Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Previously, both Sega and Sonic Team had released a few side projects throughout 2007 that would potentially help get Sonic out of the dark age.
The first was an exclusive Wii entry made by a different team during Sonic '06's development, both Dimps and Backbone Entertainment co-produced follow-ups to their respective games, and Sega managed to pull an impossible and historical feat where Sonic would compete with his former rival Mario in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Though the games performed commercially ranged from decent to strong, critics and audiences, on the other hand, found them to be average at best and mediocre at worst. Granted, Sonic Rush Adventure was technically the best-reviewed Sonic title that year and it was technically an improvement over Sonic's embarrassingly rushed fifteenth anniversary. Yet, these games weren't qualified enough to be ranked among the Genesis or early 3D titles.
Even with that, Sega and Sonic Team weren't going to give up. They would continue working and experimenting for the rest of the 2000s decade with two sequels, a new spin-off from a recognizable developer, and a mainline entry that would fix what was broken. Before that would happen, Sonic Team immediately started the year 2008 with Sonic and his friends grabbing their Extreme Gear and race once again. But this time, they would defy and play with the laws of gravity with Sonic Rivals: Zero Gravity.
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 Riders: Zero Gravity (2008)
When a gravity-controlling artifact called the Ark of the Cosmos appears, Sonic and his friends must race against the Babylon Rogues for it while learning its powers.
Most of the development team from the first Sonic Riders game have returned to reprise their roles. Kenjiro Morimoto not only returned as the director but also took the duties as producer instead of Takashi Yuda, who was tasked as assistant producer instead.
When the game was announced at the 2007 Games Conference, the vice president of Sega's American marketing Scott A. Steinberg stated that the sequel would offer completely new gameplay elements to longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Following its predecessor, the gameplay is mostly similar where the characters are classified under either speed, flight, and power, riding on Extreme Gear or other vehicles, performing tricks, and multiple pathways/shortcuts for specific character types in each track.
However, the gameplay has received a significant change. Previously, the air was essentially fuel for maintaining speed and occasionally finding stations to refuel during races. Instead, the sequel goes for a new gravity-themed direction where the air is replaced with Gravity Points or "GP." Whether it is performing a trick or other action, the players would gain more GP. Once they earn enough GP and enter a certain track area, they will create a "Zero-Gravity Zone" where they can perform one of two techniques: Gravity Dive or Gravity Control. "Gravity Dive" would allow players to glide through mid-air by making a black hole while "Gravity Control" would alter the course's gravity to make players reach inaccessible areas or shortcuts. Additionally, players would use "Gravity Drift" to easily make sharp turns.
The biggest criticism that the first Sonic Riders received was the core gameplay regarding its controls. To help accommodate this issue, Sonic Team decided to simplify and add optional control schemes that would make players feel more comfortable. While the sequel was released on both the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii systems, the latter had more input in controls. Players had the option to play the game with either the Wii Remote vertically/horizontally or using the Nintendo Gamecube controller. At the time, the Nintendo Wii had backward compatibility with playing Gamecube games and some Wii titles offered voluntary control for those that prefer a traditional control scheme instead of motion controls. This also applied to the timing when players would press the jump button to perform tricks.
Another gameplay change is the "Gear Change" system. When collecting a certain amount of rings, players can choose one of their preset Gear Parts based on their Extreme Gear. These parts would give bonuses to the player, such as increased speed or automatically gaining shortcuts.
Although the sequel retains two story modes, Hero and Babylon, three new modes were added under the "Survival" category. "Survival Mode" involves players picking up missiles and launching them at foes using Gravity Control, with the winner last standing. "Survival Relay" is a relay race where teams of two use their Extreme Gear as the "passing baton." "Survival Ball" is a soccer-like minigame that makes players use Gravity Control to launch a ball through hoops.
The game's in-shop is also intact where rings are used as currency to unlock new Extreme Gear, like air rides, yachts, and wheels. Aside from the existing characters, other Sonic characters that have no significance to the story would be unlocked by beating each respective campaign. With the addition of Shadow, Rouge, and Cream returning, Blaze the Cat and Silver the Hedgehog joined the roster. When completing side missions, guest characters from other Sega franchises can also be unlocked. These include NiGHTS, Amigo from Samba De Amigo, and Billy Hatcher from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. If you could perfectly rank all the missions from both Hero and Babylon sides, Super Sonic would once again be playable using the Chao Emerald Extreme Gear. To answer your next question: Yes, despite Mike Pollock voicing Eggman, Deem Bristow's archive recording is still used when you play as him.
For the game engine, Sonic Team felt it was best to give Havok a second shot after their rushed production of Sonic '06. Because the engine relied upon physics, it made perfect sense to implement it on gravity-based gameplay while maintaining a consistent framerate of 60 fps. With Blur Studio unavailable, Sega commissioned a Japanese-based animated studio called Marza Animation Planet to provide the CGI cutscenes. This studio previously worked with Sonic Team on the Wii sequel, Nights: Journey of Dreams. Their commitment and portfolio were so impressive that the company decided to keep in touch with them for future projects.
Tomonori Sawada, Fumie Kumatani, and Kenichi Tokoi composed the soundtrack again, with extra help from Hideaki Kobayashi, where they maintain the fast-paced racing nature. Aside from Runblebee contributing with songwriting and vocals, the main theme song "Un-Gravitify" was performed by Irish singer Kieron Cashell a.k.a. "Cashell." Since R&B and funk acoustic music were his usual works, "Un-Gravitify" managed to convey Cashell's voice in a similar effect, despite being a rock and electronic song.
Reception & Legacy
As Sonic and Jet launched off the ground on January 8 in North America, two weeks later in Japan, and a month later in Europe, the critical reception started weighing them down. The critics found the graphics, level design, music, and easier gameplay ideas to be a major improvement over the first. However, a basic plot, rough controls, lack of online play, and removing certain gameplay components weren't enough to recommend to anyone else. Of course, die-hard Sonic fans would have a good time with it.
Luckily, the sales have slightly elevated than its predecessor where it sold about 1.08 million units (mostly the Wii version), as of 2015.
