Thursday, June 28, 2012

Star Fox Adventures Review

Yes, I suppose it’s that time of year again: a time when I run out of current or relevant software to review and instead opt to critically analyze something a bit older, usually something immersed in nostalgia or controversy. Or both. Indeed, today that game would be none other than the oft-derided Star Fox Adventures, one of the final games developed by the once-respected Rareware for a Nintendo console. See, this game was the long-awaited third installment in the Star Fox franchise, following the highly-acclaimed Star Fox 64. Star Fox 64 was a rail-shooter in space, and naturally, people expected more of that. Unfortunately, the new Star Fox on the GameCube was not quite that, to say the least.

To many, this would be the beginning of the end for the Star Fox franchise, as this game was followed by the subpar Assault and eventually the absolutely insipid Command. Both of those games not only took the gameplay in a different direction that had nothing to do with what made the original games great, but completely sucked on their own and proved that Nintendo never really cared about this beloved franchise in the first place. While this is understandable, looking at Adventures as a single entity, I really can’t help but feel like it deserves far more credit than it gets. True, I was rather young when I first played it and I would be lying to say that this game isn’t awash in a rather significant amount of nostalgia. However, even after playing through it again a decade later, I remain unconvinced in spite of the poor decisions surrounding it. Here’s my review.


Star Fox Adventures takes place for the most part on the creatively named Dinosaur Planet. Take one guess as to what you’ll find there. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Here's a hint.

When the game begins, we are introduced to a new character: a blue female vulpine named Krystal, who, believe it or not, someone actually drew, designed and modeled. Quite frankly, I don’t even want to post a picture of her here to show you why this bothers me. I would like to assume that this person was fired from Rare and eventually joined Sonic Team, where he went on to write Sonic 06’s storyline and perhaps occasionally model Rouge the Bat. Fortunately, she doesn’t get much screen time after the prologue of the game, where we see her get in a bit of a scuffle with our villain, General Scales, and travel to a place called the Krazoa Palace, following a distress signal. There, she learns that in order to solve this planet’s problems and defeat General Scales, she must return the Krazoa Spirits to the Krazoa Palace. She quickly finds and deposits one of said spirits, but this activates some sort of trap that encases her in a…crystal. Honestly, I am unable to determine whether the pun was intentional or not, but regardless, at this point she merely becomes a damsel in distress.

Enter Star Fox. See, Dinosaur Planet has a bit of a problem: it’s falling apart, which could have an adverse effect on the entire Lylat System, or so the ever-hammy General Pepper claims. Thus, he pays Fox McCloud and his poorly-suppressed British accent to investigate the planet while he and the rest of Fox’s annoying friends give advice and support, also known as sitting around on their lazy butts while Fox does all of the hard work. Then again, considering their utter lack of competence in the previous game, perhaps it’s for the best. But Fox isn’t completely free from the terrors of irritating companions on the serene Dinosaur Planet. Shortly after arriving, he is tasked with finding Tricky, the prince of the Earth Walker tribe of dinosaurs, whom his mother insists should stay with him, as he will surely help on Fox’s grandiose adventure. Regardless of what she says, though, I’m fairly certain she just wants rid of the little demon spawn and, well, really, who could blame her. Thus begins the epic quest to find the four Spell Stones that hold the planet together, collect all five Krazoa Spirits, save Krystal and defeat General Scales and his army of Sharp Claw, which are the various grunts you will have to take down.

Yeah…the story of Star Fox Adventures isn’t exactly compelling. That said, it isn’t an offensive storyline. It gives you enough of a reason to care about what you’re doing and Fox’s characterization this time around makes him a fairly enjoyable protagonist. Aside from that, there really isn’t much to discuss. The plot is just there. What is a bit annoying – well, when it isn’t flat-out hilarious – is the absolutely awful voice acting. Most of the actors are just way over the top in their performances, and Fox sounds like he barely cares. What’s also really jarring to me is the fact that, while all of the actors are British, many attempt to speak in American accents and fail quite miserably. This is another problem with the actor of Fox himself, who just generally doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. Of course, I suppose it wouldn’t exactly be a Star Fox game without horrid vocal performances, but it is a flaw nonetheless. Not to mention that, really, this is barely a Star Fox game in the first place.

Yes, Star Fox Adventures is really a Star Fox game in name only. There are five rail shooting segments in the game that resemble something you might see in Star Fox or Star Fox 64, which is actually how you travel between some areas in the game. However, to be frank, these sections feel very tacked-on and while the last two are kind of enjoyable, the others are fairly dull and unchallenging, especially when compared to the levels of Star Fox 64. It…really doesn’t help that you have to play the first one five times altogether. Primarily, Star Fox Adventures is an on-foot action-adventure game with a gameplay style and mechanics very reminiscent of Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda series.

The story behind how this happened is actually a somewhat interesting one, though it is pretty well-known. It was originally meant to be a brand new IP called “Dinosaur Planet”. So, how does this become a Star Fox game, you may be wondering. Well, Nintendo looked at the game and noticed that it starred two fox-like creatures, one of which bore an uncanny resemblance to their own Fox McCloud. Thus, Nintendo decided that this should be made into a Star Fox game – the first one in five years. Understandably, this wasn’t a decision that many were happy with and I will have to agree that the decision was a rather questionable one. Honestly, though, I do see the logic behind it. Even if the gameplay style wasn’t what Star Fox was famous for, the game did fit the general premise of the series rather well and as a spinoff, I feel this would have been much more warmly received and I wouldn’t have minded to see more Star Fox games like it. Ultimately, though, we got it as a primary installment to the series – and, I must reiterate, the first one in five years up to that point.

However, while I won’t defend the decision, I feel like this game is treated unfairly because of it. Many seem to have written it off as a bad game simply because of it or simply because of the famed JonTron’s review - which, I might add, while indeed hilarious, still failed to bring up much pertaining to the game design and continued to harp on the fact that it shouldn’t have been a Star Fox game. This is somewhat understandable, since the series never received a proper return to form, but in the end, it really is a great game. To fully understand and appreciate Star Fox Adventures, you have to look at it on its own. Perhaps even forget that it’s a Star Fox game, if it bothers you that much. Should you do this, I assure you that you will find something special. With that said, let’s go a bit deeper.

One thing I will get out of the way first: yes, you are accompanied by Tricky throughout most of the game, and yes, he is rather annoying. But unlike a certain other aggravating sidekick, Tricky actually makes himself useful. You can command him to perform various actions such as holding switches down or burning away walls of ice or thorn to clear various obstacles. He does need to be fed blue mushrooms on a regular basis in order to keep this up, but such organisms are always in ample supply. What you will be using him for the most is actually digging through patches of dirt to get to the various goodies buried within. This is sometimes made use of for item collection side quests.

