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The History of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Nintendo 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 Heroes" Poster

"Sonic Heroes" Poster

Recap

When home video game consoles with 3D polygon graphics took the world by storm, Sega knew it would be Sonic's turn to make his third-dimensional jump after the declining sales of both the Sega Genesis and Game Gear systems. Compared to how Mario easily made the transition on the Nintendo 64, Sonic's transition was harder and longer than what the company initially planned.

At first, they collaborated with an outsider studio on a couple of side games for primarily the Sega Saturn. The first was an isometric platformer where their partnership started out fine. However, the second game involved a racing spin-off where production was rushed due to a lack of communication. Elsewhere, Sega's American staff worked tirelessly on an original Sonic game for the Saturn. Unfortunately, not only development was extremely difficult but it took a toll on their morale and health. The results lead that game to being unfinished and the discontinuation of the Sega Saturn together.

Suddenly, Sonic Team took the risk and launched Sonic's first 3D platformer for the new Sega Dreamcast console. It changed and revolutionized Sonic in the video gaming industry while becoming a bestseller. So much so, that a portion of the team moved to San Francisco and developed a sequel to celebrate the franchise's tenth anniversary.

Unfortunately, the Dreamcast itself couldn't stand up to the new competition with both the Sony Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube as decreasing sales led to financial troubles for the company. After a new leadership change, Sega realized that their characters and games themselves were the driving forces. It was decided that the company stopped making video game consoles and became a third-party publisher instead.

Now that Sega has been refreshed and is no longer a competitor, it was time to make amends and a new partnership with their long-time rival Nintendo. This was the beginning of Sonic games being exclusively made for Nintendo. While Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was ported onto the Gamecube within the same year, another game was made by another studio to not only commemorate the Blue Blur's tenth anniversary but return the franchise to its 2D roots. That game was Sonic Advance.

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.

"Sonic Advance" GameBoy Advance Cover Art

"Sonic Advance" GameBoy Advance Cover Art

Sonic Advance (2001)

The story is simple: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, & Amy must stop Dr. Eggman from taking over the world.

Ideas for a new Sonic game began with Sega restructuring as a third-party software commissioner after the Dreamcast was losing revenue. They began focusing and negotiating with two of their ex-competitors' latest systems, the Sony Playstation 2 and the Nintendo GameBoy Advance. After a while, it was announced that a brand-new Sonic game would be produced for the GameBoy Advance to honor the franchise's tenth anniversary under its original title "Sonic the Hedgehog Advance." Initially, Sonic Team was entrusted to make the game, but most of its staff were unfamiliar with the GBA hardware. So, Sega decided to recruit a newly funded studio named Dimps in charge while Sonic Team would provide some assistance.

For those who are unfamiliar with the company, Dimps was created by several former Capcom and SNK employees back in 2000. With the latter, two developers Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto (known for creating Street Fighter) had previous experience collaborating with Sega on a Sonic game exclusively for their handheld Neo Geo Pocket Color system called Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, or Sonic Pocket Adventure for short. It was simply based on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with a mix of elements from other Genesis Sonic titles. Though the system itself was the last of SNK's video game consoles after the company had financial trouble and was bought by a pachinko manufacturer, the game was praised for being a faithful adaptation to the series and was one of the best among the Neo Geo Pocket Color's library. Afterward, Nishiyama left SNK and created Dimps while Matsumoto became a producer, alongside Yuji Naka, for Sonic Advance.

Naka found his return to making 2D games "refreshing" after producing 3D games for a while yet answered his own question: How would a Sonic game work differently in tone and style for a Nintendo console? Both Nintendo and Sega had different development methods when making their games. Back then, Sega always wanted to appeal to older audiences by making their products more advanced than their competitors. At the same time, Sonic Team took a couple of weeks to calibrate their games before launch. Nintendo, on the other hand, massively targeted children and families for their "toybox" approach and took diligent time on quality control before release.

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2D Artwork of "Mecha Knuckles"

2D Artwork of "Mecha Knuckles"

Continuing over what the developers achieved from Sonic Pocket Adventure, the gameplay style is parallel to the Genesis titles, with a couple of components from the 3D games thrown in. The most notable and distinguishable features are Yuji Uekawa's redesigned characters rendered into 2D sprites and the rail grinding mechanic from Sonic Adventure 2. While Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles control and attack as their original counterparts, this was Amy Rose's first playable appearance on a 2D title. Amy is considered the most challenging to play, since she isn't as fast as the others nor doesn't roll into a ball. On the other hand, her Piko Piko Hammer carefully helps her attack and maneuver acrobatically similar to Sonic Adventure.

In terms of level design, many of them were aesthetically similar to how Sonic Pocket Adventure handled them, considering that game was meant to be a melting pot of the Genesis titles, rather than an original title. Despite that, there were a couple of level secrets with nods and references. One example is during the Casino Paradise Zone where there's a castle in the background that resembles Cinderella Castle from Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The Special Stages were also created using Nintendo's Mode 7 graphics to allow a pseudo-3D effect like how Sega made them back in the day. While there was no confirmation of the idea of the characters' board-diving during the Special Stages, it is an assumption that it was based on Sonic Adventure 2's Hero Story's opening scene involving Sonic's escape. Come to think of it: that concept would foreshadow a future racing game that will be discussed later. No relation to the character from Sonic R, a robotic doppelganger of Knuckles called "Mecha Knuckles" appeared as a boss fight in Angel Island Zone, along with Eggman reusing both the Egg Wrecker & Eggster Drill (the first boss fights from Sonic and Sonic 2 respectively) as phases during the penultimate battle.

