Sonic the Hedgehog Turns 30! (And Nintendo 64 Turns 25!)

It’s been thirty years to the day that the original Sonic the Hedgehog game was released on the Sega Genesis, with its titular hedgehog instantly becoming a gaming icon. It also gave us one of gaming’s greatest foes in Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik.

The Sonic series has had a colorful history, to say the least. For every classic it’s produced, it’s had one or two disappointments, and even flat-out stinkers. For every Sonic 2, there was a Sonic Boom. For every Sonic CD, a Sonic: The Fighters. For every Sonic Colors, a Sonic ’06. Heck, even Sonic Mania – the best game the series saw in decades – was followed-up mere months later by the incompetent Sonic Forces (as if Sega took offense to Mania’s warm reception and goodwill, and made Sonic Forces out of spite). It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Sonic himself that no matter how low the actual games got, Sonic remained an icon.

Sonic has made a name for himself outside of video games as well, starring in more animated series and comic books than any other video game character, and as recently as 2020 had his own actually-pretty-good movie (with a sequel on the way). It’s safe to say Sonic isn’t going anywhere, and nor should he.

Happy 30th birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog (and Robotnik too)!

That’s not the only video game anniversary today, though. June 23rd also marks the anniversary of the Nintendo 64, which launched in Japan on this day in 1996.

The Nintendo 64 is one of Nintendo’s best consoles in an historical sense, if maybe not in the timeless sense like the Super Nintendo. That is to say, the Nintendo 64 marked a pivotal moment in gaming history, and many of its games were great for the time, but only a few small handfuls of them have withstood the test of time (namely those with Mario, Zelda and Banjo in the title).

Of course, the Nintendo 64’s unique place in history as being the first real 3D console gives it a special kind of nostalgia (the Playstation and Saturn added 3D games as they went, but the N64 was built with them in mind, in case you thought I forgot about them). It was something completely different from the consoles that came before it, and just about every console since has built on what it started. Of course, being such a pioneer in gaming means that much of the N64’s library feels unpolished today, but you have to start somewhere. And the stuff that has held up on the N64, has held up surprisingly well.

So a fellow happy 25th birthday to the Nintendo 64!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Party. Or maybe I’ll meet down the middle and play some Sonic Shuffle… No. I won’t play Sonic Shuffle.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*

And now for something completely different.

That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.

After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.

Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.

After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.

Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.

You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.

It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.

Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.

“The 2010 HD update still looks pretty impressive.”

If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”

When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.

What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.

Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.

The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.

Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.

The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.

Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).

The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.

Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.

Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.

Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.

Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.

It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).

I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.

And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.

9

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*

The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.

It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.

That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).

It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.

Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.

The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).

Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.

Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.

Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).

It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.

Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.

Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.

I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.

Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).

There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.

It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.

Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.

I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.

There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).

Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.

Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.

I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.

4

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus*

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for the save feature in a video game than I am for that of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The original Oddworld title, 1997’s Abe’s Oddysee, is a unique puzzle-platforming experience whose gameplay and imagination stand the test of time. But it’s also hard as all Hell, and only saves your progress at widely spread out checkpoints, making its trial-and-error moments needlessly time consuming as you inch closer and closer to victory with every attempt, but have to start a sequence all over again whenever Abe gets shot, chopped up, flattened or blown to smithereens.

Thank Odd then, that Abe’s Exoddus, the unplanned 1998 sequel, implemented a quick save feature. You can now pause the game, and either save your progress on any screen (resuming your progress from that point when you restart the game), or you can quick save at literally any time to respawn in that exact spot when you die. And should you be a jackass and quicksave right before an impending death (something my younger self enjoyed doing a little too much), you can select the “restart path” option to go back to a checkpoint. To cap off this streamlining of saving, when you load your game, your most recent save file will always be on the top of the pile, in contrast to the first game listing them in alphabetical order by area (with the areas being listed as abbreviations, which could make things tricky).

This alone makes Abe’s Exoddus a vast improvement over Oddysee. But the improvements don’t stop there. Exoddus is a much bigger game than its predecessor, with just about every element of Oddysee being expanded upon in fun and meaningful ways.

It’s something of a shock then, when you gain the knowledge the game was entirely developed – from planning stages to release – in a relatively short nine months. After Abe’s Oddysee – the first installment in the planned five-part Oddworld Quintology -became a surprise hit, developer Oddworld Inhabitants was pressured into making a sequel to meet the next holiday season. With a short timeframe to make a new game, Oddworld Inhabitants held back on the second Quintology entry (Munch’s Oddysee), and decided to make a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysey which could use the same assets and thus shortening development time to meet their deadline.

Series creator (and voice actor for basically every character) Lorne Lanning made no secret of what a nightmare he thought this rushed development process was, and how it burned out the development team. Though that’s an understandable reaction from the game’s creators given the circumstances, they should at least take solace in knowing that their efforts paid off. Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus was not only an improvement over Oddysee is pretty much every way, but was also one of the best games to be released on the original Playstation console. And due to the adjustments and additions it made to the formula, it has stood the test of time a lot stronger than its predecessor.

