocals such as the main theme "A New Day", "Right There, Ride On", "Back 2 Back", and "Wrapped in Black." Naganuma found this job to be challenging due to the Nintendo DS's sound chip limitations. The only contributor from the Advance trilogy that provided additional music was sound engineer Teruhiko Nakagawa.

Sharing the hardware limitations that the Gameboy Advance had, the game also had limited voice acting where the 4Kids actors lent their voices. For Blaze, she was voiced by Bella Hudson in English and Nao Takamori in Japanese.

Reception & Legacy

Sonic Rush, funnily enough, came to stores the day after Shadow the Hedgehog was released in North America on November 15, 2005, the 18th in Europe, and the 23rd in Japan. In contrast to how the 3D entry was received, Dimps has upped their game and once again given loyalty to the franchise.

Reviewers enjoyed the gameplay carried elements from the classic titles, the graphics being "gorgeous" and "colorful", and the "bright and buoyant" music. The only criticism is that the game's quickness made the game feel too short to complete.

As of December 2006, Sonic Rush also became the ninth best-selling DS game with 360,000 copies sold in Europe where it eventually earned a "Platinum" award from the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA). In 2008, it was ranked #17 on IGN's "Top 25 DS Games" list and was listed as one of the "cheers" on IGN's "Cheers & Tears" action DS list the following year.

Among the recurring characters in the franchise, Blaze the Cat was well-received by both critics and fans. They found her gameplay was "fast-moving and fun" and was called a "more complex, multifaceted" addition to the cast. Though, there were fewer those who criticized her gameplay to resemble that of Sonic's. Nonetheless, Blaze became a worthy inclusion to the roster and appeared in several Sonic media. Eggman Nega also became a recurring antagonist in a few other Sonic titles, a rival character in the Mario & Sonic series, and appeared in the Archie Comics.

With Sonic making his debut on the Nintendo DS, Dimps knew people what they were looking for in a Sonic game. They were aware that their previous work was getting difficult for them. But, through synthesizing 2D and 3D graphics, adding a fiery feline, and maintaining the spirit of the Genesis games, Sonic Rush was the beginning of a new series that will keep his handheld games steady and fast.

The next year 2006 was officially marked as the franchise's fifteenth anniversary. To celebrate, Sega and Sonic Team have launched a couple of games that would change history forever for the Blue Blur. Before the next 3D game was unveiled, Sonic would appetize his fans by returning to racing again. But this time, he won't be needing his feet or a car. Instead, they were about to perform some extreme racing with Extreme Gear. Case and point: Sonic Riders.

"Sonic Riders" Cover Art

"Sonic Riders" Cover Art

Sonic Riders (2006)

Sonic and his friends must race against their new rivals, the Babylon Rogues, in the EX World Grand Prix while learning the secrets of the ancient Babylon Garden.

Previously, Traveller's Tales was tasked to make a Sonic racing game for the Sega Saturn. But, due to a rushed schedule and lack of communication, the game was met with mixed or average reviews.

Extreme sports were all the range during the late 90s and early 2000s when certain video game series like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and SSX were household names around that period. It may sound like Sonic cashing in late on that type of genre would be dead on arrival. In actuality, this wasn't their first attempt.

Back in May 2003, a prototype for an extreme sports spin-off game was made called, coincidentally enough and with no relation whatsoever, "Sonic Extreme." It featured Sonic and Shadow riding on hoverboards in an open-world setting with gameplay similar to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, along with recycled assets from past 3D games.

The prototype was developed by Vision Scape Interactive while they were making the CGI cutscenes for Sonic Heroes. It was intended to launch first on Xbox due to the studio's experience with the hardware, and plan to port it into other systems. After over a week of building it, co-founder Mark McDonald showed the prototype to Yuji Naka. Naka was impressed and said that the project would move forward as a collaboration between Sonic Team and Vision Scape. Unfortunately, even after finishing the cutscenes, Vision Scape never received any word from Sega on continuing their project, thus canceling Sonic Extreme in the end.

When Sonic Riders got announced, McDonald tried to sue Sega for using and changing their proposed concept in a new direction, But, he was reminded that he signed a non-disclosure agreement during Sonic Heroes' development where Sega got ownership of anything they made using IPs. Vision Scape soon shut down in 2006 and its software development kits were recycled. Luckily, the prototype survived and was traded between collectors.

