After reviewing the mainline Genesis era Sonic games, I developed an urge to revisit a pair of Sonic games that I remember fondly from my childhood. No, not the first two Adventure games, I already reviewed those, the two that came out later and were tepidly received, Sonic Heroes and Shadow The Hedgehog. If only because I had not played either of these games in a decade, was curious of how poorly they held up, and was in the mood to emulate a few GameCube games.
Sonic Heroes Review
Platforms: GCN(Emulated), PS2, Xbox, PC
Developer: Sonic Team
From what I can gather and recall, the conception of Sonic Heroes was to offer something of a throwback to the Sonic series, with levels that focused more on interesting and outlandish ideas of the Genesis era than the more grounded concepts found in the Adventure titles, and provide players with a unique form of gameplay variety while requiring little in the way of stage customization. Ergo, the game consists of four teams composed of three characters built around speed, power, and flight, all of whom can be switch between with the press of a button. A format that allows the game to focus on one core set of mechanics without needing to necessarily craft entire levels around specific characters, or diversifying the 3D platformer action with treasure hunting or shooting segments.
As for what this game is about, well, it’s pretty simple. Team Sonic, composed of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles want to stop Eggman in order to save the world as they like to do. Team Dark, composed of Shadow, Rouge, and the newly introduced Omega want to find Eggman in order to receive answers and revenge… of not particularly clear origin. Team Rose, comprised of Amy, Big, and Cream want to find their loved ones, and decide that Eggman must have captured them, almost arbitrary so. While Team Chaotix, made up of three characters who were previously only seen in the 32X Sonic game, Knuckles’ Chaotix, are a group of detectives who just want to get some cash, and end up fighting Eggman in the process.
It’s pretty wafer thin when you get down to it, and I certainly did notice more than a few oddities regarding how time is managed, how level transitions are handled, and how everybody is apparently doing the same thing at the same time. That being said, the story actually manifests into an abrasive tribute to the series near the end, as it draws back on just about every mainline Sonic game that came before it in some way, though most notably Sonic CD and Knuckles’ Chaotix. Though I must admit that it is unusual to see the characters openly referencing past games like this, as, aside from Generations, this was never really done before in the series.
As for the game itself, it unsurprisingly resembles the Sonic and Shadow stages from the two Sonic Adventure games, tasking the player with the goal of traversing through a fairly linear level with various paths along the way. Complete with a good amount of obstacles, enemies, stretches of stage to zoom past, and regular 3D platforming to add a satisfying level of variety to the game. Even if the differences between the four teams are pretty negligible aside from whether or not the speed character has certain abilities, and how the power character attacks. Overall, it’s actually pretty fun. Or rather, it should be.
Likely due to the four SKUs the game was set to launch on, the fact that this game was clearly scheduled to launch during holiday 2003, only to miss the release date, and the fact that Sonic games have never been particularly tight in their controls or design, Sonic Heroes is not a very polished video game. There are numerous bugs that plague all versions of the game, some far more than others, and if it’s not a glitch, it’s probably the end result of the game lacking the level of care and dedication that it should have been given.
The core foundation of this game operates on very loose internal logic that makes doing pretty much anything difficult, as sometimes things will just not work because the player did not meet the needlessly specific criteria for success stated by the game. Homing attacks sometimes completely miss their targets if done at the wrong time, light dashes are finicky, certain attack patterns can lock enemies in place while others somehow result in the player being hit for reasons that were not clear to me, and rails don’t function as they should. The list goes on, spanning across about every stage and obstacle in this game.
This gives every action a lack of certainty behind it, and when combined with the general unfairness this lack of polish provides, it’s easy for the game to come across as worse than it actually is, for as much sense as that makes. It is something I’ve realized as I’ve gone through the series as of late, and is unfortunately very applicable here, as Sonic Heroes actually tries to do quite a bit with with its core premise.
Every character has access to several instances throughout every level where they are either useful or required for progression, and while the amount of uses for them does vary based on the character type, everyone has unique navigation capabilities and ways of disposing enemies. All of which, when they function properly, feel pretty good to perform. There is fun to be had with triangle jumping with the speed character, quickly switching to the flying character to go through some flight rings, and then moving to the power character in order to bash a pair of enemies, before doing a tornado up a pole. It is fast, intuitive, and is always obvious to the player what character they need for what scenario.
