Why I Like Sonic 2006

Note: This essay was written on a dare. Despite this, my feelings on the matter are genuine.

There are two fronts on which Sonic 2006 succeeds in spite of itself. One is cultural, and the other is innate. The cultural aspect is probably easier to describe so I will begin there.

The documentary “The Best Worst Movie” tells of a failed horror movie from 1990 called Troll 2. Troll 2 was so incompetently made that a fandom grew around an ironic appreciation of that fact. There is bemusement to be had in a work of art that fails spectacularly. But, as the documentary points out, failure is simply not enough in a world packed to burst with poorly made films. For a bad film to stand out, it cannot be boring. It must be memorable. It must be bad in a good way. Troll 2 succeeds in this regard perfectly, constantly raising the stakes of its badness. The film contains highlights and catch-phrases for its audience to anticipate and celebrate. The awkward corn-on-the-cob sex scene is met with applause. Recitations of the immortal line, “you can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!” beat the film to the punch.

Sonic 2006 carries many of these positively negative traits. Whenever I watch someone play the game, it’s always in the context of milestones and highlights. It’s delightful to savor moments such as one’s first encounter with the wildly out-of-control “Mach Speed” sections. The awkward romance scenes. The infuriatingly broken Silver the Hedgehog boss fight. The snowboarding section. A new player’s pain upon reaching his or her first game over and realizing that there is no auto-save function, resetting their progress back to zero. The line, “I’ve finally found him. The Iblis trigger.” These moments, and many more, are so numerous and paced in such a satisfying way. Speaking of the game’s impressive pacing, it reaches a crescendo with a final act that must be experienced to be believed. It begins with the famous blue hedgehog being murdered in cold blood, reaches a boil with the most artificially difficult and convoluted gameplay challenge I’ve seen in any game, and then crosses the finish line with its infamous bestiality-laden kiss. Consider that for a moment: in spite of Sonic Team’s general inability to deliver on the product, some sort of sixth sense pushed them to save the game’s absolute nadir for its curtain call. It’s like a Broadway reprieve of crap that one can't help but fall in love with. Sonic 06 is so intricate in the way it crushes a player’s spirits and brings glee to those ‘in the know’ that I can barely believe it was accidental.

But that is simply what one can experience from watching it. After purchasing and playing the game for myself, I was delighted to find an entirely new wrinkle in which to enjoy Sonic 2006.

There have been games that position themselves as comedies since the medium began. To name a few: Leisure Suit Larry. Earthworm Jim. Portal. Jazzpunk. However, those games, regardless of whether you find them funny or not, actually have little to do with comedy on a mechanical level. Portal, for example, is not a comedy game. It’s a puzzle game with jokes added on top. If you took away the characters’ voices, then it ceases to be a comedy game entirely. This may strike you as a pointless thought experiment, and to an extent it is. Telling you to imagine Portal without the comedic dialogue isn't very enlightening, because Portal does and forever will have that dialogue. But it is notable that there are few examples of video games with humor baked into the non-superficial parts of the experience. In film, there are ways to be funny with “just” cinematography. For example, a static wide shot will generally appear to be humorous. A song like Yakkety Sax can sound humorous even without lyrics. Consider the video game industry’s repeated attempts to push non-comedic emotions into the mechanical space. A game like Shadow of the Colossus packs many different emotions and implicit relationships into its mechanics.

This is something of a roundabout way of saying that Sonic 2006 is a landmark game in the comedy space because it feels funny to play. It’s something that’s difficult to describe to someone without putting their hands on the controller, but I’ll give it a try. At a core level, humor is about subverted expectations. When you first see Dick Van Dyke stride across his living room, you don't expect him to trip and fall over the ottoman. When he does, your mind reacts to the surprise with laughter. Or perhaps you don't laugh, because you're familiar with the scene already or familiar enough with the construction of comedic tropes to see the pratfall coming before it happens. The amount of laughs the scene gives you is directly correlated to your expectations.

When playing a video game, one expects the output to react to their input. You press a button and Mario jumps. Of course, a version of the game where Mario died when you pressed the button instead might be funny once, but would cease to be surprising afterwards. This is why Sonic 06 is a machine precision built to subvert your expectations. It holds itself together just barely enough that you expect each individual action to function. When the game ceases to function, it's often in a manner that's difficult to predict. But even aside from its bugs, Sonic 06 subverts the very idea of what the baseline of gameplay is. It is next to impossible to make Sonic move in a straightforward direction. There's a giddy deliriousness to Sonic's movement controls that transcend simply being "bad". Instead, I'd argue that the controls in Sonic 06 are tuned impeccably for comedic value.