Nowadays, whenever fans would characterize which Riders game is technically the "best", Zero Gravity is usually their pick. Regardless of what critics have said about the game, it showed that Sonic Team was listening to feedback and able to put some effort into a unique game mechanic that fans and non-fans would enjoy. Yes, the controls, whatever version you play, can still be loose at times. Then again, it was one of those rare cases that a game could provide optional control inputs that made anyone feel more relaxed than frustrated. The Wii's motion controls may have aged in some areas, but thankfully, there was a time when backward compatibility using the Gamecube controller made traditional controls more open. It won't be the last Sonic game to offer this method. What could be next for Sonic Riders? Well, we won't get any answer since Sonic Team would take a break from racing and continue on their bigger games. But for now, Sonic Riders Zero Gravity was a step-up for its cult audience, but not at a high general standard in Sonic racing.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
Going back to last year, Sega released Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games where both former rivals would compete with each other in a series of Olympic events. While that game was a secret concept that was initially impossible to adapt, another anticipated video game crossover was being developed around that time. Enter Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Nintendo Wii.
Ever since Solid Snake from Konami's Metal Gear was publicly unveiled as a newcomer during the game's E3 2006 teaser, fans were skeptical yet excited about the idea of third-party characters joining the Smash Bros. roster. While many have considered many candidates like Mega Man or Geno from Super Mario RPG, Sonic the Hedgehog was always the first that pops into their minds. Some were optimistic while others were doubtful. In fact, years prior, there was a rumor from Electronic Gaming Monthly that Sonic and Tails would be unlocked in Super Smash Bros. Melee as playable characters by defeating 20 or more Fighting Wire Frames in Cruel Melee. However, that turned out to be an April Fool's joke. In actuality, Sonic was considered to appear but couldn't make it in the final version due to both time constraints and the character not appearing in previous Nintendo systems at that time.
It wasn't until October 2007 when the Smash Bros. Dojo website revealed a trailer and news that Sonic the Hedgehog has officially joined Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Since Sonic is considered the "fastest thing alive", his speed made him worthy as the top-speed character in Smash Bros. history, surpassing Fox and Captain Falcon beforehand. While his trademark attacks like the Spin Dash and Homing Attack are present, many of his combat skills were heavily inspired by the pre-existing Sonic fighting titles, like Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Battle. With Final Smashes being relatively new to the series, it was fittingly enough that Sonic's would be transforming into Super Sonic. It was also the only Smash installment where Jason Griffith lent his voice as Sonic (and Shadow).
Adding franchise representation, Green Hill Zone was an unlockable stage where Tails, Knuckles, and Silver would occasionally make background cameos while a selective number of Sonic music tracks and be randomly played. While a majority of them were directly imported from their respective games, the only original track was a remix of "Angel Island Zone" composed by Jun Senoue himself. Shadow the Hedgehog also appears as an Assist Trophy where he uses Chaos Control to temporarily slow down time. As for the game's Adventure Mode, the Subspace Emissary, Sonic makes a minor role near the final battle where he managed to stop Tabuu from unleashing his ultimate attack. Though not confirmed, fans have speculated that Sonic's appearance metaphorically represents how late he was added during development.
Once Brawl was finally released, Sonic was ranked as a middle-tier character by the Smash community. While they found his speed, recovery, and racking-up damage combos effective, almost the rest of his moveset (outside the Special Moves, forward smash, and back air) was characterized as "weak." Other than that, Sonic had average matchups and was an above-average choice for tournaments.
Regardless of his stats, Sonic himself made quite a historical landmark in gaming crossover history. Yes, Sega technically did it first with the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. But, the idea of Sonic joining the latest Smash Bros. installment and pitting against any other video game franchise, besides Mario, was a dream come true for gamers. Having both Snake and Sonic was the turning point in history when third-party characters would eventually be added to the roster in subsequent entries. Sonic's previous Wii games didn't leave quite a mark, but thanks to the heavy amount of fan requests, Sonic found his place during that period.
As everyone was getting a decent taste of Sonic fighting others that year, an outside developer was working on a new Sonic title exclusively for the Nintendo DS. Despite some previous games carrying components of the genre, this was Sonic's official full-on RPG debut provided by none other than BioWare. It was time to gather allies, fight foes, and travel beyond dimensional boundaries with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood.
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (2008)
When Knuckles gets kidnapped by a mysterious group known as the "Marauders" and the Chaos Emeralds were stolen, Sonic must reunite with his friends old and new to investigate this predicament. Upon their travels, they learn more about the Marauders' ancient past and discover worlds from the outer realms.
Before we talk about the game, it's best to quickly know about the developer in charge of the project, BioWare. For those who don't know, BioWare is a Canadian video game developer known for making role-playing games, such as Baldur's Gate and the Mass Effect series.
Beginning in 2006, BioWare has always wanted to create original handheld titles, since they previously developed games for home consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360. Soon, thirty BioWare employees were tasked by Sega to conduct a Sonic RPG game for the Nintendo DS. The main reason why BioWare chose the job was that they were big fans of the Blue Blur and based on their experience making story-driven games, they felt the franchise's cast of characters would naturally help expand the story and world around them.
This is highly evident with the game's prominent feature, the extensive dialogue tree. Since Sonic and the others are loaded with personality, players are given the option to choose whatever Sonic would say to anyone he interacts with in order to help flesh them out more. These choices could range from Sonic acting like the rebellious hedgehog we know and love to act like a sarcastic and snarky jerk that would rub anyone the wrong way, especially with his friends. Still, like in this above video, players can create some character development whether is the progressive "relationship" between Sonic and Amy or the alliance between his arch-nemesis Dr. Eggman. Another revived component from the franchise is breaking the fourth wall, especially during the end credits.
Besides the dialogue tree, BioWare's mission was to ensure staying true to the source material while adding their own dark elements to the storyline. For instance, worldbuilding consists of cameos of other characters and familiar locations from past Sonic titles. These cameos would include Vector the Crocodile of Team Chaotix and the G.U.N. Commander (a.k.a. Abraham Tower) from Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic would also travel from classic areas, like Green Hill Zone and Angel Island, all the way to Central City from Sonic Battle. On a side note, the game included some historical context with Pachacamac and the ancient Echidna tribe from Sonic Adventure and the Gizoids from Sonic Battle.