The most evident component from the prototype that was used as the basis was the characters riding on hoverboards. Even though he somewhat enjoyed Sonic R, developer and producer Takashi Yuda received many fan requests for a new Sonic racing game, and Sonic Team, "who knows Sonic best" would make a racing game superior to any previous racing Sonic title.

In a November 2005 interview, Yuda said:

First of all, I was not interested in making a conventional racing game. I wanted to make something different and dynamic, to have tricks and stuff. To do that, you can't really be in a car, so inevitably, we came up with other ideas. We thought things like surfing and snowboarding have more flexibility to allow you to do tricks.

— Takashi Yuda, producer of Sonic Riders

As expected, this game was made to appeal to both extreme sports and Sonic fans, while the multiplayer mode was suitable for casual gamers. Yuda also noted that they did not take any inspiration from prior Sonic games in order to achieve this different and unique approach.

Various concept art and final deign of "Jet the Hawk"

Various concept art and final deign of "Jet the Hawk"

the-history-of-sonic-the-hedgehog-the-dark-era

They also created and chose new characters, or in this game's case "rivals", based on how they would be relevant to the game's plot. Sonic Team wanted to include "Air Pirates" into the story and Yuda thought these characters would be suited best for this specific title rather than the usual Sonic game. After going from various animals like foxes and wolves, the team ultimately went with three bird characters with some influence from ancient Babylonian culture for the story. These characters became the thieving trio known as the "Babylon Rogues" consisting of the cocky leader Jet the Hawk, the tech expert Wave the Swallow, and the strong yet dumb Storm the Albatross.

With hoverboarding or "Extreme Gear" used as racing gear, the gameplay emphasized the use of speed and air. Players must maintain air while racing against their opponents. Every now and then, the air would need to be replenished with small stations located on each racetrack or performing air tricks. Rings can be collected to strengthen characters' abilities and maximum air capacity. They are also currency at the in-game shop where players can upgrade or customize their Extreme Gear.

Despite having no influence from any Sonic game, the game sprinkles some classic elements of familiarity. For starters, they are two-story campaigns, similarly to Sonic Adventure 2, revolving around the "Hero" and "Babylon" sides. Characters are divided into three categories ala Sonic Heroes: speed, flight, and power. Not only that the level design is "crazy" full of multiple pathways and shortcuts, but they are also specifically made for certain character types. For instance, speed characters can grind on rails, flight characters zip through dash rings, and power characters can break through obstacles for progression.

There is also a mission mode where players can unlock more Extreme Gear and characters that have no connection to the story mode. These include Shadow, Rouge, Cream, and Dr. Eggman. As an added bonus: the game also features a few SEGA guest characters like AiAi from Super Monkey Ball, NiGHTS from Nights into Dreams, and Ulala from Space Channel 5. Not to mention, you need to unlock a special gear in order to play as Super Sonic.

Parenthetically, Sega hired Backbone Entertainment to produce a GameBoy Advance version of the game. It was supposed to run under an Out-Run-style game engine and be released around the same time as the console versions. However, after failing to add more 3D elements under Sega's demands and impossibly rewriting the game engine, it got scrapped.

The game also had a noticeable boost in production values where the game engine runs more at 60 frames-per-second, along with the CGI cutscenes provided again by Blur Studio. Additionally, the 2D animated intro was produced by animation studio Production I.G., known for their works on the Ghost in the Shell series and the Tales of Symphonia games. Its director Kazuto Nakazawa was also known as an anime character designer and made the anime sequence in Kill Bill: Volume One.

For voice acting, Jet was voiced by Daisuke Kishio in Japanese and Jason Griffith in English, Wave was voiced by Chie Nakamura in Japanese and Bella Hudson in English, and Storm was voiced by Kenji Nomura in Japanese and Dan Green in English. Confusingly enough, Mike Pollock is still the current voice of Eggman, but whenever you play as him, his dialogue is recycled voice clips from his previous actor, the late Deem Bristow.

Veteran sound designer Tomonori Sawada composed the soundtrack with Fumie Kumatani, and Kenichi Tokoi providing assistance. Yuda wanted the music written as "fast-paced and give you that heart pounding feeling you should have during a high-speed race."

For the vocal theme songs, the main theme "Sonic Speed Riders" was written by Sawada and was performed by Japanese vocalist Runblebee. Runblebee also wrote and sang the Babylon Rogues' theme "Catch Me if You Can."

