Imagine if they murdered Mario.
Really, try to imagine it. Can you? I mean it: Can you, really? Does that seem like a thing that could move through Nintendo, greenlit by each and every requisite department across its complex, multinational corporate structure? And does that seem like something that could not only get greenlit, but then actually produced, marketed, and shipped? And released for free?
Because that’s what Sega did with The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog.
It would be very easy to be cynical about The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog on both a critical and creative front. It would be tempting to take the view that what we have here is a glorified infomercial, meant simply to capture our accumulated attention on social media and galvanize that attention into positive brand recognition. Such a view would be warranted if the game were equally cynical in its construction: a rushed and ill-conceived meme of a game, created without love and with only the reinforcement of IP in mind. But both postures are only conceivable before actually playing The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog, which is far better and far more generous than it needed to be.
The premise of the game is straightforward: Amy Rose is throwing herself a birthday bash, and being a fan of true crime podcasts, she’s decided to book a murder mystery party on the Mirage Express, a train that seems to specialize in such things. You play as a new character, whom I promptly named “Sanic” when given the option, taking an ironic posture toward the game that I would ultimately regret — but more on that later.
“Sanic,” or whatever you choose to call them, is a new employee of the Mirage Express. In fact, it’s their first day on the job. As Sanic, you have an explicit role: Keep Amy Rose, Sonic, Tails, and the rest of the group happy during their experience on the Mirage. You receive this task from the train’s conductor, an amiable gentleman who happens to be retiring after this one last trip.
Things are quickly set in motion. Too quickly, actually. The train lurches into action so violently that Tails, Amy, and the player end up trapped inside a small room, where you are tasked with solving your first mystery. It isn’t a difficult one: There’s a big chunk of a filing cabinet missing and the broken handle of a giant hammer near Amy, who swears she didn’t do anything before you and Tails woke up. You then present her with the gathered evidence, which you piece together via a platforming minigame played on “Sanic’s Dream Gear,” or, again, whatever you happened to name your character. Amy then capitulates: Yes, now she remembers — she did bonk that filing cabinet with her hammer.
This is the crux of the gameplay loop. Enter a room, accumulate evidence, and interrogate a Sonic character as to their alibi, a loop that is immediately given narrative weight when, mere minutes into the two-hour game, you find that Sonic has been murdered.
Amy, being the stalwart true-crime fan that she is, takes the news in gleeful stride: “Someone murdered my darling Sonic!” The party is off to the races. It’s all for fun. Or is it? When Sanic approaches Sonic’s body (dearest reader, please make better naming decisions than me), they find that Sonic is either a convincing faker, or that there is something seriously wrong afoot.
The question of whether Sonic is really dead or just play-dead hangs over the game’s runtime, and I won’t spoil it for you here. Is this the world’s most original game plot, worthy of Steam saying it was relevant to me because I’ve played Disco Elysium and Papers, Please? No. Did I have my frustrations with it, including its simplistic linearity and a somewhat shocking increase in the difficulty of its Dream Gear minigames toward the end? Sure, yeah. But does any of that matter in the face of this game’s sheer improbability and quality? No, not at all.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog features an affecting denouement for a series of jokes about rummaging through trash cans for clues, as well as a reflection on the nature of retirement and our relationship to the labor that comes to define our lives. I’m being serious. It didn’t have to have these things, but it does! In fact, the game is so unironic in its approach to its silly concept that I quickly felt like a total ass for naming my character “Sanic,” as if I was above it all.
Against all odds, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog has a more sincere script than you would expect from anything that was released on April 1 for free ninety-nine. This is a fun game with genuine laughs, terrific art, and a killer soundtrack, and you don’t have to pay a dime to play it. I could quibble about minor stuff if I wanted, but at the end of the day, I’m happy it exists at all, and that it not only exists, but that it’s this joyful.
So, kill Mario, you cowards. Missing doesn’t cut it in 2023.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was released on March 31 on Windows PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.