Another reason why Sonic Team chose to work on Sonic Advance was to take advantage of connecting the Gamecube's GBA link cable. They made an innovative run with the Virtual Memory Unit for the Dreamcast. But, they found the cable more technologically effective. Chao or items could be transferred either to the GBA's "Tiny Chao Garden" simulation feature or the Chao Gardens from the Sonic Adventure Gamecube ports. Unlike the console version, there are differences, regarding the GameBoy Advance's hardware limitations. The Chao do not age, only interact with a limited number of items, and no more than one Chao at a time. The player can also use Rings collected from either regular gameplay or minigames to buy food and items that would raise their Chao.

For multiplayer, the game includes a "VS Mode" where up to four players need to connect their GameBoy Advances and game copies via link cables. If three or four players are involved, they have the option to play individually or in co-op mode where a teammate would have special abilities to help their partners. These include Tails picking up a teammate while flying or Amy boosting in the air if she hits her teammate on the ground. Again, another foretold mechanic for a couple of later games. Exclusively to co-op mode are racing with items that would affect opponents or finding as many hidden Chao as possible before time runs out.

As for the soundtrack, the background music was composed by Hironobu Inagaki and Atsuyoshi Isemura while sound creators Tatsuyuki Maeda and Yukata Minobe handled the music/sound design. Several arranged versions of songs from Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2 were also featured, where the original composer Masato Nakamura was credited.

Reception & Legacy

When Sonic and his friends advanced onto Nintendo for the first time on December 20, 2001, in Japan, and a couple of months later in North America and Europe, no one expected this game to be this great. Critics loved the graphics, character animations, audio, and devotion to the Genesis games. However, some felt that the game length was short and its Special Stages were difficult, given the depth perception and controls.

Sonic Advance was also one of the best-selling GBA games with 1.21 million copies sold in the U.S. with a total of 1,515,000 units worldwide. Though no reports of accolades, the game was placed on a few publications' lists years later. These include #75 on Offical Nintendo Magazine's "100 Greatest Nintendo Games" in 2009, GamesRadar ranked it the 13th best Sonic game in 2017, and USGamer called it the sixth-best Sonic title in 2018.

If you want to talk about ports and re-releases, the game (and its sequels) was solely reiterated for the Wii U's Virtual Console in Japan. As for everyone else, there was once an N-Gage port of the game known as "Sonic N" in 2003. Before the modern age of mobile games and apps, the Nokia N-Gage was intended as the first mobile phone and handheld hybrid. Not to mention, you have to remove the phone battery every time you have to put the game card in or out. Technologically advanced, indeed. No surprise that Sonic N was criticized for its choppy framerate, inferior audio, and presented in a screen-crunched view where players would run into collision detection issues from unexpected enemies or hazards. It was much as a commercial failure as the N-Gage performed. In 2011, an Android port of Sonic Advance was released where it mostly functions the same while pieces of content were removed to accommodate the device. Unfortunately, it was also a Japanese-exclusive game.

Today, players still consider Sonic Advance as one of the most historic and best handheld Sonic games in such a while. The Sega Game Gear games and their developers previously did most of what the hardware could offer at the time. Some had a lucky shot at succeeding, yet others failed. But then, Dimps came along and proved there are developers and programmers that passionately understood the source material. They not only helped created an underrated gem for an obscure handheld but exceeded their skills onto new hardware that carried the spirit of the Genesis games. Even the idea of Sonic on a Nintendo console was unheard of since they used to be fierce rivals. As the old saying goes, "this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Thanks to the first game's success, Sega knew Dimps would be the go-to studio for any future handheld Sonic titles. It was time to turn up the speed and notch for an encore the next year with Sonic Advance 2.

"Sonic Advance 2" GameBoy Advance Cover

"Sonic Advance 2" GameBoy Advance Cover

Sonic Advance 2 (2002)

Same as before: Sonic and his friends must stop Dr. Eggman from taking over the world. Along the way, Sonic rescues a young rabbit named Cream who then joins him on his adventure, hoping to find her kidnapped mother.

Development for the sequel immediately began in February 2002 after Sonic Advance's success and localization. Based on the production of Sonic Adventure 2, the design team chose to increase the speed more than its predecessor. Using an updated version of the first game's engine, development took eight months to make where the levels were built six times larger and fine-tuned the graphics in order to make the game more "mechanical."

Various concept art and finalized version of "Cream the Rabbit"

Various concept art and finalized version of "Cream the Rabbit"

Outside of the gameplay and tweaks, an extraordinary character was added to the roster. Admittedly, this character was planned to debut for an upcoming 3D platformer that Sonic Team was working on around that time. However, the developers decided to make her first appearance in Sonic Advance 2 instead to make the game easier and appeal to beginner players.

Designs for this character ranged from a cat, red panda, and squirrel to finally a rabbit. In fact, some fans could make the argument that this is a nod to the first Sonic game where a rabbit character was one of Sonic's original designs for approval. The character was then named "Cream." She also has a pet Chao named "Cheese" and is the second franchise character (next to Eggman) to have a relative whose mother is named "Vanilla." Yes, these names were intended as puns for "cream cheese" and "vanilla cream." Feeling hungry yet?

Cream shares Tails' ability to fly by using her ears but would also use Cheese to charge at enemies for extra damage, thus serving her purpose for newcomers.

