Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman Review

Despite having originally been released in 1983, Bomberman is a timeless game, comparable to Tetris or Super Mario Bros. in this regard. Like Tetris, Bomberman is the kind of game that’s held up well enough that it could be ported to any modern console or device and be justified in doing so. And like Super Mario, it has produced numerous sequels in the decades since its original release.

But Bomberman sits somewhere between Tetris and Mario. Tetris is still released on every available platform to this day, and Super Mario Bros. – though holding up well on its own merits – has been bettered multiple times over by its sequels. Bomberman, meanwhile, has seen many iterations through the years, and while some of them have added a lot to the formula (Saturn Bomberman being a particular highlight), many of its sequels are so close to the original that they can feel more like ports.

That brings us to Bomberman GB. As its name implies, Bomberman GB was to be the Gameboy edition of the series. Released in 1994, Bomberman GB successfully brought the classic Bomberman gameplay to the handheld. But for the game’s release outside of Japan, Bomberman GB was given a slight makeover. Hudson Soft (Bomberman’s now-defunct original developer) and Nintendo decided to add one of the latter’s characters into the game, and chose to use Wario, the comically villainous “anti-Mario” who had debuted two years earlier in Super Mario Land 2 and quickly became one of Nintendo’s most iconic characters.

The end result was Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman, a game which successfully translates the Bomberman gameplay to Nintendo’s Gameboy handheld, but doesn’t do too much more than that. Though Wario Blast is fun, it’s far from the best Bomberman game, and the fact that Wario’s presence in the title is simply cosmetic means his addition – while welcome – isn’t exactly meaningful.

Like any traditional Bomberman game, the goal is to eliminate all of your opponents on the battlefield. Your weapons are (quite obviously) bombs, which you use to destroy obstacles in your path, and ultimately try to blow up your opponents. The bombs explode in lines that travel in four directions, and you are susceptible to your own bomb blasts, meaning you’ll often have to take cover behind walls to avoid destruction by your own hand, as well as your enemies’.

Some of the usual Bomberman power-ups also return, and can be found after destroying certain obstacles. The bomb power-up allows you to plant an additional bomb on the field (one extra bomb for every power-up gained), while the fire power-up increases the range of your bombs’ explosions (making it easier to destroy your foes…and yourself). There is also a skull power-up, which is something of a double-edged sword. At first, the skull power-up seems purely bad, as it temporarily removes your ability to plant bombs (as well as the character skills you learn as the game progresses). But on the plus side, if you’re crafty enough, touching an opponent while under the effects of the skull will remove their ability to plant bombs as well. And if you infect an enemy with the skull, its negative effects will wear out on you before them, making for an easier target.

In a nutshell, it’s Bomberman, but on the Gameboy. On the plus side, Bomberman is one of the few games that could be translated onto the original Gameboy and not feel like it’s sacrificing the series’ quality for the sake of portability. It’s just Bomberman… but on Gameboy. That’s all well and fine, except unlike Tetris, this isn’t supposed to be a port, but is instead one of Bomberman’s less creative sequels.

There are some changes, with the most prominent (aside from Wario’s mug being added to the game) being that the rest of Bomberman’s usual items (such as the ability to kick your bombs forward) are now instead permanent abilities that are learned after defeating bosses.

There are eight worlds in the game, each comprised of four stages (again, bringing Super Mario Bros. to mind). The first three stages of each world are the traditional Bomberman battles (the first against a single opponent, the second against two, and the third against three), which are played in best two-out-of-three rules. The fourth stage of each world is the boss stage.

“Of course I’m going to pick Wario in WARIO Blast.”

Though the game allows you to play as both Bomberman and Wario, the change really is purely cosmetic. The only difference is Bomberman’s non-boss enemies are Wario clones, and Wario’s are Bombermen (additionally, the passwords for each stage differ between the two characters). And considering these are Gameboy sprites we’re talking about, the cosmetic change only goes so far (though in all honesty, just play as Wario. You can play as Bomberman in any Bomberman game, so you may as well play Wario and benefit from the crossover aspect).

Though the game is short (it probably won’t take much longer than an hour), the fact that each world introduces new stage gimmicks means there’s some fun variety throughout. And I enjoy the two-out-of-three nature of the stages. Though even with these benefits, Wario Blast does feature some unfortunate shortcomings.

One of the big issues is that – with the abilities gained from the first few bosses – the player quickly becomes overpowered. I can accept the abilities that are usual power-ups from the series being made into permanent moves once learned (though there’s also an argument to be made that that in itself takes something away from the experience), one ability which sees the player learn how to dash an enemy against a wall to stun them makes the proceedings way too easy. The early stages will see the AI try to outmaneuver you (to varying degrees of success). But in later stages, you can just pick up bomb and fire power-ups as you go, and once you run into an enemy, just dash them into a wall and plant a single bomb for an easy win.

Another problem is that there’s an awkward few seconds after your opponents have been defeated where you can still potentially die before the victory screen is displayed. You’d be surprised how often you’ll end with a draw and add another round to the best two-out-of-three because of it.

