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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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

Tails’ Skypatrol Review

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

There are plenty of bad games out there, but it takes a special kind of bad game to make me think “what the hell am I even doing?” while playing it. Tails’ Skypatrol is one such game. One of only two Sonic spinoff’s to star the blue blur’s sidekick, Tails (both of which were released on the Game Gear handheld), Skypatrol takes the two-tailed fox in a unique direction for the series. One that really didn’t pay off in any way, shape, or form.

On paper, Tails’ Skypatrol is a simple auto-scrolling flying game, in which Tails is constantly on the move, and players having to avoid obstacles in order to get to the end of the stage. It sounds simple enough, but actually playing the game proves to be a whole other beast entirely.

Seeing as Tails is now constantly in the air, he can no longer use his usual rolling attacks from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Instead, Tails comes equipped with a ring which he can throw at enemies like a boomerang. Okay, so things still don’t sound too bad, but here’s where things get completely batty.

The stages are filled with items and obstacles which can help or hinder Tails, but he can only grab these items and obstacles while the ring is in his hand. If the ring is currently flung at an enemy, Tails can’t pick anything up or interact with objects around him.

There are more than a few issues with this approach, not least of which being that the game seems inconsistent in acknowledging when the ring is and isn’t in Tails’ hands. It seems like after the ring returns to Tails, there’s oftentimes an awkward window of time where Tails still can’t interact with things, but sometimes there isn’t. The game’s core mechanics are finicky and indecisive, which naturally makes for an aggravating experience.

This is made all the worse by the fact that if Tails makes contact with any wall or floor, he dies. It’s very reminiscent of Silver Surfer on NES in this regard, and every bit as annoying. The one thing that’s less frustrating here than in Silver Surfer is that enemy fire doesn’t immediately kill Tails (robot lasers aren’t as deadly as lightly bumping into a wall, apparently). Instead, when struck by an enemy, Tails will tumble to the floor. If he makes contact with the floor, he dies, but you can get your altitude back simply by pressing any button. Have you ever heard of a video game where you can prevent death simply by pressing a button?

Another price for getting hit by an enemy is that it takes away from Tails’ flight meter. If the flight meter runs out, Tails will crash to the floor and no amount of pressing a button will save him. What’s even worse, however, is that throwing the ring at enemies also uses some of the flight meter. And yes, the meter even depletes on its own over time.

You can refill the flight meter by grabbing candy. But guess what? The candy is found on the floor! So you’ll often die trying to get the candy because you bump into the floor while getting it. Do you think maybe, in a game in which the character is constantly flying and dies if they touch the ground, the healing items should have been floating in the air?!

I can at least respect what the developers were attempting with some of the game’s obstacles, but suffice to say the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Having Tails grab a heavy weight to fall fast before hitting a wall, or grabbing a balloon to slow his ascent, and things of that nature seem like they’d add to the auto-scrolling gameplay. But the atrocious level design completely takes away any positives these elements may have otherwise provided.

The level design is simply the final nail in the coffin of Tails’ Skypatrol. The game has a sadistic trial-and-error approach, and requires the player to lose repeatedly and simply memorize what’s ahead in order to make any progress. There are downright cheap tactics deployed at every turn, like flight refilling candy placed at a dead end, which you can’t tell is a dead end until it’s too late. There are objects to latch onto that sometimes help, and sometimes hinder Tails’ progress, so attempting them is a total gamble (even more so when you remember that Tails doesn’t always grab objects as he’s supposed to). And it’s often difficult to tell when a background or foreground object is there for decoration, or if Tails can crash into it and die. It’s all just one leap of faith after another until you have the brutality memorized.

“Seriously? That guy wouldn’t even be a good villain in a breakfast cereal commercial!”

Admittedly, the visuals were decent at the time, though the music is entirely forgettable. To add a cherry on top of it all, Tails isn’t even allowed to fight Dr. Robotnik’s forces. Instead, the villain is some generic witch and a trio of google-eyed animals. It’s like the developers went out of their way to make Tails look bad.

Poor Tails. Always in Sonic’s shadow, and when he finally gets the chance to shine, this is what he gets? Then again, perhaps Tails’ problems are his own doing. I mean, if simply bumping into a wall while flying can kill him, maybe Tails should just stop flying. And if that ring he’s holding can latch onto things to hinder him, maybe he should just drop the damn ring! Is he stupid or something?

 

2

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

Sonic Forces Review

Oh, Sonic.

To say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough history ever since he made the transition into 3D is more than a little bit of an understatement. From games that were decent in their day but aged horribly (Sonic Adventure) to flat-out stinkers (Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric), Sonic has become something of a joke.

It finally seemed like Sonic the Hedgehog would make his triumphant return to greatness in 2017. Not only did the series receive a new, 16-bit sidescroller in the form of Sonic Mania, but it also received something of a follow-up to 2011’s Sonic Generations, one the few 3D entries the series could be proud of.

When Sonic Mania was released during the Summer, it really seemed like this was to be the year of the hedgehog, as Sonic Mania captured the very essence of Sonic’s best outings and created a fun and creative successor to the Genesis titles we’ve all waited over two decades for. But alas, despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic just can’t seem to keep his momentum. All the good will established through Mania has seemingly run straight into a brick wall with Sonic Forces, a title whose potential seems continuously squandered through a rushed, unpolished execution.