As a sequel, many of the characters' moves and abilities have been retained yet were expanded to accommodate the high-speed experience that the developers were aiming for. One addition was the introduction of the "Trick Action" mechanic, where players, when flung in the air, change direction for greater heights, attack enemies, and leap further. Another technique was the "Boost Mode" where the characters would run at maximum speed to keep the fast-paced momentum going. There are also boss battles presented in an auto-scrolling loop where players must chase and attack after them while avoiding damage and hazards. Plus, instead of being default from the start, Sonic must defeat certain bosses holding other characters captive in order to unlock them as playable characters.

Like before, the level aesthetics were heavily inspired by stages from previous Sonic titles while containing hidden references to other Sega properties. In the Music Plant Zone, whenever Sonic jumps on a yellow spring, his jumping animation is based on Ristar whenever he jumps on a drum in the Planet Sonata level from Ristar. Each Special Stage was presented in a 3D plane where ZERO, the robot antagonist from Amy's story in Sonic Adventure, returned as an obstacle where players must avoid him in order to stockpile a number of rings for the Chaos Emeralds. The music was scored yet again by Tatsuyuki Maeda and Yutaka Minobe, along with assistance from sound engineer Teruhiko Nakagawa.

In contrast to the previous game, the game was given a higher difficulty curve where gameplay and skills were put to the test. Even though the Special Stages themselves are easy to complete, the requirements of reaching them are a prime example of the added challenge. As mentioned before, the stages were made six times larger, yet their layouts were also purposed to accumulate the hidden seven Special Rings without losing a life in order to access the Special Stages. On top of that, Chaos Emerald progression cannot be shared by other characters in the main campaign. In other words, all the Chaos Emeralds must be collected separately by each character. However, collecting them would grant different rewards and outcomes, depending on who you play as. For Sonic, it would unlock the true final boss battle as Super Sonic. The other characters would unlock both the "Tiny Chao Feature" and boss battle in Time Attack mode. But, the most difficult chore is unlocking Amy Rose as a playable character where all the Chaos Emeralds must be collected by all the characters!

The "Tiny Chao Garden" feature and multiplayer mode are also returned by using the Gamecube GBA link cable. Outside of being unlockable and keeping its limited functionalities, the Tiny Chao Garden updated where Chao are given the ability to fly and swim if given enough high stats, and an extra minigame called Chao Bounce, starring Cream and Cheese. In comparison to Sonic Advance, the sequel's multiplayer mode received a downgrade where four players would only compete in a race to the goal first while single players must collect many rings as possible before the time runs out. Dissimilarly to the first, Amy seemingly uses the Spin Dash during that mode.

Reception & Legacy

When Sonic Advance 2 was released in Japan on December 19, 2002, and a few months later in North America and Europe, it received as much praise as before. Reviewers found the visuals and presentation to be a major improvement, along with catchy music, added replay value, and expanded level design. As for the higher difficulty, it was polarized. Some found it freshening with a considerable amount of playable characters helped balance it while others criticized it for the aforementioned requirements for the Special Stages and the "cutthroat" boss battles.

Sonic Advance 2 was as commercially successful as its predecessor with 176, 541 copies sold in Japan, 740,000 in North America, and 100,000 in Europe, earning a total of 1.016 million copies worldwide.

On a harsh note, Cream left off with a bad first impression from most critics. They found the rabbit to be annoying, "corny" and "dopey-looking." Some publications, like the Official Nintendo Magazine and GamesRadar, ranked Cream as the fifth-worst Sonic character and #14 on their respective worst character lists. The latter went too far when finding her name to be...dirty for a children's game. However, thanks to her wholesome nature and gameplay style, Cream gathered enough a decent fanbase and, of course, became a recurring character in the franchise. Outside of making a couple of other game appearances, her mother Vanilla was also featured in comics and the Sonic X anime as Vector the Crocodile's love interest.

Even though it's not as revolutionary as Sonic Advance, players still find the sequel to be both solid and a step-up in the trilogy. It literally picked up the speed and mechanics that many fans believe would later be included in future games. It also introduced a new character that appropriately lured beginners into the franchise, in terms of its difficulty curve. Nonetheless, Dimps has manifested how to keep a franchise alive and new at the same time.

While Sonic is having a strong run on the go, that begs the question: what about home consoles? Now that the Dreamcast has been discontinued, Sonic Team would have to work hard in order to bring Sonic onto non-Sega home consoles. Two new games have been released around the same time. One was a fighting spin-off game for the GameBoy Advance, and the other was Sonic's first multi-platform adventure. Gather your team and blast away because this is Sonic Heroes.

"Sonic Heroes" North American Cover Art

"Sonic Heroes" North American Cover Art

Sonic Heroes (2003)

The story focuses on four different teams: Team Sonic stopping Dr. Eggman from taking over the world, Team Dark searching for Eggman for answers involving Shadow and Omega's dilemmas, Team Rose looking for their respective companions, and Team Chaotix performing jobs from a mysterious client for paying their rent. While all that is happening, an old foe from Sonic's past returns for revenge.

Ever since the Sonic Adventure games were ported for the Nintendo Gamecube, Sonic Team was initially under pressure from the gaming public to see if they could make a hit-quality title for non-Sega consoles. But soon, they soon decided to create a platformer that would appeal to both old and new Sonic fans alike, and the job was given to Sonic Team USA with Takashi Iizuka as the director yet again and Yuji Naka producing. Under one condition: Iizuka did not want to make another Sonic Adventure sequel because he feared only core fans of that series would be interested in it. Following what Dimps did for the Sonic Advance games, Sonic Team USA decided to make the gameplay indistinguishable from the Genesis games in order for non-fans to adapt.