While Wario Blast may have a number of elements holding it back, I have to reiterate that the classic Bomberman gameplay will always be fun. And sure enough, Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman is a rare example of a Gameboy title that’s still fun to play today. But Wario Blast does suffer from being one of the more basic Bomberman sequels, offering little to the experience that you couldn’t find in every other Bomberman title.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of Wario Blast, however, is the simple fact that Wario’s inclusion in the game was merely shoehorned into the game’s international release. Perhaps if Wario Blast lead to some follow-ups of its own that integrated Wario’s presence into the proceedings in more meaningful ways relating to gameplay or level design, it would be easier to look past Wario Blast’s underutilization of its namesake character. But because this was the beginning, middle and end of Wario butting heads with a third-party character, it’s more than a little disappointing that the game never had a real chance at fully delivering on its concept.

Think about it, what better video game character is there to go toe-to-toe with various gaming heroes than Wario? Super Mario is the face of gaming, so it only makes sense that the “anti-Mario” would try to sabotage other people’s games and try to slap his face on them. Hudson Soft and Nintendo could have been onto something here with Wario Blast. Sadly, instead of seeing Wario face off with Bomberman again, or try to hijack Mega Man, Castlevania, or any other series, it all ended just as soon as it began. By the time Bomberman GB 2 made its way westward, Wario was nowhere in sight…

But hey, Wario Blast is still fun. And that definitely counts for something.

 

6

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Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge Review

I love Banjo-Kazooie. I love the Gameboy Advance. This makes it so disheartening that Banjo-Kazooie’s oft-forgotten GBA spinoff – Grunty’s Revenge – is forgotten for a reason. Despite a surprisingly accurate translation of the gameplay from Banjo-Kazooie’s N64 duology at first glance, Grunty’s Revenge boasts none of the depth of its predecessors, and ranks as the worst game the bear and bird duo have starred in (yes, even Nuts & Bolts had more going for it).

Strangely, Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge was the first game released by developer Rare after they had been purchased by Microsoft. The game had gone through a few different development phases over a couple of years, and by the time Rare became Microsoft’s property, Grunty’s Revenge was too far in production to scrap entirely. Thankfully for Rare, Microsoft’s lack of a handheld gaming platform meant they could still legally release the game on Nintendo’s handheld, but required a middleman publisher since neither Microsoft nor Nintendo could do the honors (which seem so silly in retrospect, now that we live in a time when Xbox Live can be played on Nintendo Switch). THQ ended up being that publisher, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge saw release in 2003, to little advertisements and fanfare.

To bring in a bit of personal history, I didn’t even know about the existence of the game ahead of its release. I just opened one of my birthday gifts that year, and lo and behold, Banjo and Kazooie were in a Gameboy Advance game…apparently. I was excited, to be sure. But it didn’t take very long into the game to realize that Grunty’s Revenge was something of a step backwards for handheld gaming, harkening back to the times of the original Gameboy when the transition of a franchise to a handheld usually meant the compromise of its quality. Consider how well so many of the Gameboy Advance’s titles have held up over the years, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge’s flaws are only magnified with hindsight (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was released the very same year on the GBA, but you’d never know it from the difference in quality between the games).

When you first start the game, it looks promising. Even though the GBA didn’t have the power to recreate a full-on 3D platformer in the vein of the N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles, Grunty’s Revenge still does a solid job at finding a way to translate the series’ gameplay to the handheld. Grunty’s Revenge takes on an overhead camera view, and uses pre-rendered character models (a la Donkey Kong Country), which faithfully recreate the characters and enemies from the N64 games. And despite the GBA’s relatively few buttons (A and B on the face of the system, plus two shoulder buttons), Grunty’s Revenge even does a pretty good job at making Banjo and Kazooie’s moves feel reminiscent of their classic N64 outings. Even the iconic gibberish voices return!

But those similarities are short-lived, unfortunately.

The game begins with a rather rushed story. Sure, the Banjo-Kazooie games were never a story-focused series, but they had humorous writing, charming characters, and strong production values for the time. But here, the story just kind of happens on itself, and the game never really capitalizes on its concept.

Taking place between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, Grunty’s Revenge sees the titular witch Gruntilda – still trapped under a boulder after the events of Banjo-Kazooie – transfer her ghost into a robot body made by her henchman, Klungo. She then kidnaps Kazooie, and travels back in time (whether by her magic or the new robot body is anybody’s guess), in an attempt to stop Banjo and Kazooie from ever meeting, thus ensuring they would have never defeated her in the first place. Thankfully for Banjo, the witch doctor Mumbo Jumbo had witnessed the whole thing, and uses his magic to send Banjo to the same, vaguely-implied time period as Gruntilda.

Like the Banjo-Kazooie games proper, the goal is still to collect Jiggies (10 on each stage) and Musical Notes, the latter of which are used to purchase moves from Bozzeye, a mole who is an ancestor of both Bottles and Jamjars, who played a similar role in Banjos Kazooie and Tooie (respectively).

