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Quick history rundown I guess, it all starts with Tails in Sonic 2, a genesis game, so there's not much to him in-game besides some tidbits and the gameplay feature of flight, a mechanic that I know some of my friends were pretty convinced that it just didn't exist in that game, so that's funny. After we have Amy, it is what it is. Finally of this era we have Knuckles, the og rival of Sonic 3 who turns ally in & Knuckles, also positioned as an optional character for a separate campaign which unlocks no content afterwards. These are the OGs, the squad that due to the nature of their origins, not to mention the fact that they are the origins, no one really has a problem with them, so this really is not historically what people derisively refer to as "Sonic's Friends" and that fact almost makes it kinda clear the sentiment of "Sonic's Friends mucking up the franchise" is mostly used by ultra boomers wanting to return to their "golden age", but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Also not normally a consideration when talking about "Sonic's Friends", Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, the Japan only arcade debuting SegaSonic homies. Even while Mighty will go on to be a part of heavily derided game Knuckles Chaotix, the game which birthed the absolute certified "Sonic Friends" Espio, Vector, and Charmy, Mighty himself does not seem to be a consideration when talking about "Sonic Friends", granted because he's obscure, but also because he and Ray seem to garner enough respect from important fan dev, and absolute certified coward and boomer, Christian Whitehead, in order to become playable characters in Sonic Mania, a game filled with fanservice for many, many characters from a very specific timeframe within the Sonic franchise.
Also not included in the discussion are the countless scrimblos of Sonic animated TV series', comics, side games, and no, not even Chris, Donut Lord, or the Sonic Adventure Man who Owns The Building. The specific subset of characters who were a major negative talking point for a long period of Sonic's history, were the additional playable characters, that have speaking roles, are required to unlock 2% of their respective games, in Sonic Adventure, Heroes, and 06, and continue to appear on some level throughout the mainline series. There is admittedly something kinda funny imagining a single bee sending AVGN knock-offs into enough rage as to spawn Sonic 4 as well as the entire game design direction from Unleashed onwards,but damn does it feel like this one ancient piece of discourse just poisoned this franchise.
Let's start breaking down some shit, is Sonic's wider cast as playable characters "padding"? I mean, sure, there's really nothing to say to stop you from defining it as such. If we define just playing as Sonic as, da game, then it would follow that these other campaigns are just filling for playtime. Question, is Mighty and Ray Mania Plus padding? They are side characters that are by all means, injected into levels that already existed before them, they're hardly a fully fledged inclusion. Is the Werehog padding? I feel most people would be inclined to say yes, it's ultimately viewed as an alternate gameplay style that takes away time from engaging with the core Sonic gameplay, the fact you're still playing as Sonic isn't quite relevant. Is Shadow The Hedgehog of SA2 padding? He's roughly the same gameplay style as Sonic and has his own levels, even if he is a different character. Is solving a GameMaker tile puzzle in order to spawn grind rails and stat-increasing collectibles in an open world padding, or is it the alternate gameplay style in the physically and structurally different Boost style cyberspace levels? The answer may shock you. Is Super Sonic, the alternate gameplay style locked behind all these other alternate gameplay styles, also ultimately padding? I spent 2 years not playing SA after beating Sonic's Story, could it really be that important? I'd like to think I made my point, that regardless of how one may answer any of these questions that actually defining an airtight criteria for what is the equivalent of an anime fan looking at Eva and saying that "Magma Diver" is the only "filler episode", is ultimately kinda arbitrary and just not as helpful as just calling Amy's story mid and moving on.
