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2006 wasn't a good year for me. Being on the autism spectrum, middle school was especially tough to adjust to. Everyone else was growing up around me, getting into more mature-rated games and talking about subject matter I wouldn't understand until much later. I was in 8th grade and had accepted that I wasn't going to fit in. I tried my best to hide my autism throughout 6th and 7th grade but everyone knew by then. Getting bullied and being sent to the principal's office because I wasn't paying attention in class was the norm. At this point in my life there was little for me to look forward to.
But as much as I wanted to give up, as much as I dreaded each day, I had to keep going. I had to.
Because Sonic The Hedgehog for the Xbox 360 was coming out soon.
I'm not saying Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 alone helped push me forward, or that I would have actually ended my life, but I was at a point where I desperately needed some joy and Sonic 06 was the next big thing to look forward to. Sonic 06 was THE reason I got an Xbox 360 and I loved it. As far as I was concerned, this was the biggest, most epic game I had played. A true showcase for what this new generation of consoles were capable of. It's not like I didn't notice the glitches, the long load times, or some of the more laughable aspects of its story. But all that stuff didn't matter to 14-year-old me. I beat all four stories, did all town missions, got all S ranks, and nabbed all of the achievements. Over the years, I've probably spent well over a few hundred hours playing this game. Admittedly, it's not a title I've gone back to much for well over a decade but there was a period where it might have been in my top 10 most played games of all time.
For most, Sonic 06 is seen as an appallingly unfinished train wreck of the highest caliber. Within that group however comes two wildly different opinions. Some have deemed the game unsalvageable and doomed to fail even if it had all the extra dev time in the world. The other opinion is that Sonic 06 could have been something truly special if given the extra time needed to finish it. Personally, I'm of the camp that there's simply too much wrong about 06 on a fundamental level for there to be much salvaged from it. Even fan projects like Project-06, meant to "fix" the game, do just as good a job highlighting the underlying issues (level design focused too heavily on scripted bits, an emphasis on dull combat that kills the flow, and "amigo characters" that feel redundant when put alongside the three main heroes) as it does showing any hidden potential.
What was once a title that brought me great joy and helped keep me going in a dark part of my life is now something I see as a huge mark against not only Sonic, but Sega's track record. A result of all the worst business practices Sega kept indulging in while floundering as a 3rd party publisher. An embarrassment that looms over every new Sonic release. A reminder that Sega will always choose the shortsighted and greedy option. I'm not entirely sure when my opinion on 06 started to shift but I think it was around my sophomore year in high school. By that point I had made new friends, felt more comfortable around others my age, and was generally just having a better time. I didn't need to lie to myself about Sonic 06 anymore.
As terrible as it may be, I encourage anyone who hasn't played Sonic 06 to give it a try for themselves. While there might be dozens, if not hundreds of think pieces and video essays about it, most only look at the game on a surface level for shits and giggles. I think it's worth digging deeper and seeing for yourself what a fumble of this magnitude plays like. The history behind 06's development is nothing short of captivating as well but just make sure you do the homework yourself and don't bother with videos like Matt McMuscles "Wha Happun?" which unironically use GameFAQs console war forum posts as sources.
Few developers have gotten hit as hard by the never-ending console war as Rare. The moment Microsoft acquired Rare spelled doom for the reception of all their future games. It's impossible to undersell how much Rare carried Nintendo during the N64 era. If not by pure quality, then definitely by quantity. Nintendo themselves were slow to put out titles for a console with middling 3rd party support so Rare's unexplainable ability to pump 2 to 3 games out per year was nothing short of vital for Nintendo to not be completely overshadowed by the new kid on the block, Sony. Rare's games meant a lot to Nintendo fans so the moment they jumped ship was seen as nothing short of betrayal and has led to a seemingly never-ending belief amongst the gaming public that Rare "lost their way" once they left the big N.
As someone who didn't touch a Rare game till 2008 with the original Banjo-Kazooie I just wanna throw my hat in the ring and call bullshit on this take. Not all of Rare's games were gold on the N64 and not all their games after the buyout were lackluster. If anything, I think Rare has been an inconsistent developer ever since they entered the scene. Without the nostalgia goggles, it's hard to really vibe with a lot of Rare's output. For every Donkey Kong Country 2, there were 3 Jet Force Gemini.
So with all that buildup hopefully you won't come slash my tires when I tell you that Grabbed by the Ghoulies is one of Rare's best.
Ghoulies is a game no one was seemingly asking for. Rare infamously started development on a game named "Grabbed by the Ghoulies" because 'goolies' in British slang means testicles and Rare were big fans of raunchy humor. Safe to say that Ghoulies didn't have a strong vision behind it, at least not initially. When you first pick up Ghoulies it'll feel like a stew of incompatible ideas. It's a room-by-room beat em up where you throw out attacks with the right thumbstick and primarily pick up anything not stapled to the wall to cave the nearest funny gremlin's face in. There's QTEs, a health system that changes your max HP every time you change rooms, and a wide assortment of Challenges you must complete to progress. It's all admittedly a rather slow and confusing start but give it half an hour and Ghoulies reveals it's hand: An air guitaring Grim Reaper.