Yes, while Star Fox Adventures seems to draw most of its inspiration from the Zelda series, Rare also took many cues from their own games, particularly from the Nintendo 64 era. Star Fox Adventures can’t exactly be described as a collect-a-thon, but there are times when it reeks of the genre. Of course, Rare knew what they were doing with this. None of Star Fox Adventures’ “fetch quests” feel mindless or insubstantial; they usually take place in previously unexplored areas and important items are generally received for completing various tasks and challenges that the game puts you up against. There is also a great deal of variety thereof; from making your way through a maze of invisible walls within a time limit to platforming your way through rings in an obstacle course within a time limit to racing down a snowy mountain in a hovercraft within a time limit to activated a bunch of totem poles within a time limit to using blocks to cover up vents within a time limit so that Fox doesn’t choke to death on noxious fumes to…okay, there are a lot of timed missions in the game, but there’s plenty of diversity between them and a number of non-timed obstacles to overcome and puzzles to solve.

Actually, while Star Fox Adventures may come off as a fairly standard Zelda clone at first, if there’s anything that definitely sets it apart, it’s that it feels more action-based than the latter series. While Zelda is generally more focused on puzzles and character interaction, Adventures feels more focused on movement and clearing obstacles. The game puts many obstacles in your way such as fire vents and other such traps and often tasks you with maneuvering around them, and Rare really couldn’t let go of the platforming genre. While the game inherits the auto-jumping controls from the Zelda series, there are a lot of areas that feature legitimate platforming elements. Of course, the game does have a lot of puzzles in it and, while there are plenty of both kinds, even a lot of the puzzles of Adventures feel more based around timing and motion than those of the Zelda series. It all falls into place very well in the end; each of the game’s various trials are very fun, diverse and well-designed and the puzzles are all extremely clever and creative.  Adventures also has a somewhat greater focus on combat than the Zelda series.

Ah, yes, combat. Shortly into the game, Fox finds a magic staff that got knocked out of Krystal’s hand in the prologue. This staff is used for…well, almost everything, actually. With it, Fox can lift gigantic rocks to see whatever is under them and also activate various mechanisms, and you also gain a number of different magic-consuming powers that will be used for a lot of puzzle-solving and whatnot throughout the game. What it’s used for the most, however, is combat. Combat in the game is fairly simplistic. You have three combos at your disposal that you switch to depending on the position of the control stick. Keep it in a neutral position and send the enemy flying; keep it held forward and stun the enemy, giving you a chance to go in for another attack; and keep it held back and you will have the potential to do a lot of damage, but it will be easier to miss. You will also have to block your enemies’ attacks - which your enemies will do as well - and larger enemies that you encounter as you continue through the game will force you to time your attacks better or bring your staff’s powers into the mix. It’s far from the most complex combat system, but the moves are flashy and it does make you feel powerful, so the combat is pretty satisfying. Enemies also go down reasonably quickly and most of them can be passed by anyway, which keeps things from getting too monotonous. Oh, and if you’re feeling really lazy and have some magic power to spare, you can always freeze your foes and then take them down with a single hit. That’s always fun.

Really, the only thing that’s a bit flawed with the action-based approach to this style of gameplay is that the game is simply too forgiving. Even taking a massive dive off a cliff or getting burned alive doesn’t do a terrible amount of damage, and the game is quite generous with healing items as well as “Bafomdads” - yeah, I really don’t know - which basically function as extra lives. This game really could have benefited from a higher difficulty level. The game’s puzzles and whatnot still do offer enough challenge to keep this game from being “too easy”, but this does feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity.

Star Fox Adventures also has several bosses and I have to say, I found this game’s boss design to be pretty impressive. They were decently challenging and quite fun to fight overall. My favorites would have to be the ones from Cloud Runner Fortress and Dragon Rock. The former was played as a racing game where you actually had to crash into the other races to kill them and get the Spell Stone and the latter was played as – gasp! – a rail shooter. Ah, but don’t get your hopes up; it’s nothing like Star Fox 64, but it was nonetheless a lot of fun.
Behind you...

Star Fox Adventures’ graphics have aged…okay. For its time, it was simply beautiful, but looking at it now, it holds up better in some ways than others. The environments do look quite nice, provided you don’t look closely at the blurry textures, and Fox’s character model is impressively detailed. It also surprises me how well they did the subtler animations at the time, such as his ears twitching and his tail swishing back and forth when idle. Character models for most enemies and bosses are also quite impressive-looking. All of the other character models, though, tend to look like pure excrement and the facial animations, while at times very expressive, look incredibly robotic and unnatural. This can either be downright creepy or downright hilarious, and it depends on what scene you’re watching. The soundtrack, fortunately, fares a lot better. Tracks range from the atmospheric, such as Krazoa Palace, to the energetic, such as Thorn Tail Hollow, to the awesome battle themes and whatnot. It's all really great stuff.

The Good:

+ Tricky is helpful
+ Lots of gameplay variety
+ Clever and creative puzzles and challenges
+ Fun combat
+ Great boss fights
+ Great soundtrack

The Bad:

- Has little to do with Star Fox
- Bad voice acting
- Few rail shooting segments are somewhat lackluster
- Too forgiving


When I was a young lad, Star Fox Adventures was my gateway to the Legend of Zelda series and I still find it to be an incredibly well-designed game and a severely underrated classic from the GameCube era. Its genuine faults are minor in the long run and the misdemeanor regarding the use of license is something I, personally, find easy to get past. At the very least, if you enjoy games like Zelda, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one.  Actually, I’d say that Adventures is probably better than a few Zelda games.

Especially Twilight Princess.

Yeah, I said it.

Grade: A-

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog Classic Series Reviews: Part 2

Well, everyone, it's finally June 23rd: Sonic's actual birthday. So, how about I finish what I started last week by reviewing what may very well be the two greatest Sonic games of all time while Sonic has his first really legal keg party. Let the continuation of the reviewing extravaganza begin.


Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles

Let’s move on to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Actually, as you may have noticed, this is not one game, but two. See, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was originally going to be released as a single game, titled simply “Sonic the Hedgehog 3”. However, the game grew so large that it had to be split into two games, thanks to the cost of manufacturing such a massive cartridge as well as time constraints. To make up for this, Sonic & Knuckles was made into a special cartridge that allowed for “lock-on technology”; basically, you could stick another Sonic game’s cartridge on top of it and see what happens. For Sonic 1, you would be able to play the Special Stage of S3&K over and over again. For Sonic 2, you would get to play through the entire game as Knuckles the Echidna, the games’ featured new character. Finally, for Sonic 3, you would get to play the game as it was originally meant to be experienced: as a single, gigantic adventure. The game flows better this way and both games are basically the same in terms of gameplay. Not to mention that, should you get downloadable versions of the two games, you will still be able to play it – or, at least, I think you will, and most game anthologies that feature the classics allow for this feature as well. Of course, both games are good enough on their own, so if, for whatever reason, you can’t play the full version of the game, that’s fine too. Well, I suppose we should move on now.

