Shadow the Hedgehog is a game which exists in one of the smallest niches imaginable. Designed as a "darker, edgier" take on Sonic the Hedgehog, it wants to connect with an audience that has outgrown the franchise, but by virtue of its part in that very franchise can't push the boundaries too much. As a consequence the T-rated version of the game originally shown at E3 2004 simply does not exist. The final product sits at a much more comfortable E10+ rating, a game that gestures at the kind of maturity imagined in the minds of children at the onset of puberty, a game that yells DAMN but not fuck, a game that has guns but no blood. Of all the "darker, edgier" takes on beloved children's classics, Shadow the Hedgehog is perhaps the most toothless of all. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the game almost manages to mean something.
Lets dial back for a moment. Shadow the Hedgehog (the character) was introduced in the series second 3D outing, Sonic Adventure 2. That game tells its story from two different perspectives in two different playable campaigns. In SA2's hero campaign, Shadow mostly exists as an elusive cool villain, a rival to our titular hero and at first glance seemingly just another minion of Dr. Robotnik. In the dark campaign, we learn that Shadow is actually the primary instigator of the game's central conflict, manipulating his companions into a literal doomsday plot motivated by an all consuming drive for revenge. Created by Dr Robotnik's grandfather to aid mankind, Shadow became grief stricken when his only friend, the professor's granddaughter Maria, was gunned down in front of him by the very military that once commissioned the professor's work — having later elected to shut it down.
Or at least, that's what we're first led to believe. In the third and final act of the game, we're shown the professor's last moments: a grim execution speech where he reveals that Shadow is his instrument of eventual revenge, coupled with the strong insinuation that some (if not all) of Shadow's memories are altered or fabricated. In an earlier confrontation with Rouge the Bat, Shadow openly acknowledges as much, but appears strikingly unphased. Shadow believes his identity continues to be defined by his memories and experiences, regardless of their authenticity. Even his ultimate decision to help the heroes stop the destruction of earth comes about when another character's plea reawakens a repressed memory of Maria begging Shadow to forgive humanity for their crimes. Shadow is defined entirely by his relationship to characters we only see through diaries and memory, and the conclusion of the game has him sacrifice himself for a world he has no remaining connection to. It's not necessarily a well written character arc, but it gestures at a few complex ideas and is at least superficially a satisfying, self-contained story that plays out with a real sense of finality.
However, Shadow the Hedgehog was too popular a character for the series to part with. Contrary to the intentions of SA2's writers, he was brought back to the franchise immediately in Sonic Heroes, a decision that should in its own right entirely undermine the whole conceit of Shadow's character as it exists in Sonic Adventure 2. Surprisingly SonicTeam manage to make it work. The story of Team Dark follows an amnesiac Shadow slowly contending with the realization he is likely an android copy of the original, working the struggle with identity back into Shadow's character. It's a strangely believable way of reintroducing the character, and although not particularly well written it nonetheless stands out as the one bit of solid characterization in what is otherwise just a game with a b-tier Saturday morning cartoon plot.
Which brings us back to Shadow the Hedgehog. Set after Heroes the game follows our titular protagonist as he grapples with flashbacks to a history he doesn't remember, on the precipice of an alien invasion led by a creature who claims to know Shadow, and wants him to make good on a promise Shadow does not remember. What ensues is a weaving thread of confusing plot points as players choose between Good, Neutral & Evil objectives on every stage, mapping their way through a grid of levels and progressing toward one of ten defined ending sequences—each a different take on the amnesiac Shadow, and the sort of hedgehog he ultimately chooses to be. The spectrum here is wide: from benevolent hero, to maniacal villain, to a strangely nuanced tortured soul who regrets his own existence.
Importantly though, none of these endings truly feel earnt. As a consequence of the game's structure most individual stages fail to truly connect. In one cutscene Shadow might board a ship from the level he was just in, but when other stages need to progress the same way a slightly extended version of the scene plays where Shadow is teleported into a level he wasn't previously in, to then have the rest of the scene play out unchanged — an inevitable concession to homogeneity necessitated by the sheer number of individual chain links the developers had to consider. The resulting state of affairs is fascinating. The story becomes a kind of negotiation between the player and the game, letting you plot out your journey through Shadow's choices as the game haphazardly tries to stitch them into a parsable narrative.
The whole game feels like a dream: a confused mess of individually interesting ideas loosely jumbled into a singular vision, like a piece of fan fiction written by several different authours. This is ultimately what holds the experience together. Truthfully, Shadow the Hedgehog at best barely justifies its own existence. Edgier than its predecessors but hardly adult, it tacks on shooting and driving mechanics to a fast paced platformer they hardly have a place in, forcing the developers to awkwardly design confusing levels and tedious objectives to justify their inclusion. It is jam packed with stages that could easily support a single, meatier adventure, but stretches them out across an arbitrary ten playthroughs to create an appearance of 'content'. All 326 possible routes a player can take through the game are recorded and given individual names in the game's library, as if they are meaningfully distinct. By all rights it should just be a mess—and it is—but that jumbled threadbare disaster is precisely what allows the game to so perfectly articulate to the player exactly what it's like to be Shadow the Hedgehog.