Perhaps more to the core is if there is any room for alternate playstyles at all and again we mostly just see more line drawing. Generally it seems like people are more appreciative when the alternate characters are only kinda alternate playstyles in the form of Shadow, Blaze, and the whole classic crew, maybe bringing a few mechanical changes but still ultimately engaging with the game in a manner that is comparable to Sonic... but the Chao Garden is also generally fine. Sitting around a square and feeding a creature in order to make its numbers go up is pretty much the least Sonic that you could be doing,but people value it anyway, it's a cute pace breaker and distraction for those that enjoy it, and for everyone else it's just out of the way, they don't force you into it like Unleashed or deny the human brainworm called "Closure" its satisfaction by delaying the true ending that you definitely absolutely cared about. Calling it a brainworm seems a bit dismissive, it kinda is "a brainworm" but, we live with it so I will admit that having some compulsory factor for engaging with all these modes that you just may not care for regardless of execution, is ultimately a bit of wrinkle. Were not for that tho I think there wouldn't be a whole lot of disagreement to be had that these non-core modes, tho not all conceptualized and implemented equally, do ultimately fill out the experience of these games.
Beyond that tho is just how low-key essential all these scrimblos are to actually writing these games. Like it cannot be over-stated just how much more interesting thing and flavorful things are when these games are an ensemble cast dealing with Deities and Government Conspiracies and not just Sonic and Tails fucking around in an amusement park. Like I know I spent a long time in my last review establishing Amy as one note, but the problem is definitely in like, how boring of a note it is, none of Sonic's characters are particularly full of depth no matter how many youtube video essays get thrown around. The character with the most is easily Shadow, he has like 3 character arcs over 4 games that can be easily summarized as "I wanted revenge but now I remember what my friend truly wanted, I will now sacrifice myself for everyone", "My past doesn't matter, I am myself and that's all that matters", "Ok that was kinda raw, let's make that a whole game instead of 3 cutscenes", and "Even as the world will turn against me, I will stay true to my beliefs". It's not much, and one of those was literally from 06, but it's cool, and rather importantly, Shadow isn't the only character in the game, not even in Shadow the Hedgehog. Just looking at these characters through that kind of lens doesn't really capture the effect they have as they bounce off of each other and the events of the games. Big the Cat is ultimately just a dumb fisherman, but part of what makes him hilarious is the fact that he's a dumb big cat fisherman that gets so wrapped up in the events of SA for no reason that he ends up having to fish his friend out of a god, you can't not have a big dumb smile on your face as it's happening.
This feels like very basic writing shit, right? Yet it feels like after 06 they simply became absolutely afraid of doing much of anything with Sonic's cast in the mainline. The last real non-antagonistic addition to the cast was Chipp, a nasally scrungo that they knew would be disposed of by the end of that game. After that you have... Classic Sonic, which like... no. Then you have "The Recruit", your oc of Sonic Forces, so again not really much of a character. The returning cast doesn't exactly fare well either, Shadow basically becoming "Hey, you remember this guy, right? That cool edgy guy from SA2! Buy our dlc". Where am I going with this tho... let's talk about Sonic Frontiers. Only bits and pieces tho, it's all I know after all. How does Frontiers handle the cast? Well besides Sonic you got Amy, Tails, Knuckles, and Eggman... I'm obviously not gonna say that the entire Sonic cast should be active at the same time all the time, that would be ridiculous, but damn, if that's not a cowardly selection if I've ever seen one. So the story has Sonic going around Islands as he works to save his friends, all the while his friends are left with not much to do besides reflect on the Island they're trapped on as well as their own past,the most important of these for our discussion being Tails... in essence kinda just going through his SA arc again. In a long running multi-installment thing like this, I'm not exactly entirely against characters falling back into old trappings, that's an incredibly human thing to depict. The thing I want to illustrate here is that, in the approach lacking much of anything new in regards to what the characters deal with, with the mission being to investigate the more melancholic aspects of these characters, then yeah, of course the one course of action is to simply re-iterate on the places these characters have already been, the road's been paved, there's no where else to go, "damn am I glad the characters are acting like themselves again". This is ultimately what I landed on as the importance of all those new characters just showing up to the story pre-Unleashed, even if it's something small like Big, or as Ultimate as Shadow, it's a new deal brought to the table, it's something new for the characters to bounce off of. You can argue for Frontiers that it isn't the point... the point might be kinda mid tho, and besides, Frontiers also illustrates this, because there is a new character. Sage like all the other Sonic characters has a simple deal going on, she's an AI character like many AI characters, and introduces herself as an antagonistic force against Sonic... and not Eggman. Eggman has had robot helpers before, that's nothing new, but Sage's screentime in this game is spent slowly showing a father-daughter relationship which, succeeded if the fan art of Eggman getting Sage McDonalds is any metric, and also created this facet of Eggman that wasn't there for the other 30 years of his existence and simply wouldn't exist without a character like this by which to create this dynamic. So old begets old, new begets new, that seems like a simple point to take away from this. If they don't let Ian Flynn throw in new fucked up Sonic ocs into the next game like they do for the comics regularly then I think it's safe to say that the whole "Frontiers experiment" has flopped tremendously, and that not even Sonic can outrun the culture of stagnation.