The story of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a bit more important than it was in its older brothers. There’s no dialogue or anything like that, but you will see a simplistic, but nonetheless actually kind of compelling storyline play out as you go through the game. As you should have already been able to tell, this game marks the introduction of Knuckles to the franchise. He’s a red echidna that is rougher than the rest of them and unlike Sonic, he doesn’t chuckle.
It legitimately bothers me that someone approved of these lyrics.

Now, at the beginning, you may not be quite sure what’s going on, since who reads instruction manuals anymore? See, Knuckles – the last of his kind - lives on Angel Island, an island that literally floats in the sky. The only thing that keeps it afloat is the Master Emerald, a very powerful gem with heavy connections to the Chaos Emeralds – which this island also has its own set of, apparently - that Knuckles must guard with his life in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of evil. Well, after the events of Sonic 2, Dr. Eggman’s – yeah, I’m done - beautiful Death Egg has come crashing down, and where else would it land but Angel Island. This, of course, brings said mad doctor to the place, and also brings along Sonic and Tails. Before the two make it there, Dr. Eggman convinces Knuckles that they intend to steal the Chaos Emeralds. Being ever-so-gullible, Knuckles confronts the two as soon as they enter the island and steals the Chaos Emeralds that they had already acquired in Sonic 2, drifts out of character by chuckling and runs off, and thus the two have to deal with Knuckles constantly along the way. Fortunately, he only proves a minor hindrance and the two confront the mad doctor just as he is about to re-launch his Death Egg. Eggman’s plans successfully thwarted, they…fall crashing down to the surface. Eggman isn’t about to give up, though; now aware of the Master Emerald’s existence, he intends to use its power to once again send the Death Egg into space, and it all builds up to an intense and legitimately exciting climax at the end. It really is kind of interesting to watch it play out, especially at the end, and I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive feat that the developers were able to tell this story very well without using any dialogue.

Visually, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is even more impressive than Sonic 2. By Genesis standards, this game looks simply incredible, and the detail given to the environments is kind of surprising. The soundtrack isn’t quite as good as that of Sonic 2 and has a few miss tracks – I’m not much of a fan of Marble Garden Zone or Carnival Night Zone myself – but is still pretty awesome and sounds like it’s going for a different style than that of the previous two games. Actually, I have to say, the Eggman boss theme of this game is probably my favorite out of all of the 2-D games, and the final boss theme just feels epic. I remember that, as a kid, I would use the cheat to unlock the sound test just to listen to it. It’s that good. As far as Zones go, it’s worth mentioning that different tracks were composed for both Acts of each Zone this time around. I’d say the best tracks are the ones for Hydrocity Zone Act 2, both Ice Cap Zone Acts, Flying Battery Zone Act 2, Lava Reef Zone Act 1, Sky Sanctuary Zone and both Death Egg Zone Acts.

Moving on now, Sonic 3 & Knuckles retains the two-Act structure that Sonic 2 introduced, and there are twelve – well, technically fourteen – Zones in the entire game. The difference here is that bosses are not only encountered in Act 2. Though Act 2 is where you’ll face Dr. Eggman, you’ll always have to face off with one of his many creations in Act 1. And I have to say, the boss design of this game is…actually quite good. I would say that it has probably the best bosses out of all of the 2-D games. A lot of them are very creative and some of them can actually be quite challenging, at least as you keep going on in the game.

So Sonic 2 improved upon Sonic 1’s core concepts and design in several ways. Naturally, one would think that Sonic 3 & Knuckles should continue to do so. Sonic 3 & Knuckles does this and more. First of all, let’s talk about our three playable characters. Yes, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the first main Sonic game to introduce playable characters with legitimate differences from each other. Though you could play as Tails in Sonic 2, he was basically a second skin for Sonic. In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, he’s a bit slower than Sonic, but in return you are allowed the ability to use his two tails to fly, or, when underwater, swim. This is very helpful for getting around as well as finding secrets and different paths through levels. Sonic himself is even faster than he was in Sonic 2 and now has an Insta-Shield move, which very briefly creates a shield around Sonic when you press the jump button in midair. It requires exceptional timing to use effectively and may take some practice, but once you get skilled with it, it becomes very useful for taking out enemies and bosses quickly. And then we have the new guy, Knuckles the Echidna. While he has the lowest jump of all of the characters, in return he has a variety of abilities at his disposal. He can glide great distances and even hook onto and climb up walls with his…spiked knuckles. And, being a powerhouse, he can break through walls that Sonic and Tails can’t even hope to pass by with his face. Amazing.

I don’t think I can quite say the levels are specialized for each character, as they might be in the 3-D games; the general layout of each Zone is the same no matter who you’re playing as, aside from perhaps a few subtle differences here and there. However, the level design does offer plenty of opportunities to use Tails’ or Knuckles’ abilities to reach secrets or take paths and shortcuts that Sonic can’t. In fact, Knuckles’ limitation of having a low jump will require you to take completely different routes than Sonic or Tails in several places that will completely change your experience. These areas are actually optimized for Knuckles’ unique attributes; one segment in Ice Cap, for instance, requires you to use Knuckles’ abilities to glide and climb to maneuver around spiked ice balls, lest you experience great pain.

And on the subject of level design, that has improved significantly, and I already thought that Sonic 2 had some really fantastic level designs. Really, I’d hate to sound redundant, but the size of these levels is quite frankly amazing. Sonic 1 and 2 already had pretty huge stages, but the ones here are simply gargantuan. The amount of exploration this game offers is simply ridiculous and the stages are actually a lot longer than those of the first two games. Most of the levels in the first two only took two or three minutes to complete at the longest. In S3&K, even if you don’t dawdle and are playing well, some of them can last up to five minutes. At the same time, levels never at any point feel like they’re dragging on or getting old. The Zones of this game are probably some of the most diverse, creatively designed and fun that you will find in the entire franchise; each Zone has its own very unique attributes and gimmicks and expertly crafted platforming. Of course, the speed is still very much here. It’s just as satisfying and balanced out just as well with the platforming as in Sonic 2. In fact, the game proves to be even faster than Sonic 2. Honestly, I am legitimately amazed that they were able to make a game like  this on the Genesis way back in 1994.

