When I was around five or six, I had a friend called Tim who lived just up the road from me. He was actually younger than me, but we hung out a lot of the time because he had a Mega Drive and I had a SNES, and we enjoyed playing, comparing and, naturally, arguing about the relative merits of our favourite games - Sonic The Hedgehog and Super Mario World. We were mini-geeks of relatively few long or interesting words, but I can still remember the gist of his argument versus mine. I preferred the pixel perfect precision, momentary bursts of satisfaction and continually mounting tension of a traditional Mario adventure, whereas he enjoyed the speed, accessibility and replay value of the first two Sonic titles. We regularly swapped sentiments along these lines.
At the time, support on my side was very hard to come by, and I naturally assumed this was because everybody else "had Sega", whereas I was busy poring over Secret of Mana, Zelda III, Donkey Kong and a growing stack of Super Plays all on my lonesome. Looking back though, there were many reasons for it, but most of the Sega crowd just preferred the path of least resistance. Sonic made it harder to die than Mario, had short, manageable levels that were laden with bonus items and alternative routes, regularly diversified into silly mini-games (remember the coin-grabbing chaos sub-game?) and increasingly bizarre boss encounters, and could be played countless different ways. But the best thing about Sonic was that it had something for everyone, casual or hardware, and it was busy and exciting enough to steal your attention from the other side of the room.
With the advent of 3D consoles, however, Sonic lost a lot of his former brilliance. There were spin-offs, some good, some bad, and then the vaunted 3D games meant to bring the blue blur back into direct competition with Nintendo's Super Mario 64. Unfortunately, they did not. Some would later argue that it was Sega's insistence on fleshing out the roles of the other characters at the expense of Sonic-centred gameplay that sent it off the tracks; others argued that Sega never really (and still hasn't) got to grips with the mechanics of making a good 3D platformer; whilst others still argued that the games were trying too hard to be familiar without actually analysing or emulating the ideas and functions that made the 16-bit originals so engaging. I've even seen the odd attack on our spiky blue hero himself. In my head though, the real question Sega poses with every Sonic Adventure title and now with Sonic Heroes is, simply, would Tim have enjoyed it?
What do you think?
For Sonic Heroes, the answer is "probably not". Sonic Heroes attempts to take the best bits of past 3D games and combine them in one cohesive whole, with three characters under your control at all times - and that's actually not such a lamentable idea. Given enough thought, it could have carried the atmosphere and speed of Sonic whilst also playing to each of the character's strengths, ditching by-the-numbers platform design in favour of vast, sprawling three-dimensional play areas that required steady hands and lateral thinking. Make the process of performing the basic individual actions enjoyable enough and give the player enough options to proceed, and you still have a Sonic game that plays to most of the series' strengths, even if it's clearly no longer the same thing.
Unsurprisingly though, Heroes is more of a Sonic Adventure than a Sonic The Hedgehog. Each of the game's 14 levels sends your trio of characters - picked from one of four "Teams", of which Team Sonic is the one you'll recognise - on a long, looping and often poorly contained journey through an over-large platform world full of flames to dodge, platforms to jump, rails to grind, gaps to hover over, switches to throw and enemies to destroy, broken up by the occasional burst of speed along vast corridors or concrete roller-coasters. There are mini-game type diversions from time to time, and obviously the whole thing is book-ended by cut sequences and boss encounters (which don't really stand up to Dr Robotnik's best work), but often the end of a level shows up abruptly and unexpectedly. Things happen in Sonic Heroes, but it doesn't often relate to the player or stir any emotions - until you start falling off every other platform and dying, anyway.
And it's a striking thing for a game that tries to emphasise your options that each of these levels is an extremely linear, one-way trip from start to stop. Your three characters can swap between three formations with each formation geared towards different tasks - Sonic leads at a pace and allows the speeding trio to snap to the trajectory of a line of rings, and he also has a mid-air homing attack, whereas Tails can fly for a limited time and throw his pals at enemies, and Knuckles can smash rocks and enemies with his fists, and join hands with the others to float up on the occasional bed of air. But instead of giving the player the choice of how to approach things, each formation seems to have a quota to fulfil for each level, with the game often instructing you which formation to use when you come up against a task, and sometimes actually forcing you to switch in order to maintain the balance. You may control three characters, but individually each is quite limited, so it's not overly different to playing any other platformer - except obviously you have more places to worry about being hit. Occasionally you do come across multiple paths forward, but if you do it's generally only because one of them leads to better pick-ups on the same route, or involves less enemies. The way to go is rarely less than blindingly obvious, and you're expected to react in pre-determined ways.