All of this is to say, Sonic's friends are cool.
How great it is then, that this is a Big the Cat review.
"You like fishing, shitty jungle shacks, loitering in strange places, and a frog. You can't fly, you can't spin dash, and you can't fight more than a monkey. Face it, you're never gonna make it." I don't wanna make it, [I just wanna-][This joke is still under construction, please come back at the end of these reviews]
Big is the Mystic Ruins' local cryptid. He's a simple creature, he hangs around his humble makeshift house, goes fishing, and takes care of his friend Froggy. Perhaps he is a role model to surpass even Man Who Owns the Building. At the start of his story Froggy gets possessed by the tail of Chaos, and Big takes it upon himself to chase down his friend. As we make it to the city, we find the Man Who Owns the Building, playing the role of the Man Who is Scared Shitless by Frogs, he is truly a multi-faceted building owner.
So Big's story has you go fishing your friend froggy inside pools of water in small isolated sections of existing levels. The devs clearly knew that this is a simplistic departure from any of the gameplay styles going on so they clearly didn't get too distracted making anything new for it, nor did they ask much of a minimum amount of playtime to be spent on it. The objective, Froggy, is set to a fixed spawn that is never really too far from Big. Ice Cap, the second of three levels, has one additional pool with an upgrade that you can explore for, but Froggy is always swimming around under the first fishing hole you see spawning in (Ice Cap is also kinda jank, you're gonna want to not be standing on the ice while you fish, the water tends to reject you otherwise). Fishing itself is of course not as complex as say, Sega Bass Pro, you cast your line, you move it bit by bit til the creature you cast it at bites, then you pace yourself, reel it in, move the rod with the fish, don't let the line get too tense. It's probably a familiar formula for this kind of minigame game, the Yakuza series fishing mini-games don't tend to be much more than this either. It is very much a mode that despite the patient aesthetics of fishing, knows that it doesn't really want to keep you waiting long, nor really do much of anything testing, it's hardly uncompromising.
To say that anything bad you can say about it hardly lives up to the performative anger of youtube Sonic reviewers is a given really. You're either kinda unimpressed for 30 minutes, or find it a cute distraction, not too dissimilar to the admittedly less compulsory Chao Gardens. Then of course you fish Froggy out of Chaos, which, is definitely one of the top 10 Sonic moments that will ever occur. There's absolutely something to be gained out of approaching these things not so seriously, not in the ironic "haha, there's no way his name is seriously Doc Ock" sense, but just actually indulging in these silly moments. Big just is what he is, and that's cool.
Lazy Days -Living in Paradise-, is a very silly song, and spawned some serious arguments in vc over if the lyrics is a convo between a metaphorical Chicken and Egg or just Big and Froggy.
Come around next time as we explore Gamma's story and why Eggman is the ultimate lifeform.