Departing from the dark and serious tone of the previous Adventure titles, the team went for a lighthearted and fun feel that the original games were known for. Interested in making the narrative involving characters working together to overcome evil, Sonic Team USA conceived the "team action" concept for the gameplay instead of using Adventure's individual character stories. Recalling what the public complained about the lack of "Tails" during Sonic Adventure 2's development, they ensure that they would bring back as many characters as possible, giving this game the biggest playable roster yet. Each team contains three characters with three different types (speed, flight, and power) that players can freely switch throughout stages. An easy example is Team Sonic which consists of Sonic as the speed character, Tails as the flight character, and Knuckles as the power character.


Early during development, Shadow the Hedgehog wasn't going to appear and was meant to stay dead. However, because of the character's newfound popularity, Shadow was brought back as the speed character, but with a memory loss. This was, oddly, the only game where Rouge the Bat wore a more different purple outfit compared to her usual attire and was represented as the flight character. As for the power character, E-102 Gamma was planned to return. But, due to time constraints and story reasons, Iizuka thought up a brand-new character as a "spiritual successor" to Gamma with Nobuhiko Honda as the character designer. This newcomer was the last of Eggman's E-Series robots that sought vengeance on his creator, E-123 codenamed "Omega." Together, they became Team Dark.

Funny enough, if you get an "E" rank on a Team Dark level, Omega would mention not beating "Gamma" nor his older brother E-101 "Beta."

For Team Rose, we have Amy Rose as the speed character. Previously, Cream & Cheese were supposed to make their first appearances in the game, as an exclusive flight character. But again, the developers felt it would be fitting to introduce them in Sonic Advance 2, not just to make that easier for new players, but also to be familiar with them. Technically, Cream also made her 3D appearance as a cameo in Sonic Adventure DX where she flies over Station Square during each character's story. It was also the only time where Cheese's brother Chocola made an appearance. A chocolate Chao, in a sense. Representing the power member, Big the Cat from Sonic Adventure returns where his gameplay was significantly replaced with strength-based attacks.

Sonic Team USA did not bring just back the main and recurring characters, but a few obscure faces. In case you forgot, there was once a Sega 32X spin-off game starring Knuckles and a group of new allies, which consisted of Espio the Chameleon, Charmy Bee, Vector the Crocodile, and Mighty the Armadillo. With the exception of Mighty, Sonic Heroes marked the grand return of Espio, Charmy, and Vector as a detective trio known as Team Chaotix with redesigns done by Honda as well. Despite being pre-existing characters, Iizuka wanted to treat them as original characters. Espio is the speed character with an additional ability to turn invisible, Charmy is the flight character with the power to wrap his team to certain level areas by touching metallic flowers, and Vector is the power character that would use music and bubble gum as attacks.

Believe it or not, writer Shiro Maekawa stated that six teams were planned with a total of 18 playable characters. Sonic Team USA wasn't joking when they were bringing back characters. These possible candidates include:

  • Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles (finalized)
  • Amy, Cream, and Rouge
  • Chaos, Big, and E-102 Gamma
  • Espio, Charmy, and Vector (finalized)
  • Fang the Sniper, Bean the Dynamite, and Bark the Polar Bear
  • Metal Sonic, Ray the Flying Squirrel, and Mighty the Armadillo

Unfortunately, because of their time crunch and the team realizing eighteen characters was "too many", they cut down to four teams with a total of 12 characters.

Near-final CGI model fo "Neo Metal Sonic"

Near-final CGI model fo "Neo Metal Sonic"

Though rejected as a planned playable character, Metal Sonic returned, due to fan demands, and was reintroduced, spoiler alert, as the true antagonist known as "Neo Metal Sonic." His original character designer Kazuyuki Hoshino also returned and gave him an updated look. He was given longer quills, body armor, and a cape built from the waist down. This new form also allowed him to copy data from others and the ability to shapeshift through metallic liquid using the powers of Chaos from Sonic Adventure. That shapeshifting ability through metal liquid is a subtle reference to the main antagonist T-1000's powers from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Neo Metal Sonic would eventually transform into Metallic Madness/Overlord as the final boss(es). Despite that, he was still referred to as "Metal Sonic" in the game. His name wasn't officially revealed until Sonic Rivals where you collect a card featuring the character and his name.

Having a new scope, Sonic Team USA had the freedom and opportunity to make the gameplay as committed to the Genesis games as possible. They continued removing gameplay styles that were criticized from the Adventure titles, such as Big's fishing levels and Tails' shooting levels. Sadly, the biggest sacrifice that Sonic Team ever made was removing the Chao Garden. Though it was a staple of the early 3D era, they felt that the feature itself would disrupt the pacing. To date this article, the Chao Garden has been the most heavily fan-requested aspect to return for future installments. Granted, the Chao themselves are still relevant in the franchise, but not the garden itself.

Back to the gameplay, while each stage has an environment-themed style, they are structured to emphasize the teamwork mechanic depending on which pathway a certain character type would choose to progress to the end. Speed characters could homing attack enemies, dash through ring trails over bottomless areas, or create whirlwinds to climb up poles. Flight characters could carry their teammates in the air, attack mid-air enemies, or individually hit switches to solve puzzles. Power characters could easily attack enemy hordes, bash through objects/walls, or glide their team through air gusts. Each character would also level up through checkpoints or defeating enemies. Whenever their gauge meter is filled up, teams would perform special attacks that would wipe out all enemies with after-effects known as "Team Blasts." For instance, after Team Sonic performs their Team Blast, Sonic would briefly use the Light Speed Attack from the Adventure games. Team Dark's result in temporarily freezing time, Team Rose would both level up and become invincible shortly, and Team Chaotix would earn plenty of rings to fill their gauge faster and use their attack again.