Shadow remembers nothing of who he was or what he was supposed to be, and yet every character he meets through the course of the game demands something of him. Everybody knows him, and everyone assumes he will simply come along and help them fulfil their objectives without regard for his own needs or wants. The only character to truly even acknowledge Shadow's amnesia is the villainous Black Doom, and only as a means of manipulating him into helping with the alien invader's agenda. Each paper thin 'story' the game cobbles together depicts a confused and empty Shadow slowly filling in the blanks of his soul, haphazardly assembling himself an identity as the player haphazardly assembles a campaign. In every ending he triumphantly declares "I am Shadow the Hedgehog" before defining what that actually means to him. Sometimes its hardly a coherent result of the player's decisions—but really, how could anyone form a real identity out of such fractured, incoherent events?
In the final, true ending to Shadow the Hedgehog, the collective cast face down Black Doom as it is at last made clear that Shadow was created by the professor in tandem with Doom himself. This retcon of Sonic Adventure 2's plot positions Shadow not just as a tool to help mankind, but also humanity's singular means of stopping the alien invasion. When faced with this revelation, and the choice of joining Black Doom or fulfilling the destiny the professor laid out for him, Shadow rejects the premise entirely: he declares for the first time that he is "Shadow the Hedgehog, and [he has put his] past behind [him]" before challenging Doom based solely on his personal decision to save the earth. For the first time, across all three games, Shadow does something because he wants too. When the game concludes and the credits play we watch as the cast members grapple with the conclusion, the government reckons with their own horrific acts against the professor and his granddaughter, and the colourful gang of furry animals rejoice over stopping a threat to the world. Then Shadow, standing by his lonesome, tosses a photograph of the professor and Maria over his shoulder as he makes a final declaration: "Goodbye forever... Shadow the Hedgehog". A sombre piano piece kicks in briefly before giving way to the most Crush 40 rock song ever conceived, a credits piece about moving on and never looking back.
Its hardly a profound conclusion, but it is in some respects the perfect one. Shadow the Hedgehog is a confused, turbulent game, a product of being a product designed for an audience on the cusp of outgrowing the franchise charm but not yet 'adult' — what better description of puberty is there than confused and turbulent? Shadow the Hedgehog is a game about trying to cultivate a sense of self when you don't yet know who you are, while everyone around you makes demands based on who they think you should be. It's a game with guns and swearing, but no blood or language. It's an infantile take on adulthood: the game is profoundly teenaged, and in a roundabout way that very confused, messy design is what manages to articulate that experience. You don't need to look far into the youtube comments sections of any video about Shadow the Hedgehog to find a wealth of people with a surprisingly strong nostalgia for a game that was clearly formative for them, and while it might be a bit much to suggest this makes it in anyway truly poignant, it does illustrate that sometimes all a game really needs to be is messy in the right ways, melodramatic in the right places, to resonate strongly with an audience who need it. I dare say—if you'll forgive me ending on a hot take—that it represents a much more interesting direction for Sega's mascot franchise than what it has since become.
It's no secret that Shadow was followed on by Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), a back to back pair of troubled development cycles and barely playable finished products that did nothing to help the series slowly dwindling reputation. Sonic 06 especially exists more as a subcultural touchstone, a canvas on which people have produced more enjoyment through thinkpieces and voiceover recording than the game itself could ever provide in a vacuum. But that's the thing, isn't it? People still talk about Sonic 06, and apparently they still talk about Shadow the Hedgehog. These confusing, messy games are, if nothing else, interesting. They have a distinct identity forged from all those rough edges and questionable choices. Ever since SonicTeam 'got their act together' we've seen this vague creative spark die out, instead replaced by a litany of games that continue to barely iterate the formula introduced in Sonic Unleashed over a decade ago, all the while the series writing has carefully consolidated across multimedia into a consistent curated vision that I could best describe as having the soul and human touch of a brand twitter account. If there's a moment Sonic truly became soulless, it was when the company decided to make 'classic Sonic' into his own distinct recurring character in the games, while doubling down on nostalgia for the pre-dreamcast entries as hard as they possibly could.
The result is that all those rough edges that made the earlier 3D games interesting have been sanded away. The series has an image it maintains across several movies, tv shows, games and comics. It's always functional, always consumable, but it's never truly interesting. The series is at this point well and truly sustained on pure nostalgia, not just from the films but the collections of classic games coming to mainstream systems at a higher price-point than the older collections released on sixth gen consoles over a decade ago—a questionable choice from a company who's mascot character once said "No copyright law in the universe is going to stop me."
Thus the inevitable question: where does Shadow the Hedgehog fit into this new, squeaky clean Sonic brand? The answer is that he doesn't. The themes that defined Shadow's character have all been cut away with the rough edges. Shadow today has been rewritten as a generic rival villain: the edgy antihero he's depicted as from one perspective of SA2's story, before you get to see the comparative depth he has next to the cast around him. Shadow the Hedgehog, unique in his several-game spanning character arc, can't possibly fit into the brand as it exists today. It remains to be seen how they will incorporate him into the third Sonic film, but I suspect anyone hoping for earnest homage to Sonic Adventure 2 will be disappointed. Shadow is a relic from an era of Sonic that SEGA seems keen to forget, but nonetheless continues to pull ideas from. In some respects perhaps the company's worst failing on this front isn't disassociating from those games, but rather their inability to truly commit to doing so, forever tugging on the nostalgia of Dreamcast and Gamecube kids as they beg adults who grew up on the Genesis to repurchase the games of their childhood for the sixteenth time.
Having watched a friend play through the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog on stream (I too question this decision, for the record), I'm struck by how ironic the game's themes seem now in the wake of the franchise that succeeded it. It's a hopeless, terrible, messy game—one cynically conceived when some marketing stooge asked if they could give a Sonic character a gun. And yet, despite this, the game has more soul than anything SonicTeam makes today.