Of course, even the levels of Sonic 2 weren’t perfect. Many of Sonic 2’s levels had some pretty bad enemy placement that slightly cheapened what were otherwise very fun Zones. Fortunately, Sonic 3 & Knuckles successfully averts this flaw. In fact, I can’t really think of any significant problems I had with the levels of this game. I remembered disliking Sandopolis Zone, but playing through the game again, I even enjoyed it. I suppose the one element I will have to admit is badly designed is the infamous barrel in Carnival Night Zone Act 2. See, there’s this one segment of that stage where you’re locked in a room with no apparent means of escape. On the room’s other side, there is a multicolored, spinning barrel that moves up and down when you get on top of it. However, said barrel hates you and won’t let you down to the room below easily. How do you get past this obstacle? Well, you press up and down on the D-Pad, corresponding with the motion of the barrel, until you can get out. Unfortunately, this isn’t explained in-game at all and, as such, this segment has confused many a player. Once you figure out what you’re supposed to do, it isn’t hard, but I do have to admit that it’s a bit of a flaw.
Pictured above: The bane of many a Sonic fan's existence.

Back on the subject of exploration…eh…sort of, the game encourages it somewhat more than previous games by actually hiding the entrances to the Special Stages within the levels themselves. So, now, let’s talk about those. In S3&K’s Special Stages, you are dropped into a 3-D plane and must collect all of the Blue Spheres in the stage while avoiding the red ones. Collect all of them and you will receive the obvious prize: a Chaos Emerald. Things start out pretty slow, but the longer you take, the more things speed up, which, combined with the bumpers everywhere, makes for a much greater risk that you could touch a red sphere. These Special Stages are easily my favorite in the entire series, and if SEGA is so intent on reimagining old Special Stages for the Sonic 4 games, I hope to see these reimagined for Episode 3. Well, provided they make an Episode 3, anyway.

As for the reward for getting all of the Chaos Emeralds, well, just like in Sonic 2, you will be able to play as Super Sonic. Or, if you’re playing as Knuckles, Super Knuckles, who is exactly like Super Sonic except…it’s Knuckles. Of course, this game doesn’t just give you seven Emeralds to collect. If you collect all of the Chaos Emeralds in the Sonic 3 half of the game and enter a Special Stage, you will have the opportunity to play seven more Special Stages for “Super Emeralds”. And if you collect all of those, you get even better super forms. Super Sonic becomes the seizure-inducing Hyper Sonic, who is even faster than Super Sonic and can do a boost dash that kills all on-screen enemies. Super Knuckles becomes Hyper Knuckles, who is also a bit faster and can kill all on-screen enemies by gliding onto a wall with enough force. It’s also by collecting all of the Super Emeralds that you can unlock Tails’ super form, Super Tails. While you do have to put more work towards getting it, Tails’ super form is probably the most broken in the game. He is surrounded by four birds of death that attack all on-screen enemies. Heck, you can just sit still during boss fights and let them do the work for you. Once again, all these super forms are really freaking cool. They’re completely broken, but that’s what makes them fun to use. However, it is worth noting that getting to and completing the Special Stages in this game is much easier than it was in Sonic 2, and these super forms will basically trivialize the entire game. Thus, it’s recommended that you play through the game at least once without them.

Oh, but that’s not the only reward you get for collecting all of the Emeralds in the game. While it will also get you a better ending, as always, if you’re playing as Sonic, you will also get to play an extra level called The Doomsday Zone as Super or Hyper Sonic containing a true final boss. Yes, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is actually the game that started that trend in Sonic games, and I have to say, I approve, both of the idea and of the boss itself and it also further adds to what was already a pretty thrilling climax.

Really, the only thing I have to complain about aside from the barrel is that this game is still, unfortunately, a bit unpolished. Glitches aren’t as frequent as in Sonic 2, and are, in fact, pretty freaking rare, but when they do hit, they hit a bit harder. For instance, there’s a certain wall in Launch Base Zone that I ended up getting stuck in a few times with no way of getting out and there was also one time in Hydrocity Zone Act 2 where the camera actually locked in place for some reason, preventing me from progressing. I’d really hate to knock this game’s grade down, but unfortunately, this did prove to be a significant enough issue.

Even with that said, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is by any standards a simply superb game. I’d say that it’s the game that Sonic 1 and 2 were building up to; the culmination of everything that would make the classics such great, influential games. However, it’s not quite the last stop on our journey; there was one more game released during this time that, though highly acclaimed, never quite received the recognition of the Genesis games due to the add-on required to play it. This is it, folks. Following this breakdown of S3&K’s positive and negative points, we shall be entering the realm of Sonic CD.

The Good:

+ Surprisingly good story
+ Fantastic visuals
+ Great soundtrack
+ Three different playable characters
+ Superb level design
+ Great bosses
+ Great Special Stage
+ Super forms are cool
+ Awesome secret final level

The Bad:

- The barrel
- Still a bit unpolished

Grade: A

Sonic CD

And so we have reached the final stop on our journey. Behold Sonic CD, one of the few really notable games for the SEGA CD. See, the SEGA CD was an add-on for the SEGA Genesis that played games on CD-ROM’s and used the advantages that came with said CD-ROM’s. Unfortunately, it was a massive flop, but it did get a very notable Sonic game on it. Sonic CD actually came out in 1993, a year before Sonic 3 & Knuckles. However, Sonic CD is a very different beast from the numbered Genesis games in many ways, so, for pacing reasons, I decided to review Sonic 3 & Knuckles first. Sonic CD is actually one of the more unique Sonic games in general…

...Well, one of the GOOD more unique Sonic games. In fact, Sonic CD is considered by some to be the absolute best game in the series…and is also considered by some to be a terribly designed train wreck. I can tell you right now that I most certainly do not fall into the latter category, and about the former…well, I’m not entirely sure. But before we get into why, let’s talk story.

Sonic CD’s plot is about as important to it as it is to Sonic 1 and 2. That is to say, not at all. However, like Sonic 2 and 3, it does introduce a new character – actually, two. First, there’s Amy Rose, Sonic’s pink-haired fangirl who is obsessively fascinated with him and is determined to follow him wherever he goes. Amy would end up becoming a more prominent character starting with Sonic Adventure, but as of now, she’s just a damsel in distress. Shortly into the game, she gets captured by Sonic’s new rival, built by Dr. Eggman himself: a robotic twin known simply as “Metal Sonic”. Metal Sonic wouldn’t appear much in the series outside of cameo appearances and extras, but when he did make legitimate appearances, he’d generally have a pretty big role. He was actually the final boss of Sonic Heroes and was a very prominent character in the 1996 Sonic OVA, better known in America as Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie. Oh, and he’s freaking awesome.

