Sonic The Hedgehog (Xbox 360, PS3) was released in November of 2006, one year after Shadow the Hedgehog was released in 2005, and a year before Sonic and The Secret Rings would come on the newly launched Nintendo Wii in 2007. Shadow The Hedgehog was a spin-off that struggled to resolve the holes of a fiction regarded as trite by the wider gaming audience. Secret Rings was the title that would birth a new generation of simpler, thematically lighter console Sonic games, with a more straightforward setup: a controlled, 'rails' approach to stages that have you stuck on set paths and moving forward as a default motion. Sonic The Hedgehog, which we'll be calling 'Sonic 06' as a short throughout this essay, was neither of these things. It isn't a return to the fiction birthed by Sonic Adventure 2 and doesn't establish a new identity for Sonic as a character, or define a new vision for the series. And so it never fulfills the basic purpose of a franchise reboot, a role it had implicitly embodied by sharing a name with the original 1991 Mega Drive title. By its inception, Sonic The Hedgehog is already a failure.
What makes Sonic 2006 unlike other games in its tier of abysmal reputation is that it cannot meet the basic expectation of arguing for its own existence. Even Bomberman: Act Zero — a grimdark reboot of the cutesy Hudson franchise that released in the same year — has a visible attempt to assert its concept, a sense that those who made it have some confidence in the fiction it was putting forward. But Sonic 2006 is often so muted and toneless, a game that carries no sense of identity. It often feels like it would rather not exist at all, and if that is true, then it is a failure in a much larger, much deeper, and much more existential sense then many of us would have ever considered. If Sonic The Hedgehog isn't a vision of the franchise's future nor a step forward from the franchise's past, then what exactly is it? Many say that it's a game that achieves nothing it sets out for, an unfinished demo that never should have been released, and perhaps never should have existed at all. Others view it as a tragic loss of clear potential as a strong successor, squandered by internal disorganization and poor corporate decision-making. Nonetheless, Sonic 2006 has entered a sort of mythical status in a culture that can't find the words to explain it, a conceptual black hole that almost seems to deflect description. But what’s important to understand is how these traits compose the identity and character of a game that is not only itself a failure, but is about failure, a world that is failing and the characters who fail in it. Sonic 2006 is a game where everyone loses, and where everyone leaves the story with their sense of purpose and their reason for existing fundamentally challenged. Sonic 2006 is both the most challenged and challenging Sonic game ever put to market, and it is one of the most misunderstood commercial videogames of the 2000s.
There are three events that I think define Sonic The Hedgehog, and the first one I want to describe is at the end of one of the game's three parallel plots, in the story of Silver The Hedgehog, a new franchise character who is marketed as being a psychic with telekinesis powers, and who is from 'the future,' about 200 years from the game's setting. Silver spends the entire game trying to find a way to destroy Iblis, a fire demon who is responsible for the annihilation of his world and its plunge into a fiery hellscape. Iblis is understood to be immortal but at the end of his story, Silver and his partner Blaze the Cat track it down for a final time and are able put it to a stop. To truly defeat Iblis, Silver must seal the demon inside of himself, but he isn't strong enough to perform the ritual, so Blaze must do it for him. To be more specific: Blaze attempts to seal the demon Iblis inside herself, then have Silver use the "Chaos Control" power to transport her into another dimension, with the demon inside her, in order to rid their world of Iblis' effect. But Silver doesn't have the resolve to do that either — instead, he hesitates and begins to panic. And although it seems that Iblis has been contained, it also appears its energy is too strong for Blaze to hold together, and she dies in the process. The scene of Blaze's death is very strange as it isn't clear what exactly kills her and how she dies. It seems that she literally is leaving her body: her figure is hollowed out into an orange glow, and we watch her transparent figure slowly rise into the air, as Blaze makes her last words: "Good Luck, Silver," which she utters in a wistful, loving tone. Nonetheless, her figure slowly fades out, a blue sky aggressively opens out from the smoky black clouds, and we see a long, receding downward view of Silver, a shot that makes him look very small, as he stares at the two chaos emeralds she was holding. The display of his ultimate failure literally hangs over him; it becomes the last thing we see in the story before a swift fade to black. It isn't clear why exactly Silver was not capable of sealing the demon Iblis, what is fundamentally wrong at his core that makes him insufficient for completing the ritual but regardless, he is left alone to process his failure to fulfill a task he devoted his life to completing, a task that arguably summarizes his only reason for existing in this game.