The game begins immediately after the events of the first game. Abe, the Mudokon savior who rescued his fellow slaves from becoming minced meat from Rupture Farms, has a vision from long-dead Mudokon spirits (humorously named “the Three Weirdos” in the game). The Weirdos inform Abe that sacred Mudokon burial grounds are being disturbed, and the bones of their ancestors are being dug up by unknowing Mudokon slaves (their eyes have been sown shut, so they don’t know what they’re digging) under the SoulStorm Brewery corporation (Mudokon bones being the secret ingredient for the brew).

So Abe sets out with a few friends to liberate more Mudokon slaves and save the sanctity of their dead. That’s easier said than done, however, as the destruction of Rupture Farms has made Abe public enemy number one to the Glukkons, whose many corporations are now under heavier security.

Although Abe’s Exoddus uses the same engine and assets as the first game, pretty much everything has been given more depth and variety. While the first game had ninety-nine Mudokon slaves to rescue, Exoddus expands that number to three-hundred. The player can still use the “gamespeak” feature to communicate with these Mudokons, but now Abe has more things to say, and certain Mudokons will require different interactions.

Along with the “hello,” “follow me” and “wait” commands from the first game, Abe can also say “sorry,” “stop it,” “work” and even slap a Mudokon in the face. Sorry is used to apologize to depressed and angry Mudokons, while stop it is used if they are bickering amongst each other. Work is used to have them help out when a problem requires multiple sets of hands (like multiple switches needing to be pulled in unison to open a door), and to have them resume their duties when a Slig guard passes by, to avoid suspicion. Finally, the slap is used on Mudokons who have been exposed to laughing gas, and are recklessly running around in need of a good slapping. There are also the aforementioned blind Mudokons, who rely solely on Abe’s voice and can’t follow the character himself, making for some notably tricky moments.

Best of all, however, is the “All of ya” command. In Abe’s Oddysee, many moments could grow tedious if they included multiple Mudokons, as you would have to talk to each one individually, and often have to repeat a process as many times as there were Mudokons in the area. But with the All of Ya command, you simply get the attention of every Mudokon on screen. Like the new save features, it’s the best kind of streamlining.

Of course, Abe still has his chanting, which is not only used to open portals to free slaves, but also allows Abe to telepathically control enemies. In Oddysee, Abe could only control Sligs, using them to infiltrate enemy lines and utilize their fire power, since Abe himself can’t attack. in Exoddus, there are also flying Sligs that can be controlled, which come in handy as the traditional Sligs can’t jump. Wild Paramites and Scrabs can also be controlled by Abe this time around, and it’s clever how the game utilizes their established behaviors from the first game for the sake of gameplay (Paramites attack in packs, so you can communicate with others when they’re under your control, whereas Scrabs are extremely territorial, and will fight each other on site). Later in the game, Abe can even possess Glukkons! Though the Glukkons aren’t built for fighting (under their suits they walk with their long arms, like Sebulba from The Phantom Menace), Sligs will do whatever they say without hesitation or suspicion. And of course, Glukkons can access important areas that no one else can, due to their high standing in Oddworld.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Abe has the ability to possess his own farts. Yes, Abe could fart in the first game, but more as a pointless joke (and the occasional game of “Simon Says” which utilized the voice commands). But here, Abe’s flatulence have more utilitarian use in gameplay. If Abe comes across a SoulStorm Brew vending machine, he can have a drink which will fuel his next fart. If Abe farts after drinking a brew, said fart will explode where it stands within a few short seconds. But if Abe chants within that time, he can possess the fart, and use it to find enemies, bombs or drones (which prevent chanting and possession) and blow them up with it. Admittedly, it’s a little weird within the context of the story that Abe would drink the brew (though I suppose it’s a “using their own weapon against them for the greater good” kind of thing), but the fart control does give Abe a fitting means to attack without taking away the puzzle-solving strategy.

Like its predecessor, there are still a number of moments in Abe’s Exoddus where it really feels like the developers packed on the trial-and-error with some of the puzzles, and there are some secret areas with hidden Mudokons that you can miss (in my review of Abe’s Oddysee, I complained that there are a couple of hidden areas hiding behind large, obstructive objects in the foreground, but there’s at least one such secret in Exoddus that’s hiding behind a barely obstructive object in the foreground, which is probably even more annoying). But these elements aren’t nearly as frustrating as they were in the first game due to the aforementioned save feature. You can literally save after each individual step of a puzzle if you want (the quicksave is instantaneous to boot), and if you miss a secret, you can more easily load a previous save file to find it (though if you’re going for 100% completion, I recommend having a guide or walkthrough handy, because you wouldn’t want to undo too much of your progress just to backtrack to one secret). So even though some of Oddysee’s drawbacks are still present, they are much more tolerable this time around thanks to the improved saving.

Video games are an art form, I don’t know why that’s ever in dispute. But video games are at their strongest artistically when they embrace their game-ness. The first two Oddworld titles may be the most overt example of this. Oddworld was one of the earlier example of a video game pushing the narrative merits of the medium (with its environmental and sociopolitical themes). While Abe’s Exoddus may have come about due to commercial demand as opposed to Oddysee’s more inspired creation, the sequel is by far the superior work because it’s a better game. I think there’s a lesson a lot of today’s developers could learn there.

