I will admit that, at first, Sonic the Hedgehog’s 3D games were rather enjoyable. Sure, Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 had their flaws, but they also had plenty of neat features and excellent game play to make up for these problems. It was not until 2004, however, that the 3D games, and Sonic himself, really started to go downhill. It was in that year that Sonic Heroes was released for the Gamecube, Xbox, and Playstation 2 consoles (I have only played the Gamecube version, but the differences between all three versions are minimal, mainly having to do with loading times and graphics). What should have been a game with the classic Sonic feel turned out to be one that was plagued by a ton of problems, so much so that it probably was not supposed to be out for months. What made Sonic Heroes such a terrible Sonic game? That is what I am going to explain to you all today.
Once again, Sega decided to have multiple playable characters besides Sonic. This time, however, the emphasis is on team-based game play, thus the “Heroes” in the game’s title. Each of the four teams have three characters who must work together to get through each stage. There is a speed character, who is fast, can home in on enemies, and create tornadoes to help deal with various enemies. Then we have a flight character, who of course can fly for a short time, but who can also use the other team members as balls to take down enemy robots. Lastly, there is a power character, who is extra strong and can use fans to help the other members to float through the air. Switching between the characters is as simple as pressing the X and Y buttons, though not always, as I will explain later.
There are four different teams, each of whom control similarly and have their own story. First, there is Team Sonic, who learn that their archenemy, Dr. Eggman, has built the ultimate weapon and plots to conquer the world in only three days. Leading this team is Sonic the Hedgehog, who is as fast and excited about another adventure as ever and looks forward to foiling the mad doctor’s schemes once again. Miles “Tails” Prower is a two-tailed fox with a knack for building things and is quite brave for a young child. Knuckles the Echidna has taken time off from guarding the Master Emerald on Angel Island to aid Sonic and Tails with his super strength. Team Sonic’s stages are of a medium difficulty and are recommended for those who are fairly good at action games.
Team Dark consists of three antiheroes who have their own reasons for stopping Eggman. Shadow the Hedgehog, thought to have been killed at the end of Sonic Adventure 2, was released from a stasis capsule, but was left with amnesia supposedly as a result from crashing back onto Earth. Rouge the Bat is on the hunt for Eggman’s treasure, and will do anything to find it. E-123 Omega, the only new playable character, is a robot who was abandoned by Eggman and wishes to exact his revenge by destroying his former master and his machines. The Team Dark missions are meant for experts, as they tend to be long and difficult.
Then there is a trio of cute animals who combine to form Team Rose. Amy Rose the Hedgehog wishes not only to try once more to win Sonic’s heart, but also to find some of her companions’ missing friends. Cream the Rabbit is a young girl who, along with her partner Cheese the Chao, wants to find Chocola Chao, who was last seen with Sonic. Big the Cat, who loves fishing and is still a bit dumb (though his IQ seems to have gotten a bit of a boost since his debut in Sonic Adventure) has once again lost his amphibian friend Froggy and sets off to rescue him. Team Rose’s stages are shorter and easier and are created with younger players in mind. Seeing as how this team has a cute appeal to them, that does not surprise me.
Lastly, there is Team Chaotix, a detective team who find themselves completing missions for a mysterious client. Espio the Chameleon is proficient with ninja skills and can turn invisible. Charmy Bee is an excitable little kid with a tendency to sting flowers (used to teleport the team to other parts of the stage) and pick on a fight. Vector the Crocodile is the leader here, and he never turns down work that promises a lot of money. These characters, previously only seen in Knuckles Chaotix for the Sega 32X, go on missions to collect items, destroy robots, and get past characters undetected. Their stages, however, are the most problematic of the bunch, but I will get to that later.
Regardless of which team you select (all four are available at the start), your mission is to get past fourteen stages, each with a variety of enemies and obstacles. As usual, rings can help protect you from dying when you are hit, and every 100 rings collected will earn you an extra life. What makes the stages unique is that they were created with team-based game play in mind. Often, you will find a task that is best completed by a certain character, whether it is homing in on enemies with a speed character, flying upwards with a flight character, or breaking down a door with a power character. You can hit checkpoints to restart when you die, and secrets can be found if you take the time to explore. Additionally, by attacking enemies and collecting rings, you can power up a Team Blast meter that, when full, you can activate by pressing the Z Button. Doing this will not only destroy nearby foes, but also causes such effects as briefly stopping time and making the characters invincible.
After every two stages, you will face a boss. The bosses come in three different categories. First, there are Eggman-built contraptions like in the classic games. Your mission is to take down these machines by hitting team over and over. Then there are battles in which you deal with numerous waves of enemy robots. You must survive each wave and take out the robots until Eggman decides to retreat. Both of these types of battles are manageable, but the last one, the character based battles, is rather poorly designed. Here, you fight against another team by trying to force them off of a platform. However, this is easier said than done as you can get stunned for an extended period of time and it can simply take far longer than it should to defeat the opposing team. The character battles in the Sonic Adventure games were much better.