Shadow The Hedgehog, another of the game's central characters, faces a similar dilemma near the end of his story. The big reveal of Shadow is that the society he is a part of will eventually turn on him, and his partner E-123 Omega will be the one to capture and presumably put him in stasis for the rest of his life. It's not explained why or when this happens, or what particular group of people choose to do this, but after a long, silent reaction visible in Shadow's face, the camera moves upwards into the sky, and down onto a second, further view of "Team Dark." To repeat: the camera tilts up into a view of the sun, and back down onto the same scene to note the passage of time, and the reason it does is this is to communicate that Shadow and his partners are spending an undisclosed amount of time contemplating his eventual death. "It's so unfair!" asserts Rouge the Bat. "Shadow is always here to defend the world!" a dubious line that Shadow's body language doesn't acknowledge as true. He doesn't even look at her when she says it. Shadow — a character who for 5 years to this point has become very familiar with searching for a sense of purpose and coming up empty — seems to immediately understand what this revelation is trying to tell him: that "Team Dark," a name given to this trio in 2003's Sonic Heroes that has never been uttered by any of its members, the loose network of ideas and motivations that have bound them together, is faulty at its core. Omega's response to Rouge is both sagely and ominous: "Eventually, when something, or someone is seen as too powerful, it is seen as a threat. And then the world becomes its enemy." Rouge tells Shadow to remember that if the world turns on him, she will always stand by his side, and Shadow tells her that he will. It isn't the final scene in Shadow's story but it is the one that defines it. From that point on, it is again not clear how long this tight group of people can conceptualize themselves as such, and the underlying truth threatening to topple the concepts that justify their presence underscores our relationship with these characters for the rest of the game and beyond it.
The third event concerns Sonic himself who, about four fifths through the game is killed off by the chief villain character Mephiles The Dark. He is speared through the back with what the Sonic News Wiki calls a “Chaos Spear” although there is no evidence it is actually called that… but either way he dies immediately, and his death becomes the trigger for the game’s final plotline that converges the three parallel plots and formally ends the game.
Although the scene is quite melodramatic and heavy-handed, Sonic's death is actually very brief and the whole scene feels very blunt. What Sonic's death reveals to us is that Sonic The Hedgehog is the only Sonic game ever made that does not believe in the sanctity of its characters. The point of Sonic's quick and sudden death is to communicate how fallible he truly is. And so, as a game built to be a franchise spearhead, Sonic 06 embodies the total opposite of a branding symbol; it completely dissolves any credibility of its brand through its story. Any confidence in what these characters represent and what they exist to do is toppled over in three concluding scenes. Sonic is eventually revived through some stupid fairy-tale ritual, and he and Shadow and Silver turn into their super forms and defeat the ultimate enemy and save everything and whatever, but the entire game is full of implications about its characters and its world that are never confronted nor resolved. Sonic 06 cops out at the last moment, and thus leaves us with no answers to its most pressing questions.
The story of Sonic The Hedgehog is very long and very complicated, and if the conflicting information in its wikis are any indication, it’s also very ambiguous. It’s never exactly clear what is occurring in the story's key moments. Talking about Sonic 06 very much comes down to interpretation of strangely presented events and poorly contextualized situations. In that sense, I've always thought of Sonic 06 as the equivalent of an epic literary text — the kind of literature they don't write anymore — not just because of its size but because of the strange and complex ways that its many different parts come together. But in the simplest terms, Sonic 06 is a story about characters who are travelling through time, all for different reasons to achieve different goals that change as the story moves. Our three main characters — Sonic, Shadow, and Silver — travel with their respective companions in general opposition to the game's three 'villains': Dr Eggman, the demon Iblis, and the demon Mephiles, who is an important character we'll discuss in more depth later. The story begins with Princess Elise, the royal spearhead of the City of Soleanna, as she leads a religious celebration that gives praise to the Sun God "Solaris," called the Soleanna Sun Festival. After Elise climbs up a set of shallow steps to a circle of ominous hooded men, and takes a long white ceremonial torch into her hands, she is consumed by a horrible vision. Her body begins to levitate into the air, and she watches a storm of fire envelop her city, as she sees far into the distance a cosmic demon of indistinct size: the demon Iblis, who is prophecized to and eventually will destroy the world. It all looks very dense, in the sense of the storm of fire that sits between washes of black and purple, as we watch Elise's small floating body on the lower centre of the screen, stare helplessly at this creature whose head seems to be entering the stratosphere. The scene is very striking and probably the boldest move to establish a core aesthetic the game ever makes. It's one of the few moments where the game is clearest about its interest in the intersection of cosmic fantasy and religious allusion. But all of that falls apart pretty quickly once Sonic 06 reminds us that it is in fact a sonic game, and so after Elise's vision is cut off, Dr. Eggman comes in with his robots and tries to kidnap the princess, and Sonic shortly arrives in his introduction to beat up the robots and do everything else he is supposed to do.