Reception & Legacy

Sonic and his friends ride into stores on Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox on February 16, 2006, in North America, two days later in Japan, and a month later in Europe. It, surprisingly, had the same reaction as the previous racing game received.

Many liked the visuals and graphical presentation, sense of speed while racing, and fitting soundtrack. But, they criticized the core gameplay where the controls were loose, the level design was "messy" and "inconsistent", and some found the hoverboard "pointless" since Sonic is fast on his own. But, it was unanimous that the game was average at best, which was better than Shadow the Hedgehog and fun to play for Sonic fans with its highlights, but lackluster for anyone else.

Sonic Riders was later re-branded under Gamecube's "Player Choice" and PlayStation 2's "Greatest Hits" lines after strongly selling 930,000 copies throughout that year.

The Babylon Rogues themselves also received a mixed reception where they were called "cute and edgy" while their backstory was "clichéd" and calling Jet a "jerk." As the team intended, these thieves would return in the sequels, make guest appearances (mainly Jet) in the Mario & Sonic games, and appear in comics.

Today, Sonic Riders has gained a cult following where fans find this game extraordinary unlike other racing franchises like Mario Kart would offer. Some even grew a liking to the Babylon Rogues as new additions to the franchise and exclusively to this racing series. This fandom alone demonstrates what Yuda and Sonic Team were looking for. Yes, the game is different and it won't please everyone. But, with an interesting hoverboard concept, a variety of characters, and speed that the team knew best, they created a one-of-a-kind racing game that continues to evolve in the following years. It's not as extreme as other extreme sports games, but Sonic's 15th anniversary began on an adequate note.

It's best to turn back a year when E3 2005 was unveiling new consoles for the seventh-generation of gaming, like the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, and the Nintendo Wii. There were also many games being announced, such as Call of Duty 2, Spore, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. However, SEGA surprised everyone with a tech demonstration trailer of a brand-new Sonic game being developed for the new consoles.

When that teaser came out and playable demos were shown the following E3, the public loved what they saw. Many have called it "promising" with its realistic graphics and environments and would bring the franchise back to familiarity after the mixed reception that the previous 3D games received. This is the story of a game that was meant to celebrate the franchise's fifteenth anniversary yet caused a massive impact on its history. It had many aliases: "Sonic 15th Anniversary", "Sonic 360", and "Sonic Next-Gen." But, you may refer by its official title: Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) or "Sonic '06."

"Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)" Cover Art

"Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)" Cover Art

Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)

When Dr. Eggman kidnaps the Princess of Soleanna to unlock the "Flames of Disaster", Sonic must rescue her before the world is doomed. Elsewhere, Shadow accidentally releases an evil spirit named Mephiles, and a hedgehog from the future named Silver searches for the "Iblis Trigger."

It all began back in 2004 after Sonic Team was finished making Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg for the Nintendo Gamecube. They were brainstorming new ideas for upcoming original games. One suggestion approved was a game with a realistic tone and an advanced physics engine planned for release among the sixth-generation consoles. However, with Sonic's fifteenth anniversary coming soon, they decided to make a Sonic game with their conceived concept and release it on the seventh-generation consoles instead. Yuji Naka took notice of how superhero films, around that time such as Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins, have become successful blockbusters and they wanted to emulate that with Sonic. To avoid confusion, they named their game after the original Genesis title to make it a "major advance" from previous games and restarting the series to its roots. In other words, the game was made as a reboot.

the-history-of-sonic-the-hedgehog-the-dark-era
the-history-of-sonic-the-hedgehog-the-dark-era

Whatever someone brings up this game, its art direction is the primary subject that gives the game its identity. Instead of using Renderware, Sonic Team went with the Havok physics engine, which was previously used for their PS2 Astro Boy game. The team was so impressed by how much power both the Xbox 360 and PS3 could provide, that they decided to make the game as realistic and expansive as possible, similar to what they achieved in Sonic Adventure. The engine let the team experiment with global illumination, a day-to-night system, and the ability for Sonic to jump from ropes.

That change in the art style also affected the characters as well. All of the human characters and NPCs were given a photorealistic approach, including Eggman who was made slimmer and more realistic. It's so realistic, you could his eyes at certain angles during cutscenes. Director Shun Nakamura explained the reason for this new look was because he felt interacting with these humans would make the game appealing to the older gamer demographic. As for Sonic and his friends, their designs stay true to what Yuji Uekawa did for Adventure with minor differences. Sonic, for example, was now taller and had longer quills. Initially, Sonic (and possibly his friends) were supposed to have realistic fur, rubber, and clothing textures during the CGI cutscenes but was never finalized.