8

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee*

In 1997, an odd little game arrived on the Sony Playstation by the name of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Developed by the aptly-named studio Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee was planned to be the first installment in the five-part Oddworld Quintology (yes, Pentology is the proper term for a five-part series, but quintology just sounds better, I suppose). The game was a surprising critical success, and even performed commercially well. Though additional Oddworld games would follow, only the second installment in the quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, was produced (the other two Oddworld titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath, were considered “bonus” games that built on Oddworld’s mythology). Oddworld Inhabitants had notorious relationships with publishers, and eventually left the gaming scene for close to a decade, before they returned with a remake of Abe’s Oddysee titled “New N’ Tasty” in 2014, to start the series over.

The Oddworld Quintology may be continuing anew, but it’s a shame the original vision of the series never came to light, because Abe’s Oddysee certainly got things off to a great start. In many ways, Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time, with gameplay that still feels unique to this day, and an equally unique world to go with it. Though it has to be said that the experience of playing Abe’s Oddysee today is hampered a fair bit by a steep difficulty curve (including some outright cheap moments that go against what the game instills in the player early on), which is made all the more difficult by a convoluted save feature.

The story is set on the titular planet Oddworld, and the game does a pretty terrific job at giving the player a good insight into its world with very little exposition. Rupture Farms is the biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld, and slaughters the creatures of the planet with reckless abandon (“We used to make Meech Munchies… until the Meeches were through”). In Oddworld, certain species are born into different social classes, and Rupture Farms is no exception: at the top of the pecking order are Glukkons, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking businessmen. Sligs are miserable creatures that are born to be the hired guns for the Glukkons. And at the bottom of the totem pole are the Mudokons – humanoid creatures that looks like a cross between Gollum and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 90’s movies – who have become slaves to the Glukkons’ many corporations.

Abe is one such Mudokon working for Rupture Farms, notable for being more blueish-gray than the Mudokons’ usual green coloring. Late one night when waxing the floors, Abe passes by the boardroom, and curiosity gets the best of him. He listens in on a board meeting, where the Glukkons are discussing Rupture Farms’ decreasing sales. The Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’ most popular meat sources – are starting to turn up thin. But CEO Mullock has a “great” idea for a new product: Mudokon pops, which are little more than Mudokon heads stabbed on a stick (at least in the US version. International versions of the game censor it as a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head, which lessens the impact). Horrified at the fate the Gluckons have planned for him and his fellow Mudokons, Abe hopes to escape from Rupture Farms, and free as many slaves as he can (for gameplay purposes, there are 99 in the game to rescue).

There’s an obvious environmental, sociopolitical element to the game. But what Oddworld managed to do to great effect is expressing these themes without ever feeling self-righteous. It has a good balance of imagination and humor to go along with the political aspects (one button even allows Abe to fart, just because), which prevents the game from feeling too pretentious or in love with itself. There are far more story-heavy games made today (whether artsy indie titles or AAA games that think emulating movies equates to art) that get such praise for their narratives upon their initial release, only to be laughed at as egotistical hot air in hindsight. When you make the comparison to Oddworld, such games end up with even more egg on their face.

In terms of gameplay, Abe’s Oddysey is a puzzle-platformer. Abe is no fighter, and if one Slig catches him he’s toast in a second’s time. But Abe has some tricks up his sleeve: he can sneak and hide in shadows, roll into small spaces and, crucially, he can chant to telepathically possess Sligs.

The chant is also used to open portals to free your fellow Mudokons, but it’s only one of several voice commands Abe can make. Abe can also communicate with Mudokons with “hello!” “follow me!” and “wait” (as well as the aforementioned fart, which makes both Mudokons and Sligs giggle). This is important because, once puzzles are solved and the dangers are gone, Abe will have to guide Mudokons to the nearest portal. This “gamespeak” was truly innovative in its day, though there’s an unfortunate caveat in that Abe can only guide one Mudokon at a time, which makes certain moments with multiple Mudokons more than a little tedious (it should be no surprise that Abe’s Exoddus, as well as the remake, fixed this and allowed Abe to communicate with groups).

Another issue with the game is when the focus becomes more action-based (mostly in the middle section of the adventure, when Abe is often chased by wild Paramites and Scrabs). Abe controls well enough, but he controls well for the slow paced nature of the majority of the game. When things get hectic, and Abe needs to run, jump and roll in quick succession without missing a beat, it just feels off. Abe just isn’t made with the same kind of precision as characters like Mario or Sonic, but these chase sequences often play out as if he does, which makes them feel clunky.

There are additional problems when it comes to rescuing Mudokons. The process itself is simple enough (make sure it’s safe, guide them to a portal, chant to open said portal), but there are several hidden Mudokons that -should you miss them – you don’t get a second chance to rescue. And some of them are hidden in really esoteric places (gee, I never would have thought that there was a hidden room I could climb down to behind the large, obstructing object in the foreground, because why would I?). What’s all the weirder is that the majority of these secret rooms and hidden Mudokons are in the earlier portions of the game, whereas things are more out in the open later on. So these missable Mudokons feel like one big beginner’s trap. You probably wouldn’t think of how you find some of these secret areas until later in the game, long after you’ve missed your chance to rescue the poor souls. I’m not sure if this was intended to incite replay value (with the knowledge you have by the end of the game you can redo the beginning and get everything), but it feels like a cheap means to achieve it.