From the instant Sonic is seen and the moment he speaks he is wrong and out of place with his surroundings, and this is a dissonance that Sonic 06 never resolves. In fact, Sonic's lack of fitting in is the most frequent motif that underscores his entire story. I once joked on twitter that Sonic has never looked so much like a Disney character, a cartoon character, but what that means is unlike a Disney character who exists within a meticulously constructed Disney world, every way in which Sonic exists in his own world seems to grind against it. And there really isn't a place where this is more apparent and more jarring than Sonic's private moments with Princess Elise. Sonic takes her away from Eggman, literally carrying her in his giant hands, and after a couple of levels they enter what is one of the strangest scenes in the game, where they spend personal time — what is actually presented as a very long time — together in a scenic meadow field. The meadow is strange in itself, an infinite plane of grass and saturated blue sky that looks more like a virtual Windows XP desktop world than a real place someone would want to spend time in. The scene is meant to establish their characters but it mostly just solidifies that Elise is aloof and passive to a point of concern, and that Sonic is bafflingly shallow, and this remains true for all their scenes going forward. From this point it's never clear whether Sonic 06 has any faith in Sonic at all. Not only is he never given a clear goal or purpose in this story, he fails at nearly every new task he's given and every goal he works towards. For one, he fails to be a sufficient protector for Elise. He can't protect Elise from Dr. Eggman, who snatches her behind his back repeatedly through the story. He can't protect her from Silver, who nearly kills him in their first encounter, and must be saved from him twice, once by Amy and again by Shadow. And he can't protect her from natural causes either. Near the end of his story, when Elise has once again surrendered to Eggman and is on his ship, the engines of the Egg Carrier suddenly malfunction, and the ship explodes, presumably killing both Eggman and Princess Elise. With the scene of Sonic, Silver and Blaze arriving at the end of a cliff in Kingdom Valley, watching a burning Egg Carrier crash into the mountains, Elise's death is deliberately framed as Sonic's failure. It's pretty cheesy to watch Sonic yell Elise's name with his arm reaching out but there really is something to the moment in his eyes, when he realizes that she is dead and that it is his fault. When I watch him smash the ground in anger, I tend to laugh, but I think it's because the scene is legitimately awkward and uncomfortable to watch. He sits on the ground for a very long time, at least for four or five seconds, while Silver and Blaze avoid eye contact, staring at the floor. After their little moment, Silver proposes they use Chaos Control to go back in time and save Elise before the Egg Carrier malfunctions. Sonic agrees, and he eventually does enter the Egg Carrier fast enough to save her and defeat Eggman. So if it all works out in the end, then what is the point of showing Elise dying aboard an exploding ship? Why even have this scene at all, if not just to show Sonic failing at something for its own sake? Hopefully by this point you understand what I'm trying to say: Sonic never has a good reason for taking on the role of a protector. His compulsion to chase after Elise is just that, a compulsion, with no justification, and the game repeatedly punishes him for his naive, short-term thinking. At every opportunity Sonic is humiliated and undermined. He spends the majority of the game reacting to circumstances outside of his control, and the more he asserts himself the further he falls down a hole. At the end of his story, he defeats Eggman in a battle that's almost identical to the Egg Viper fight from Sonic Adventure, but at this point who even cares? Who can find comfort in Sonic's inevitable victory over a goofy villain knowing the permanent implications of him the game has made? Sonic may end his story with a win, but he doesn't leave it with his integrity, or his credibility, intact.