Various concept art and final design of "Silver the Hedgehog"

Various concept art and final design of "Silver the Hedgehog"

Because the Havok engine relied on physics, Sonic Team wanted to create a unique character to emphasize that aspect using psychokinetic powers. Originally, that character wasn't planned to appear and was meant for another action game Final Phantom Saga, but that project got canceled. The team went through fifty early sketches, including a hedgehog-like animal wearing a futuristic headset and markings on its hair. The character was then a mink for having "scarf-like hair", orange fur for exploration, and its name was "Venice." But when focusing on the hardware, the character was ultimately changed to a hedgehog, making his fur white-gray, and officially named "Silver." The concept of Silver coming from the future was also inspired by the Future Trunks character from the Dragon Ball Z series.

the-history-of-sonic-the-hedgehog-the-dark-era

A major character that was integral to the story was Princess Elise the Third, originally named "Olga" during early development. She is considered to be Sonic's human love interest, which was intended as a nod to a scrapped concept all the way back to the original 1991 classic where Sonic planned to have a human girlfriend named Madonna.

Before I continue, the most exceptional fact about Elise is her voice actress. While Maaya Sakamoto voiced her in Japanese, her English voice actress was initially Veronica Taylor, who is best known as the original voice of Ash Ketchum in the Pokémon anime. But, due to unknown reasons, the role ultimately went to Lacey Chabert.

For those who don't know who Lacey Chabert is, she is a television and film actress known for her roles in All My Children, Party of Five, and Mean Girls. But, many would recognize Lacey for her contribution to voice-acting. She was Eliza Thornberry from Nickelodeon's The Wild Thornberrys, the original voice of Meg Griffin on Fox's Family Guy, and Zeta the Sorceress in Nick Jr.'s Shimmer & Shine. Lacey auditioned for the role because she was a Sonic fan growing up.

While Sonic chases after Eggman, the game featured new antagonists for Shadow and Silver respectively: Mephiles the Dark and Iblis. Both of these baddies were, believe it or not, inspired by different mythologies of the Devil.

In Shadow's story, Mephiles' name and personality were based on Mephistopheles, a demon from the Faust and German folklore known to offer power and desires in exchange for their souls. For Silver, the fiery demon Iblis is an Islamic version of the Devil where it not only shares its name but was a fiery creature that led a community of evil jinns (commonly known as "genies") to grant wishes to its followers.

These two characters are two halves of the sun god of Solelanna known as "Solaris", which is Latin for "pertaining to the sun." Mephiles represents the god's consciousness while Iblis symbolizes its raw power. Solaris' design has six horns, six claws, and six stones on its back, which is subtly a visual interpretation of "666": the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation.

After receiving mixed feedback on Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog, the team's mission was to make the gameplay as appealing and faithful to the Genesis games as possible while "aggressively" fixing recurring issues, such as the virtual camera system. With help from these new environments, each stage included multiple pathways for players to progress into the Goal Ring. Each hedgehog also had their unique style of gameplay.

Sonic's stages mainly highlight speed-platforming, where he would occasionally go through sections on a board or run at supersonic speed while avoiding obstacles known as "Mach Speed" sections. There are also a couple of stages where Sonic must escort Elise by carrying her and a special barrier that protects them from harm. While Shadow's stages share a level of speed, he mostly relies more on combat and, despite the criticisms in the previous entry, has sections involving riding vehicles. Silver's levels are slower but focus on his telekinesis powers to defeat enemies and puzzle solving.

Every now and then, there are areas in levels where each hedgehog would get assistance from their friends with their own abilities, or in this game's case "Amigos." As a homage to Sonic Heroes, Tails and Knuckles would be playable in some level segments. For example in "Wave Ocean", when Sonic gets stuck riding on a whale, you must play as Tails to hit a switch that will prevent the whale from escaping so Sonic would progress. In Shadow's story, we have the rest of Team Dark: Rouge and Omega, while in Silver's, there are Blaze and Amy. Heck, there are level sections where you will play as a different hedgehog in their respective stories, such as playing Silver mid-way through Sonic's "Kingdom Valley" stage.