There are a number of other beginner’s traps in regards to the puzzles. While some of the puzzle solving is clever and leads to genuine “aha!” moments, there are more than a few where the game will feel like it’s throwing one cheap death after another on the player, prolonging certain sections by forcing the player to make only a little more progress with every try. Trial-and-error isn’t unforgiveable in video games, but it certainly isn’t ideal. And sometimes, Abe’s Oddysee just takes things way too far. It’s one thing if the trial-and-error is the result of my own mistakes, but how am I supposed to just know when dropping down a hole will put me right in a Slig’s line of fire, or when I casually stroll to the next screen just to be greeted by a hungry Slog (it’s like a Slig’s dog) two feet in front of me?

Granted, you have unlimited lives, so you can keep trying a section as many times as you need to get it right. But the game can be really stingy with the checkpoints, meaning that sometimes you’ll have to replay decently large sections multiple times over just because of one tricky little detail (what’s worse, if there are secret rooms and Mudokons within that timeframe, you’ll have to rescue them again every time until you reach the next checkpoint). I’m all for a good challenge, but when difficulty teeters into tedium, a game loses me.

On the subject of checkpoints, the save feature is the game’s single biggest drawback. A game this demandingly difficult should at the very least apply checkpoints liberally. Not only are these checkpoints in short supply, but the game actually does have a manual save option in the pause menu, but it still only saves at the checkpoints! I’m guessing this means the checkpoints themselves only save your progress when you die, but not when you quit playing the game, whereas the save option ensures you can reload the game from that checkpoint the next time you play? But then why separate the two? Either just have the checkpoints save the game, or let me save my progress on whatever screen I need to!

To further convolute things, when loading a saved file, the checkpoints are listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t how they appear in the game itself (it’s easy to find the levels themselves, but the checkpoints of the levels are often out of numerical order, which gets confusing). Goodness, why do I have to jump through so many hoops just to save and load my game?

By now things are sounding largely negative, but these drawbacks have merely been magnified with age. I still feel like there’s enough good to make Abe’s Oddysee a worthwhile gaming experience.

The gameplay is unique and fun, especially when you get to possess a Slig and infiltrate the enemy (sometimes there are drones that prevent Abe from chanting to possess a Slig, giving you another obstacle to overcome by finding a way to destroy the drone or luring a Slig away from it). The graphics, while aged, give the game a distinctly dark (sometimes gruesome) atmosphere, as does the music. Abe’s Oddysee was years ahead of its time in regards to merging gameplay and story. But perhaps best of all is Oddworld itself, one of the all-time great video game worlds. So much about the game is dedicated to its worldbuilding, and the world it builds is really unlike any other in the medium.

Better things laid ahead for Oddworld (the two “bonus” titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath were the best entries, oddly enough), and with the series set to continue in 2021 from where the remake left off, better things may still be in its future. And while going back to where it all started may be rough around the edges, it’s still sure to leave an impression.

6

Super Mario World and Super Nintendo Turn 30!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the original release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and along with it, Super Mario World.

With all the hullaballoo Nintendo is (understandably) making for the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., they’ve been strangely quiet about this moments anniversary. As far as I’m concerned, the Super NES is the most timeless console of all time. While the original NES has earned its place in video game history, playing it today, it does feel like a product of its time, save for a few exceptions (Mario, Mega Man, Kirby). Similarly, the Nintendo 64 pioneered and revolutionized 3D gaming. But testing new waters meant that not everything about the N64 has held up swimmingly, and again, with a few exceptions (Mario, Zelda, Banjo, Starfox and Kirby), the Nintendo 64 can also feel a bit like a relic.

The Super NES, on the other hand, hit that sweet spot. The culmination of everything game design had learned up to that point, polished and refined. The SNES continued classic gameplay and franchises, while introducing hosts of new ones, and made them all better than ever. And beyond all expectations, the classics of the SNES haven’t aged a day. It really did earn the monicker of “Super.”

More specifically, let’s talk about Super Mario World. The best video game launch title of all time, Super Mario World is at once synonymous with the Super Nintendo, and also one of the rare games whose reputation might just transcend its console (certainly no small feat, given the console in question). I mean, Super Mario World is just the definition of a classic. You don’t really think of the year of release or the era in question when it comes to Super Mario World. It’s simply a perennial classic that stands on its own.

Super Mario Bros. 3 may have perfected what Super Mario Bros. started, but Super Mario World somehow perfected that perfection. Brilliant level design, repayable levels, secret exits and hidden worlds, Super Mario World effectively created the difference between simply getting to the end of a game, and completing it 100%. You could also speedrun it and try to best it in as few levels as possible if you wanted. Basically, while NES titles and prior video games were all about high scores and finding the fastest way to get to the end, Super Mario World created the broader options of how you could complete a game. Both speed runners and completionists owe Super Mario World more than a little thanks.

And, of course, who could forget the introduction of Yoshi! Mario’s cute little dinosaur sidekick quickly became Nintendo’s second most popular character (sorry Luigi). Yoshi even starred in Super Mario World’s 1995 prequel, Yoshi’s Island, and went on to star in franchises of his own.