Sonic CD also takes place in a different location than the other classics; this would be Little Planet – very creative name indeed – which passes by Mobius every year. It just so happens that it has seven Time Stones on it, and whosoever gains those gets a lot of power or something like that. So, Eggman chains Little Planet to a mountain and begins ruining everything. Naturally, Sonic has to stop him. We kind of see this scenario play out in the game’s intro movie, set to a vocal song called “Sonic Boom” – one of the first of many that we would see in the franchise. See, one of the most widely-used advantages of CD-ROM technology at the time was its ability to play FMV’s. Sonic CD has three of them: the intro and a good and bad ending. They don’t look quite so good on the SEGA CD and PC versions, but they are remastered on the Gems Collection version and probably the XBLA version and are quite nice to watch. Oh, and I don’t care what anyone else says: Sonic Boom is an awesome song – both versions of it.
Trouble keeps you running faster...

Which brings me to the soundtrack – or, well, the two different soundtracks. Sonic CD is rather infamous for the fact that the soundtrack was completely changed, aside from some tracks, when it came over to the U.S. This was changed to this, this was changed to this, this was changed to this, this was changed to this, etc. Basically, the more quirky J-Pop-esque soundtrack was replaced with much more U.S.-friendly electronic rock, and Americans wouldn’t be able to play the game with its original soundtrack until last year’s XBLA port. Honestly, though? A few tracks aside, I much prefer the U.S. version. Maybe it’s just because it’s what I’m used to, but I feel like it suits the game a lot more, it sounds awesome and, although it isn’t as quirky, it still has its own unique feel and style to it. Really, most of the Japanese soundtrack doesn’t appeal to me. I have no inherent problem with quirky soundtracks – in fact, I love Sonic Rush’s soundtrack – but some of Sonic CD’s original tracks are just…far too weird for me, and a lot of the others, I just don't like quite as much. Oh, and really, there’s a fine line between “fun” cheesy - like Sonic Boom - and “I’d be horribly embarrassed to be caught listening to this” cheesy.

The chorus says "Toot Toot Sonic Warrior". You have been warned.

Sound design aside from the soundtrack, I can’t say fares very well, at least in the Gems Collection version, which this review is based off of. In fact, the Gems Collection version is a port of the PC version, which had the same issues, as I recall. I can’t comment on the XBLA port or the original SEGA CD version, but all of the sound effects, from jumping to getting Rings to bouncing off of enemies, sound like they’re being put through some sort of filter. It’s far from a big issue and you will get used to it, but it really shouldn’t be there. Visually, though, this game is simply gorgeous. The developers utilized the new CD-ROM technology – or, at least, I assume that’s what allowed them to do it - to create environments far more colorful and surreal than might have been seen in an average Genesis game. Seriously, these Zones look like something out of an acid trip, and there’s always so much going on. It’s really beautiful, and, like Sonic 2 and 3, the visual appeal is still there to this very day.

So now let’s move on to how the game plays. In terms of base mechanics and physics, the gameplay is similar to that of the other classics. Sonic runs really fast, momentum, inertia, bouncing, springs, Rings, etcetera, etcetera. However, there are some very significant things, even outside of the aesthetic design, that make this game really unique and separate it from Sonic 1-3&K. First of all, let’s talk about the game’s big gimmick: time travel. This is where you can really tell that the developers really wanted to go crazy with the CD-ROM technology. See, in every level, there are a number of signs with “Future” and “Past” written on them. If you touch one and then maintain speed for a long enough time, you will travel to said time period. This completely changes the stage’s aesthetics; music and visuals will both be completely different depending on the time period. Actually, there are two potential futures: a grim and dark bad future, in which Dr. Eggman has taken over and ruined everything, and a bright and happy good future, where we see nature and technology working together peacefully. We’ll discuss how to change the future in a bit. While completely changing the aesthetics would have been impressive enough in 1993, that’s not all that changes when you travel through time. The layout of each stage will be significantly different. Some new areas will open and some others will be closed off, and there may be some new items to get and some that aren’t there anymore. Even the platforming of a stage and the challenges that it poses to you can completely change depending on the time period.

This, of course, leads to the style of stage design being very different from what we saw in the other classic games. The speed and platforming are both as abundant and as fun as ever, and the platforming is still very interesting and creative. Stages in general have a great deal of very original and interesting challenges and gimmicks; Stardust Speedway, in particular, has panels that, when jumped into, will change whether Sonic is taking a path in the foreground or background and Wacky Workbench has a glowing floor that, when touched, sends you to ludicrous heights as well as wired mechanisms throughout the stage that electrify at regular intervals. However, what makes Sonic CD’s level design so much different is just how ridiculously complex and labyrinthine it is. Sonic 1-3&K had some very large levels that offered a lot of potential for exploration, but many of Sonic CD’s stages are downright convoluted. Some actually don’t like the game for this, but you know what? I think this really works. In, say, S3&K, I do like to experiment, but in general, I adhere to whichever paths I end up on. In Sonic CD, I find myself backtracking and messing around a lot just to see what sorts of secrets or platforming joys await me around every corner, and the time travel mechanic, due to changing the layout of the stage, only adds to this. 

Actually, Sonic CD encourages and at times even requires exploration more than the other classic games did. The way the time travel mechanic changes the layouts may cause you to need to experiment more to find your way through the stage, and there is also a robot generator hidden in each level. Destroying it will cause you to get a good future for that stage. Alternately, you could simply get all of the Time Stones from the Special Stages, which allows you to have a Good Future in every Zone following your acquisition of them and, consequently, you will get to see the game’s good ending. Accessing Special Stages is done like it was in Sonic 1: you hold onto 50 Rings until the end of the stage and then jump into the giant ring. In Sonic CD, if you’re unlucky enough to lose your Rings at any point or don’t have enough at the end, it is possible to backtrack through and explore the stage to find any Rings you might have missed. Of course, this is not to say that I think that the level design style of such games as Sonic 2 and 3&K are necessarily worse than that of Sonic CD; in fact, I think that style works better for Sonic and I do find that 3&K’s level design is generally a bit more interesting. However, as a one-time deal, I feel like the level designs come together with the time travel mechanic to create a really fantastic and unique experience.

So, I suppose that I should talk about the Special Stage now. This is another aspect of the game that tends to get flack, but honestly, I think the Special Stage is…okay. Basically, it has a 3-D behind-the-back perspective, similar to the Sonic 3 & Knuckles Special Stage. However, instead of collecting Blue Spheres, you’re destroying a certain number of purple UFO’s, scattered across the Special Stage’s map. To help you or potentially hurt you are fans that cause Sonic to float for a while and springs that send you high into the air. There are also choppers that take away some Rings and slow you down, walls that you bounce off of and pools of water that take away a chunk of your time whenever you step in them. Oh, yeah, time is ticking down the whole time, by the way. Fortunately, though, whenever your allotted time dips below twenty seconds, a blue UFO appears. Destroy it, and you will gain thirty seconds back. The last couple of Special Stages can be a bit tedious, but really, it’s not bad; I’d rather play it than the Sonic 1 Special Stages any day, at least.