Aside from the presence of Bottles’ nondescript ancestor, there’s really nothing in the game that takes advantage of the time travel plot. The stages (of which there are five, along with the hub of Spiral Mountain) all follow standard themes and environments for the genre and series (farmland, beach, swamp, harbor and a fire/ice hybrid). In Banjo-Tooie, we got a dinosaur world, and that game didn’t even feature time travel. And that same game featured an infinitely better fire/ice hybrid world. What about the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge so much as implies the game takes place in the characters’ past?

Wouldn’t it have been neat if the stages were direct adaptations of those from the N64 games, but with twists that showcase how they take place before the events of those games? For example, maybe you could visit Mumbo’s Mountain from Banjo-Kazooie, and the giant termite mound from that game is still under construction. Or maybe you could revisit Rusty Bucket Bay at a time before it became overwhelmed with pollution? Grunty’s Revenge is already re-using level themes from the previous games, anyway. Why not make it literal and find a way to capitalize on the time travel setup of the story?

As stated, the game actually does a decent job at bringing the series’ gameplay to the GBA, but the more you play Grunty’s Revenge, the more you realize how stripped down it is. Sure, the translation to a handheld system back in 2003 was going to come with a few expenses. But this sadly isn’t a simple case of a simplified Banjo-Kazooie on the go (that might have actually been pretty sweet). As stated, Grunty’s Revenge harkens back to the days of the original Gameboy, when a popular franchise making its way to a handheld device meant it’s quality was going to suffer.

“Also the boss fights suck, largely due to their lack of creativity and challenge, and their sheer repetition.”

The levels are just too empty, and the objectives too mind-numbingly simplistic. The N64 Banjo-Kazooie games did a great job at making the experience feel like an adventure, but Grunty’s Revenge just feels like it’s going through the motions with no rhyme or reason.

Even the moves Banjo and Kazooie learn from Bozzeye are just ones they already learned in the previous games. The only real difference is how you start the game with Banjo on his lonesome. But even that feels underplayed. Wouldn’t it have made for a more unique game if the player had to continuously switch between playing as Banjo and Kazooie? If you’re going to separate the two characters (and not manually, as in Banjo-Tooie), might as well roll with it and take advantage of the concept.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but there is actually one thing that Grunty’s Revenge does better than its otherwise far superior N64 predecessors. And that’s how, this time around, the different transformations provided by Mumbo Jumbo carry over to subsequent levels once unlocked. This means that the transformations actually have more uses here, since you’ll have to revisit Mumbo’s hut in a particular stage to utilize a different transformation in order to nab a Jiggy or two. Though it must be said that even this element suffers from a lack of communication to the player, as one stage features a Jiggy that needs a later transformation to obtain, with the game never even hinting that to be the case (going back to my personal history with the game, I gave up on it for a time back when I was younger because of this segment, in which I had no earthly idea what I was supposed to do). The  real Banjo-Kazooie games could get a little cheeky and have a character (or google-eyed object) tell you when something was meant to be revisited at a later time. While that may be a bit overt, it’s certainly a better option than leaving the player entirely clueless. And while in concept, the idea of Mumbo changing you into any available form on a given level is an improvement for the transformation concept, it still never reaches its full potential for the aforementioned reason that the objectives themselves feel so uninspired.

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge isn’t a total waste. As previously stated, the visuals find a way to bring the look of the N64 games onto the GBA with surprising accuracy. Similarly, the music captures the familiar charm of the real Banjo games. And the initial feeling of the controls is how you would imagine Banjo-Kazooie should play on the handheld system. But Grunty’s Revenge ultimately stumbles because of how far it misses the target on any of its concepts.

That initial feeling of “this is how Banjo-Kazooie should play on a handheld” quickly fades away as you realize that accuracy only exists on face value. It soon becomes apparent that Grunty’s Revenge fails to realize what made the Banjo-Kazooie games so memorable to begin with, and just coughs up a cheap imitation of what a Banjo-Kazooie game should be. The setups of time travel and separating the heroes don’t come into play in either the story or the game itself in any meaningful way.

Grunty’s Revenge is only kind of Banjo-Kazooie. Just enough to pique the curiosity of my younger self back on my 14th birthday, but not nearly enough for it to live up to the bear and bird duo who adorn its title. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

 

4

Wario’s Woods Review

*Review based on the NES version of Wario’s Woods, as released on the New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console*

Wario’s Woods was released simultaneously on the NES and SNES in 1994 (being the last officially licensed game released on the former). Unfortunately for Wario’s Woods, it saw very little attention in its day, seeing as gaming was well into the 16-bit generation, meaning the NES version went under the radar, while the SNES version was released amid many more high profile games. That’s more than a little bit of a shame, because Wario’s Woods brought an interesting twist to the falling-block puzzle genre.

Working as something of a cross between Tetris and Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods sees players try to eliminate multi-colored monsters from a playing field. Getting rid of these monsters will require the aid of similarly colored bombs. By lining up a row of at least two monsters and one bomb of the same color (either horizontally, vertically or diagonally), you will destroy the monsters. If you can create a stack of at least five objects of the same color (again, with at least one bomb required), the eliminated monsters will leave behind a colored gem. If you line up monsters or bombs with a gem of the same color, every object of that color will be removed from the playing field instantly.

