Some works of art go under-appreciated until long after their initial presentation to the public. Sonic the Hedgehog is a case of a misunderstood work of genius that will age like a fine wine. Sonic the Hedgehog, often referred to under the name of ‘Sonic 06‘, is the tale of humanity’s transition from a traditionally subsistent society to industrialization and the consequential alienation for those who refuse to adapt with the times. Sonic 06 encapsulates the rise and eventual fall of modern civilization through the use of talking animal characters in the tradition of Aesop. Each and every design choice serves a metaphorical purpose that reinforces the core themes contained within the experience. Sonic 06 requires the proper perspective to appreciate Sonic 06 for the modern epic it is.
Many are quick to dismiss Sonic 06 as either ‘garbage filled with technical issues’, ‘proof that the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is dead on the inside’ or even ‘the worst game of all time’. However, those critics are like children before the majesty of George Metzger’s auto-destructive art. Sonic the Hedgehog is arguably the single greatest human accomplishment that manages to tell the stories of the past to communicate a warning for those who are unwilling to accept the future.
One needs to look no further than the opening cutscene to find the countless symbols contained in Sonic 06. Princess Elise, the absolutely necessary human character addition, represents traditional society and ritualism as evidenced in the lighting ceremony. The city of Soleanna is shown to be a tranquil fusion of modern society with classical aesthetic. The fall from grace comes during Dr. Eggman’s literal and figurative attack on the city. The physical attack is only a temporary inconvenience while the psychological scars of vulnerability will remain forever. Dr. Eggman, just like industrialization, pushes a single dogmatic uniformity onto others at the expense of individual identity.
The constant ‘Sonic Vs. Eggman’ struggle parallels the battle between remaining an individual among the forces of conformity. Sonic’s sudden appearance in the scene reveals that he serves as the manifestation of the human Id’s urge to act seemingly irrationally. The subsequent removal of tradition [Princess Elise] depicted after the opening act places Sonic into a moment of crisis where he feels disenfranchised from the established society and reluctant to join the new one. It is reasonable to infer that the inclusion of the other ‘hedgehog stories’ is to reflect the fractured nature of Sonic’s mind throughout the ordeal.
Sonic’s psyche breakdown forms the entire framework of Sonic 06 including the story and gameplay. The dreaded loading screens symbolize the inner conflict of achieving self-actualization for any given transition in a level or the city missions. Silver the Hedgehog’s first mission centered upon floating through rings continues the legacy of characters representing the Superego’s desire for a clearly defined route. Superman 64‘s execution of this idea operated around a very apparent story where Superman must solve Lex Luthor’s maze to save his friends without compromising the ideals he represents.
Silver the Hedgehog, on the other hand, has a far more enigmatic purpose in his search for order among the rings. Silver is the Superego of Sonic’s mind, no doubt, but his imperfections in purpose and perception allude to the inherent contradiction of the human mind attempting to establish and follow absolute moral ideals. The color of silver is achieved by a mixture of black and white: an ingenious way that Sonic 06 comments on the ‘gray area’ that remains in even the pinnacle of human morality. Silver’s realization of his mortality when he attempts to proceed with his intention of destroying Sonic, I.E the entire mind system, pushes him into a self-preservation paradigm.
This character flaw might seem to undermine his storyline of traveling back to the past to prevent doomsday, yet the imperfection makes him all the more human. The imperfection of the human mind means that the sacrificial ‘the goods of the many outweigh the few’ ideal may go wayside in a moment of despair. Silver’s entire arc is summarized in a single line.
“IT’S NO USE! This will end it!”
This leaves Shadow with the role of the Ego among the trio acting as the balance between the spontaneity of the Id and the objectives of the Superego. Shadow’s agency manifests itself in his role as an agent for the in-universe military force ‘G.U.N’. This position allows him access to a capacity for violence that the Id can’t control to any effective degree and one that the Superego would refuse to act upon. Is it any wonder why Sonic and Silver reach an understanding only after Shadow’s intervention? The vehicles Shadow has access to represent the responsibilities the Ego has relative to the other parts of the psyche.