In the Sonic The Hedgehog Official Game Guide™, author Fletcher Black describes Crisis City as a once "booming metropolitan area teeming with life" that has now become a city in "pure ruin, charred by the Flames of Iblis." What should be understood is that "Crisis City" isn't a dystopia or a post-apocalypse as it is a nightmarish hellscape, a place whose fiction and horror is drawn from its vague lack of detail and abstract presentation. Crisis City is pretty scary in concept: an endless plane of fire and lava, destroyed grey buildings and vacant cars. Large firestorms and massive dust storms whisk away trucks and crates across crumbled highways. The windows of fallen skyscrapers become platforms amid vast oceans of magma, and every walkable surface is crowded with demons and monsters spawned from Iblis' core. "Fire ravages the infernal metropolis, searing the sky and belching voluminous smoke into the night air. The streets below the crumbling skyscrapers are aflame with oozing rivers of molten lava, so Silver The Hedgehog must watch his footing." It is the most deliberate and specific representation of hell I've seen in a videogame since DOOM 3, and as such I think it's a distinctive setting that warrants recognition in its own right. But unlike the fantasy mysticism of DOOM 3, and the metallic industrialism of DOOM II, Sonic The Hedgehog calls to the ‘modern’, i.e the post-war American metropolis as a symbolic ground for its hellish world.
Life does not and cannot exist in Crisis City and no society can emerge within its bounds, and so it is a 'dead' place in every sense of the word. It is a place dislocated from the time and space of Sonic 06's surrounding geography. Knowing that Blaze the Cat was devised in 2005's Sonic Rush as the princess of an empire within a dimension parallel to Sonic's, it's never explained or described how exactly Blaze and Silver come to exist in this world. And so there's a certain suspension of disbelief that's assumed when we're introduced to this place. Perhaps it's better to understand "Crisis City" as something more conceptual, more symbolic than a place that comes to exist by plausible and realistic means within Sonic 06's fiction.
The first cutscene of Silver's story shows Crisis City at night, with Silver wandering alone in this thoughts. His opening monologue:
"This world was devastated before I was born. A harsh, bleak place, where we live in eternal darkness. Life is a struggle, and people live without hope. How did this happen? No one will answer me directly. But they always point... to the flames. These flames. They burn away at my world destroying everything in their path. They come from an eternal life form we cannot truly defeat. The Flames of Disaster known as Iblis."
After a small introductory level, we actually encounter Iblis itself as a short boss battle. The fight is brief and easily won, but it isn't long before we're reminded that Iblis cannot actually die, and so any victory is short-lived and ultimately pointless:
"Blaze: Looks like we stopped it for now. Silver: But, it'll just rise up from its ashes again. What's the point of all this? It'll never end.
Blaze: Calm down, Silver. Silver: Then tell me what we should do. How can we completely destroy Iblis?"
And here is the point where Mephiles enters the scene and makes his 'pitch.' He leads the two into a room and tells them that the only way they can truly stop Iblis is to kill the "Iblis Trigger," the thing/person which has caused Iblis to spawn. He tells them that he can travel through time in order to help them do this, and gives Silver a purple chaos emerald, in which he sees a vision: Sonic, standing in a fire looking outward. And so begins Silver's journey in the past to kill Sonic, believing that doing so will be the key to saving his future.