Be weary, if you can’t keep chains of eliminations going fast enough, Wario will appear above the field for a short time, summon more monsters, and lower the ceiling, decreasing the amount of space you have to work with (the ceiling can be raised, as you may have guessed, by completing more rows).

It may sound like standard fair for the genre, but the big twist Wario’s Woods brings to the table is that you manually control an on-screen character. Taking inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 2, Wario’s Woods pits Toad in the spotlight (well before he earned the title of ‘Captain’), who has to pick up and place the monsters and bombs under direct control of the player.

Toad can lift and drop whatever object is in front of him with a push of the B button, and can lift and drop an entire stack of objects with the press of A. Toad can of course only lift things that are level to him, but has slightly more leeway when dropping them (three squares of the playing field above his head). He can even kick an object to the next open space by pressing down on the D-pad along with one of the key buttons. Toad can also drop items/stacks directly underneath himself, and objects Toad is currently holding will also count towards a completed row should it match up. Mechanics like this can really be lifesavers if you find yourself sinking down the board amidst the rising stacks of monsters. Unfortunately, the aforementioned gems are too heavy for Toad to lift, meaning the player will have to get extra crafty if they want to take advantage of their ability.

It sounds pretty simple, but it’s pretty incredible how addicting the gameplay can get. This is one of those games that you can seriously lose track of time with. Wario’s Woods even keeps things fresh as you push further through the game, introducing monsters that can only be eliminated with diagonally-placed rows, and monsters that require to be part of two completed rows in quick succession in order to be vanquished.

The game consists of two different versions of its story mode (oddly referred to as “Round Game”), categorized as “A Mode” and “B Mode.” Both versions feature 100 courses, with the only difference I can tell being that the B game features boss fights. This is a game that doesn’t mess around, either. Wario’s Woods can get brutally difficult at times, with some levels seemingly punishing the player with certain death over one slight miscalculation.

It’s pretty long for a falling-block puzzler, especially on NES. Fortunately, this was one of the few games on the NES with a save function, with every fifth level working as a checkpoint for the player’s progress (with every completed fifth level being selectable thereafter). The downside to this is that if you’ve completed four straight levels and lose on the fifth, you’ll have to go through the previous four all over again. You can obtain continues which can be used to replay the current stage upon defeat, but you can only do so by collecting 30 coins. And you only get these coins if you complete a stage fast enough (every time Wario’s ugly mug shows up, 20% of the stage’s possible coins are deduced). So most continues you get will be obtained in the early stages. Because, again, this is one tough puzzle game. Only the most diehard puzzle fans will consistently claim coins in the game’s later stages.

The difficulty in claiming continues may be off-putting to some, especially considering the game’s already steep learning curve (okay, the basics are simple, but mastering them well enough to finish the stages quickly while avoiding Game Overs is another beast entirely).

One cumbersome element takes place when the objects fill the screen and the ceiling falls to the point that Toad can only move horizontally in a crawlspace equal to his size. You kind of wish, in these specific instances, that Toad could swap positions with the object directly in front of him. Because at this point, the game is essentially over, unless an enemy/bomb spawns in just the right spot to complete a row out of sheer luck. Some might say this is in the same tradition as Tetris picking up speed until you can no longer control it, but Tetris is a game you play as long as possible to beat your high score. Wario’s Woods features stage progression, so it can be frustrating when you get to the point when you know you’re going to have to replay the last few stages over, but just have to watch helplessly as Toad inevitably gets crushed, unless sheer luck buys you an extra few seconds.

Wario’s Woods also features a time attack mode and a VS. mode for two players, which could certainly become intense showdowns. These alternative modes give Wario’s Woods some variety, and can give you a much needed break when the “Round Game” gets too difficult.

One issue with the game is more of a recurring issue with Nintendo itself. And that’s how it’s the NES version of Wario’s Woods that keeps seeing re-releases, as opposed to the SNES version. For an NES game, Wario’s Woods looks great (being released so late in the console’s life, the game’s visuals are comparable to Kirby’s Adventure in how they push the NES), but it still doesn’t look as good (or as timeless) as the SNES version. What’s worse, every stage in the NES version has the same music. And while it may be somewhat catchy, the lack of audial variety does take something away from the experience.

It’s the NES version that has been released on every downloadable service Nintendo has provided, from Wii to Switch. It’s reflective of a weird trend with Nintendo where they seem to constantly be re-releasing NES games, but rarely those from their other systems. And that’s a shame because (unpopular opinion incoming) aside from the Mario and Mega Man games, not a whole lot of NES titles hold up. Meanwhile, the SNES has a timeless quality to the gameplay and aesthetics of so many of its games, that Nintendo’s apparent preference for its predecessor is dumbfounding. At least Wario’s Woods can claim to be among the handful of NES games not called Mario or Mega Man that’s still fun, anyway.

