Sonic Heroes' 20th Anniversary

When Sega announced its new status as a third-party developer and game publisher in 2001, Sonic Adventure 2 was still a few months away on Dreamcast. After a very successful (and very quick!) port of that title to Nintendo Gamecube, the next mainline Sonic game would be making an appearance on Xbox and PlayStation 2 as well. Sonic Heroes had a rough development, even with cross-platform tools like RenderWare to assist with the different versions. Series director Takashi Iizuka would later say that Heroes was one of the most stressful in his career. By design though, and not as a result of tribulation, Heroes was a departure from the Adventure series. Iizuka said to Nintendo Power in the cover dated January 2004 issue...

"I thought it would be more interesting to bring back Sonic's fast-paced action-oriented gameplay, which has been a benchmark for our hero. This was especially important, since we will hopefully reach new fans who have never played Sonic before. I am excited and hope that both our old fans as well as our new fans will enjoy Sonic Heroes.

And in the same interview...

"I wanted to create a brand-new series for Sonic, rather than just creating an adventure sequel. Unlike Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, where each character has its own storyline and purpose, I felt it would be more interesting to see a storyline that had all three characters combine forces to overcome a greater challenge. This concept spawned the idea of team action...I think it's a new dynamic approach for Sonic and his friends that we hope you will love."

Developing for three systems, AND bringing a new design, set the stage for a notably different game. Maybe the first, in a series that would come to be made of many experiments and departures. For this anniversary piece, I wanted to try and read the room a little bit to see what the larger Sonic community might think of this game today. I couldn't get a big sample size this time, but let's read some comments before I get into my thoughts...

Nick Westwood, of RetroBreak, offered this:

At the time, it felt like a breath of fresh air, interesting team mechanics and great style reminiscent of the 16-bit games. The level design and some gameplay mechanics are awkward, and I was sad about the removal of the Chao Garden and less emphasis on emblems. But graphics and music are 10/10.

Well put, Nick! It seems Iizuka's wish to translate the 16 bit gameplay into 3D was not lost on him.

Bluesky user KTG had a lot of praise for the game:

Sonic Heroes has beautiful level aesthetics, the catchiest OST, and the most robust cast of playable characters in the series, making it the perfect Sonic game to make an 8-year old obsessed with fast talking animals for the rest of their life.

My friend Ashe still had an overall positive impression after so long.

It was a bit of a mixed bag, but I'm gonna chalk that up to expectations at the time (This was not SA3) but it was still a really fun game and honestly a pretty faithful adaptation of the 2D Sonic experience to 3D. The stages were fun, the music is dope, the boss fights were a bit on the mediocre side but the whole thing is carried by its energy. My only gripes aside from mechanical issues is how repetitive the game can get at times, and also the special stages.

Can't wait to talk about those special stages! Based on these answers, the common threads are music, graphics, and presentation. Sonic games almost never let down in the vibes department, do they? An attractive, appealing aesthetic can go a long way for a game's reputation and longevity in player's minds. Not to imply Heroes needs it, but many of us just love Sonic.

Sonic's PlayStation 2® Debut!

I myself am certainly in that category. I was a tender eight-year-old at Heroes' release. I can't quite recall how I met Sonic, certainly somewhere online, now unknowable, and Adventure 2: Battle had to have been there early on. I was watching Sonic X on TV (another thing Iizuka mentions in the Nintendo Power interview as part of creating new fans). It took me a few days to figure out emulation for Genesis games (and one special 32X game), but I got there. I found the Sonic OVA in wmv format as a DDL on some ancient fansite, the first anime I ever downloaded. Pretty often, I'd watch it before school early in the morning. I was watching Sonic Flash cartoons on Newgrounds. Whatever the exact order of events was, I was very, very excited for Sonic's formal PlayStation 2 debut. That was my system! I got so amped up just from the little blue blurb on the back.

I couldn't have known at the time I would be receiving the weakest version of the game, the only one that runs at 30 FPS instead of a blistering 60. Later on, I would see Gamecube and Xbox versions running at GameStop kiosks and be very confused, not fully understanding the concept of framerates but quickly understanding it was much, much smoother. I had played the game so much at that point that I immediately noticed the other versions had proper shadows under the characters. Even kids can notice that kind of stuff!