In fact, this game is full of problems. For one thing, the team-based game play, while unique, means that less emphasis is placed on speed and more is placed on power and flight. Thus the action can slow down considerably. Slowing things down even more are the robots, which no longer take a single hit to destroy. Instead, Sega had the foolish idea of giving them hit points, and the time it takes to destroy them depends on how strong your characters are. Yes, the characters can collect special power cores to increase their power up to three times, making them more powerful against their adversaries. However, the levels do not carry over from stage to stage, and also vanish when you lose a life, making the idea all the more stupid. Sega should have stuck with the classic system of having each robot destroyed with one hit and also eliminated the level up system.
The stages can be fun at times, but they also tend to drag on for what seems like forever. You see, Sega thought that the difficulty levels for the various teams should not only be emphasized by how challenging they are, but also by how long the stages should be. Team Rose’s stages are pretty short and manageable, but Team Sonic’s levels can go on for a while, and Team Dark’s missions are longer still. Part of the problem is that the stages are repetitive, with various situations repeated again and again. As a result, the game feels like it suffers from artificial lengthening. Even the Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 stages were shorter than these levels.
Particularly problematic are the Team Chaotix missions. While some of them have you simply racing through the levels like everyone else, most of them have you completing objectives that slow things down and often force you to go off the beaten path. Consequently, the levels end up lasting far too long and are rendered dull and monotonous. Prepare for a lot of stages that take at least ten minutes to complete, and possibly far more than that. What was Sega thinking by creating such long and repetitive levels?
Even if the stages were not very long, they are still full of other problems that really bring the game down. Often, they feel like they were poorly designed in that they can send your characters plummeting to their deaths in a split second. This becomes especially apparent in missions in which you have to grind on rails and must switch between them, as doing so does not always work and thus you end up losing one life. Such cheap deaths are bad to begin with, but they are made even worst at times when the checkpoints are too far and few between. In these instances, you should master the tasks quickly, or be ready to repeat a lot of progress. It also does not help that when your characters land on a platform, they tend to take some extra steps forward, possibly leading them to their doom, and sometimes, switching to another character fails to work immediately, such as when one of them has been knocked down or when you are falling and are unable to fly back up. These oversights could have easily been fixed, even if it meant delaying the game for months, but Sega opted not to do so for whatever reason.
Making their debut in a Sonic 3D game are the special stages, where you can earn extra lives and, more importantly, Chaos Emeralds that will unlock the game’s final boss battle. However, the stages themselves, as well as the steps you must take to enter them, are also poorly designed. Entering the bonus levels requires you to find a key and hold onto it for the remainder of the stage. If you get hit by an enemy, however, you lose the key, and as mentioned earlier, it is sometimes difficult to avoid taking damage. As for the stages themselves, you will need to collect spheres that will increase your speed so that you may collect the emerald as it flies through the stages. The controls take a turn for the worst here, and you may very well end up with motion sickness, as the stages can make you feel dizzy. I will take the blue sphere special stages in Sonic 3 and Knuckles over these levels.
If all of this were not bad enough, Sega brought back the infamous grading system, which gives you a rank depending on how well you did in the stages and boss battles. In many cases, your grade will increase depending on how high your score is. Unfortunately, the score resets to zero when you lose a life, even after you hit a checkpoint. Having to go through the stages, lengthy and monotonous as they already are, becomes an even greater chore for those who have to try and score an A rank with a single life. Granted, getting every last A rank is optional, but Sega’s requirements for doing so make it almost impossible when coupled with how badly designed the stages are.
As for other problems, the characters get from one area to another without any explanation. Indeed, how do they get from a beach to a city run by Eggman’s robots? Also, there are lots of plot holes that come along, the most glaring of which is the mystery regarding Shadow’s memory. He does not get even the slightest clue as to who he is, and his quest to cure his amnesia would have to wait until the release of Shadow the Hedgehog to be resolved. Also, if you do get every last A rank, be warned that aside from the pride that comes from doing so, you will not be rewarded in any way. Again, Sega should have delayed the game to fix its many problems, but apparently thought that people would buy even shoddy Sonic games and released it before it was truly ready.
Does Sonic Heroes have any merit? There is some fun in spots if you can deal with all of the negative features you must endure to get to them. The CGI cut scenes look pretty slick, and the in-game graphics suffer from little slowdown (in the Gamecube version anyway…some more slowdown was present in the Xbox version, and the Playstation 2 version ran the graphics at 30 FPS instead of 60 FPS). The music can be catchy, and the voice acting can be decent. Not all of the voices are good, however, since Tails sounds like he has a cold and Charmy’s high-pitched voice is bound to induce headaches. Still, the voice acting is better here than it would be in subsequent games, when the 4Kids actors would take over and make various characters sound even worse than before. Aside from these features, however, Sonic Heroes is a game that Sega should be ashamed of for releasing it in such a bad shape.
Sonic has met a terrible fate in that his games have largely become worse with each new entry, and Sonic Heroes, at least in my opinion, is where his fall from grace began. From poorly designed and overly long levels to cheap deaths to action that slows down on too many occasions, it is an example of how not to make a platform game. I swear it was rushed out so that Sega could make money fast, knowing that Sonic has such a large fan base that everyone would buy even the worst Sonic products out there. Hopefully, Sega has learned from their mistakes and will make Sonic 4 the return to glory for the superstar hedgehog that it was meant to be. If they do not, then we could have games with even more flaws which could make Sonic Heroes look like a masterpiece by comparison, and that would be a crying shame.