Wario’s Woods is a challenging puzzle game, no doubt. But those with the patience for it will find an incredibly addicting and rewarding experience that will keep them coming back. Now if only Nintendo could remember that this game was also released on Super NES…

 

7

Sonic R Review

*Review based on Sonic R’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

Despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic has always been playing a game of catch up with Super Mario since day one. Despite Sonic’s early titles and a handful of the blue blur’s other adventures over the years achieving their own sense of timelessness, Sonic never did catch up with Mario. If there is one genre that seemed like Sonic would, by default, have the upper hand on Mario, it would be the racing genre. Sonic is a character built around his speed. Taking the series and adapting it into a racing game seems like it should have had minimal bumps in the translation.

Which is why it’s both dumbfounding and hilarious that Sonic R – the first Sonic racing game on a home console – is an utter disaster, and one of the worst games Sonic has ever appeared in (and boy, is that saying something).

Depressingly, Sonic R was the only exclusive Sonic game released on the Sega Saturn, with the two other Saturn Sonics, Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Jam, being a port and a compilation of the Genesis Sonic titles, respectively. Although the Saturn was otherwise a stellar and underrated console (possibly my personal favorite from Sega), the fact that Sega’s biggest franchise only managed to pop out this turd of a game on the Saturn may have had something to do with the console’s short lifespan in the midst of the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64.

“My eyes! The goggles do nothing!”

As stated, Sonic R was a racing game starring characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Unlike other Sonic racing games that would follow, most of the characters run on foot. That may sound like it makes sense, since Sonic can run at the speed of light, and Knuckles and Tails are inexplicably just as fast (and, bizarrely, Dr. Robotnik has continuously outrun the blue hedgehog). But it ends up having disastrous results, as developer Traveller’s Tales apparently had no idea how to implement the traction and physics of running characters.

As soon as a race begins, it’s an absolute mess of game design. Your character reaches top speed instantly, while turning your character feels like a herculean feat of strength. As you can imagine, this makes Sonic R’s sense of control nothing short of abysmal. Amy Rose (who drives a car) and the unlockable Dr. Robotnik (who pilots his hovercraft…again, despite outrunning Sonic on numerous occasions) control marginally better, but that’s not saying much.

To make matters worse, the game as a whole just feels unfinished. You’ll often run through objects, get stuck in the scenery, or get magnetized to walls. The entire game feels like one big glitch. Combine that with the hellish controls, and Sonic R is downright agonizing to play.

Even the graphics are a drizzling mess. Okay, so most early 3D games aren’t exactly pretty to look at these days, but other Saturn titles – such as Nights Into Dreams or the 3D overworld of Sonic Jam – still have a lively look about them. Sonic R, by contrast, often looks like one massive blur of colors. It’s all too easy to go off track during a race because you can’t tell where you are and aren’t supposed to go.

It’s not just technical and graphical sins that Sonic R is guilty of, but even on a creative level, the game falls utterly flat. Sonic R boasts a grand total of five courses to race on, none of which are memorable. And the only modes to speak of are Grand Prix (which is a single race) and Time Trials (with Versus races just being two-player Grand Prix).

Compare that to Super Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. Released five year earlier on less advanced hardware, Super Mario Kart boasted twenty racetracks, five races in one or two player Grand Prix, one-on-one Versus races, and its iconic Battle Mode which featured four maps of its own. And while Sonic R may have more characters available than Super Mario Kart did  – along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Robotnik, you can also unlock robot versions of each character (sans Amy) as well as Super Sonic – each race here can only have five participants at a time, as opposed to Super Mario Kart’s eight. And while the characters in Mario Kart had differences in things like weight and acceleration, the characters of Sonic R often have unfair advantages over others (Robotnik can simply hover over bodies of water, which are entirely detrimental to Sonic and friends). In both concepts and execution, Sonic R feels greatly underdeveloped.

If I had to give credit to any of Sonic R’s ideas, it’s that it had an interesting attempt at adding an exploration element into the mix. As in the classic Sonic games, rings are scattered about everywhere, with their purpose this time around being unlocking doors that lead to shortcuts and hidden items. Each of the four starting stages houses one or two Chaos Emeralds, and five Sonic Coins.

“It should more appropriately say “We’re sorry you played.””

If you nab the Chaos Emeralds and claim first place, you get to keep the emeralds (which is much easier than it sounds, as the AI is so slow you can take your time hunting down these items and still end up lapping them). Collect every Chaos Emerald to unlock Super Sonic. Meanwhile, if you can collect all five coins on a stage in a single race, and get in at least third place, you’ll race one of the robot doppelgängers. Beat the metallic lookalike in their race and you unlock them. And for the curious, the fifth stage is unlocked simply by claiming first place in the four starting stages, with Robotnik being unlock upon victory in said secret stage.

But Diddy Kong Racing this is not. While these hidden goodies sound enticing in theory, the utterly chaotic, unfinished nature of the game itself makes their addition mean nothing. It’s like having sprinkles without the ice cream. And the implementation of these items is so half-assed anyway that you can unlock everything in about a half hour.