Consider, then, how this innate comedy mixes with the cultural comedy. The amount of concentration the player must pour into such 'rewards' as seeing a cartoon hedgehog make it with a woman further adds to the level of humor. Playing Sonic 06 is nothing if not a struggle, but not only is the struggle in vain but the game's scenario is constantly reminding the player of that fact. There's a level of intellectual delight to this interaction between game and player that's reminiscent of the absurdist qualities of many fine works of classic Russian literature.

Of course, Sonic 2006 is not the only game to ever ship half-finished and full of bugs. A perusal of YouTube’s many upset video game nerd character actors will attest to that. In fact, it’s not even the first Sonic game to ship in such a state. But like Troll 2, the quality and variety of 06’s broken-ness shines through. As a bad game, Sonic 2006 is memorable and not boring. Furthermore, between playing for myself and watching others play, Sonic 2006 has given me more hours of entertainment than most from that generation of consoles. That is why Sonic 2006 is the best worst game. Thank you.

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Last night I finished Final Fantasy VII for the first time

I never played Final Fantasy 7 until now. I had given it a try here and there over the years, never making it more than 20 minutes in. Something about the hype surrounding it always left a bad taste in my mouth, as though it existed in order to be a bunch of 14 year olds' emotional and sexual awakening back in the late-1990s and has been coasting on that reputation ever since. The 'extended universe' crap that's popped up since such as Advent Children more or less confirmed those beliefs. But I'm a bit more open-minded these days and I felt like going back and seeing for myself, especially now that it's so old I have no choice but to be amused by its rough edges and overwrought sincerity.

What I Liked:

-The Materia System. I was skeptical at first, but over time I really came to appreciate it. JRPGs aren't usually known for letting you have much control over your characters' growth (at least compared to the western RPGs that are closer to my style) but with materia they've got a very simple and easy-to-understand system for fully customizable character builds. It's cool that you can link two materia together to get different effects. Being able to swap them out makes characters more interchangeable but at the same time allows for experimentation and can lead to really fun setups. There are a ton of different ways to put your party together that are all viable and I can definitely envision a second playthrough feeling very different both in terms of combat and different characters getting more of a spotlight. To be honest I was not much of a fan of the esper system when I played FF6, and it seems like they took that and made some really interesting changes to it.

-The Momentum. Final Fantasy 7 moves really fast for a JRPG, especially one where you don't leave the first town for 5 hours. For a while it reminded me more of Super Mario RPG than the previous Final Fantasies I had played in the way that it throws setpiece after setpiece at you one after another and keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Despite its reputation, the dialogue scenes are never long-winded and even plot-heavy segments (such as flashbacks) give you room to breathe and play around. It manages to maintain this for the entire 30-40 hours, with only one or two parts I can think of where they just dump you into the overworld and leave you to wander aimlessly.

-Few Dungeons. Speaking of momentum, the thing I associate most with JRPGs, and Final Fantasy in particular, is having everything grind to a halt while you're forced to wander around boring caves fighting the same boring enemies over and over again for a few hours at a time. This might be a byproduct of Square using pre-rendered backgrounds, but just about every area is about 3 rooms long at most and it's onto the next thing without much fuss.

-No Grind. Some people would probably say the game is too easy, but thank goodness. You can handily beat the game just by proceeding through the game normally and fighting most of the random encounters. The game is remarkably non-tedious for a JRPG of its time.

-The Scope. The game took me 40 hours to beat, but felt much longer-- In a good way. I've heard people complain about FF7's lack of focus, but I found the variety to be beneficial-- for the most part. Starting the game with five hours in Midgar works brilliantly, but even beyond that the game and its story both manage to feel much bigger than they actually are. In truth FF7 is much smaller than previous games in the series, which usually had twice as many towns and mutliple overworld maps, but it hides this fact very well through spectacle.