Taking note from Sonic Advance 2, each team represented a different difficulty. Team Rose is the "easy mode" where the stages and missions are made shorter to make younger players bypass with no challenge. Team Sonic is the "normal mode" where the levels are averagely long with high-speed sections in-between. Team Dark is the "hard mode" where the stages are as long as Team Sonic's, but with more emphasis on skill, concentration, and heavy enemy battles. Team Chaotix is more "mission-oriented" than the other teams where they must do different objectives, such as finding a number of items or defeating a number of enemies, and reaching the end without being detected. Improving replay value, they were also given harder versions of their missions that would put players to the test and would collect emblems to unlock more content.

The major element that was revived from the Genesis era was the Special Stages in order to "refresh players' minds." Players have to find keys hidden in stages without losing a life and each Special Stage involves characters boosting through a tube using orbs while avoiding obstacles for two different goals. One is collecting enough points to earn extra lives and the other is collecting each Chaos Emerald. Gathering all seven in the latter would grant access to the "Last Story" segment of the game.

With 20 months of development, it sounded like Sonic Team USA would have as much of an easy time making it as Sonic Adventure 2. Well, there's a drawback: Sonic Adventure 2 was more comfortable to work on because the team had established experience on the Sega Dreamcast. But now, that the Dreamcast was gone and was their first multi-platform production, it is proved to be their most stressful work yet. It was so stressful that Iizuka remembered one employee who worked so continuously that he got sick, lost 22 pounds, and had insomnia.

Sonic Team partnered up with a British video game developer called Criterion Software and used their Renderware game engine to program and port onto multiple consoles. Even when Sonic Team transferred textures and models, most of the work was done from scratch. They also found working on the Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox to be challenging since they have prior knowledge, especially with the PS2. While the other consoles remain consistent and ran at 60 fps, the PS2 could only run at 30 fps because the increase in frame rate caused performance issues since the system itself was not powerful enough to render. Despite that, both Iizuka and Naka wanted players to have the same experience on any console instead of being console exclusive.

For the pre-rendered CGI cutscenes, they were produced by Vision Scape Interactive. They were a private-held California company known for making cinematics for video games, television, and film. In actuality, Visual Scape was originally hired to provide cutscenes for a Sonic-themed skateboard game that quickly got canned. Again, that's another story. When compared to the FMVs from the Adventure titles, the character models, animations, and lighting were given a more shiny and dynamic look to them to resemble the Genesis art direction.

Many of the previous actors from the early 3D games have reprised their roles, but of course, there have be to changes. With both Atsuki Murata and Connor Bringas starting to sound too old voicing Tails, given the passage of time, they were replaced by Ryō Hirohashi, who became Tails' long-running Japanese voice, and William Corkery. According to Ryan Drummond, William was the youngest actor in Sonic history to voice a character. Additionally, Will's sister Emily provided the voice of Charmy and their father Bill voiced Espio. For the Japanese version, Yōko Teppōzuka voiced Charmy and Yūki Masuda voiced Espio. For Cream, she, and her mother Vanilla, are voiced by Sayaka Aoki in Japanese and Sarah Wulfeck in English.

When Big's Japanese actor from Adventure, Shun Yashiro, passed away in 2003, Takashi Nagasako took his place as his successor. In addition to voicing Big again, Jon St. John also provided the English voice for E-123 Omega while Taiten Kusunoki was his Japanese actor. Marc Biagi, who previously voiced Gerald Robotnik, did the voice of Vector in English and Kenta Miyake in Japanese. Anomalously enough, this is the only main game where Metal Sonic has ever spoken, (excluding a couple of other games, the Sonic anime OVA, and comics) where both Jun'ichi Kanemaru and Ryan Drummond performed his voice in their respective languages.

In the Japanese version, the characters' lip-syncing noticeably did not match well during the pre-rendered cutscenes because they were designed accordingly with English and it was cheaper to have visuals steady instead of rendering two separate versions of the same storyline. Basically, many Sonic games usually start work in Japanese before English localization.

Jun Senoue, once again, composed the majority of the soundtrack whereas Iizuka recalled in an interview that the team wanted the music to be exciting, fast-paced, and "return to the roots of the Sonic experience."

Traditionally, each team has its own character theme song. Both Ted Poley and Tony Harnell returned and performed Team Sonic's theme "We Can." Rock band Julien-K performed Team Dark's theme, involving Shadow's point-of-view, called "This Machine" where vocalist Ryan Shuck stated that their contribution to the game gathered them a lot of fans. Singer Kay Hanley did vocals for Team Rose's theme "Follow Me." Singer-songwriter Gunnar Nelson performed the "Team Chaotix" theme, which uniquely features one of the characters' voices, particularly Vector in one verse.

Crush 40 was also brought back for, not one, but two new songs for the soundtrack. The first is the titular theme song "Sonic Heroes" which Sega described as a "bright, melodic song" and is one of the duo's most famous tracks, next to "Live & Learn." Their second song is "What I'm Made of..." during the final boss fight against Metal Overlord. It was initially produced as the main theme but got rejected when Sonic Team USA wanted a more upbeat song. Comparing both songs, "What I'm Made of..." was characterized as a darker song, which sets the bar for an upcoming theme in a future title.