Some variety in the racetracks is attempted by means of having different aesthetic settings for the courses (such as nighttime or winter, the latter of which freezing water), but they ultimately have a minimal effect on the gameplay, and only serve as an outdated showcase of the Saturn’s graphical capabilities. Apparently there wasn’t enough time to design more levels or polish the gameplay, but at least the developers found time to add rain effects to the courses.

The one element of Sonic R that I will admit is enjoyable is the music. Now, it isn’t genuinely awesome music as in the Genesis Sonic games. Rather, Sonic R’s soundtrack is when the music of the series began to enter “so bad it’s good” territories. Each race track comes equipped with a cheesy theme song with surprisingly high production values (a la the early seasons of the Pokemon dub) that may give you a bit of earworm.

“You’re winner!”

Sonic R was a bad game in its day, and its lack of quality has only been magnified in the years since its 1997 release. To say Sonic R failed at being a Mario Kart killer is a gross understatement. At the very least, Sonic can take solace knowing that he eventually found himself in one of the better Mario Kart clones in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and its sequel. But the damage done by Sonic R was so great that it took Sonic and friends a good, long while before they reached that point (and even when they did, they were still ultimately not Mario Kart).

It’s hard to imagine how a Sonic racing game could go wrong, let alone this wrong. But Sonic R is indeed one of the worst racing games of all time.

 

2

Tails’ Adventure Review

*Review based on Tails’ Adventure’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

The Sega Game Gear may not be the most remembered handheld of its day -being in the shadow of the wild success of Nintendo’s Game Boy – but it did have its moments. One of the more fun ideas to come out of the Game Gear was giving Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick Tails some games of his own. A duo of titles starring Tails were released on the Game Gear. One of those titles, Tails’ Skypatrol, was a bit of a disaster. The other, Tails’ Adventure, however, displays some fun ideas. And though the passage of time has worn Tails’ Adventure down a bit, its ambitions are still quite admirable.

While Skypatrol was an auto-scrolling flight game whose ideas never seemed to mesh together, Tails’ Adventure has a much clearer focus on what it wants to be.

Tails’ Adventure is a side scrolling platformer, but greatly deviates from the norms of Sonic games at the time. While Sonic’s platformers were focused on action and speed, Tails’ Adventure is much slower and built around exploration. To be more precise, Tails’ Adventure follows the Metroidvania route, with Tails progressively improving his abilities, and finding new items so he can access previously unaccessible areas.

At the start of the game, Tails’ only means of attack is throwing an endless supply of bombs at enemies (the game takes place before Tails met Sonic, and thus hasn’t yet learned the speed or spinning attacks from the blue blur). But you’ll quickly start finding more weapons and items hidden throughout the game’s stages. You’ll find ‘Super Gloves’ to lift heavy object, additional bomb types, a hammer for melee attacks, and a remote-controlled robot dog who can crawl in small spaces.

Once you gain new items and weapons, you’ll often have to revisit a previous level to see if there are any new paths you can find with the tools you’ve gained. Tails can only hold four of these items at a time, however, and in between stages, players have to return to Tails’ lab to choose which four items they want to bring with them.

Additionally, Tails can find the Chaos Emeralds, which essentially level up our two-tailed hero, RPG style. Rings still serve as health as they do in the Sonic games. But here the rings aren’t gathered and lost in bulk, but are more like hit points. At the start of the game, Tails has a maximum of ten hit points, with each Chaos Emerald claimed adding ten more to that maximum. Similarly, Tails retains his ability to fly by using his tails like a propellor, but can only do so as long as he has stamina. As you may have guessed, the Chaos Emeralds also add to Tails’ stamina bar.

It’s actually a pretty fun progression system. It adds a bit of depth to the experience and while simultaneously differentiating it from Sonic’s games, and still being simple enough to feel at home in a handheld game in the mid-90s. The concept may not be as refined as it is in Metroid or as it would be in Castlevania (being released in 1995, Tails’ Adventure predates Symphony of the Night by two years), but it’s fun and creative.

Sadly, as enticing as the game is in concept, much of its execution has felt the effects of aging.

As stated, the game is slower than Sonic’s outings, but Tails perhaps moves a bit too slowly, to the point that it makes the platforming a bit annoying (yes, you can usually fly from one platform to the next, but the game will often throw a wrench in that plan, like a strong gust of wind, to leave Tails reliant on traditional platforming). One item you get during the game are shoes to make you run faster. It sounds like the shoes would solve this issue, except they have to be equipped in the lab like the other items (thus taking up a spot for an item better suited for exploration), and still need to be selected to be used (meaning you can’t attack with them in use). Additionally, using the shoes has an awkward feel to it. Instead of just holding the action button to run while moving, you have to hit the action button at the same time you move for a quick burst of speed, but Tails won’t keep the momentum if he changes direction. It has a very clunky start-stop feel to it.

Other issues are typical design pitfalls: spikes or lava being placed just out of view, leading to some “leap of faith” moments. The boss fights are repetitious and uneventful. And it would be nice if the game gave some description of the items once you’ve claimed them (it took me a while to realize what the Super Glove did, as it does nothing unless there’s a liftable object right in front of you, with not even an audial or visual cue to let you know you’re pressing the action button in vain).

