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.

 

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Street Fighter: The Movie (Sega Saturn) Review

One of the great anomalies of the video game medium is Street Fighter: The Movie…the video game. Yes, it’s a video game, based on a movie, based on a video game.

Street Fighter II remains one of the most influential video games of all time, and during the 90s, it was everywhere. The 1994 film adaptation was one of the first “video game movies,” following in the footsteps of Super Mario Bros. a year earlier. Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, Street Fighter’s film adaptation is certainly no critical darling, but has a campy, guilty pleasure appeal about it, and the same can be applied to the game.

Street Fighter: The Movie… the video game is just a generic copy of the game that inspired the film that inspired it. It uses digitized actors a la Mortal Kombat, with most of the actors from the film reprising their roles (except, sadly, for Raul Julia as M. Bison, as his grave illness was taking its toll at the time).

You have a selection of most of Street Fighter 2’s roster (sans Dhalsim, who was – for whatever reason – a scientist and not a fighter in the movie). Additionally, you can play as Captain Sawada, an original character from the film whose role was so small, you may not even recognize him even if you’ve seen the movie.

“I approve of this!”

I have to admit, it’s actually pretty humorous seeing the game in motion. A match between Guile and Chun-Li becomes a battle between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ming-Na Wen. Most of the characters retain the exact look they had in the movie, but some  now have clothing that more closely resembles their original video game appearances (we get to see Kylie Minogue in Cammy’s original gear, which is definitely a bonus).

It’s really just a fun game to look at. Obviously, the whole “digitized actor” thing hasn’t exactly aged well, but the simple fact that it looks like Street Fighter: The Movie is entertaining in its own way.

As stated, the gameplay is nothing special. It’s just a basic 2D fighter, and nowhere near as intricate or fluid as the “real” Street Fighter games. Though in all honesty, I’ve played worse. The biggest problem here is that the gameplay is bland and flavorless, but at least it isn’t flat-out broken.

“Praise be unto Sawada.”

You have a few game modes to choose from: Movie Mode is essentially a story mode, where players take control of Guile and follow the events of the movie. Street Battle is a more traditional arcade-style mode, where you can select your character and battle a series of opponents. Trial Mode sees players gunning for a high score against every opponent. Finally, Vs. Mode gives you the two-player battles you would expect from Street Fighter.

In the end, Street Fighter: The Movie… the game is, as you might suspect, not very good. But like the film on which it’s based, it has its own ironic appeal. It’s the kind of game you can break out with a friend, play a few rounds, and have a good laugh. I mean, you can play as Captain Sawada! Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

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Mega Man 8 Review

Mega Man 8

Mega Man 8 is a terribly underappreciated game. It was originally released in 1997 to celebrate Mega Man’s tenth anniversary, but gaming was changing at that time, and Mega Man 8 was seen as old hat. As the years have gone by its gained a small following, but still remains largely dismissed. Its reputation doesn’t begin to do it justice, as Mega Man 8 – while not perfect – remains one of the series’ best entries.

Mega Man 8 was originally released on the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, so it goes without saying that this was the biggest leap in visuals for the series yet. Given that its sequels revived the 8-bit visuals of the NES games, Mega Man 8 is still the ‘newest’ looking title in the core series.

While a lot of PSOne and Saturn games have aged for the worse, time has been kind to Mega Man 8. The lovingly animated character sprites and colorful visuals still look lively. It expands on the art direction of Mega Man 7 and makes the series feel like an interactive cartoon.

Mega Man 8The game even featured fully animated cutscenes that have a similar charm to the anime of the late 80s and early 90s. On the downside, the game’s English voice acting is so bad it ranks among the worst in any video game (Dr. Light in particular sounds like Elmer Fudd, but even less eloquent). That’s quite a dubious achievement. But you could also say the bad voice acting gives the cutscenes a campy charm.

Mega Man 8 didn’t just overhaul the presentation however, as it made some meaningful (and largely overlooked) tweaks to gameplay and level design as well.

Similar to Mega Man 7, 8 separates the selectable Robot Master stages into two halves. After an introductory stage, four selectable levels open up, followed by an intermission stage, then four more Robot Master levels, culminating, of course, with Dr. Wily’s castle.