As for flaws, aside from the minor sound effect problem, bosses in this game are just too easy. Yes, I’ve already made it clear that, S3&K aside, Sonic bosses were always easy, and some CD’s bosses are a bit creative. However, even by Sonic standards, the difficulty is a bit ridiculous; the boss of Quartz Quadrant actually kind of kills itself, and the final boss is completely anticlimactic, literally only taking four hits to defeat. The only boss that’s even remotely challenging is the race against Metal Sonic in Stardust Speedway, which is completely awesome. And *sigh*, just like Sonic 2 and 3&K, it’s a wee bit unpolished. There are some weird physics oddities that happen occasionally and also some strange collision detection issues. While these issues are certainly nothing big, they, once again, really shouldn’t be there. Though I’ve never played it myself, the XBLA version supposedly fixes these issues. Also, you can play as Tails in it and you’re given the choice of which soundtrack you want to hear when you play the game. If you don’t already own this game, it’s probably the version to get.

The Good:

+ FMV’s are nice
+ Great soundtrack (I prefer U.S.)
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Time travel mechanic is unique and adds much depth
+ Fantastic, creative level design that compliments gimmick

The Bad:

- Oddly low-quality sound effects
- Very easy bosses
- Still slightly unpolished

Grade: A

Well, this is finally the end of our little excursion through the four original Sonic the Hedgehog games. These games would highly influence many platformers that would come afterwards and, in fact, could be considered to have defined an entire generation of gaming. Really, it’s not hard to see why, as all of these games have held up very well and have been surpassed by very few recent platformers, in the Sonic series or otherwise. I’d actually put Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic CD up there with modern greats like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman Origins as some of the very best games the 2-D platforming genre has to offer. Heck, the only recent Sonic game I would really argue to surpass any of them (except for maybe Sonic 1) is Sonic Generations. The classics are absolutely excellent games and, if you haven’t played them yet, you really should. They have all been ported and rereleased a great number of times, and, in fact, you will find literally all of them on the Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. Happy 21st birthday, Sonic. Enjoy that beer. You’ve earned it.

Just try not to puke all over the floor.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog Classic Series Reviews: Part 1

Well, it’s that time of year again: time to celebrate Sonic’s 21st birthday. Yes, my last post was a review of Sonic 4: Episode 2, but, as these are the only main Sonic games I have yet to review, it needed to be done and there was no better time than now. Not to mention that it’s basically a rule that I must have an unhealthy number of Sonic-related posts each year. You may notice that this post is labeled "Part 1". As I wrote this, I realized that to place my reviews for all four games in a single post would make this ridiculously long; thus, I'm going to put out the Sonic 1 and 2 reviews right now and post up the reviews of Sonic 3 & Knuckles and CD on June 23rd, Sonic's actual birthday. But before we get into the reviews, let’s go back in time to an era before green eyes and physics, before Ryan Drummond and Jason Griffith, before Werehogs and boosting to win, so that we can enjoy a little history lesson.

A long time ago in a decade far, far away, a video game company called SEGA forayed into the home console business that Nintendo's Famicom/NES revitalized. Their console was called the SEGA Master System in the American and European markets, and while it was technically superior to Nintendo's console and had its more popular games, such as Phantasy Star and the Alex Kidd series, it failed to achieve the NES' popularity by a long shot, at least outside of Europe. Down but not out, SEGA released a successor to the Master System in 1989 (1988 in Japan). It was called the Genesis (or Mega Drive, if you live in Japan or Europe) and its 16-bit processing power made Nintendo's console look like crap by comparison. However, the new console didn't see much success until SEGA decided to create a mascot for it, and thus, Sonic the Hedgehog was born and would go on to spawn a massive number of games, four different cartoon series, an OVA (or movie, if you prefer), an ongoing Archie comics series and a number of "inspired" clones and imitators that tried to cash in on the whole "extreme wacky animal" thing, often with limited success...and game quality. Some were more blatant than others.

Top: Inoffensive "inspiration", although that may be the ugliest thing I've ever seen.
Bottom: Something someone should have gotten sued over.

Sonic was meant to compete with Nintendo’s ever-endearing plumber, Mario. The series did a pretty dang good job of that, as Sonic was the physical embodiment of 90’s TOTALLY RADICAL EXTREEEEEME. This kid wasn’t slow and fat like that lame-o plumber dude; this way past cool ‘hog had an attitude. He wasn’t taking any crap from Dr. Robotnik…or…Eggman…or…whatever you want to call him, and true to his name, he was freaking fast. The four – well, technically five – main games that came out during this era capitalized on this by providing innovative gameplay mechanics and level design. Even today, these games are considered by many to be some of the best that the series has to offer and even some of the greatest 2-D platformers of all time. So, I’m going to use this celebration as an opportunity to see exactly what made these games great while Sonic has his first legal keg party.

Well, I guess it technically isn't legal for about another week, but hey, I guess Sonic just doesn't care. Hooray.


Sonic the Hedgehog

Well, let’s start with the original game, released in 1991. As one would expect, this game laid a lot of the groundwork that most future games in the franchise would follow. The plot of the game – well, what little plot it has - is that the nefarious Dr. Eggbotnik is capturing small animals and using them as organic batteries for his own robots, which he will use to take over the world. Enter Sonic, our cool blue dude with an attitude and the speedy shoes and the...okay, I’ll stop now. Anyway, Sonic doesn't like what he sees and decides that Dr. Robeggman must be stopped. Since it's an old Genesis platformer, you really can't expect much emphasis on plot. However, what is kind of interesting is that the game could be considered to have a subtle moral about environment conservation, which would actually carry over into the 1993 Saturday morning cartoon. At a time when shows and movies such as Captain Planet and FernGully: The Last Rainforest were relentlessly shoving this moral down our throats with all of the maturity, tactfulness, unpretentiousness and intelligence of a Cranberries song, it's nice to see that something tried to use a little bit of subtlety in conveying the message. Oh yeah, this was copied, too. Poorly.

Inject your trees with liberty!
I honestly wonder if this game could have lost a plagiarism lawsuit. Seriously, "Dr. MACHINO"?

Visually, Sonic 1 holds up…okay. Even when compared to later Sonic games on the Genesis, Sonic 1’s visuals don’t stand out quite as much, not being as bright, vibrant and colorful as what we would see later on. Green Hill Zone is the closest this game gets, but eh, none of it really looks bad, and I’d say a lot of the character and enemy sprites are very impressive given the game’s age. The soundtrack is also very good and memorable, with some highlights being Star Light Zone's and Scrap Brain Zone's tracks, although, again, it’s not quite as good as what would see – ehm – hear in later games.