In addition to familiar territories, BioWare has also brought its own original characters and locations into the mix. One character, specifically, is the enemy-turned-ally Shade the Echidna. This hardheaded yet loyal member of the Marauders was initially a secretive character during the game's marketing where many have mistaken Shade for a goat due to her hidden identity. Imperator Ix is the leader of the Marauders and the main antagonist of the game.
One story highlight that the RPG offers is the second half where Sonic and the gang enter an alternate dimension known as the Twilight Cage and interact with various alien colonies. These include the rock-like Kron, the gelatinous N'rrgal, the telepathic Voxai, and the crystallized Zoah. The latter is a very interesting case during development. In March 2008, Sega held a contest for fans to name one of the hostile alien species that would appear in the game, and voting was held in Sega Europe's Sonic portal "Sonic City." Thanks to a Sega fan blog, the winning name was "The Zoah", which was a reference to the town from the Panzer Dragoon Saga.
For role-playing experts out there, the game carries two staples of the genre: exploration and combat.
In each chapter, Sonic and his friends must scout each area, find items, interact with NPCs, and solve puzzles in order to progress through the campaign. Unlike the previous Sonic DS games, this entry emphasizes more on the stylus and touchscreen rather than conventional controls. Players would use the stylus to move the characters around and would occasionally use their special abilities to traverse areas through displayed action buttons on the screen. There are moments where Sonic would run through vertical loops, Tails fly over gaps, and Big the Cat would invulnerably pass through harsh environments.
Putting forward on the subject of characters, Sonic would start out solo but would gradually gather and create a party of four in a traditional RPG fashion. The roster includes Sonic, Tails, Amy, Knuckles, Shadow, Rouge, Big, Shade, and Dr. Eggman. The two more optional characters that would join the party are Cream the Rabbit and E-123 Omega. Each character was also sorted into different classes that would display their unique abilities (i.e. Tails acts as a "supporter" by boosting others' stats or Cream acts as a "healer").
It wouldn't be an RPG without random enemy encounters and turn-based battles. Party members would attack by either using standard moves or group-based moves known as "POW Moves." A variety of POW Moves could be equipped and unlocked by gaining experience points. Back to the combat system, it, too, relies on the touchscreen where players have to rhythmically tap with the stylus in order to properly execute the moves. Sometimes, chasing or fleeing from these encounters requires timing and reflexes for the party to avoid incoming obstacles in their way.
In addition to level farming, Chao can be found in areas, stored in the Chao Garden, and equipped to enhance players' skills. Technically speaking, this was the latest and closest entry where the Chao Garden made a return since Sonic Advance 2. Plus, because of the DS's wireless connectivity, players are eligible to swap any Chao they collected. A step-up in the handheld series, to say the least.
Alongside the characters and worldbuilding, BioWare also wanted to give the visuals reminiscent of the early Sonic games where the environments are vibrantly colored and the character designs have a more flat-shaded, anime-like influence to them during dialogue and cutscenes. Many of the major characters' 2D illustrations share a striking resemblance to their designs from the Sonic X anime, while non-recurring characters have a more cartoony or comic-like appearance. Speaking of comics, the limited animated cutscenes pay more like a tribute to the Archie Sonic comics where each shot is presented like comic panels and word balloons for dialogue since there is no voice acting in this game. As for the in-game graphics, the character models are 3D while the backgrounds are rendered hand-drawn as an attempt to blend the mediums similar to how Dimps did with the Sonic Rush games.
Remarkably, Richard Jacques returned to compose some of the game's tracks. Jacques previously worked on the music for the Sega Saturn version of Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R. In contrast, though he tries to emulate the traditional Sonic music, the DS sound and hardware limitations made his compositions somewhat ultimately subpar. The game also supplements stock cartoon sound effects as well.
Reception & Legacy
Sega helped promoted the game with a prequel comic tie-in and a bonus Sonic stylus keychain was available whenever players pre-ordered Sonic Chronicles. When Sonic's first RPG adventure was finally released on September 26 in Europe, a few days later in North America, and almost a year later in Japan, the inter-dimensional battle against the Dark Brotherhood turned out to be...okay, I guess? The "bright, colorful, and cheery" graphics and presentation were appraised and the characterization of Sonic and his friends, especially those that were previously critically panned, was "well-written" and "likable." Yet, everything else was mixed. Some felt that the story was interesting and its low difficulty setting was suitable for newcomers to the RPG genre. The combat system was described as either a "joy" or "overbearingly annoying" and the lack of multiplayer options, outside of the Chao sharing mechanic, was "disappointing."
Financially, the game shockingly ended up as a flop, in terms of its sales. Sonic Chronicles was a commercial bomb in Japan while North America made 50,000 units and 29,000 in Europe, thus making a worldwide total of 88,000 copies.
Basically, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood was considered another entry in the franchise where it is "average" at best and "forgettable" at worst. But, the critical reception was nothing compared to the controversy that Sega fell into. In 2011, former Sonic comic writer Ken Penders threatened a lawsuit against Sega and BioWare for alleged copyright infringement of existing characters he created during his employment. Penders claimed that Shade, Imperator Ix, and the rest of the Nocturnus Clan were too similar to his villainous group, the Dark Legion. Not to mention, both character species were echidnas, and Shade shared attributes with Julie-Sue. In the end, the lawsuit was dismissed...three times since the characters were more "influenced" by the Dark Legion while the Nocturnus Clan did encounter the Dark Legion during one event in the comic adaptation. Penders may have lost the battle, but the war ranged on as he became a controversial figure filing more lawsuits on other Sonic-related cases.
Putting legal action on the side, the game's legacy was bare bones. Besides appearing in the Archie Comics, the characters never made any other future appearances. The only representation the game ever brought out was that Nocturne, the setting for the final battle, was used as the start and finish lines for the Dream Bobsledding race event in Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games.
