I told you Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) was about a three-foot-tall hedgehog named Shadow wielding guns, shooting human soldiers, following the orders of demons, and sometimes getting the chance to beat the hell out of Sonic the Hedgehog, would you believe me?
Shadow the Hedgehog was a game that had big shoes to fill. Sonic Team was riding the high of the success of the Sonic Adventure series and Sonic Heroes, and found themselves stumped on what story to tackle next. So, they did something that is unheard of in today’s gaming landscape: they put out a few online polls asking fans what character they wanted a new game centered on.
The public’s options included series big-names like Tails the Fox and deep cuts like Espio the Chameleon, but ultimately (and unsurprisingly) Shadow the Hedgehog was chosen as the winner of this poll.
The poll was no doubt rigged towards Shadow, but who could blame Sonic Team for that? The love they had for Shadow was easy to see in the games alone; Sonic Adventure 2, on its surface, was about Sonic and friends, but fans know that the game at its core is about Shadow the Hedgehog and his journey to learn to forgive humanity after they single-handedly ruined his life. (Sonic game plots get a little crazy, you just have to trust me on this.) Sonic Heroes picked up where Sonic Adventure 2 left off, with Shadow’s journey to figure out if he’s the real Shadow (Shadow straight-up dies at the end of Sonic Adventure 2), and if it really even matters. Shadow’s arcs always touched on more mature subjects, such as trauma and the idea of selfhood, and now Sonic Team had the chance to explore those themes more in a game centered only on Shadow!
The red flags for this title appeared almost immediately. The game announcement was literal insanity.
On March 8th, 2005, Sonic the Hedgehog was inducted into the Walk of Game, an attraction in San Francisco made to honor video game legends both on and off the screen. A video celebrating Sonic’s then 14-year-long legacy was played at the event, before being interrupted by a barrage of bullet holes shooting through the footage, followed by a trailer for Shadow the Hedgehog. It’s, uh… yeah. It’s certainly something.
Game director Takashi Iizuka explained that he wanted to delve into a deeper story with Shadow for a while, and now fans were going to be given a chance to go on a journey with Shadow as he forges his own destiny.
For all intents and purposes, SEGA pictured Shadow the Hedgehog to be a cornerstone in Sonic’s game library the same way the Adventure series is.
…It’s certainly a cornerstone in the series, but certainly not the way SEGA wanted it to be. Instead of being remembered as a sprawling dark story featuring themes of trauma, forgiveness, and being able to move on from the past, it’s remembered as that game where Shadow pumps a submachine gun like it’s a shotgun without a hint of irony.
The groundwork for Shadow the Hedgehog had been floating around Sonic Team ever since Sonic Adventure 2. In interviews, various members of Sonic Team had mentioned the idea of branching storylines in Sonic Adventure 2, one example being given was Sonic being trapped on a sinking submarine with two options, somehow bringing the civilians trapped inside the sub with him to safety, or escaping by himself and leaving them to die. (The validity of this statement is unknown- it’s rumored to have appeared in a few magazine articles, but none have surfaced.) The idea of branching storylines was allegedly cut due to financial constraints, but it was quickly brought back for Shadow the Hedgehog.
If the idea of branching stories in a Sonic game sounds cool to you, eradicate that from your mind immediately and look at the story map for this game.
This map may not seem daunting at first glance. A little crazy for a Sonic game, sure, but it’s not too much, right? Wrong. In order to 100% complete Shadow the Hedgehog, you would have to play this game three-hundred and twenty-six times.
Aside from a branching storyline, this game was also the first to introduce gunplay to the franchise that extended beyond guns attached to mechs. Shadow could wield a wide variety of weapons ranging from real-life machine guns to guns that shoot eggs. This, paired with Shadow’s occasional swearing outbursts and the ability to shoot human characters that bled, gave the game a T rating by the ESRB.
SEGA, at first, took this rating very seriously, only letting people over 13 to play demos of Shadow the Hedgehog at tradeshows, but as soon as the ESRB updated their rating system to include E10+, changes were made to the game immediately. The localization team removed a considerable amount of swearing, leaving in only the few famous “damns!”, the human characters no longer bled, and the creatures that did bleed were given green instead of red blood.
At the very least, they were able to maintain the game’s dark aesthetic throughout the ratings changes. In an interview with Iizuka in late 2005, he cited films such as Constantine and Underworld as the main inspiration for the story and world, and a quick cursory look over at the concept art lets you see these inspirations immediately. The world is dark and filled to the brim with that distinct, early 2000s grime.
While the plot of the game is far too convoluted to summarize quickly (as seen by it’s 326 possible storylines), the stories presented match the general aesthetic the team was shooting for…sometimes. Looking at this game from the viewpoint of a modern gamer, there’s a large dosage of campiness amongst the sludge of angst to it that cannot be ignored, no matter how unintentional it was.
The opening for the game is always the same: An amnesiac Shadow ponders the meaning of his existence and why he’s plagued by the grisly image of a young girl being gunned down by an armed militia. He’s then met with the sight of demons falling from the heavens in spiraling clouds and deciding that he doesn’t have time to deal with that right now. The larger- presumably alpha demon- then confronts Shadow and tells him the day of reckoning is here and that Shadow can, like, y’know, join in if he wants to. The demon then leaves in a puff of smoke, and Shadow decides that the only way he will get answers to the questions that plague him is to gather all seven Chaos Emeralds.
From there, the game starts in earnest, and there are three major paths the player can take: The hero path, the dark path, and the neutral path. They’re all relatively simple: to go down the hero path, you follow the objectives Sonic and friends give you during a level and not kill any humans, the dark path has you doing the opposite of that, and the neutral path consists of only getting the Chaos Emeralds at the end of a stage and not bothering to pick sides. You can mix and match who’s side you pick per stage, and there’s an array of endings you can get depending on where your version of Shadow leans morally.
To say Shadow the Hedgehog is a game without ambition would be a lie. I would argue that it was a game with too much ambition. There was a wide amount of themes that Sonic Team wanted to explore, some too dark for their own good. There’s an ending that sticks out to me as one of the most bizarre and possibly darkest of the bunch: Shadow realizes that he’s caused too much destruction and it would be best if he didn’t exist at all, leading to the unspoken implication of some form of suicidal ideation. Vector the Crocodile is also there, and tactfully tells Shadow, “Hey! Don’t go there!”
Other than strong aesthetics and an admittedly great soundtrack, Shadow the Hedgehog didn’t have much going for it. It lacked the grace of the Adventure titles or the charm of Sonic Heroes. The controls were slippery and the story was a confused mess that retconned entire parts of previous titles. The gunplay wasn’t fun, the vehicles didn’t control well, and to many, this was a sign that SEGA was jumping the shark with it’s Sonic franchise as a whole.
Reviews for this game were generally negative upon release, citing it’s unfocused direction, bad PS2 port, and janky controls as the main problem- but like every other Sonic game from the “dark age,” a slight cult following for this title began to form in the later years, possibly due to the absurdity of this game existing more than a genuine fondness for the title.
Whether or not this game deserves a second look-over is up to personal preference. I’m a known Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) defender, but I still have a hard time whole-heartedly recommending anyone pick up this title- at it’s best, it’s disappointing; a game that wanted to be dark but couldn’t fully commit to the absurdity of the idea. At it’s worst, it’s borderline unplayable with miserable level design and bad controls.
Either way, Shadow the Hedgehog is a very interesting piece of Sonic the Hedgehog history and one that shouldn’t be ignored, if only it was because it was the first game where the characters- including Sonic- loved to swear.
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