-It's Charming. This is tough. Even though I don't have rose-tinted nostalgia for FF7, I'm still not sure if I only find it appealing because it's so old that its flaws become cute, like I'm a millenial scoffing at a cassette tape or something. To break it down, I'll say that even though the graphics look like dorky, half-melted action figures I greatly prefer them to character designs that actually pull off Tetsuya Nomura's flawed, wannabe-cool style. I like the fun, expressive bobbleheads much better than the dumb, stiff, lanky guys that appear in the FMVs and battle screens, and I really do not care for what I've seen from latter-day FF7 content such as Advent Children. Speaking of which, Square has done a disservice to these characters over the years and I constantly found my expectations subverted. Cloud isn't the sullen, emo brat I expected. Aeris isn't the typical magical anime waif she's got the reputation as being, and Sephiroth doesn't really brood at all in spite of his hairstyle. This might lie in the fact that I played the Steam version, which is based on the Eidos PC port from 1998, and so the translation I experienced was much, much better than the one most people saw on the Playstation. Nonetheless, each main character has their own unique and endearing voice and developmental arcs that span the entire game. I liked all of them and was drawn in even though I gave each one a stupid joke name like "DUNK" and "TOILET".

-The Storytelling. Aeris wasn't the first main character in a Final Fantasy game to die. In Final Fantasy 4 half the cast dies, comes back to life, and then dies again. Cloud is also not the first protagonist with identity issues. Again, Cecil in Final Fantasy 4 is a moon man and in Final Fantasy 6 Terra is an esper and so on. The difference is that while previous games in the series (and pre-FF7 JRPGs in general) those ideas are divested as moments to be blurted out and then just sort of dissipate. In FF4, Palom and Porom sacrifice themselves to save you! And then... you just kind of forget about them. They had their moment, and now the moment is over. Cecil is told he's an alien of all things, but it doesn't inform much of anything else the game has or will throw at you. It's setup and payoff at the same time. What Final Fantasy 7 gets so crucially right is integrating these moments into the greater narrative. Cloud's identity is a mystery that slowly unravels over the course of 20 hours, and once it comes undone it genuinely recontextualizes everything that has come before and everything that will come after. Aeris's death is a culmination of the events of the entire first disc, is foreshadowed heavily, and has a huge pay-off much later than actually makes the event narratively worthwhile. This kind of storytelling isn't that big of a deal in 2016, but for 1997 I can see why it left such an impression on people. Ah, who am I kidding. To some extent it left an impression on me in 2016.

What I Didn't Like:

-Forced Character Switching. At several points in the game party members are forced upon you or forced away from you. I understand that there's a plot going on, but fuck this underlevelled piece of shit I've specifically not been using and fuck you for making me rearrange all my materia because Cait Sith needed a moment to shine. This is my most hated thing in JRPGs and FF7 does it pretty often. Granted, it's not as bad here as it was in Final Fantasy 6 which expected you to level up and equip twelve party members by the end of the game. But the characters you choose and do not choose to put into your party is one of the highest-level gameplay decisions you make in an RPG and it sucks to have that thrown out the window at the designers' whims.

-The Minigames. I complimented the game on its variety earlier. Not all variety is a good thing. FF7 has a ton of minigames-- A TON-- and they're all garbage. There's a shitty version of Road Rash, a shitty version of Cool Boarders, a shitty tower defense game, and a shitty horse racing game where you can both participate and gamble on them. These are the "big" minigames, and the overarching theme is bad controls, bad implementation, and taking long enough to wear out their already limited welcome. There are also minigames for sneaking past guards (annoying and has to be repeated for all three party members), breathing air into a child's lungs (pointless), jumping off of a dolphin (braindead), marching in a parade (poorly explained and terrible), saluting the evil president (simon says), playing Chuck-E-Cheese basketball (impossible), arm wrestling (mash buttons), VR battling (basically random), feeding a moogle kupo nuts (it's more of a long, boring cutscene you can fail at and you don't get anything for "winning"), chasing a rabbit through a cave (annoying), a password hacking minigame (obnoxious), and a submarine combat minigame (this is the best one because you mash square and win in 10 seconds). These are all of the minigames I can think of, but I'm certain there are more that I've forgotten that are at best inoffensive. For years I've been seeing the Golden Saucer being hyped up as the coolest place ever, but I get there and it's just the worst because it's nothing but these crappy minigames. The amount of these you must play to advance the plot is also quite high.