Of course, if that were all that Sonic 1 had going for it, we wouldn't have much to talk about, would we? Before we talk about the main gimmick of the game, let's go over some basics. There are six Zones (worlds, basically) in the game with three Acts (levels) in each. The goal of each act is just to get to the end. However, Dr. Machino’s robots and numerous obstacles and traps will be standing in your way. One hit and you're dead - that is, if you don't have any Rings. Rings can kind of be thought of as life energy for Sonic, although they're not health in a conventional sense. There are plenty of Rings to get on any given path you can take in each level, and as long as Sonic is holding onto at least one, he can take a hit without dying. However, you will lose all Rings you have been holding onto if you get hit, in which case you need to get as many back as you can before they disappear. There is actually a shield power-up which creates a protective barrier around Sonic that will absorb one hit of damage. Other power-ups include the classic platformer staple of invincibility, which pretty much speaks for itself, and Power Sneakers, which briefly let Sonic run even faster than normal. At the end of the third Act of each Zone, you will fight against Dr. Wilybotnik in one of his many machines. Bosses in Sonic 1 are far from the most challenging you’ll ever face, but are nonetheless fun to tear apart.

Well, that’s the basic gist of things. Anyway, the most prominent gimmick of the Sonic series is that Sonic is the fastest thing alive. As such, you can probably expect a significant amount of speed in this game. This is at least partially thanks to the physics. As Sonic runs and especially when he rolls down slopes (done by pressing down on the D-Pad), he gains momentum and maintains inertia even when the player isn’t actively controlling him, and levels are very sloped and angled to make use of this. Not only does this allow for some cool tricks, but movement feels absolutely fantastic. The sense of speed is definitely there and results in some very satisfying moments. However, one thing that you will be using this for a lot is to make it to different areas in each level, which brings me to another way that Sonic 1 really innovated. Up to this point in time, most platformers had fairly straightforward level design. There may have been some secrets here and there, but they mostly kept you on a set path. Sonic 1, on the other hand, features gigantic and complex levels and a significant element of legitimate exploration. There are many different ways to go through each Act, and it adds a lot of replay value to try to take paths that you didn't take the last time through the game. At the time, I doubt the stages of this game could have been anything less than revolutionary, but even today, they just feel huge and are a joy to run through and explore.

Now, gaining speed is easy enough, but maintaining it is a whole other story. See, the classics were built upon the idea that speed is most satisfying when it’s a reward for skillful play. The game was obviously designed with this in mind; even getting hit by an obstacle or enemy will get you knocked back, completely destroying whatever momentum you already had, and this also comes into play in the level design. Good examples can be seen in areas of Marble Zone and Spring Yard Zone, which feature treacherous platforming segments that will require you to be very careful if you hope to maintain a sense of speed.

But while the speed was probably the most interesting aspect of Sonic 1 at the time, when compared to a lot of games in the series, it does prove to be a lot slower, not just in terms of Sonic’s top speed, but in terms of general design. While there are still several opportunities to go fast in the game, it tends to focus less on speed and more on straight-up platforming, at least more so than the series’ later games. In fact, one Zone – namely, Labyrinth Zone - doesn’t really offer any opportunities to go fast at all, at least not as far as I’m aware. Platforming also tends to be slower-paced than what you might expect from Sonic. Of course, I don’t think the game is bad for it. While platforming is a bit slower and more emphasized than you might expect from a Sonic game, in return the platforming is very complex and interesting and thus the level designs of Sonic 1 are a lot of fun in their own right.

But…that’s not to say that everything is perfect when it comes to the levels. Actually, there really aren’t any problems with the levels themselves; each Act in the is game very well-designed. However, the game just feels so…disorganized, so to speak. So, we start the game with Green Hill Zone, a simple and easy Zone that’s pretty fast and allows players to get acquainted with the game, like any good first stage should. Suddenly, we see a massive spike in difficulty in the much slower-paced and platform-heavy Marble Zone. Spring Yard Zone sees things getting a bit easier again and allows for more speed. Then, suddenly, we’re thrown into Labyrinth Zone, the second-most difficult Zone in the game, which is very slow due to a great chunk of it being submerged underwater and Sonic can’t swim. And expect to do a lot of waiting around for air bubbles so you don’t asphyxiate. And then there’s Star Light Zone, which is the fastest and possibly even the second-easiest Zone in the game. This very awkward pacing makes going from Zone to Zone pretty jarring and is going to be especially off-putting for new players; it may take a couple of playthroughs to completely get into all of the levels. Unfortunately, this is a pretty significant flaw.

Also…I really don’t care for the Special Stages in this game. For those who aren’t in the know, Special Stages are a mainstay of the 2-D Sonic games. Completing them usually yields a Chaos Emerald, of which there are either six or seven, and getting all of the Chaos Emeralds will get you a better ending and sometimes even some other cool stuff, which will be touched on in later reviews. Special stages in Sonic 1 are accessed by completing a level with 50 Rings, and are rotating mazes filled with bumpers, blocks that reverse the stage’s rotation, blocks that speed up the stage’s rotation, blocks that slow down the stage’s rotation, and misleadingly named "GOAL" blocks that throw you out of the stage when you touch them. As mentioned before, there is a Chaos Emerald hidden in every stage, and you have to navigate Sonic - in ball form, meaning that you don't have full control over him - through the maze to the Chaos Emerald without touching any "GOAL" blocks. This is…just as frustrating as it sounds. All the bouncing around you do is bound to make you hit blocks that reverse or speed up the stage, complicating things or even sending you in circles, and bumpers will often send you careening into directions you don’t intend to go in. This makes navigating these monstrosities more of a pain than anything, not to mention that the reward for getting all of the Chaos Emeralds in this game is pretty lame anyway. Unless you think the ending needs more giant flowers or care that much about your score, there won’t be much incentive to bother.

But for all of these flaws, Sonic 1 is a great game, especially for its time. When it first came out in 1991, it was innovative in pretty much every sense of the word, and it's still a lot of fun to play today. It's not as great as Sonic games would get, but it's still a really good platformer that belongs in any gamer's collection.

The Good:

+ Innovative physics for its time
+ Good sense of speed
+ Great level design
+ Great replayability

The Bad:

- Flawed Zone pacing
- Special stage sucks
- Lackluster reward for getting all Chaos Emeralds

Grade: B+

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Well, with that out of the way, let’s move on to Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was released in 1992 and is still considered by some to be the very best game in the series. Personally, I’d disagree, but that’s not to say it isn’t really awesome. The plot of the game is exactly the same as that of the first game, except for the fact that Eggman now intends to build a giant space station called the Death Egg, which is totally not a reference to Star Wars. Also, Sonic is (optionally) accompanied by his fox sidekick, Tails. All you need to know about him is that he idolizes Sonic, he has been blessed with two tails that he can use - not that you can make use of it in this game - he’s a mechanical genius, and he is probably the only eight-year-old with a pilot’s license…or at least I…hope he has one.