Like the Super Nintendo itself, Super Mario World felt like a refinement of of its predecessors, with Nintendo adding new and creative ideas around every corner. A classic in every sense of the word.

As an added bonus, November 21st also serves as the anniversaries of the original releases of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC3 misses the mark by one day). So you could rightfully call November 21st “Super Nintendo Day” (which I very much do). DKC was released on this day twenty-six years ago, while DKC2 celebrates its big twenty-fifth anniversary today. As an added bonus to said added bonus, Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii ten years ago today, to commemorate the sixteenth anniversary of the original DKC… How the hell is Donkey Kong Country Returns a decade old already?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Happy Super Nintendo Day, everybody! And a very happy 30th to Super Mario World! Wahoo!

Super Mario Sunshine: The Mario That Should Have Been More

I was originally just going to write one of my “Replaying” articles in relation to Super Mario Sunshine, which I am currently replaying via Super Mario 3D All-Stars (which came out on my birthday, something I may have mentioned once or twice). But as I’ve been playing it, I feel I have more to say than about Sunshine than what my “Replaying” features usually entail. The more I thought about it, the more I think something closer to my recent write-up on Howl’s Moving Castle is more apropos. So here we are.

Look, first thing’s first, Super Mario Sunshine is not a bad game. In fact, if this is the weakest 3D Mario offering, than Mario has done well for himself, because Sunshine is still a very fun game in a lot of ways. But with the possible exception of Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Sunshine is undoubtedly the weakest 3D Mario game by a mile, and possibly the weakest “main entry” in the whole series (unless we’re counting the Super Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. titles as part of the main series of Mario games).  And it could have, and should have, been so much more.

Now, in more recent years, Super Mario Sunshine is talked about in a more positive light than in years past. Though it’s surely no coincidence that Sunshine’s newfound reverence should occur around the same time those who were young tykes during the game’s 2002 release are now old enough to reflect on Sunshine with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles.

I have seen a number of YouTubers and people on social media try to defend Sunshine to the death, but again, it’s probably no coincidence that all of its defenders are of a certain age. Yes, I myself have nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, and I repeat that it isn’t a bad game. But playing Sunshine today, it would be incredibly difficult to put forth a credible argument that it’s one of the better Mario games once the nostalgia glasses come off.

Travel back to the 2000s, and some of the backlash against Sunshine may have been excessive (the gaming community has a bad habit of only working in absolutes), but it wasn’t entirely unfounded. Super Mario Sunshine is a good game, but not good enough for a series that’s usually associated with greatness.

Think about it this way: Up until Sunshine’s release in 2002, every “proper” entry in the Mario series was considered an all-time great in the medium (unless, again, you counted the Super Mario Land titles, though Nintendo themselves has only seemed to retroactively include them in the canon in more recent years). Super Mario Bros. was the biggest game of all time when it was released in 1985, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were released in the early 90s, and are still considered some of the best games ever made even today. The same goes for Yoshi’s Island, albeit to a humbler degree. And of course, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming from that point onward. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now often labeled the “black sheep” of the series, only really earned the monicker in hindsight, after its status as a reworked Doki Doki Panic became more common knowledge. But Super Mario Bros. 2 was still better than most other NES games, and it’s still fun today, and not a whole lot of NES titles can boast that.

Point being, the Super Mario series had (rightfully) earned a reputation unlike any other in video games (Zelda comes the closest, but back then Zelda games were much less common, though I still think Mario would ultimately win out when taking things into consideration in modern times). Yes, Mario still has a peerless pedigree in video games, but at that point, the series was undefeated. Its record unblemished.

Super Mario Sunshine became the series’ blemish.

Sure, Super Mario Sunshine received some strong review scores upon release, but that may have been a case of the hype getting to the reviewers (this was the successor to the legendary Super Mario 64, after all). It didn’t take too long for fans and critics alike to realize Sunshine didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessors (something similar would happen with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword over nine years later, and lord knows it’s happened with most western AAA releases over the years).

At the time, most of Sunshine’s detractors pointed at the F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s new waterpack, as the gimmicky reason why the game wasn’t up to the series’ standards. Though I think that’s unfair, as F.L.U.D.D. was actually a fun idea, one that still feels unique not just for the series, but platformers in general. It even added to some of the acrobatic moves carried over from Super Mario 64. Seriously, a platformer centered around water is still a pretty great idea.

Others lamented the lack of variety in the environments, with the entire game being centered around a single, tropical island theme. Sunshine’s contemporary defenders argue that this gives the game’s setting, Isle Delfino, a stronger sense of place than the environments of other Mario games, often pointing out how you can see one level in the distance while playing in another. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I like the little details such as how Isle Delfino is presented as one connected world, but considering the variety of different places Mario visited even back on the NES, it does make things feel pretty stagnant in Super Mario Sunshine by comparison.