I still play that same disc from twenty years ago, a miracle considering how often I simply stacked DVDs face up on top of the poor PlayStation. Revisiting the game was a delightful few hours, not taking many more because Heroes is simply burned into my memory.

Heroes is all about the team structure. You'll choose from one of four teams to run through stages with. The order of stages doesn't change, but level layouts and objectives can vary quite a bit. Team Sonic represents the baseline, the standard, for stage length and difficulty. Dark and Rose are harder and easier respectively, with Team Chaotix being a sort of "Other" category with wildly varying goals to complete from everyone else. They are the remix, if you will. With everyone as a three-man band of Speed, Power, and Flight characters, Heroes gets to flaunt a huge playable cast. Shadow the Hedgehog (yay!) and Rouge the Bat return from Adventure 2, and the Chaotix crew from Knuckles Chaotix get redesigned into the Yuji Uekawa style, save for Mighty the Armadillo. Team Rose is led by beloved fan favorite Amy Rose, is just delightfully sweet and fun with Cream and Big tagging along.

Characters can be freely swapped into team leader position with a button press, something Omochao happily explains in the tutorial level. You have three different formations to utilize your abilities of either Speed, Power, or Flight. Characters like Tails and Cream can take their team into the skies, while Sonic and Shadow can blast through stages at whirlwind speeds. While you can switch at any time, and alternative solutions to obstacles sometimes exist, it is often signposted (literally) which Formation you should use in any given scene. This has the upside of keeping gameplay smooth, you don't have to stop and wonder which formation you're supposed to be in. On the downside, it never really feels like you get to play and experiment with it. It doesn't help that when characters are Leveled Up in a stage, all three become potent at destroying enemies. Flight characters are somewhat notoriously the best damage dealers to common enemies at level 3, often leaving your Power character in a weird spot.

The team dynamic also influences the tuning of the controls. To my hands, then and now, Speed formation often feels as though you are controlling a train with a caboose. Turning your Speed character feels overly weighty because you are, visually, about three times as long as your teammates who are (usually) tightly winding with your tail. Likewise for Power formation, where you are one wide friend. Regular play will have you getting used to this, calling it a game flaw would be a bit harsh. But fleeting scenes of being able to control one character, and follow-up game Shadow the Hedgehog show that the control scheme actually works very well for solo play.

What I'm Made Of

Level design was handled at first by just two people(!?), but later Iizuka ended up having to do much of it solo. The result is that the overall play experience can be rocky, depending on the Team and stage. Seaside Hill and Ocean Palace are drop-dead gorgeous introduction levels with great pacing and setpieces, and even some route variation. I have never found BINGO Highway to be any fun, the pinball physics are uncooperative at their best. Boss fights are generally good, but fights against other teams are mostly nonsense throwaway moments. Mystic Mansion is just too long for its own good... etc etc. There's a little sticking point in just about every level after the first two. Except for Egg Fleet of course, which kicks ass and got about a hundred replays from me as a kid. Which levels bug you, if any (I never had a problem with Rail Canyon or Bullet Station with any team, this seems to be a common pain point) will vary from player to player. Frog Forest is a standard level for most teams, but a somewhat awkward stealth mission for Chaotix.

Objectives also change for challenge runs in Stage Select to collect Emblems (a holdover from the Adventure series). Here, Team Dark is stuck destroying enemies in a loop, while others must collect X amount of rings, or finish the stage in a time limit. If you're trying to get every emblem (it's not terribly worth it), this will get repetitive. While this is merely annoying if and only if one chooses to go for these extra objectives after the Story mode, the game's true final boss and ending are hidden behind its most annoying feature.

For the first time in a 3D Sonic game, Sonic Heroes features Special Stages to collect Chaos Emeralds. This should be really cool, but dreams are crushed after you see your character, against all reasonable input and control, get stuck on the ceiling and fall, sometimes ruining a run right on the spot. I cannot even begin to speculate why this happens. Try it. It happens to me on the Xbox version as well, so I don't believe it's a PS2 quirk. I got this game on launch week, and I was still working on these special stages into 2004. Is there a strategy to beating them? I think so, sometimes you can nab an Emerald way before even the halfway point. They're not impossible, but even as an adult, they are just a bit ridiculous. There's also a strategy to getting into the Special Stages at all. Team Rose has the shortest, easiest levels, so they will be your Emerald hunters of choice, as completing a level with a Key is the only way to access these.