In the end, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood was a project that had the potential to be a solid RPG experience, but didn't satisfy anyone else. BioWare was a fan from the start and proved that they remained faithful to the franchise and incorporated what they know best to make any Sonic fan feel satisfied. Even if the game was easily built for the newcomers in the RPG genre, there wasn't enough substance for veterans, especially on the Nintendo DS's restrictions. Not to mention, BioWare was hoping to produce a sequel if the game sold well, especially with the cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, after BioWare was acquired by Electronic Arts, the plans got scrapped. Will there be another Sonic RPG game in the future? It is uncertain at this point. Yet, anything is possible since certain RPG elements remain intact in subsequent Sonic titles. Sonic was on the roll into the RPG world, but we can anonymously agree that BioWare tried.
Meanwhile, Sonic Team would finish the year with a project that they have been working on for eighteen months. Ever since the utter disappointment of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic Team knew they would put their heart into returning Sonic to his roots. They took what they experimented with before, fixed any criticized elements, and introduced new innovative gameplay that would define a new era. No pun intended: it was time to unleash their creative energy and go wild with the next mainline Sonic game, Sonic Unleashed.
Sonic Unleashed (2008)
When Dr. Eggman shattered the world into seven pieces, Sonic and his new friend Chip must travel around the world and put the planet back into place...during the day. At the same time, Sonic is cursed by the planet's effects and turns into a werewolf, known as the Werehog, at night. So now, Sonic must simultaneously deal with both Eggman and an ancient entity called Dark Gaia.
Development began in 2006 when, believe it or not, the next mainline project was intended to be the third installment in the Sonic Adventure series under its initial title "Sonic World Adventure." However, when Sonic Team was introducing new innovative elements to differentiate itself from past titles, it decided to change the title to "Sonic Unleashed." Fortunately, "Sonic World Adventure" remained the game's finalized Japanese title.
When Takashi Iizuka was unavailable due to working on other projects (i.e. the Sonic Rivals games) throughout the development period, the directing duties were given to the hands of programmer Yoshihisa Hashimoto and Akinori Nishiyama, known for working on the Sonic Rush games, as the creative producer. Interestingly enough, the story was written by Kiyoko Yoshimura who had experience writing for anime, including many episodes of Sonic X. As a prominent part of development, the story was simplified and easy to understand, but not to be overlooked entirely.
As early as production began, the team brainstormed concepts on what to keep and what to change during the process. The first step was focusing on "quality over quantity" where they reduced the number of major Sonic characters present in order to make Sonic himself the only playable character. Knuckles the Echidna and Shadow the Hedgehog were originally planned to appear under the game's "third Adventure installment" phase. But, after the change, both characters got cut. Besides Eggman, Tails and Amy were the only familiar characters that end up in the finalized version.
Though Sonic Team knew bringing back traditional gameplay would appeal to longtime fans, they were also aiming for ideas that would attract new beginners that were "unfamiliar" with the franchise. They took that term into account and started a gameplay style that puts Sonic in a literal hairy situation as a werewolf at night.
In an IGN article blog, Hashimoto has stated:
What our goal was, then, was to find a way to get people unfamiliar with Sonic to become familiar with Sonic, to see what made him so fun, and to get to experience that particular style of action game that’s so indicative of “Sonic.” Of course, in the process of making Sonic appealing to people who weren’t familiar with him, we also wanted to be careful that we didn’t alienate people who were familiar with Sonic, by turning him into something completely unrecognizable with “Sonic the Werehog.”
— Yoshihisa Hashimoto, director of Sonic Unleashed
Initially, Sonic's new form was called "Evil Sonic" due to his rough appearance. But, since the word "evil" was more associated with a villain, Sega of America suggested the name "Werehog" as a replacement. When the lead character artist Shinkichi Tanahashi was designing the Werehog, he went through a trial-and-error process on overlaying the "ferocious" and "werewolf" concepts onto Sonic, including one design resembling a yeti. With the story not finished yet around the time, Tanahashi had an impression that Sonic was under a curse as this beast during the night. While Sonic's gloves were removed to allow the Werehog to claw at enemies, they kept Sonic's iconic shoes but made them spiky to make the character wilder.
Hashimoto also clarified that developing the Werehog was an example of a "fun and interesting" concept but also had to balance the pros and cons in order for veteran fans to understand and sympathize with the ideas and direction the team had taken.
While the story has darker elements, a new character designed as Sonic's newest traveling buddy was made to lighten up the mood with comedic and emotional moments. This character went through many designs such as a fairy, ghost, a bird resembling a Flicky, to ultimately a dog-like creature. His name was originally called "Whip" as a motif for his "whipped cream" hair. However, like the Werehog's old name, Sega of America found the name inappropriate because of the implications of the phrase either as an act of punishment ("whipping") or suffering injury ("whiplash). So, they changed it to "Chip." Chip was also intended to be younger and cuter, but was made cockier since Western countries were open-minded to cool characters rather than cute ones.
Even when the Adventure formula had to be changed, the most ominous element that was retained are the hub areas that Sonic and Chip traverse through, but with a couple of significant modifications. The game highlights the term "world" from Sonic World Adventure effectively as players would explore various countries in order to progress through the campaign.
Each country they visit is based on real-life countries, cities, and/or landscapes. The port town region Apotos was based on the Greek cities Oia and Mykonos. The art capital city of the world Spagonia was inspired by various locations of Western Europe, such as having a big clock tower similar to London's Big Ben and the housing architecture was modeled off of Siena, Italy. Mazuri and Chun-nan were based on the countries Africa and China respectively where the latter took some influence from Chinese mythology by portraying a phoenix as a guardian. The icecap region Holoska not only has a society based on Inuit villages from the Arctic, and Antarctic wildlife like penguins and giant whales, but its name was considered a nod to the U.S. state of Alaska. The tourist hotspot desert city Shamar took effect from Middle Eastern culture while the tropical and water-reliant village of Adabat was simulated by Southeastern Asian locations, Indonesia and Thailand. The HD console exclusive location Empire City is a clear homage to New York City for its metropolitan setting, having landmark areas like the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, and its flag almost looks exactly like the American flag! Boy, and we thought Sonic wasn't Americanized enough before.