What really brings Sunshine a peg below other Mario entries is simply that it lacks the polish the series is known for. Mario games tend to be timeless, with the forward thinking creativity in their design making them outlive the hardware generations they’re released in. It really should be no surprise why Mario was such a big hit in the 1980s. Again, compare the series’ 8-bit outings with virtually any other NES title. The Mario games are still fun. The others…kind of show their age. Some may wish the Mario series had more focus on stories and stronger world-building, and while such additions certainly would be admirable, if we’re looking at things from a pure video game standpoint, the Mario series is practically untouchable.

At least, it usually is. Sunshine does admittedly try its hand (relatively) harder in regards to story than the other non-RPG Mario games – something its modern defenders love about it – but such elements really can’t make up for Sunshine’s shortcomings as a video game.

“The bonus stages have more traditional Mario platforming. It’s no surprise these sections are often considered the game’s highlight.”

The GameCube was the first time a Nintendo console would be released without a Mario game beside it (Luigi’s Mansion made it to the GameCube’s launch, and may feature Mario characters, but calling it a “Mario game” wouldn’t feel accurate, and not just because the lesser Mario brother had the starring role). It may be because of this that Sunshine can feel like it was rushed out of the gate, with Nintendo hoping to release it as soon as possible to help lift up the GameCube. But more development time would have done Super Mario Sunshine a lot of good.

I already mentioned the game’s lack of variety in setting, but the real bummer is how these limitations are seen in the game’s ideas. Once again, one of the things about Mario games that gets the most praise is their willingness to introduce new ideas at every turn, and retiring these ideas before any of them can overstay their welcome. These ideas may not always be winners (even Super Mario 64 stumbled in some areas, and it wasn’t until Galaxy that the series reclaimed the full power of its bombastic imagination it had during its 2D heyday). But the effort that goes into these ideas to tinker and toy with the gameplay of Mario’s world are always appreciated.

“This section in the game’s fourth stage combines Super Mario World’s cage-climbing with the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics. It’s actually really fun and creative. The game could have used more of this.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing when Super Mario Sunshine can’t seem to stop throwing Red Coin missions at the player. Yes, Super Mario 64 featured  fetch quests for eight red coins as well, but these missions were limited to one per level, and a few bonus stages. But Sunshine revels in them. Each level has about two red coin missions in Super Mario Sunshine, but actually feature more than advertised, considering many of the game’s ‘secret Shine Sprites’ are earned by re-entering bonus areas within the stages, and collecting the red coins that are found within them upon a second visit.

You might think “that isn’t that bad.” And perhaps on its own it wouldn’t be. But when you consider every stage also houses an obligatory “chase Shadow Mario” mission in order to progress the story, things start to feel repetitious really fast. Super Mario 64 may have had one red coin mission per level, but Sunshine’s stages feel like they’re comprised of a series of the same missions for the most part.

The best moments of the game are the Shine Sprites that are built around obstacles within the level, such as the aforementioned bonus areas (where Mario is temporarily robbed of F.L.U.D.D.) and some fun obstacle courses in the main stages themselves. But they’re in the minority, with Sunshine all too often falling back on the same few tricks.

This is all the more glaring by the fact that Sunshine features considerably less levels than Super Mario 64 had. 64 had fifteen proper stages (plus bonus levels and three Bowser stages), while Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels. Some might bring up the “quality over quantity” argument, but that’s just the thing. 64 filled its larger library of levels with more ideas, while Sunshine has fewer stages that repeat a small handful of ideas over and over. So 64 has Sunshine beat in both quality and quantity, and it was released six years prior…on weaker hardware… during the pioneering days of 3D gaming.

Sadly, this feels like a side effect of Nintendo trying to get Sunshine on the market as soon as possible. Who knows how many more levels could have been added, and what could have been added to the existing levels, had Sunshine been given more time in development.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Sunshine, clearly hoping to replicate Super Mario 64, features one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites to collect, just as Super Mario 64 housed one-hundred and twenty Power Stars. If the red coins and Shadow Mario missions weren’t padding enough, than the blue coins really feel like they’re just filling out a quota.

Super Mario Sunshine has two-hundred and forty blue coins to find across the game. Unlike Super Mario 64, where blue coins were simply worth five regular coins (an easier means to claim a level’s “100 coins” star), the blue coins of Sunshine are their own separate collectible. Now, this could have made for a great side quest, with players unlocking new features and secrets whenever they reach a certain milestone of collected blue coins. Instead, the blue coins are simply traded to acquire… more Shine Sprites.

It’s ten blue coins for one Shine Sprite which, if you do the math, means a good chunk of twenty-four of the game’s one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites are simply acquired by trading in blue coins in the game’s hub world. This is where it really feels like the development team had to cut corners. The search for the blue coins could have made for an intriguing side quest, if it provided some unique rewards (say, for example, if the rewards included things like F.L.U.D.D. being able to store more water, Mario getting extra health, you unlock new colors of Yoshis, things like that). But by making the blue coins simply a means to collect all the Shine Sprites, it just comes across as padding. Both the main quest for Shine Sprites, and what could have been a promising secondary endeavor with the blue coins, feel unfulfilled by smooshing them together.

