When most people think about Sonic’s rival, the first face that likely comes up is that of Shadow the Hedgehog. This is not surprising, as the character was pretty much created to serve that purpose and, throughout the years, has been promoted as such. He’s effectively Sonic’s opposite in terms of personality, design, and overall aesthetic, and for years their rivalry has been a focal point in most games Shadow has been in. However, another face that might come up is that of Metal Sonic, and his status as Sonic’s rival is arguably more compelling.
It may be a bit more accurate to describe Metal Sonic as Sonic’s greatest enemy as opposed to just his rival since, in most depictions, he works directly for Dr. Eggman. However, when taking a deeper look at his character and history, it becomes easier to see that his real role lies in being a foil to Sonic and existing for the sole purpose of not only destroying Sonic but proving that he is better than him.
Since Metal Sonic is rarely in the games nowadays – and when he is is often just another boss battle – it is easy to forget the core of his original character, especially as a rival. But that does not change the fact that he, in concept, is Sonic’s rival in every sense of the word, and to understand why we’ll need to go back to the very beginning.
The History of Metal Sonic: 1993-2019
Metal Sonic first made his debut on Sonic the Hedgehog CD back in 1993. Although he does not appear until a little later in the game, his presence immediately conveys that he is very different from the doctor’s usual robotic creations, both in his design and overall presence. He kidnaps Amy, a move that forces Sonic to chase after him, but when they encounter each other again, their battle is not a traditional one. It could only be relevant to both of them: a race.
See, when Sonic first encountered his other so-called rivals, namely Shadow and Knuckles, the circumstances of their encounters made gave them the presence of a challenge that Sonic had to overcome in a way that was akin to a traditional boss. Knuckles knocking Sonic out of his super state and stealing the Chaos Emeralds immediately sets him up as more of an enemy than a rival per se, and it’s only really in later appearances like the Adventure games and Sonic X when their conflict is presented as such but was given his own character arc and story to make him more of an ally to Sonic.
Shadow is also presented in a similar way: he’s another hedgehog, and it’s clear from his dialogue, powers, and actions throughout the game that he is the antithesis of Sonic. But he also has his own story and role in the narrative that helps to distinguish him from Sonic and exist on his own, especially since he eventually got his own game.
In other words, while they are both rivals, that rivalry is only really emphasized later on, and both can exist on their own as characters.
Metal Sonic, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. From the moment we meet him, he is already meeting Sonic on his level, and for as long as he has existed, he has never grown out of the one thing he was created for: to prove he is better than Sonic and, therefore, the real Sonic.
What Makes Him the Better “Rival”
Knuckles never cared about proving he was “better” than Sonic. That was never part of the equation way back in his introduction in Sonic 3 and even now in the recent Sonic the Hedgehog 2 movie. He is simply very loyal to his purpose and duty, and Sonic got in the way of that. Therefore, he had to stop him because that, in his mind, was his job. Their “rivalry” only mattered when Knuckles tried to stop Sonic from doing something threatening his purpose.
Shadow, too, saw Sonic as beneath him the moment they met, and as Sonic’s adventure continued, he got in the way of Shadow’s goal. Therefore, Shadow wanted to get rid of him. In both instances, Sonic is seen as something getting in the way of their individual goals, not someone they necessarily have to prove they are superior to, which is the whole point of a rivalry.
But Metal Sonic? His entire being is designed around being the superior version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The first thing he does when we meet him after going to rescue Amy is try to prove that he is better than Sonic at the one thing he is known for: speed. He challenges him to a race, not a traditional battle, and at some points in the sequence, can surpass Sonic in speed output.
The truest definition of a rival is someone who wishes to prove they are better than you at something, whatever that may be. Even without a single line of dialogue, Metal Sonic conveys just why he is more than another machine designed by Eggman. He is a machine designed to match Sonic, and this simple purpose drives him to prove that he can do even more, unlike Sonic’s other “rivals” that simply fight him for a good reason.
Metal Sonic’s only reason is: I’m better than you.
This core aspect of Metal Sonic’s character is only further solidified in Sonic Heroes, where now not only can his actions speak for him, but he can actually speak for himself.
Sonic Heroes and Metal Sonic’s Legacy
The fact that Metal Sonic can actually speak in this game does wonders for offering a deeper glimpse into his character and perspective, especially in the final battle. He doesn’t have much of a role throughout the game, but his reveal at the end and his plan actually serve to bring light to his true nature: He doesn’t think of himself as a robot based on Sonic. He’s a robot who thinks he is Sonic.
Even when he doesn’t appear in the game physically until the very end, the reveal of Neo Metal Sonic as the final villain is well done because it not only comes as a surprise, it singlehandedly solidifies Metal Sonic as Sonic’s truest rival.
Metal Sonic was, from conception, a copy robot designed to copy, match and surpass Sonic in every way, which informs his every action and gives him a purpose in life. It is the fact that that purpose revolves around Sonic that makes him better than characters like Knuckles and Shadow, who, while their own purposes in life as well, have little to do with Sonic himself, especially with proving they are superior to him.
He goes as far as to disobey his own creator to achieve this and make himself more powerful by copying the data of various other Sonic characters to make himself powerful enough to defeat Sonic and take over the world. Knuckles and Shadow would never waste their time doing such a thing to make a point about being better. When Neo Metal Sonic finally transforms into Metal Overlord and Metal Madness, just four lines of dialogue tell the player everything they need to know:
“Long time no see, Sonic, my loathsome copy… Sonic… I was created for the sole purpose of destroying you. But I could never seem to defeat you! That’s why I transformed my own body with my own hands. But that was the past, now you’re nothing but a speck of dust to me! I am the ultimate overlord, Metal Sonic! I am the real Sonic!”
I am the real Sonic. Metal Sonic is a character that will go so far as to transform his own body, disobey the man who created him, and threaten the safety of the entire world, just to justify his own existence and prove that he is not a copy but in fact, the one and only Sonic the Hedgehog.
Admittedly this aspect of his character has not been emphasized as much in the games themselves and more so in the IDW comics, but this aspect of who remains the same. Metal Sonic is Sonic’s greatest rival because he does everything characters like Knuckles and Shadow don’t do to prove themselves as rivals. They just want to protect and keep Sonic out of the way of their own ambitions.
Metal Sonic must prove he is the one and only, Sonic the Hedgehog.