Like Generations, Sonic Forces looks to combine both 2D and 3D Sonic gameplay. As in the 2011 game, players take control of either pot-bellied “Classic Sonic” whose stages are strictly 2D, or the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool Modern Sonic, whose stages switch between a 2D and 3D perspective.

Modern Sonic is equipped with a homing attack, which really only makes things feel like mindless button-mashing, since you just have to repeatedly hit the button to blast through enemies who can’t do anything against it. What really hurts Modern Sonic’s stages, however, are the sections that have Sonic blasting through a stage in 3D perspectives, largely because you can’t make out what’s in front of you until you crash into it. You’d be surprised just how often you slam into a robot and lose rings because you thought it was a speed booster, and many of the deaths you’ll encounter feel more attributed to an inability to see what’s ahead, as opposed to player error.

It should come as no surprise that Classic Sonic’s stages are the highlight of the game. Classic Sonic retains the “drop dash” from Sonic Mania, though he doesn’t control as smoothly as his recent 16-bit counterpart. Classic Sonic’s stages benefit from the 2D perspective and actually being able to see what’s in Sonic’s path, but better still is that you actually feel like you’re doing something more than pushing forward and spamming the homing attack. The Classic Sonic stages may not stack up to anything from Sonic Mania (or even Generations, for that matter), but at least they actually feel like there’s something to them.

“I tried to make an old-timey cartoon character, but it ended up looking like something far more sinister.”

But wait a minute, a third playable character joins the Sonics this time around, in the form of the player’s own created avatar. Yes, it appears as though Sega has been paying attention to the countless, eye-rolling Sonic OCs on Deviantart, and has given players the ability to make their characters (somewhat) canon. You can choose a species for your avatar (including hedgehogs, dogs, cats, wolves, and others), select different eyes, gloves, shoes, etc. The character customization is somewhat limited, but you gain more customizable items by performing well in the stages and meeting certain requirements.

“Some levels have your created character teaming up with Sonic, fulfilling the second biggest fantasy of the Sonic fanbase.”

Though the prospect of playing as your own character actually had some potential to add a new twist to Sonic gameplay, the levels in which you play as your avatar are perhaps the weakest of the lot. Instead of customizing abilities to make your avatar actually feel like a Sonic character, your avatar is instead equipped with a grappling hook and a weapon, the latter of which can be swapped out in between levels with any other weapons you’ve managed to unlock.

This is where things start to go off the rails. These abilities just aren’t fun. The hook basically works like a stiffer version of Modern Sonic’s homing attack, while all the weapons are just overpowered moves that you can just spam on mindless enemies who stand in place and pose no real threat.

“Where the hell is my character?!”

The avatar stages play closer to Modern Sonic’s, which means they also suffer from annoying perspectives in 3D sections. What’s all the worse is that even the 2D sections with the avatar get muddled with how small your character often ends up on the screen. And when clunky wall-jumping mechanics are suddenly introduced late in the game, it brings whatever fun the avatar stages had to a dead stop.

One of the worst aspects of Sonic Forces is its plot. Somehow, Dr. Eggman from the Modern Sonic dimension has found the Phantom Ruby from Sonic Mania, and has used its power to create a super being called Infinite. The ruby – and subsequently, Infinite – possesses the ability to alter reality, being able to create replicas of past Sonic villains Shadow the hedgehog, Metal Sonic, Chaos and Zavok (and no one else apparently, as Infinite just keeps recycling those four).

Anyway, Infinite defeats Sonic the Hedgehog in battle, and the famous blue hedgehog is believed to be dead by his friends (before his survival is unceremoniously revealed on the map screen…yeah). Turns out Sonic’s been captured, and in is absence, Dr. Eggman has finally succeeded in taking over the world. Knuckles now leads the resistance against Dr. Eggman, and has recruited the small army of goofy animal characters that have been introduced to the series over the years (not that most of these characters even matter, seeing as they only ever seem to show up to, well, show up). The player’s avatar is the “rookie” of the resistance, and Classic Sonic shows up after being sucked into a wormhole in Sonic Mania. Together, the resistance plans to rescue Sonic, defeat Eggman’s forces, stop Infinite, and bring freedom back to their planet.

The plot is just far too serious for its own good. There was a time when Sonic games being more story heavy was at least a novel concept, but the plots of the series have become something of a bad joke with how cheesy and forced they are, and Sonic Forces might be one of the worst offenders. I don’t have a problem with serious storylines, but considering this is a series about a cartoon hedgehog who runs really fast and fights robots, seeing it trying to be so serious and edgy really just makes it feel silly. It is possible to make meaningful stories with cartoony characters, but trying to turn Sonic the Hedgehog into something so dramatic just doesn’t work.

“Not creepy at all…”

Sonic Forces isn’t all bad, however. Along with the Classic Sonic stages bringing some fun to the table (though also reminding you that you could be playing Sonic Mania), the game looks great visually, and its musical score is actually quite good (just turn the volume down a bit when it comes to the vocal tracks). But whenever Sonic Forces starts to look like it’s getting better, it ends up stumbling and wasting its potential. Along with all the gameplay fumbles, the level design is nothing special, and the boss fights are particularly unmemorable (just catch up to them and spam that homing attack some more).

Sonic has certainly been in worse games than this. But Sonic Forces showcases many of the attributes that have lead to the series’ drastic fall from grace. And seeing as it’s coming off the heels of the exceptional Sonic Mania, the shortcomings of Forces are only magnified all the more.

If given some extra development time and polish, Sonic Forces could have been pretty good. As it is, well… it’s a 3D Sonic game.

 

5

Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

8