It's a shame, because the finale with Neo Metal Sonic's terrifying transformations, and the REAL SUPER POWER of TEAM WORK make for an explosive ending to the game. When I was finally able to get to it, not having seen it online, I was losing my mind! Was it worth the trouble? Maybe, when you're a kid with almost unlimited free time. Anyone playing now will get the smoothest, if incomplete, experience out of playing the four Teams stories and leaving it at that. You can try to nab the Emeralds on your first playthrough (you will be playing each level 4 times after all!), to reach the ending as soon as possible. This is fun and engaging in CD or Mania, the core idea is great, but Heroes' special stages are just uncooperative in a way that doesn't feel entire fair or even intentional.

While I think the game has its shortcomings in gameplay, aesthetically speaking, it's an all-star. Sonic and friends are a bit smaller and more compact, probably to help keep the game understandable, but it's a cool look. There's a strong theme with primary, saturated colors, moving away from he Adventure series' somewhat (somewhat) more realistic themes and Earth back into full fantasy. Water shines on the beach with sunlight flashing through the clouds, futuristic cities glow with neon lights, and it's all very pretty and attractive. Characters comment on the surroundings pretty often, showing off some personality while you play. Notably, this would be the last major game to feature Ryan Drummond as Sonic, as well as most of the other Dreamcast actors (Tails' had already changed for this game, and would change again). Sonic character voices could be their own article, but this was the last in an era to be sure.

Some of the best tunes in the game would be "Follow Me", the theme of Team Rose, Frog Forest for the Weather Channel vibe, and the glorious team select theme. It feels unnecessary to even mention the music in Sonic games, they never miss, so you get my favorite songs.

Legacy of Heroes

Sonic Heroes would get a follow-up in Shadow the Hedgehog one year later, making an interesting duology. Calling that game a sequel to Heroes would undersell how off-the-rails Shadow is. Though it does use the same basic controls and many assets from Heroes, that is a different game. The team structure has yet to return, though Sonic the Hedgehog (360/PS3) would feature a fairly wide playable cast, sometimes within a single level, it's much more Adventure than Heroes. The two "Storybook" games for Nintendo Wii, Secret Rings and Black Knight would do their own thing entirely. Unleashed- well, you get it. Heroes remains unique to this day, which is the kind of thing that makes it ripe for reappraisal and examination. Being unique in the Sonic series is commendable, even when we consider how often the series would jump around and try to innovate versus iterate.

Could a Heroes 2 or Heroes 3 have been a success? I think so. Heroes was a hot seller, certainly aided by releasing on every console at the time. I'm tickled by the idea of getting sequels with more and more characters. The Babylon Rogues from Sonic Riders seem practically tailor-made for a Heroes type game! Maybe you could make your own team of three from a roster, rather than having predefined ones? I feel there's unexplored territory here that we're sadly unlikely to revisit.

The game is currently living on with fans, thanks to mods and emulation enhancements through Dolphin. Dolphin is free and easy, so that's likely your best option! Gamecube copies seem to run around the 30 dollar (ugh) mark on eBay. Xbox copies are cheaper and work on a 360, and people can't seem to get rid of PlayStation 2 versions. The was a PC port in late 2004, but the consensus seems to be that emulating a console version plays a bit nicer with modern computer hardware.

In Japan and Europe only, Heroes was available as a PS2 classic on the PS3's digital store. The Japanese release of that was apparently September 2014, which means somebody, somewhere, is thinking of Sonic Heroes. So, it's not impossible for it to receive some kind of proper modern release or remaster for say, Nintendo Switch and the like. After twenty years though, it's not feeling very likely. I think it probably would have happened by now if SEGA wanted it to.

Sonic is a very popular series with a noted passionate and devoted community. They would never let a game be forgotten, especially one as fun, unique, and colorful as Sonic Heroes. It's absolutely worth a revisit if it's been a while for you, or if you've never tried it at all! It's a burst of colorful, simple fun with lovable characters and a great vibe. Completion might have you groaning, but if you've got the super power to defeat Metal Sonic, go for it!

Happy 20th Birthday, Sonic Heroes!

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- James