How Cliched is Shadow the Hedgehog?

I’ve been a fan of the Sonic franchise for almost my entire life. Over the years, I’ve seen Sonic’s ups, downs, and all-arounds, either first-hand or from a safe distance. The franchise’s difficulties with maintaining relevance in the modern day have produced an incredible amount of debate as to what works and what doesn’t work for Sonic games. Fans have argued over every aspect of the series: game mechanics, storytelling, character redesigns, and so on.

One particularly controversial figure in the Sonic series is Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow is simultaneously a fan-favorite character, often ranking in the top five in popularity polls, and a symbol of everything wrong with the series post Dreamcast era, with many fans citing him as an egregiously clichéd “bad Sonic”.

So is Shadow a bad character? Is he just a cheap and cliched “anti-Sonic” or does he bring something of his own to the series? Let’s take a closer look are the Sonic franchise’s resident antihero to find out.

While I will admit there are many legitimate issues one can take with Shadow’s characterization (convoluted, self-contradicting back-story; inconsistent characterization; the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog, etc.), when it comes to the question of whether or not Shadow is a walking cliché, I think the issue isn’t as open and shut as many like to make it out to be. Read more How Cliched is Shadow the Hedgehog?

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 😍


Simeon and Scott boot up this 8-bit Master System game, remade into a beautiful hand-drawn sidescroller. We reviewed it when the game first came out for Switch, but this is more of a casual Let’s Play format!

“Exit the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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Pole’s Big Adventure (Japan Only)


This mysterious WiiWare game was annouced by SEGA and seemed to go mysteriously quiet. What really happened was they released it in Japan only and never localized it! Pole’s Big Adventure looked like a super fun and quirky spoof of beloved 8-bit platforming games. We’ll let you know what we missed out on stateside!

“Exit the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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Saturn & Dreamcast Wishlist for SEGA Ages


SEGA will be bringing some of their classic titles to Nintendo Switch, and they’ll be downloadable on the eShop along with all the indie titles and Arcade Archives. Which games do we want to see make the jump onto Switch? And what does this service imply for the state of the Virtual Console?

“Exit the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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Console Wars – Book Review


Console Wars is a hefty historical fiction book written by Blake J. Harris. It documents the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, who were scrappy combatants in the 16 bit console wars. Scott has read through all 500 pages of the beastly book, and is here to report back on the experience!

“Exit the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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Sonic Mania: Co-Op Mode


Our viewers couldn’t get enough of Sonic Mania! Simeon and Scott pick up where Scott and his Dad left off last week. Simeon is an old-school Sonic semi-pro, and this game is bringing back the feels!

“Exit the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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Great Bad Game Design

Note: The following article contains spoilers for Sonic Mania. For those interested in Sonic Mania, I highly recommend waiting until you complete zone 2, act 2 before reading further.

Sonic Mania is amazing. But you probably already know that, either from experiencing it first-hand or from the mounds of praise heaped upon it by the general public. It quickly became my favorite entry into the franchise when I picked it up for myself a few months ago. It’s the “back to basics” game Sega has been promising—but ultimately failing—to deliver for nearly a decade now. Heck, this game is so good, it can even include one of the most egregiously wrong design choices I’ve ever seen and make it one of the most charming set-pieces of the entire game.

And no, that’s not hyperbole, one of the game’s most memorable moments is flat out stupid by conventional game design standards. What moment am I referring to? The Chemical Plant Zone Robotnik fight.

Why It Should be Horrible

The boss of Zone 2 isn’t a boss in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a game of Puyo-Puyo Pop. That’s right, instead of fighting some wacky contraption, Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles faces Dr. Robotnik in a lethal game of Puyo-Puyo. No instructions, no fore-shadowing, just dropped into a game and expected to win.

From a design standpoint, this looks like a bad idea on paper. As mentioned before, the player is given no instructions. Puyo Pop isn’t exactly the hardest game to understand, but the game assumes the player already knows how to play. There’s no pop-up for controls, no instructions on how to clear Puyos from the screen, nothing. If the player is familiar with drop-puzzles like Tetris or Dr. Mario, they may be able to intuit some objectives from the conventions of the format: namely matching colors.