Learning from their previous experience with Sonic Adventure, they restructured three-story "episode" campaigns revolving around Sonic, Shadow, and Silver. Completing all three episodes would unlock the last story segment. They also brought back open-ended hub worlds where players would explore, talk to NPCs, and access different stages, except with a few more RPG elements thrown in. For instance, instead of simply going to the next stage, players must perform missions that are mostly mandatory to advance the story. Completing these missions would reward players with rings, which act more like currency and are used to buy ability upgrades at shops, instead of being hidden ala Zelda. The main city setting of Soleanna was heavily inspired by Venice, Italy for its architecture and canals.

In addition to the Havok's engine capabilities, the character animations during in-game cutscenes were provided with motion capture done by SEGA Motion Capture Team. Blur Studio also returned to animate CGI cutscenes where supervising animator Leo Santos stated that the studio faced difficulty animating the opening scene because of Sonic's mouth placement.

Most of the 4Kids cast reprised their roles, excluding Jeff Kramer whom previously voiced Omega. Instead, he was replaced by Maddie Blaustein. Sadly, she couldn't continue voicing Omega afterward due to her untimely death on December 11, 2008, from a short illness. Both her and Kramer's recorded dialogue were later reused for Omega in Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games. 4Kids actor Pete Capella originally auditioned as the new voice of Shadow, but the casting director believed his voice would be more suitable for Silver, so he officially became his English voice while his Japanese voice was supplied by Daisuke Ono. For Mephiles the Dark, he was voiced by Dan Green in English and Takayuki Sakazume in Japanese.

With Jun Senoue busy, Tomoya Ohtani, who previously contributed to both Heroes and Shadow, was in charge as the first game's sound director. Hideaki Kobayashi, Mariko Nanba, Taihei Sato, and Takahito Eguchi helped him with additional music composition. Ohtani's mission was to "emphasize that it was an epic next-generation title." The music was given a full-out orchestrated scale that matches a cinematic quality.

Various artists old and new contributed character theme songs. The game's main theme and Sonic's theme "His World" was performed by vocalist Ali Tabatabaee and rhythm guitarist Matty Lewis, from the punk rock band Zebrahead. The veteran duo Crush 40 made a rendition of "All Hail Shadow" from Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) as Shadow's story theme. Remix vocalist Bentley Jones wrote and sang Silver's theme, "Dreams of an Absolution" which was later made into a music video over a decade later. As for Princess Elise's theme "My Destiny" during the last story credits, it was sung by Donna De Lory, known for her many collaborations with various artists and musicians.

As an added bonus, hip-hop artist Akon made a remix of "Sweet Sweet Sweet", which originated as the ending theme for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) composed by Masato Nakamura.

With all of this work and ambition, this project would be a shoo-in celebration for Sonic. Unfortunately, Sonic Team was not prepared for the many problems and events that occurred during production.

In March 2006, programmer Yuji Naka did something that he should've done since the franchise's beginnings: quit, but this time for good. Naka resigned from Sega because he was no longer interested in making Sonic games and wanted to make original projects with his new company Prope. Around that time, Sonic Riders was officially the last game that Naka produced before his departure. Though he moved on, Naka still holds fond memories of creating Sonic. Even so, Sonic Team just lost an essential piece that made Sonic what he is today. Former Sega American CEO Tom Kalinske said that "the heart and soul of Sonic" was gone.

There were also plans of porting the game onto the Nintendo Wii. But while testing it out, Sega believed that porting the game would take longer due to the less powerful hardware and thought an original Sonic game with motion controllers would be better. Therefore, the development was divided into two: one would work on the new Sonic Wii game, while a small remainder team would continue on Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). A PC version was additionally canned.

Having an abnormally small team working on a highly-anticipated entry turned out to be more difficult than expected. To make matters worse: Sega demanded the game be finished in time for the 2006 holiday season with no delays whatsoever. So, with the deadline quickly coming, the team had to rush the game during the final stages with no time for quality assurance. The finalized version ended up with numerous glitches and control issues. There was even cut content, like the day-to-night system, a flight meter for Tails, and a rainbow-colored gem that would transform Sonic into Super Sonic during regular gameplay. Not to mention, the sheer amount of loading times and two dialogue takes from one character during Shadow's story that they forgot to edit out.