Each country wouldn't be lively without its people, and all the NPCs that Sonic encounters received an appealing update. Instead of carrying Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)'s photorealistic approach, every NPC was redesigned by the Japanese art team Gurihiru to look more cartoony and abstract to remain more consistent with Sonic's animated and anthropomorphic style. Some fans believe that these humans look like they came straight out of a computer-animated feature, particularly with Pixar's The Incredibles and Ratatouille, which both were directed by animator Brad Bird around that time. Not only that, many of the NPCs were given more characterization and personality whenever Sonic interacts with them. It is an assumption that others would say that notion was taken from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. To date this article, this is the current Sonic game to feature other human characters, not counting the movies years later.
Though not all of the NPCs wouldn't leave out an impression, the game features a few characters that stand out from the crowd. The most prominent is the wise yet eccentric Professor Pickles with a love for cucumber sandwiches. Other recurring NPCs include freelance news reporter Brenda Hernadez who frequently interviews Sonic, hot dog vendors that would provide special hot dogs for Sonic whenever he completes requested missions, and the shy traveling salesman Wentos with his "partner" a Chao-shaped hand puppet.
A year prior to the game's development, Sonic Team was building a new game engine called the Hedgehog Engine for the HD versions. While the Havok engine was still used for physics, the Hedgehog Engine was designed to achieve CGI-quality graphics and a global illumination effect called the "Light Field" where the game's lighting bounces off characters and every single object to render ultra-realistic looks to areas. Other features include dynamic shadowing, motion blur, color grading, and tone mapping. In fact, the process was so effective that hundreds of computers had to calculate lighting for each action stage in around two or three days. But, one distinctive addition to the game engine that heavily applies to Sonic's daytime gameplay is consistent camera transitions where the levels would change between 3D and 2D perspectives. The latter symbolically represents a tribute to Sonic's Genesis era and handheld games.
You may have noticed that I keep mentioning the "HD versions." Why is that? Well, the game was actually produced under two development "silos" for a variety of systems. The Hedgehog Engine was specifically made for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. However, since the Playstation 2 and Wii's hardware can't process the Hedgehog Engine, they decided to build it under a modified exiting internal engine with some levels designed by their zealous developer Dimps. This marks the first home console Sonic game to be produced by Dimps and historically the last PS2 Sonic game. These two engines not only affect the presentation but also the gameplay as well.
While the core of Sonic's gameplay is high-speed platforming, Hashimoto wanted to avoid "on-rails" movement from past titles but wishes to maintain an interactive feel while presenting an exhilarating sense of speed. A major game mechanic added was the Boost move from the Sonic Rush series (see the connection, yet?) and the "Ring Energy" meter. Hashimoto aimed to make "more than 2 rings make little difference in the gameplay." In layman's terms, the more rings Sonic would collect, the faster he will be. Other new mechanics include the Side Step where Sonic could swiftly move side to side to avoid incoming obstacles, a Stomping move that would open switches to closed pathways, and real-time interaction pads that people have to correct button inputs under quick reflexes.
Elsewhere, the Playstation 2 and Wii versions share the Boost mechanic by collecting rings, but also be affected by performing "Action Chains", destroying multiple enemies in quick succession through using the Homing attacks. The Wii version of the stages was changed to accommodate the motion control-based boost mechanic. By comparison, there are fewer daytime stages than in the HD versions. Oddly enough, while the iconic Spin Dash move is absent in the HD versions, it is present here.
When the sun goes down, the Werehog gameplay goes in a completely different direction. Alternatively, the Werehog levels emphasize more action and puzzle-solving than high-speed. Sonic the Werehog may not be fast, but his newfound strength can clobber multiple enemies with combo attacks, momentarily power up with his "Unleash" energy, and occasional quick-time reaction finishers. His stretchable arms can also help players move objects to solve puzzles or cling and swinging through platforms. In terms of the Wii version, the Werehog levels rely more on motion controls whereas players use the Wii Remote and Nunchuck to simulate the fighting and puzzle solving. They were structured in a behind-the-back perspective and different platforming styles to suit the mechanics. The Wii version also optionally offers the Gamecube Controller or Classic Controller for the traditional method.
One aspect that both gameplay share is an experience points gauge where defeating enemies or collecting Sun/Moon Medals would increase their respective skills. These enhancements include Sonic's top speed and a variety of combo moves for the Werehog.
On a side note, the HD version features two levels that are remindful of the Tornado sub-missions in Sonic Adventure. The major difference is that the player must attack incoming enemies with quick-reaction button inputs instead of freely moving the plane around.
Another The Legend of Zelda influence is that it is one of the first Sonic games having elements of a "collect-a-thon", which was a common trend of 3D platformers where players search and collect many items to unlock special rewards. But, gathering certain items would vary on which version of the game.
Within both versions, there are Sun and Moon medals that Sonic must collect, whether it is during the day or night, in order to advance the plot. Yet, the medals are executed differently. In the HD versions, Sonic would find the medals hidden within the stages or hub areas. Collecting these said medals would either enhance Sonic's stats, as previously mentioned, or a certain amount is required to unlock stage/boss gates in unaccessible areas that only Sonic or the Werehog could reach. Other collectibles, such as videotapes, artwork, and music tracks can be unlocked by completing side quest missions for the townsfolk. Authentically, Sonic can also purchase souvenirs and food for Chip to try out. At night, the Werehog would perform "exorcism" missions whenever he and Chip take photos to expose and fight demons possessing NPCs.
In the PS2/Wii version, Sun and Moon medals are earned after clearing stages and their objectives. Given the systems' hardware, the hub areas are more presented as menu-based map systems where players could click on areas and talk to static portraits of NPCs for information.
As the in-game graphics were handled by the Hedgehog Engine, Havok, and Dimps, the CGI animated cutscenes were handled once again by Marza Animation Planet, after their work on Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. The production values in the animation department were given a massive boost to almost feature-length quality where the cinematography is more dynamic, each character is more expressive and animated through the use of squash-and-stretch to compliment the cartoony and lighthearted nature of the Blue Blur.
The voice acting and direction were also a marginal improvement with the 4Kids actors. Despite Knuckles' absence, Dan Green voiced Professor Pickle in English while anime voice actor Chō voiced him in Japanese. No relation to the mobster, voice actor and scriptwriter Tony Salerno was the English voice of Chip, and anime voice actress Ryoko Shiraishi was his Japanese voice.