Reception & Legacy

Sega put a lot of work into marketing and hyping up the game's release calling 2003 "the Year of Sonic." The Sonic X anime made its television premiere, a new McDonald's Happy Meal tie-in with LCD games, and a demo was included in some copies of Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube. With the promotion in check, Sonic Heroes finally launched for the Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox on December 30, 2003, in Japan, January 2004 in North America, and Groundhog Day in Europe. Did Sonic Team deliver justice to the Genesis games with the power of teamwork? Well...for the most part, yeah. But, there were some setbacks.

Critics loved how colorful the graphics looked with attention to detail in level design, the optimistic soundtrack, and the gameplay being close to the Genesis games as much as the Advance games did, some would call Heroes an improvement in some regard. The team-based gameplay was more mixed among reviewers. Some found the controls easy to learn and strategic, which benefitted the replay value, while others found them clunky and repetitive.

Unfortunately, reviewers have addressed issues from the previous 3D titles that were still never fixed. The most prominent example was the camera system. Though it wasn't as problematic as before, the coordination between the characters' controls and the camera would sometimes cause collision detection issues and accidental falling during stages. Some of the voice acting was also criticized and mocked as "horrendous" and a "misstep in sound direction", especially Will Corkery's delivery as Tails.

Out of all console versions, the PS2 was clearly the inferior version for its above-mentioned lower frame rate, clipping, and graphical errors.

With that said, the game became a commercial success. During its early run, the game sold 1.42 million copies with 150,000 units in Japan, 850,000 in the U.S., and 420,000 in Europe. As of 2007 through fiscal years, Sonic Heroes made a total of 5.64 million copies sold worldwide. The game's financial hit led to be re-branded under the "Player's Choice" line on the Gamecube, the "Greatest Hits" line for PS2, and the "Platinum Hits" line for Xbox. Even if the game did not win any awards, one noteworthy achievement it earned was from the 2008 edition of Guinness World Records: Gamer's Edition for having the most playable characters in a platform game.

While Sonic Heroes was the same game that made the Chaotix detectives recurring characters in the franchise, so did E-123 Omega. Similar to the Chaotix, Omega received a mixed reception. Some viewed him as a "filler" and "bad Gamma remake" yet others found him fun to play, in terms of his character design and weapon arsenal.

Nowadays, fewer fans do not rank Sonic Heroes as the best or as revolutionary as the previous 3D titles. But, for everyone else, it accomplished what Sonic Team was hoping for. Flaws aside, it was historically the first Sonic game to simultaneously run on more than one console, making the gameplay as Genesis-like as possible, and building a new generation of fans unfamiliar with the series. In fact, players who grew up playing the game have a nostalgic connection and find Sonic Heroes to be one of their personal favorites. Nonetheless, it is anonymously a fun game to play with a noble attempt from the development team. Where would Sonic Team go from there? The best hint to give is a "totally different" direction. But for now, Sonic Heroes was a step in the right direction that stood together strong and gave them a reason that'll be on their way.

Around the same month and year as Sonic Heroes was released, a spin-off title for the GameBoy Advance was released. Technically yes, that game came out before Heroes, but it chronologically took place after Heroes. It was time for Sonic to take a break from platforming and decide to duke it out with his friends and enemies for a bit. Customize your moves and get ready to rumble with Sonic Battle.

"Sonic Battle" GameBoy Advance Cover Art

"Sonic Battle" GameBoy Advance Cover Art

Sonic Battle (2003)

When Sonic and his friends discover and befriend a mysterious robot called "Emerl", they must stop Dr. Eggman from collecting the Chaos Emeralds while discovering Emerl's identity.

Out of all the GameBoy Advance games featuring the Blue Blur, Sonic Battle was the only title to be solely produced by Sonic Team without the cooperation from Dimps or Jupiter, who helped make Sonic Pinball Party.

Historically speaking, this wasn't Sonic's first experimental take on the fighting genre. It started way back in 1996 when a pseudo-3D fighting game Sonic the Fighters was released in Japanese arcades and for a limited time in the U.S. The idea came from Sega AM2 developer Yu Suzuki when he tested a 3D Sonic model for their fighting game Fighting Vipers. Sonic Team was so impressed with the model and its smooth animations that they commissioned Suzuki to make a Sonic fighting arcade game.

Using the Fighting Vipers game engine, the Sega AM2 team was able to carefully model the characters, add a barrier mechanism, and simplify controls for beginner players. It was also the only game to feature two new characters, Bean the Dynamite (based on the lead character from the beat-em-up game Dynamite Düx) and Bark the Polar Bear.

Upon release, it received mixed reviews. Players enjoyed the graphics and its cartoon-like animations but found the gameplay too fundamental. A Sega Saturn port was planned but got canceled due to the game itself being difficult to recreate for another hardware. Fortunately, the game was included in the Sonic Gems Collection compilation and later ported digitally for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows where it included an online versus mode and hidden characters, including Fighting Vipers character Honey Bear anthropomorphized as a cat. While that game never won any fighting game fans today, it was considered a humble novelty for Sonic fans.

Surprisingly, there is not much information found on the game's conception and development. Yet, for the sake of content, I will provide as much info as the game itself offers.