Perhaps the most unfortunate drawback of the game are the submarine stages. While most levels are played as Tails on foot (or in the air, as it were), others are played underwater as Tails pilots the “Sea-Fox.” Similar to the general gameplay, you get new weapons and enhancements for the submarine, but the constant stopping and switching between items feels out of place with the faster paced submarine sections. And to be blunt, the Sea-Fox levels just don’t seem as well thought out on the whole.

So many of its gameplay elements haven’t aged gracefully in execution, but that doesn’t mean they were inherently bad. Considering Tails’ Adventure was a handheld title in 1995, its emphasis on exploration and character progression are admirable. And given its hardware limitations, the game looks and sounds great. The visuals are on par with the Genesis Sonic titles, and while the soundtrack may not match Sonic’s ventures, it’s fun and catchy in its own right. Sure, it may stink that Tails still isn’t allowed to fight the same level of villains as Sonic, at least the antagonists this time around have a consistent theme (robot ducks!) and aren’t a random hodgepodge like in Skypatrol.

If you’re comparing it with many of the platformers and Metroidvanias that have been released in the two and a half decades since, it’s hard to say Tails’ Adventure stacks up. But its ambitions and ideas make it easy to respect and appreciate. Tails’ Adventure may not boast the timeless appeal of the Genesis Sonic games, but it’s a game that still deserves some applause in its own right. It’s actually a shame this was the end of the road for Tails, and he’d soon be relegated back to being Sonic’s player two forever more. If only  sequels were allowed to build on Tails’ Adventure’s foundation, Tails may be flying high right now.

 

5

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble Review

*Review based on Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble’s release as part of the Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble was the first Sonic platformer released exclusively on the Sega Game Gear handheld system. Prior handheld Sonic titles were based on the Genesis games, like the Game Gear versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, or were simultaneously developed for the Sega Master System, like Triple Trouble’s own predecessor, Sonic Chaos. While those games all felt like “Sonic Lite,” Triple Trouble actually made a decently successful attempt at replicating the look and feel of the Genesis titles. While there are moments of fun to be had with Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble, it ultimately suffers the same fate as many early translations of classic franchises onto handheld systems, with the limitations of the hardware holding it back, and ensuring that the experience has aged poorly.

Triple Trouble gets its name from the fact that it boasts three antagonists: the big bad of course being Dr. Ivo Robotnik, who is joined once again by Knuckles the Echidna (who is being mind controlled by the good doctor this time around, as opposed to manipulated by him). The third villain in this triumvirate is Nack the Weasel, a treasure hunter who is after the Chaos Emeralds for his own desires. Admittedly, Nack is one of the better “not Robotnik” villains of the series, so it’s a shame that after his debut outing, he made sporadic appearances for a couple of years before being dropped from the series.

The game is a platformer very much in line with the Genesis Sonic games. Players can play as either Sonic or Tails as they collect rings, zoom through stages, and try to track down the Chaos Emeralds in the game’s bonus areas. Though Sonic is the star of the show, Tails is the more ideal character, as his ability to fly for a brief time makes it much easier for him to scour the stages for all their hidden goodies. Especially since the hardware limitations rob Sonic (and Tails) of some momentum when on foot, making the series’ trademark sense of speed feeling clunky. Going through loops becomes a pain pretty quickly because of it.

The level design is nothing special, but isn’t necessarily bad, either. Again, Triple Trouble did a pretty decent job at translating the Sonic gameplay to a handheld for the time. But this was the time in which the convenience of handheld gaming came with the price of sacrificing some quality, and the limitations do begin to show up pretty quickly through the repetitious stages and the lack of new elements for the series.

Their are five worlds total (strangely, only one of which boasts the series usual moniker of “zone”), with each consisting of two stages and a boss level. The stages themselves are pretty straightforward, though gaining all of the Chaos Emeralds (of which there are only five this time) is a bit more difficult, perhaps more so than it needs to be.

As usual, you have to hold onto fifty rings before you can enter a bonus area. While the Genesis titles had Sonic enter the bonus areas through the convenience of checkpoints or giant rings, here the bonus areas are found by breaking hidden monitors with a picture of an emerald on them (much like the monitors that hold the series’ power-ups). Not only are these small monitors easy to miss, but if you accidentally break one while holding less than fifty rings, it won’t do anything, thus wasting an opportunity to get an emerald.

If you do have fifty or more rings and break the monitor, however, you can enter one of two different bonus zones: the odd-numbered emeralds take Sonic and Tails to labyrinths they have to navigate to find the emerald, and sometimes end with a fight against Nack. The even-numbered emeralds see our heroes pilot a plane in a 3D environment where, similar to the bonus stages of Sonic 2, they must collect a set number of rings that fly from the background to the foreground while avoiding bombs.

The former category just end up being too confusing, which may not be a problem if you had more chances to claim the emeralds. Meanwhile, the latter category feel like sloppy versions of Sonic 2’s bonus games, with the rings and bombs not being visible until you’re pretty much right on top of them.