I wish I could say that’s the end of it. Sadly, Sunshine has some more cut corners in the gameplay itself. As I said, Mario games usually hold up really well because they’re much more polished than their contemporaries, but that simply isn’t true of Sunshine. Some fans like to claim that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Mario game. It’s not, but if it were, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, there’s a Shine Sprite in the game’s second stage, Rico Harbor, that sees Mario surfing on a Blooper to collect eight red coins (of course). Once you’re on the Blooper, you can’t get off the Blooper. Once you collect the eight red coins, you freeze while you watch the Shine Sprite animation, only to revert back to full speed in a split second, which really throws you off. And to collect the Shine Sprite, you have to land on it dead center while riding the Blooper, but if you bump into any walls on the Blooper, you die!

Here’s a montage of videos I took on my Switch to show you why, when you put these things together, it makes for an aggravating time.

To this I have to say… did no one at Nintendo think this one through? Or test it? This is the kind of sloppy design you would find in poorly-aged NES games. To think that a Mario title would be guilty of something so clunky seems unheard of. But here we are.

It’s not an isolated incident, either. Yet another mission in Rico Harbor (which is otherwise an aesthetically pleasing level), “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is a chore. In Sunshine, Yoshis will hatch from their eggs by bringing them their desired fruit. In Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure, the Yoshi egg in question will always want a durian. In order to get a durian, you have to get on some rooftops to reach the switches on top of two giant fruit dispensers. Pound on the switches and a fruit comes out. But it’s a random fruit, with the durian only showing up some of the time. So you have to jump between the fruit dispensers pounding the upright switch over and over, hoping that a durian shows up. If one does show up, there’s a good chance it will fall down the nearby ledge. And of course the durian is the one fruit Mario can’t simply pick up (he probably doesn’t want his gloves to smell of durian stank), so if it falls it’s almost impossible to get it back where it needs to be to get it to Yoshi, meaning you have to get back on top of the fruit dispensers and start over.

Once you manage to kick/squirt the durian over to Yoshi, you have to ride the dinosaur through something of an obstacle course. Sounds promising, but again, it feels untested. Yoshi has to spit juice at jumping fish to create platforms (as one does), then ride said platforms to more stagnant ones that are part of the level. But if you shoot the fish at the wrong time, the platform won’t be in the right spot. You either can’t reach that platform or won’t be able to reach the place it carries you to, and the fish don’t respawn until the platform moves its full distance. Not to mention Yoshi only lasts for a limited time in this game. And if you fall off the platforms, you’ll land in water which dissolves Yoshi meaning you have to start the entire process over again!

Suffice to say, Sunshine feels like its difficulty can stem from all the wrong places.

That’s before we even get into the game’s inconsistent animations (notice how Shadow Mario makes a flipping sound even when he doesn’t perform his flipping animation), or the arduous task of keeping track of your blue coins (you can go to a screen that tells you how many you’ve collected in a level, but it doesn’t tell you how many are in a level or which ones you’ve already claimed).

“On the other hand, Sunshine is the only Mario game that has a boss that’s a Stephen King reference. That’s pretty cool.”

Again, I have to stress that Super Mario Sunshine is a good game. But it’s a good game in a series of great ones. It provides fun gameplay and some memorable moments, but whether because of a rushed schedule or lack of creative passion, Sunshine just doesn’t have the Mario magic.

Imagine what could have been, had Sunshine been given more time to be polished. Perhaps it would be talked about in the same regard as 64 and Galaxy are today, instead of being “that one Mario game” that only fans of the right age conveniently seem to herald.

Super Mario Sunshine would be the first time a “proper” Mario game would fail to deliver a defining title in its era. A fun and enjoyable experience, to be sure. But to all those revisionists who insist Super Mario Sunshine is one of Mario’s greatest adventures… No, it really isn’t.

Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.

Sonic and the Black Knight Review

Sonic and the Black Knight is the 2009, Wii-exclusive semi-sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings, which together comprise the “Sonic Storybook series.” Whereas Secret Rings took the famous blue hedgehog to the world of Arabian Nights, Black Knight transports Sonic to the world of King Arthur. Though Sonic and the Black Knight is a considerable improvement over Secret Rings (not that that’s saying much), the fact that this ‘storybook’ sub-series was ended after two installments is probably an indication that it didn’t exactly turn the series into a winning formula.

The scenario is basically the same here as it was in Secret Rings: Sonic is transported to another world, in this case the aforementioned King Arthur stories (which are more legend than storybook, but who’s keeping track?). Sonic is summoned by a wizard named Merlina (Merlin’s a girl here because why not?). An evil sword has possessed King Arthur himself, who has now become the infamous Black Knight, and is turning the kingdom to chaos. With the hero of her world now its big villain, Merlina summons a hero from another world to save the day, and that hero just so happens to be Sonic.

So the story is basically the same, but I like the added detail that Sonic just happened to be the hero who was summoned, and that it could have potentially been someone else, as opposed to Secret Rings which had the oddly-specific prophesy of a blue hedgehog being required to save the storybook world. And I like that Sonic is just saving the storybook world here, no “the bad guy will eventually try to escape into Sonic’s world” nonsense.