The ending of Silver's story is important because it represents the resolution of a thread that was established in the beginning, that being the question of Silver's character. Remember that Sonic 06 is a game where stories must be 'unlocked', meaning that Silver's story cannot be played until both Sonic and Shadow's stories are completed, making his own the last of the main three. By the time we reach Silver we already understand that Mephiles is a villain with destructive intentions, and so when we watch Silver swiftly and dutifully accept his claims without question, Sonic 06 is making a very specific judgement of him. At this point there are a few things that are implied about Silver The Hedgehog: that he is naive, that he is immature and "insecure," that he is impatient and impulsive, that he lashes out, and that he doesn't consider the long-term consequences of his actions. Two of these five descriptions are uttered by Blaze herself, and all of these things paint the picture of someone who's character will be confronted and challenged as the story moves. When Silver arrives in Soleanna, he meets Amy, and they travel together in a long, confusing sequence of scenes, but when they return he finds Sonic in an outdoor food court, and they engage in a fight, in what is now the infamous "It's No Use!" sub boss battle. Whether you play the fight as Silver or Sonic, Silver is the one understood to have won, and is seen bringing Sonic to his knees. But before he can kill him — and I say "kill" because Silver repeatedly makes reference to not merely stopping Sonic but ending his life, erasing him from the world — Amy steps in his way to protect Sonic.
Silver: Get out of my way, Amy! This is my mission! Amy (shaking her head): Absolutely not!
Amy's isn't just protecting Sonic because he's her fangirl crush or whatever; Amy's confrontation to Silver is a direct challenge to his politics. Indeed, it is the first time the game questions and makes a challenge to his character. Silver really is someone who will, without hesitation, act to kill someone he does not know, within circumstances he does not understand, because he has been told by someone he spoke to for three minutes that it will solve his most pressing problems. Take note also of what he shouts to her, "this is my mission!" Silver is taking ownership of this killing, he sees this act as encapsulating his ultimate purpose. This is something he wishes to define him. But Amy is the one who unlocks the moral consciousness of the situation, and presses us as players/viewers to ask ourselves: what kind of naive, ignorant, violent kind of person would do such a thing?
We know this is real because Silver is forced to reflect on what exactly he is doing. He is eventually spotted by Blaze The Cat, and he asks her for guidance:
Blaze: So this is where you are. I've been looking for you. What's wrong? Silver: Well, uh, Blaze. To kill someone to save the world… is that really the right thing to do? Blaze: You're so naive. Whether it's right or wrong, I can't really say. But what I do know is, if we don't take this chance, the future will remain exactly as it is.
Blaze deflects Silver's question because she understands that it's a bad question. Whether Silver's actions are right or wrong isn't the point at all. Blaze is right: if they decide to do nothing, then nothing will happen. If they decide to act, then there will be a consequence they cannot predict, and so they must act on their beliefs and their intuition. And it is in this ambiguous moral space where we find the essence of what it means to be politically radical. You aren’t going to come out of this a good person and you aren’t meant to. You act on your politics, and you take the consequences.
The reason Silver acts so swiftly to kill Sonic is because he is a young hedgehog who is under an immeasurable amount of pressure to create an answer for a hopeless, desolate future. And so whether what Silver does is right or wrong is secondary to the fact that Silver's actions are bred out of circumstances he was born into and cannot control. Sonic 06 is mature enough of a game to not give us moral answers but to ask us to consider what these circumstances are and how they inform the actions of these characters. With that in mind, we should turn back to the end of Silver's story: why is it that Silver is not capable of sealing Iblis? Sonic 06 leaves this question unanswered and thus leaves a gaping hole in Silver and Silver's concept of himself. The tragedy of Silver The Hedgehog is that he never manages to escape his flaws, instead they come to define him in the pivotal moment of his life. We never have the chance to see Silver learn from his mistakes, and grow into better person. Instead, the story ends on what is both a miraculous success in saving his world and a profound failure to protect his best friend. The suggestion Sonic 06 makes about Silver is quite scary: it seems that there is something inexplicable about Silver, something that can not be articulated of him, that will always make his strongest victories, only partly so.