That leads into the more pressing issue: genre shift. While switching between gameplay styles isn’t uncommon in video games, especially more recent Sonic titles, typically levels that dip into different gameplay formats only switch to genres of a similar nature. For instance, many side-scrolling platformer games include one or two levels that switch over to being a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. This is typically considered acceptable because the two gameplay styles have many similarities. Most notably, both are action games, meaning the skills needed to master them are almost identical. These skills include things like quick-reflexes, spacial awareness to assess threats and their proximity to the player, and prioritization of risks and rewards (such as power-ups).

Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style. A pertinent example of such a gameplay switch is the fishing segments of Sonic Adventure. While many people speak fondly of the game those segments’ mechanics were based off of, Sega Bass Fishing, most people object to the inclusion of such mechanics in an action platformer. That’s not to say juxtaposed gameplay styles can’t be paired successfully, but that contrast typically has to be one of the game’s core principles with everything else designed around it (e.g. DS cult classic Henry Hatsworth).

Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style.

Now compare that to Puyo-Puyo Pop. Being good at Puyo-Puyo requires players to plan on the fly. The player has to decide how to stack and group puyos in real-time to set up combos and react to his opponent’s attempts to interfere. I don’t have the background in Puyo-Puyo to know what exactly goes into high level play, but I can tell you it’s a very different game than Sonic the Hedgehog. This means that the player is expected to use an entirely different skill-set from what the game has been training him to use up until this point. Moreover, this is the only place in the game—outside of an unlockable bonus Puyo-Puyo mode, that is—that the player is asked to exercise these skills.

The look on Sonic's face at the start of the fight is priceless.
The moment in question.

Why It’s Awesome

So why does this moment work? There’s several factors at play here. First is the design of Puyo-Puyo Pop itself. First of all, Puyo Pop is a fairly easy game to learn: the computer is playing it along-side the player. If the player doesn’t understand how color matching works, he can just observe the computer match groups of four or more puyos of a single color.

Secondly, this battle is pretty easy. So long as the player keeps the board mostly clear, Dr. Robotnik’s incompetence will do the rest of the work sooner or later. Putting the battle so early in the game was actually a smart move: the encounter’s low difficulty allows the player to get used to the new gameplay style while still fitting the game’s expected difficulty curve.

Third, Puyo Pop is good. Many times when a game dips into a different style, the auxiliary gameplay style is under-developed. The majority of the developers’ time and effort (hopefully) goes toward the core gameplay, meaning mini-games don’t get the time and polish needed to fully flesh-out the concept. The Puyo-Puyo battle gets around this by implementing an already established idea. This way the Mania team didn’t have to haphazardly slap together a new gameplay concept, instead they just had to copy something they knew works.

Many times when a game dips into a different style, the peripheral gameplay style is under-developed.

Now that I’ve gotten the minor stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the two biggest reasons this works. I’m sure many of you are grinding your teeth by now with how I keep referring to this moment as “Puyo Pop”. Chemical Plant Zone’s Robotnik fight is actually a callback to the Sega Geneisis/Mega Drive classic Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (which was technically just a reskin of a Puyo-Pop game, but whatever). This attention to detail and acknowledgment of the Sonic series’ history is a huge part of what makes this bizarre set-piece work. Who in their right mind would anticipate such an obscure reference?

Companies like Sega and Nintendo often reference their past works, but they tend to stick to callbacks that are easy for fans to recognize. Even when a reference is to something more obscure, it’s out of the way and can be easily ignored. Most designers would stick some puyos/beans in the background and call it good. The Mania team, however, decided to put that callback front and center by making it a part of gameplay. If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half. The element of surprise and the obscene amount of creative whimsy this moment embodies is more than enough to make up for any of its “bad” game design.

If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half.