Even if it weren't for the death robots, this would be a pretty dangerous situation.

On the aesthetic side of things, Sonic 2 is a sizeable improvement over its predecessor. All of the Zones look great given the game’s age, being very vibrant and colorful, and they are very visually appealing even today. The soundtrack is also probably one of the most iconic and memorable in the entire series. It’s actually a bit difficult to pick out which tracks are the best, because the entire soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. However, I suppose that if I had to pick three favorites, they would probably be Chemical Plant Zone, Metropolis Zone, and the notoriously Inspector Gadget-esque Mystic Cave Zone


Moving on to gameplay, Sonic 2 maintains the same gameplay style of Sonic 1, though, with the exception of Metropolis Zone, it ditches the three-Act Zone structure. Zones now have only two Acts; however, in return, there are a lot more Zones: nine as opposed to the original’s six. Thus, you’re getting roughly the same amount of levels, but with more diversity, so I’d say the change is a positive one. And, of course, you must do battle with Dr. Clawbotnik at the end of each second Act. Ol’ Dr. Nut-Megg has gotten a bit more creative this time around with his machines, which makes bosses a bit more interesting, but they’re still not much of a challenge.

So, as a sequel, Sonic 2 should improve and expand upon the gameplay and design of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game. Does Sonic 2 successfully do this? The answer is a resounding “yes”, especially where design is concerned. Sonic 1 was a fairly slow game by Sonic standards and mostly emphasized platforming. Sonic 2, on the other hand, speeds things up considerably. Sonic runs much faster in this game than he did in Sonic 1, and there are a lot more opportunities to make use of this speed. Chemical Plant Zone, in particular, has several moments where it feels like a giant, speedy joyride. Even by Sonic standards today, the sense of speed this game offers is at times pretty incredible and makes for some really exhilarating moments. The physics are just as great as ever, and Sonic even gains a spindash move in this game, which allows you to curl up into a ball and charge up a speed boost, which just makes gameplay that much more versatile. Levels are even more gigantic than they were in Sonic 1 and usually tend to be a lot less enclosed, which gives you even more freedom. Heck, there are still some areas in this game that I’ve only recently discovered!

Of course, while the game is very fast, don’t think platforming is downplayed, either. In fact, Sonic 2 balances out and even blends both speed and platforming almost perfectly. The platforming on display here is very good and the game contains no shortage of cool and creative ideas. Casino Night Zone, in particular, has gimmicks and such that are based on a pinball machine, which give Sonic’s physics an entirely new use, and Hill Top Zone features areas where you must move fast to avoid being killed by rising lava or even a rising floor that threatens to crush you against the ceiling. Also, you’re still going to have to play skillfully if you hope to maintain speed, and the Zones will only get more platform-heavy and difficult as you keep going. Speaking of which, Sonic 2 doesn’t suffer from the flawed pacing that Sonic 1 had: going from Zone to Zone feels very natural and there is a legitimate sense of progression.

The Special Stage, accessed by jumping into a portal after hitting a checkpoint with at least 50 Rings in tow, is a lot better this time around, as well. The game switches to a behind-the-back view for it, and the goal is to collect a certain number of Rings in a half-pipe within a limited time while avoiding bombs, which, if hit, will take away ten Rings. I mentioned in my Sonic 4: Episode 2 review that these Special Stages have been copied by later games to the point that they’re getting a bit tiring, but really, that’s not the game’s fault. It is a really fun Special Stage that gets really challenging towards the end. The only problem is that you are only going to want to play as Sonic alone if you intend to collect all of them. Going into the Special Stages while accompanied by Tails will cause needless frustration due to the fact that he has his own Ring counter and he moves and jumps about half a second after you do. Needless to say, it’s annoying and complicates things more than it should.

Oh yeah, the reward for getting all of the Chaos Emeralds in this game is actually pretty worthwhile. Sonic 2 marks the introduction of Super Sonic, a super-powered version of Sonic that runs twice as fast and is completely invincible, and you unlock him by – you guessed it – collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds. Once you do that, simply get 50 Rings, jump and then boom, Super Sonic. You lose Rings gradually while in your super form, and if you run out, you'll revert back to your base form. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit of a game breaker, but after fighting your way through all of the Special Stages, it honestly feels rightfully earned, as does the best ending of the game. Yeah, seeing Super Sonic in the ending technically isn’t a big change, but when I first got that ending as a kid, it felt freaking satisfying and still does to this very day.
To anyone who ever wanted more DBZ in your Sonic, here you go. Now stop writing that crossover fanfiction.

Unfortunately, the game still isn’t quite perfect, even aside from the problem with the Special Stage. Some of the enemy placement in this game is…quite frankly, slightly cheap. The first half of the game isn’t too bad in this regard, aside from some points in Aquatic Ruin, but starting with Mystic Cave Zone, this can start to become a bit of an annoyance. This is all building up to the absolutely despicable Metropolis Zone, where at times it feels like the enemy placement was handled by monkeys. It’s really not a bad level, as the platforming and general layout are actually pretty great, but this flaw seriously hurts it. That’s actually not the only element of bad design in the game, I hate to say; Mystic Cave Zone Act 2 has a really obnoxious inescapable spike pit of death that has claimed many a player, and if you happen to be Super Sonic, expect to be there for a while before you finally croak and restart at a checkpoint. And while far from broken, Sonic 2 isn’t especially polished, either; there are some glitches and oddities here and there, some a bit more frustrating than others. One particularly annoying glitch happens with a certain pair of yellow bumpers in Metropolis; you can get stuck between them and the only hope for escape is for time to run out. Unfortunately, this also seems to be a bit more noticeable when you’re playing as Super Sonic. Heck, once I jumped after hitting a Goal Post and Sonic attempted to transform, which got me stuck and…then I had to reset. It only happened once, but it was nonetheless quite frustrating.

But even with those frustrations in mind, Sonic 2 is an absolute blast to play through. Like I said, I wouldn’t quite agree that it’s the best Sonic game or even the best of the classics, but I would probably put it pretty high up there. It’s a fantastic game that improves a lot upon its prequel, but as we will see, things would only get even better.

The Good:

+ Great visuals
+ Fantastic soundtrack
+ More Zone diversity
+ Very fast
+ Good Special Stage
+ Worthwhile reward for collecting all Chaos Emeralds
+ Fantastic level design…

The Bad:

-…aside from some annoying enemy placement…
- …and Mystic Cave Zone’s cheap spike pit
- Tails is annoying in Special Stages
- Somewhat unpolished

Grade: A-