Collect the pain
This would be all very well, but Sonic Team has to go and make it hard for themselves in countless ways. Take the four "Teams" for example. Each of them features similar groupings with different, lesser characters (Shadow? Omega?) and their own different abilities, and cut-scenes and levels modified to fit their storyline. And for some reason, someone decided Team Chaotix ought to spend their time collecting things instead of just racing for the goal, which often means that on occasion you're forced to try and backpedal until you uncover something you missed - which brings into sharp focus the camera that refuses to look backwards (even readjusting itself when it passes over bounce/speed pads to face in the opposite direction), the number of throwaway gimmicks inexorably used to propel you onward (crumbling passages, loop-the-loops, cannon jumps, etc), and the fact that you really don't give two hoots what happens to your Sonic clone lead character anyway. What's more, they all sound like 12 year-old kids or, worse, Power Rangers. How do you go from one of the most inclusive franchises of all time to a game that it's actually hard to like?
It gets worse. Each character has a special attack that can be powered up three times per level, but the actual combat is boring and obvious. Sonic can use his homing attack on enemies' heads, so obviously he's fine until - uh-oh - some of the enemies start walking around with pointy spears at their sides. Some enemies can cause problems, but only ever because you're being foolish with the controls or the camera. For the first few hours you hardly even pay attention to them until you feel like it.
Then there's the way you actually control the characters. You're meant to swap between them with the Y and B buttons in our Xbox review copy, with the other buttons switching to different character-specific functions each time. Try to spot the flaw in this scheme. You can't? Then just wait until you're trying to flick a switch on a narrow precipice, hit Y expecting to take control of Knuckles, followed by the appropriate button to pull the lever, and wind up with the whole group spiralling into the ether because you actually switched to Sonic without realising. Given that Heroes' control demands are relatively few compared to most platformers, would it have been so hard to find a better way of doing this? Cripes - X is blue, Y is yellow and B is red on my Xbox controllers. What colours are the three central Heroes?
When you die like this for the umpteenth time, you're left wondering whether it was really such a good idea to combine a couple of more traditional, borderline cerebral platform characters (Tails, Knuckles and their clones) with an erratic oaf like Sonic who seems to charge off the nearest edge wherever possible. Old school Sonic didn't behave like this, and he still managed to find his way through some claustrophobic, almost genre-defining 2D mazes. Here the levels are huge, the camera clips into anything that isn't bolted to the floor (and plenty that is), and it's a constant struggle to see, let alone think about what you're doing, let alone enjoy yourself.
Rings around the world
Old school Sonic was a tough cookie, too. With even one ring at his side he could happily take a hit from anything (save a platform crushing). While that's still true here, it's harder to avoid damage due to the erratic controls, it's harder to gather up your vanishing rings as they tumble away on all sides, and it's also way too easy to die, which exposes another problem - the lives system. There are times playing Heroes that you wonder if Sonic Team has actually played any other 3D platformers at all. Lives systems often work in 2D, but in 2D you've got eight directions to worry about. Here you're being attacked by inadequacy on all sides, and it's much harder to avoid regular trips into bottomless pits, enough of which sends you right back to the start of the level. This does give you a slight adrenalin boost when you're probing further and further beyond the bounds of your last attempt, but at what cost?
It's a shame, really, because without the camera issues it would be much easier to find ways to like Heroes. One surviving route into it might be the "graphics whore" approach, because although there's a kind of sharply angled, tech demo shinyness to the aesthetic, it's undoubtedly colourful, imaginative and decidedly Sonic. Old Zones have been mined for textural inspiration, and there are some sprawling, sun-drenched vistas to absorb here, which seems to be a fixture of Sonic Team games these days.
On the other hand though, you could equally complain that it's too bright and spangly (it even stands out on my GameCube shelf), and that just because it's consistent in its view of the world, that doesn't make that world interesting or believable. Very little could, in fairness (how many foxes do you know who own biplanes?), but it's easy to appreciate that take, and I certainly agree that too many enemies seem to be cut from the blobs-with-bits mould, and that the presentation is naff, cut-scenes are pretty redundant and voice acting is just embarrassing. On the latter point, Sonic Team ought to take a page out of either Naughty Dog or Nintendo's book. If your lead character is going to break his silence, then either make it worthwhile (see Jak II's intro - 10 hours, countless close shaves and two years of torture after you meet him, Jak sparks up with a rage that subsequently hangs over the rest of the game) or come up with some funny catchphrases and soundbites that you can repeat forever ("It's a-meeee!").
Sonic Heroes really is beset by all manner of problems - the camera is crap, the scale is awkward, the story and characters are basic and cringe-worthy, the combat is tedious, the platforming and puzzling is too basic, and I was well bored of it by the time I conquered the final level with the first of the four Teams, which wasn't even that long after I first grabbed it out of the shrink-wrap. Although it has some redeeming features - the high-octane buzz of racing manically through beautifully imagined set pieces at an uncontrollable, breakneck pace, the occasional standout level, and a few passable multiplayer options to explore - it remains at worst mediocre and at best fairly playable, and at times I felt like a hero for persevering with it at all.