Black and blue blur.

There was a time, believe it or not, when Sonic the Hedgehog was a household name. With as much edge as hedge, Sega’s blue speed demon was “killer-app incarnate”, single-handedly selling the Genesis with lightning voracity and putting Mario’s job in jeopardy. Then, something changed. Something no one saw coming. Sonic slowed down, and the games stopped being fun.

When exactly did ring-racing cease to be an amphetamine-like assault of euphoria and become depressingly desiccated, you ask? Most contend it was around the time Sonic went 3D, main titles like Sonic Adventure becoming mired in subpar story filler instead of focusing on fast-paced gameplay. To be sure, there were the occasional bad eggs – er, eggmen – before Sonic’s Dreamcast debut, but only those that deviated from the franchise’s signature: speed!

Easy cash grab? In retrospect, you betcha!

If Sonic’s downfall began roughly around the time he went polygonal, there is one culprit we can acutely single out as the start of a long deceleration for Sega’s flagship brand. Sonic The Fighters began as a working idea to feature the eponymous hedgehog and his multi-tailed partner Miles in a beat-‘em-up brawler after their cameo inclusion in a previous fighting game sparked publisher interest. Sega’s AM2 division, responsible for a wildly hot string of arcade hits which included the mega-smash Virtua The Fighter (okay, just Virtua Fighter), spat in the face of scepticism and authorised the unthinkable: Sonic throwing his super-sneakers away, sporting his best pair of boxing mitts, and stepping into the ring – opposed to collecting it.

Prickly Punch

Easy cash grab? In retrospect, you betcha! It’s hard to see the game as anything less than a poorly reassembled Virtua Fighter in disguise, slyly bearing its mega-brand with a ‘making money is so simple’ smirk of anticipation. But hey, all is fair in love and war as long as we’re not twiddling our thumbs, reaching for the power off button. Lots of franchises feature stand-out titles that barely resemble the gameplay of their parents, and have earned their cult or mainstream honours as classics – Starfox Adventures, Fallout 3, and Resident Evil 4 are just a few daredevils that strayed from formula – so why not Sonic? Let the diagnosis begin.

Once you got past the laughably awkward title translation (the game was renamed Sonic Championship for its North American and European release), you realize The Fighters’ greatest hook was seeing the Sonic universe in fully rendered 3D. Yes, you weren’t ploughing loop-the-loops just yet, but what eye-candy! Familiar environments and colours bled this arcade romp from start to finish – which isn’t a stretch – but aside from the character models and cartoonish little mini-plot, this was where familiarity faded into fighting.

sonic the fighters

And here’s where we hit a speed bump, quite literally. What comes to mind when you think of Virtua Fighter? Certainly not speed. Intergalactic moon-jumping, maybe. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea. Sonic couldn’t run to save his life, and the controls were hampered by obscene camera angles that confused your X-axis movement, and likely led to your smackdown by the hands of a ruthless Metal Sonic.

Furry Fighters

Technically, there’s an acceptable list of combos to pull off in The Fighters, but to win each bout, all you really need to do is mash the primary punch button to KO the short roster. Punch out that whiny sidekick Tails, that red-dread-head echidna Knuckles, and even the… adorable… loving… kind… Amy? Was this game that desperate to promote gender equality with the inclusion of a female character that it ran the risk of sponsoring domestic violence? Still, dropping her to the mat is good ole’ comic mischief fun. The ultimate problem is that no matter who you play as, all the moves and animations are essentially the same, so the variety category loses marks.

Metal Sonic is such a pain in the metal-backside to beat.

Being an arcade fighter before inciting cult ports, the replay return of a few dollars’ investment is underwhelming, as most will finish the final fight at a clock under 30 minutes. The short and single game mode is underscored by the fact that, apart from the last couple of CPU enemies, this is a really easy game to beat. Then you make it to the end and it’s good night and good luck. Metal Sonic is such a pain in the metal-backside to beat. Just one of his special moves is enough to take you out in just a few seconds, and is simply one of the most frustrating playthroughs fathomable.

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Nevertheless, obscurity demands cult appreciation, even if the game blows polygonal pus-chunks – (apologies for that sadly necessary visualisation) – so if you’re tired of collecting and losing more rings than a veteran gold-digger, why not step into one? The sound barrier remains intact, the difficulty is devastatingly disparate, the controls are a couple notches above crap, and apparently knocking a girl to her knees is okay. If you can muster some reason to tolerate these failings, an hour of mediocre fun awaits you in Sonic Smash Bros.  – sigh, okay, Sonic The Fighters… the name sucks, but fine, Sega. Fine.

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