In the late 90s and early 2000s one of my gaming heroes was an oddly proportioned anthropomorphic royal blue erinaceinae. Sonic the Hedgehog, as he’s known to you and me, was largely popular in this time period, with a string of successful Sonic Adventure games being accompanied by a non-canon animated TV series Sonic Underground. 2003 saw the brand spanking new anime Sonic X (the opening episode’s Sonic vs Formula 1 car high speed chase is delightful) and later the platformer Sonic Heroes – one of my favourite games of all time.
Heroes builds upon the foundations laid by several of its predecessors. The game’s action-adventure elements and focus on platforming stem directly from Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, while the linear and time-trial oriented level design pays homage to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis.
You begin by choosing one of four distinct teams – Team Sonic, Team Dark, Team Rose and Team Chaotix. Each of these has a unique storyline, with interactions with the rival teams along the way. Teams are composed of three members of distinct types: a speedster, a powerhouse and a flyer, bringing the game’s playable roster up to 12. The objective is to use the characteristic skillset of each type to traverse the environment and reach the large Goal Ring. Only by completing all four storylines and collecting the fabled 7 Chaos Emeralds in bonus levels as you progress, will you uncover all the forces in play, and be able to face the final boss (I won’t spoil a nearly 18 year old game for you).
Special credit has to go to game director Takashi Iizuka, who seemed to be a one-man army in bringing Sonic Heroes to life. There are 14 regular story levels, which are in different orders for the different teams and range from picturesque seafronts to eerie haunted houses. I particularly enjoy the diverse nature of the environments. Arcade-based Casino Park and Bingo Highway have sections where Sonic is the pinball in a pinball machine, while exotic Frog Forest and Lost Jungle see you looping round luscious green plant structures and slithering off vines, encountering flora and fauna right from the heart of the Amazon.
"Whilst I realise that a lot of my love for this game is shrouded by nostalgia, this isn't just a great Sonic game."
What I most love is that Heroes shines a light on the more interesting cast members of the Sonic Universe. For example, Team Chaotix features Espio the Chameleon, Vector the Crocodile and Charmy Bee, members of a Magnum-style detective agency whose story involves a mysterious stranger offering them a potentially large sum of cash. Tasks involve finding hermit crabs, defeating turtles and blowing out coloured torches. As bizarre as that all sounds by itself, they then went and made Espio the only character that can turn invisible!
Team Dark’s story, meanwhile, delves into fan-favourite Shadow the Hedgehog’s search to uncover his past. Shadow is paired with international jewel thief Rouge the Bat and E-123 Omega, a rebellious Eggman robot who spends most of the game yelling ‘Annihilation!’, as he destroys his own kind. Team Rose has Big the Cat, an obtuse feline whose dopey nature is pivotal to his charm. He always has a vacant look on his face, as if he’s just about to be run over by the next Sonic Racing kart.
Heroes’ soundtrack is also impeccable. Japanese-American rock band Crush 40 collaborated once again with Sega, after penning tracks on both Sonic Adventures. This time they provide the eponymous "Sonic Heroes", the game’s opening theme, as well as "What I'm Made Of...", the rip-roaring number played at the climactic finale where you control Super Sonic. The latter’s lyrics are belted out with unbridled verve and gusto, being paired with guitar riffs and a steady drum beat that fully summon the inner strength required for the final boss fight.
The bittersweet part is that I think this is the last great Sonic game. Some since have been fairly decent (Sonic Unleashed, I’m looking at you), while some have been below par at best, but Sega changed the creative direction massively after Sonic Heroes and I can’t say it was for the better.
Future entries were centred more on Sonic and less on his existing squad. Games including Sonic Unleashed, Colors and Lost World introduced new characters like Chip, the Wisps and the Deadly Six, but they lacked that precise word – character. I wish Sega had just built on the universe they already had and focused on quality over quantity with characters. They even tinkered with a few of the existing ones, changing Knuckles from feisty hothead to dense airhead (perhaps out of fear of a copyright claim from X-Men’s Wolverine).
Whilst I realise that a lot of my love for this game is shrouded by nostalgia, revisiting it over the last few days has reinforced my belief that this isn't just a great Sonic game. Heroes is a solid platformer, held together by its quirky cast and ingenious level design, that still holds up after nearly 18 years. It’s a pity Sega didn’t move directly to Sonic Heroes 2.