The combination of good implementation, recognizability, and surprise factor all come together to make this one of my favorite game set-pieces in recent memory. While I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t work in games, it’s important not to get too entrenched in sticking to “good” game design. There’s a delight in encountering the unexpected that is all too often ignored in favor of “safe” design practices. Formula is good, but too much results in a game being formulaic.

Sonic is Back!

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am a total Sonic the Hedgehog amateur and have very little experience with the games. I grew up with NES and SNES, while my neighbor across the street had Genesis consoles. This allowed us to get the best of both worlds without actually having to own both consoles. I was always a “Mario guy”, but when we wanted to get our Sonic fix, we would go to my neighbor’s house and play it there. That’s about the extent of my history with Sonic – I recall the first game, Sonic 2, and Sonic and Knuckles, but only vaguely. I have no history with the 3D games after I rented one as a kid and instantly felt ripped off. It’s a franchise I have always wanted to get into, but I just never felt the timing was right. Well, until now (I know, I jumped on the bandwagon).

Sonic Mania was everything I was hoping a new Sonic game would be. The developers (a small group of Sonic Fans), did an absolutely wonderful job of making the game appeal to series vets and newcomers alike.

You can tell this game was made with care by people with a passion for the blue hedgehog.

From the intro cinematic to the easter eggs, this game is bursting with fan appeal. With my lack of experience, I know I missed a handful of references, but the level design in this game is what kept it so fresh for me. If you aren’t aware, the level mix has old and new levels. The developers did such a nice job that half the time I couldn’t even tell if a level was new or a classic. Beyond that, it’s fast-paced, but not too fast. It’s tricky, but not too difficult. Everything about this game feels just right. The levels never grow tedious, and all of your skills are tested in the final level for a grand finale.

It’s apparent that everything in the game was handcrafted with care.

Even though it has been over a decade since I touched a Sonic game, after playing Mania for only a few hours, I felt like a veteran. Playing the game is so empowering, and it just makes you want to keep playing. At first, I was tremendously terrible at the ball collecting bonus stages and the race mode, but after a while, I found myself looking forward to these variations. Something about unlocking all of the bonus content and collecting those Chaos Emeralds just feels so good. Considering the many hours I put into this game, the $20 price point makes it a great value. Not to mention some of the music is among the best I’ve heard in recent years.

This game is filled with action-packed fun.

It will be interesting later this year when Sonic Forces releases as it will give Sega insight as to what the fans actually want. Will the developers be eager to create more classic sidescrollers, or will they continue to ride the rails and release 3D games? I believe the success of Sonic Forces will answer that question. One thing I do know is that Mania set a pretty high bar. Who knew that all Sonic needed to be revitalized in the eyes of gamers was a little fan service and a lot of passion. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is for certain; Sonic has a new fan.

WonderBoy: The Dragon’s Trap Review (Switch)

Or Wonder Girl – don’t you forget it!


#567 – SEGA fans, rejoice – your time has come. This Master System classic has been remastered and released on the Switch! This is a RPG-ish, Metroidvania-ish, Zelda II-ish game that looks and sounds stunning in the rereleased version. Beautiful hand-drawn graphics are really on display here, so take a look at the footage as you hear our thoughts!

Footage credit: GiantBomb
“Escape the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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SEGA

SAAAAY GUUUUH!


#562 – It’s really happening. Dark Simeon makes his return to the Two Button Crew channel and he’s derailing it with non-Nintendo talk! Today we’re discussing all things SEGA, from their confusing console lineup to the mistakes that threatened to put them out of business. Please like this video for the guy-liner that was used for your enjoyment.

“Escape the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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Beat it Blind: Super Monkey Ball 2

How much sense do you think the command “backwards backwards foreward foreward” makes to you when you’re blindfolded?


If Super Monkey Ball 2 on the Nintendo Gamecube isn’t a big enough challenge for you, try to Beat It Blind! That’s the exact challenge that Scott and Simeon have before them today, using only the guidance of each other’s voice to complete the level. It’s no easy task, but they’ve proven in previous installments that teamwork can carry them across the finish line.

Shot by Alex Campbell

“Escape the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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