Shadow The Hedgehog has always been dismissed in the culture as a faux-edgy anti-hero but his debut in 2001's Sonic Adventure 2 shows one of the deeper characters the Sonic series has seen. His opening speech "It all starts with this…” as he holds his chaos emerald above his head on top a hill of destroyed G.U.N mechs, introduces Shadow as a person who is defined by his ideals, and seeks something larger than himself. His confession to Maria during his time on the A.R.K over his struggle to find purpose in his life, "Maria, I just don't know anything anymore” reveals Shadow as a character who is conflicted, and open about his fears and his aspirations. Over the course of Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow is assaulted by traumatic images of watching Maria be shot and killed by G.U.N soldiers, and these images are what spur him into decisive action multiple times in the story. When Shadow fights Sonic for the last time, he asks him "What Are You?" which is an incredible thing to ask someone, not "who are you" but what are you. What do you represent? What defines you? And of course Sonic answers with his typical line about loving adventure or whatever, and this demonstrates what makes the two different. Shadow isn't different than Sonic because he's Dark and Edgy; Shadow is the more rounded, more conflicted mirror to Sonic's embodiment of the shallow mascot. Whereas Sonic, Tails, Amy, Eggman can operate on a blank slate with every title, Shadow may be the only sonic character who draws from a history and a context. It is Shadow's past that defines him, and it is his life history that informs how he sees the world, how he forms his relationships, and how he ultimately chooses to sacrifice his life for the planet at the end of Sonic Adventure 2. The extent to which Shadow allows his past to define him becomes the question of his character narrative over the course of four games. By the end of Shadow The Hedgehog, he seems to have found peace with himself, and resolves to "look forward" instead of letting his trauma and guilt define him. Whether he really does this is is up for argument but what is unarguable is that Shadow would become colder over the course of the 'Adventure Saga'. Perhaps it's something about resolving the questions around his creation that seems to tame him, but by Sonic 06, the youthful, idealistic part of Shadow, the subtle expressiveness of his character in SA2 has been filtered out, leaving someone who, at least on first glance, is shallow and one-dimensional.
"Maria, I just don't know anything anymore. I often wonder why I was created, what my purpose is for being here. Maybe if I go down there, I will find the answers. Maybe…”
Shadow's story revolves his conflict with the demon Mephiles. Mephiles was also created through questionable means, through the 'Solaris Project', a research initiative from the Soleanna monarch that attempted to harness and control the power of their worshipped God, Solaris. But the energy was too much to be contained by their equipment, and in a large explosion, two entities are released: The demon Iblis, and the demon Mephiles. Mephiles and Iblis both, together, make up Solaris, the worshipped God of Sonic 06's world. And so Mephiles and Iblis are both realized, fractured images of God. Whereas Iblis represents the fury and anger of God, the violent and destructive nature of God, Mephiles represents of the "mind and will" of God, the inner darkness of God, and the silent hatred God has for the world and those who live in it. Mephiles is represented as a blueish toned clone of Shadow. He is identical to Shadow in appearance, but does not have a mouth. He moves in a slow, plastic ways, like a stringed puppet. Like Iblis, Mephiles is sort of "extramortal" and cannot be killed.
Mephiles spends the game trying to convince Shadow to abandon humanity as a cause. It was Maria, in Sonic Adventure 2, who told Shadow to make the protection of humanity his project and purpose. But it is Mephiles who prophecizes that humanity will ultimately turn on him, that after Iblis ravages the planet, humans will become "jealous of [his] power," and will proceed to hunt him down and crucify him. Shadow is shown a projection of his crucified self, his arms out and legs together. But Shadow rejects his claims and his offer to "join" him in whatever mission he seems to have, asserting that he decides his own destiny.
It’s a cheesy line for sure, but a decisive one that reveals what kind of person Shadow is. What we learn to understand by these final moments is that Shadow is one of the few characters in Sonic 06 with any sense of foresight. He may be colder than he used to be, but he shows urgent concern for the most concerning things about Sonic 06. It is Shadow who saves Sonic at a decisive moment, and who, instead of killing Silver as he easily could, travels with him to the past to give him the clarity that exposes the lies Mephiles has told him. There it should be clear what the ‘point’ of Shadow is: to represent the wiser, matured mirror to Silver’s inexperienced, impulsive immaturity.
Sonic 06 isn’t a game where heroes come to save the day; it’s a game about the despair and emptiness that defines those who designate themselves as heroes, and Shadow seems to be the only character who understands this. It feels like Shadow ‘gets’ it all, the subtext that the other characters struggle to grasp. And so he enjoys and retains a dignity that makes him unique from the other two main characters. While Silver is paralysed by the mere thought of losing a friend by doing what is necessary, Shadow is able to make peace with the image of his violent death, the eventual erosion of all the ideals he stands for, and the collapse of “Team Dark,” the closest thing he has had to a family since Maria’s death at the hands of G.U.N soldiers. In complete existential collapse of purpose and identity, it is Shadow who comes out in one piece by the end of the story.