Veteran Tomoya Ohtani composed most of the soundtrack with assistance from Fumie Kumatani, Kenichi Tokoi, Takahito Eguchi, and Hideaki Kobayashi. In order to make the music as large as the world itself, the orchestral tracks were provided by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. They also played the orchestral theme "Sonic World Adventure" as a leitmotif. Staying faithful to the countries' theming and culture, each level featured instruments that are synonymous with the real-world areas they are inspired from. Examples include Adabat playing traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia, and Mazuri using bongo drums, and native chanting that represented classical African music. The only exception was the final stage Eggmanland where the music was more synthesized to give out a more industrialized feeling.
While Crush 40 was busy writing songs for another Sonic project, the main theme song "Endless Possibility" was sung by Jarret Reddick, the lead vocalist of Bowling for Soup. Coincidentally, Bowling for Soup was gaining recognition for singing the theme song for Disney Channel's hit animated series, Phineas & Ferb during that time. The ending song "Dear My Friend", which is a dedicated number about Sonic and Chip's friendship, was performed by singer-songwriter Brent Cash.
Sonic: Night of the Werehog
Before Sega released the game, they heavily promoted Unleashed in a way no other video game company has rarely done: presenting an animated short film ala Pixar or as a DVD bonus feature. This unexpected surprise was known as Sonic: Night of the Werehog. In this short, Sonic and Chip spend the night at a haunted mansion while two ghosts constantly try scaring them in order to impress a girl ghost. Now, Sonic must go all-Werehog and show them the real meaning of fear.
The short was fully animated by Marza Animation Planet, then known as "Sega VE Animation Studio", where they display their artistic capabilities in full bloom. Originally, the story would feature all the ghost characters as male, but the third was changed to a female to distinguish each other. Speaking of whom, the ghost characters, the competitive duo Su and Uh, and the pretty yet spoiled Lah, were created exclusively under the studio, and not as Sonic characters. Despite that, Su and Uh made cameos during two exorcism missions in the game.
The characters are expressive through pantomiming and dialogue is barely used throughout the game. The short also pays homage to classic monster movies like The Wolf Man with a few SEGA references sprinkled in, most notably the Sega Dreamcast. There was going to be a scene where Sonic and Chip would play on the Dreamcast but was removed due to time constraints. Hey, on the bright side, at least we see one in the game.
Sonic: Night of the Werehog was originally screened at nine Japanese multiplexes nationwide for a limited time, and later on Sega of America's YouTube page. While no reports of critical reception have been found, many fans have considered Night of the Werehog an underrated piece in Sonic animated media history and wish more content like this would be added for entertainment and promotional purposes.
Reception & Legacy
Since its announcement, many video game journalists anticipated that this game was going to be Sonic's grand return to his roots. With all the trailers, news, and promotional material, Sonic finally unleashes his world adventure to stores on November 18 on the PS2, Wii, and Xbox 360 in North America, ten days later in Europe, and a month later (Wii version only) and February 19, 2009 (360 version) in Japan. The PS3 version was launched on December 9 in North America, ten days later in Europe, and on February 19, 2009, in Japan as well.
[P.S. There was a mobile phone version of the game developed by Gameloft and was only available in Europe on June 2009.]
After all that waiting, Sonic's grand return was...adequate. Critics and gamers had a blast with the new daytime levels and boost gameplay, the graphics and presentation were "gorgeous" and "lovingly animated", and the soundtrack was memorably grand.
However, regardless of what Hashimoto said, they did not hesitate in their distaste for the Werehog gameplay. The concept was "dreadfully out-of-place", the slow night-time levels were a "pace-breaker", the "boring" combat was compared to God of War, and the platforming was "frustrating." Not to mention, the nighttime levels would take too long to finish when contrasting the daytime levels. The biggest offender was the final stage Eggmanland where you have to complete it as both Sonic and the Werehog simultaneously in order to reach the final boss. It was widely considered one of the most difficult levels in Sonic history. Minor criticism also included the hub-area missions being "inane" and opinions on the overall story tone and Chip ranged from "juvenile" to much like a "Saturday morning cartoon."
Admittedly, Sonic Team member Tetsu Katano felt that the Werehog concept was not a mistake, but time and resources were the limiting factors in the game's production. He also believed that the Werehog may reappear in future games, including a possible Unleashed sequel. As of now, Sonic the Werehog has only made fewer cameos, appeared as Mii costumes in the Mario & Sonic series, and was a playable character in mobile games Sonic Dash, Sonic Runners, and recently Sonic Forces: Speed Battle. Sadly, this was Hashimoto's final project as he left Sega a year later and worked as chief technology officer and director for Luminous Studio at Square Enix.
Now, that is the critical reception regarding the HD versions. For the PS2 and Wii versions, it is technically better where the added motion controls, text-based map system, better Werehog gameplay, and camera system gave critics a more tolerable experience.
Commercially, on the other hand, sales for Sonic Unleashed have surpassed the numbers that the previous games earned. Even though there are no reports found on how many copies were sold in each country, it was confirmed that Unleashed was the third best-selling game of the year with a worldwide total of 2.45 million units sold, as of March 2009. The Wii version also received a nomination for IGN's Best Graphics Technology for the Wii but lost to De Blob.
Years later, things have taken a turn for the better when the game was relisted digitally on the PS3 store and recently backward compatible on the Xbox One as fans retrospectively warmed up more positively towards Unleashed. It went from being a mixed bag to a massive cult following and was regarded as one of the best Sonic games in the franchise. One notable case was IGN, which initially panned the game when it was released. Now, they ranked it as number 10 on the "Top 10 Sonic Games." Many fans would compare how revolutionary Sonic Unleashed was similar to how Sonic Adventure did during the late 90s. The game's characters Chip and Dark Gaia were deemed as the pure good and most evil Sonic characters respectively on 1UpBinge's "Sonic Characters: Good to Evil" video. Aside from its flaws, some grew soft on the Werehog and saw the potential of what Hashimoto mentioned.