With Sonic Team mainly in charge of production, Yuji Naka was the producer and Tomoyuki Hayashi, who previously worked with Sega on Panzer Dragoon and Phantasy Star Online, was in charge as the director, battle mode planner, and programmer. An interesting fact about Hayashi was that he later went on to become one of the game designers for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a hack n' slash spin-off title for the Playstation 3. For the character graffiti-like illustrations, they were done by Hisanobu Kometani, known for his artwork on the "Duel Masters" trading card game.

The gameplay follows the standard battles, such as earning points from KO-ing opponents, surviving till the last one's standing, and beating opponents in a certain amount of time. From a visual standpoint, the programmers seemed to experiment with the GameBoy Advance's capabilities by placing 2D character sprites in three-dimensional arenas, similarly using Mode 7 graphics that Nintendo was known for. Each character comes with their own set of special attacks and abilities to equip before the battle starts or re-entering after getting knocked out. These attacks include long-range attack (shot), direct attack (power), and explosive traps (set). Besides combo moves, one unique mechanic added is the "Ichikoro Gauge" where characters defend or heal themselves at differing speeds. Once the meter is filled, the character would launch a one-hit KO special move.

While the game has a multiplayer mode for up to four using the GBA link cable, it also includes five mini-games that are unrelated to fighting, including a pinball-like game, an aerial platformer, a Minesweeper-like game featuring Knuckles, a treasure hunting game, and a race between Shadow.

2D Artwork of "Emerl"

2D Artwork of "Emerl"

One pivotal character that was included for story and gameplay purposes was a robot called "Emerl." This robot's fighting style has the ability to mimic other characters' moves by obtaining "skill cards" from defeating opponents or "skill points" during story mode to equip and customize Emerl's moveset and abilities.

One Easter Egg that the game contains is "secret combo cards" that be unlocked by entering a code at the Sonic Team building found during Emerl's campaign, which will allow Emerl to perform rapid combo moves.

Speaking of story mode, the game appears to carry elements from previous (mostly 3D) Sonic titles. The most recurring is the characters' "chapters" which are based on how Sonic Adventure structured its story from multiple characters' perspectives under a single narrative, along with map areas that players would traverse to the next area or battle. As mentioned in the previous chapter, both E-102 Gamma (a.k.a. "Chaos Gamma") and Chaos from Adventure return as unlockable characters for Battle and Challenge Mode after defeating them in story mode.

For Sonic Adventure 2, this officially marked Shadow and Rouge as playable characters for the first time on both a 2D game and GameBoy Advance. Storywise, Emerl's past also connects with Shadow's creator, Gerald Robotnik.

Tatsuyuki Maeda took charge of the sound direction but received assistance from composers Kenichi Tokoi and Hideaki Kobayashi for musical tracks, including pieces and remixes from select Sonic titles. Moreover, it was the first handheld Sonic game to feature voice acting (minus Emerl), given the system's hardware limitations. Many of the Dreamcast and Heroes actors supplied their roles, along with Jon St. John who took over as Gamma after Steve Boardie's death.

Reception & Legacy

When Sonic and his friends stepped up to the ring on December 5, 2003, in Japan, January 5, 2004, in North America, and February 27 in Europe, their return to the fighting genre was...okay. Reviewers commended the game for its graphics, multiplayer mode, and "surprisingly deep arena-fighting gameplay." Then again, others found the moveset "limited", the use of 2D sprites in a 3D fighting arena not offering much interactivity nor a rotating camera, and criticized its story mode and the skill points for Emerl as tedious.

With no reports of sales, it is an educated guess of a project that came and went. Yet, Sonic Team did make good use of its soundtrack and character Emerl afterward. Many of the game's tracks were remixed for the last game of our chapter and Sonic Generations. As for Emerl, the character would play up its historical significance for a couple of later Sonic titles. Besides the comics, Emerl made a guest appearance in the Sonic X anime where the game's plot was loosely adapted for a couple of episodes.

Because of its obscurity and fruitless background, Sonic Battle alone may be the reason why Sonic Team never made another attempt at a fighting game in recent years. Granted, there are Sonic and fighting game fans that still enjoy the game as a fun distraction and do see the potential for a future spin-off fighting game. In fact, some hardcore fans have produced an unofficial game called Sonic Smackdown for Windows. Some could argue that the game was also ahead of its time in presenting gamers what other fighting franchises, such as Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros., didn't. For the latter, Sonic managed to find relevancy in fighting games, thanks to historically becoming the second third-party character to join Super Smash Bros. years later, starting with Brawl. Will there ever be an official Sonic fighting game someday? It's hard to tell. It's not as memorable as the other GameBoy Advance titles, but it's best to agree that some good came out of it in the end.

With both Sonic Battle and Sonic Heroes not receiving much praise as anticipated, it was all up to Dimps to make lighting strike thrice with the last of the Sonic Advance trilogy. Choose your partner because it's time for Sonic Advance 3.

"Sonic Advance 3" Cover Art

"Sonic Advance 3" Cover Art

Sonic Advance 3 (2004)

When Dr. Eggman, and his new robotic assistant Gemerl, experimentally used Chaos Control to break the world into seven sections, Sonic & Tails must rally their stranded friends, find the Chaos Emeralds, and restore the planet.

Dimps and Sonic Team have cooperated once again for the sequel, with the only difference being Yuji Naka having limited involvement this time around. Thankfully, he came up with the idea of the game having team-based gameplay.