To further things, each of the fourteen stages have their own gimmicks and unique set pieces that do quite a lot to make them all stand out from each other in a manner greater than visual distinctions or enemy locations. When combined with the remixed layout, the levels actually became pretty enjoyable to play through with the various teams, whose levels can be summed up as an easy, normal, and hard modes for Team Rose, Sonic, and Dark respectively.
As for Team Chaotix, levels often task the characters with collecting a certain amount of creatures or items, which gives way to numerous problems if the player were to miss one, and often for reasons that are not their fault. They’re mostly the fault of the horizontally inverted camera that manages to capture what the player should be looking at 98% of the time, but in a few instances throughout this campaign, led to me missing out on a collectible, and needing to restart the stage. …Actually, considering how many times I made a leap to death due to a bad camera angle, make that 95% of the time.
It’s just another minor irksome issue such as how the speed character dashes if the B button is pressed while standing or running, which is utterly useless throughout the game aside from a single instance as far as I could tell, and resulted in more than a couple of deaths involving the endless abyss below. The partner AI is pretty stupid overall, and often ends up ramming into enemies they really should not, become incapacitated, and need to recover before they can be switched to. While the physics of the pinball stages in this game are… Actually, no, this is a massive issue considering that a seventh of this game is goldarn pinball stages.
Not only do these boards not function like a regular pinball table, the characters all roll around like they are on smoothed ice and this poor sense of momentum makes these stages a chore. AI controlled party members almost always found a way to fall off every board, the camera is in a position that makes it easy to fall into the abyss, and it is generally difficult to get a good handle on any board and progress through it with a semblance of style and grace. I’d say that these were the worst parts of the game, but that honor goes to the special stages.
Taking a page from Sonic 2, the special stages, which are only accessible if a key is found during every even numbered level and can bring it to the goal ring, have the teams zoom through transparent a tube filled with colored balls that allow them to boost, and bombs that slow them down. In theory, that sounds fine, but the physics for the characters moving along these tubes are horrible, especially when dashing or going around turns, which happens all the time.
I barely know how to describe the feeling of pushing against the side of a tube in order to get the characters to move to the bottom. I never did manage to clear all of these special stages when I played the game when I was younger, and I would have potentially given up on reviewing this game if not for a little trick I discovered. If the player performs well and moves as fast as possible for the first 10 to 15, they will get the emerald and with comparatively little effort. It’s amusing to me that nobody apparently realized this in development, or if they did, time was too restricted for this matter to be properly addressed. Wait, did I say amusing? I meant upsetting. As in, these special stages, and their existence, are most upsetting.
As for the presentation, I naturally played this game using the Dolphin emulator, using the widescreen hack and eight layers of anisotropic filtering. By doing that, the game manages to retain some visual appeal, boasting colorful themed environments and silky smooth character somewhat low-poly models. Yet, it was never much of a looker when it came out, and look somewhat dated next to its contemporaries. I guess you could say it visually resembles a Dreamcast title more than it does a Gamecube or PS2 game.
Considering that the Sonic Heroes soundtrack is one of the first albums I ever purchased, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely adore the soundtrack of this game. From the vocal themes of every teams, the energetic and varied tracks for every stage, and especially the final boss theme. While nostalgia certainly is a major factor here, I genuinely think that there are some great tracks in this game. It’s just a shame that the voice acting placed over it is mostly vapid and childish drivel spoken by voice actors who probably were not given the best direction. Or in the case of whoever voiced Tails, sound like lispy children because somebody thought they should be voiced by a lispy child.
I guess you could say that I ultimately liked Sonic Heroes, and while there is some bias and favoritism in my enjoyment of it, it’s hard for me to deny that there is something to this oft considered middling entry in the series. If given a few more months of development, it could have been something far better, but I don’t live in that reality. I live in the reality where Sonic Heroes is a fun yet often frustrating game that I’m probably never going to play again because while it is a delight in some spots, in others, it’s just really, really… frustrating.