Speaking of gems, Sonic would get these power gems that would help him get through levels more easily, such as slowing down time, a tornado attack, and shrinking size while jumping infinitely. Perhaps too easily because the power meter was meant to deplete whenever Sonic uses them. But, since it wasn't programmed properly, Sonic has unlimited usage with them, thus players would use them to cheat and break the already broken game.

Reception & Legacy

It was a ton of pressure for Sonic Team and Sega assured us that this was going to be a new age that Sonic fans and a new generation would never forget. The game was released on the Xbox 360 on November 14, 2006, in North America and ten days later in Europe, while the Playstation 3 version was launched on January 30, 2007, in North America and March 23 in Europe. Both console versions were released in Japan on December 21.

When the world witnesses the new Sonic age, the results turned out to be as...nearly disastrous as the Flames of the Distater themselves. Critics and players panned the game's camera system for being "frustrating" whether being the level design and precise controls that would cause instant deaths. The aforementioned glitches demonstrated how messy and unfinished the game is, along with the over-abundant loading times that make the game more tedious. Many found the game's story to be "confusing" and "inappropriately dark" more than Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) and compared it critically to an anime or Final Fantasy. The "painful" voice acting and "cringeworthy" cutscenes were no help either to enhance the storytelling.

But, the biggest offender of the criticism goes to the relationship between Sonic and Princess Elise. Many have accused Sonic Team of promoting bestiality for a romance between a human girl and a hedgehog. However, Lacey Chabert herself defended the backlash by stating in her interview with Gamespy:

Ha! No, you're just being silly. It's not an inappropriate relationship. Let's just say Sonic and Princess Elise have an attraction for each other.

— Lacey Chabert, English voice actress for Princess Elise

Now I said "nearly" because there are a couple of positive aspects against the overwhelming negativity. The game's presentation was more divisive where some called the graphics "decent" and "colorful" at best, while others found the concept of photorealistic humans and cartoon characters "uncanny" at worst. The most consistent polished component was the soundtrack. Though the voice acting could've needed more direction, the orchestrated music was executed lively and immersive enough to give out what the game was made for.

Plus, the game sold solidly with 870,000 copies within the first six months of its release in both the U.S. and Europe, and the Xbox 360 version was re-branded under the "Platinum Hits" line but the PS3 version wasn't under the "Greatest Hits" line, despite meeting the criteria. Other reports calculated that Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) sold more than 2 million units worldwide.

Silver the Hedgehog did not receive a warm welcome from the public. Critics found his gameplay, though conceptually intriguing, slow and inconsistent, along with Pete Capella's performance. GamesRadar placed Silver on the "Ten Worst Sonic Friends" list for being a "completely worthless addition to the franchise." Nonetheless, Silver became a recurring character and gradually gained a decent fanbase. Some fans do enjoy his good nature and see potential with his telekinesis in future gameplay, while others make him an Internet meme for his boss battle quote, "It's no use!" He was also ranked on the official character polls between Knuckles and Shadow. Princess Elise, Mephiles, and Iblis have not made any further appearances, besides the Archie Comics and cameos.

Because of its poor reception, many have regarded Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) as not one of the worst Sonic games of all time, but one of the worst video games of all time. It also became a subject of jokes and ridicule among the community, including Sonic Team themselves on official Sonic social media. Fairly enough, Sonic Team knew making this game was a pressuring challenge and would disappoint their fans. Yes, previous Sonic games had rushed development cycles as well. But, when comparing them, something, at least, came out good in the end.

While that game still holds its infamous reputation, there are some fans who either have a soft side or characterize it as a "guilty pleasure." Other fans admitted even if the tight schedule and glitches didn't happen, then the game would've been a passable entry. Sure, the story would still be convoluted, but the gameplay would've been fun on its own merit.

As a matter of fact, beginning in 2015, an Argentinian programmer named Ian "ChaosX" Morris is, as of this article, currently developing an unofficial PC remake of the game called Sonic P-06. Being a Sonic fan himself and learning how upsetting the final product is, Morris is determined to recreate the game from scratch into what was meant to be. Using the Unity engine for Windows, he tweaked the character controls, updated the graphics, altered some of the characters' gameplay mechanics, heavily reduced the loading times, and many more. With several demos periodically released, the fan community appraised this enhanced version as the "definitive version" worth playing. Like I said, "something, at least, came out good in the end."