In regards to gameplay, Sonic and the Black Knight utilizes a similar setup to its predecessor, but with some much-appreciated improvements. For starters, Sonic no longer runs forward automatically. Though the levels are still comprised of long, linear tracks that seem to allow an inconsistent freedom of movement (it’s almost like Sonic is better suited to 2D or something), the fact that the player actually has to move Sonic this time around is already a plus. In addition, jumping works by simply hitting the corresponding button (the ‘A’ button this time around, as Black Knight uses the Wii remote and nunchuck combo). No more holding the button to get Sonic to stop, and releasing it for him to take to the air. You push the button, and Sonic jumps. Beautiful.

The big difference here is that Sonic now wields a sword! Hey, it could be worse, they could have given a Sonic character a gun and had them say minor swears like “damn” in an attempt to be edgy. But I digress.

The sword is used by swinging the Wii remote, though the motion of the player’s movement isn’t matched by Sonic, making it closer to Twilight Princess’s swordplay than Skyward Sword’s admittedly underrated motion controls (though comparing Sonic and the Black Knight to Twilight Princess at all is being exceptionally generous on my part). The sword doesn’t add a whole lot of newness to the traditional 3D Sonic gameplay, but it’s decent. Certainly better than whatever Secret Rings was doing with the start-stop homing attacks.

Most stages see Sonic simply going from point A to point B, but some levels feature more unique objectives, like defeating a certain number of enemies or rescuing a certain amount of captured civilians before you reach the goal. These add a marginal amount of variety, but nothing really substantial. The one objective I really did not like, however, involves Sonic having to give some of his rings to the aforementioned civilians. You have to get Sonic so close just to talk to them, and then you have to press one, two or three buttons that appear on-screen, all in a split second. It’s not too bad, but usually these missions have only just barely enough opportunities to give away your rings that, if you fail even one, you’re probably going to fail the mission. It also doesn’t help that the game fails to tell you about how this “mini-game” works (the description I gave above is more than the game feels the need to explain). So when the first time I gave someone rings I needed to press the A button, I assumed that’s all there was to it. So when I instinctively pressed the A button several other times and failed to give the civilian my rings, I was baffled why it didn’t work. Again, it’s not overly difficult or cryptic, but if you’re going to make a mini-game out of something so simple, maybe you should communicate that with the player? Just a thought.

The game also features a kind of item system, where certain items will grant different bonuses when equipped. Like in Secret Rings, you can gain experience points after a stage, though here they are called “Identification Points” and are used to identify items you find within the stages (different items will cost different amounts of IP to “identify”). Once identified, you can equip the items by visiting the blacksmith (Tails) in between stages. It’s admittedly another improvement over Secret Rings, but like that game’s leveling system, it still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more.

Most of the bosses here are Sonic characters reworked into different knights of King Arthur (specifically Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze. I take it Robotnik didn’t want to be a part of another storybook entry). It’s here where the game really slips up. These boss fights are easy in a really bizarre way. Now, there’s nothing wrong with easy boss fights, but what we have here is a special case. You basically commence in a duel with the other Sonic characters, but it seems like there’s no real strategy to them. Knuckles and Shadow both kicked my ass, but I still managed to beat them both on my first try without any real timing or strategy with my swings. Blaze was a slightly more fleshed out fight, but nothing to write home about.

The “final” boss is King Arthur himself (and I put final in quotation marks because this is one of those games that pretends to have post-game content by simply putting the staff credits after a boss partway through the main story, as opposed to actually feeling like there’s more to do once the story is done). This fight is different, and is the one point of the game that’s frustratingly difficult. You chase King Arthur, who is mounted on a horse (in fact he’s on horseback even in cutscenes. Sega couldn’t afford to make a second character model for him I guess).

You have to catch up with King Arthur, despite the fact that Sonic is supposed to be able to run at the speed of sound (at least give me a reason why this horse is faster than Sonic. Even something like “it’s not Sonic’s world so he can’t use his powers to their fullest” would suffice). Once you slash one of the king’s projectiles back at him, you’ll get the energy needed to catch up to him. Once you do, you’re supposed to counter his slashes with slashes of your own, but that’s way easier said than done, because the timing is so quick and precise it makes the aforementioned ring-giving mini-game feel like a Metal Gear Solid cinematic. I kid you not, I had to redo this fight so many times that the next day my arm was sore from swinging it like a madman.

On the plus sides, Sonic and the Black Knight, like its predecessor, is a great looking Wii game that still looks great. It has that cheesy but somehow infectious music that 3D Sonic games are known for. And this game is mercifully shorter than Sonic and the Secret Rings. I completed Black Knight within two play sessions on the same day (or at least completed up to King Arthur, I saw those end credits and figured that was good enough for me to duck out).

Sonic and the Black Knight suffers from many of the same issues as Secret Rings, but just not as badly. Thankfully, the fact that the player actually controls Sonic this time around, and the fact that jumping works so simply make it a far more playable experience. It’s nothing special, and the years since have made it even less so. Perhaps there was some potential in this “Sonic Storybook” idea if it were allowed to continue, but it seems like Sega has long-since abandoned the concept. Though perhaps that’s for the best. After all, when the simple act of pressing A to jump can be considered a vast improvement, it doesn’t exactly say a whole lot for the series.

 

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Sonic and the Secret Rings Review

The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.

The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.

As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.

It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.

Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?

Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.

The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.

One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.

Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.

The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.

Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.

Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?

Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.

If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.

In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.

 

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