-Navigating the Pre-Rendered Backgrounds. I don't mind the use of pre-rendered backgrounds, but it tends to be a pain in the ass here with camera angles and scene compositions being far below the standard of even the first Resident Evil despite being much prettier. But pretty didn't amount to much as I found myself constantly fumbling around, unable to discern which elements are meant obstacles. Many scenes have you walk behind the scenery and thus out of view of the camera entirely! Interacting with objects is a huge pain since doing so requires finding sometimes very specific 'sweet spots' and also requires you to face the object in a very specific way. I got stuck during one sidequest in the Oriental town because I had to ring a gong that was obscured by foreground details-- and that I had already tried to ring but assumed it wasn't any use when my attempt to interact failed. Some maps make you run way way way wayyyyy into the horizon for some reason. Furthermore the game has a problem with its directions. Unlike Resident Evil, FF7 doesn't use tank controls. That's somewhat admirable, but it leads to a problem common in much older isometric games where you're never sure what the directional buttons are going to do. Pressing "Up" might make you go right, or it might make you go left, or it might make you go up. It's a huge pain in the ass, and constantly grinding the D-Pad around to navigate these wonky controls around an environment where the edges are not clear is a pain in the thumb.

-The Music Is Overrated! I mean, it's not bad. In fact, it's all pretty appropriate, but mostly low-key and ambience-driven. But where are the standout tracks?! "One Winged Angel" is famous, sure, but are you going to listen to that in the McDonalds drive-thru? Well, ok, you might. There are tracks from this game I like just fine, such as the overworld music and the Jenova boss theme. But then I think of all the times I heard that fairly boring Mako reactor music, or that cloying plink-plonk music that they trot out whenever something mystical is happening. And the musical quality is such a step down from the SNES! It all sounds so compressed and tinny. All I'm gonna say is that this game has a reputation for its apparently 'godlike' soundtrack but Final Fantasy 6 handily shits on its lunch.

-"Buy a Strategy Guide" Shit. Hidden stuff is fun, but the Final Fantasy series tends to take it to an extreme and 7 is no exception. Important items are locked behind ridiculous series of events, often contingent on having specific characters in your party in specific places and at specific points in the game. One materia in the snowy area requires you to interact with a nondescript part of the environment (a hot spring), then travel to an obscure part of the maze-like area and suddenly an NPC is there who hates the fact that you touched a hot spring and turns into a boss. That's the logic. I suppose I get it somewhat, since it's a powerful summon materia. Even if it is an inane process it should be difficult to get. However, I missed out on a few very important, practically crucial cutscenes just because I didn't do things like return to the bottom of a dungeon I had already completed ten hours beforehand or make sure to pixel hunt every inch of every pre-rendered background. That just sucks.

-Limit Breaks. This system seemed a bit silly to me at the outset. I suppose it gets its inspiration from fighting game meters, but handing out powerful attacks in an RPG as a result of taking lots of damage seems counter-intuitive and more like it should be attached to a gimmicky materia or something. On the other hand, the game does work well with it and there are bosses that take advantage of the fact that almost killing you is less devestating as a result, and it does spice up random encounters with a bit of an X factor. But I somehow managed to get through the entire game without levelling up anybody's Limits at all. I think there are four tiers as well, making it all the more baffling. I even managed to pick up a few characters' Final Limit Breaks, which are specifically hidden behind sidequests and such, but couldn't use them. I have no idea what I may have missed here. Looking it up, it seems each specific character has to personally kill a set amount of enemies, but somehow I managed to complete the entire game without Cloud getting 120 kills, which seems wrong to me. This didn't seem at all necessary and it appears to me to just be an outlet for people who actually enjoy grinding.

Edit: I have been informed that different levels of limit break have to be selected manually. The fact that I finished the game without knowing this signifies that it's still a problem regardless.

-Lack of True Side Content. The sidequests in FF7 mostly revolve around Chocobo breeding, minigames, and a few optional bosses. It's a bit dissappointing considering that this was the Final Fantasy that came in the wake of Chrono Trigger, which had a ton of really developed sidequests. Final Fantasy 6 was no slouch, either. In FF7 I can only remember a brief and fairly lame aside where Yuffie steals all of your materia for no fucking reason and you have to play hide and seek with her to get it back. I also found a sunken cargo ship that had some treasure and a few tough monsters in it. It wasn't much, but it was cool to stumble upon. As it stands, finally getting the airship proves to be a bit of a disappointment since it doesn't really open any new doors for you, it just makes the old ones easier to get to.

The short answer is that everyone was right. Final Fantasy 7 doesn't live up to the idealized dream version of Final Fantasy 7 that a bunch of people have in their heads, but by sitting on the sidelines and rolling my eyes I was definitely missing out on something. Now that I've played it, FF7 is not suddenly one of my favorite games of all time. It's not even my favorite JRPG. But it does earn its place in one of those "101 Games You Must Play Before You Die" lists pretty handily, and not just for historical relevancy.

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