While many gameplay elements from previous Sonic Advance titles remain intact, the team-up dynamic was the game's main-focused mechanic. Though many assumed that the teamwork component was carried over from Sonic Heroes, it was most likely inspired by a mix between Knuckles' Chaotix and the first Advance game's multiplayer co-op mode where a teammate would grant special abilities to help their partners. As expected, this was expanded upon for the sequel. On a side note, the rest of the playable characters (including Amy this time) would easily get unlocked through the main campaign. With possible character combinations, these would result in either the abilities from the first game or new exclusive new moves. For instance, if Sonic teamed up with Knuckles, Sonic would have stronger attacks whether sliding or when jumping in the air. Conversely, Knuckles would perform a headbutt instead of gliding and would float on water surfaces. Again, results may vary.

Habitually, some of the level design has been influenced by past Sonic titles while retaining the core of the Genesis titles. Dissimilarly to the previous Sonic Advance games, Zones are now divided into four acts, where the fourth acts as a boss stage. The zones are depicted as hub areas in order to progress through each act known as Zone Maps, which are considered homages to Sonic Adventure. The Zone Maps also have blue containers that have bonus stages for extra lives, which are a reference to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Instead of finding seven Special Rings in each stage, players must find a total of ten Chao (usually three in an act, and one in a Zone Map) and a key to unlock a Special Spring located in each Zone Map in order to access the Special Stages. Using Mode 7 graphics, the Special Stages now involve collecting rings while flying in the Tornado. As always, collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds will unlock the true ending with Super Sonic, this time teaming up with Eggman.

2D Artwork of "Gemerl"

2D Artwork of "Gemerl"

Another stand-out element that made the sequel differentiate itself from the previous installments was adding more of a story to give a similar cinematic feeling and a new villain character that looks awfully familiar. Even though there is lackluster information on Sonic Battle's development, it appears that Sonic Team had a lot more promise with Emerl and his history as a Gizoid. This is Gemerl, a robot rebuilt by Eggman using Emerl's parts, who serves as Eggman's assistant, and acts out as a mini-boss that gradually gets harder during each encounter. Gemerl not only took form as Eggman's boss mechs but also served as the true final boss when turning against Eggman for power over the Chaos Emeralds.

The game connects itself more to Sonic Battle by incorporating remixed music tracks from the former, with Tatsuyuki Maeda, Kenichi Tokoi, and Hideaki Kobayashi returning to compose but also had help from veteran sound designers Masaru Setsumaru and Fumie Kumatani. In terms of its production values, it also shared Battle's limited voice acting whereas the English Dreamcast cast bestowed their voices for the final time. "Why?", you ask. You'll see soon enough.

Reception & Legacy

When Sonic Advance 3 was released on June 7, 2004, in Japan, and two weeks later in both North America and Europe, it was a reminder of why Dimps is zealous about the franchise. Critics adored the gameplay, the level design, and aesthetics on the subject of graphics and sound. The team-up dynamic, however, was mixed where many found the concept useful and adding replayability, while others found it cheap and only required for finding Chao for completion purposes. Some fans found the level design controversial for having an unfair enemy and spike placement, easily crushing moving blocks, and a confusing hub area. Yet, other fans like the team-up mechanic that help exploit the levels, and characterize it as one of the best of the trilogy.

The game sold commercially as well whereas the U.K. reported that 10,000 units were sold and made a worldwide total of 1.5 million copies. Out of all the games in the trilogy, Sonic Advance 3 was named the best GameBoy Advance Game of June 2004 by GameSpot and won the 2004 Golden Joystick Awards for "Best Handheld Game of the Year." GameSpot also nominated it for the year's "Best GameBoy Advance Game”and "Best Platformer." But, it lost to "Astro Boy: Omega Factor" (ironically published by Sega) and "Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal" respectively.

With the Sonic Advance trilogy beginning and ending on a positive note, things were about to change either for the better or the worse. The sixth generation of video game consoles was near the end, and new systems for the next generation were released soon to push the technical and graphical quality, such as the Nintendo DS, Playstation Portable (PSP), and Xbox 360. While there seems to be plenty of potential for Sega and Sonic Team to work with, an unexpected turn of events happened on the American side. Sonic Advance 3 was the last game where Ryan Drummond, William Corkery, Scott Dreier, Jennifer Douillard, and Sarah Wulfeck voiced their respective characters. To make it even sadder, Deem Bristow, who voiced Eggman since Sonic Adventure, died from a heart attack, making Sonic Advance 3 his final performance. A year prior before the game's release(s), Sonic X was dubbed with a new voice cast and released by 4Kids Entertainment, known for their works on Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. The year after the game release(s), the 4Kids actors took over as the new English cast for subsequent Sonic games. Many fans have speculated that Bristow's death alone was the cause of the cast change. However, his death was more coincidental than true. Former Sega of America president Simon Jeffrey and Eggman's current actor Mike Pollock later confirmed that the cast replacement was secretly decided by Sega of Japan before Bristow's passing. Jeffrey stated in a 2007 interview about his involvement:

"I run SEGA of America. We, like SEGA of Europe, are a subsidiary of SEGA of Japan. I have involvement with games that are built in the West, but not with games built in Japan. Therefore, sorry to say, I am unable to answer questions about Sonic Team – as they reside in Japan and do not come under my jurisdiction at all! Likewise, I know this will make you all mad; SEGA of America has no say in the voice casting. Absolutely none, so all of the online petitions and personal emails and letters that we get at SOA cannot be acted on, sorry to say."

— Simon Jeffrey, former president of Sega of America

Now that both a new generation and actors were established, Sega and Sonic Team are about to set Sonic in a new direction. But, little did they know, they were about to enter a dark age. And when I mean by "dark age", I mean a really dark age.

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