What began as a supposed Adventure sequel has turned into a trailblazing experience that literally exposed both the pros and cons of Sonic, which Hashimoto had envisioned. While not everything hit bullseyes with everyone when it first came out, it eventually got the attention it deserved over time. With all the well-crated visuals, high-speed boost gameplay, and full-orchestrated music, Sonic Team knew these would be the components right ingredients for future 3D titles. What could be next in Sonic's 3D career? The answer is full of endless possibilities.
A couple of months later, Sonic Team went back to spin-off territory where it was time to open a new chapter in the "Sonic Storybook" series. Because of the financial success of Secret Rings and listening to criticisms, they would have to make the most out of their second entry. Prepare thy weapon and storm into the Arthurian legend with Sonic and the Black Knight.
Sonic and the Black Knight (2009)
When the corrupted King Arthur plagues the world of Camelot, a sorceress named Merlina summons Sonic to help them cleanse the chaos. Along the way, Sonic draws a Magic Sword named Calibur and must duke out with the Knights of the Round Table before it's too late.
Most of the production staff have reprised their roles with some old and new faces added during development. For starters, the first entry's director and producer Yogiro Ogawa was placed into development support while Tetsu Katano was now in charge as both director and producer. Since Ogawa was repositioned, Shiro Maekawa had more freedom to write the script whatever he wanted.
Ever since Black Knight was announced at Nintendo's pre-Toyko Game Show (TGS) conference, the team's goal was to focus more on combat and cinematic presentation rather than multiple pathway-level designs from past 3D titles.
A couple of elements from Secret Rings have returned but with some major differences. As expected, the hand-painted and static imagery cutscenes are present but are now based on European woodblock printing to make the artistry look like a "tapestry." The significant upgrade that the visuals have, outside of an updated PhysX game engine, is more added CGI cutscenes provided once again by Anima Inc.
Like before, many of Sonic's friends have taken the form of famous legendary figures found in the Arthurian legend. The main highlight is King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table: Sir Gawain portrayed by Knuckles, Sir Lancelot portrayed by Shadow, and Sir Percival portrayed by Blaze. Not only Sonic would get to fight them a couple of times respectively, but they would also eventually become allies during the story's second half and playable on certain levels! Tails, this time, plays a blacksmith who would occasionally equip the player's skills (more on that soon) and Amy Rose plays the Lady of the Lake. Surprisingly, the only major Sonic character that doesn't make an appearance is Dr. Eggman, which is considered a breath of refreshing air. While he doesn't physically appear nor mentioned, Eggman makes a cameo on a Joker playing card as one of the game's collectibles.
Of course, Sonic Team would have to include their own original characters to expand the world of Camelot. The most noteworthy character is the wizard Merlina who guided Sonic on his journey. While she physically shares a good resemblance to Shahra, she is the granddaughter of the wizard Merlin from the real-life legend. On top of that, she is, spoiler alert, the first female villain in Sonic history who betrays Sonic, has a relatable motivation, and is also the first fully reformed villain.
Fun fact: Part of her spell summoning words in the intro cutscene "Ifalas zaras I e zaraq" are the same chanting that the Erazor Djinn used to summon the Ifrit Golem in the Secret Rings.
Sonic's main sword, which also speaks, known as Calibur, is an obvious nod to the mystical sword Excalibur, which he later becomes. As for the primary antagonist King Arthur, his appearance is based on the stock literary "black knight" character which appeared multiple times in the stories. Despite the game's title, his armor color is very dark gold. Personality-wise, this incarnation of the character is depicted as an arrogant and cruel tyrant during his corruption since King Arthur was always described as an honest and modest person throughout his royal duties. Sonic's second battle against King Arthur is a subtle reference to the legend where Arthur is taken after being mortally wounded by his son Mordred. Funnily enough, he is the only villain character to be playable in multiplayer mode if you collect five books chronicling the story of King Arthur during regular gameplay.
The biggest criticism that Sonic and the Secret Rings received was Sonic's rail movement dependent on motion controls by using the Wii Remote horizontally. While Sonic still cannot turn around, lean forward, or flip backward in a predetermined pathway, players can now control him with the Nunchuck's analog stick to make his movements more streamlined.
While traditional platforming and speed remain untouched, Sonic now wields Calibur as swordplay is the main highlight element added to the gameplay. Appropriately holding the Wii Remote like a sword, Sonic would slice through enemies while maintaining his speed. Sometimes, he would thrust, parry or perform buzzsaw-like maneuvers at imposing foes.
Changing things up a bit, traditional Sonic items were represented by fairies to give the game a fantasy-oriented approach. For instance, yellow fairies would grant rings, blue fairies act as springs or speed boosters, and red fairies would fill up the returning "Soul Gauge." Collecting enough energy will unleash a powerful special attack called "Soul Surge." In Sonic's case, he would dash up to enemies and perform a lock-on attack that would keep the gauge up, especially for quick reflex attacks during boss fights.
As mentioned before, the Knights of the Round Table would eventually be playable yet have their own unique fighting styles in the fray. Sir Gawain throws his dual swords like boomerangs and had the ability to glide. Sir Lancelot can use his Chaos-based power attacks, depending on what weapon he uses. Sir Percival is more capable of lunge attacks while surrounding herself in a fiery tornado towards enemies.
Missions and the skill system have also returned but the team adjusted them to be easier to complete and avoid interfering with the game's tempo. At certain levels, Sonic would find and interact with townspeople with the option to either help or injure them. By correctly performing quick-time button inputs, Sonic will be rewarded in exchange for rings. Sometimes, Sonic would give a certain amount to townsfolk near the end of the stage. Not only these tasks would improve his morale with many followers, but the gifts he earns are either treasure or ingredients taken to the blacksmith for weapon upgrades. Players are also given choices to customize and increase their sword skills under the balanced "Knight" style, the speed "Cavalier" type, and the power "Paladin" setting.
For the multiplayer mode, instead of competing in Mario Party-style minigames, up to four players would fight each other in a series of different competitions in Battle Mode, since the game fits into its combat-based approach. These events include defeating the most opponents, being the last one standing, collecting more rings than anyone else, working together to defeat giant enemies, and even avoiding being touched by the Grim Reaper in a game of "tag"!