It began as a promising next-generation title that would celebrate the series's fifteenth anniversary. But, when churning it out fast for the holidays, it ended up as a failure. But, as the saying goes: "Failure is a part of life. But, learning from your failure can help you succeed." Sega learned that the hard way. The game’s ending metaphorically sums up the game on a nutshell: forget that none of this ever happened. It wasn't the end of Sonic's 3D career, but it will always be remembered as the "rock bottom of the franchise."

A couple of days later, there was one more Sonic title that would help end the year off with a bang. It seems that Sonic wanted to back to racing basics on foot, but this time on the Playstation Portable. This is Sonic Rivals.

"Sonic Rivals" Cover Art

"Sonic Rivals" Cover Art

Sonic Rivals (2006)

When Dr. Eggman traps Sonic's friends into cards using a camera, Sonic must team up and race with his "rivals" to stop the doctor's plans.

Going back to Sonic Riders, a video game developer called Backbone Entertainment was tasked to make a GameBoy Advance version but couldn't finish it due to hardware difficulties with the game engine. Nevertheless, both Sega and Backbone were still on collaborative terms with making original projects.

The concept began when Backbone designed the game as a traditional platformer. But, when Takashi Iizuka took the job as the director, he changed the game's direction into a racing game. They were planning to make the game on the Nintendo DS but decided to work it on the Playstation Portable instead due to its stronger processing power and higher graphical quality. Backbone handled most of the work with some assistance from Sega Studio USA, while Sega worked on the story and other aspects.

A major goal that producer Taylor Miller and his development team want to achieve is returning the gameplay style of the Genesis games, but also adding new elements like competition. When designing the stages, Sega gave Backbone level maps from the original Sonic Genesis games as references but Backbone found constructing alternative pathways laborious. As for the character roster, they wanted to focus on characters who represent the biggest rivals in the series' history, such as Sonic and Shadow. Other characters that had a beef with Sonic were Knuckles and Metal Sonic. The fifth and final character Silver was added to "mix things up." Tails, Amy, and Rouge only appear as non-playable supporting characters, and both Dr. Eggman & Eggman Nega serve as antagonists.

The art direction was also a challenge where Backbone wanted to maintain the look and feel of Sonic yet stylize at the same time. Kazuyuki Hoshino and Hiroshi Nishiyama respectively worked on the art and environment direction.

Being a racing game, it is taken a similar approach to Sonic R where characters race each other on foot instead of on vehicles and hoverboards. The major difference is that the game is presented in a 2.5-D perspective to give that Genesis style that Backbone was aiming for. Each stage is simply racing your opponent to the goal with occasional power-ups thrown in. There are also boss battles rendered in 3D where players must defeat the boss first before their rival does.

The main highlight of the game is its collectible card system that players earn when completing objectives. Many cards feature cameos from major characters, one-time characters, robots, and items from past Sonic games. Cards are also used to unlock secret outfits for the characters.

Like the previous handheld Sonic games, there is limited voice-acting where some of Sonic's lines were recycled from Sonic Rush. The music was composed by Canadian musician Chris Rezanson. Bentley Jones once again contributed to the soundtrack by making a track called "Quick Trip to Paradise" with Jun Senoue composing.

Reception & Legacy

It was quite a turnaround when the game launched two days after Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) on November 16, 2006, in North America, and in Europe a month later. Comparing both games, Sonic's first PSP game was better...but not by a long shot. Critics did enjoy the graphics, sense of speed, replay value, and multiplayer mode. However, the controls and level design could've used a little more work. According to VG Chartz reports, Sonic Rivals sold 0.73 million copies in North America and 0.43 in Europe within the first ten weeks, earning a worldwide total of 1.44 million units.

Among the Sonic racing games out there, Sonic Rivals was considered a fun yet lackluster distraction for fans. It was more simplified and playable than Riders, but not enough substance for everyone interested. Its commercial success would eventually lead to a sequel.

Overall, the year 2006 was a jumbled still dissatisfying celebration of the Blue Blur's legacy. Sure, a couple of side games had some redeeming qualities that kept the year afloat. But, the mainline 3D games were proven to be experiments that ended up with terrible results. On top of that, Sonic Team didn't feel the same anymore after losing Yuji Naka, the same man who conceived the high-speed gameplay that defined the character from the start. It was true, indeed, a dark age for Sonic. Sega's only hope now was to make things right for what they currently have in development. All they need now is to rub the magic lamp, metaphorically the Nintendo Wii, and wish that their next Sonic game would save them from turmoil.

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