Mephiles is the central antagonist of Sonic The Hedgehog. He's the one who orchestrates pretty much every major thread throughout the three stories. He is the one who tricks Silver into believing that Sonic is the "Iblis Trigger," which sets off the series of events that bring the three main characters into contact. The ultimate goal of Mephiles is to merge with Iblis. It is his ultimate spiritual purpose, to become a whole Solaris again. And he's able to do so, with relatively little effort, by antagonizing and taking advantage of the flaws and weaknesses of Sonic 06's characters. Mephiles is the one who wins Sonic 06. In many ways he's already won and there is no point where his plans are under serious threat. This is why Sonic 06's religious allusions are important; the game is textualized by an overarching, spiritual sense of inevitability. In Sonic 06, the world is not determined or altered by the will or aspirations of its people. The world is predictable, and those who live in are defined by their past and their circumstance. And nowhere is this clearer than with the easy victory of Mephiles, a character who I think is a reflection of Sonic The Hedgehog's interest in Godly inevitability. In the game's final story, Mephiles quickly kills Sonic, piercing him through the back. Elise, in distraught, begins to cry, and in doing so releases the spirit of Iblis that was sealed inside her by her father. With Iblis released, Mephiles joins with Iblis, and they reform into the God Solaris. Solaris then destroys the world, which probably needs some explaining… specifically, Solaris unwinds the fabric of space and time, thereby completely eroding the universe. Sonic 06 represents this as an endless, garish purple void space with indistinct objects floating about. The final stage, titled "End of The World," has you playing as every character through several stages tinted to strange colours, in order to find the seven chaos emeralds and revive sonic. When the stages are done, all of the characters round up, and place the emeralds in a circle around Sonic's dead body, and Elise then clasps her hands and attempts to speak to the emeralds to bring Sonic back to life. Sonic's body rises into the air, and Elise approaches his body, and she kisses him on the mouth, which.. look, I want to be as clear about this as I can, this is absolutely the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in a videogame, I screamed at my television when I saw it, but yes anyways she kisses him on the mouth, and he miraculously revives into Super Sonic, next to Super Shadow and "Super Silver." Alternating between their super forms, you fight Solaris i.e the worshipped God of Sonic 06, which is to say that you fight and kill Sonic 06's representation of God to win the game.
What occurs next are a series of pretty surreal and ambiguous scenes but what I want to describe is the final exchange that occurs before the game formally ends, where Sonic finds himself with Elise in a dark room lit by a small flame, the same marble floored room she was shown with her father as a child. Elise tells Sonic that this flame, the flame of Solaris has a mystical relationship with time, and can fix everything that's been broken. By blowing it out, all the events of the game would have never happened, including her ever meeting Sonic.
Elise: This is where everything began. Who knew such a tiny flame could bring such devastation? If we put out this flame, Solaris will never exist. And then we'll never have to worry about the Flames of Disaster, right? Elise (Continued): But our encounter... you and I will never meet. It will never have happened… To tell the truth, I don't care what happens to the world! Sonic: Elise. Just smile.
Sonic's response to Elise, the last thing he ever says to her, really crystallizes that the relationship between them was always completely meaningless. If there was any relationship at all, it wasn't founded on any shared interest or strong sense of mutual understanding or commonality. Here Elise is dealing with a difficult (if somewhat self-absorbed) personal trial, a paralysing ethical question, and Sonic, like an answering machine, trots out the same empty, bullshit one liner he used twice before in the story. It's clear that Elise the conflicted, high-strung princess is meant to be attracted to Sonic's simple and carefree to approach to life but none of this subtext translates, and the whole scene becomes nonsensical. Regardless, she blows out the candle into a cut to black, and we're taken back to the Soleanna Sun Festival. Elise is on her boat waving to citizens and Sonic is zipping through the crowd. He looks out at her but when she glances back he's already gone, and so they never meet, thus nullifying the Sonic 06's entire series of events. And this is where the game formally ends.
