This six part series looks at the disaster that was Sonic’s 15th anniversary, and how the series slowly redeemed itself over the following five years, culminating Sonic’s next anniversary title, Sonic Generations.
It’s a little hard to believe that it’s already been five years since Sonic the Hedgehog or “Sonic 06” as it’s called by fans, made its debut. It feels like only yesterday that this infamous train wreck of a game was released and utterly destroyed what little credibility the character had left in gaming. Of course, by 2006 bad Sonic games were nothing new for anybody. Even in his halcyon days Sonic still churned out stinkers, like the infamously not 3D Sonic 3D Blast, and the utterly horrible (and largely forgotten) Sonic Jam for the Game.com. Heck, the franchise had churned out a whopper of a stinker just a year before in the form of Shadow the Hedgehog, the first Sonic game from Sonic Team to average in the 4s on Game Rankings. Even so, Sonic 2006 represented something new for the franchise: it was the first main entry considered utterly deplorable by both critics and fans alike. Sure, Sonic has had his “controversial” games. Sonic Heroes sparked some massive debates on the SEGA forums back in the day and the Sonic Adventure series had its share of dissenters in the press that grew ever more vocal as they were re-released on other platforms. None of them have received the amount of vitriol and did the same amount of damage to the franchise that Sonic 2006 was able to do with its released.
The 15th anniversary was the last time I remember seeing any of the “old faith” Sonic fans used to have in the franchise by virtue of their love for the Adventure and Advanced games. Even people who utterly hated Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog were looking forward to Sonic 2006. After all, this game was meant to be a “back to basics” sort of game. It would have no guns, no team play, no weird game changing gimmicks that would ruin their game. Sonic 2006 was going to be a call back to the Sonic Adventure series. It would have a focus on an epic storyline, let people run around in adventure fields, and let people finally run around solo as Sonic for the first time since Sonic Adventure 2 five years prior.
I remember having many excited discussions with people over how awesome the Tokyo Game Show demo of “Sonic Next Gen” looked. It looked beautiful at the time of its debut. It looked like Sonic was going to celebrate his 15th anniversary in amazing, high-def style. Of course, then the first inkling of disaster began to show themselves, with the debut of Silver the Hedgehog at E3 2006. Otherwise known as “Pot Leaf”, Silver the Hedgehog was the first aspect of 06 that really seemed to annoy the fanbase. He looked ridiculous. He looked like a Shadow rip off. His voice was lame. While all superficial complaints, they were also the first signs of a larger problem. E3 impressions weren’t good, and while the code was technically incomplete, some show goers could tell that this game might not be ready for prime time. Over the rest of the year, the signs only began to grow worse. When the E3 demo was released onto the Xbox Live Marketplace that September, the fanbase exploded. The reaction to the demo was terrible, as many fans began to experience for the first time just how buggy and unfinished the game felt. Many fans explained away the demo’s problems, claiming that it was merely the E3 demo, and that the final game would be better. A few, such as myself, enjoyed the brief demo, and decided what problems it did have where not indicative of what the final game would be like. After the demo, even more proof of the game’s poor quality began to surface, as videos of various levels were released. Naysayers began to use these videos to prove their point. Of course everyone who wanted to have a positive outlook ignored them, because of course they hadn’t played the game.
Anyone with an even remotely positive outlook was, of course, wrong. Sonic 2006 went down in history as the worst game in the franchise. It drew nearly universal ire from the fanbase. Critics almost universally panned it, the sole outlier being a very strange review from Play Magazine, which not only sported the game on its front cover but gave it a nine, getting the hopes up of many fans who genuinely thought this game would be the one. Strangely, Play Magazine would later give the PS3 version a seven, claiming that this version was “inferior” to the Xbox 360 version. The two games where, of course, identical, but I think the fact that the magazine no longer even exists says something about its credibility. After this game, Sonic hit rock bottom. The character was now a laughing stock, and what little credibility the brand had left was gone. I personally nearly abandoned SEGA entirely because of how terrible the game was. How could SEGA allow such a terrible game to bear their mascot’s name?
Sonic 2006 wasn’t even the only disaster that year, or even the lowest rated Sonic game the month of its release. SEGA also decided it would be a great idea to release a glitchy, broken version of the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Gameboy Advance. After Sonic 06, I decided to avoid this game like the plague since I had heard enough about its awful sound, terrible frame rate and crappy scrolling to know it simply wouldn’t be worth picking up. The game averaged 32% on Game Rankings, making it one of the lowest reviewed Sonic titles ever, even below the main subject of this article.
A few things kept me on board, though. 2006 wasn’t all bad for the hedgehog. Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog comics were finally exiting the dark ages that they had existed in for over five years, with the debut of fan-turned-professional-writer Ian Flynn and artist Tracy Yardley. Together, the two brought back to the book a sense of fun that hadn’t existed in the comic in years. For years the likes of Karl Bollers and Ken Penders had turned what had been a fun adventure book into a melodramatic soap opera starring Sonic. The dialogue was often stilted and there was little characterization to keep the reader involved. The comics rarely acknowledged their video game roots. To make matters worse the comic’s art was very inconsistent and often ugly, largely thanks to artist Ron Lim, whom made Sonic look like a Cyclops and gave the furry characters an ugly, jagged look.
With the debut of Ian Flynn came the return of fun and character to the book. Sonic was funny again. The characters oozed with personality again. For the first time in years I was actually laughing with the book, not at it. For the first time in years I actually found myself engaged in the stories again. Ian was able to reinvent lame characters like “Evil Sonic” and Finitevus into characters that had genuine personality and motivation. These improvements where only the tip of the iceberg as Ian spent the next several years cleaning house and fixing up the many problems that had been building up in the book over the years. Flynn’s debut wasn’t flawless, of course. His second story, a three-parter called Darkest Storm, was nearly as poor as works from the writers he was replacing. It was rushed and had no character to it, largely acting as a quick and dirty way to clean up the continuity and reach several goals Ian had for fixing up the book, such as eliminating magical relics and killing off characters he or fans didn’t like.
Despite this, the comic’s overall quality sky rocketed and reached a level I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. The comic began to acknowledge the games more often and took steps to bringing itself more in line with its source material. Tracy Yardley became the comic’s regular artist and Ron Lim was never seen again. For the first time since I was in middle school, I began reading the comics on a regular basis. They would only get better from here.
In addition to the comics getting an all new creative team, Sonic also had some racing titles debut this year. Sonic Riders was a mediocre title with poor handling, but Sonic Rivals for the PSP was a bit more notable. It was a combination racing and platforming sidescroller, where players raced one of Sonic’s friends through a variety of 2.5D levels. The game offered some nice thrills, but the “racing” part of the game seemed to only distract from some solidly fun side scrolling levels, and ended up only hampering the experience. Rivals ended up averaging a 66% on Game Rankings. A fairly mediocre score, but compared to the other titles Sonic starred in that year, 2006’s only bright spot.
Finally, a little Wii exclusive Sonic game that quietly debuted at E3 2006. The game received surprisingly positive impressions. While it was unconventional, featuring on rails game play and extensive use of motion controls for movement, it also appeared to solve many of Sonic’s longstanding problems, particularly the franchise’s penchant for terrible cameras. As 2006 came to an end with the franchise laying in shambles, it would take this game and games like it to slowly pick up the pieces…