While the setup remains similar to Mega Man 7, Mega Man 8 built on its sense of exploration while also adding some fun variety to the gameplay, making its levels some of the deepest in the series.

Mega Man 8 includes Bolts similar to Mega Man 7, but they are no longer dropped by enemies. Instead they are hidden throughout each stage, with some requiring you to replay levels after gaining new powers in order to reach them. The Bolts are used as currency in Dr. Light’s laboratory, where Mega Man can purchase new upgrades to his Mega Buster, among other fun new power-ups. Finding the Bolts and acquiring these upgrades is completely optional, but those seeking a good challenge and full completion should have a good time tracking them all down.

Mega Man 8It’s in the levels themselves that Mega Man 8 differentiates itself from its predecessors. Although it’s classic Mega Man for the most part, various levels will suddenly throw the Blue Bomber into a rail shooter (where Rush, Beat, Eddie and Auto can help Mega Man blast away enemies) or he’ll be sledding through a stage at increasing speed, with a robot sign informing him of when to jump and when to slide to avoid obstacles. The levels themselves are some of the most fun in the series, but segments like these make Mega Man 8 one of the most versatile gameplay experiences in the franchise.

It’s easy to say that Mega Man 8 has some of the weaker Robot Masters in the series, with the likes of Clown Man and the trademark-infringing Aqua Man being downright goofy. But on the plus side, the powers Mega Man gains from them are among the more unique in the series. Mega Man gains weapons like an electrical grappling hook, an icy shockwave, a miniature tornado that sends Mega Man skyward, and a sword made out of fire. The introductory stage even gives Mega Man a soccer ball power! Not all the powers are great, but they all come in handy throughout the game in either combat or exploration. This is also one of the only instances in which Mega Man 2’s Leaf Shield isn’t reskinned and passed off as a new ability.

The fact that Mega Man 8 separates its Robot Master stages in two halves also means that the first four abilities are really emphasized in the latter four levels (Sword Man’s stage in particular is built around them). Not everyone likes the change of segmenting the levels, but it actually gave Capcom a means to better utilize the Robot Master abilities. It also gave them the opportunity to further emphasize the story.

In Mega Man 8, a strange meteor has crashed onto Earth, emitting a powerful, dark energy. Mega Man goes to investigate, but Dr. Wily has beat him to the punch, and is using this energy to power his new Robot Masters and a returning Bass in a plot to take over the world. Mega Man, true to his nature, sets out to stop Wily’s plans, but also encounters a new figure in Duo, a robot from outer space.

It’s the usual simple plot of Mega Man, but it gets some appreciated extra attention. The aforementioned animated sequences add to the stronger attempt at narrative, but are also undermined by the comically bad voice acting.

Mega Man 8Mega Man 8 ups the difficulty from Mega Man 7, and has one of the better difficulty curves in the series. The first four stages have their challenging moments, but shouldn’t take too many attempts to complete. The latter four stages turn things up a notch with some precise platforming and waves of enemies. Once Mega Man makes his way to Dr. Wily’s newest castle, things become reminiscent of Mega Man’s earliest entries. It’s never as hard as Mega Man 3 or 4, but Mega Man 8 is nonetheless satisfyingly difficult.

Another plus is that Mega Man 8 has one of the best soundtracks in the series, and that’s no small feat considering the quality of Mega Man’s soundtracks. Its techno-inspired tunes are as catchy as the best Mega Man tracks, and they each have a distinct personality to fit their respective stages. Much like the rest of the game, Mega Man 8’s music largely goes underrated, but it should be ranked alongside Mega Mans 2, 3 and 9 as being among the best soundtracks in the series.

As a whole, Mega Man 8 is one of the Blue Bomber’s most polished games. It has creative level design, fun powers, a good sense of depth and challenge, it has a killer soundtrack and the visuals haven’t aged a day. It might not have the same level of excellence as Mega Man 2 or 3, and the voice acting almost seems to be making fun of itself. But Mega Man 8 has always been, secretly, one of Mega Man’s finest.

 

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