So the story of a 80s/90s platformers is really just there, yeah, it's not the main attraction... but it is... there, you know. Like evil man is fucking up the world isn't exactly the most creative hook ever, but with the whole nature vs tech angle, there's something there, it's kinda resonant, it's neato. I think that's one of a good couple of things that puts early Sonic ahead of the... frustratingly inevitable to bring up Mario in this regard. Mario's story is like... an excuse of an excuse for just having a story to set the gameplay in. Like they just reuse this plumber character that they've been using for all their arcade games, and uh... oh no, the Princess is being kept hostage in the castle by an evil dragon creature, oh if only a gamer would come save her... calm down man, I just wanna stomp on some... KOOPAS. Like not to revive the, super ultra dead-and-buried-and-is-what-it-is-as-fuck discourse about the trope... but it's boring as shit yeah. So glad that our blue friend has always simply dealt in more interesting matters than fighting for the Monarchy... anyways in Sonic CD Amy is a small pink girlhog and also she gets kidnapped 10 seconds after she appears, whoops.
At least things get better in Amy's next showing... in Sonic R where she drives a car and also she's one of the worst characters even after mods to rebalance the game, whoops.
Hey at least it's better now that all these characters have dialogue now. Now with modern Amy, her character is that she wants to marry Sonic..... at least she isn't really just existing to be kidnapped anymore, now let me take a big sip of caffeinated beverage while I double check the premise of the plot for Sonic Frontiers.
She do have a big hammer so... that's something to be a fan of, pretty cool thing to be a fan of really, like her goal is kinda questionable and boring but she can sometimes give off that "nothing is gonna stop me" vibe when it comes to it, so I kinda gotta respect that.
So Amy is kinda a victim of circumstance all things considered, it's kinda hard to break out of the cycle of being one-note and having to constantly bang on that one-note. Is there anything to be done to compensate? I'd argue that we did have a solution for that. Let's talk about Blaze. Blaze is fuckin cool. Cool design, cool demeanor, is blatantly an alternate dimension Sonic, to just really give off just the right kind of OC vibes. Say what you about Sonic Rush's levels, you're correct to, but I believe this very easily demonstrates that there is value massive value to be had in just lettin another team come and just go off with your work, in this case succeeding where the mainline tends to struggle, and it's a practice that really should not end with Mania.
So overall, Sonic is coo-... well, Sonic could be... So-, if you brought the right people on, you could really, you know, make something that-
This formula is killin me, here is the Amy review.
So here's the first problem with talking about this like it's 1/6th or 1/7th of the game... there are 3 Amy levels. 3 and a boss. I get the distinct feeling they didn't take out a lot of dev time for this.
So in this campaign Amy gets chased around levels by an indestructible robot named Zero, who's kinda like Nemesis if Nemesis was a massive pushover, you kinda just give em a bonk with the hammer and move on. Between levels 1 and 2 Amy gets captured, oh no... we've been over this. After getting freed you can play a fucked up little whack-a-mole minigame for upgrades, that's neat. There's one movement tech that Amy has, which is that if you're running fast enough you can bounce with your hammer swing, it's pretty good. At the end of the day, after one of SA's many famous nae-nae ass boss fights, you reunite a bird with its family.
... yeah, that's all. Kinda a lazy write up for the actual game part but what ya want, this is easily as mid as this game gets, just not a whole lot goin on. Actually, there is one thing. While in free roam, if you touch the glowing orb in Station Square towards the beginning of the campaign, Tikal will talk to Amy about going to the Casino. So congratulations Sonic Adventure, you pass the Bechdel Test, kinda, sorta.
My Sweet Passion is a pretty cute fun little bubblegum track, it's neat. Did you know the lyrics for the song are supposedly "Bah bah bayah bayah", as opposed to anything about papayas, crazy.
Anyways, watch out, cuz next time around here, things are going to get Big.
What a real shame that this studio just dropped off the face of the Earth after this game.