The character roster has also slightly expanded where Sonic and the Knight characters (while the real Knuckles, Shadow, and Blaze as unlockables) are available from the start while others get unlocked by completing missions and requirements. Two exclusive knight characters for Battle Mode are Sir Galahad played by Silver the Hedgehog, and Sir Lamorak played by Jet the Hawk.
Since the early days of Sonic X, the 4Kids actors have gradually improved over time and many fans have declared that Sonic and the Black Knight has the best voice direction in such a while. Additional voice actors for the other characters have either gone places in their careers or have a professional portfolio. One example is Merlina's voice actresses Melissa Hutchison in English and Mamiko Noto in Japanese. While Noto continued supplying her voice in several anime and video games, Hutchison landed more roles in various media. Her works include the current voice of Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Katie from the Yo-Kai Watch dub, 9-Volt in the WarioWare series, and Clementine from the Walking Dead video game series. The current voice for Raela from NiGHTS into Dreams Casey Robertson provided the English voice for Caliburn and anime actor Hiroaki Hirata was his Japanese voice. Veteran Japanese actor Hidekatsu Shibata lent King Arthur's voice in Japanese while Gavin Hammon dubbed him in Enlgish.
Sadly, this was at least, the last major Sonic game to feature the 4Kids cast. The reason I'll get into soon.
Among all the elements that the game had, the most improved and passionate component used was the music and sound direction provided by Jun Senoue with some help from Richard Jacques. The music contains the usual rock genre associated with Sonic but is also mixed with Celtic music to substantiate the fantasy setting that the Medieval period was known for. During cutscenes, the game would occasionally play musical cues of character theme songs from past 3D Sonic games. They consist of "It Doesn't Matter", "Believe in Myself", "Unknown from M.E.", "My Sweet Passion" from Sonic Adventure, "Throw It All Away" from Sonic Adventure 2, and "What I'm Made of" from Sonic Heroes. "Vela Nova" from Sonic Rush was used as Sir Percival's theme music and the Crush 40 rendition of "All Hail Shadow" from Sonic the Hedgehoh (2006) plays whenever Lancelot has equipped a different weapon.
Speaking of Crush 40, the veteran duo currently holds the record for making a total of four tracks for a Sonic game. Their main theme song is "Knight of the Wind" which vocalist Johnny Gioelli recently revealed to be one of their favorite songs. The other tracks "Fight the Knight" and "Through the Fire" would play during boss fights between King Arthur and the Royal Knights respectively. Compared to other Crush 40 songs, the credits song "Live Life" is the slowest and most relaxed, giving a "more peaceful rock anthem feel." Lastly, the final boss song "With Me" was composed by Senoue and written by Gioelli, yet the vocals were done by Emma Gelotte and Tinna Karlsdotter from the band All Ends.
Reception & Legacy
During its development, Sega of America held a competition for submitting fan artwork of Sonic characters into the game's "special gallery" section. The contestants had to be registered users on the website and the top twenty finalists would win a free game copy. However, an Italian contestant was disqualified for copying another DeviantART artist's work as his submission. The original artist was later located and reimbursed for the mistake.
When Sonic pulled the sword out of the stone and fought his way to shelves on March 3rd in North America, nine days later in Japan, and ten days later in Europe, Sonic was knighted under middle-class...with some redeeming qualities, though. Many found Black Knight to be better than its predecessor with the "attractive" visuals and presentation, modified control scheme, abundant bonus content, and incredibly catchy soundtrack. However, because of the "repetitive" (sometimes decent) combat system, easy missions, lackluster multiplayer events, and short length, they kept Sonic from reaching higher in quality.
Fortunately, Sonic was awarded a decent amount of treasure from sales. The game was ranked #30 on Japan's sales chart and was the tenth best-selling Wii game of 2009 with 66,000 copies sold. Combining the numbers from the rest of the world, Sonic and the Black Knight made a worldwide total of 1.2 million units.
Merlina, Caliburn, and King Arthur would later appear in the Archie Comics adaptation and appeared as Buddies in the Sonic Runners app game. Sir Gawain, Lancelot, and Percival have recently appeared as unlockable playable characters in the mobile app Sonic Forces: Speed Battle. "Knight of the Wind" also became a turnover song for the Windy Hill Zone stage in the subsequent Super Smash Bros. installments.
As time moved on, Sonic and the Black Knight gathered a cult following and some fans went as far as calling it an underrated gem. Yes, some of the Wii motion controls and swordplay were as still as problematic as Secret Rings. But, in terms of production values and ambition, they give the game a lot more credit than it initially received. Sonic Team carefully listened to the feedback and put a plenty amount of effort into what they could make under the Wii hardware. The story was more pensive with a solid moral about living life. Merlina is regarded as an undervalued twist villain with a comprehensible motive on the subject matter. The game added more collectible content and additional playable characters with distinctive abilities. The voice acting was properly handled and the soundtrack is highly memorable in terms of energy and variety. Others wouldn't mind another "Storybook" entry in the future since things were looking to start picking up from there, despite its flaws. As a matter of fact, after the game's release, Sega posted a FaceBook poll for fans to vote on which storybook genre would end up next. Choices included western, sci-fi, horror, and even film noir. The most voted genre was Greek mythology since there was plenty of potential in interpreting Sonic's speed gameplay into the world of Greek gods and monsters.
Unfortunately, when the game got mixed reviews and did not sell strong, Sega immediately canceled plans for another entry, and, as of this article, closed the "Storybook" series forever.
The action alone didn't just affect Black Knight's reception but all the other games as well. Sega was starting to see a connection. Since the disappointment of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), none of the spin-offs and/or follow-ups during the rest of that decade weren't as highly praised as they hoped for. Yes, they were commercially moderate to solid, but many critics and gamers characterized them as either okay at best or mediocre at worst. The only games that were close to high quality were Sonic Rush Adventure and Sonic Unleashed...for the PlayStation 2 and Wii. With the sixth generation of gaming and the 2000s decade ending, Sega had no other option: remove any game that was reviewed average, recast the voice actors, and rebrand the value of Sonic to its former glory. It was not only the beginning of re-introducing Sonic into a new decade but also for new Generations.