Sonic The Hedgehog is one of the most instantly recognisable video game characters in the world, on par with Super Mario and Pikachu. People who’ve never picked up a controller in their life can look at a picture of him and can name him, which is no easy feat (sorry they keep calling you Zelda, Link).
One of the reasons is that the Sonic games have taken a lot of risks over the years since he first sped his way onto consoles. Whilst other long running characters like Mario are more eager to stick close to their original formula, Sonic The Hedgehog has always taken risks. This has resulted in a catalogue of games where very few of them feel like they’re cut and paste sequels. The Sonic The Hedgehog series has always tried out new gimmicks, and has introduced new mechanics, characters, and game-play styles over the decades. Sometimes this works well, other times it doesn’t. But one thing that you can say for Sonic is that he’s never dull.
2003 saw the first release of a new Sonic The Hedgehog game since Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast two years prior, and rather than being a sequel as that game was, Sega took a punt on something new, delivering a game that felt true to the Sonic spirit, but did something quite different.
The biggest feature of this new game was that players no longer controlled just one character, and instead of playing it on their own, would control teams of three, who would travel on screen together, able to be switched between with the click of a button to utilise different skills and abilities. The player is able to utilise this to different effects, enabling them to tackle puzzles and obstructions in different ways, as well as offering a few different options when it comes to boss battle. However, it’s not just limited to one group, as the game brings together a ton of Sonic The Hedgehog characters.
There are four teams open to players when playing Sonic Heroes. The first is the most iconic grouping, bringing together Sonic (Ryan Drummond), Tails (William Corkey), and Knuckles (Scott Dreier) to work together; Sonic bringing the speed, Knuckles the strength, and Tails the ability to fly up to unreachable areas. Team Dark combines Shadow the Hedgehog (David Humphrey) and Rouge the Bat (Lani Minella) from Sonic Adventure 2, with the new robotic character E-123 Omega (Jon St. John). Team Rose features Amy Rose (Jennifer Douillard) and Cream the Rabbit (Sarah Wulfreck) from Sonic Adventure 2, with Big the Cat (Jon St. John) from the first Sonic Adventure. And Team Chaotix which brings together Espio the Chameleon (Bill Corckey), Charmy Bee (Emily Crockey), and Vector the Crocodile (Marc Biagi), who all first appeared in the 1995 spin-off game Knuckles Chaotix. This selection offered players twelve characters to play with, in their four groups of three, and for many casual Sonic fans was the first introduction to many of them.
Each of these teams has their own part of the overall story, with each of them having been drawn into a quest to take down the evil Doctor Eggman (Deem Bristow) before he’s able to launch his latest assault, and features their own levels and challenges. Whilst each of the teams have the same kinds of set-up, with a character designed for speed, one for flight, and another for raw power, there are some differences, such as Team Rose being designed to be the easiest for new players, whilst Team Dark is the harder difficulty, and Team Chaotix have more mission-based levels that require the player to perform collection challenges.
Part of the decision to make Sonic Heroes in this way was that despite the popularity of the Sonic Adventure series it was believed that making a third game in that series would make it more inaccessible to some players, with gamers perhaps avoiding it due to not playing the first two. Rather than appealing to just Sonic fans, the director and lead designer, Yuji Naka, wanted a game that causal fans who might not have visited the franchise since its Sega Genesis days could pick up and enjoy.
Part of this attempt to appeal to more players came in the form of multi-platform release; the first time a Sonic The Hedgehog game had been released for multiple consoles. The game was developed for the GameCube, the Playstation 2, and the Xbox simultaneously. Whilst there were some performance issues with the Playstation version, with it having to run at 30 frames per second instead of 60 as with the other consoles, due to lacking the required processing power, each version of the game ended up being well received by critics and fans alike. The game was praised for its graphics and design, but received much of its success for its game-play being positively compared to the Sega Genesis games. Its lack of extra features like shooting and fishing mini-games was also something that was praised in a lot of reviews.
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Whilst the game wasn’t perfect, and did receive some criticism, it was thought of quite favourably at the time, and was a financial success for the studio. Despite this, no sequel to the game was made, and the next game in the series would end up being Shadow The Hedgehog, a game that would weirdly combine traditional Sonic The Hedgehog racing and platforming segments with third-person shooter combat. But this then became the way of Sonic The Hedgehog games, with the series trying out new things each time, rarely going back and delivering the same experience twice. As such, for those wanting to experience a game like Sonic Heroes the only real way to do so is to go back and experience it again; and with the 20th anniversary this year, it might be the perfect time to do so.
Sonic Heroes was released in the UK on 3rd February 2003.