See, every room in Ghoulies throws at least one Challenge at the player. These can be as self explanatory as "Cooper(player character) must defeat all enemies" or "Cooper must find the key" and as deviously specific as "Cooper must not defeat the same type of enemy in succession" or "Cooper can only use up to a certain number of attacks". All Challenges must be completed (or, in the case of ones that don't have an end goal, obeyed). What happens if you disobey a Challenge? The Grim Reaper shows up and will slowly glide his way to Cooper and kill him in one hit with his extended finger. This isn't just a simple fail state though as the Reaper is slow enough that he can be avoided (though he will slowly build speed until you likely can't outrun him) and his one-hit-kill poke can also kill any enemy he makes contact with. The Reaper doesn't favor sides! Because of this, sometimes the player might WANT to fail a Challenge and activate the Reaper in order to deal with particularly tough enemies (and there's at least one late game case where an enemy holding a key you must obtain is invincible and the solution to the puzzle IS triggering the Reaper). With how many Challenges there are, some are inevitably going to clash with others. "Don't damage any of the room's contents" isn't a very feasible rule to obey when the same room also tells you to kill all the enemies and one of said enemies happens to be hiding in a destructible object. As a result, sometimes the Reaper is going to come out to play no matter how carefully you tread over certain rules, but instead of this taking control away from the player, it gives them more agency to decide WHEN to break a given rule. It's an extremely "meta" mechanic and not the tired 4th wall breaking "Oh shit! We're in a video game!" kind. It's not common to play a game that puts such a clever spin on such an intrinsic element of the medium.
So while the fighting itself is simplistic it's not really the star of the show. The variety in Challenges is more than enough to keep the game engaging throughout its 7-ish hour length. What many may find lacking is the sharp and crass humor Rare is often associated with. You'd think a game with such a crude origin would maybe have more of a personality but the general story and characters are largely forgettable besides a farmer who always greats you with a different not-subtle-at-all sexual innuendo. At least the cel shaded visuals and campy haunted house music has aged well.
Released in an era where gamers and critics got GTA-pilled and convinced themselves that M-rated games were objectively superior and shorter, linear games were seen as outdated it's easy to see why Ghoulies bombed on the OG Xbox but time has been very kind Rare's debut on Microsoft's turf. In some ways I see Ghoulies as a bit of a precursor to the modern experimental indie games that play with even the most conventional of mechanics. Give CBT a try and play Rare's most underrated game!
My favorite games tend to be ones where every facet of their design feels like they were under the most scrutiny possible during development. The more laser focused, the better. Jet Set Radio Future is one of a few very strong outliers. If anything, Future is significantly less interested in this design philosophy than the original Jet Set Radio. That game was mission-based whereas Future is a lot more open, letting you travel to different parts of Tokyo-to on a whim. There's also no timer so you're free to tackle objectives at whatever pace you prefer. The Rokkaku Police aren't even on your ass as much and mainly show up for scripted battles that lock you into tiny arenas. For a while, I struggled to deduce if this all meant Future was a lesser game. For years I struggled to justify not only why Future would be designed like this, but why I loved the game when it clearly had these "flaws".
Over time, I began to notice how large of a fanbase Future had relative to its sales. It's no secret that Future didn't sell especially well (being stuck to the OG Xbox probably didn't help) but you wouldn't know that if you just saw how much fanart, cosplay, remixes, and general discussion around the game exists if you bother looking. What made me realize why Future is one of my favorite games is by seeing all the games being made in its image, and I'm not just talking about Bomb Rush Cyberfunk. Games like Neon Tail and Hover also show clear inspiration from the JSR franchise, especially Future. Now, whether these games are good or scratch the same itch as Future is irrelevant. What matters to me is that they exist at all. There are so many other, more successful franchises that haven't seen any spiritual successors from indie devs. What does Future do that makes people want more of it?
Jet Set Radio Future gives us a glimpse into a world and characters that resonated with players. It's about as counterculture as a game gets while being absolutely sincere about it. This is the secret sauce that holds Future together and has given it such a fan following. So many games from the 00's desperately followed trends in order to appeal cool to their target audience. The worlds and characters from games like SSX, Splashdown, and Freekstyle aren't original. They took current fashion choices, lingo, among other trends and blended them together into an exaggerated mirror of our world. The JSR games created their own style and people miss it and that's why fan content around these games is so common.
When you look at Future as less of an arcadey action platformer and more as a chance to explore a world with its own flair and pathos, the changes to its structure compared to the original make much more sense. Future isn't a game meant to be mastered in the same way as JSR, it's a game meant to be lived in. From the bustling nightlife of 99th street, to the grimy Tokyo underground sewage facility, Future's environments are simply fun to traverse and lose yourself in. A bunch of mini playgrounds without the timers of a Tony Hawk game or the constant threat of enemies like in the original JSR. Exploring these locales turns into a zen-like experience thanks to Hideki Naganuma's truly peerless beats.
Would I like an alternate version of Future with the more heavy handed structure of the first JSR? Sure, I'd like to see how well that'd work. But I love what we have now. I love that Smilebit managed to craft such charming characters. I love simply being in the world of Future. There's truly nothing else like it, which is why Future will never be forgotten by those that have played it.