Sonic 06's ending holds a double meaning: On one hand, the world tearing itself apart to a point beyond repair is consistent with the game's thematic arc. For Elise to essentially nullify the universe is an admission that its world was never viable or credible to begin with, and this falls in line with the game's scathing critique of its own integrity. But it's also a demonstration of the game collapsing under its own weight. It's clear that Sonic 06 tries to be too many things at once, and it's ironic that both the game's fictional world and the game itself are not able to hold themselves together. Sonic 06 really succeeds at being a game that delves deep into its ideas, and places them front and centre. Sonic 06 puts a lot of time and energy into its fiction; it's a game that clearly knows how to be subtextual, how to ask players to read between the lines of what its characters say and do, to read the framing of a situation and the tone of its presentation. Even Bioshock relies on its bombastic ideologues who act as ideological containers, and its crass archetypes to construct its politics, but Sonic 06 understands the world as a place of conflicted people whose complex desires stem from complex circumstances. It's Sonic 06's refusal to give us easy answers to the difficult problems of its world that demonstrates its artistic maturity. But Sonic The Hedgehog's story is defined by an existential tension, a sort of internal rupture that it never resolves: it is, on one hand, an actual text about Actual Things that is focused on specific ideas and themes, and makes very specific critiques and assertions regarding its world and its characters. But on the other hand, Sonic The Hedgehog is a Sonic game, as in, it's a next-gen (7th gen) instalment of a major AAA franchise. Sonic 06 wants to be artistically assertive but it can't do it reliably or consistently if it has to uphold Sonic's shallow brand values. Although Sonic 06 clearly rejects Sonic's brand values there's visible struggle in doing so, and the game as a whole suffers for it. Sonic 06's last exchange, in which a moment reaching for personal and powerful catharsis is followed by a moment of baffling vapidity is sad but emblematic of what the game is as a whole. Sonic The Hedgehog, a game where characters struggle to find a sense of identity and purpose in their actions is also a game that in itself lacks any strong sense of identity. Its levels, many of them identical rehashes of Sonic Adventure stages and Adventure 2 setpieces, are interspersed with lengthy fetch quests, mini-games and dull NPC conversations. Like the characters in its fiction, Sonic 06 feels aimless and without clear purpose, a game that cannot justify why it exists at all. Sonic The Hedgehog is a slow-burn existential piece presented as a sci-fi fantasy epic. It's also probably one of the worst experiences I've had with a videogame. It's levels are brutish and difficult to get through, terribly structured and ghoulishly lengthy, oscillating from 5 to 15 to 20 minutes to properly complete a level. It is a pile of different visions and aspirations, hastily strung together. It is, of course, unfinished. And it is the game that would formally end the Adventure Saga, and with it the reputation of Sonic as a concept.
When I finished Sonic 06, I didn't come out of my experience feeling cynical, bitter, or disinterested. After playing what is supposedly one of the worst games ever made, Sonic 06 left me energised and strangely drawn to the fiction it opened. I left the game feeling like I went through a difficult but powerful experience that affected me in a serious way, and I left inspired enough to write a critical essay. I can't tell you if that makes Sonic The Hedgehog a success but what I can say is that as a critic of videogames, while I have played countless console games that are so immediately forgettable, just aggressively trite and inconsequential, it was the thematic ambition of Sonic 06 that kept me digging through its strange and brutal game experience. What I want to propose to you is not that Sonic The Hedgehog isn't a bad game but that whether Sonic 06 is a bad game or not doesn't matter very much at all, that the question of Sonic The Hedgehog's quality, nearly 10 years later, has become one of little importance and of small bearing to the larger conversation of what this game has done. On YouTube, random cuts of the game's cutscenes hold nearly half a million views, and their comment sections are filled with inquiries into its story and quick-shot interpretations. It's clear to me, that people in the culture have become very interested in what this game is and how it's become itself. This is a game that has come to matter in a way that no other game of its tier of reputation has, and that speaks volumes at a scope that any basic 101 evaluation of its game quality can never hope to accommodate. Sonic The Hedgehog is absolutely one of the most impactful sonic games ever made. And it is, in turn, one of the most significant commercial videogames of the 2000s.
I want to thank Nich Maragos, who bought me my copy of Sonic The Hedgehog years ago, so I could eventually write this piece. I hope it was worth the wait!
[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]