Ultimately, the only character with true agency to stop Dr. Eggman is Shadow because of the increased capacity for violence alongside the enhanced responsibility. Mephiles the Dark’s existence hinges on his attempt to make Shadow give up the responsibility of protecting stability. Reasonably, Mephiles can be interpreted as the stand-in for all of the self-destructive thoughts the human mind can fathom since he later goes on to kill Sonic. This action operating under a literal interpretation of the Superego’s intentions leads to an unknown state for the psyche. However, that is getting ahead of the other important elements in the piece.
The game structure bears a striking similarity to the first Sonic Adventure game to such a degree that it can’t entirely be coincidence. Elements such as running from a whale in the beach stage, snowboarding in the snow level and even one of Dr. Eggman’s bases being aquatic shows the necessity in familiarity to keep the delusion going. The repetition of the ten stages and the same boss fights between the three hedgehogs reflects the mind’s desire to relive the past through a series of ‘what if?’ fantasies.
The purpose of these fantasies is to indulge the thought of changing the outcome of events after the fact. The presence of time travel in the plot can only be interpreted as the justification for conceiving multiple ‘what if?’ scenarios simultaneously. Sonic, the system instead of the Id, is essentially trapped in his past maintaining his dwindling sanity under the guise of trying to fix the future. Regardless of the remaining willpower, the Id is helpless to act in the future ‘what if?’ situation.
Sonic’s death in the story is either the epiphany about the futility of trying to change the past or a total collapse of the mind into madness. If the scene is considered an epiphany, then the ending of Sonic 06 becomes incredibly ambiguous. Does Princess Elise bringing Sonic back to life represent a return to a delusion, or a transcendence of delusion into actual action? The main villain, Iblis, is shown to be an evil entity akin to the devil with no capacity for reason at all. The maintenance of this ‘pure evil’ absolute suggests that Sonic never actually returns to reality at any point during the psyche breakdown. The latter case, collapsing into total madness, indulges in all of the taboos that were previously considered ‘impossible’. Specifically, Sonic manages to come back from the dead, achieve absolute power with Shadow and Silver, defeat pure evil AND manage to close the ‘what if?’ scenarios thanks to a sweeping reset to the previously established status quo.
It should be abundantly clear now that Sonic 06 is a commentary on the sheer futility of attempting to retroactively fix events that had effects on the present. Sonic focusing on improving the past at the cost of the present leads to a loop of attempting to improve mistakes that are actually attempts to mend prior mistakes. It is hard to believe that the stationary spindash sprites from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were a preview of the ideas to come in the series. Sonic’s quest for an identity and purpose in a cold and mechanized world is the direct commentary on the modern human condition. In some way, we’re all hedgehogs spinning in a circle who only have memories of the 90’s to keep ourselves going.
Perfection of structure and meaning doesn’t mean that there are no elements that could have been improved before unleashing the work to the unenlightened masses. The experience would have been far more immersive for the average gamer if Sega had thought to include a custom character generator. The character would never interact with Sonic and friends, but that is exactly the point: the player would be trapped in their own breakdown. How can you impress Sonic if your original character is never able to use the Super Chaos Emeralds to beat up Goku and Superman in succession? The little touches make all the difference sometimes. It is difficult to imagine how exponentially enhanced the experience would be if Sega had Ryan Drummond voice Sonic instead of Jason Griffith. As all scholars know, voice acting is what makes or breaks the story in a Sonic the Hedgehog game. Jason Griffith fails to accurately convey Sonic’s state of mind in a relatable fashion. Finally, the punishingly spaced save points could have been supplemented with a manual save feature to preserve the moments of inspiration highlighted by deliberate despair.
Like all great works of art, access to a copy of Sonic 06 is limited thanks in part to Sega taking the game out of print. Unfortunately, the only way to obtain a copy at this point is to either buy used or resort to second-hand suppliers for a sealed copy.
Sonic the Hedgehog is arguably the single greatest human accomplishment that manages to tell the stories of the past to communicate a warning for those who are unwilling to accept the future.