Graphically, the game actually looks pretty impressive. Triple Trouble doesn’t quite capture the timeless look of the Genesis Sonic games, but it comes closer than it has any right to. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the music, which comes nowhere near the memorable tunes of the Genesis titles.

Released in 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble was decent for what it was at the time. If you were on the go, but still wanted to play a Sonic the Hedgehog title, Triple Trouble came as close to possible to providing the classic Sonic experience on the go. But like Super Mario Land, Triple Trouble just hasn’t aged well. The awkward momentum of the characters, combined with the tedious nature of finding the Chaos Emeralds, and the general lack of newness or challenge for the series makes the already short adventure that much less noteworthy.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble wasn’t bad per se. It’s just very much a product of its time, and not a particularly memorable one at that.

 

4

Sonic the Fighters Review

*Review based on Sonic the Fighters’ release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo GameCube*

Because of the wild popularity of the series in its early years, Sonic the Hedgehog still gets frequent comparisons to Super Mario. But it’s an unfair comparison, really. While Mario has had an unrivaled longevity, still releasing “best games ever” thirty years on, Sonic went the path of The Simpsons. That is to say, it sticks around because of its early quality and appeal, but it’s overstayed its welcome, and has been bad far longer than it was ever good.

But Sonic’s issues didn’t happen all at once, and even in the franchise’s heyday in the 90s, the series made some notable missteps. Among the biggest of these missteps was Sonic the Fighters, which was not only the first Sonic fighting game, but also the first 3D title starring the blue hedgehog.

Released in arcades in 1996, the concept of Sonic the Fighters wasn’t doomed from the start. The series has plenty of colorful, distinct characters that could be translated into the fighter genre. But Sonic the Fighters fails the concept at every turn. Elsewhere, Mario spent his ’96 revolutionizing 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 and starring in one of the best Role-Playing games of all time in Super Mario RPG. Suffice to say, even back then, it was easy to see where the war between Mario and Sonic was going.

The biggest issue with Sonic the Fighters is how insanely rudimentary it is. This is as bare bones as a 3D fighting game gets. Moves consist of basic punches and kicks, which can be combined with directional inputs and pressed repeatedly for simplistic combos. But these aren’t the refined combos of Street Fighter, not even close. There is no depth to the combat of Sonic the Fighters, and the game ends up feeling like little more than chaotic button-mashing. There is no thinking to the gameplay whatsoever.

The one novelty the game tries to bring to the genre is that, in place of standard blocking, characters have barriers. Barriers can’t withstand too many hits, and if all of your barriers break, you are defenseless, and need to get a few hits on your opponent in order to build your barriers back up. It’s a decent idea in theory, but because the execution of the game is so utterly mindless, you can basically just mash the punching button ad nauseam to wear out your opponent’s barriers and continue doing the same until you get a knockout. This is a fighter as thoughtless as it is basic.

“You might know everything I’m going to do, but that’s not going to help you, since I know everything you’re going to do! Strange, isn’t it?!”

Sonic the Fighters even lacks depth in its gameplay modes, with only the standard single player arcade mode and two-player versus being available. The arcade mode sees players go through the eight characters on the playable roster, before facing off against Metal Sonic and Dr. Eggman (the former being ridiculously cheap and can take you out in three hits, while the latter is hilariously easy). Aside from the unfair Metal Sonic, the enemy AI is as mindless as the game itself. And you should really only subject a friend to the two-player versus mode if you both have a great sense of humor about these things.

The character selection includes the obvious choices of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy, but also throws in more obscure Sonic characters in Espio the Chameleon from Knuckles Chaotix, and Knack the Weasel (here called ‘Fang the Sniper’) from Sonic Triple Trouble. Meanwhile, two new characters were introduced in Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite (who is in fact a bird. No, I don’t understand the name, either). Humorously, the two characters introduced here who were never seen again feel more in line with the look and feel of the Sonic franchise than the countless goofy animals who were introduced to the series later on and stuck around to this day.

“I have to applaud the fun animations. But not much else.”

If there’s any plus side to Sonic the Fighters, it’s in the visuals. Obviously, the game isn’t pretty by today’s standards, but the ‘early 3D fighter’ look here is complimented by the cartoony characters of the Sonic universe, giving Sonic the Fighters a visual charm that similar 3D fighters of the time like Virtual Fighter simply don’t have. This is hit home by the fun visual gags of characters getting squished and stretched like Looney Tunes characters when struck.

That’s about all the positives I can give Sonic the Fighters though. The game itself is just too thoughtless in both the bare minimum nature of its ideas, and their sloppy and chaotic execution. I wish I were exaggerating when I say Sonic the Fighters is so bad, it makes Street Fighter the Movie (the Game) look like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by comparison.

Sonic the Fighters was an early example of Sonic lacking in the adaptability and timeless appeal of Mario. But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud. Sonic would eventually find himself in a stellar fighting game… once he joined Mario and company in the Super Smash Bros. series.

 

2